Sunday, July 29, 2018

St. Petersburg: a mixed experience

Following are a few words of caution to any art lover planning a visit to St. Petersburg.

Seeing the Hermitage has long been an ambition of mine. I was especially excited about the prospect of visiting the General Staff Building, which houses the Impressionist and post-Impressionist collection.

General Staff Building, Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Independent travellers to Russia are required to obtain a visa. This is an expensive, complicated, and time-sensitive procedure.

So travellers are often tempted to book a cruise and register for a group tour, either with the cruise line or with an independent tour company, either of which will obtain a visa for you. The downside of this is that many of these tours list the Hermitage as a destination, but do not actually include a visit to the General Staff Building. If they do, your visit will be limited to an hour or less. AND you are required to stay with the tour guide at all times.

In other words, you can't extend your visit by skipping the group lunch and meeting up with the tour later.

For this reason I would advise anyone interested in spending more time with this exceptional art collection to book a private tour. Though it costs a bit more, remember that the amount is small relative to the cost of the entire holiday.

It was even more heartbreaking because the galleries were virtually empty. A long, lingering look at this collection would have been an unforgettable experience.

And now for another caveat about the collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings.

Some of these works were acquired by the Russians from the Germans at the end of the second World War, in what was seen by the Soviets as reparation for war damages. The difficulty is that the Germans acquired these paintings by confiscating them from Jewish owners. While the process of restitution to the rightful owners is ongoing in many countries, Russia has been slow to engage with these efforts.

Seeing all these masterpieces in one place is a thrilling, albeit tainted, experience.

Below are a few of the hundreds of gems in the collection.

Woman in Green,  Henri Matisse, 1909
acquired in 1930 from the State Museum of Modern Western Art, Moscow
formerly in the S. I. Shchukin collection

Bathers, Paul Cézanne, c. 1890-91
From Otto Krebs's collection

Portrait of Lydia Delectorskaya, Henri Matisse, 1947
donated by L.N. Delectorskaya, 1967

Young Woman in a Blue Blouse (Portrait of Lydia Delectorskaya), 1939
Henri Matisse, donated by L.N. Delectorskaya in 1971

Dance, Henri Matisse, 1910
acquired in 1948 from the State Museum of Modern Western Art, Moscow,
formerly in the collection of S.I. Shchukin

The Red Room (Harmony in Red), Henri Matisse, 1908
acquired in 1948 from the State Museum of Modern Western Art, Moscow,
formerly in the collection of S.I. Shchukin

View of Collioure, Henri Matisse, c. 1905
acquired in 1948 from the State Museum of Modern Western Art, Moscow,
formerly in the collection of S. I. Shchukin

Bouquet (Vase with Two Handles), Henri Matisse, 1907
acquired in 1934 from the State Museum of Modern Western Art, Moscow,
formerly in the collection of I. A. Morozov

Still Life with Dishes and Fruit, Henri Matisse, 1901
acquired in 1934 from the State Museum of Modern Western Art, Moscow,
formerly in the collection of S. I. Shchukin

Bottle of Pernod, Table in a Café, Pablo Picasso, 1912

Absinthe Drinker, Pablo Picasso, 1901
acquired in 1948 from the State Museum of Modern Western Art, Moscow,
formerly in the collection of S. I. Shchukin

View of the Seine, Maurice de Vlaminck, c. 1906
acquired in 1948 from the State Museum of Modern Western Art, Moscow,
formerly in the collection of Ivan Morozov

Port de Menton, Albert Marquet, 1905
from the G.E. Haasen collection

Children, Edouard Vuillard, 1909
from M. O. Tsetlin's collection

View of Fort Samson, Grandchamp, Georges-Pierre Seurat, 1885
from Bernhard Koehler's collection

Fruit, Paul Cézanne, 1879-1880
from S. I. Shchukin's collection

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Church of the Rock, Helsinki

A highlight of a recent visit to Helsinki was the Church of the Rock, also known as Temppelliaukio Church. It is a Lutheran church, opened in 1969.

The church area, carved into the bedrock, is accessed from the street level. The entrance to the church does not suggest the wonders that lie within.

as seen from back

Two brothers, Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen, both architects, won a competition in 1961 for their proposal, in which the church hall was embedded into the stone. An earlier plan for the construction was disrupted by the outbreak of World War II. 

The elliptic church hall is bathed in daylight, which passes into the hall from narrow skylights between the rock wall and the copper ceiling dome. The inner surface of the dome is clad in 22 km of copper tape.

The diameter of the dome is 24 metres, and the highest point is 13 meters from the floor. The excavation surface of the walls has been left rough for acoustic and aesthetic reasons. Water trickling from cracks in the rock is led away along channels under the floor. The height of the walls is 5 - 9 metres.

The altar wall is a split in the rock dating back to the Ice Age. The altar table is granite that has been evenly sawn. The floor is polished concrete, and the pulpit is made of reinforced concrete.

The acoustics of the hall are excellent, and the church is often used as a concert venue.

A balcony expands the seating to 750.

The stone's timeless quality and massive grandeur creates a sense of wonder and awe equal to that of any Gothic cathedral.  For more information, I refer you to the Wikipedia website.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

A morning in Riga

One of the special moments of a recent Baltic cruise was meeting my friend Lauma Cenne in Riga. Lauma was there to participate in the annual mid-summer songfest, and she took time from her busy schedule of costume-tweaking, banner-stitching, airport-shuttling and choral rehearsals to meet us in the park and show us the city she loves.

Among her many accomplishments, Lauma is a talented photographer, and it was she who persuaded me to upgrade my camera.

That's our cruise ship in the harbour.

At one point we went to the top of a church steeple to get a view of the city. Lauma encouraged me to use the powerful zoom feature on my new camera to focus in on those interesting roof lines.

We also took some time to explore the city's fabulous food market, a UNESCO world heritage site. Every day, 80,000 to 100,000 visitors visit the market, built in the 1920's from re-purposed military airship hangars.

The Central Market with its four halls in the distance

We ended our visit with a picnic in the park, and felt very privileged indeed to have Lauma, who speaks fluent Latvian, guide us through the shops, cafés and parks of this capital city.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Cruise port Klaipeda

One of the downsides of traveling by cruise ship is that the ports of call are not necessarily places you would have chosen to visit.

And thus I found myself in Klaipeda, the third-largest city in Lithuania, asking myself, "Why am I here?"

Palanga Amber Museum

The tour guide would have answered, "Why, to see the Palanga Amber Museum, of course."

Of course.

rose garden outside Palanga Amber Museum

And indeed the amber museum is very well-organized, and answers any question one may have about amber, as well as offering thousands of amber items for sale in the gift shop.

The drive from the port to the museum offered glimpses of heavily wooded forests, and the excursion did give me a sense of what life might be like in Lithuania.

giant chessboard on street

young boy and mother observing chess game

woman with shopping bag

I had a chance to consider the rooflines of various buildings,

and to appreciate the textures offered by their surfaces.

In these instances, it is probably best to just surrender to the moment.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

National Gallery of Denmark

Should you ever be in Copenhagen, here are some of the treasures that await you in the National Gallery of Denmark. Admittedly, we stumbled upon this building on our way to somewhere else.

Don't you love it when that happens?

Landscape near Collioure, Study for 'The Joy of Life', Henri Matisse, 1905

The Harbour at l'Estaque, Georges Braque, 1906

Alice, Amedeo Modigliani, 1918

The Green Blouse, Henri Matisse, 1936

Self-Portrait, Henri Matisse, 1906

Portrait of Madame Matisse (The Green Line), Henri Matisse, 1906

Still-Life, Raoul Dufy, 1925

Village Seen Through the Trees, Paul Cézanne, 1914

Still Life on a Table, Georges Braque, 1928

the sculpture hall, seen from upper balcony