Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Art Deco, encore

On walks around the city, I'm constantly looking up, searching for fragments of bas-relief Art Deco patterns on house facades. My earlier post " Deco Details"  had the most response from readers around the world, which makes me question why there is such an intense interest in this particular style.  Is it because Deco design is light-hearted, pretty and superficial?  Are people looking back to the 1920s as a period of exceptional affluence, optimism, and progress?   Does Deco represent a degree of refinement, grace and sophistication that is lacking in today's society?   

A  frieze of  undulating waves, fans and flowers
There is a realtor in Paris who specializes in selling Deco apartments.  In New Zealand, the city of Napier has organized tours featuring its important stock of Art Deco style buildings.

In Montevideo, Art Deco design is present on almost every block, but no one seems to pay much attention to it.  Besides the obvious visual appeal of the style,  I'm interested in the fact that Art Deco, a style that originated in Paris, became so popular here in Uruguay.   The locals who commissioned Deco designs for their residences clearly wanted their connections to Europe publicly expressed in bricks and mortar.  "We are Europeans, and we are fashionable, modern ones," they were declaring.

 In 1925, the centennial year for Uruguay,  "El libro del Centenario del Uruguay" a publication prepared by the Ministry of Public Instruction stated," Uruguay is populated by the white race, totally of European origin."   This was not accurate, of course, but the country was determined during the 1920s to define and promote itself as the most European nation in South America.   Art Deco was a perfect fit for the accepted Uruguayan national identity.

Railway tracks in perspective, contrasted with a shingle pattern

Fern or feather motif in a roundel frame

Dramatic design with multiple overlapping geometric forms

Waves and curls framed with double border

Woven  ribbons 

Scroll and floral motif  punctuated with diagonal chevron shapes

An inset panel crowning  a house facade

A stylized sailboat and seagulls with porthole frame

Yachting attire, 1928

"There was going to be no more poverty, no more ignorance, no more disease.  Art Deco reflected that confidence, vigor and optimism by using symbols of progress, speed and power." 
- Robert McGregor

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The icing on the cake

Decorations designed to frame windows and doors are part and parcel of the vocabulary of  residential architecture in Montevideo.  The adornments and details that make a house stand out in the streetscape were lavishly applied by architects working in the Parque Rodo neighbourhood during the late19th and early 20th centuries.  Wrought iron railings, mouldings, cornices, friezes, corbels and lintels offered surfaces where the cake's icing could be laid on in thick and elaborate flourishes.

Restored house on Calle Juan Paullier
The scale of each element in the facade of the Juan Paullier house is exaggerated, to add a sense of weight and importance to the design.

The height of the doorway  is at least 15 feet. The entry opens to a foyer space with marble stairs leading up to the main floor, which is level with the base of the windows.  The high ceilings, typical of older homes in Montevideo, allowed the house to stay cool during the hot summer months. The addition of skylights made the interior rooms light and airy, in spite of the fact that most of these houses are adjoining structures with no side windows.   

 The concave area around the front door contains swags of acanthus leaves and braids of laurel  that appear to grow in symmetrical profusion out of the central keystone, with its scrolled corbel. The frieze includes egg and dart moulding and a string of dentils.  Everything about this entrance is calculated to make an impression of grandeur and elegance.

The wrought iron railings on the window wells complete the decoration,  like lace trim on the edge of a sleeve.

Residence on Boulevard Espana
The glass and  wrought iron canopy over the entry of this house adds visual impact to the doorway.  Circle motifs are repeated throughout the design.

This magnificent house needs a new owner, willing to do some repair work
Sadly, the mansion on Espana is sitting empty and each time we pass by, we notice more broken panes of glass and new areas of damage.  If its condition continues to deteriorate, this building, like many others occupying prime land in a central location, will be demolished and replaced with an apartment tower.

This house was torn down last month, for just that reason.

"A country without a past has the emptiness of a barren continent; 
and a city without old buildings is like a man without a memory."   
- Graeme Shankland

Monday, March 14, 2011


Parks and gardens in Montevideo are full of flowering trees and shrubs that add maximum colour and drama to horticultural displays year-round.  I've just learned the names for some of the extraordinary varieties that thrive in Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina, the ones I had never encountered in colder zones.

Floss Silk Tree (Palo Barracho, Chorisia speciosa)
This pink beauty is in full bloom in Montevideo right now, a tall tree covered with clusters of five-petaled flowers that are similar in colour to Stargazer lilies.

