Santiago Calatrava’s showcase ‘Beyond Hellas’ is a curious fable of Greek Classicism

Speaking with the exhibition curators, STIR discovers insights about the wrought iron sculptures and paintings by Santiago Calatrava, on display at the Glyptothek in Munich.

by STIRworldPublished on : Jul 26, 2022

"Calatrava has erased the borders between disciplines of architecture, engineering, and sculpture while creating a whole that brings it all together."

- Cristina Carrillo de Albornoz

"The gap between antiquity and now is not as big as many people think."

- Florian Knauß

Is architecture a passive portal that holds the memories of classical antiquity? Over time, the strains of art and architecture have juggled between 'less is bore' and 'less is more', but glimpses of ancient history have made a constant presence in all the buildings ever built, and all art ever made. In an introspection of such historic physical entities, the most significant influences seem to have come from the Greeks. Considering that ancient Greece is often called the cradle of western civilisations for their infinite knowledge of nature, earth and the human body, this pattern evokes no wonder.

Exploring this realm of Greek influence is Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava who has always been fond of the movement of the human body and the dynamicity of nature. The modernist architect who surprised a whole generation with his creativity requires no introduction, but not many know him as an impeccable sculptor and artist. Though some exhibitions in the past introduced us to the artist in the architect, for the first time, the Glyptothek Museum in Munich is displaying an array of sculptures and paintings by Calatrava which have been inspired by the dynamics of ancient Greece. Put together by art curator Cristina Carrillo de Albornoz and Florian Knauß, director of the Glyptothek, Beyond Hellas: Santiago Calatrava in the Glyptothek features an intriguing dialogue between the permanent collection of sculptures at the Glyptothek and the artistic abstractions of Calatrava. In a recent conversation with our columnist Vladimir Belogolovsky, Calatrava shares, "I visited the Glyptothek museum in Munich for the first time 30 years ago. There, I found the Greek marbles that were displayed at the Late Archaic Temple of Aphaia profoundly inspiring. The warriors that were portrayed had this unexpected sense of modernity within them, somehow presented as beyond the perfection of classicism. I sketched those figures to analyse and learn about them, so I could really absorb their beauty. Those warriors were a motive that continuously inspired my drawings, and at some point, my drawings jumped from paper to sculptures."

At the intersection of classicism and modernism, the exhibition displays 14 wrought iron, large-format works on a base of aged oak under the sculpture series named, The Aegineten and Leporellos, a selection of watercolours studies that depict Calatrava’s interest in the human body and nature. While exploring the concepts further, the exhibition reflects on the intrinsic traces of Greek culture in shaping European art, philosophy, society, and education.

STIR speaks with the curators, Cristina Carrillo de Albornoz and Florian Knauß, on the inception of the exhibition, the influence of ancient Greek in the modern world, and the exceptional sculptural artworks of Santiago Calatrava.

  • Beyond Hellas: Santiago Calatrava in the Glyptothek displays the sculptures and paintings of Santiago Calatrava in the Glyptothek Museum | Beyond Hellas | Santiago Calatrava| STIRworld
    Beyond Hellas: Santiago Calatrava in the Glyptothek displays the sculptures and paintings of Santiago Calatrava in the Glyptothek Museum Image: © Palladium Photodesign – Oliver Schuh & Barbara Burg
  • The exhibition features an intriguing conversation between the sculptures of the museum and Calatrava’s modern abstractions | Beyond Hellas | Santiago Calatrava| STIRworld
    The exhibition features an intriguing conversation between the sculptures of the museum and Calatrava’s modern abstractions Image: © Palladium Photodesign – Oliver Schuh & Barbara Burg
  • The exhibits include steel and wooden leaf sculptures from Calatrava’s organic period | Beyond Hellas | Santiago Calatrava| STIRworld
    The exhibits include steel and wooden leaf sculptures from Calatrava’s organic period Image: © Palladium Photodesign – Oliver Schuh & Barbara Burg
  • A selection from his Cyclades marbles series which were inspired by the archaic sculptures found in the homonymous Greek Islands are part of the exhibition | Beyond Hellas | Santiago Calatrava| STIRworld
    A selection from his Cyclades marbles series which were inspired by the archaic sculptures found in the homonymous Greek Islands are part of the exhibition Image: © Palladium Photodesign – Oliver Schuh & Barbara Burg

STIR: The vocabulary of Calatrava's works is very modern which contrasts with the permanent exhibits at the Glyptothek. What does this exhibition mean for the legacy of the museum?

