Living Between Tradition and Modernity

Saffronart is excited to announce its April auctions dedicated to two important lifestyle defining categories.

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Le Corbusier at the MoMa

Kanika Pruthi of Saffronart discusses Corbusier’s ongoing retrospective at the MoMA in New York and how it drafts an unconventional picture of the famed architect

Corbusier in Chandigarh, India

Corbusier in Chandigarh, India. Image Credit:

New York: Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes opened this month at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. A retrospective exhibition on a grand scale, it surveys the biographical development of the architect’s ideas about landscape and topography. In the words of guest curator Jean-Louis Cohen, it undertakes a restorative task by challenging his long held reputation as proponent of austere, uniform modernism and to re-skew Le Corbusier from his bad reputation of constructing generic buildings with a gaping lack of sensitivity and addressal of the site at large, by presenting to the visitor a dazzling breadth of the architect’s creative genius.

Legislative Assembly Building, Chandigarh

Legislative Assembly Building, Chandigarh. Image Credit:

Encompassing his work as an architect, interior designer, artist, city planner, writer, and photographer, the exhibition transforms the sixth floor into a grand tour of the multiple facets of Le Corbuseir’s life and his many undertakings and achievements. The exhibition is accompanied by an extensively researched and impressively put together catalogue in the format of an altas, fastidiously listing the major projects the architect undertook during his lifetime.

The exhibition space displays four reconstructed interiors, models of buildings, complementing photographs by Richard Pare, Corbusier’s early purist paintings, sketches, drawings, watercolor, furniture and film, all together documenting his many travels and engagements. The exhibition’s fourth section is devoted to Corbusier’s plan and buildings in Chandigarh, India. Three plaster architectural models and 11 ink and pencil perspective drawings work in concert with Pare’s photography to reveal Corbusier distinct connection with Chandigarh, and the role that Punjab’s landscape played in (literally) shaping his grand plans for the capital city.

Palace of Assembly, Chandigarh

Palace of Assembly, Chandigarh. Image Credit:

As noted in the opening pages of the catalogue Corbusier is one of the rare architects to have built on three continents before the advent of commercial interconnected jet service. The sheer volume- of material and discourse, produced by the exhibition is a clear indicator of the uncontested standing of the architect in the field. His major criticism has centered on the apparent disconnect between his structures and their surroundings. The validity and longevity of this critique can be ascertained by the retrospective’s herculean undertaking to establish the relationship between Corbusier and landscape- a very specific and noteworthy point of focus.

As illuminated by the catalogue essays, Corbusier approached landscape from different angles- some manifest while others latent. Contrary to popular belief, he had a keen interest in landscape, evident from his paintings, drawings, writings and travels, which are inherently attached to the appearance of landscape. He developed an understanding of the building as a type of viewing device for the landscape into an object of contemplation in ways quite distinct from the picturesque tradition.  He actually went on to develop a notion of landscape that included both the microscopic scale of a building’s immediate environment and the small landscape that it created or sustained, such as terraces, the macroscopic scale of urban ensembles and large terrains. He was attentive to both the grand landscapes of mountains and coastlines as well as the urban cityscapes. His pocket sketchbooks document this lifetime interest.

Aptly stated in the catalogue, “Le Corbusier was engaged not with the ways in which things are similar around the world but rather with the ways in which they are distinct, with layers of culture that resonate even in worlds in mutation from the forces of modernization.”

The exhibition will be on until September 23, to learn more click here.

Jan Kempenaers exhibition at the UCLA Fowler Museum

Guest blogger Tracy Buck shares details of a photography exhibit by Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers at the UCLA Fowler Museum

Los Angeles: On March 17, The Fowler Museum, located on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, opened an exhibition of twenty-three photographs by Jan Kempenaers of former-Yugoslavian “spomeniks.”  Based on Kempenaers’ 2010 photographic book published in conjunction with the Academy of Fine Arts Ghent, the images depict the 1960s-1970s modernist, futuristic-looking monuments that were meant to simultaneously commemorate the tragedies of World War II and herald the promise of the new socialist state.  Impersonal, stark, solid but at the same time strikingly in ruin, the monuments evoke the sentiment of an abandoned and forgotten promise.  With his careful eye to framing and lighting, Kempenaers has captured the dialogue of these characteristics in his photographs.

Spomeniks combine the beauty of skilled architectural design with sculptural execution, and were conceived of by architects who are today largely forgotten: Bakic, Zivkovic, Džamonja, Jordan and Iskra Grabul.  Soon after the formation of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia in 1946 and under the national leadership of Marshall Josip Broz Tito, spomeniks began to appear across the country.  With no apparent underlying governing structure that unified their individual design, and, as John Bailey has pointed out in a 2011 entry, reminiscent in form and material of such designers as Le Corbusier, spomeniks are scattered throughout rural areas of the former Yugoslavia.  Some resemble large-scale conceptual sculpture, others almost appear to be buildings, still others might be mistaken for space craft or utilitarian structures.

