The north comes south

It is funny how life is full of interesting coincidences. In the last 2 posts I described my experiences on various trips to northeast Europe – to Finland – as seen through the eyes of someone whose own family comes from the Baltic region. On arriving back in Paris, I visited the Musée d’Orsay again [which I have posted on previously…] to see a new temporary exhibition that I was particularly excited about. It was called Âmes sauvages: Le symbolisme dans les pays baltes. Translated this corresponds to Wild Souls: Symbolism in the Baltic countries [http://m.musee-orsay.fr/fr/expositions/article/ames-sauvages-46485.html]. So here I found myself in back in Paris, revisiting some of the very same themes I ran into when I was checking out the art in Finland a few weeks ago! The exhibit’s advertising material depicts a striking painting by a celebrated Latvian artist, Johann Walter [1862-1932] entitled Jeune Paysanne, which was painted in 1904.

MuseeDOrsay_AmesSauvages_02

The art exhibit has been organized to celebrate & commemorate the 100th anniversary of the declarations of independence of the 3 Baltic republics – Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania – in 1918. This period of freedom was shortlived – the 3 Republics were annexed by the Soviet Union during its imperialistic expansion. Fortunately, today the 3 countries have their independence once more.

As I already mentioned, the artworks featured in the Paris exhibit had themes common to those that I described in the Helsinki Art Museum exhibit of Finnish Art from around the same period in an earlier post. In the late 19th century, there was a cultural revival & a focus on ethnography & national identity in Europe, so many nations there were experiencing similar bursts of cultural activity. In images from the Baltic countries – including Finland – there is always the presence of the supernatural, including death in quite a few works. In one of the works from the Paris exhibit shown below, the moment that Death comes to visit & take an infant from it’s mother is depicted.

MuseeDOrsay_Rozentals_LaMort

This is a striking image on multiple levels. First, Death is depicted in white & as a woman – but her identity is unmistakable as she carries a sickle – a definitive cutting tool. Second, the look on the Mother’s face is depicted with incredible skill. I stood in front of this image for a long, long time contemplating it. There is the Mother’s look of incredulity as she looks directly upon Death & seems to not know how to deal with the situation. Yet, paradoxically at the same time there is an amazing gentleness to the scene. Death herself appears to be a compassionate being – the face depicts a calm, gentle demeanor & the white clothing does not have the negative association that typical images of the Grim Reaper dressed in black & traditionally carrying a scythe elicit. This is a classic painting created by the Latvian painter, Janis Rozentāls [1866-1916].

The exhibit depicts paintings & drawings showing scenes from real life, as well as from myths & legends – hence the symbolism label in the exhibit’s name. Here we come into contact with heros from epic poems, such as the Estonian Kalvipoeg.

MuseeDOrsay_Tuul_Kalevipoeg

The above image by Estonian artist Välko Tuul [1894-1918] depicts him in a battle [Kalevipoeg et Les Guerriers] & was painted between 1915-17. Despite being a hero, he does die [unlike heros in other epic sagas of other countries] – with the event being depicted by Estonian artist Kristjan Raud [1865-1943], entitled La Mort de Kalevipoeg . He suffers an awful death from having both feet cut off by his own sword in a strange twist of fate. The image below depicts the hero with a distorted & emaciated torso & of course, sans pieds – a very dramatic image to say the least.

MuseeDOrsay_Raud_LaMortDeKalevipoeg

There is a certain simplicity to the images & this makes them so much more impactful. For example, this painting from 1935 by Kristjan Raud entitled Sacrifice embodies this simplicity. From my interpretation, the image depicts a pagan ritual & the bowed heads, positions of the hands & poses struck by the bodies depict a respectful act of worship.

MuseeDOrsay_Raud_Sacrifice

The images can also capture a dynamic instant in time, such as the moment an archer lets an arrow fly on a breezy day in a painting by Rozentāls entitled L’Archer.

MuseeDOrsay_Rozentals_LArcher

As in the Finnish art exhibit I described in the previous post, the images in the Baltic countries exhibit in Paris also explored nature & landscapes. One of my favorites was an early spring landscape by Latvian artist Vilhelms Purvītis [1872-1945] entitled Les Eaux printanières, which was painted around 1910. It is a beautiful & gentle scene – in some ways minimalistically rendered – the verticalness of the birch & fir trees is a nice contrast to the horizontalness of the water with it’s melting ice & the surrounding land with retreating snow.

MuseeDOrsay_Purvitis_LesEauxPrintanieres

In another part of the museum there was a temporary exhibit of Estonian photography depicting scenes from life on the Estonian island of Kihnu – located in the Baltic Sea not far from the Estonian coast. I was able to enjoy those images as well on my visit.

Fortunately for me, these temporary exhibits did not seem to attract the tourists. They were busy on the museum’s upper floors checking out the impressionist classics that the Musée d’Orsay is so famous for (as the photos below indicate). Glad to say that I have spent considerable time in these permanent collections on previous trips to Paris, when there did not seem to be as many tourists… Tourist season is definitely here in Paris now that it is May. Note to self: I need to whip around to some other sites that will gets lots of tourist traffic before they get too crowded…

Despite my recent posts lauding late 19th century art, my favorite period & styles of art actually are early 20th century expressionism, futurism & surrealism.  The Centre Pompidou here in Paris has a permanent collection where you can check out some works from this period & the D’Orsay has some works as well.

What period of art & style do you feel most passionate about?

 

A journey north 2

This post continues on from the previous one – about a recent visit to Helsinki & some thoughts about 2 previous trips there also, as seen from the perspective of someone whose own family came from the Baltic region.

Because Finland has always had such long winters, I imagine that this has allowed cultural activities to flourish. The performing arts, literature, as well as arts & crafts are much cherished in the country. Most people seem to play an instrument [or sing]. A traditional instrument is the ‘kantele‘, originally a 5-6 string instrument that is strummed [by matchstick] or plucked.

Ateneum_Kantele

The above image shows a replica of an instrument that was used in the 1830s by a famous Finnish singer. This replica can be found in the Ateneum in Helsinki. Chords are formed by muting or stopping the strings [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kantele]. Modern kanteles are more elaborate, of course – they have many more strings, enabling a larger repertoire. The all girl Finnish group Kardemimmit are good exponents of this instrument [http://www.kardemimmit.fi/]. I have been fortunate to have heard them at our Lotus World Music Festival in Bloomington in the USA – they have visited now on a couple of occasions. Interestingly, variants of these stringed instruments appear all around the Baltic. In Estonia the equivalent is the ‘kannel‘, in Lithuania there is the ‘kankle‘ & Latvia has the ‘kokle‘. I have a kokle, which is back in the USA & I used to be reasonably proficient at playing it.

During my winter visit to Helsinki a couple of years ago, I was invited for Sunday lunch at a friend’s apartment. All the guests came bearing either musical instruments or other material – perfect for a set of impromptu performances after lunch was eaten. As a guest I too was expected to make a cultural contribution – I chose to recite some poetry by one of my favorite Latvian poets [Aleksandrs Čaks] – in Latvian, of course. This was an interesting exercise, as it showed us all the large contrast between Finnish & Latvian – two very different language groups [Finno-Ugric vs Baltic] despite the two countries being near neighbors on the Baltic. Yet, despite the language differences between the two countries, there are many commonalities in culture etc.  I say this because when I visit Finland things feel both strange & eerily familiar. Things feel strange because this is a novel language & country. Yet, things feel familiar as some aspects of the culture make me think of me of my elderly Latvian relatives [unfortunately now no longer of this world] & stories that they have told me.

This springtime visit to Helsinki was great because the Ateneum Art Museum had a special temporary exhibit devoted to showcasing Finnish Artists Society art from the late 19th century to the present day. Some of the works were really poignant – here I share with you some of the classic paintings that had the greatest effect on me.

Ateneum_Edelfelt_ConveyingChildsCoffin

The image above by Albert Edelfelt [1854-1905] is entitled ‘Conveying the Child’s Coffin‘ & was painted in 1879. It depicts the heart-wrenching scene of a family taking a funereal boat journey for the purposes of bringing their young family member to their permanent new place of rest. I stood for a long time in front of this image. It is so skillfully rendered, the light is beautiful & the visible emotion, while understated, visually nevertheless jumps out of the canvas & grabs your heartstrings.

Ateneum_Gallen-Kallela

The above image entitled ‘Lemminkäinen’s Mother‘ was painted by Akseli Gallen-Kallela [1865-1933] & depicts a scene from the Finnish epic poem Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot, which was first published in 1835 [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalevala]. A more recent version was published in 1849 & consists of 22,795 verses, divided into 50 songs! [These epic poems were not unique in the Baltic region: Estonia has Kalevipoeg & Latvia has Lāčplēsis (Bearslayer). In the latter Kalevipoeg also appears. These are just the ones I know of – there may well be others in the surrounding countries.] The Finnish Kalevala has many stories & characters. Lemminkäinen features in a number of them, but the story depicted in the above painting is that of Lemminkäinen’s Mother’s efforts to ‘remake’ his body. He has drowned in the river of Tuonela [in the underworld] while hunting the black swan that lives there. His Mother looks for him everywhere. Finally, she learns of his fate & asks Ilmarinen [a blacksmithing God] to create a copper rake [also seen in the painting]. In the underworld, she rakes up every piece of Lemminkäinen’s body & clothing from the river Tuonela. She sews the parts together & implores the Gods to bring him back to life. The painting depicts this scene.

Ateneum_Gallen-Kallela_closeup

I was really struck by the emotion on the face of the Mother – it is very intense study in emotion [see close-up at left]. There is a deeply imploring look & at the same time there is also determination & desperation as well.  An amazing painting, to put it mildly, on so many levels!

To continue the story of Lemminkäinen: Finally, in desperation, his Mother convinces a bee [also seen in the painting, below the rake] to fly to the Halls of the ‘Ubergod’ Ukko for a drop of honey. This enchanted honey ends up bringing Lemminkäinen back to life.

For those interested in reading further, his story has been translated into English, see http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/kveng/kvrune15.htm]. Thanks to a Finnish friend for sharing this link!

In the exhibition there were many other artworks that were very beautiful & inspiring – portraits, landscapes depicting the various seasons & some snapshots of ephemeral moments in human interactions. The painting below by Hugo Simberg [1873-1917] depicts a beautiful moment where a grandparent strolls along a lake with his grandchild, showing that special bond that these two generations share.

Ateneum_Simberg_TowardsTheEvening

Apparently, Simberg painted his own father & young son in this image. I also like the light here – as a photographer this is my favorite time of the day…

There were so many other interesting & notable works of art to see. Anyone visiting Helsinki should stop in to the Ateneum. The exhibition I saw was a temporary one, but the museum always has works by Finnish artists on display in their galleries. Some of the other classics [that I did not include in this post] I have seen on a previous visit there.

And now to turn to the culinary side of things. Different climatic regions have their own special produce. The northern European countries are no exception in that regard – the relatively mild summers & harsh, cold winters mean that only very hardy plants survive. Lingonberries, bilberries [native to Europe & related to blueberries], gooseberries & red currants are common fruits here. Reindeer steaks are very popular, as are fish such as Baltic herring & salmon [particularly smoked or served in a traditional soup]. The emphasis is very much on seasonal produce. This spring while I was there Baltic herring, morels, false morels, asparagus & rhubarb were in season, so I was able to enjoy these wonderful foods – some on more than one occasion. What are ‘false morels’, I hear you cry? Apparently they are a type of poisonous mushroom that can only be eaten when prepared properly through parboiling when the toxins are reduced & the mushrooms become edible – under no circumstances can they be eaten raw. As I said, the toxins are reduced, but not entirely eliminated even with cooking. Supposedly, the toxins can build up cumulatively in the body, so it is said that it is best to not consume these on a regular basis [for more information see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gyromitra_esculenta]. I have to say, I had ’em in a soup with some reindeer meat mousse on the side & the dish was delicious! The image below shows the soup – a nice mushroomy color.

AinaSpeakersDinner

Thankfully for us all the very capable Chef at Ravintola Töölönranta [http://www.toolonranta.fi/en/front-page/] knew what he/she was doing. Many of us chose to eat the false morel soup & everyone was accounted for at the conference the next day ;). The restaurant is also in a very scenic location on Töölönlahti Bay, although it was a blustery & rainy evening when we went there.

Another excellent place to enjoy Finnish cuisine is the Michelin starred Ravintola Ateljé Finne. The place gets it’s name from the famous Finnish sculptor Gunnar Finne. He designed his working studio & this is where the restaurant is located today. Some of his works still adorn the walls & counters of the place [they can be seen on the restaurant’s website: http://www.ateljefinne.fi/en/].

The restaurant is centrally located in Helsinki. The menu is, of course, seasonal – here is a sample of what was on offer when I visited:

AteljeFinne_03_menu

AteljeFinne_04_menu

I had the herring starter, the morel/egg/nettle main & the poached rhubarb for dessert. Delicious! The Finns are also extremely fond of liquorice – as indicated by the dessert on offer. My Finnish friend had the crème brûlée & I did get to try some of it. It was really good – but I have to say that I am a really big fan of liquorice…

But back to reality now in Paris… that said I came across lightly smoked Baltic herrings in the local supermarket the other day. What a pleasant surprise that was! Could not resist buying some…

A journey north

Helsinki_48

Last week I was fortunate to have to travel to Helsinki for a scientific meeting as well as a catch up with a scientific collaborator. This was my third trip to this wonderful city & each time I have experienced it in a different season. I have been there in mid-Summer, in winter & now in Spring. Each time things were so very different. Right now the plants are getting ready for the growth season – the daffodils are out & the trees are budding. The full growth season is just around the corner… The weather is reasonably mild, but the wind still has a chill. The photos that I have included in this post are a mélange of images taken from my three trips to Helsinki.

At a latitude of greater than 60 deg North, this means that the days in Helsinki can range from being extremely long in summer to extremely short in winter. In mid-summer there is ~19 hours of daylight, no actual night, but a kind of twilight instead. I remember being jet-lagged & waking up at around 2:30 am – when I opened my curtains it was very light outside. The heavy set of curtains in the hotel let me go back to sleep without having to deal with the sunrise at 4 am! I also remember a beautiful sunset at around 11:30 pm that we enjoyed as we were finishing up dinner in a restaurant  (image below).

PostThesisDinner

In midsummer, the other striking thing was that it was light enough to actually read a newspaper outside at midnight – a friend invited me to do this – however, after a couple of minutes a cloud of mosquitoes had formed around me. [Mosquitoes are supposed to be really bad in the countryside, so I cannot imagine what that would be like.]

When I returned to Helsinki the next time it was winter – towards the end of January. Mercifully, at that point the days were getting longer, but the sun still only rose at ~9 am & set early ~4:30 pm. The light was so different compared to the blinding light of summer – the week I was there it was overcast & we appeared to be in a perpetual twilight. I cannot imagine what it would be like around the time of the winter solstice. The picture of the sunrise below over parts of the snow covered Bay of Helsinki was taken on the one winter morning when we actually had sun for a while.

Sunrise_BayOfFinland2016

On that visit it also rained for a couple of days before I arrived. All the rain water froze over the snow – leaving everything like an ice skating rink. This meant having to shuffle around without lifting your feet like a very old person. I would imagine that there were also a lot of broken limbs that week… Not surprisingly the cars have winter tires with studs on them over there.

This time, in spring, the day length was less extreme with the sun rising at ~5 am & setting ~9:30 pm. [A great website for seeing day length, sunrise/sunset for places around the world is https://www.gaisma.com/en/ ] When I went for a walk on a lovely sunny spring weekend afternoon people were sitting in outdoor cafes & bars enjoying the sunshine. And the buskers were out as well – just like in summer!

There is some very striking older style architecture in Helsinki – it has a certain chunky & geometric style that I find very esthetic & compelling. This is seen on buildings such as museums & the main train station as well.

Yet the city has so many modern buildings as well, which are very distinctive & monumental – with interesting form, but at the same time are minimalistic. I find them also very esthetic. The best example of this minimalism I can think of is the Kamppi Chapel of Silence – a spherically shaped building crafted from varnished wood. It is as minimalistic inside as it is outside.

KamppiChapel_07

It is designed to be a haven of silence within the heart of a bustling city… It was the brainchild of 3 architects –  Kimmo Lintula, Niko Sirola & Mikko Summanen [of K2S Architects Ltd], was completed in 2012 & won the International Architecture Awards for the Best New Global Design 2010 [see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamppi_Chapel].

Another astounding modern building is also a place of worship. It is the Rock Church – also located in central Helsinki [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temppeliaukio_Church]. As it’s name implies it is built in a rock. The space is deceiving from the outside – only the copper dome that forms its roof is really visible – the rocky surroundings hide a wonderful secret…

The circular interior is simple & the main features are the rock walls themselves, the copper dome & the interface between these two features, which is designed to let natural light enter.

RockChurch_21

The acoustics are fabulous in there – an organ was being played when I visited <em>https://neurowandererblog.files.wordpress.com/2018/05/rockchurchhelsinki.m4a</em>. Not surprisingly, the church is used as a concert venue.

The main religion practiced by ~70% of the 5.5 million Finnish population is a version of Christianity known as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. The second official state church is Finland’s Orthodox Church & it has followers made up from around ~1% of the population. Both official religions have their main Cathedrals in Helsinki. These are very distinctive buildings. The Orthodox or Uspenski Cathedral has the characteristic domes, is dark from the exterior & is located on a hill. It can be seen from a number of parts of the city. As to be expected, it’s interior is elaborately & richly decorated with icons [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uspenski_Cathedral,_Helsinki].

