Spending time in art museums always refills my soul in ways I struggle to verbalize. Seeing paint on canvas, the aging of marble, the intricate woodwork of gilded frames; it all feels somehow, though often centuries old, like a breath of fresh air.
I was almost flat broke, determined to spend the last of my money on a ticket to Zurich. I was, after all, meant to celebrate my own birthday, yes, and 20 is big deal! And seeing as I didn’t want to be around humans, it would be better to be around art. Calculating that there was indeed enough money for a museum ticket and a train ticket, the decision was made.
I packed a large bag with two cameras, a book, some snacks, and walked to the train station to catch the train to Zurich. Due to Swiss geography, one does not get to stay on the train from Lugano the whole way to Zurich. After going through Bellinzona, then the steep Gotthard Pass, which is quite an engineering feat, the train stops at windy, lonely, tiny Arth-Goldau, a transit station where you have about 2 minutes to scramble and find the train that will take you to your final destination. Arth-Goldau is freezing cold in the winter, smack dab in the middle of Switzerland, and when you stop there it feels deserted and almost surreal.
That is Arth-Goldau as I walked across the way to my train. I know, such a crisp photograph! (Please forgive the thin lines on many of the photographs- something with my camera, probably the backing plate, scratched thin lines onto several rolls!)
From there, I settled onto the final train. Rolling into Zurich, through graffiti-filled tunnels, the train parked and I got off. I had earlier researched which tram to get on and found the #3 with little effort. Paying for my ticket, I headed straight to the Kunsthaus Zurich, the city’s fantastic museum. Museums have always been one of my favorite ways to spend time solo.
I spent the morning and early afternoon there, looking at everything from Piet Mondrian to medieval Madonnas. If my faulty, human memory serves me, it wasn’t crowded. I was allowed to have entire rooms to myself. In one room, a spider descended from the ceiling right in front of me, as though to have a better picture of the bright blue and white Fernand Leger painting we were both admiring. This is the only living, breathing thing I shared my experience with willingly.
Living abroad, one discovers the importance of being able to be alone. How to be alone, not lonely, and if you are lonely, to corral the loneliness somewhere else so that your living hours are not spent in sorrow. As I walked around the Altstadt (Old Town), past buildings that had lived through 500+ years of events, I passed art galleries and fashion boutiques. Carts of beautiful books for sale sat outside large, sunny shop windows. I thumbed through a few, unable to even think of buying anything. Languages from every corner of the earth were heard, mixed with the local Schweizerdeutsch, echoed from wood-beamed buildings. I will never not be bored of being in old places. This walls of these buildings had so many stories to tell, and the people who lived in them and worked in them surely could echo my sentiments. Wandering, listening, watching, are all wonderful things to do alone.
It was a beautiful day- sunny but not too bright, a spring morning full of that omnipresent optimism that Primavera brings. Being able to wander with no time limits, no need to do anything, was perfect. I stopped outside churches, walked by the river, people-watched, and spent the whole day going wherever felt right. It was marvelous to do so.
Although this was over 5 years ago that broke girl and I are still very much alike. Being alone has become more and more normal. My friends, scattered across the globe like seeds, exist often on the fringes of my life, and my beloved partner is also geographically quite distant. Museums are still a place I go to escape reality and to embrace it, and I have been saving a weekend just so I can go to the museum here on a rainy, awful day.
Although the formula isn’t perfect, I do know how to be alone quite well, and it is very important to know how to do so. Especially in our lives, where it is so easy to feel despair and embrace negativity, knowing how to fortify yourself with books, Skype dates, plenty of sleep, and spontaneous adventures will keep you going for longer than you think.
Also, fair warning, but this might be one of a few escapist-like pieces. The world right now is a vicious thing, and the teeth and claws normally hidden behind lips and under fur are gleaming everywhere I look.
I love how Manet consistently used colors to embody luxury and how he used light to enhance everything. The dark backgrounds with bland colors set his subjects in contrast, making them more illuminated and glowing. I love how delicately he does hands- they don’t look stiff or too formal at all. The tiny peeled lemon he leaves in the bottom right corner of the painting make it both a portrait and a still life. I love how quick and easy his brushstrokes seem. Manet was a passionate creature, and his paintings and pastel works are infused with emotion. There is no passivity in his creations, no pauses, but they are not rushed works. Purposeful, clever, and exquisite, Manet’s portraits are some of my favorites to observe.
Details from Judith Beheading Holofernes, Uffizi Gallery, Florence
I love Judith and Holofernes paintings quite a bit. Lots of artists have done their interpretations of the scene- and most of them have been men.
The way that men typically paint Judith is either as she’s about to cut off Holoferne’s head or after, or if she’s shown actually beheading him she’s very flimsy about it. Her grip on the sword seems less than realistic, and she usually looks calm and beautiful (you know, for that pesky thing called the male gaze).
