Sunday, February 20, 2011

Art review: 'Extraordinary' apt word for Flagler's Urban retrospective

The Ziegfeld Theatre‭ (‬1926-27‭)‬,‭ ‬designed by Joseph Urban.
‭ ‬Demolished in‭ ‬1966.

By Gretel Sarmiento

Certain media,‭ ‬subjects and sizes benefit an artist more than others.‭ ‬And something in the creation process usually gets lost,‭ ‬while going from one to another.‭ ‬Some highlight skill while others harm it.‭ ‬Some encourage innovation while others enforce limits.‭

It is hard to be consistently extraordinary.‭ ‬But the Flagler Museum’s current show focuses on a man who was.

Named‭ ‬appropriately‭ ‬The‭ ‬Extraordinary Joseph Urban,‭ ‬running through April‭ ‬17,‭ ‬the show‭ ‬gently introduces us to the world created by an architect,‭ ‬illustrator,‭ ‬set designer and artist who went on to design sets‭ ‬for the opera stages of Boston and New York and for the‭ ‬Ziegfeld Follies,‭ ‬as well as buildings throughout the world.

Joseph Urban‭ (‬1872-1933‭)‬.

The exhibit is housed in three gallery rooms and consists of watercolor design drawings,‭ ‬illustrations,‭ ‬sculptures,‭ ‬set models and some furniture pieces designed for hotels and restaurants.‭ ‬We find the occasional photographs of the artist and the only surviving rendering of the demolished Oasis Club,‭ ‬in Palm Beach‭ (‬here in the second room‭)‬.‭ ‬It is a‭ ‬1926‭ ‬piece done in watercolor over pencil on board.‭ ‬There are also the only surviving vintage copies of Urban's elevations of the Mar-a-Lago estate.‭

All in all,‭ ‬the show is a tiny drop of a brilliant career that officially began at age‭ ‬19‭ ‬with a commission to design a new wing for the Abdin Palace in Cairo.‭ ‬Consider that by the time he died,‭ ‬in‭ ‬1933,‭ ‬Urban had designed more than‭ ‬500‭ ‬stage sets for more than‭ ‬168‭ ‬productions.‭

Urban‭ (‬1872-1933‭)‬ could not have been born in a better place at a better time.‭ ‬The Vienna of those years saw an artistic explosion that included,‭ ‬but was not limited,‭ ‬to artists,‭ ‬composers,‭ ‬poets and philosophers.‭ ‬Inner exploration,‭ ‬the search for the true self and the true mind were no strange practices either.‭ ‬It has been suggested that Urban was influenced by some radical theories that were starting to circulate then,‭ ‬courtesy of Dr.‭ ‬Sigmund Freud.

He trained as an architect and admired personalities such as Gustav Klimt and architect Adolf Loos. In fact,‭ ‬hints of Klimt are found in numerous small pieces here but are most undeniable in the figural wooden sculpture from‭ ‬1904‭ ‬standing in the second room.‭ ‬It is not just the touch of gold here and there on this piece that makes us think of the painter,‭ ‬but the shape of the hair and the posture of the half-naked woman.‭ ‬This reminds us of Klimt’s Salomes or Judiths.

The connection is there again,‭ ‬on the hairpiece of the female dressed in black in Urban’s‭ ‬1909‭ ‬drawing titled:‭ ‬Costume Designs for Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin at Stuttgart’s Hofoper.‭ ‬ Take a close look at the golden,‭ ‬circular patterns.‭ ‬Look familiar‭?

The Nightingale‭ (‬1911‭)‬,‭ ‬from the Andersen Kalender,‭ ‬by Joseph Urban.

Adorable illustrations‭ ‬that Urban created for the Grimm brothers‭’ ‬fairy tale books and calendars as well as for Hans Christian Andersen books,‭ ‬figure in the first room.‭ ‬They are soft and no doubt intended for a young audience,‭ ‬but in them no detail is forgotten and no expression is faked.‭

In his drawing titled‭ ‬Snow White,‭ ‬the loving prince dressed more as a knight,‭ ‬places his right hand on the glass capsule containing his beloved dead princess.‭ ‬Rather than muscular,‭ ‬dressed in golden armor,‭ ‬he is slim,‭ ‬consumed by grief or love.‭ ‬You can see the resignation taking over him while he stares at her.‭ ‬The gloomy scene is framed by a leaf motif that adds to the sense of death that is already present in the image.

Even if the main subject is a thing of legends‭ (‬a mermaid‭) ‬as in‭ ‬The Little Mermaid,‭ ‬why should Urban surrender the towering thick structure or the wooden medieval bridge to a fantastic world,‭ ‬too‭? ‬No.‭ ‬He paints them old,‭ ‬humid,‭ ‬showing the effects of a real world:‭ ‬cracks and erosion.‭ ‬Meanwhile,‭ ‬the mermaid is a fragile little being with flowers over her long blonde hair looking toward the distance and away from us.‭ ‬She could not be more magical.‭ ‬Realistic spaces can house imaginary things.‭

Elevation of The New School
for Social Research
Facade (1929‭)‬,‭

‬by Joseph Urban.

