Archive | February, 2012

Why Visit Gothic Cathedrals Part I

29 Feb

Anyone who has ever been to Europe has probably been inside a Gothic cathedral.  These large and imposing structures are some of the most frequently visited tourist attractions in the world.  But here’s a question for you — why do we go see them?  Is it really just because your Paris guidebook says that you should go see Notre Dame?  Hopefully you put a bit more individual thought into your vacation plans, but you’ll probably still visit the cathedral.  Why?

I’ve realized the trick to explaining the importance of Gothic cathedrals requires two parts roughly corresponding to the two halves of our brains, the scientific left side and the emotional right.  You can focus on either or both depending on your personal taste, but you’ll never appreciate just how incredible these structures are until you learn to think about at least one aspect of them.

First of all, the scientific.  Gothic cathedrals were technological marvels for their time.  No one had seen buildings that reached such heights and had such thin walls, features which allowed the extensive use of stained glass that the cathedrals are still known for.  The people of the time believed what they were seeing was a glimpse of heaven itself.  Nothing else on earth could compare with it.

With the benefit of our modern knowledge, however, we know that the wonders of the Gothic cathedral are the result of some cunning mathematical ideas.  The most obvious of these is the pointed arch.  For centuries these arches, which were borrowed from Islamic architecture, have been some of the most recognizable images of European culture.  They were used throughout cathedrals, but they were most important to the ceilings.

Look up as you walk through a cathedral.  The ceilings are divided into sections called bays.  Each bay has rib vaults spanning it and forming pointed arches.  It’s an ingenious system that allowed the sides of each bay to be the same height while directing more of the weight of the ceiling straight down instead of out, which meant the walls needed less support.  The arches created a nifty optical trick, as well, making the ceilings seem higher than they actually were.

Flying Buttresses on the side of Strasbourg Cathedral

The pointed arches were important but the great hero of the Gothic cathedral (and the inspiration for this blog’s name) was the flying buttress.  Buttressing is quite simply the system of supporting the weight of a building’s ceiling and walls so that the thrust doesn’t push out and cause the building to collapse.  People had figured out that large buildings needed such supports centuries earlier, but to accomplish it they simply made thicker walls.  An anonymous architect working at Notre Dame realized that these could be placed outside of the building in such a way that they provided even more support and also let in more light.  The combination of pointed arches and the external supports of the flying buttresses allowed for walls to become thinner than previously possible.  The look of the Gothic cathedral was thus established, both interior and exterior.

You may by now be wondering what’s so great about having thin walls.  The answer is that since the walls didn’t have to support as much of the building’s weight there could be more room for windows, and those windows were filled with stained glass.  These were the final touch that created the beautiful and mysterious interiors of Gothic cathedrals.    While not the first time Biblical passages were illustrated in churches—frescoes and mosaics had been used for centuries—this was the first time that they let light pass through and seemed to glow.  Even today the effect is still breathtaking.

And all of this was done with technology which to us seems positively prehistoric.  To build even a one-story house today you need several trained professionals with master’s degrees in architectures who let a computer do all the work anyway, and then of course everything needs to pass the local building codes before you can even dig up some dirt.  Gothic cathedrals were built by men with a basic grasp of mathematical ideas and a few years spent as apprentices.  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Gothic cathedrals are so amazing.  At least part of the reason.  There’s more to come.


An American Master in Germany – Georgia O’Keeffe at the Hypo Kunsthalle

4 Feb

For the first time there is a retrospective of the works of Georgia O’Keeffe being exhibited in Germany.  In Munich until May, Georgia O’Keeffe: Life and Work at the Hypo Kunsthalle introduces visitors to the grande dame of American Art.  O’Keeffe ranks with Warhol as one of the most identifiable American artists of the twentieth century.  This traveling exhibition, which has previously been in Rome and will continue to Helsinki, was organized by the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe and features over 70 of the artist’s works.  O’Keeffe is brought European audience who might not be completely familiar with her.  Overall, it’s an absolute success.

But first, I know what you’re thinking.  And no, despite the frequent jokes not all of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings are thinly veiled representations of female genitalia.  She actually resented the fact that her artwork was seen merely as a statement of her gender instead of, well, artwork.  Although she did do a few paintings that seem rather feminine – note the two clam shell paintings near the beginning of the exhibition – she stopped using such forms when she realized people were critiquing the works based on Freudian psychology instead of art.

The exhibition covers all her subjects in a sweeping introduction to her career, from art school to final works.  Far from being a dry chronology, the retrospective is enhanced by the frequent photographs of O’Keeffe, many of which were taken by her husband Alfred Stieglitz.  At the same time that we see her art develop we also see her develop from a mousey art teacher to the strong, self-assured artist wandering the New Mexico landscape who is so familiar to us.  Indeed the exhibition itself begins not with a work of art, but a slide show of photographs of the artist.  From the beginning it’s not a show about Georgia O’Keeffe’s art, but rather a show about Georgia O’Keeffe the artist.

If there is one problem with this exhibition it’s the overall design.  Here in Munich the exhibition is done in an austere, modern style.  Large gray walls are only partly covered with artworks.  Especially as we reach O’Keeffe’s time in New Mexico, with its warm tones and sense of space, the bright Southwestern landscapes seem completely at odds with their surroundings.  Although not able to put my finger on it while visiting the exhibition, later when I was researching it and saw clips from its stop in Rome I realized what had been bothering me.  In Rome the rooms were smaller and warmer, allowing the visitor to feel more like the paintings are windows to another place instead of art on a wall.

But still this is a highly worthwhile exhibition for anyone who has the slightest interest in art.  Georgia O’Keeffe was one of the most accessible artists of the twentieth century.  Partly this was due to her personality and her status as an icon of the American Southwest, but mostly it’s because her paintings are absolutely beautiful.  Even those who don’t normally like abstract art are taken in by O’Keeffe’s use of color and contrast.  There’s a confidence in her paintings that can only be appreciated when you see the confidence in her eyes.  Fortunately Georgia O’Keeffe: Life and Work demonstrates both.

Georgia O’Keeffe: Life and Work runs in Munich until May 13, 2012

Open daily 10:00 – 20:00
Admission: €11, Students €5, Mondays half price all admission
Audio guide available in German and English for €5.  Be aware  that the audio guide isn’t available until after the coat check, so keep your money out if you want one.