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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Mountains and Imperial Splendour – Graz & Wien part 1

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I’ve still been feeling slightly drained after my dissertation (even though that was two years ago) and last winter was pretty busy as I started my work at the uni of Jyväskylä, Department of Art and Culture Studies last autumn. I work as a post doctoral researcher but the the bulk of my work seems to be teaching and tutoring which has sadly meant there has been very little time and energy left for my own research. Maybe it will be better this winter.

I did get to go on one conference trip last November. Me and my friend had a joint presentation in the annual archeological conference, CHNT – Conference on Cultural Heritage and New Technologies, in Wien, Austria. (The link takes you to the site of this years conference.) That was great! I first traveled to the city of Graz where my friend lives and spent a weekend there polishing up our presentation and enjoying the landscape. What a treat! the weather was magnificent, all sunshine, breathtaking mountains and autumn coloured forests.

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This felt just like Lothlórien! (The photo looks wonky because I tried this 360-decrees-setting that my cameraphone has.)

My favourite spot was this small chapel on a ridge in a small village:

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We stopped there for awhile and I tried to sketch the landscape but it did not turnout so well. Maybe it was because I was so in awe of the view, but even if I’m not happy with the sketch itself, drawing and painting it created an extremely vivid memory of being in that place and within that landscape. I will be writing a philosophical article on it soon…

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Not completely pleased with it but see it still makes me feel like I’m still there. That’s interesting…

On Sunday we traveled to Wien where they hold these conferences. The venue was (and still is) the humble city hall of the once imperial capital, Wien:

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The City Hall of Wien, Austria.

No, not that white classical temple. It’s that cathedral looking building in the background. Aye, it is HUGE. Just look at the size of the central courtyard:

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It used to take a lot of office space to run the capital of an empire.

Apparently they have a too much space for contemporary bureaucracy (it’s the computers, I think. They take less space than thousands of filing cabinets and endless rows of typing typists.) My friend told me that one third of the complex is now empty and the city is trying to find new usage for it. It’s not like they can simply tear it down just because the upkeep costs a fortune.

It’s even better inside. This was the staircase leading up to our conference venue:

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And the conference rooms themselves! Someone from USA noted that this was unbelievable as the conference venues back is States were just drearily dull grey, windowless conference centres. This, now this was something completely different!

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I think I could fit one of the chandeliers from the conference rooms into our living room. But I would have to figure out what to do with the furniture – There would be no room left…

There was, like there always is in conferences, some time for sketching. Here’s what I did:

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One of the rooms had old heraldic tapestries.

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No conference is complete without drawings of people from behind.

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This year there were lots of topknots and buns. The man drawn in black was an Italian archeologist.

On the last night we had the traditional conference dinner which this time was a bit more glamorous than usually. The conference was held for 20th time (in row!) and the mayor of Wien treated us with a special dinner. The tables were set in the official banquet room:

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Apparently there can’t be too much gold when you are decorating in an imperial scale.

I managed a quick sketch while waiting for the dinner to start. It does take some time when 200 dinner guests try to find their seats.

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I have no idea who these blokes are but they must be important enough to have their statue standing in a place like that. Marble, of course, and a gilded canopy above each one.

I sneaked away for two days from the conference (archeology is not my field of expertise after all) and visited some pretty awesome places and saw some things I have always wanted to see. More about that on the next post.

P.s. These days I just can’t be bothered to actually scan my drawings. The scanner I have is getting a bit too old for my laptop and photographing is just so much faster. That’s why the sketch photos are what they are. You can’t always have good lighting.

A Full Plate

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January came and went despite of my good intentions of posting once a week. I’ve been busier than I thought. I’m currently teaching a Masters degree course at the University of Jyväskylä’s departmen of art and cultural studies on environmental aesthetics – on lived and represented environments to be precise – for two two hour lectures per week and I spend every Tuesday and Wednesday there for seven weeks. Thought it is fun and stimulating, it is also quite taxing since I live almost 300 km away and every Tuesday morning first drive there, give two lectures and drive back the next day. I was taken by surprise how much pressure on my weekly schedule the leaching gig has put even if I have taught the same course before and so had the material ready. Live and learn.