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Kempenaers, in a March 15 gallery talk at the Fowler, described the process of seeking out and accessing the largely forgotten monuments in their remote locations.  Although the spomeniks were once the well-visited sites of adult and schoolchildren pilgrimage, for his 2006-09 project Kempenaers relied on anecdotal directions and a decades-old map.  Most of his images reflect this abandoned state, but others depict the graffitted and ruined remains of the monuments’ former stature.  Kempenaers sometimes spent several days at a particular site, waiting to capture the ideal lighting.  With a few exceptions, the result is a nearly uniform, unexpressive sky that reflects the starkness of the monument it backgrounds.  The photographs, with their careful lighting and landscapes devoid of people, reflect both Kempenears’ trek and his patience.

Ghent-based Kempenaers was trained in photography and completed a PhD in visual arts in 2011.  Interested in urban and landscape photography, but also more recently in abstract photographic projects, Kempenaers approaches spomeniks not entirely for their social value or national cache of memories but rather for their aesthetics and striking visuality.  The resulting photographs are artistically striking and, although perhaps unintentionally, documentary as well.

Willem Jan Neutelings, in his 2008 Spomenik, The Monuments of Former Yugoslavia, has suggested that, in their present condition, the spomeniks have finally come to their symbolic fruition: dilapidated and all but forgotten, they themselves not only commemorate but also grieve for the horrors of WWII they mark.  No longer symbols of victory, they have become sculptural acts of mourning: that which was meant to generate memory has itself been forgotten.  It is the completion of this transition that Kempenaers marks in his photographs.

Spomenik: Photographs of the Monuments of Former Yugoslavia by Jan Kempenaers is on display at UCLA’s Fowler Museum until August 11, 2013.  Kempenaers’ 2010 photo book, which features three additional spomenik images, is widely available and published by Roma Publications.

Guest Contributor Tracy Buck is currently pursuing a PhD in Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles.  She holds MA degrees in South Asian Cultures and Languages and in Museum Studies, and has worked in the Collections Management and Curatorial departments of several history and art museums.

‘Vernacular Architecture’ in Chandigarh: Nek Chand’s Rock Garden

Guest blogger Tracy Buck visits the Nek Chand Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India

Chandigarh: In a project that paralleled Le Corbusier’s ‘master plan’ for the creation of Chandigarh, an Indian Government roads inspector named Nek Chand created and populated a fanciful, labyrinthine city from the refuse of the nationalist, official project of capital-building. Started in secret in 1958 and opened to the public in 1976, this sculpture garden popularly called Nek Chand’s Rock Garden occupies some 18 acres of land and is supported by the Nek Chand Foundation.

Working with urban and industrial waste – the cast-offs of the project to build an Indian capital for the post-Partition state of Punjab – Chand claimed and fashioned a landscape that might be thought of as a replacement for the village he left behind in what became Pakistan after the events of Partition. At its heart, the Rock Garden is a project of location amidst displacement, a coming to terms with and reorienting oneself during upheaval, of shifting together a new world in the wake of nation-building and Nehruvian positivist politics. It is a fantastical act of world-creation, that, while Le Corbusier’s ‘master plan’ operated at the official, highly visible, and nation-building level, Chand enacted in secret, a personal vision that would be today called ‘outsider art’ for its folk style and existence beyond the established borders of the art world.

In a manner perhaps similar to Vivan Sundaram’s trash projects of recent years (, 2005; Trash, 2009; and Gagawaka, 2011), Chand’s work is in dialogue with issues of world-creation, waste and value, and the personification of discarded items that once had lives intimately connected to those of their owners. In Chand’s created world, people are fashioned out of broken glass bangles and bits of shattered pottery – refuse is assembled to resemble those who discarded it – and recognizable animals are placed alongside multiple-headed fantasy beasts. Fields of people and creatures are on display and oriented towards the pathway, while others seem to exist more for their own accord, positioned almost beyond sight atop a waterfall or behind a serpentine wall structure. To the visitor, the Rock Garden reads like a place that would exist whether anyone were there to see it or not, a created realm that is not contingent on viewership but that feels autonomous in its pleasantly rather haphazard construction.

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A small, hand-painted sign near the exit of the garden announces that Chand, aged 89, will meet with visitors to discuss the project and answer questions by appointment. A project that was threatened with destruction upon its discovery in 1975, ultimately supported by the government and opened to the public in 1976, and featured on an Indian postage stamp in 1983, today sees an estimated 5,000 visitors a day. Situated in Sector 1 of Le Corbusier’s planned city – beyond the official buildings of modernist architecture and the designed gardens that reflect Nehru’s efforts to ‘catch up’ with the West – the Rock Garden stands as a monument to the personal vision of Nek Chand.  An informal architect and ‘outsider’ artist, Chand has created a world that gives voice to the impulses of memory, fantasy, to the continuing lives of discarded objects, and to the unofficial projects that attempted to sort out at a personal level a post-colonial, post-Partition India.

For further reading, consider Nek Chand’s outsider art: the rock garden of Chandigarh, by Lucienne Peiry, John Maizels, Philippe Lespinasse, Nek Chand. Published by Flammarion, 2006.

For some spectacular  interactive panoramas of the Garden, visit the Nek Chand Foundation’s website.

Guest Contributor Tracy Buck is currently pursing a PhD in Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles.  She holds MA degrees in South Asian Cultures and Languages and in Museum Studies, and has worked as Collections Manager and Curator in several history and art museums in Seattle and Los Angeles.

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