Florian Knauß: The museum from its beginning, more than 200 years ago, has been planned as a hall of fame of sculpture, not of ancient sculptures, but of sculptures of all times. In the 19th century we exhibited sculptures from the 3rd millennium BC; we had Greek and Roman sculptures, and sculptures of the 19th century as well. This concept has been changed after the World War but we have a long tradition of comparing contemporary art and ancient art. And bringing together Santiago Calatrava’s sculptures and our Aegineten marvels, which are 2,500 years old, not only shows that these ancient masterpieces still inspire people from all over the world including famous artists like Santiago Calatrava, but it also shows how modern these ancient sculptures still are.

Cristina Carrillo de Albornoz: The core of the exhibition is the dialogue between the Aegineten and the museum. It is new in the sense that he has created a new purpose of work and it's very coherent and strong. It gives a new life to the sculptures. The theme is very important to understand where we bring together the ancient and modern in a way that is reversed so that the ancient state statues seem more present and immediate than ever with very little statue refinement. So, these new and modern sculptures by Calatrava give another life to what is existing.

  • The modern variations of the shield becomes a significant element of many sculptures | Beyond Hellas | Santiago Calatrava| STIRworld
    The modern variations of the shield becomes a significant element of many sculptures Image: © Palladium Photodesign – Oliver Schuh & Barbara Burg
  • Calatrava reflects on the circular dynamic compositions of the shields with a modern vocabulary | Beyond Hellas | Santiago Calatrava| STIRworld
    Calatrava reflects on the circular dynamic compositions of the shields with a modern vocabulary Image: © Palladium Photodesign – Oliver Schuh & Barbara Burg

STIR: Are the abstract forms in The Aegineten series an allegory to Calatrava’s modernist philosophies?

Florian: It fits very well with the philosophies of Santiago Calatrava, and his sculptural work shows close similarities to his architecture. So, the core questions remain the same. The gap between antiquity and now is not as big as many people think. The vocabulary has changed and the sculptures which inspired him were the Aegineten sculptures from the Temple of Aphaia that depict war scenes and Greeks fighting Trojans. So what links both closely are the round shields, the body in motion etc.

Cristina: The exhibition explores, in an exceptional manner, his whole career with sculptures inspired by the natural world and Greek islands. We have tried to do a selection that was related to the Greek world as he has always been very close to Greece. Initially, we thought of including some architectural models inspired by Greek identities as well because most people know Calatrava as an architect and not a sculptor or an artist. But the Glyptothek is a temple of culture, so we decided to do only sculpture and drawings. It was a big challenge to decide on the concept of the exhibition but it gradually happened. Calatrava has erased the borders between disciplines of architecture, engineering, and sculpture while creating a whole that brings it all together.

  • The sculpture series are titled, The Aegineten inspired from the warriors of the small Greek island, Aegina | Beyond Hellas | Santiago Calatrava| STIRworld
    The sculpture series are titled, The Aegineten inspired from the warriors of the small Greek island, Aegina Image: © Palladium Photodesign – Oliver Schuh & Barbara Burg
  • Calatrava explores modernity through the contrast in materiality of the artworks | Beyond Hellas | Santiago Calatrava| STIRworld
    Calatrava explores modernity through the contrast in materiality of the artworks Image: © Palladium Photodesign – Oliver Schuh & Barbara Burg
  • The sculptures draw inspiration from dynamics of ancient Greece and warriors of the Temple of Aphaia in Aegina | Beyond Hellas | Santiago Calatrava| STIRworld
    The sculptures draw inspiration from dynamics of ancient Greece and warriors of the Temple of Aphaia in Aegina Image: © Palladium Photodesign – Oliver Schuh & Barbara Burg
  • The large-format sculptures are made from wrought iron and stands on a base of aged oak | Beyond Hellas | Santiago Calatrava| STIRworld
    The large-format sculptures are made from wrought iron and stands on a base of aged oak Image: © Palladium Photodesign – Oliver Schuh & Barbara Burg

STIR: How was the journey of bringing together multiple works that have been developed over the last 30 years under the single title of Beyond Hellas?

