Helsinki and the Partial Leonardo
August 31, 2009
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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:
Coin activated, even.
Next up: Stockholm, Or, Trying to Trade in Our Passports for Swedish Passports