“The best images and parables should speak of time and becoming: they should be a eulogy and a justification of all transitoriness.” – Nietzsche “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”
Josselyn and I arrived in Stockholm around midnight and upon reaching our hotel went to sleep. To make up for lost time in the city we’d planned on waking up early start visiting some of Stockholm’s many wonderful museums, however our bedroom was like a tomb which let in no light or sound so we ended up sleeping until 1 p.m. When we finally got up we discovered that the snow that had welcomed us at night was still there, thankfully though there was only enough on the ground to give the city streets and walkways color.
We first went to the Royal Palace, the official living quarters of the Swedish royalty and when not being used for functions of state is a museum. The Palace is in the typical modern style, grand, imposing and uniform in structure with many statues adorning it’s outer walls and more on the roofs within the stonework. Less a protected, defensive castle-like structure it was, like those in Madrid and London, more of a symbol for national pride in the royal family that resided therein. Outside of the building, just like at Buckingham Palace, there were armed guards on rotation unwilling to speak with civilians.
By chance we arrived just in time to take a guided English tour of the facilities wherein the finer points of Royal hierarchies, awards, Swedish history and etiological stories in relation to the art and therein. I admittedly know and care little of Sweden’s imperial history and find the minutiae of the lives of Royals to be of no personal significance so this part wasn’t very thrilling for me. What I did find of interest, however, was the arts and sciences regalia. This section illustrated the transformation from awards given during the pre-modern era to those displaying military prowess to those given recognition for scientific and cultural advancement of the Sweden. This was an excellent example of the manner in which the Swedish monarchy was progressive – by encouraging such behavior outside of the rewards given by the marketplace. Other decorations were compelling, such as a beautiful statue of two lovers and paintings on the ceilings, but on the whole I find royal palaces to be grotesque, overbearing and an affront to my sensibilities. While I can appreciate the arts and craftsmanship that goes into creating royal antechambers, thrones and galleries containing the portraiture of various nobles the urge I have to take an axe to it all as an insult to humanity often prevents me from doing so. There are few things that I find as appalling as the notion of hereditary nobility and its continuation in one form or another in some many of the European countries disturbs me greatly especially as history had progressed past the point making regicide a necessity.
One of the aspects of the art contained within the palace that pleasantly surprised me was the amount of allegorical art, both functional in the form of clocks and decorative in the form of tapestries and paintings, related to classical Greek myth. I admit that my own ignorance got the best of me in this regard, but I’d imagined that Norse mythology would play a greater part in their decorative art. In fact I saw not one tale represented in this manner.
After this we walked to the Dance Museum. It was filled with costumes from locations such as China, Japan, Indonesia and India, however the greater focus was on Western European forms of dance. A set of original costumes from popular Russian ballets was on display to showcase the manner in which it was innovative at the time. Apparently after their entrance onto the Swedish scene it set off a new push towards greater use of intricate costuming. Josselyn was particularly attracted to the costumes from Black Swan, not only because of the movie with Natalie Portman which she loved but as she has danced the parts of the White and Black Swan before.
In addition to the costume displays, videos played of some of the most well-known ballet dancers of the past hundred years. While we watched these video of renowned dancers from the early 1900’s Josselyn informed me that today many of those dancers would today not be considered exceptional due to the increased competition to be a professional dancer. She said their kicks would be higher and their form would be more precise. Though it’s only since I’ve become involved with her that I’ve started attending dance performances at places such as Joyce Soho and Miami Dance Theater – and watching videos on YouTube this seems to be the case by my layman’s eyes. Regardless of this growth in the skills and abilities required from the start of the art to the professionalism standards demanded today, similar to other physically demanding occupations such as professional American football, I found that the museum did an excellent job in showing the universal human tendency towards gestural communication through dance though it did not anywhere make such commentary explicit.
My only regret was that no space was given to Modern, Latin or non-performance dance. The first two did not surprise me given the Scandinavian tendency towards conservatism, however the last did somewhat as I was hoping that there would be some sort of recognition of modern forms of non-performance, popular dance. I’ve read some interesting articles talking about social atomism in relation to modern popular dance and thought that a display contrasting Swedish folk dance with the people attending a concert by Swedish House Mafia would have made an interesting addition to the museum.
Following this we went to the National Museum, where I received an unexpected treat – the temporary exhibition of the Peredvizhniki painters. The Peredvizhniki, whose full name would be translated into “The Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions”, were a loose collection of artists that started in the 1870’s who exited the Royal Academy in order to paint scenes and themes that were on the borderline of what was considered acceptable by the Imperial censors of the time. Several of their members works were forbidden from public display due to its critical take on religion and the prevailing social and economic order. While amongst their members Nickolai Yaroshenko is the only one known to have direct ties to the revolutionary movement of the period, there is clearly much sympathy given to those struggling under the yoke of Tsarist absolutism. Revolutionary though such sympathies were, they were not aligned with the various strains of internationalists that would eventually overthrow the regime in 1917. These were Slavophiles that were profoundly influenced by Belinisky and Chernyshevsky and sought to work within the Russian tradition rather then the Western European one to achieve a regeneration of the social and economic decay they witnessed in their daily lives.
The exhibition itself was segmented into several sections – work, religion, politics, landscapes and portraits. While it would clearly be a mistake to make hard and fast separations between these categories as it relates to anything – the curators of this exhibit did a good job in their groupings.
The opening painting was “Barge-Haulers on the Volga” by Ilya Repin, which was of a size equal to the conceptual weight of the painting. Ten men are connected to a rope that they are using to haul a boat near the shore harbor so that its goods may be unloaded and exchanged with others. Alone amongst all of the peasants “freed” from their connection to the land is a youth, wearing a reddish tinged rags who alone looks forward and upward as if to a brighter tomorrow. Whether or not this coloration is meant to allude to republican or a radical is not clear, however what is clear is the suffering on the faces of all those around him. Faces are sunken in and dirty. Bodies are emaciated. I found this particularly interesting as a week prior to my trip here I finished The Prophet Unarmed the second part of Issac Deutcher’s biography of Leon Trotsky that goes into deep detail as to the conditions of the Russian serfs and working class prior to and after the Revolution.
Another painting of note was Illarion Pryanishnikov’s “Jokers – The Gostiny Dor in Moscow” not only because it is thematically linked to Dostoyevsky’s novella A Nasty Story but also as it illustrates one of the dynamics of wealth inequality that is still decried today. The painting is of a group of rich merchants forcing one of their employees to dance in a degrading manner, a scene repeated in a different context in Mysteries by Knut Hamsun. This taking advantage of the total financial dependence on their employees by forcing them to do degrading acts in order to keep their employment is nothing new and is visible in the scandal surrounding Republican presidential candidate Herman Caine.
One of the most amusing works of the exhibition was the “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks”. Despite their conservative role in modern day Russia, ever since reading Nikola Gogol’s novella Taras Bulba I’ve found them to be a fascinating social group. In this painting, which was at its time paid the highest price by the Tsar, a group of warriors that have had treaty terms brought to them are sitting around and laughing while writing an insulting letter. The nationalistic sentiment clearly visible in this painting shows that in addition to the progressive tendencies there is still recourse to use mythic situations to instill nationalistic sentiments via recourse to nationalisms. This clear divergence from the Stalinist aesthetics of internationalism informed by economic categorizations, not then usable as such totalitarian aesthetics had yet to be formed and enforced, explains why it was that such paintings later again became classified as undisplayable.
A work that was dealing with the religious elements that were affecting Russian development at the time was Konstantin Savitsky’s “Meeting the Icon”. Here a crowd of villagers converges excitedly on a carriage, from which a miracle-working icon has appeared. The throng of kneeling peasants are well kempt, the men respectfully attired, the women in colorful clothes that are their “Sunday best”. They show a range of expressive emotions in reaction to the icon – piety, apprehension, confusion and devotion. Understandable as at this time the Western medicines were making their ways into the common knowledge and such notions that an icon could heal people was offensive. An example of this growing shift is evident in Turgenev’s novel, Fathers and Sons. The treatment in this painting contains a strong vein of ridicule as we can see that the priest emerging from the carriage is doing so with great effort as he is quite rotund. It is so difficult that he needs an assistant to do so. By contrasting his large size with that of the much slimmer peasants we can detect a critical note alluding to the parasitism of the clergy in pre-revolutionary Russia.
At this exhibit I also got to see Nickolai Ge’s iconic barefoot painting of Leo Tolstoy, as well as the picture of a student returning from prison that is on the cover of the Oxford World Classics version of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. A portrait of a female student, at the time deemed subversive as it showed a woman outside of the role of household laborer traditionally ascribed to her, and Valentin Serov’s “Portrait of the Artist Issak Levitan” were also particularly arresting for their style. For this to catch my interest I knew to be special as portraiture has never been a style that attracted me.
I write all of these details about these Russian painters as a type of corrective. Due to their association with the sentiments that found shape in the Russian revolution their work has been largely overshadowed by a Cold War mentality that more positive valuated French works dealing with similar themes. These works, the narrative goes, had some sort of barbaric or atavistic elements in them that led to Bolshevism, which was never as intellectually or culturally refined as their French ruling class counterparts. Such logic is of course intellectually and historically void, yet continues in many areas to this day despite the warmed atmosphere that has relaxed international tensions somewhat. Foregoing this holdover from the 90’s, we can come to appreciate the masterpieces produced by individual Russian artists and those collected under the umbrella term Peredvizhniki.
After looking through here and a small collection of French paintings from the 18th and 19th century, Josselyn and I skipped the whole first floor of this museum as neither of us find modern functional to be exceptionally compelling and we wanted to go to the Modern Museum before it closed.
At MMS there was a special exhibit on Turner, Monet and Cy Twobly. The showing was organized thematically and placed together works that were “in conversation” with each other. I place “in conversation” in quotations as I find it hard to attribute explicit references to other paintings outside of the artists avowed intentions considering the enormous body of art which exists in the world and the limited number of subjects possible. Such “conversations” are more of a signifying game. Such games have value by making the works themselves take on additional values that are potentially worth discussing. However when a curator claims that a particular abstract work by an artist has a direct, allusive relationship to an Impressionist painting that was made one hundred years before I’m reluctant to take such claims seriously.
That caveat in place, I must admit that I was impressed by the selections and “conversation” presented at MMS One instance of a particularly well-done themeotype was a selection highlighting melancholy. A Turner painting set in Florence, absent any of the motorboats then just starting to make their appearance on the waterway, was placed next to one of the same setting by Monet which was also lacking modern machines.
With this absence of present technology, Turner seems to see this new invention as intruding upon and ruining the peaceful waterways that were for hundreds of years navigated by hand and wind. He is melancholic for simpler times. Monet completed his painting after several months of not working following the death of his second wife shortly after a long stay in Venice. He appears to be melancholic for the time that he shared with his beloved wife. While the type of melancholy informing these two paintings is clearly not equivalent, the two side by side did indeed inform each other well and was touching.
Some of my favorite paintings here, were Turner’s work dealing with the sublime. Images of immanent shipwrecks with people on the beach ready to make a living by salvaging the debris and a dangerous ocean filled with craggy rocks has a disturbing yet wonderful effect on the viewer – hence its categorization as the sublime. There is little need for me to comment on these two masters as unlike the Peredvizhniki they have universal recognition and as continued comment on other conversational combinations of paintings could lead to a short book so I’ll not go into detail about it. That said I wanted to comment on Cy Twobly’s inclusion and one of his works, specifically his painting entitled Orpheus.
This work I found to be like so much of the post-modern art, aesthetically alienating on the basis of its nihilistic embrace of vitalism. On a huge mostly white canvas on the middle left side was inscribed the name Orpheus, and above it was Greek and Roman words that were covered by a flesh colored paint that allowed some of the shapes to be legible. Put into a sentence, the significance of the painting is that in these modern and supposedly mythless times it is impossible to depict Orpheus. The abandonment of easily recognizable figures and their replacement with traces intended to be explicated by a cultural elite is indicative of Twobly’s work and the general turn towards abstract art. It’s the logical conclusion of reacting to the trends in the art world market following the conceptualization of the type of social realism embraced by the Peredvizhniki with socialism or tendencies sympathetic to it. This position against meta-narratives and replacement with subjectivist epistemology is premature and the valorization of such obscurantianism compounds this error. When reflection on Gods has left our minds, people are confronted with the realization that it is humanity’s history and accomplishment to which is now turned to for inspiration. Yet Twobly would take this away from us as well by deeming it mythological thinking. While I respect the right of artists to create as they see fit, I find the lionization of abstract forms like this as high art to be out of line with the personally and socially emancipatory aspects of human creativity. The abyss is something to be built upon, not embraced as the finality of development.
In addition to the Turner, Monet and Twobly exhibit the museum also had an excellent collection of photography on display. Some of my favorite photographers such as Capa, Koudelka, Witkin, Cartier-Bresson, were displayed on the walls and there was also dozens of books with prints of the photos. After we finished looking at the former we decided to leave.
The next day we took the train a few kilometers north of the city proper is Millesgarden. Millesgarden was the home of sculptor Karl Milles and his wife Olga, who was a photographer. Now that they are deceased, their home and garden is open daily for people to visit the hundred or so statues there. Just like at the Swedish Palace, the repeated allusions to classical Greek mythology in Milles work surprised me and amusingly enough two of statues were of Orpheus and Eurydice. Despite my attraction to public monument and sculptures I didn’t find most of them to be particularly compelling. Visiting as we did in the winter, the fountains that operate in the summer and spring were not operating, removing the functional and aesthetic elements out of several of the statues. It didn’t ruin the experience, but I would have preferred to see them in their proper context.