Florian: If you start in cooperation with a contemporary artist, you are looking forward to learning from him. I am not an artist, I am an archaeologist. So, my expertise is restricted to the realm of ancient arts and ancient history. What I try to contribute is to explain which connections exist between past and modern works. On the other hand, I was keen to see what comes out when Calatrava tries to transform his ideas into iron.

Cristina: I have been working with Calatrava since 2008 and we have been doing many exhibitions. Working with him is always a challenge, he always surprises. I have visited his studio in Zurich many times and on one of the visits, about 11 years ago, he showed me small models of these modern warriors that he was working on. They were about 10 – 13 cm in size and were fantastic. They already had a huge strength and I suggested that he should develop those into large sculptures. The visit to the museum 30 years ago left a huge impact on him, the corpus of the Temple of Aphaia in the museum was very modern. It wasn’t like the corpus of the Greek temple in the British Museum.

Calatrava is someone who dedicates two to three hours everyday to drawing. He doesn't think like the rest of us, he draws while listening to music. The dynamism and movement are very important for him and he saw this dynamicity in the corpus of the warriors. This inspired him and he immediately started to make drawings of it. So he showed me the first drawings he did in 1992, which were fantastic. Then he showed me more drawings, about 200 or 300. So I really encouraged him to do bigger sculptures and he started on those five years ago. As it is with his architecture, some of which took 12 to 15 years, this was also a long process.

  • The exhibition depicts Calatrava’s interest in the human body and nature which also influences his architectural style | Beyond Hellas | Santiago Calatrava| STIRworld
    The exhibition depicts Calatrava’s interest in the human body and nature which also influences his architectural style Image: © Palladium Photodesign – Oliver Schuh & Barbara Burg
  • The major aspects of the modern vocabulary in his works are gravity and motion | Beyond Hellas | Santiago Calatrava| STIRworld
    The major aspects of the modern vocabulary in his works are gravity and motion Image: © Palladium Photodesign – Oliver Schuh & Barbara Burg

STIR: What do the names The Aegineten and Leporellos signify with respect to Calatrava’s works?

Florian: Aegineten comes from the name of the island where these sculptures have been found; Aegina, a small island not far from Athens. However, in the seventh and 60 century BC, Aegina was one of the most successful merchant states in the Mediterranean. They had a very strong fleet, were excellent sailors, and they claimed to be the number one in Greece in the late sixth century. And for that reason, the aristocrats from this island built this very beautiful temple and dawned it with those sculptures. We call these sculptures Aeginetenfor this reason.

On one hand, ‘Hellas’, which means ancient Greece, has always been an important source of inspiration for Calatrava and his works, and on the other hand, with his actual series of the iron sculptures, he goes one step ‘beyond’.

Cristina: The Leporellos includes seven-metres watercolour drawings and we have exhibited four of them - two of which are inspired by the Aegineten and two depict the study of the movement of the body. The Leporello translates to the style of folding of books and so do the watercolour works that unfold like a book in the museum. Leporello also points to Calatrava’s love for music as it is the name of the servant of Don Giovanniby Mozart.

  • With the exhibition, Calatrava erases the borders between disciplines of architecture, engineering, and sculpture | Beyond Hellas | Santiago Calatrava| STIRworld
    With the exhibition, Calatrava erases the borders between disciplines of architecture, engineering, and sculpture Image: © Palladium Photodesign – Oliver Schuh & Barbara Burg
  • In modern variations of the ancient warriors, the combination of wrought iron and oak wood imparts a symbolic representation of strength and power | Beyond Hellas | Santiago Calatrava| STIRworld
    In modern variations of the ancient warriors, the combination of wrought iron and oak wood imparts a symbolic representation of strength and power Image: © Palladium Photodesign – Oliver Schuh & Barbara Burg

STIR: The shields seem to play a significant role in the sculptures and paintings. Does it have symbolism?

