Grey and gloomy, yet striking, the suburban residential blocks which are immersed in the paintings of French artist Yves Bélorgey, affirm both the standardisation and the audacities of late 20th Century functionalist architecture.
The views of buildings in Bélorgey’s large paintings suggest more than a realist description; they allow for a depiction in time that escapes generalisation. The features that sparkle and catch the eye of the beholder convey a lived-in environment, although it might be pictorially devoid of any human feeling and presence. The recesses and sharp angles of facades, zigzags of balconies, slopes of staircases and gutters — the ‘sci-fi’ design with which architects of late modernism signed their work and through which they assured their fame — are mixed with small but tangible traces of appropriation, of use, leaks and decay. The colourful laundry or bedclothes hung out to dry, cracks on the walls and traces of wear and tear engraved on the building are like commentaries on architecture. They propose other points of view, anonymous and off centre: suburban voices, in a way. But they also comment on painting itself, referring to its process of continuous alteration. Painting here is not only a way to represent architecture; it also reflects on the state of painting itself.
Why painting? Why painting after the age of mechanical reproduction and at the time of digital production? And why paint architecture in an epoch of the global city and threat of ecological disaster? To these questions that sound like reproaches, I don’t want to reply on behalf of the artists with a single, monolithic, or nostalgic answer. Yet they paint, with or without a canvas, on a wall, in real space. Sometimes, even, they paint architecture. Literally, in Tirana, Albania, where the mayor, also an artist, confronted with an economy of poverty and urged to renovate the city, decided, with the collaboration of its inhabitants, to let the walls be painted in bright monochromes, transforming the town into a kind of postmodern, playfully abstract grid.
The last reminders of modernist architecture seem to be crucial to many of the artists in ‘Archipeinture’. It haunts their works. Like Bélorgey, they respond to architecture as something ‘old’, a ghost of the past, even if it is a recent past from the 1960s to the 1980s. The period in which they were born and during which they grew up is posited here through architecture as the ultimate fantasy from which to build a collective future, which has now become an ‘anterior future’, dissolved into individualism and political indifference. The medium of painting, whether respected, inverted or perverted, stands there as a kind of small event, resisting the eternal loss of memory offered by media technologies. Painting is a slow process requiring attention, that unlike images on portable appliances, such as the computers, i-pods, cameras and phones that we carry around, doesn’t appear on a screen.
There are no human beings, crowds or passers-by in the architecture represented in ‘Archipeinture’. Perhaps this is because architecture is proposed as a space for the mind, rather than as a physical structure that determines a specific pathway. Wandering through the archeological ruins of ancient Rome provided Freud with a spatial metaphor to imagine the layered strata of the mind, viewing the psyche as a kind of layered urban space. In a number of works, architecture is painted in the form of a studio, a space which is specifically built for artists and that suggests the organisation of artistic labour. More than a museum or library, the architecture of the studio inhabited by paintings and in turn, represented on the canvas, offers for these artists a space to house their own art.
Over the past five centuries, painting and architecture have traditionally been rivals, at least in terms of hierarchy. Theoretician and historian Hubert Damisch1 refers to this companionship of art and architecture by using the French masculine word ‘patron’, which means ‘boss’, as well as ‘pattern’. Indeed, who was the first patron of the arts? Florentine Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 – 1446), one of the fathers of the Renaissance, is traditionally credited with inventing the camera obscura and perspective. But what is perspective? As a continuous, homogenous and isotopic geometrical space, perspective is more than a tool to unify the three dimensions of the built environment and the two dimensions of the design drawn on paper or sketched on canvas. Brunelleschi referred to perspective without separating architecture from its pictorial representation, proposing painting as an abstract, mental and noble construct.
Reciprocally, architecture could also be read through painting or even depicted in paintings. Towards 1470, Francesco di Giorgio Martini pictured the ‘Ideal City’, a city constructed ex-nihilo, built as pure representation, standing there on the canvas with no past and with the promise of indestructibility; eternal. The notion of an ideal city was transferred and transformed through the social utopias of the age of Enlightenment, and then pursued in the avant-garde experiments of the 1920s. Piet Mondrian’s ‘Pure Plastic’ 2 conferred on modern painting the task of articulating the outside world by radiating its order into the three dimensions of a new future life. In this system, where the picture plane represents a fragment of an architectured whole, painting works as a role model.
In their book Collage City 3, British authors Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter contrast the ideal of Renaissance architecture with Picasso’s first documented collage, Nature morte à la chaise cannée (1911 – 12). Why? How can a collage relate to a picture of an ideal construction? With collage though, the flesh of the town has permanently introduced itself into the concept of painting, and disrupted its surface by transforming it into an art of assemblage. From Dada to Pop art, fragments of newsprint, typography, labels, flyers, posters, pieces of wallpaper imitating wood, mirrors, trash or treasures of all sorts, have been borrowed from the real world of the city at a pedestrian level and appropriated or reproduced. Here, destruction comes before any kind of artistic appropriation and informs painting just as much as construction.
1 The Origin of Perspective Hubert Damisch (engl. translation), Cambridge, Ma, M.I.T. Press (1995)
2 Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art Piet Mondrian, published in Circle (1937)
3 Collage City Colin Rowe, Fred Koetter, Cambridge, Ma, M.I.T. Press (1978)
The Poetics of Space Gaston Bachalard, Beacon Press (1994) ISBN 0807064734
The Arcades Project Walter Benjamin, (translation) Harvard University Press (2002) ISBN 0674008022
Species of Spaces Georges Perec, Penguin Books Ltd. (1997) ISBN 0140189866
Bobby Fischer Goes To War David Edmonds & John Eidinow, Ecco (2004) ISBN 0571214126
Millenium People J.G. Ballard, Flamingo (2003) ISBN 000225848X
The Aesthetics of Resistance Peter Weiss, Duke University Press (2005) ISBN 0822335468
Le Parti Près Des Choses Francis Ponge, Continuum International Publishing Group – Athlone (1979) ISBN 0485127148
Westwärts 1 & 2 Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, Rowohlt Verlag GmbH (2005) ISBN 3498005286
Sputnik Sweetheart Haruki Murakami, Vintage (2002) ISBN 0099448475
Highrise J.G. Ballard, Flamingo (2006) ISBN 0586044566
Invisible Cities Italo Calvino, Vintage (2002) ISBN 0099429837
"All of us have our dreams to reassure us. Architecture is a stage set where we need to be at ease in order to perform." J.G. Ballard
Elisabeth Lebovici is a Paris-based art writer and journalist, and for fifteen years was a writer for Libération. She is currently publishing a book with co-author Catherine Gonnard on the history of women artists in France (1900 – 2000), éditions Hazan, Paris. http://le-beau-vice.blogspot.com