Salamanca Spain’s Art Deco/Nouveau Museum

I’ve become a regular contributor to the regional magazine, WestSound Home and Garden. For me, travel is anything that takes me to new places or forces me to see the familiar with fresh eyes, no matter how small my travel distance. The magazine’s editor recently assigned me an article on art deco buildings in a nearby community. Often kismet plays a role in my travel experiences as it did with this assignment. It just so happened that I spent a day at the Museo Art Nouveau y Art Deco in Salamanca Spain when I was there this spring immersing myself in art, fashion, jewelry, dolls, fans, furniture and architecture of those two influential styles.

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The museum is located in the Casa Lis, a building originally designed as a mansion for Don Miguel Lis, a wealthy Salamanca merchant fond of Art Nouveau. Restored in 1992, the building’s exterior stained glass windows are worthy of a few hours of inspired awe.

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You can begin your tour in the museum’s artfully decorated tearoom next to a stained glass window contemplating the guide pamphlet while lingering over a cappuccino.

I began with the doll collection first, not so much because I’m a fan of dolls, but because I never realized that Art Deco and Art Nouveau had any influence on children’s toys. There is an entire section of display cases filled with elaborately dressed bisque headed French dolls used to showcase miniature Parisian fashions to the aristocracy and German dolls called character babies because of their realistic facial expressions.

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Collections range from decorative cloisonne embedded with precious stones such as this egg with rubies to elaborately painted bronzes like the Nativity scene figure below:

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While many European museums can be pricey, the Museo Art Nouveau y Art Deco is free on Thursday mornings and at other times costs 4 Euros for adults and 2 Euros for students. It’s a beautiful gem inside and out – worthy of an entire day of contemplating two influential styles that emerged from the Industrial Revolution and World War II.

A Message From Van Gogh

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View of the Sea at Scheveningen

During my recent week in Amsterdam I wandered through five museums; four in Amsterdam and one in de Hague. I had a vague understanding of the Dutch painters, but seeing their work up close in Dutch museums is completely breathtaking.

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Dutch master and Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Willem van Gogh has an entire Amsterdam museum built in 1973 devoted to his works and that of his contemporaries conveniently located a 10 minute walk from my houseboat accommodation.

In 2002 thieves scaled the Van Gogh Museum wall, smashed a window, evaded the security system and stole two works of art including View of the Sea at Scheveningen, one of only two Dutch seascapes painted by Van Gogh. While the thieves were caught in 2004, the paintings were never recovered until the news broke of their recovery while I was in Amsterdam. According to Smithsonian.com the theft was linked to the Camorra crime syndicate in Naples. This wasn’t the first time a Van Gogh museum theft occurred. In 1991 twenty paintings were stolen from the museum and recovered 35 minutes later in an abandoned car.

I attempted to sketch the mural side of the Van Gogh Museum when I was there and gave up feeling not at all up to the task. Returning home a quote from Van Gogh popped up on my Facebook feed; a message I wished he would have delivered in that moment of intimidation that discouraged me from pressing on with my drawing.

“If you hear a voice within you saying, “You are not a painter”, then by all means paint….and that voice will be silenced.”

 

Valencia, Spain: The Artists of the Fallas Festival

Squeezed in among the expectant crowd on the Plaza del Ayuntamiento in Valencia, Spain, I knew I was about to watch an explosion. The 2pm Mascleta is a daily tradition of the Fallas Festival. I did not anticipate the teeth tingling, throat vibrating, ground shaking impact of over 200 pounds of gunpowder going off in what the tourist brochures describe as a “perfectly synchronized rhythmic symphony of noise finishing with a 20 second grand finale.” The March festival of Fallas is a noisy, colorful nineteen day event that begins on March 1st and ends late on the night of March 19th, St Joseph’s Feast Day, which is where the celebration has its more humble beginnings. Its an opportunity for local artists and craftspeople of to showcase their talents and that includes the pyrotechnicians responsible for Mascleta and the fireworks shows that are part of the festivities. Also the cooks who make the bunuelos, the pumpkin fritters that are a Fallas specialty; the brass band musicians and dancers and the seamstresses who create the elaborate traditional costumes seen on the streets.

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But the original artistic stars of Fallas are the designers, carpenters, painters, moldmakers and technicians who create and assemble life-size and larger  figurines called ninots onto neighborhood platforms in scenes that depict all manner of political and satirical statements. A scene of ninots is called a fallas which is how the festival got its name and the fallas aren’t on full display until the final three days of the festival when their artistic teams have a designated window of time to fully assemble their creations. There are only a few days for the public to wander Valencia to view all 500-700 ninots before the final act of Fallas, the burning of all the ninots in a fire known as Crema which occurs on March 19th.