Coming from the first room of fairy tales,‭ ‬the second room appears,‭ ‬at first,‭ ‬too serious.‭
In a watercolor drawing from‭ ‬1929‭ ‬titled‭ ‬Elevation of the New School for Social Research Façade,‭ ‬everything is gray and calculated.‭ ‬No decorations or color here.‭ ‬Just the right number of windows and the right number of doors gives it a sleek/modern look.‭ ‬Nothing about it surprises.‭ ‬Not even the fonts chosen for‭ ‬The New School.

But as your eyes travel to the bottom of the building,‭ ‬there you see what Urban imagined would greet visitors and students at the entrance:‭ ‬books inside glass cases.‭ ‬Some of them are shown opened while others show off their colorful covers.‭ ‬A lamp,‭ ‬a curtain,‭ ‬chairs or a fruit basket are elements he uses even when he does not have to.‭ ‬Throughout the evolution of his buildings,‭ ‬he is keeping everything in mind.‭ ‬Buildings,‭ ‬after all,‭ ‬also have an audience,‭ ‬their own language and can evoke feelings,‭ ‬reactions.‭ ‬They are not created simply to store people or stuff.‭

In‭ ‬1912,‭ ‬Urban moved to the United States to become the art director of the Boston Opera.‭ ‬Two years later we find him in New York,‭ ‬where his refreshing use of color and line quickly made him‭ ‬many stage directors‭’ ‬dream in the flesh.‭ ‬He was the perfect combination:‭ ‬a wild dreamer,‭ ‬studied and disciplined.‭

The third gallery room focuses on this period of his career and includes about‭ ‬34‭ ‬works,‭ ‬excluding set models and a fragment of the‭ ‬1923‭ ‬film‭ ‬Little Old New York,‭ ‬whose sets carry the Urban touch.‭ ‬At the time,‭ ‬it was‭ ‬the highest-grossing film,‭ ‬selling more than‭ ‬200,000‭ ‬tickets‭ (‬to complement the exhibit,‭ ‬the museum has organized a special screening of it,‭ ‬at‭ ‬7‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬on March‭ ‬3‭ ‬in The Grand Ballroom‭)‬.

Klingsor’s Garden‭ (‬1920‭)‬,‭ ‬design for Metropolitan Opera’s
production of Parsifal,‭ ‬by Joseph Urban.

One design drawing in particular is of ‬Klingsor’s Garden and was done in‭ ‬1920‭ ‬for the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Wagner’s Parsifal.‭ ‬An explosion of flowers of colors takes over the stone structures,‭ ‬advancing over and between them,‭ ‬spreading like a good disease.‭ ‬To the right,‭ ‬a plant of lavender tones drops down like a delicate rain.

A less dramatic piece is‭ ‬Design Drawing of the Black Elephant Scene‭ (‬done for the Cohan Theatre’s production of‭ ‬Pom-Pom the Pickpocket‭)‬.‭ ‬The scene is set by arches and two elephant heads made of stone that appear facing one another‭; ‬their trunks rest on the ground,‭ ‬near treasure chests.‭ ‬The symmetry is broken down with colorful fabrics,‭ ‬banners and ribbons hanging from balconies and lamps.‭ ‬The steps in the middle,‭ ‬illuminated by what appears to be‭ ‬daylight,‭ ‬seem to be the way out.‭ ‬One can imagine an actor will enter the picture anytime now,‭ ‬running,‭ ‬jumping up and down.

That is pretty much how we leave the show:‭ ‬up and down.‭ ‬That is,‭ ‬we are overwhelmed by his superior skill‭ (‬which we could never match in quality or magnitude‭) ‬and yet we feel enchanted.‭ ‬Once the three gallery rooms are consumed,‭ ‬it is still very hard to distinguish exactly what was Urban’s weakness.‭ ‬What size‭? ‬Medium‭? ‬Subject‭? ‬At what point do we see a slight decrease in quality‭?

Another distinction that this show makes impossible to make is the moment in which the artist stops and enters the architect.‭ ‬The two never seem to separate.‭ ‬There is‭ ‬a‭ ‬dramatic effect to his architectural drawings,‭ ‬which from time to time contain little playful details that perhaps would not have been considered by a more serious,‭ ‬less dreamy,‭ ‬architect.‭

At the same time,‭ ‬Urban’s stage designs,‭ ‬which are based on fictional places and fictional characters,‭ ‬have a touch of reality.‭ ‬As dreamy and fictional as they appear,‭ ‬there is also the suggested possibility that they exist.‭

This is an intimidating show,‭ ‬the kind that leaves one speechless because the best thing one could say would still do a lame job of describing the works.‭ ‬As you walk the show,‭ ‬keep in mind that before you is not just an artist who took on every project that came his way but one who delivered,‭ ‬extraordinarily,‭ ‬again and again and again.‭

THE EXTRAORDINARY JOSEPH URBAN runs through April‭ ‬17‭ ‬at the Flagler Museum on Palm Beach.‭ ‬Admission is free with a ticket to the museum.‭ ‬Adults:‭ ‬$18‭; ‬$10‭ ‬for youth ages‭ ‬13-18‭; ‬$3‭ ‬for children ages‭ ‬6-12‭; ‬and children under‭ ‬6‭ ‬admitted free.‭ ‬For more information,‭ ‬call‭ ‬561-655-2833‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬

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