Here, we have Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque painter, giving us her version. While I don’t think it’s been substantiated, this is seen as something of a revenge painting. Artemisia was supposed to have been raped at some point as a young woman and it could be said that this painting is her version of getting back. It certainly is a bloody scene, and much darker than many paintings.
I love how intensely Judith is in the process of beheading him (realistically decapitation is no piece of cake- you’ve got muscles, sinew, ligaments, a spine, etc. to get through) because it feels real. You can see her hand gripping the hilt of the sword while one hand is tangled in Holofernes hair so as to get a better grip. Her assistant holds him down, and his massive form is shown writhing, desperately trying to avoid the inevitable. His blood streams down the edge of the mattress and sprays un-elegantly out of the side of his neck (those arteries!). This feels legitimate. It wasn’t painted for some man to stare at as some gorgeous, poised Judith delicately saws through Holoferne’s body passively- it was created by a woman who imagines if she were actaully given the task to get Holofernes drunk and then dispatch of him. If you were a female assassin, what would you do? This.
This painting is magnificent. I wish I had known about Artemisia when I was at the Uffizi in 2009- I was much more obsessed with seeing Botticelli and Michelangelo at the time. Someday I will go and honor this wondrous woman’s creation in person properly. Until then, she has all my respect.
Details of Pieter Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents.
When I was making these I realized all the fantastic things I miss when I just see it. The way the horse’s tail is tied in a bow, the way that Bruegel frames the bodies of animals and men alike. The lack of outright blood and gore, but still omnipresent violence and the threat of it everywhere, hemmed in with the most lovely, peaceful looking rooftops and skyline. The sky alone could be looked at for quite some time, in my opinion. The delicate hues of pink, the richness of his browns, the touches of blue, the harshness of the green against the winter village setting, even the cold glint of armor- a wonderful whirlwind.
Last night I spent an evening as I often do: On my computer. However, I found myself falling deep into the Flickr Commons, a sort of collection of archives from various universities and institutions that digitized photographs, documents, postcards, you name it, and put them available for public use.
Last night alone I explored post-mortem photography (a grim Victorian thing that today is not often done), tin types, illustrations of plants, original treaties from various nations- dozens of different areas.
What I posted above are a few of my favorites. Oddly enough, many don’t post actual art collections, with the exception of the Senado Federal do Brasil, which has a massive album of some amazing modern and early modern art. The British Library has one of the best collections of fauna (animal) sketches and illustrations I have ever seen, and I spent hours scrolling through early German, French, and English explorer’s depictions of animals from all corners of the world (early sketches of water creatures are especially interesting- sharks often look more like cats for some reason). The Smithsonian Institution has an (obviously) gigantic collection but images from one person’s diving around Antarctica were really damn spectacular.
If you’re bored (which you shouldn’t be, the world is too awesome for that) I recommend simply starting here: https://www.flickr.com/commons. Go get lost exploring what various institutions and places have collected and then made available to you. Find goofy sketches of extinct animals done by some guy with more imagination than observational skills. Explore orotypes (gold-tinted photographs) from over 100 years ago. Find yourself looking at woolly Icelandic sheep living out their days on that wonderfully bizarre island. Delve into photographs of wealthy people fabulously lounging in repose. Look at images of fantastical buildings from different time periods. Wonder how the hell an archivist delicately handles centuries old documents in acid-free cotton gloves without panicking. Begin a thought train and see where it takes you.
Or, don’t. But bookmark the link because you’ll be glad you did when your plans cancel and you’re stuck at home. Or when you voluntarily cancel your plans because being outside and around people is just too much.
We are currently avoiding the miserable and relentless rain and wind as they pelt the windows of our small cottage in Hafnarfjöður.
The complete lack of posting is all to blame on this: the longest holiday I have taken in a very long time. We have been in Amsterdam, Brussels, and Bruges, and Iceland is our final stop. We (sadly) depart this Wednesday from Keflavík Airport to fly back across the sea.
In the meantime, here are a few iPhone photographs from our time in Amsterdam. A wonderful family friend, Helen, picked us up from the airport at Schipol and took us to our hostel.
We unwittingly ended up in the heart of the Red Light District, with noise unabated 24/7. Nonetheless we were able to enjoy this fascinating city, navigating the narrow streets and crossing bridges, all while dodging the homicidal bikers that fly with dizzying speed around corners, seemingly fearless.
One aspect of Europe that never ceases to amaze me is just how old it is. America is a toddler compared to many European cities, and as we walked past buildings that were 500 years old and still standing I was left with my mind reeling.
We visited gardens and zoos and walked for miles, a visitors map in hand. Truth be told, Amsterdam was often a struggle for my mind and body, as the large masses of people clogged streets and bars and seemingly every available space. I am not at heart a city dweller; the comfort of Montana and it’s expanse of space and my largely rural-ish (relative to this) upbringing can make me bolt and dodge people as if escaping from something.
Regardless, we had a blast. The food scene in Amsterdam is certainly one that will get praise in upcoming posts, and many gems of the city we encountered I want to delve into further.
I hope that these images suffice for the time being, until I have access to a computer (I am posting from my iPhone, and apologize if formatting or image sizes are off!). Farewell for a few more days, friends!
Step 1: Turning in a proposal and experiencing gut-seizing fear.
Step 2: Sitting your ass down and researching.
THIS IS THE WORST! You get so mad at the world, kind of like Dictator Lukashenka, because you spend 83.9% of your time ELIMINATING sources rather than FINDING sources! Your advisor asks for “1st person sources” and you want to scream “Those are as hard to find as the rich husbands I need to fund my future doctoral degree!” (Just kidding…)
Step 3: Realizing how weird and specific your thesis is.
By now you’ve got some semblance of data. You’re done being bitter and now you’re actually sort of excited about what you’re writing! You want to tell people and nobody really thinks it’s that interesting but you still tell them about it. You talk about it at parties and to strangers and when you pet dogs outside of coffee shops you mention it to them. You spend your nights lying awake re-organizing your outline and wondering if the coffee shop will have your favorite roast for your next hard-core thesising day.
Step 4: You’re in too deep to give up!
Now you should put on a false sense of bravado. Even if your adviser hates your stuff, even if you’re potentially screwed, you have to just act like everything is peachy and you’ve got it under control! (Because you totally do. Obviously. Even if most of your thesising is spent making effective study playlists…)
Step 5: Realize how quickly the semester is going and have a single, graceful moment of panic.
You are scared s***less and you frankly have no idea how you will make it through. You might occasionally cry in Target store aisles looking for shampoo thinking about how little time you have left.
I’m not here yet. I’m still in the false bravado stage. I hope to get here and have the damn thing bound and slap it down triumphantly in the library and scream “HELL YEAH” and then erase all my favorited research links and burn all the old drafts! Then I fully plan on having a large helping of wine and cake and being sufficiently praised for my hard work (although the praise probably won’t happen).
I’m absolutely entranced by both of these pieces. The three pictures at the top are of the Virgin of Guadalupe enconchado piece (enconchado is mother-of-pearl applied directly to the canvas) by Michel Gonzalez from 1698. This style came from Japan, as the Spanish had a trading route with Japan and much of the art and furniture, although meant for Spain, ended up in Mexico!
The other three pictures are from the Virgin of Belan by a Cuzco School artist from around 1710. Obviously she is a very different depiction of the Virgin Mary- hers incorporates Incan and native symbols and styles learned and developed in Peru.
Both of these pieces are in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and I hope to see the enconchado piece! (The Virgin of Belan is not on view right now, gah!)
This painting is one of the most gorgeous I have ever seen. Ferdinand Hodler, who I’ve done a post on before (remember the gorgeous colors of the lovers in Die Liebe?), manages to convey so much.
Die Wahrheit translates to “The Truth”.
I saw this in the Kunsthaus Zurich on my 20th birthday. I was alone. For whatever reason I felt that at the ripe age of 20 I had accomplished nothing and would be forever alone in my own failures. I have no idea why, but this idea stayed with me for months. This painting wasn’t a solution but it was a source of relief- the colors, the delicacy, the obvious symbolism and exquisite rendering.
I need a trip to Zurich to see this painting again. The entire room is full of works by Ferdinand Hodler and upon walking in everything you carried in with you leaves and you feel weightless, an empty vessel to be filled with everything Hodler.
I’m currently in a graduate seminar about museums and collecting. It is difficult, stressful and somewhat overwhelming. However, I relish the challenge.
We have been put with the issue to write about a topic that isn’t very well researched, and I’m writing about something that I feel very strongly about both as a scholar and non-scholar.
I have been to the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Met (not the Hermitage yet, damn your distance, Russia!). ALL of these museums are overwhelming and too large, in my opinion. They are bulky and saturated with art. The average visitor will never be able to see even a significant portion of the collection, and is automatically defeated. How can the visitor cope with this, and how can the institution in question re-focus itself?
I personally felt exhausted by the Louvre, anxiety ridden in the Uffizi, and completely blown away but intimidated by the Met. I decided to do my own research and find the pieces I wanted to see beforehand at the Uffizi (Caravaggio’s severed Medusa head!) and while I didn’t get the chance to do this for my other museums, I felt it helped immensely. However, it is still problematic for the average visitor to NOT feel so overwhelmed by the prospect of visiting the Louvre.
