In the West, Hiroshi Teshigahara is best known as the avant-garde director of the 1964 film Woman in the Dunes–an erotic, surreal film that was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Teshigahara’s haunting shots of sand, skin, and water amid the advancing sand dunes have stayed with me over the years. But there is another Teshigahara film, one that is less well-known, that left an even greater impression on me.
Antonio Gaudi is like no other movie I can think of. Teshigahara’s 72-minute meditation on the Spanish Art-Nouveau architect is essentially wordless. He avoids conventional narrative and instead, lets Gaudi’s buildings do the talking.
Before watching this film, I didn’t consider myself a fan of the Spanish artist. (George Orwell described Gaudi’s cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, as “one of the most hideous buildings in the world.”) But my judgment was based on ignorance–on some vague, false impression that Gaudi’s work was not much more than bulbous, overdone kitsch.
But after viewing Teshigahara’s breathtaking film, my opinion of the Spanish architect has been entirely transformed. Anotnio Gaudi was nothing less than a visionary genius–an original, madly brilliant artist who was unappreciated and misunderstood in his own time.
Teshigahara’s passion for Gaudi’s work comes through on every frame. Once he has set the scene with opening shots of contemporary Barcelona, Teshigahara brings his camera into Gaudi’s universe, taking us up a characteristic Gaudi spiral staircase. He’s a patient, attentive director with a craftsman’s eye for details. He takes the time he needs, allowing the camera to linger. Blue tiles shift in the light like water moving. Mosaics morph into a dragon’s scales. Güell Park, a planned garden village, feels like a surreal, fairy-tale landscape.
Teshigahara moves his camera slowly through these fluid, organic spaces. Slow tracking shots give us a sense that we’re actually inhabiting these bizarre, sublime places. Gaudi’s curved, organic designs are shockingly surreal and erotic. Like Woman in the Dunes, Antonio Gaudi pulses with human sensuality, and yet there is also something of the divine in both Teshigahara’s film and Gaudi’s fertile imagination.
This meditation on the power of and beauty of nature is enhanced with music and sound effects by the renowned Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu and two collaborators, Kurodo Mori and Shinji Hori. As the critic Stephen Holden explains, Takemitsu was an eclectic impressionist “whose music blended avant-garde Western techniques, electronics and random compositional methods with more conventional symphonic music and Japanese traditional instruments.”
The spiral motif, associated with the seashell, is emphasized in Takemitsu’s soundtrack, which incorporates the sound of the distant sea. “The score for Gaudi is a kind of free-floating East-meets-West impressionism,” says Holden, “whose organic flow mimics the sprouting curvilinear shapes of Gaudi’s buildings. The score includes four Catalan folk pieces, electronically altered and combined with other sounds.”
Antonio Gaudi is a tactile film–a visual poem that lingers in your memory long after its over. If you have the patience to listen and look and to defer any pressing questions you may have about Antionio Gaudi the man until the DVD extras, you will find the melding of Gaudi’s inventive architecture, Teshigahara’s sensitive camerawork, and Takemitsu’s haunting score a rewarding experience.
But how exactly did the avant-garde, Japanese filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara develop such an intense appreciation for the architecture of Antonio Gaudi? I was curious to know more.
I made some interesting discoveries in my research. Gaudi not only had a profound impact on Teshigahara’s work, but it was Gaudi who planted the seed of a cross-disciplinary approach to the arts. “Gaudi worked beyond the borders of various arts,” said Teshigahara, “and made me feel that the world in which I was living still left a great many possibilities.”
Nature and landscape were of central importance to Hiroshi Teshigahara, even as a young boy. He was born in Tokyo, son of Sofu Teshigahara, founder and grand master of the Sogetsu School of ikebana. Sofu championed the idea of ikebana as an art form rather than a decorative craft, and he bucked tradition by including materials besides flowers in his work.
As Dore Ashton explains in an excellent essay on the Criterion website, when Hiroshi Teshigahara was a schoolboy, Japan’s cities were firebombed during the Second World War. He “returned to a landscape of bleak ruins.” Teshigahara’s generation “was charged with building a way to exist in the desperate circumstances they had inherited,” says Ashton. “Prominent survivors of the prewar avant-garde, who had spent all their youth in Paris, exhorted young artists to build a totally new culture, expunging all memory of the militaristic milieu of their childhood.”
In 1959 Sofu and his son traveled to New York and Europe. The journey had a lasting impact on Hiroshi Teshigahara, as Ashton explains:
“It was in Spain, as he often recalled after, that he found his artistic way forward and formed a definite approach to what the Tokyo vanguard called ‘cross-genre’ art—the result, in large part, of his encounters with the works of Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí…In Barcelona, he said, he came ‘face-to-face with Gaudí,’ and ‘the magic of it overwhelmed me.’ He carefully studied the Casa Milà (La Pedrera), eventually with his 16 mm camera in hand, and then visited every Gaudí site with intense attention. Gaudí’s structures, he later said, ‘made me realize that the lines between the arts are insignificant. Gaudí worked beyond the borders of various arts and made me feel that the world in which I was living still left a great many possibilities.’