It was in the 18th century that early versions of ninots became part of the celebration of the Feast Day of St Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters and craftsmen in the Catholic religion. Craftsmen would traditionally sweep out their shops of wood scraps accumulated over the winter on St Joseph’s Day, a symbolic end to the winter and welcoming of spring. Their large T-shaped candleholders called parots would get propped in front of buildings (or suspended as puppets between buildings) dressed as figures that represented some injustice that had occurred during the previous year.

Those simple early ninots have evolved into magnificent wax and polystrene figurines that require such precise skills that the artists who create them now have their own guild, The Guild of Falleros Artists; at least two schools who specialize in training them; two museums dedicated to their work and a part of Valencia known as Cuidad del Artisto Fallera  (the City of Falleros Artists) where many of them have full-time workshops.

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To find out more about the art of creating a fallas, begin at the Museo del Artista Fallero located in City of Falleros Artists in the quiet Benicalap district northwest of Vallencia’s historic quarter. The museum is open year round from 10AM-2PM and 4pm-7PM Monday-Friday and Saturdays from 10AM – 2PM. There is a small auditorium in the back of the main floor and if you ask the museum staff they are happy to show you the video (available in multiple languages) that traces the evolution of the process of building ninots from its humble beginnings in the 18th century to the complex craft it is today.

Then wander the two story museum to see the process for yourself. There are examples of early water color and pencil sketches (the first step in the process as the ninots must be approved by the neighborhood committees who ultimately pay for their creation); scale models of the fallas, examples of the wooden skeletons on which the larger ninots are constructed and the final product including the previous year’s favorite ninot voted on by the public. The talents of the Falleros Artists are in high demand and  many of them have been internationally commissioned to design movie and theatre sets, displays for industry and trade shows and other museums which are also on display in the museum.

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Turn left when exiting the front door of the museum and wander among the industrial buildings housing the workshops of many of the artists. I was there the first week in March and many of the workshop doors were open with artists putting the final touches on their Fallas creations. I asked permission from the working artists to go inside their workshops and take photos and though my Spanish didn’t fully appreciate the tours they gave me, their evident pride in their work and my appreciation for it crossed language barriers.

One of the largest workshops belonged to Manolo Garcia whose team had been selected to create the 2016 fallas monument representing the City of Valencia displayed in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento; the one subjected to the blasts of the daily Mascleta of gunpowder explosion and traditionally he last fallas to get burned in the fire on March 19th.

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The scale model and the massive pieces of the scene in the workshop did not do justice to the full scale of the monument as it was being constructed.
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Because of its sheer size, much of the actual carpentry happened in the plaza where the public could watch its daily progress. The monument, called Fallas of the World, consisted of a tall wooden human figure surrounded by world “monuments” that had been part of previous years’ fallas structures – the EIffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Concorde jet, the statues of David and Moses.

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Equally large and impressive fallas monuments could be found throughout the city in the neighborhoods who had commissioned them. The most impressive were lit up at night which is one of the best times to appreciate their artistic creativity. Festum Bacchas, a large scale monument showing the life cycle of the area’s wine industry cost 90,000 Euros to build and display according to a member of the neighborhood committee. The committees work all year raising money in a variety of events to pay for their fallas monuments to show their neighborhood pride in Fallas and in hopes of producing a winning monument from the judges who only have two days to see and judge the completed structures.

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Each committee selects one of the ninots from their fallas to display in the Exposition of the Ninots, held this year in the Prince Felipe Museum in the City of Arts and Sciences. For 38 days (in 2016 from February 5-March 15) members of the public (including tourists) can wander through the display of ninots and cast a vote for the one that should be saved from the fire. Called the Ninot Indultant, the tradition of saving one figure from the fire first became a tradition in the 1930s in response to public sentiment that something should be saved to commemorate the artistic effort of that year’s fallas artists.
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In 2016 it was a ninot from the Festum Bacchas fallas that the public voted to save; a farmer playng a guitar while a small girl and her dog listen. In addition to the Museo del Artisto Falleros, the city has a second museum open year round dedicated to Fallas called the Museo Falleros where all of the ninots indultants saved from the fire since 1934 are on display. The progression of technology and art over the years is evident in the chronology of ninots. The early ninots were wooden and paper mache figures dressed in real clothing. As the artists began to use wax, clay and cardboard, polyester and then polystrene, the ninots got more complex and the fallas monuments more extravagant.