Inside of the house on was a logia containing classical Roman statues and pieces. One of the rooms containing these pieces was filled with lemon trees, which was a pleasant addition as it evoked the open Roman villas that once displayed such works.
In the Millesgarden temporary exhibit was a large selection of works of glass partially created by artists who don’t typically use glass. I say partially created as these artists were the instructors of the glassblowers, who followed their directions. I wasn’t particularly taken by any of the works, with the exception of a glass crown of thorns.
After this we went to Fotografiska. I was very excited to go as I’d seen advertisements for a special exhibition featuring works selected by Anton Corbijn, however upon walking through ice-cold rain we discovered that they would not be viewable until the next day. After having taken so long to get there, Josselyn and I decided to go in regardless.
Our stay here was rather short as minus the main exhibition hall there were only three other small exhibits consisting of a total of 10 rooms given to three artists. One photographer I disliked so much I won’t even comment or give her name while the others were photos by Ron Haviv and Aitor Ortiz. The thirty or so pictures by Haviv were taken in Haiti following the January 12th, 2010 earthquake. It was moving journalistic photography but would have benefitted from more information related to the rescue effort and the world economic situation that has made Haiti so vulnerable to human and natural disaster.
The Ortiz exhibit was interesting. I particularly liked the way in which the darkness of the room combined with the tight lighting of the pictures to give the exhibition an meditative ambiance. However the Photoshop altered pictures which were illuminated were not as apocalyptic as suggested by the art historian Fransisco Javier San Martin. In fact, I heartily disagree with his interpretation of Ortiz’s works as presented on the information cards adjacent to the pictures. In one card I read: “The decay of the structures in these works is evident and can be interpreted as an allegory of Western economic decline.” Even an intellectually adolescent group like OWS recognizes that it is not the whole of the economy that is suffering from the current economic downturn but only segments of it. This erasure of class, history and humans from the buildings made and the subsequent conceptualization of this as being an art that provides meaningful commentary on the issues currently facing by the developed countries is clearly ridiculous and typical of artists who work are motivated by sentiments rather than social science. This isn’t to say that I didn’t find some of the pieces to be pleasing in appearance – I particularly liked his Amorfosis 004 – however I found that the exhibit would have been preferably if the baroque commentary on the deepness of Ortiz’s use of motion and placement were gone.
After this short trip we walked to the Nobel Museum. Because of the connotations with Alfred Nobel and considering the long history of prestigious people who have received his awards I assumed that The Nobel Museum would be a grand place. This day seemed to be, however, all about my understandings being wrong as first the was no Anton Corbjin exhibit and now I was face with a museum that was not but five very small rooms.
Upon entering I immediately noticed a series of banners moving across he ceiling on what looked like a modified dry cleaning rack. On them were pictures of past winners. On either side of the entrance were computer terminals that allowed the visitor to view the Nobel Prize website – which seemed to me to be a somewhat peculiar aspect of it considering there was nothing site specific about it. After entering there was another row of touch screen computer terminals with information on the decades and winners of the prizes. Once again, that I could simply get this information from the internet in an identical manner I also found upsetting. Josselyn and I sat down in the two rooms playing films though both of them only briefly. The first room that was playing a series of student short films that were connected to the Nobel prize in a manner that escaped me. To be quite honest, though I could see he thematic connection to the material it seemed to me forced and simply a method of occupying space with visuals and seating.
The largest room was a series of panels devoted to Marie Curie and radiation. These focused on the large obstacles she had to overcome as a woman in a field as well as those she had in working in a new field. Most interesting amongst these displays for me was the depictions of the various beauty products that were made from radioactive elements prior to the discovery that they were deadly. The implications that this historical occurrence has for discussions regarding animal testing, state regulation of commercial health and beauty products is of course explicit, as is commentary on the at times dangerous pursuit to achieve beauty. The victims of this included Curie herself as well as thousands of others.
As is evident from my above description I was disappointed that this was the full extent of the museum. I asked the cashier at the gift shop if perhaps there was more on the floor above and he responded that no, above them was the Swedish Academy. He did state that in four years if all went to plan they would finish construction on a large building dedicated solely to a new museum with more exhibit space, however this was of little consolation to me at the moment.
Around this time my foot was also in so much pain from my sprain that we decided to go back to the hotel. Because of the time of our flight was at 6:30am and we were leaving from Skavsta, we had to wake up very early to get there. Being extremely sensitive to caffeine and having had a coffee at 4 p.m. I didn’t get any sleep before the trip and entered Berlin having been awake for over twenty-four hours straight.