Mihaela Elena Man: At a Crossroads – Kersting’s depiction of the Almudena Cathedral

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One photograph that Anthony Kersting took during one of his journeys through Madrid reveals a site whose open roof, skeletal towers and central cavity would easily classify it as a plain depiction of an early twentieth century abandoned architectural project.

Front and back images of a Kersting print. The back side is annotated by Anthony Kersting.

A.F. Kersting. KER_PNT_H009971 and KER_PNT_H009971b, 27 April 1956. On the back Kersting has written: “The Madrid facade of the new Cathedral of Nuestra Señora de la Almudena as it now appears. The Cathedral was started in 1895, but only the Crypt was completed. Recently, however, the framework for the Twin Towers of the facade has been completed”.

As alluring as images of outmoded objects and sites are, they very often carry the intrinsic ability to make their viewers venture into a purely nostalgic cul-de-sac. American artist Robert Morris unsympathetically asserts “that all the great ruins have been so desecrated by the photograph, so reduced to banal image, and thereby so fraught with sentimentalising historical awe”[1]. I would’ve concluded with a similar statement had I not discovered the note Kersting wrote at the back of the photograph:

“The Madrid facade of the new Cathedral of Nuestra Señora de la Almudena as it now appears. The Cathedral was started in 1895, but only the Crypt was completed. Recently, however, the framework for the Twin Towers of the facade has been completed.”

In his caption, Kersting introduces the subject of the image, the Almudena Cathedral “as it now appears”, which was most certainly the moment when the image was taken in 1956. It also seems that at a later date he added two other details to the description, namely a note to say that 1895 was the year when the construction of the building began, and a more recent moment, when (to his seeming surprise) the twin towers of the façade were completed. This caption, attached to the image, pencils the troubling timeline of the Cathedral’s biography.

Postal de la maqueta del proyecto de Francisco de Cubas para la Catedral de la Almudena (Madrid, España).
(Postcard of the model of Francisco de Cubas’s project for the Almudena Cathedral)
By Unknown author – Memoria de Madrid, banco de imágenes históricas del Ayuntamiento de Madrid, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77758865

Due to insufficient funding, the building of the Cathedral was put on hold shortly after the laying of its foundations in 1895. The resumption of the project was further complicated by the death of Francisco de Cubas, the architect who drafted the initial plans. As such, only the Neo-Romanesque Crypt was finished and opened to the public in 1911. The following eruption of the Spanish civil war led to a more than a two-decade stagnancy.

In the 1940s, aesthetic criteria changed. Finalising the construction in a Gothic style was no longer suitable because of the stark contrast it may create with its urban surroundings. Therefore, the Directorate General for Fine Arts organised a national contest, which selected Fernando Chueca Goitia and Carlos Sidro to complete the Cathedral’s construction in a Baroque fashion.

Not accidentally, the exercise of visualising the Cathedral’s hectic timeline is interrupted by the skeletal towers, the centrepiece of Kersting’s photograph. At first sight, the moment of Kersting’s “now”, the “now” when he clicked the shutter, captures the absent façade of the building, which was not completed until the 1960s. This corresponds to one of the periodic moments in the Cathedral’s life when a cloud of uncertainty was hovering around its construction.

Closing the timeline of the Cathedral’s building is the completion of the Baroque cloisters and façade in the 1960s, and the subsequent embellishing of its interiors in 1993. Within a prevailing Neo-Gothic nave, “statues of contemporary artists, in heterogeneous styles, from historical revivals to pop-art decor”[2] are housed. The palimpsestic nature of the Cathedral’s architecture, coupled with Kersting’s ambiguous photograph, further highlights the tumultuous process of how it eventually came to be a fully functional site. Their association also proves that “the history of images is a history of objects that are temporally impure, complex, overdetermined”.[3] 

A photographic document like Anthony Kersting’s is deceiving. It demands us to flip the “inert” or “escapist” side of the picture and read its description to realise that the captured moment is the indivisible and decisive element of the monumental timeline which concludes with the Cathedral’s eventual unveiling. In “Iteration”, Robin Schuldenfrei mentions the “barely visible”, yet visceral nature of “iterative gaps”. She gives the example of a ship, whose sailing from one destination to another is incredibly physical, in its speed through water and in the mechanics of towing, yet the “iterative gap” lingers in the uncertainty as to whether it will reach its destination.[4] Natural or technical threats constitute some of the many dependencies that such a travel embodies. These conditions are, however, predominantly neglected once the ship reaches the shore. In the case of the Cathedral, a gap is closed as the completed a place of worship in unveiled. While capturing such an iterative gap, Kersting encourages the unhealed edges of the edifice’s history to surface. Rather than a standstill, we have reached a crossroads.

