Behind the Scenes – DesignCurial

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Stephen Hitchens takes a look at some of the most interesting artist studios on display to the public


UNFAILINGLY FASCINATING when left untouched, intriguing to see when lovingly recreated, recognisable however they may be resurrected, a creative hive provides a trove of insight into the practice and persona of the artist. Today, there are hundreds of artists’ studios that can be visited. From the Red House to the grain shop in Bohain-en-Vermandois where Henri Matisse first learnt to paint; from the Rembrandthuis to Gainsborough’s House; Rubenshuis to the Villa Mondriaan; Salvador Dali’s house, Kelmscott Manor (William Morris’s ‘loveliest haunt of ancient peace’ in the Cotswolds), Casa Bonarroti (the Florentine palazzo owned by Michelangelo and converted to a museum), the Aalto house, the Musée Zadkine in the heart of Montparnasse, the list has grown enormously over the last decade.

Here are just a few where you can get remarkable snapshots of the lives of artists and where, in many cases, they created their greatest works.

The bright primary colours on the exterior of Juan Miró’s studio are reminiscent of his paintings. Image Credit: NAEBLYS / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
The bright primary colours on the exterior of Juan Miró’s studio are reminiscent of his paintings. Image Credit: NAEBLYS / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

In December 1926, a 25-year-old artist moved into a small rented studio at 46 rue Hippolyte- Maindron in Montparnasse. In that tiny ground-floor space, less than 23m2, poorly lit and for decades without running water, he produced masterpieces of modern art. He was Alberto Giacometti. He had spent the previous three years frequently moving between cheap hotels and sublet workshops. The new home-cum- studio had been acquired on a whim. ‘I planned on moving as soon as I could,’ he told a friend. ‘It was too small, just a hole.’ He stayed there for 40 years and, like Brancusi, colonised the adjoining buildings, cocooning himself inside. Jean Genet described the place as ‘a milky swamp, a seething dump, a genuine ditch’. And yet he also wrote that it was ‘the most important and the most complete’ of the artist’s works, ‘his other self, the essence and ultimate residue of his artistic contribution’.

After Giacometti died in 1966, aged 64, the studio was repossessed by the landlord: but not before his wife Annette had removed all of its contents, including the paint and plaster-splattered walls. Some 52 years later, the studio found a new home as the centrepiece of a research centre, the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti. It took a year to find the site and another year to restore and fit out. Close to the artist’s stomping ground and all his local hangouts like Le Dôme, Le Select and La Coupole, it is about a mile from the original studio, occupying 350m2 of an Art Deco building at 5 Rue Victor Schoelcher, formerly the showroom of the decorator Paul Follot. Unused since the 1940s and extremely run down, it was refurbished by architects Pascal Grasso and Pierre-Antoine Gatier.

Institut Giacometti is home to 350 sculptures, 90 paintings, and 2,000 drawings and etchings. Image Credit: INSTITUT GIACOMETTI PARIS
Institut Giacometti is home to 350 sculptures, 90 paintings, and 2,000 drawings and etchings. Image Credit: INSTITUT GIACOMETTI PARIS

The building facade and parts of its interior are listed, making it a challenge to create public access without altering the original structure. All of the installations are set away from the walls and demountable, respecting the building’s own history while giving real identity to the institute. To finance the property purchase and building costs, the foundation sold a 1954 Miró painting given by the artist to Giacometti. It sold for nearly £7.8m at Sotheby’s in 2015.

This place is not a replica, it is an ‘evocation’ of Giacometti’s working environment. It attempts to recreate the spirit of the man and the place, but it does have the original walls and some of the last pieces Giacometti was working on when he died. The layout is based on ‘thousands of photographs of the studio’ in the foundation’s archives, starting in the early years but mainly from the last decade of Giacometti’s life. The photographers Ernst Scheidegger and Sabine Weiss, both friends of the artist, took the lion’s share.

Alberto Giacometti with one of his iconic tall, thin sculptures. Image Credit: INSTITUT GIACOMETTI PARIS
Alberto Giacometti with one of his iconic tall, thin sculptures. Image Credit: INSTITUT GIACOMETTI PARIS

The foundation is home to the world’s largest collection of Giacometti’s work, including around 350 mostly plaster sculptures, 90 paintings, more than 2,000 drawings and etchings, about 2,000 photographs and extensive archives, all of which Giacometti had managed to keep in his studio and in a small storage space nearby. For the first time, it is possible to see many fragile and previously damaged pieces of work.

All of the installations are set away from the walls and demountable to respect the building’s history
All of the installations are set away from the walls and demountable to respect the building’s history

The studio has certainly been brought back to life. Catherine Grenier, the director of the new centre (and formerly deputy director of the Centre Pompidou) said: ‘There was very little space, he almost couldn’t move. He liked the chaos… He said it was like the inside of his skull.’ The intimacy of the space is very emotional. The studio presentation rarely changes and there are no facsimiles. Grenier explained: ‘The battered furniture is the same that Giacometti hung on to for years and all the works from all the periods of his career, finished, unfinished and even broken’ are original. The artist’s final clay sculptures are here, a pair of painted walls, hundreds of sculptures and other objects. The whole approach is one of delicate restoration rather than to have copies.

Around the studio there is evidence that Giacometti often failed to finish his pieces. Image Credit: SUCCESSION ALBERTO GIACOMETTI (FONDATION GIACOMETTI, PARIS + ADAGP, PARIS)
Around the studio there is evidence that Giacometti often failed to finish his pieces. Image Credit: SUCCESSION ALBERTO GIACOMETTI (FONDATION GIACOMETTI, PARIS + ADAGP, PARIS)

Try to see Stanley Tucci’s 2017 film Final Portrait with Geoffrey Rush playing the ageing Giacometti with that haggard, bulbous, bespectacled face, framed in a wiry halo of grey hair, set permanently in an expression of droll contempt for everything, especially his own work and – of course – how much he despises Picasso. A central part of the film was the recreation of the studio, which, over the years, came to assume an almost mythical status. We are immersed in its notoriously cramped space. The film’s production designer, James Merifield, worked closely with Institut Giacometti. As for the feel of the place, it appears in accounts not just by Genet but also Samuel Beckett, and Simone de Beauvoir, who said it was ‘submerged in plaster […] cold, with neither furniture nor food – he takes no notice, he works’. It featured in plenty of magazines, with Brassai and Robert Doisneau portraying Giacometti’s craggy, gaunt form, with its bush of salt and pepper hair, in among his tools and paintings.

The Moneo Building, the foundation’s headquarters since 1992. Image Credit: RUBEN PERDOMO
The Moneo Building, the foundation’s headquarters since 1992. Image Credit: RUBEN PERDOMO

Giacometti was an atheist, left wing, bohemian, good looking, charismatic, yet plagued by chronic mental torment and the hesitant production of a relatively small corpus of work notable for its marvellous marriage of innovation and tradition. He was a voluble and, by all accounts, enchanting conversationalist, humbly courteous, and his most frequent topic happened to be the hopelessness of his enterprise. He took long walks with Beckett, who knew the feeling, reportedly in mutual silence.

Inside Son Boter, Miró’s late 18th century house used as a studio from 1959. Image Credit: S74 / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
Inside Son Boter, Miró’s late 18th century house used as a studio from 1959. Image Credit: S74 / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

The self-inflicted ordeal of trying to complete the final painting has all the agony of Beckett. Tucci notably allows his camera to make a leisurely, largely silent tour of the studio, including the vast hidden dirty bundles of cash about the place – because he and his brother did not trust banks.

Thin figures, elongated, improbably fragile: Giacometti’s distortions are a byword in modern sculpture, as instantly recognisable as a Henry Moore hole. This is Giacometti the existentialist: how can any sculptor know, and make known to anybody else, the person who sits before them? Looking at Giacometti’s figures melting in empty space you can also see the hunch-shouldered man walking towards the camera in Cartier-Bresson’s picture: greying, slightly hunched but brisk and determined, he hastens past crumbling walls on a sunlit back street, Rue Hippolyte- Maindron, before turning at a pale green door with a makeshift handle and entering the secret world of a fabulously filthy studio.

The collection contains around 7,000 works, including paintings, drawings, sculptures and objects. Image Credit: NAEBLYS / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
The collection contains around 7,000 works, including paintings, drawings, sculptures and objects. Image Credit: NAEBLYS / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

That’s it. The loneliness of being. There it is, mankind, unknowable, unbearably solitary and complex, and Giacometti, according to this received version, the Sartre of sculpture. Part of the message of Final Portrait is that Giacometti felt unable to finish many of his pieces. Sartre described Giacometti’s Sisyphean ‘search for the absolute’, and the artist’s revisions are painfully evident in the film. Clustered around and on every surface of the studio there is evidence of Giacometti’s inability to finish many of his pieces. The message that creativity can be painful comes over loud and clear, the whole process a kind of purgatory, his workplace feeling like a prison. The process never became any easier. Searching for something elusive, his friend Beckett summed it up with his injunction to ‘fail again, fail better’.

There might not seem to be much left to say about Alberto Giacometti, the surrealist who became a paragon of existentialism in his ravaged response to war. He hasn’t changed, this master of the skinny sublime. The world has though, and with it the significance of a man who termed himself a failure and chose to live in bohemian squalor even while, in his later years, he was quite rich and famous.

His new old home is a revelation.

‘I want everything that I leave behind to stay just as it is when I am gone,’ said Joan Miró. ‘Architecture itself can become a sculpture’ was Josep Lluís Sert’s response. So, established to preserve his studio and ‘everything that I leave’, in Palma de Mallorca between 1954 and 1956 Sert created a vast and impressive building for his friend and fellow Catalan. Today the Miró Foundation has three remarkable buildings that form one of the island’s most important architectural ensembles: the Sert Studio, where Miró started working in 1956; Son Boter, a late 18th century Mallorcan house bought according to Miró ‘as being a good investment, it [also] provides shelter from bothersome neighbours’ that the artist used as a second painting and sculpture studio from 1959; and the Moneo Building, the Fundació’s headquarters, designed by Rafael Moneo and opened in 1992, to provide exhibition space, a library, an auditorium, offices, a shop and cafe.

The contents of Paolozzi’s Chelsea studio reflect his varied styles and wide-ranging interests. Image Credit: KEITH HUNTER
The contents of Paolozzi’s Chelsea studio reflect his varied styles and wide-ranging interests. Image Credit: KEITH HUNTER

Exiled due to the Civil War, Sert, who was Dean of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design at the time, exchanged ideas with Miró on the design of the artist’s studio by post. During the two-year construction there was intense correspondence between them, the letters bearing witness to the architectural ideas as they developed keeping each other abreast of the building’s progress. This correspondence made up for the architect’s non-presence on site, where the work was supervised by Miró’s brother-in-law, Enric Juncosa.

It was this sculpture-like architecture on Mallorca that led Aimé Maeght, Miró’s gallerist and editor since 1947, to entrust the design of the Fondation Maeght to Sert: the creation of the first private foundation dedicated to the visual arts in Europe. Created hand in hand with the Maeghts, Miró and a number of artists, who gave life to some of its main features, including the sculpture garden entrance, the Giacometti Court, buildings wrapped around patios, a bell tower for the chapel and a home studio. Arguably still the most versatile sculptor working in Britain since 1945, Eduardo Paolozzi was born in Leith, the son of Italian immigrants. Economic migrants, they set up an ice cream parlour. Interned at the start of the Second World War, eventually mother and son were allowed to carry on satisfying the Scots’ craving for soft ice cream. Paolozzi later studied at Edinburgh College of Art, St Martin’s and the Slade before going to work in Paris from 1947 to 1949, where he got to know both Brancusi and Giacometti. One of the first standard bearers for pop art, he was a founder of the Independent Group in 1952, later teaching for several years in Hamburg, Cologne and Munich (where he also had a studio) before he began his long association with the RCA.

One of the UK’s most honoured artists, in 1994 Paolozzi donated a large amount of work and the contents of his Chelsea studio in Dovehouse Street to the Dean Gallery, an 18th-century orphanage designed by Thomas Hamilton and converted into a gallery by Terry Farrell in 1999. Now known as Modern Two, it is part of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

In 1989 he was knighted. Sir Eduardo had become part of the establishment, as Henry Moore had before him. When asked what he thought of the new generation of artists, he said that conceptual and installation art would fade from fashion. It was short on intellect and did not involve craftsmanship. What next, then? Paris, he said, probably still had much to offer.

Atelier Brancusi, Paris

Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi lived and worked in Paris for over 50 years along an alleyway, the Impasse Ronsin, where he gradually acquired space that he knocked together in order to have both a studio and a personal museum with work arranged in various groups. By the 1920s the exhibition space had become a work of art in its own right, a place where he would restage the layout and position of the work almost every day. As work was sold he filled the empty spaces with plaster casts. The relationship between one piece of sculpture and another became so important to him that when Brancusi bequeathed his entire studio (completed works, sketches, furniture, tools, library, record library and photographs) to the French state in 1956, it was on the condition that the studio was reconstructed back to how it was at his death. Originally located in the Palais de Tokyo, the collection was moved to an exact replica outside the Centre Pompidou in 1977. Following flooding in 1990 the present reconstruction was designed by Renzo Piano, and is now home to 137 works by Brancusi.


