August 5, 2013 § 4 Comments
The weekend before last, I had a friend visiting from out of town and as this is always a good excuse to play tourist in your own town or, in my case, catch up on exhibitions that have been put repeatedly on the back burner, we went to see Alternative Guide to the Universe at the Hayward – an exhibition of work by self-taught artists, architects and scientists.
The show was thrilling, intriguing, confusing and unsettling (and if you’re in London before 26 August, you should definitely see it), but one artist in particular grabbed my attention and hasn’t let it go since.
About halfway through the first part of the exhibition is a gallery filled with enormous drawings of dizzyingly detailed buildings and cities. Rendered in fine black lines and a near-hallucinatory palette of watercolours, they glow as if backlit, like the windows in a sci-fi Sainte-Chapelle. (They’re not backlit, in fact; the paper has simply been coated in varnish to render them translucent.)
The buildings soar and spiral and twist, equal parts Gothic cathedral, Angkor Wat temple, Gaudi edifice and American skyscraper. They reach vertiginous heights. In the drawings which include people at all, the figures are, quite literally, ant-sized in comparison.
Who created them?
A deaf, illiterate Parisian street sweeper named Marcel Storr.
Little is known of Storr’s life but what little information we have paints a heartbreaking picture. A foundling, he was passed from one foster family to another and badly treated – the probable cause of his deafness and the mental illness that plagued him at the end of his life. He worked a succession of menial jobs before being hired to sweep leaves in the Bois de Boulogne.
He had no artistic training whatsoever – illustrated newspapers and photographs, in all likelihood, were his only teachers and models – but from his twenties he drew, first small churches, then buildings of increasing scale, and finally, the vast cities stretching both vertically and horizontally into infinity. Two unfinished drawings in the exhibition give some insight into his working methods. He didn’t make preparatory studies. He didn’t erase. He simply started in one corner of the sheet and drew and drew.
What moved Storr to create these architectural fantasies? They’re enchanting but at the same time, terrifying – no sane person could possibly want to live in such a place, let along spend much time there. Living as he did at the height of the Cold War, and, as the exhibition wall text speculates, working in the shadow of the new skyscraper city of La Défense, he apparently believed that his drawings would serve as blueprints to rebuild Paris after it was destroyed by nuclear war. (Quite how he thought his drawings would survive if Paris didn’t is a mystery.)
If anything, Storr’s drawings crystallise one of the most disconcerting questions Alternative Guide to the Universe raises: what’s the line between inspiration and madness? William Blake’s vision of a tree full of angels on Peckham Rye seems positively tame compared with the worlds dreamed up by Storr and many of the other creators featured in the exhibition. By the time I emerged from the Hayward, I was more than ready for sunshine and fresh air and a dose of reality, although my notion of a single, fixed reality had been knocked temporarily askew.
I’m glad Marcel Storr’s unreal cities exist on paper only. But I’m equally glad that a couple of collectors had the vision to appreciate his work and preserve it as a single body. He’s gradually being rediscovered, and he deserves to be better known.