The Floss Silk tree  is called "Palo Barracho" (drunken stick) in Spanish.  Its bark is traditionally used in cooking the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca, a drug linked to rituals conducted by shamanistic tribes in the Amazon.  The trunk of this tree is studded with sharp thorns, making climbing a painful, if not impossible operation.  Each thorn acts as a water reservoir, to help the tree survive through times of drought.  

The national plant of Uruguay is the Ceibo, a small tree covered with red flowers, also called "Cockspur Coral."   This tree represents the soul of Princess Anahi, who was burned at the stake by Spanish conquistadors, according to a native Guarani legend.

Ceibo tree (Erythrina crista-galli) Uruguay's national plant
The crimson coloured flowers of the tree are hermaphrodite, and attract hummingbirds for pollination.  Ceibo wood is light and porous, and is used for constructing beehives, model airplanes and rafts.

Planted as a hedge or border, the sky-blue Cape Leadwort or Plumbago attracts butterflies to the garden.  This plant is a native of South Africa that migrated to this side of the Atlantic during the 18th century, a stowaway aboard the Dutch East Indies ships that carried slaves to South America.  In native African culture, Plumbago is used as a poultice to treat warts, as an emetic to dispel bad dreams and as snuff for relieving headaches.  A branch placed in the thatch of a hut is believed to protect the home from lightning.

Cape Leadwort (Plumbago auriculata)

The sticky flowers are used by children to make blue "earrings"

A beautiful umbrella-shaped shade tree at the corner of 21 de Setiembre in Parque Rodo is a mature example of Golden Shower Tree or Yellow canafistula. The leaves and bark of this tree are used in Ayurvedic medicine as an anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer treatment.  

Golden Shower tree, Yellow Canafistula (Cassia fistula)

The central location of my favourite Canafistula  makes it vulnerable to the abuse of lovers who can't resist carving their names into its sturdy trunk.  I have a feeling the tree will survive for many more years, defying the damage and outlasting the romances recorded on its bark. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

Saez and Sprezzatura

Carlos Federico Saez, "Retrato de Juan Carlos Munoz" 1899, oil on canvas

 The portrait shows a male figure seated in an armchair, relaxed, leaning back, totally at ease with himself and the world, but nevertheless alert, exuding the quiet confidence of a refined gentleman.  When I saw this painting the word "sprezzatura" came to mind.  It's an Italian term that I learned while studying Renaissance art history at university, one word in the argot of academics that I hadn't thought about for a long time.   First used by Baldassare Castiglione in the "Book of the Courtier" published in 1528, sprezzatura is defined by the author as "a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought."

Detail of the subject
The studied carelessness of the sitter is matched by the artist's style in this work.  At close range, the brushwork is loose and uneven, and in some places, patches of canvas have been left blank. The back of the chair tends to dissolve into the scumbled background, while the two carved finials act as bold parentheses for the subject's head.  The off-centre composition allows blank space to surround the figure, an openness that breathes and glows, creating an aura of afternoon repose. The way the man's right hand has been merely suggested, rather than defined, demonstrates the bravura of an artist who is leaning towards abstraction.  A casual squiggly line along the armrest is enough; we can see a foreshortened hand that's moving ever so slightly.
Detail of the right hand
The portrait  was painted by Carlos Federico Saez, and is part of an exhibition celebrating the Bicentennial of Uruguay at Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales near Parque Rodo.   I had never seen work by Saez before, but the row of seven paintings on display at the gallery reveals a virtuoso; an artist capable of capturing character with graceful drawing and economical, painterly means. His approach to portraiture recalls canvases of the same era by John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, and Edgar Degas.

Carlos Federico Saez
The biography of Saez is as sketchy and loosely rendered as the artist's own drawings.  He was born in 1878 in Mercedes, Uruguay.  At the age of 14 he earned a scholarship to study art in Italy, under the direction of Daniel Munoz, a writer and politician employed as Uruguayan ambassador in Rome.  Saez stayed in Europe for seven years and worked with the Macchaioli painters, a group who practised plein air painting in the Tuscan countryside.   The end of his artistic career came too soon - in 1900 Saez became ill and returned to Uruguay.  He died in Montevideo in 1901, age 22,  with an oeuvre of 100 drawings and 70 canvases as his legacy.

To see more works by Carlos Federico Saez, visit this site.  

Installation,  Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales