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Gaudi in Paris

 

Antoni Gaudi, whose name practically evokes Barcelona and the flowering of 'moderniste' art and architecture of the late 19th century, is currently an attraction in Paris as well with an interesting exhibit at the Musée d'Orsay, but sadly, it's only there until July 17.

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The exhibit focuses not on Gaudi's best-known works such as the Sagrada Familia basilica and houses such as Casa Battlo and La Pedrera, but on the breadth of his vision and on his development from student days onward.

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Sketches of projects from Gaudi's student notebooks

Visiting the exhibit in May, and listening in on some of my fellow visitors, it was clear how much those aspects have been missed, even by people who have been to Barcelona and seen his work 'in situ.' The stunning woodwork and unusual furniture drew a lot of attention and interest.

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Gaudi furniture, showing changes over time. Title image set was designed for Palau Guell, an early commission and home of his most consistent patron

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One thing becomes clear through the exhibit: Like Frank Lloyd Wright in a later time, or Le Corbusier, it is impossible to confine Gaudi to a category. Not only because of how much his styling varied over time, but because he clearly saw what might be defined as 'architecture' as part of a social system, as a way to create change.

Catalonia in his time was becoming more industrial, and trade and the textile industry created a new wealthy class; the city itself expanded outside its ancient walls. Gaudi and a number of his patrons and contemporaries saw themselves as both a part of a new world, and as the defenders of values they connected to Catalonia and to Catholicism.

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His designs, whether for the buildings themselves or for their furniture, or for the tiled and wood decorative elements, hold together shapes and motifs that were readily recognizable to his fellow Barcelona residents, but placed in new contexts and forms, sometimes to the point of distortion.

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A glance, for instance, at the woodwork again. Recognizable shapes are there: window, shutter, cabinet, screen, but without either the right angles or symmetrical curvature, or in some cases any symmetry at all. In some pieces, the shape appears almost fluid, as if caught in a moment of transformation.

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Deeply religious, and growing more so over time, Gaudi had a deep interest in religious architecture long before the project for the Sagrada Familia basilica, although none of his projects were fully built. Gaudi worked mostly by modeling rather than drawing, and much of that work was lost when his workshop was sacked during the Spanish Civil War.

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But a small glance at his ideas for a church for Colonia Guell, a 'new city' suburb that was a project of his patron, shows something of his ideas. Only the crypt of the Colonia Guell church was actually built, but a set of furniture made for it, and several stained-glass panels are in the exhibition.

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The Gaudi special exhibit closes in a few weeks, but the Musée d'Orsay is still a good place to go for a deep look at his work; the museum holds a sizable collection of furniture and decor from the period characterized by Art Nouveau, Modernisme, Jugendstil and other names, and includes work by such names as Hector Guimard, Victor Horta and Frank Lloyd Wright. It connects well with the museum's focus on art of the 19th century.

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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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