Last time I posted about the pen and inks I had bought from The Goulet Pen Company and I promised to report back after having properly tried them. I really like the Noodler’s Ahab flex fountain pen. It is significantly sturdy bodied pen in comparison to most pens and that suits my hand perfectly: it’s much easier to keep my hold relaxed with Ahab. And the flex, ah, enough said. I love that I can manipulate the line easily (I am yet to master the brush pen) and the fact that I can easily adapt the level of flexing by adjusting the nib. Definitely good value for $20! A good first drawing fountain pen I think.

That plate of sushi is the very first proper drawing I did with the Ahab. The paper of my current sketchbook is not best suited for the ink (Platinum Carbon Black and it is pitch black!) and it feathers easily. Also the papers in not best suited for the bid either as it scratches easily and so it resists the movement of the nib slightly. A really high quality nib might work better but it’s not a big deal to me. I’ll just select a sketchbook with different kind of paper the next time I need a new one.

We had late lunch with a friend before Christmas and had sushi in this really nice, small sushi place in central Helsinki called Ichiban Sushi. I didn’t want to spent time drawing while I could have delicious sushi to eat in the company of a friend we don’t see often enough. But no worries, a quick picture with my mobile and I could take my time drawing the plate later at home. And not only that, that way I got to enjoy the same meal twice! Not bad, not bad at all, don’t you think?

The Day of the Birds

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Few weeks ago I spent a weekend in Helsinki while my partner had his annual weekend get-together with his old army buddies. I didn’t realise until just a few days before the trip that is was the Halloween weekend and I wouldn’t be able to go shopping for art supplies on Saturday like I had planned. No matter, instead of shopping I just spent more time eating and drawing in the Natural History Museum.

The day started with a lunch with my friend in an excellent Chinese restaurant called China (yes, really, even in Finnish). Except we were there a full hour too early and the place was still closed. No matter, we decided to have the dessert first which is always a good solution in situations like this. We had rather bad tea and delicious pastries in what supposedly is one of the best cafes in town. It usually is a really good choice but for some reason the tea was just water this time. Incidentally, one time the then president of Finland Tarja Halonen was there too when we went in for a cuppa. *Enter appropriate amount of awe here* Anyway, an hour later we were in the restaurant looking at menus and trying to figure out what to order.

We decided to avoid all the usual choices and went for this as the starter:

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Steamed chicken legs in black bean sauce. Sounds disgusting but actually really, really tasty. Not much in them to eat, though. It’s basically just skin, tendons and cartilage with lots of small bones to spit out. I have eaten some really horrible ones but these were delicious. I can highly recommend them – in this restaurant at least.

As the main course we had steamed Chinese vegetables and Cantonese pork:

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Tasty! And here the jasmine tea was good too. And, of course, we had the second dessert too like any decent Hobbit should. I had almond milk tofu with fruits and that too was, you guessed it, delicious.

From the restaurant I went to the Finnish Museum of Natural History. I had intended to draw some beetles and such but the collection they had on display was so small that there was nothing really interesting to draw. I guess most visitors are more interested in dinosaurs and large mammals than in insects. How weird is that! There aren’t many things more beautiful than beetle’s pelvis and legs.

A new plan was in order and so I decided to draw some birds. I picked the most colourful birds of the Finnish fauna, the common king fisher and the Eurasian golden oriole. The page still had space left for one more and I decided to draw the head of the great black cormorant with its piercing glare. I drew the head of the king fisher too small, which means I learnt something and next time I will know what to do.

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The museum was packed with families, of course, but to my surprise there were quite a few tourists considering it was so late in the autumn. Even more surprising was the number of young adults and even teenagers present. And they, these fairly typical city inhabitants, were really enthusiastic about the birds. They eagerly shared anecdotes about birds they had seen and wondering about the size, shape and colours of our feathered friends. It was a really nice surprise! Most of the times I have been there practically all of the other visitors have been families, but clearly on a national holiday – when everything else is closed – a natural history museum is a valid option for leisure.

Maybe there still is hope for the planet.

PS. I did realise birds were the theme of the day until I typed the title. It also was a day of changing plans.

My Heroes: Tove Jansson

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Our Sketchbook Skool teacher Jean-Christophe Defline‘s first homework assignment for us was to draw quickly, in about 10-20 minutes, a picture of a person. I took me slightly longer than that, more like 45 mins. I’m sorry. I got carried away. But I do have a good excuse.

I recently visited our nation’s capital Helsinki and popped in at the national gallery Ateneum‘s bookstore where I found an adorable postcard of Tove Jansson, the mother of Moomins. You know, the white hippopotamus-nosed creatures that live in Moominvalley. Tove – we all call her by her first name here – is one of my all-time favourite creative persons. She is one of the most versatile artists I have ever come across. She was not only an excellent drawer – just look at her Moomin illustrations – but also an excellent painter. She wrote one of the best ‘children’ books of all times but she also wrote equally enthralling prose for grownups. She wrote Moomin-plays, designed the costumes and the stage sets.

I think her popularity has much to do with her personality. She always appeared to be open and content. She was really nice to her Moomin fans even if she was annoyed and little disappointed that she became famous for Moomins and not for her ‘serious’ art. Not that she felt that Moomins were in any way less serious or important, I’ sure. It’s just that she was much more than just the Moomins. Anyhow, she tried to answer every fan letter she got from kids herself by hand and those few thank you -letters I have seen are all very thoughtful and personal. There’s something very Santa Claus -like to her. But she was also a little rebellious. She enjoyed her wee dram and she smoked. She was defiantly independent and egalitarian – much like many of her Moomin characters. Her partner in life was Tuulikki Pietilä, a graphic artist and a fine sculptor, who, I just found out, was born in Seattle. Interesting! She and Tove lived openly together without anyone ever making a fuss about it publicly. I think that too was down to Tove’s and Tuulikki’s personality who simply disarmed everyone with their non-judgemental, mindful attitude. There’s a great picture of them two here.

Tove has a really well made, interesting and informative virtual museum. There you can not only read about her family, see lots of photos of her life and of her works and watch home movies (she and Tuulikki filmed a lot) and listen to her read from her books – in Swedish. One of the best such sites. Really, really well made in IMHO. Her Moomin-art has a real life museum too in Tampere called Muumilaakso, Moominvalley. Definitely worth a visit if you ever find yourself in the neighbourhood! They too have a virtual version of their exhibition.

And do read a Moomin book. Any one of them will do. 🙂

Stay Sharp – A Present

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I have always wanted to have a real Swiss army penknife and now I do. I have spend the last few years researching and writing my Ph.D. in aesthetics and museology and now it’s done. The theses has been published by the university (that’s part of the process here in Finland) and I defended my dissertation two months ago on the 16th of August. Yep, we call it a theses defence where I face my opponent. Really, that’s what we call the person examining my dissertation and questioning me about it. My opponent was professor Yuriko Saito from Rhode Island School of Design and she told us that her mates at her department teased her about the title telling her not to shoot he down etc. Ironically, a friend of mine gave me two wooden tai chi swords as Ph.D. present. No, we still didn’t duel, Yuriko and me.

According to the protocol, in the evening after the thesis defence there is a more or less formal dinner in the honour of the opponent. It depends on the traditions of the department how formal the dinner is but there always is toasts and thank yous. Luckily my department, the Department of Art and Culture Studies, University of Jyväskylä, is not too keen on strict formalities. There was 20 of us and I was pleasantly surprised at how many wanted to say a few words. A bunch of my oldest friends present gave me the Swiss army knife with an engraving on its larger blade reading: “Stay sharp, Kaisa.” That was so cool and so nice of them! One of the best presents ever.

I’m currently enrolled on the third semester of Sketchbook Skool called ‘Storytelling.’ Koosje Koene had us draw a manual of something as homework and this is what I did. I thought about rewriting the text on the upper right corner but nah, it’ll do. Next time I know how to make the layout more pleasing.

And, by the way, the blades are really, really sharp.

