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Friday, April 19, 2024 | Back issues
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Old Vanguard

I had never heard of Gaudi until we landed in Barcelona. There I found that architect Antoni Gaudi is integral to Barcelona's identity, and just as celebrated in Spain as another native son, Pablo Picasso.

I understood why when I went to one of the houses Gaudi designed, Casa Battlo. The use of light combined with the imitation of natural structures was a revelation.

Even the exhaust flues on the roof were covered in bright, broken tiles and marvelous to see. Underneath them, were arches with an extraordinary strength to weight ratio, based on the structure of a rib cage.

It was the use of forms in architecture based on forms in nature that was especially powerful on a personal level. I had grown up with a mother who had an intuitive and immediate grasp of the human personality and a father who understood a different landscape.

He understood the power of the mind and, without espousing any religion, had a deep sense of spirituality. Both parents were in a sense escapees from the church.

My mom, who was a Parisian, told my sister that the only reason she went to communion was to get the white dress. She rejected the Catholic church very early on and never showed any doubt about that decision, even in the decline of her life.

My father was the son of a Christian minister and attended Bible study regularly growing up. Although we never talked about why he walked away from the church, it had to do with two things, I am pretty sure. He, like his father, thought church bureaucracies had taken over faith, and he saw that faith was often abused.

I also suspect that serving as a soldier in War War II made him doubt the existence of a benevolent spirit arching over humankind.

But he had always revered nature, the beauty and wondrous changing within the natural landscape, from place to place, from time to time. Towards the end of the life, I was sure that he saw some version of the great spirit as he sat in a folding chair and looked over the hill behind his farmhouse outside Ramona, focusing quietly on the open sky above the hill, at the end of the day.

And I was sure he would pray, not in the traditional sense, but in a collection of feeling, a concentration, a reaching out into the heavens and time.

So, now, when I go back to the farm to tend to the vines, I do the same. I take a long moment before I leave and calm down, willing my mind into a state of calm and a deeper openness to the resonance of the day, of the past and of all that is around.

My mother, in one of my last memories of her, was slow to recognize me as I walked back from a swim in the ocean. She was sitting on the front stoop of my little house in Carlsbad. But she still had the capacity to marvel at the beauty of the laurel bushes blossoming in the front yard, gesturing towards them with a short sweep of her small, weathered hand.

In Spain, I thought I found what I thought was the philosophical source of that veneration of the natural order.

It started with the Picasso museum in Malaga which was personal to the artist. He was born in Malaga and wanted to have his work shown there. So the museum is not that big but includes works in a great variety of materials and is instructive about what moved his art.

Through the images and the quotes from Picasso included in the audio guide, I understood his reverence of the human form, of imagery, and of all the mediums of expression. In one of his quoted writings, he marvels at a Paris exhibit of African masks and sculpture, saying it represented the artists' view on their world, their fears, their beliefs, and their attempts to influence the future, and it was a powerful form of expression.

So this notion of immersion in the environment of man with art as the medium through which we translate it -- that hit me as something very similar to my father's efforts to express the human condition through his photography.

And then we went to Barcelona, where Gaudi amplified that theme with his monumental synthesis of human construction based on natural form.

Putting those two Spanish artists - geniuses - together suggested to me a whole edifice of philosophy where the human condition is seen through the lens of nature.

And I concluded that growing up my sisters and I had seen the effects of that philosophy, and that the respect for and belief in the beauty and eternal presence of the natural world around us was partly a knock-on effect from the artistic vanguard in post-war Europe, where they met..

That realization came to its apogee in the church in Barcelona that Gaudi designed to reflect, to give the impression of, a forest grove, with the columns as trunks, the overhead supports as branches, the stained glass as light filtered into a patch of forest at different times of day..

It was the crescendo of art, religion and nature combining with personal past, and it had an overwhelming emotional effect.

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