Florian: I think it's the round shape of the shield which plays a major role for Santiago Calatrava. He told me that nowadays, the circle does not play a prominent role in modern architecture. For this reason, it was so special for him to see that it's an important part of this composition. In earlier times, even in architecture, the circle was of major importance. Probably it was this surprising aspect that the round shape is so prominent which made him think about variations of this shape in different moving bodies.

Cristina: The perfect geometry of the circle is a symbol of divine perfection, which has no beginning and no end. So, this fascination that the Greeks had has continued in the works of Calatrava and many other artists. For him, the circle, which is the shape of the shield, was a way of playing with the wind dynamic. The first sculptures were not so much about the variations of the warriors of the temple but inspired by the theme of the circle, the shield, and the person bearing the shield. So, he explored the notions of balance and equilibrium by placing the circle, the motion and the rhythmical progression of the shields. For him, the idea of playing with the shield and the circle was the key to creating dynamics and movement in the whole composition.

  • The Glyptothek is Munich's oldest public museum and the only museum in the world that is solely dedicated to ancient sculpture | Beyond Hellas | Santiago Calatrava| STIRworld
    The Glyptothek is Munich's oldest public museum and the only museum in the world that is solely dedicated to ancient sculpture Image: © Palladium Photodesign – Oliver Schuh & Barbara Burg
  • While exhibited against the plain brick walls of the vaulted museum halls, the modern sculptures of Calatrava create a strong visual conversation between the past and present | Beyond Hellas | Santiago Calatrava| STIRworld
    While exhibited against the plain brick walls of the vaulted museum halls, the modern sculptures of Calatrava create a strong visual conversation between the past and present Image: © Palladium Photodesign – Oliver Schuh & Barbara Burg
  • The exhibition includes only a few of the hundreds of drawings and unique sculptural works conceived by Calatrava over the last 30 years | Beyond Hellas | Santiago Calatrava| STIRworld
    The exhibition includes only a few of the hundreds of drawings and unique sculptural works conceived by Calatrava over the last 30 years Image: © Palladium Photodesign – Oliver Schuh & Barbara Burg

STIR: The exhibition lies in the middle ground of the classical realism of Greek sculptures and the artistic abstraction of modernity. How do you think the dynamics of ancient Greece become a muse to the contemporary world?

Florian: One of the qualities of an ancient Greek sculpture is that it does not evoke imagery of Greek humans or Greek Gods of the early century, but it shows the human beings as it is. We humans did not change too much within this timespan. So, there is still much that we can learn from these old sculptures. The depiction of moving bodies not only inspired Santiago Calatrava, but it was astonishing for him to see how far they went in order to display gravity and its impact on the human body. So, the goal for the sculptor or the artist, from my point of view, has not changed so much from antiquity until today.

Cristina: The relationship between modern and antique art is a vast question. The Greek world has always been inspiring artists from all times. It was maybe with the romanticism that this classicism was brought again. Many artists like Santiago Calatrava are inspired by the works of the greats such as Michelangelo and Giacometti, who had a Greek-oriented outlook on art. Calatrava’s works give another life to the sculptures in the museum. The dialogue between modern art and antique art is a constant, it’s there. So, nothing starts from zero. The ancient world is the basis of the western world and it will always be like that.

  • Cristina Carrillo de Albornoz | Beyond Hellas | Santiago Calatrava| STIRworld
    Cristina Carrillo de Albornoz Image: Courtesy of Cristina Carrillo de Albornoz
  • Florian Knauß | Beyond Hellas | Santiago Calatrava| STIRworld
    Florian Knauß Image: Courtesy of Florian Knauß

Beyond Hellas: Santiago Calatrava in the Glyptothek is on display at the Glyptothek Museum in Munich, Germany till October 23, 2022.

(Text by Sunena V Maju, intern at STIRworld)

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