Edinburgh 2014 And Not a Drop of Rain

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Haven’t been to Scotland since 2010 and I have been missing it a lot. What can I say, I’m a Scotland junkie. I managed to talk my scout troop (Boys and girls belong to same groups here in Finland.) into selecting Scotland as this year’s group trip destination and so, after a year of fundraising, we spent four nights in Edinburgh. And you know what: it didn’t rain at all the whole time we were there. That has never happened to me before. All that rain gear – for nothing! I even carried my raincoat in my backpack the whole time. Not that I’m complaining…

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My first plane sketch ever. We left home at 5.30 in the morning and boarded the plane to Stockholm, Sweden, around 13.30. We changed planes and eventually landed in Edinburgh around 20.00. A long, long day. Usually I sleep in cars, trains and planes, I love to sleep in them, but not this time for some reason. So instead I drew these guys fast a sleep on the plane to Edinburgh.

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Monday was Tour of the Town -day and I didn’t have time to sketch anything from my tour guide duties. But Tuesday was day trip day. The famous Rosslyn Chapel was our first stop. It’s a pretty awesome place and the Da Vinci Code doesn’t do it justice. Go see it if you ever have the chance and take your time with the decorations. And listen the guide as s/he takes you through its history. You’d be amazed!

Tantallon Castle by the sea and close to the beautiful coastal town of North Berwick  was our second stop. It is a stunning place to visit. Just look at the pictures:

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The curtain wall of the Tantallon Castle. Notice the sky: not a single cloud to be seen!

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The eastward view from the castle. Only the curtain wall remains. The other three have (mostly) fallen to the sea.

And there is a magnificent view of the Bass Rock with its tens of thousands of sea birds from the castle too. You can see the Rock all the way from the Edinburgh Castle or the Arthur’s Seat on a clear day, but from the Tantallon you can see that it is white because of the birds, the largest colony of gannets in the world in fact. The bird droppings may have something to do with it too. The island is actually about 300 million years old volcanic plug, just like the rock on which the Edinburgh Castle is built. How cool can one tiny island get?

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Yes, that’s a lot of birds.

That Tuesday was A Great Day. I just wish I had had more time at the castle. There were so many things to draw there.

On Wednesday everyone roamed the city on their own. Some went shopping. Some went to the Edinburgh Zoo which they said was really good, especially because the animals had ample enclosures. I went to visit the National Museum of Scotland. In 2010 the older, originally Victorian part of the building was still under renovations so I went to see how it had turned out. Boy, was I in for a treat! I had a cuppa and a delicious sandwich first (I had taken three persons to the Edinburgh Castle first. I’m a life member of Historic Scotland and can take two adult guests with me for free.) before I begun to roam the place. The trouble was I had a sore throat and probably some temperature too, and I simply did not have the energy to see as much as I would have liked to. So I concentrated my energies on the natural world.

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I learned that there is a reason why the tip of the tail of the stoat is black: it actually confuses birds of pray that try to catch a stoat and deceives the attacker into aiming at the tail instead of the stoats head giving stoat time to flee. Never knew that. What a neat trick!

The main attraction for me, however, was the temporary exhibition of Ming Dynasty, my favourite Chinese dynasty. It wasn’t particularly big exhibition but they had some absolutely masterful objects of art on display. Sadly my flu-infected mind forgot instantly all the names of the artists I liked. One particularly brilliant ink painting was a huge picture of a stormy sea. I almost could feel the gale tearing the sails and feel the waves heaving and taste the salt of the sea. All that using only white paper and black ink. Stunning. I could have spend hours staring at the paintings alone. There was so much to learn.

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He looks a bit too cocky to be the Buddha.

I wanted to draw something just to remorise the exhibition. Of course there was no seating, not even those folding chairs you can often find in museums, and I was getting really tired quickly. What would I have given for a seat! Luckily there was only one other person in the exhibition at that time so I could drop my backpack on the floor and scatter my drawing stuff around it without bothering anyone. I just wish I had had the energy to draw more.

I new I had to take off soon. My energies were just about spent. However, I braved the Animal World -exhibition first. There was so many interesting things there but all I could manage was this quick sketch of the African elephant and the jaw bones of a blue whale. I knew blue whales are huge, enormous. So big, in fact, that you can drive a Volkswagen Beetle in its aorta (David Attenborough said so on the telly, so it must be true), but to think that its tongue weighs as much as an African elephant! Oh boy, that’s big for you.

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That’s all from Scotland for now. Next trip me and my partner make might be a week in London and just the British Museum. That would be so sweet…

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Evan Thompson

Professor of Philosophy, University of British Columbia

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