The entry of Europeans into Japan, in the sixteenth century, as traders and proselytizers, resulted in what is called Namban art, a response of Japanese artists to the novelties that they (and their noble Japanese patrons) were witness to as a result of this presence. Of the various productions of this art style, it is the Namban screens that are perhaps the most popular, or widely known, representatives of this style. Composed of multiple panels, these folding screens depict the most quotidian scenes in the most exquisite manner, stylizing trees, waves, and ships, and setting the whole lacquered scene against gilded backgrounds. It was the image of these screens that formed the immediate frame of reference on encountering one of the acclaimed wonders of the main auditorium of the Gulbenkian Foundation.
Many were the stories that I had heard of the glory of this hall. To understand the wonder of this hall however, some amount of context would help. CalousteSarkis Gulbenkian was an Armenian businessman, who gained phenomenal amounts of wealth as a result of his interventions in the petroleum industry. On his death, he established a trust, now the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, which is one of the most substantial private foundations in Portugal. The Foundation has its seat amidst a complex of auditoria, art galleries and auditoria, all of which sit within a garden that covers around 7.5 acres. The garden, designed by the landscape architects Gonçalo Ribeiro Telles and António Viana Barreiro, is a joy to behold. Partaking of some of the stylized forms of pleasure gardens of the Far East, the garden teems with babbling brooks, quacking ducks and bird-song, even as it uses shrubs and foliage to play with our sense of space and create the illusion of a vast garden paradise.
It is within this setting then that the buildings of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation are located, very much like gems, within a worthy setting. These buildings do not just sit within the park however, but interact with it, portions of the garden entering within the built complex, through internal courtyard gardens, the themes of water that mark the park substantially commencing from some of the buildings. And most significantly of all, the back of the stage of the main auditorium within this set of buildings, opens out to give members of the audience a view of the gardens beyond and at times, to integrate the scene behind this glass, into the performance itself.
It was this view that forced the metaphor of the Namban screen that commences this column. Like a Namban screen, the glass-wall of the auditorium is composed of multiple segments; seven in this case, thus creating the sense of being in the presence of a trompe l'oeil. But this is the kind of trompe l'oeil, that every artist would seek to accomplish, yet few could ever accomplish. In this case what one views, is not the representation of an image that fools the eye of the spectator, but indeed a vision of the image itself, framed by the wood paneling of the auditorium and captured via glass. What is perhaps most charming about this vision however is that based on one’s location within the auditorium, the image that one’s view changes. One could gaze either upon a cluster of trees, a concert of greens, silver and brown, that with illumination seems to partake of the character of the original Namban screens, or gaze upon the large pond that forms a part of the landscape of the garden.
For those that suggest that culture consists of a give and take, then the Namban frame of reference that suggested itself at the Gulbenkian, may perhaps give weight to this assertion.
(A version of this post first appeared in the O Heraldo dated 1 April 2012)