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Helsinki and the Partial Leonardo

Dear Kay,
We almost didn’t see Helsinki. That’s just a fact. Almost slept through it.
After three days of pectopahs and blasting around St. Petersburg, the fellas were double jetlagged–you lose two hours from Copenhagen to St. Petersburg, just when you’re over that first jetlag. And they were homesick. For the ship. We had missed Team Trivia two days in a row. Captain Dag had taken all the kids up for a tour of the bridge. The 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle had been finished without our help.
Nooooo, we’d been off mooing through the Hermitage museum to see, through a scrum of overheated tourists, one-quarter of Leonardo’s Madonna and Child with Flowers, the 1478 one, not the much stranger 1490 one that was about twenty feet away and even more consumed by viewers.
It was so crowded that I couldn’t even see the whole thing. I can hardly express how unsatisfying this was. Imagine how Leonardo would be laughing his Renaissance head off to see this scene: such an airless room, his painting sealed in some sort of bulletproof plastic box. I should make it clear that this painting was the one work in the entire Hermitage that I had had in my sights. His paintings are truly rare in the sense that he didn’t actually MAKE many of them, and I didn’t think I’d be back in St. Petersburg anytime soon. I had written a book group paper about a Leonardo biography last year, so Leonardo had been on my mind.
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At least I got to see the faces. If there are 12 Leonardo paintings in the world, and two are in the Hermitage, that means I was in the presence of 16% of Leonardo’s paintings, and I actually saw 2% of Leonardo’s paintings, which is pretty good for a Wednesday, I guess.
The fellas were deeply uninterested in any of this, and I don’t blame them. It was a hot mess, literally.
The Hermitage was so rich in treasures that it was OK. There was armor. There were antiquities. You look to the left, and you’re in a gallery of 19th-century, recently de-looted treasures. There I spent a long while, all by myself, with one of Van Gogh’s last works, “The White House at Night.”
If you click on this link, and click on the image to enlarge it, you can get as close to this painting as I did. For free! Go ahead–Van Gogh’s hand is clearly visible in every stroke of his brush. He’s right there.
I feel tender about my Van Gogh experience at the Hermitage, inches away from the original work, looking at this relic, this thing that Van Gogh touched himself. Right then, in 1890, in his last raging days of creativity, he put that paint onto that canvas. But as I look at this digital image, sent to my computer from who knows where, where it lives on some anonymous server as a batch of digits, it’s every bit as real. It’s right here.
O Helsinki!
How glad we were that we scraped ourselves off the ship and walked into Helsinki. Helsinki, you are truly beautiful. We were there on probably Helsinki’s most glorious day of the year, and we had only one destination:
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The skateboard art exhibition at Kiasma, the museum of contemporary art. This was Clif’s Leonardo moment. As you know, Clif loves to skateboard, so this was a fine thing to see, never mind the fact that it looked basically like his bedroom at home.
We passed a hugeosic Marimekko store. The mother ship. It really was spectacular. This all led me to have a thought for you, Kay, but no time to scrape up some fat quarters for you. Besides, I probably would have picked out the ones that most closely resembled fabrics from the Civil War. We’ll have to get back there so you can load up on pear-embellished bedsheets. They have factory shops. My reconnaissance indicates that this would be worth a trip.
At the harbor market, we had lunch, and I watched as this knitter steadily cranked out hats:
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She was working less than two hours per hat. She was incredible. Never sat, never stopped knitting, rarely even looked at her hands. She was a performance artist, really.
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After many monuments to battles and large-sized lady tsars in St. Petersburg, it was encouraging to see Finland’s national poet, J. L. Runeberg, front and center in the beautiful Esplanade park. Runeberg! I never heard of you! But I’m glad your son put up this statue of you so I can go Google you now! (Here are some fine photographs of his house in Porvoo–excellent wallpaper and animal pelt/firearm decorations.)
And how strange, on our way back, to find another statue right there at the harbor:
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Coin activated, even.

Love,
Ann
Next up: Stockholm, Or, Trying to Trade in Our Passports for Swedish Passports

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25 Comments

25 Comments

  1. If the skateboard exhibit looked like Clif’s bedroom to you, what do yarn shops look like to him? Just sayin’. ;)

  2. Oh, Runeberg!…. I’ve never heard of him either! In Texas, his house would be called a “shotgun house”–you can shoot a gun from the front door straight through to the back door, and never hit anybody in any room!
    Last year I attended a touring collection of Impressionism art at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, specifically hoping to see Seurat’s “La Grand Jatte.” Guess which one of Seurat’s paintings stayed back home at The Art Institute of Chicago? @#&@#! I did become enamored of the superhumongous “Paris Street; Rainy Day” by Gustave Caillebotte. Standing a few inches away, I was fascinated at how his brush strokes and choice of colors made the sidewalks and streets actually look wet. It was very tempting to touch the painting, but the thought of a karate chop by the guard standing next to the painting kept me in check.
    Mary G. in Texas

  3. I’m confused as to why there are red lines drawn through the Madonna painting. Did I miss something in the post?

  4. I saw that same lady knitting in the market and too, was impressed! Loved seeing and tasting the fruits and veggies in that market. Can hardly wait for your blog post about Stockholm!

  5. What? You missed Team Trivia? No tour of the ship’s bridge for the kids? The 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzle was finished (Finnish-ed?) WITHOUT y’all’s help?–My gosh woman, what were you THINKING? I mean, you could see a Leonardo, or a Van Gough on line ANYTIME. Didn’t you know you were on vacation???
    I guess there’s always next summer… ;)
    LoveDiane

  6. Just saying that August is very much not the month to be a tourist in Europe because of the way a lot of companies close down mostly for the month and everyone is on vacation.

  7. What do you mean, he didn’t actually make the paintings? Oy, I feel so unedumacated….

  8. I’m not sure what message they are sending when there is a picture of a wine glass on a skateboard, but I’ll leave that to the Problem Ladies to solve!

  9. I hear you, Ann. We saw the crowd in front of the Mona Lisa in August, who seemed mostly preoccupied with taking pictures of the painting-in-the-box. Didn’t see much of the thing itself (but then again, how many of the photo-takers really saw it either?)
    Just loving these posts – thank you!
    And Mary G., Caillebotte fan – I went looking for “The Floor Scrapers” in the Musee d’Orsay, missed it, turned around to retrace my steps and, boom, there it was: like seeing it for the first time. Amazing.

  10. Has anyone checked out the KNITTING RUSSIAN STYLE group on Ravelry?

  11. When the Vermeer exhibit came to the National Gallery a few years back,I had the same experience you had with Leonardo, while trying to view “The View from Delft”. The space in front of the painting was packed solid. On the other hand, there were no crowds at all in front of the Mona Lisa back in the late 60s when I visited the Louvre (in my baby carriage, obviously). Moral of the story: Do all museum-going before 1970. Doesn’t anyone know anything?? …But then again, there were no skateboarding museums and knitting ladies back then! Looks like you are all having a wonderful time!

  12. Loving the travelog. Just loving it.
    PS Congratulationson the log cabin/Josef Albers-in-the-same-breath-as MasonDixon post. While I’m still not fully on board for knitting warshrags of any sort, I would happily knit & frame them a la the Purl Bee blog. Maybe in a glass frame with a tiny hammer that said : ‘”In a really dirty emergency, break glass and go ahead and use’em”.

  13. Love the traveling Ann! Keep up the good work.

  14. I think a nursing Madonna is beautiful, not weird.

  15. Your travelogue is absolutely great, Ann. I’ve enjoyed each installment. Lucky Runeberg to have a statue with a mournful angel down front and a seagull up-top.

  16. Oh, wait! No, not a mournful angel. She’s the Patron Muse of Finnish Poetry. But still: a seagull on the poet’s head.

  17. There is really very little better to look at in this world than a late Van Gogh. When the collection of the Kroller-Muller Museum was in Seattle a few years ago I helped chaperone 25 kids from grades 3-6 to see the exhibition (all the way from Idaho – we took the first plane out and came back on the last plane of the day). I was transfixed by van Gogh’s Cafe at Night (it has various names – you can see it here: ttp://www.art.com/products/p13661602-sa-i2215626/vincent-van-gogh-the-cafe-terrace-on-the-place-du-forum-arles-at-night-c1888.htm?aff=conf&ctid=911153325&rfid=217983&tkid=15058293& )
    The impasto was amazing – the stars were about 2/3 of an inch high while many of the “white” areas of the canvas were just plain canvas. I nearly lost my charges, I spent so much time looking at the van Gogh. I found them at the early Mondrians – they were amazed to see his pencil marks and erasures. We then took them up the Space Needle so they could recover.
    What was the name of the Leonardo biography? I am in the market for a good artist’s bio – and I have to cover him in class in a few weeks.
    What a great trip!

  18. Dear Ann – I don’t leave comments very often and I alays enjoy the M-D posts but I have been absolutely blown away by your cruise blog. Stunning pics and commentary. Thank you so much for sharing.

  19. Interesting paintings…the later one shows her clothing sewn shut and a nursing slit…and the baby isn’t circumcised, what’s with that? The earlier one is lovely, though. Mary is great, but so young!

  20. nice sea gull.

  21. More than 10 years ago we went to the Louvre–the crowds around the Mona Lisa were so deep, you couldn’t even see the frame. And, yes, seeing a Van Gogh “in person” is amazing; the texture just doesn’t show up in photos.
    Thanks for sharing your trip with us.

  22. I saw my first original Van Gogh in a traveling exhibit in Texas years ago (we both were traveling.) I swear the paint was so thick it might have still been wet. I LOVED it!

  23. Having just returned from a similar cruise, I know how frustrating it is to be THAT close to a Leonardo and have to see over (I am short) many hot cranky tourists. It is pretty amazing that all that wonderful art is hanging all over the place with no real security and all those people. Maybe that is how it should be. Maybe we have it wrong in our museums. If you ever come to Philadelphia, be sure to go to the Barnes Museum in Merion. You have to make a reservation, but the collection is stupendous and housed in a private museum. Have fun in Stockholm, it is a beautiful, beautiful city. DOn’t forget the VASA Museet, that’s Swedish for museum. Your boys will love it.

  24. Having just returned from a similar cruise, I know how frustrating it is to be THAT close to a Leonardo and have to see over (I am short) many hot cranky tourists. It is pretty amazing that all that wonderful art is hanging all over the place with no real security and all those people. Maybe that is how it should be. Maybe we have it wrong in our museums. If you ever come to Philadelphia, be sure to go to the Barnes Museum in Merion. You have to make a reservation, but the collection is stupendous and housed in a private museum. Have fun in Stockholm, it is a beautiful, beautiful city. DOn’t forget the VASA Museet, that’s Swedish for museum. Your boys will love it.

  25. What I remember most about the Hermitage is that they made me check my swiss army knife at the door. I thought, all through the cold war we were afraid of the Russians and their nuclear bombs, but now the Russians are afraid of me and my swiss army knife (true, they don’t want people slashing paintings, still.)