In contrast, the Lutheran or Helsinki Cathedral is very light on the outside & inside. It is minimalistic on the inside, but very beautiful nonetheless. It is on a high point in the center of Helsinki on Senate Square [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helsinki_Cathedral] – it dominates the city skyline when viewed from the water. The first photo of this post shows it – it’s distinctive towering white form cannot be missed! It was built in a long construction process between 1830-1852.

Helsinki is a city whose history is linked with water. The city of Helsinki is located on the Gulf of Finland, which is connected with the Baltic Sea. The Gulf of Finland is littered by many islands & the best way to get a sense of these is to take a boat trip from Helsinki – either for pleasure or as a commute between Estonia, Russia & Sweden.

This is a great thing to do on a summer’s day – I highly recommend it. Apparently herds of elk occasionally can swim between islands, so boat operators have to be very watchful for the animals – as well as watching for rocks & other hazards etc.

There are so many things to do in Helsinki & surrounds – it is an outdoor culture, despite the harsh climate. In winter when the days are not so short people head north to Lappland to view the Northern Lights. In summer, they head out of town to their summer homes on the lakes – Finland has 188,000 of them! And in the city, when the weather is good [i.e. there is no snow] people ride bicycles everywhere.

Bicycles

In the next post I will talk a bit about Finnish culture, art & food…

 

 

Overcoming jetlag & springtime in Paris

I dread having to fly east across multiple time zones because my body clock will take longer to get back on track. Going west is so easy – couple of days & I am good to go. But going east, particularly in winter/early spring is brutal – doesn’t matter if it is from Australia to USA or from USA to Europe, it is always the same problem…

This week, as always when I travel, I have been spending as much time outside as possible without sunglasses  – trying to get that body clock back on track. Good thing about doing that now is that Spring is well and truly here – lots of flowers out!

Chocolate Easter eggs are everywhere as we gear up for Easter. I have even run across a chocolate Tutankhamen – that was really quite something – it was about 1 metre high.

Needless to say I am very happy to be here with all of this chocolate. Chocolate is a basic food group in our household, so much so that I am never without Lindt chocolate in the fridge [irrespective if which side of the Atlantic I am on].

Lindt_Chocolate

Bought a number of bags of Lindt chocolate rabbits in to the lab at the end of this week & we all got totally wired on coffee & chocolate, as evidenced by the prolonged increase in volume level in the lab for the day…

Speaking of the lab – I went to the Musée D’Orsay [http://www.musee-orsay.fr/] with a couple of lab mates on Thursday evening for the opening of a special temporary exhibition of works in the Art Nouveau style by students of the École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, or EnsAD for short [https://www.ensad.fr/]. Interesting & whimsical works, which included clothing, furniture, sketches of architecture & animation among other things which were displayed in a classical & magnificent exhibition space. We were able to talk with the students about their work, while their proud family members watched or also chatted with us. It is always interesting to talk to the artists & designers about the motivation for their work & also the processes that it went through to make it to completion. Overall it was such a lovely ‘feel-good’ event. I will bet that this is also a wonderful launch pad for the future careers of some very talented designers.

I do like night museum sessions – the museum has a very different feel to the daytime. The Musée D’Orsay is particularly different, given how much natural daylight comes in through its open structure. There was also a performance event – a concert given by a DJ, Prieur de la Marne, whose specialty was electronic music. He included work by local young musicians – including that of a friend of one of our group. His performance took place on the museum’s ground floor – in the sculpture gallery. This was a really nice way to round out the visit to the museum.

IMG_3564IMG_3562

Afterwards, we went our separate ways out in the wind & the rain – had to hang on tight to my umbrella as I walked to the Metro station – so typical of Paris spring weather. On the Metro back I decided it was way too late to rummage up dinner at home, so I took myself out to dinner at a great sushi restaurant near my abode. It is open until 11 pm for dinner – nothing better for someone who is jetlagged & wants to eat late…

That night [of course] at 3 am I was wide awake. What to do? Instead of stressing out about not being able to sleep, I began to websurf local restaurants so that I could choose a place for dinner for Saturday night. [My cousin is coming to Paris with his girlfriend. We have not met up for aeons, so it will be terrific to catch up.] Cool part was that I was able to book it online too!!! Who needs to count sheep, when you can count forks, plates or Michelin stars instead? 🙂

MichelinStar