He would explore those possibilities extensively on his return to Japan. Not only did he intensify his earlier interest in film, especially European films…but he began editing his own footage of…Gaudí’s architecture. He also took over the auditorium of his father’s Sogetsu school, where, as impresario, he established a film series and hosted performances of such stellar international artists as John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and Yoko Ono, as well as early Butoh theater events. He saw his responsibility as an educational one. Having been distracted in his own youth by political questions and debates, and ideas of ‘revolution,’ he meant to impress upon the next generation the importance of artistic life on its own terms.”
When his father, Sofu, died in 1979 the school was to be taken over by Hiroshi’s sister Kasumi, but tragically she passed away the next year, so in 1980 Hiroshi Teshigahara stepped in and took over the family business, becoming the iemoto or “grand master.” From the mid-1970s onwards, Hiroshi Teshigahara worked less frequently on feature films as he concentrated more on documentaries, exhibitions, and running the Sogetsu School.
The filmmaker took the art of ikebana to a whole new level. His bamboo installations, which draw on the ikebana tradition, are jaw-droppingly original. If you watch Antonio Gaudi, you will notice some affinities between Teshigahara’s extraordinary bamboo structures (shown below) and Gaudi’s curved, organic shapes. (I’m also reminded of Mike and Doug Starn’s recent bamboo installation at the Metropolitan, Big Bambú, though the Starn brothers’ intriguing bamboo installations are less elegant and more chaotic in style.)
In 1984 Hiroshi Teshigahara made a second journey to Spain to explore Gaudí’s oeuvre in depth and to add to his 1959 footage. (One of the DVD extras in the Criterion set includes Teshigahara’s original 16 mm footage). As Ashton explains, Antonio Gaudi was not meant to reflect reality, but, in Teshigahara’s words, to present Gaudi’s work as “‘perceived through particular human eyes.’” This is a portrait of a fellow artist as seen through a sympathetic, discerning lens.
Like Gaudí, Teshigahara harbored a reverence for the concept of Nature. Gaudí said many times that he was a student of “the great book of Nature” and believed that “all styles are organisms related to nature.” Teshigahara himself had become increasingly aware of both the diversity and extravagance of natural form…In Teshigahara’s visual cataloging of Gaudí’s imagination, he is always aware of the fantasy spawned by Gaudí’s observations of growth and metamorphosis, drawn directly from close observation of plants, trees, grottoes, fountains, and the sea…
Teshigahara carefully studies Gaudí’s unprecedented use of leaning pillars in his visit to the Colònia Güell, where Gaudí, in the celebrated crypt, first explored the dynamics of these skewed columns. From there Teshigahara takes us to the most fully developed vision of leaning pillars, in the Park Güell, lingering in the gallery and offering views of the terraces and palm trees from the shaded colonnade…
Then, in his camera description of the curious details, Teshigahara subtly remarks on Gaudí’s piety, which led him to embellish his cathedral with often specious detail. Gaudí worked on the monumental project for the last years of his life: from 1884 until his death in 1926. The great spires were finished after his death, and no one can be certain if they are faithful to Gaudí’s vision, since during the civil war his workshop was ransacked and his models and drawings destroyed.
Antonio Gaudi died in 1926 after being hit by a taxi. The Spanish artist had been living like a hermit in his studio for a year and looked so incredibly scruffy that the taxi driver mistook him for a vagrant and refused to take him to hospital. Hiroshi Teshigahara died in 2001 at the age of 74.
Both men left behind an inventive and diverse body of work–art that offers an imaginative alternative to our daily dose of banality. It’s a complete lack of imagination that has brought us strip malls, McMansions, and monstrosities like Trump Tower. As Tashigahara said, the world in which we live has a great many possibilities. Unfortunately, our society too rarely takes creative risks. There are too few High Line Parks, too few Tate Moderns. The residents of Barcelona are fortunate to live among Antonio Gaudi’s enthralling structures, and the rest of us lucky that Hiroshi Teshigahara has captured Gaudi’s dreamlike world in his transfixing film.
I’m including a version of Antonio Gaudi here, so you can get a glimpse of Teshigahara’s film and listen to Takemitsu’s score. But I urge you to either buy the film on DVD, borrow it from a library, or rent it on Netflix. The Criterion Collection’s version is a high definition digital transfer, which offers a superior picture and sound, as well as a fascinating collection of extras. It’s also best to see the film on a large screen in one sitting. Only then can the full power of Antonio Gaudi be experienced. Enjoy the film!
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