Art Doc of the Week | Antonio Gaudi
Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1984 documentary Antonio Gaudí, about the visionary Catalan architect/visual artist, isn’t just a chance to watch a master pay tribute to a master, but a chance to watch a master totally fanboy out. The film is largely absent dialogue or commentary; Teshigahara lets his camera do all the talking as it pans up and down, across and inside Gaudí’s iconoclastic buildings and parks designs. (He was also a sculptor and mosaic painter, elements interwoven in his architecture but that are not covered separately in the film.) A somewhat/sometimes distracting score accompanies the images, and only twice in the documentary do experts chime in, quickly and succinctly, to contextualize and historicize the work. For the most part, Teshigahara wisely lets the work speak for itself and its creator. The resulting film constantly dazzles you with the genius of its subject, tapping a meditative tone early on and sustaining it throughout.
Antonio Gaudí’s work is full of paradoxes. It’s whimsical and solemn, childlike and staggeringly complex, sophisticated. His devout religious faith comes through again and again, not only in the churches he conceived and executed, but in the through-the-looking-glass apartment buildings that are still standing, inspiring awe in visitors. There’s a gravitas and solemnity to his work that inspires a sense of reverence as we are shown his masterworks: Park Guell, the Sagrada Familia, Casa Mila (La Pedrera), Colonia Guell, and more. His synthesis of influences from nature as well as assorted other artists and disciplines makes the argument that divine inspiration and the natural world around us are one and the same, and the way nature is both deified and defied results in a Grimm’s fairytale aesthetic that is frequently and gloriously near-cartoonish (which is not a diss).
Gaudí’s early adulthood was spent as something of a dandy before he feverishly embraced his faith and sought to atone for the frivolity of his youth. But something (a lot) of the dandy’s flair for the dramatic and reflexive, bent toward beauty, courses through all his work. Salvador Dali described his work as having “a terrifying and edible beauty,” an observation Teshigahara co-signs not only through the way he films his subject (lots of lingering wide shots to let the viewer take in the scope, scale and majesty of Gaudí’s work) but in the booklet of interviews and essays that accompanies the Criterion DVD release of the film. In his own essay in that collection, titled “My First trip to the West,” Teshigahara pays tribute to the unique natural qualities of the Catalan landscape that powerfully shaped not only Gaudí’s eye and practice, but that of many other seminal Spanish artists:
“It seemed to me that that wild, rough-hewn landscape in the glare of the sun was what lay behind Picasso’s powerful style or Luis Buñuel’s bare-bones exposures of human nature.”
Teshigahara does his own artful manipulation and capture of the landscape in his film. When it opens, his camera slowly makes its way through crowded plazas, down sidewalks, snaking over narrow streets and passageways, just taking in ordinary people living daily life. We’re slowly immersed in the work of Gaudí as the camera zooms in, takes us inside the structures and lets us absorb the detail and eccentricity. These structures, though, teem with bodies for which they are simply the daily backdrop. The measured rhythm of the film and careful framing of those works underscores both their magnificence and that fact.
Then, midway through the film, we’re again taken on a stroll of the quotidian, which includes a marketplace and farmer’s market. The camera goes in for a close-up on bizarrely posed fish (tails pulled around their bodies and put in their mouths) and mountains of precariously stacked, live and moving lobsters. But we see them differently, as more than just “what they are.” And the real effect and power of Gaudí’s work is made clear. He forces your perspective to change, alters the way you process the everyday sights you take in. You see the wonder and possibility of the everyday, but also the wonder and possibility beneath it.