Bryant Park, Classics Illustrated, curtain walls, Gilles, Heracles, Impressionism, Jean-Antoine Watteau, Jefferson Market Courthouse, John Canaday, Lady Bird Johnson, Louis XIV, Lyndon Johnson, New York 1961 zoning resolution, New York Public Library, Old Corner Book Store, Omphale, Penn Station, Pierre Crozat, Robert Stoller, Roger Starr, Savoy-Plaza Hotel, Theseus and the Minotaur, U.S Conference of Mayors, William Hogarth
All Watteau’s surviving paintings were done during the last twelve years of his life, which means the six years before the death of Louis XIV and the six after. The chronological sequence of these paintings cannot be worked out with much certainty, but Watteau’s mature style, the apotheosis of the century’s ideal, was born during the middle years of the twelve from the conjunction of these circumstances: the death of the old king and the consequent release of the new century; Watteau’s adoption as a protégé by the immensely rich Pierre Crozat, which placed him in a position to observe the new society intimately; and the appearance of the first strong symptoms of tuberculosis, which intensified the poignantly withdrawn nature of his spirit (and which eventually killed him at the age of thirty-six).
Surely we may assume that the dreamlike quality of Watteau’s art – its quiet, half-melancholy languor, the impression it gives of having been created by a nonparticipant from an observation point just outside the borders of life – is connected with his frailty. He seems to understand what the passions of men and women are, yet he must reduce the tempests of physical love to a sweet, regretful tenderness…
It is odd to discover from comments made by his contemporaries that this most poetic artist of the eighteenth century was thought of as a realist…In one context of his time, Watteau was not only a realist but innovational in his realism. He anticipated the impressionists’ use of the visual world as one vast snapshot, whose bits and pieces could be painted (with no matter how much calculation) to reveal the essential character of a scene, a person, or an object, through its casual surface.
His physical frailty aside, Watteau was always temperamentally an outsider. He had many acquaintances, but they were persons who had to seek him out. He had no intimate friends, and he never married; if he had any serious love affair, there is no record of it in the accounts of people who knew him and would have had no hesitation in mentioning an attachment that could hardly have escaped their attention. Solitary by nature, during his successful years Watteau moved in a company that included some of the most conspicuous men in France, men who were powerful, ambitious, and close to the court – hardheaded and sometimes unscrupulous. In a fashionable world of exquisite niceties and sexual intrigue his paintings set fashions in dress if not in comportment. He certainly was aware of the ferocity and cynicism that coexisted with the ideal of polished sensitivities and delicate refinements, and he knew also the world of the streets, the fairs, and the hand-to mouth existence that during his earliest youth he shared with other starveling artists.
With this top-to-bottom material at hand, an artist of different temperament could have been a French Hogarth, but the contrast between Hogarth and Watteau is so extreme as to be almost pointless. Hogarth’s power was his ability as a social commentator to expose the worms beneath the veneer. Watteau’s greatness was that he legitimized the surface by treating it not as an ideal that had anything to do with real society but as a poeticized state of being.
In ‘Must Landmarks Go?’, Roger Starr, writes about the growing tension between development and preservation in mid-1960s America. (He is not always impressed by the arguments for preservation, finding New York’s Jefferson Market Courthouse ‘hideous’.) The piece was based on material from his 1966 book The Living End:
Historic preservation is news. It became front-page news across the country recently, when the President received a report on the subject prepared by the special sub-committee on preservation established by the U.S Conference of Mayors. The President was probably not in the least astonished to see that the preface to the report had been contributed by his wife…
Because the needs and uses of profit-making institutions change rapidly, it is difficult for their buildings to be maintained as part of the permanent urban landscape. Pennsylvania Station in New York City is a case in point. Whether or not one admired its style, it was one of the city’s most impressive structures. But what does one do with an impressive railroad station which has ceased to be of use as a railroad station? In a dying city one boards it up and watches it become ruins; ultimately shepherds sit on its eroded columns and goats graze between the tracks. In a living city one first prostitutes it by making it into a more efficient machine for selling commuter and race-track tickets, and then into an architectural billboard by hanging signs, kiosks, and booths beneath its Roman vaults. Finally the day is reached when someone decides it is worth more as land than as structure and down it comes, to be replaced by an office building or a sports arena or both. I never heard one of the many objectors to the demolition of Penn Station suggest any profitable use for it…
I am not privy to the operating figures of the Savoy Plaza Hotel in recent years. Those who argue that the owners of such a property should be willing to accept less than the maximum theoretical profits from its land fail to understand the results of the current practice of fractionalizing the interests in such a parcel of land and property. If the same corporation owns both land and buildings, the argument that the owner should be should be content with less than the maximum profit makes sense. Frequently, however, the owners of the building have sold the land, perhaps to raise money for another building venture. The insurance company, bank, or investment trust that has purchased the land rents it to the owners of the building on it. The owners of the structure are faced, not merely with a theoretical loss of what they might make if something else were built on the land, but on an actual cash loss after paying the annual ground rent. Once the land value has risen to the point where such a sale is possible, no privately owned landmark is ever completely safe.
A precise example of zoning’s ability to aid preservation can be found right down the street from my office. New York’s recent new zoning resolution imposed a limit on the total floor area of any building that might be constructed in the city. This limit, as applied by law to the street intersection near my office, restrained the reconstruction of the easterly corner to a maximum floor area one-third smaller than had previously been permitted. The new limit made demolition and reconstruction economically unattractive, and this encouraged the owners of one of my favorite buildings to find a new use for it as it stands, rather than to demolish and replace it as had been done by owners of the buildings on the opposite corners before the new law was passed.
Looking across the small park behind the New York Public Library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, one can enjoy the rare pleasure that this combination of new and old provides…this, rather than attachment to the past, is what has stimulated the wide popular interest in historic preservation – the fear that the new buildings we will get from the modern economic system will be worse than those we are losing…Under the twin pressures of high development costs and growing population, the heterogeneous urban landscape of the past is being chopped down; in its place grow large, simple-minded cubes of glass and metal, aesthetically inspired by cereal boxes, and, according to the critics, foreshadowing the time when each city will resemble a vast temporary army camp, built in a morning, and keeping within its boundaries only those who have been unable to get leave to go elsewhere.
In ‘Reflections on the Curtain Wall’, photographer Robert Stoller shows the old New York reflected in the new:
‘Classical Comics’ is a look at the Greek edition of ‘Classics Illustrated’ comics, and its take on Greek myths: