Imperial Curiosities – Graz & Wien part 2

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While in Vienna for an archeological conference last November, I sneaked away for a visit in the Kunsthistoriches Museum, the Art Historical Museum. I entered soon after it had opened for the day and exited 7 hours later – and I hadn’t seen even the half of it.

The museum seems to have everything from the Ancient Rome and Greece to the modern and the contemporary, from polished gems to huge canvases. If you go through the museum following the chronological order from the oldest to the latest, the first parts are more like a curiosity cabinet and that makes it even more fascinating. It is easy to imagine that you are visiting the private collections of the emperor seeing his favourite curiosities – which most of the artifacts and works of art originally were. The splendour, the sumptuousness, the sheer extravagance is breathtaking. For example, take a look at this vase:

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Looks like crystal, doesn’t it, but it’s not. It is actually made of a single quartz crystal, a rock crystal, not glass. It big, huge, actually: maybe 50cm from the base to the top. And it was not the only one. If you look carefully, you can see two others behind it, and that’s not all of them. There are dozens of various sizes on display!

It’s difficult to comprehend the amount of wealth that made collecting on this scale possible.

Another impressive piece of craftsmanship were these structurally realistic and extremely detailed, delicate bouquets made of various metals. The patience it must take to create one of these:

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Nice, but I wouldn’t want to dust these. Suppose that’s why one would have an army of servants…

There were so many amazing works of art that I just walked from one to the next in complete awe. It wasn’t until I got to the Roman and Greek collections that I managed to draw something. The Classical statues and other artifacts were more familiar and they therefore did not left me as wonderstruck as the other curiosities. This classical athlete/prince was one of my favourites:

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The bronzes and other statues were extremely well lit, as you can see. The light levels were rather low (it’s not necessary for the conservation) and spotlights highlighted the statues beautifully. (Hihii!) But seriously, an even, monotonous lighting is not the best for three dimensional works of art. A more subdued and directional light reveals the character of the statues. Also, the museum had succeeded in avoiding one of the most annoying mishaps of museum lighting: the head of the visitor shading the object. You might have noticed this in most museums. Often the spotlights are placed so that when you get closer to a vitrine to have a closer look as something, your head and shoulders get in front of the light and you unavoidably cast a shadow on the object. No matter how you try to move, the object remains in shadow unless you move back and you again can’t see the detail you were interested in. Here this was seldom a problem. All the artifacts in these pictures were in vitrines but, as you can see, there are only a few reflections from the glass.

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The was my favourite one. It’s not a Classical but a Neoclassical sculpture. Sadly I have lost the piece of paper on which I wrote the artist’s name.

There ware so many incredible artifacts there that it would have been easy to become lost in photographing everything I saw. I did manage to fight the urge and drew these two treasures:

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I bet Eutropios lit up the room when he walked in.

The one on the left was a bust of a really sour looking fella. Not your standard Classical head. Delightful! The one on the right was a small, maybe 6-7cm tall bronze figurine, a kind of an idol. Sadly there was very little information available in English in the exhibition. I really would like to know more about these disfigured idols.

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It wasn’t only the objects of art that were impressive, the museum building itself is magnificent. This, of course, should not be surprising. What else could an originally imperial art museum be! However, the trouble with imperial splendour is that it sometimes overwhelms the art, like here in the hall of classical marbles where the sculptures were lost in the marble walls and gilded ceilings. Sometimes you just can’t tell the trees from the forest (not the other way round).

The marbles hall aside, the building is an art historical wonder in itself. You could spend a day looking at it alone, drinking in all the architectural details, period features, and intertextual clues and icons. Sitting in the upper restaurant was in itself a superb experience. And the lunch wasn’t too bad either.

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Now this is a proper staircase.

It was a wonderful seven hours but while it uplifted me, it was also slightly exhausting. In a way is was a delight to return to the conference the next morning and to spend most of the day listening to various presentations. Not that they were dreary but they are less exiting in an electrifying kind of a way. More subdued and intellectually inspiring in other ways. Though I would love to be there when a scientific presentation gets the audience to jump up in excitement…

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Daleks in Nineveh

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See?!

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It’s clearly a dalek in disguise attacking a walled city in a panel from the North Palace of the ancient city of Nineveh. Either that or a tank.

Kinda hoping it is a tank.

If it is a dalek then where is Doctor Who? Is there a panel, a vase or a statue of him hidden somewhere in the vast collections of The British Museum? Do they have the Tardis? No, wait, that actually seems to be parked here.

Makes me wonder what I will find the next time I spend three days roaming about the British Museum.

The Art of Commonplace Books

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Quinn of QuinnCreative posted recently about differences between a visual journal and commonplace journal (linking to my older blog which was very nice of her!). I have been keeping a commonplace book since I saw the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as a teenager and fell in love with Doctor Jones, Sr’s commonplace book on the Holy Grail. You can view that journal here if you got interested. It’s a movie prop and not as detailed as the commonplace book -prop in The English Patient but very mysterious and intriguing anyhow. As prop goes, it’s not the real thing but the idea of a thing that counts.

It’s true as Quinn says that commonplace journals or books are not necessarily really artistic. It really isn’t what they are supposed to be but as the Dr. Jones, Sr’s journal demonstrates, basic notes and scribbles can add up into aesthetically pleasing pages. But there is no reason to stick to just pencil and ink. Most of my commonplace book pages are rather straight forward: I find something interesting in a newspaper of a magazine and if it fits the page, I will cut it out and glue it into the book. If it doesn’t, I will copy it by hand. I have collected lots of interesting pictures – photos and art – that way but also short weird news pieces and so on.

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The one on the left is from a magazine I found in my high school’s library back in the day. It’s from the series ‘Pioneers of Empirical Science – Educational Collectible Cartoon.’ Below it reads: ‘Lord McMacLeod is about to begin his seminal experiments on electricity.’

Unlike Quinn I don’t use my commonplace books as planners. The books are my treasuries of the weird and wonderful and besides, I have never been much of dairy keeper anyway. One thing I do collect are rubbings of different Euro coins from around Europe since every country using Euros has their own design. Some collect the actual coins but I rather use the coins than just hoard them. No offence meant to numismatists. It just isn’t for me. 🙂 I also try to save the tickets to all art and museum exhibitions I have been to. Most of them go into the commonplace book but those visits that took place on holidays etc. usually go into the pertinent travel journal. Here is one such page from one of the commonplace books:

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Sometimes, however, the subject calls for something little extra and then I can treat the commonplace journal more as a visual journal and I end up with something more artsy. Like these pages:

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This is from a newspaper column where kids can ask questions from real experts. In this Sofia wants to know why there are such things as dirty words. The professor of linguistics gives such a clever answer that I thought it deserved something extra as a background.

And the spread below on the left is a comment from an Russian tourist in North Korea saying that ‘In comparison to North Korea the Soviet Union in the 1980s was a free and groovy democracy.’ (Oh, wait, I made that almost exactly nine years ago! Groovy!) On the right is another question from an Q&A column called Torsti Tietää (Torsti Knows). A reader wants to know it its true what they said in Supersize Me that there is something called casomorphin in cheese which supposedly makes one addicted to cheese. Yes, there is but it’s an all natural ingredient of milk. Adults’ digestion breaks down casomorphin and so it doesn’t get absorbed into adults’ circulation but infants digestion can’t do that and so their body absorbs casomorphin which then helps infants to calm down and to sleep longer. Pretty clever, isn’t it!

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Few years ago I decided to keep a special book for poems I really like but, as it often does, life happened and I only got two poems done. No matter, that special commonplace book will fare just fine in my library for now. One day I will pick it up again and add the third one into it. I already have the poem written down on some paper scrap. Until then I’ll just keep looking for interesting things for my current common commonplace book.

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I, the Natural Historian

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My brain has been off-line ever since I turned in my Ph.D. thesis three weeks ago. Nothing. Nada. The first week my brain did not want to create anything at all. All it was contented to do was to receive stuff. I just wanted to experience stuff but not to come up with anything, absolutely anything. I didn’t even want to decide what we would have for dinner. It was a strange feeling but it was just my creative mind saying it had been working really hard for the previous months and it wanted some down time and some new things to see and so I watched TV-series on line and rented DVDs.

Then I found this in the forest one day with our dog: an illegal (they should be buried) dump of moose carcases, all kinds of left-overs from the last autumn’s hunting season. Wild animals (foxes, ravens, lynx etc.) had scattered the leg bones and shoulder blades and skulls around an eery, haunted looking corner of the woods as they had eaten what ever had been left on the bones. Some bones had been gnawed at but that might have been squirrels that often nibble bones and antlers for minerals. Most of the bones are bare but some lower legs still had fur on them as you can see. The forest floor had turned dark where the carcases had been dumped. It’s difficult to explain what that looks like but you can easily tell where a body has been lying in a forest. A little bit of everyday CSI: Wilderness I guess. Yup, I have come a cross scenes likes this surprisingly often. Last autumn I found a killed dog rotting in a thick bush by the smell. Another snippet of CSI: Wilderness: if it smells like rotting milk in the middle of nowhere, it’s probably a rotting carcass.

I have always been interested in bones and anatomy, in feathers, seashells and stones. All things natural historian. My favourite place to visit as a 5-year old was the natural history museum. I have a good collection of interesting stuff I have found plus some bought ones like a dinosaur tooth. I have framed some of the seashells I have collected from various places, like these common mussels, Mytilus edulis. The tops ones are from Hanko on the coast of the southern Finland and the lower one is from Kilmartin, Scotland. Quite a difference in size: the mussels in the Baltic Sea do not grow much bigger since the salinity of the water here is much lower than in the oceans. The mussel shells from Hanko are about 1,5–2 cm long.

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But the pride of my collection is this shell of a duck mussel, Anodonta anatina, that I found on the bank of lake Köyliö in sourthern Finland. It’s huge! They are usually about 10 cm long but this monster is closer to 20 cm. You could tell its age by counting its growth rings just like a tree’s. I haven’t done that but it is obviously old. I found it in a pile of shells left behind by a muskrat, Ondatra zibethicus, (not native to Finland but introduced ca. 100 years ago) probably. The smaller shells are from the same pile and are of average size.

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I have been thinking about making a special journal of my seashells. I even have a sketchbook ready for that.

 

The Coolest Thing to See in The Kon-Tiki Museum Is…

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… this scull with a picture of a fish carved into its forehead. It’s from the Easter Islands and they suspect that it probably is the scull of a shaman or a tribal leader. Why else would you carve a fish into it? Of course it must be some how special but maybe it was made special by carving the fish into it and not the other way round. But who knows. This is the handicap of archeology: there are seldom eyewitnesses around to tell us what the heck it is that we just unearthed.

I mentioned the Kon-Tiki Museum in the previous post but it’s such a special museum that it deserves to get a post of its own. Kon-Tiki is the name of the balsa raft the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and his crew used to cross the Pacific Ocean in 1947 just to prove that the South American cultures could have sailed all the way to the west across the ocean. Heyerdahl did a similar trip a cross the Atlantic on the Ra II made out of papyrus reeds to prove that you could do that with ancient Egyptian technology. The first Ra didn’t make it. The second proved the point. Heyerdahl had other adventures too but these are the famous ones. Not only did he prove that you could manage such journeys using ancient technology but his crew collected a lot of data about the state of the oceans during their travels. The dark, stone-looking lumps of oil on display in the museum are –. Well, let’s just say that they do make you think. Anyhow, the rafts are pretty awesome too and the exhibitions are breath taking.

But I have to admit, sculls and skeletons and any human remains in museums make me wonder if they really should be there. After all, they once used to be living persons. This scull, though, might be a slightly different thing since it used to be some kind of a ritual object so you could argue that it didn’t come from a burial. I don’t think its exactly okay to put on display human remains without the exact permission from the deceased or her/his relatives. But what about the mummies and other burials of ancient, long gone cultures? Burials are often the only thing or at least the most informative thing left of their lives.

The drawing is from my notes for my dissertation on museum exhibition architecture. You can’t always draw spaces and display structures. You gotta have your occasional scull there too.

Weirdest Christmas Card Ever

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I found this card last week at a flea market and I just had to get it. What a strange picture! The card is roughly 100 years old and clearly Jugendstil (German Art Nouveau). Not only is the motif peculiar – even for Jugendstil – but is was posted as a Christmas card of all things! To miss Miina Kuusiniemi from J.J. Had she broken the sender’s heart?

Evan Thompson

Professor of Philosophy, University of British Columbia

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