Can you really say you’ve been somewhere if you saw less than 1% of it? That’s like saying you’ve been to Chicago because you landed in the airport there once. You have barely touched the surface, and this sort of illegitimacy in your experience, lack of quality and the definite impossibility of ever conquering or seeing a large portion of something can be somewhat sad.
Basically, I think this is an unspoken issue that a lot of museums, scholars, and boards ignore. That museums are wondrous libraries of visual wealth, but that their accessibility in that wealth is somewhat pointless if it’s impossible to realize for the average person.
Basically, I feel like Dwight pouring hot coffee on himself when I walk into these places because THERE ARE SO MANY THINGS AND FEELINGS AND I WILL NEVER SEE THEM!
I am an atheist, but I’ll be damned if religious imagery doesn’t get me every time. You can’t not sigh in front of Giotto or be mesmerized by Grunewald (which I will do a post on soon, he’s so fantastical) or just sort of wonder how Michelangelo did what he did (research suggests he had autism or Asbergers, which may have affected the way that he created how he did).
I didin’t know that Italian sculptor Giuseppe Sanmartino existed until recently. I saw Cristo Velato (Veiled Christ) and immediately wanted to know more.
There fact that this guy was able to make this out of MARBLE?! Blows my mind up to where space and earth combine. I can’t handle thinking about how he created such a masterpiece. The crown of thorns at Christ’s feet, the nails used to keep Him on the Cross- there is an emotional connection here that even those of us who don’t believe in anything “after” that means something.
This is High Baroque marble sculpture, so no doubt Sanmartino was influenced by people like Bernini, but he holds his own in making us really believe that the marble is cloth.
I miss museums and spaces full of objects. I’ve felt overwhelmed by my own objects recently. I like a space like a museum or a gallery where I can spend as much time among these gorgeous things as I would like, but at the end of the day I can part without feeling responsible for their fate. I am so scatter-brained that I lose my own things all the time and so museums take away that stress of losing or forgetting things (I’m on my 3rd pair of gloves this winter already).
Here are some lovely things I found myself entranced by. There were many more objects that I’m not showing but their lovely American portrait section unfortunately is a dark space that my camera couldn’t handle (I love portraiture, hands and mouths especially).
The Dance of Life (showing Munch accosted by Lust while Love waits and decays on either side)
The Scream- considered a possible drawing of a human soul, inspired by a bloody sunset on a bridge, also a culmination of anxiety and fear.
Seperation- a lithograph where the memory of one of his lovers pervades as hair over his shoulder on the shore of his summering place in Norway, probably.
The Kiss- his response to a kiss with an early lover, all-encompassing, overwhelming, but gloriously so.
Ashes- Edvard often felt “used” by women, drained by them (this inspires his “Vampyr” series, where life force is taken by various lovers, particularly Tulla, an obsessive wealthy girl who stalked him all over Europe).
Self Portrait with Skeleton Arm- Edvard would put fetuses, skeletons, and corpses in the borders of some of his prints, which I love.
Growing up in Kristiania, which is now Oslo, to a fiercely religious father and a sickly mother, Edvard Munch watched his family succumb to sickness, death, and insanity. His mother slowly wasted away, his best friend and dear sister Sophie died (he kept the chair she expired in for the rest of her life), and his sister Laura descended into madness and schizophrenia. His Aunt Karen, his father, and his youngest brother and sister lived on but forever in debt, living in more and more decrepit apartments.
Edvard was a master drawer, and very creative, but plagued with depression and bouts of extreme sickness. Because of his father’s religious beliefs, he from an early age recalls thinking about how he would surely perish and end up in Hell. He also never managed to escape the idea of love/intimacy with being sinful- making every relationship with women he ever had doomed.
He would starve for days to afford paint, and in the papers he was known as Norway’s most infamous artist, hated and feared. He “disgraced” his family and eventually moved between Oslo, Berlin, and Paris, borrowing money and drinking all day, creating gorgeous paintings laced with his common experiences with death, sickness, poverty, and emotional twists and turns that we could only barely portray.
Munch was a genius in how he showed his ideas- they are universally understood. Where other artists followed symbols and color ideas, Munch just painted how he felt. And it’s so easy to feel exactly that- grief, exhaustion, terror, anxiety.
The intense psychology and the influence he exerted later on the Die Brucke movement in German Expressionism has spawned some of my favorite art- free of “rules” and expectations, but uninhibited, active, and gorgeous, in oft unsettling ways.
He is the ultimate master of manipulation. I feel loss of innocence, terrible guilt and immense sadness when I look at his things.
Only a few short months until I will be in New York to stand in front of The Scream, where I am totally sure I will weep a bit- Munch’s things are so saturated, I don’t believe I could help myself (I’ve only cried in front of Guernica, Picasso’s huge canvas, and Seurat’s Bathers before. The list will grow).