Hoglands, Much Hadham

The Hertfordshire home of Henry Moore was where the sculptor moved in order to escape the Blitz on London in 1940. At first it was shared with another family, until the sale of work enabled Moore to buy the place outright. He gradually bought up 70 of the surrounding acres, which are now a fine garden displaying his work.

Charleston, Sussex

An ancient farmhouse near Lewes on the edge of the South Downs, this was the unofficial country headquarters of the Bloomsbury Group, a ragbag of brilliant writers and thinkers (Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey) and third-rate artists (Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant). Woolf’s home, Monk’s House, is a dramatic and bracing walk away across the Downs.

Hill Top, Cumbria

The place where Beatrix Potter felt most at home, this farmhouse above Windermere became her studio and featured in many of her stories.

Trewyn Studio, St Ives

Finding this tiny house, yard and walled garden in 1949, Barbara Hepworth called it ‘a kind of magic, a place where I could work in open air and space’. She lived here until her death in 1975. Most of her bronzes have been left just as they were, and the garden – a collaboration between Hepworth and the composer Priaulx Rainier – is unchanged.

Hogarth’s House, Chiswick

Bought by William Hogarth in 1749 when Chiswick was a rural village an hour’s ride from the centre of London, the house is decorated with engravings of his satirical work.

The Munnings Museum, Dedham Vale, Essex

The Georgian home of Alfred Munnings, regarded as the pantomime villain by modern artists on account of the silly things he said when president of the Royal Academy, was also considered the best equestrian artist since Stubbs.

Horta Museum, Brussels

An undisputed capital of art nouveau, this was the home and studio of Victor Horta, where he was responsible for every detail, inside and out. The museum remembers a lost age and one of the leading figures of a flamboyant movement.

135 Rue Esseghem, Brussels

The family home from 1954, this is where René Magritte created half of his work, and it also became a base for Belgian surrealists.

Liebermann Villa, Berlin

Max Liebermann was Germany’s leading impressionist painter. Built in 1910, his summer house in Wannsee, beside Berlin’s largest and loveliest lake, is home to his collection.

Mesdag Colletion, The Hague

When Vincent Van Gogh was a young unknown artist, lost and lonely in The Hague, the most celebrated painter in town was Hendrik Mesdag. His palatial home now houses his work and his own collection of pieces from Japan and the Barbizon school.

Munchmuseet, Ekely

Edvard Munch bought the former plant nursery on the outskirts of Oslo in 1916 and lived and painted there until his death in 1944. He had several studios in the 45-acre grounds, including the so-called winter studio designed by the Oslo city architect Arnstein Arneberg. Built in 1920, it was extended by Henrik Bull and has been preserved to this day.

Maison du Pressoir, Giverny

From 1883 to 1926 Claude Monet lived and worked here, and created a fabulous garden: ‘my most beautiful masterpiece’ he called it. Restoration to its former glory took over a decade from 1977. In more normal times it attracts over 500,000 visitors a year.

Atelier de Cézanne

Near Aix-en-Provence with views of the Mont Sainte-Victoire, this was Cézanne’s home and studio from 1902 until his death in 1906, and where he painted his most famous pieces. The artist’s studio space with its vast north-facing window has been preserved as he might have left it – filled with furniture, working materials and models of his famous still lives.

Musée Rodin, Meudon

The Musée Rodin in Paris includes a 3ha sculpture garden and the Hôtel Biron, a jewel of Parisian rocaille architecture, which was where Rodin worked and is now a gallery. His home at Meudon, the Villa des Brillants, has been preserved and reconstructed.

Casa Azul, Coyoacán

Frida Kahlo’s father built the Blue House in 1904. Frida was born, lived and died here, and it was where she created most of her most famous work. The workspace was built in the 1940s by her partner Diego Rivera and is just as she left it, wheelchair and half-used tubes of paint and all.

Pollock-Krasner House, Springs, East Hampton

This wood-frame house and barn on Long Island, a 19th-century fisherman’s home, was where Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner lived and worked from 1945. It is all there, from his boots and jazz record collection, his paint-splattered floor and her paint-marked walls.

Abiquiu, New Mexico

In 1945, this derelict property was bought by Georgia O’Keeffe and transformed into an artistic oasis, an adobe abode that inspired her far more than New York: ‘You know, I never feel at home in the east like I do out here. I feel like myself and I like it,’ she said.



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