The art of the Fallas Artist Guild can be appreciated any time of the year by visiting both museums, but to see it in its full glory, it really must be seen during Fallas and in particular, in the three days leading up to March 19th. If you are not a fan of the high decibel noise of the daily Mascleta and the miniature neighborhood mascletas that seem to occur all day and much of the night in the final week, then finding accommodations outside the historic city center is advised. Bus and metro transportation run frequently and you can just wander the city’s streets where you’ll  find a fallas on most street corners. Ask locals for the best fallas to see since you won’t be able to see all of them. And don’t get too attached; they all go up in flames on March 19th save one ninot indultant. By the morning of March 20th, the streets have been cleaned of burnt debris as though nothing was there. But the artists of Fallas Artist Guild are busy planning their creations for the following year.

 

 

 

Paris: A Nose by Any Other Name Is A Perfumer

In Paris one’s olfactory senses are on pleasant overload. Boulangeries emit the scent of buttery croissants and fresh bread. Clothing boutiques smell like violets and inside the Metro train a veritable fusion of floral, woodsy, citrus scented Parisians go about their daily transit.

It was my nose that led me to the newly opened Paris Musee de Parfum when I asked a shopkeeper what perfume she was wearing. I’m not a perfume wearer but 20151019_175342_LLSthe violet scent was so…well, Parisian. She pointed to the Frangonard store across the street and encouraged me to visit its museum. Frangonard is a classic French perfumery house with its factory and expanded museum located in Grasse, France, the center of the French perfume world. Historically perfume was created to mask the body odor of the French nobility who bathed only twice a year. The Frangonard Paris museum showcases both the historic and contemporary art 20151019_175324_LLSand science of creating “la parfum” in a series of displays but its factory tour in Grasse lets you watch the bottles being filled, soaps packaged and the workers going about their jobs. Before any of that occurs, though, comes the creative genius of the Nose (“le Nez”) or more technically, the Perfumer who creates the scent.

Becoming a Nose requires training and/or a pedigreed history of family Noses. In France there are three schools that teach the art. Often students enter the school with a degree in chemistry or botany and spend six more years studying and fine tuning their sense of smell. A single vial of perfume can have between 20 and 250 scents contained in the three notes of a perfume – the top note that can be immediately smelled, the middle note which comes slightly later and is the strongest (the French say the “most voluptuous”) and the base note also called the trailer note.

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There are at any one time, about 50 highly regarded and sought after Noses. They command a salary of $50,000 a month and work only three days a week to keep their olfactory senses highly tuned. Typically they only work 20 years.

It is possible to have a scent created just for you or to create one yourself with the assistance of a Nose at any number of perfumeries in Paris or Grasse.

Mexico: San Cristobal de las Casas……. Do Over # 2

Having ecaped the combination of religious fervor and gathering Rainbow Family festivities in Palenque, I caught the bus to San Cristobal de las Casas for yet another do-over. In my memory, it was a charming mountain town steeped in colonial architecture surrounded by smaller Mayan villages. It was there, 28 years earlier, that I met the subject of one of my college research papers – Gertrude Blom.

On my previous trip, I had stayed at Casa Na Bolom, the home, hotel and research center of Frans and Gertrude Blom, internationally reknowned archeologists, photographers and environmentalists.

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Frans had passed away, but Trudi Blom still lived at Na Bolom and each night at dinner she presided over a long wooden table lined with an array of guests. The Bloms were particularly concerned about the plight of the Lacandon Maya, a Mayan group whose numbers had been impacted by the diseases incurred by contact with the Spanish and white populations. When members of the group came into San Cristobal from their jungle homes, they were always given free room and board at Casa Na Bolom. My most memorable dinner companions one evening 28 years ago had been the leader of the Lacandons’, his wife and three of his children and two nuns from the United States – one a Mother Superior trying to decide if she should leave the convent to marry a man she loved. Also Gertrude Blom.

She had passed away since my stay there and I knew that in 2011, she and Frans had been reburied in a traditional Lacandon ceremony and village. Bolom is Mayan for jaguar and Frans Blom had been one of the first archaeologists to discover and excavate Palenque. Those karmic connections to my Palenque do-over were not enough to get me accommodations at Na Bolom on this trip. It had been booked up for months.  I arrived in town sans reservations at the height of the second biggest Festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe in all of Mexico.