Side view of the cathedral under a cloudy sky.

Main facade of Almudena Cathedral.
By Little Savage – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27077669

 

[1] R. Morris, 1970. The Present Tense of Space, in Continuous Project Altered Daily.

[2] Almudena Cathedral – Madrid Tourist Attractions. (n.d.). http://www.madridtourist.info/almudena_cathedral.html

[3] G. Didi-Huberman, 2000. Before the Image, Before Time: The Sovereignty of Anachronism, in Compelling Visuality: The Work of Art in and out of History.

[4] R. Schuldenfrei, 2020. Iteration: Episodes in the Mediation of Art and Architecture.


Mihaela Elena Man

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Isabella Lill: Catching the Photographer

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Read by Anna Thompson

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Barthes writes “A photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see”, his point being that we don’t pay attention to the physicality of photographs. Because the photograph documents real life, when we look at a photograph we look past the paper or the screen on which we see it. We forget about the medium as we look at its subject matter because the medium seems so unremarkable. The Courtauld Institute’s Conway Library is a reminder of photography’s physicality. In the Conway there are thousands of boxes containing over a million photographs, each individually mounted onto a piece of brown cardboard. Most of the photographs in the archive are architectural, as the collection contains surveys of important buildings all over Europe and the Middle East taken throughout the 20th century, as well as a few boxes venturing further afield.

When leafing through this seemingly infinite collection, one photograph in particular catches the eye.

CON_B03740_F001_015. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

The photographs in the collection, because they are of stationary structures, seem so objective that you forget there was a photographer. It is as if the images of temple columns and ecclesiastical archways sprung into existence fully formed, as they bear no trace of the personal. The sheer number of photographs doesn’t help, as one Italian chiesa merges with the next.

The contents of the folder of the Colegiata de San Pedro in Soria, Spain, are no different: they methodically document its central cloister, right down to the ornamental details of the Corinthian columns. However, hidden in the bottom right-hand corner of the fifteenth photograph in the folder is a photographer, staring back at us. A refreshing reminder of humanity in a folder full of stone columns and arches.

As with many of the photographs in the collection, we know nothing about the photographer, apart from what he reveals to us in photo fifteen: he is a middle-aged man wearing a floppy hat and sandals. Perhaps some of the other unattributed photos in the folder are also taken by him, but we don’t know for certain. This photo is unique in the folder, and perhaps in the collection, with its purposeful inclusion of the camera. His presence is too obvious and calculated for this to be an accident, showing he is purposefully trying to document the process of taking the photograph as he is taking it. Photographs, no matter how objective they seem, are someone’s construct of reality. The photographer has chosen this subject at this angle, in these boundaries, in this lighting, and with this focus. The photographer sections off a part of reality that is worthy of documentation. In this photo we catch the photographer, or rather the photographer catches himself, in the middle of this decision process.

CON_B03075_F003_010. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

CON_B03075_F003_005. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

CON_B03056_F002_030. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Other items in the collection call attention to the constructed nature of the photograph, but none as strikingly as the photographer’s reflection. The first two images shown above catch a different photograph’s shadow, but probably only as the result of unfortunate lighting or an inexperienced photographer.

The third photo contains a motion blur of someone walking across a church, again, probably due to unlucky timing. And yet, although none of these examples are as visually striking, they all reaffirm the same feeling that the photographer’s reflection invokes: a disconcerting reminder that the image’s in these photographs aren’t completely real. The structures that the photographers try to document don’t exist in perfectly still isolation, although most of the photos present them that way. For us to see them in a photograph requires human interaction and human subjectivity.

From the Witt Library: Las Meninas, Diego Velázquez. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

From the Witt Library: Arnolfini Wedding, Jan van Eyck. The Courtauld Institute of Art. CC BY NC.

Alongside the Conway Library is the Courtauld’s Witt Library, an archive of photos of the work of significant artists throughout time. The paintings above, namely Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas and Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wedding, bear a resemblance to our original photograph. Velazquez’s painting clearly includes the painter mid-process. Van Eyck’s is subtler, as it includes the painter in a reflection in a small mirror right at the back of the painting, very reminiscent of our mystery photographer. However, although these paintings arguably show more skill that the photograph, the photograph is still more uncanny, and still more interesting, at least to me.

We know a painting isn’t real when we look at it, but we can easily forget that photographs aren’t. Susan Sontag says, “the painter constructs, the photographer discloses”, but our surreptitious photograph reveals that the photographer both constructs and discloses.

 


Isabella Lill
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant