Monday, 7 April 2014

Boulders, Works of Art or Something More Important?

Reading an article by Stephen Knudsen in April-May’s edition of Professional Magazine entitled ”To see a Work of Art” made me think back to a recent experience I had in Portugal.  Knudsen’s article was about spending a day at the Los Angeles Museum of Art to see sculptor Michael Heizer’s LevitatedMass. 
Michael Heizer, Levitated Mass, 2012, diorite granite and concrete, height: 35 ft., 7 in.; width: 21 ft., 8 in.; length: 456 ft.; granite weight: 340 tons © Michael Heizer.
Knudsen first explained about the controversy surrounding the granite boulder’s final installation at the Museum in 2012 after Heizer first sketched out the idea back in 1969.  Then Knudsen described the rewards of sitting watching this enormous boulder suspended over a ramp, ranging from the reactions of fellow visitors of all ages to the final crescendo at sunset of the boulder seeming to rise as the sun sank.  He comments that “the seemingly grand narrative of moving the rock was, in the end, just a blip in the bigger story that points to sublime space, celestial movement and geologic time” (my thanks to him for this quote).
His remarks took me straight back to my amazing hours in early March at the Cromlech dos Almendres, near Evora in Portugal. One of the most important megalithic complexes in Europe, it is sited on a gentle hillside, overlooking rolling hills towards Evora, amidst olives and cork oaks.  Daring from the 6th millenium BC, this extraordinarily grandiose ensemble of roughly one hundred boulders takes one's breath away as you approach the wide-flung site.

Cromlech dos Almendres, Nossa Senhora de Guadalupe, Portugal, photograph Jeannine Cook
Just as Michael Heizer must have thought long and hard about his boulder, its shape, its material, its potential home and how it would best be viewed there, its messages and meaning to anyone viewing it… even how to transport it to the site, so too, our ancestors must have spent much time planning the Cromlech dos Almendres.  Like Heizer’s boulder, the huge megalith boulders are granite.  Wonderful shapes, some of these monoliths have some carving on them, now well worn, but still hugely evocative as the sun moves and catches different angles and shapes on their surfaces.
Cromlech dos Almendres, photograph Jeannine Cook
Cromlech dos Almendres carved boulder
Apparently these boulders were placed at different times, in concentric circles and later ellipses, all on a southeast-northwest axis. The entire group occupies an area of about 70 by 40 meters.  Many of these massive stones are three meters high, while others, of earlier date, are slightly smaller. 
Just to transport them to this hillside must have required incredible effort and organization, let along to site them and erect them into a vertical position.  The endeavour speaks of enormous religious and social fervor, amongst groups of people who were few in number to start with.  Connections with the land, their gods perhaps, their social structures – this was a huge undertaking to assemble these wonderfully powerful and eloquent boulders.  Perhaps too the ensemble of monoliths was used for astronomical purposes.
Cromlech dos Almendres, Nossa Senhora de Guadalupe, Portugal, photograph Jeannine Cook
Cromlech dos Almendres, Nossa Senhora de Guadalupe, Portugal, photograph Jeannine Cook
Cromlech dos Almendres, Nossa Senhora de Guadalupe, Portugal, photograph Jeannine Cook
Whether artistic considerations came into their choices of the stones to transport and place – who knows…  But the carvings, whatever their significance, are beautiful too, and the carvers must have been conscious of that aspect.  Many of the stones are flatter on one face, perhaps shaped deliberately. Each boulder speaks, as the sun moves around it and it relates to the next boulder and then the one beyond. The tactile qualities of the granite, so enduring, so interesting as the lichens hint at the northern side of the boulder, are memorable.
Like Stephen Knudsen’s perceptions of Levitated Mass at LACMA, the impressions that the Cromlech dos Almendres leave with one are of grandiose endeavours. Eight thousand years ago, men and women believed deeply enough in matters beyond their daily needs, in matters that transcended space, time and the span of human life, to expend enormous physical effort to create a sacred place of power and great beauty, sited exquisitely, laid out with care and sensitivity for the natural flow of life.  Even in our complex technology-driven 21st century, a visitor to the Cromlech is awed and inspired by the powerful voices that speak to us from the past of older, deeper, more important matters.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Marble - the Glory of Estremoz

One of the attractions of my going to OBRAS Portugal for an artist residency was the marble that is found in the Estremoz area.  I had already seen examples of this lovely, varied but subtle white marble on previous visits to the Alentejo, but it seemed to me that its character lent itself beautifully to silverpoint drawing.
Estremoz Marble, silverpoint and Prismacolor on paper, Jeannine Cook
The marble is found in a wide swath in the Alentejo, 27 km by 48 km, running NW-SE, with a depth of nearly 400 metres, but Estremoz is near the centre of the area.  Historically this marble has been mined since 370 BC, as was discovered by a tombstone, and the Romans used it for many building projects.  The Roman temple in Evora has bases and capitals of marble, while the Roman theatre in Merida, Spain, also has Estremoz marble. 
Evora Roman Temple, photograph Jeannine Cook
It was soon being widely exported around the Mediterranean and by the Middle Ages, this marble was incorporated in major religious and secular building projects throughout Portugal By the 15th century, Estremoz marble found its ways to Africa, Brazil and India, in all parts of the Portuguese Empire.  The list of important European buildings adorned with this marble ranges from the Jeronimos Monastery in Portugal, to the Escorial Monastery in Spain, to the Louvre, Versailles and the Vatican.  Now, the marble is exported worldwide, and Portugal is one of the major producers of marble in the world.
In Estremoz itself and the surrounding areas, marble is an integral, elegant part of all aspects of building.  Door and window frames, lintels, floors, stairs, pavements walls – there are touches of marble everywhere, and the cemeteries are a celebration of this stone.  Of course, sculptors celebrate this marble as well and there are many artists currently working in it in the Estremoz area.  One such sculptor whose work I acquired is Pedro Fazenda. Its colours are mainly white, some with veins and then there are subtle rose shades that can be beautifully translucent, some veined, some less so.

Redondo facade with rose marble, photograph Jeannine Cook

Estremoz windows, photograph Jeannine Cook
The mines themselves are deep and vertiginous – huge blocks carved out, down and down.  Some of the mines have been abandoned as water sources were struck and the quarries filled with water.   
Estremoz Municipal Marble Quarry, photograph Jeannine Cook
Estremoz Marble Quarry. photograph Jeannine Cook

Abandoned Marble Quarry, Estremoz, photograph Jeannine Cook
Mined marble waiting for use, photograph Jeannine Cook
Others are still a forest of cranes and heavy equipment disappears down to tinker-toy size far below the surface.  Vast mountains of tumbled blocks of waste marble rise drunkenly to the sky in olive groves, and there are piles of sawn-off pieces of marble that beg to be touched and taken.  Cores of marble samples lie in abandoned factory areas, while other leased-out mines hum with activity.  There is always the question of how to use the waste marble – one vast pile outside Estremoz was apparently destined to be ground into the chips for the bed of the AVE high speed train link between Madrid and Lisbon.  Alas, EU funding dried up for that project and the giant blocks remain intact today.
Needless to say, I could not resist the blocks of marble and am still exulting in its quiet beauty.  These are some of the drawings I have done so far – with more silverpoints still to come…

Marble from Estremoz, silverpoint on paper, Jeannine Cook
Marble Meanderings I, gold/silverpoint on paper, Jeannine Cook
Marble Meanderings II, gold/silverpoint on paper, Jeannine Cook

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Portuguese Memories - Gleaming Tiles

After a marvellously creative and stimulating time at an OBRAS art residency in Evoramonte, Portugal, I have been remembering back to vignettes of great beauty.  One of the wonderful delights, of course, was seeing the diversity of the tiles or azulejos about which I have written previously. 
Since I was spending time in the fortress hill town of Estremoz, in the Alentejo region, I was charmed by some of the modern versions of tiles, adorning the facades of houses in the centre of town.

One grand house celebrating tiles and local marble in Estremoz
A neighbouring house in Estremoz

Another modernist house near the old railways station in Estremoz
More historic tiles in Estremoz include amazing tile pictures all around the outside of the original train station, serving a railway line built for the Kings of Portugal to travel between their various palaces.  The railway line is long disused and a tangle of brambles and flowers, but the railway station in Estremoz is protected, with the tiles covered by Plexiglas against vandalism or theft.

More delicious houses shouldered together around the main, vast Estremoz square,some of which told of their builders' dreams and aspirations.

One amazingly elaborate home on the main square in Estremoz
A small house on one side of the Estremoz main square
Another proud house on the Estremoz square
Much earlier azulejos adorn the handsome stairs up the main building of the present municipal offices, once part of the “Congregados” convent and church that was started in 1698.  I was fascinated by the hunting, fishing, boating and picnicking scenes, and thought the top “ladies” were fun.

A series of tiles along the stairway of the Congregados convent, now Estremoz' municipal centre
Everywhere you go in Portuguese towns and cities, there are details of interest or delight that stop one in one’s tracks.  The azulejos,  modern and of previous centuries,  never fail to add colour, harmony and life to buildings.