Updated: Jan 28
Roser Segimon was unknowingly creating history in 1905 when the construction of her multi-storied residence began. She was wealthy - a widow of a former colonist - and with her second husband, a real estate developer, flamboyant. What resulted from such a marriage of elements was an organism hitherto unknown to the people of Barcelona - a living building. It had a curved, undulating facade which had no load-bearing function for the main building, and allowed no structural constraints. The roof was supported by rib-like parabolic arches that held a surrealist roof garden intact. Anthropomorphic sculptures dotted the superstructure while the base was built over an underground garage - which, including running water for each apartment and an elevator - were novelties for that time.
Natural and organic forms of inspiration were taken, pushing the limits of biomimicry. The housing complex came to be known as La Pedrera, or the quarry, because it felt like it was carved straight out of the ground. Contributing to the Modernista movement (Spain’s version of Art Nouveau), the building, however, was mired in controversy and criticism. Administrative roadblocks were common and disagreements in the shape of the structure were visible in public scorn - the whole thing felt too gaudy.
Funny, considering this colossal art was a reflection of the style of the architect Gaudi.
Let’s take a look at a different type of art, for a moment. In spite of a separate workroom, Ernest Heminway always wrote in his yellow-tiled bedroom. His bedroom was divided into two alcoves by a pair of chest-high bookshelves. The bookshelf at the far side of the room had a massive flat-top desk with two chairs on either side. An ordered clutter of letters and mementos was spread over it with enough space to work, yet Hemingway chose to always stand in front of the other shelf which had just enough space for his typewriter and a book, and work. Scattered all around were an assortment of mementos from his life, and when asked about them, he chose to stay mum. He feared they would lose their value if spoken about, and harbored a similar opinion about writing - for him, writing was a lonely, private matter which needed no witness.
This personality was remarkably at odds with the popular notion of Hemingway-at-play - a man of rich humor and a vast fund of knowledge - and this man was only known in the confines of his bedroom.
Museums and galleries have been the go-to place for looking at artistic creativity. But what if we looked at the places that led to such creativity? Living under isolated circumstances, we’ve been more than mindful of our physical spaces. We all have our cozy and personal corners where just the perfect amount of light and space betters any turbulent mood. Artists aren’t cut from a different fabric, and their dwellings have often shaped what their art came to be (and vice-versa). Quite possibly then, it is in these living spaces that we can learn a bit more about the masters and where, perhaps, they drew their inspiration.
Coloring in grayscale
Gray isn’t a color we would associate with a modern artist today. In fact, it were the Impressionists and Pointillists that were last properly known to engage with the interplay of colors. So it’s not surprising to find Paul Cezanne’s studio walls in France awash with dark gray and a hint of green.
Why gray? Every object in the studio illuminated with natural light feels absorbed into the gray of the walls, without any reflections against the edges of the objects to separate them from the background, as would’ve been the case if the walls were white. Cezanne championed the idea of ‘flatness,’ that a painting was simply painted on a flat canvas, nothing more. And this idea of flatness would’ve quite naturally been possible with his gaze always darting from his surrounding gray walls to his canvas - leaving no space for the illusion of space.
For Cy Twombly however, a tonal sameness wasn’t the case. While his contemporaries were focusing on popular imagery and mundane objects in New York, a married Twombly moved to Rome, focusing on the classical world of Europe, and expressed that in his modern style of scribbles, smears, blots, and seemingly random markings. While a juxtaposition of antiquarian belongings with modern art would be a field day for the photographer from The New Yorker, it’s difficult to imagine the scribblings on the walls being approved by our mothers.
Our childhood architectural ambitions have mostly been with Lego sets, conjuring fantastical shapes of living spaces with blocks stacked one over the other. Then came Bauhaus. Bauhaus artists favored linear and geometrical forms over curvilinear shapes. With a modular principle and industrially prefabricated components, our dreams of seeing asymmetrical interlocking cubic structures were finally realized. What, you imagined it was just the paintings of Kandinsky that felt obscure?
At least Dali’s surroundings won’t come as a surprise. While he began with the idea of occupying a small womb-like living space, over the course of forty-years he transformed the interior (and exterior) with surreal elements, creating a labyrinth of passageways and corridors, with an enormous bust of a bear meeting us near the entrance. To top it off, a series of gigantic eggs top the facade of the house. As if we had any doubt.
Perhaps the best-known living space of an artist has been of Claude Monet’s house at Giverny. The interior of the house was decorated in a mix of Japanese woodwork and Victorian furniture. Interestingly, as opposed to his contemporary Cezanne’s idea of opting for grey (as was common), Monet, a lover of colors, went for blue walls in the interior and green for the exterior. This love for colors was visible in his gardens as well, for he didn’t organize the flowerbeds, but rather married them according to whichever colors fit best. Monet’s passion for the outdoors - and his lilies - was only inspired because of the lilies that were planted in his garden.
To build a home
Beyond all this lay one more aspect - the idea of a living space itself. Jackson Pollock, the undisputed leader of the Abstract Expressionist movement had quite a turbulent life to live, with a quagmire of depression and alcoholism inhabiting his space. His marriage with Lee Krasner, and securing a house by a loan from Peggy Guggenheim introduced something new to his life - stability.
Jackson Pollock’s house; the interior is preserved as it was when Pollock painted on the floor. Trace of a white rectangular frame of a canvas is visible at the lower left corner of the second picture. Image courtesy of Architectural Digest and gucki.it
He bought a modest house and a barn studio (which was originally meant to house fishing equipment) and converted it to his liking. This was the place where he now indulged in spreading his canvas on the floor to paint, the remnants of which are still preserved. This was the place where he finally had a two-year period of sobriety, during which he created some of his most memorable masterpieces. The setting didn’t matter - just that it was the right place at the right time to hold on to something solid.
We’ve all indulged in a romantic idea of inhabiting a particular living space. Sometimes it’s an aesthetically pleasing attic or a childish treehouse. But what remains constant is that beyond a utilitarian purpose a roof serves, our living spaces come very close in defining what our personas are as much as shaping what they can be. And not just when we’re scolded for dirtying our room.
Our post-lockdown travel list would surely benefit from visiting such artistic spaces, and if these caught your eye, make sure to check out other famous places that have featured in paintings here!