Friday, January 14, 2011

the night garden

Salammbô, 1896

Flirt advertisement, 
circa 1895-1900
There is a city sleeping in my house right now, a labyrinth, a dream of fronds and pebbles glossy underwater, a reverie, a columbarium, a living room. Think of that: a room that is alive, that could breathe life into us, a room we could inhabit like the two cupped hands of a garden. I have not built it yet. But it is there, peaceful, waiting for me to draw it from the realms of the unmanifest into the manifest. It is a room without windows, a funny little cave blown open by the gust from the front door, and therefore it must be a night garden, full of the wondrous damp plants that love the dark and exude like jade perfume the earthy smell of moss and root and wet soil. I woke up the other morning and the whole room was in my head, a splendid hothouse Parisian cafe dream of longing for lands of sun and minaret among the mist and iron lampposts.

Two panels from Les Heures du Jour, 1899: 
Repos de la nuit & Éveil du matin. 

Imagine if the Art Nouveau paintings were a place, if the unfurling struts of Alphonse Mucha's artwork were delicately folded into a doorway. For his paintings have no ordinary backgrounds, seem glimpsed instead through scrollwork, a tracery of leaves, more kaleidoscope than landscape and yet inviting and warm as the door to some grand salon swung briefly open to reveal a burst of light and laughter, the smell of blossoms, fragrance, smooth bare shoulders fresh as peaches in the winter night. Though they now exist on everything from necklaces to iPad cases, when has a room ever been built that allows you to step into the brocaded intricacies of his imagination?

Victor Horta, later Baron Horta, came perhaps the closest with the Hôtel Tassel --and why is it that I can only find pictures of this bloody stairwell? Here are three different views of it, all of them lovely, if perhaps a bit maddening in their insistence; of course other pictures do exist, but they all seem rather barren compared to the living curves and fernlike profusion here at the turning of the steps. I have yet to see a room by Horta that seems as alive and sinuous as this movement between floors....

Another marvelous place my living room has its roots well folded into is the Chapel of the Chimes, a columbarium built by Julia Morgan in Oakland, California. This place seems more holy library than repository of death, a labyrinth full of exquite vaulted chapels full of open stonework windows, so that from afar you may see one room full of a sacred light but when you try to reach it you find yourself inexplicably elsewhere, in a mossy garden echoing the sound of water, or a hallway like the spine of a magical beast...

Salome Dancing Before Herod, 1874
And I am influenced, of course, by the tattooed work of the great Gustave Moreau, whose Salome Dancing Before Herod helped shift the river not only of art but also of ten centuries' worth of dance...but that's another story. For now, his mystic space, o ye spirits, how he sees light...everything bathed in a kind of moonlight, the spray of a fountain, the silvering of stars at twilight.  His paintings are draped with dreamers, sleepers, if he undsterstood before anyone what Baudelaire meant by La Chambre Double. An Orientalist, to be sure, but one interested in the realm of reverie; his Salome, dancing, is not a lewd seductress but a mystic, in a trance state...later artists (including Mucha) painted her increasingly as a scheming strumpet, but Moreau allowed her a kind of dignity (with the exception of a peculiar watercolor of such a completely different style I feel brazenly entitled to overlook it entirely. This not being an art criticism lecture but a sheerly personal imagining, I will simply pretend it doesn't exist...)

And finally, there is my own last, lost, living room, an ode to Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, Gaston Bachelard, Lewis Carroll and Louis Aragon. Here, a glimpse of its celestial ceiling, a miniature cathedral in the making. I don't miss it; I hadn't learned how to make a sacred space a living one. It was magical, oh yes, but not alive...(Do you see the moss that creeps into Cleopatra's room? How wonderful -- not the usual violent female Pharoah up to her elbows in blood and rose petals, but a woman caught between two worlds, the earth coming to speak to her in the splendor of her chambers...)

Wish me luck.

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