Lord Anglesey, A Man of Parts


Henry, the dashing 7th Marquess of Anglesey, came to mind this morning. In a burst of fall energy, I started madly cleaning out drawers, cupboards, closets and even the dreaded garage. I thought of Henry.


After a couple of strenuous hours of pitching and organizing things I had forgotten I owned, I sank into my softest chair and thought admiringly of Henry’s study at Plas Newydd in Wales. Henry was Marquess from 1947 until he died in 2013. In 1976, he gave Plas Newydd–“New Mansion”–to the National Trust, but still lived upstairs with his family. I think his heirs still live there, too. So would I.


Henry’s study, used daily during his lifetime, is a magnificent jumble of books, papers, drawings, photos, magazines, and who knows what else.


Another part of Plas Newydd displays stuff from the family’s colorful history. Henry was a distinguished historian, and well he might be. His ancestors included the first Marquess, Henry “One-Leg,” whose leg was shot off by cannon fire at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, while he was right next to the Duke of Wellington himself. On the occasion, Henry coolly said, “By God, Sir,    I’ve lost my leg.” The Iron Duke replied, “By God, Sir, so you have.”


The Marquess had what remained of his leg amputated, with a stiff upper lip and no anesthetic, and was fitted with a wooden leg. Afterward, he fathered ten children and walked nine miles a day for the rest of his life.


But back to the 7th Marquess. He must have been something of an artist as well as a politician and a writer. He kept a special drawing table, under a window with good light. Of all the rooms in grand homes that I’ve seen, Henry’s study is one of my favorites.


I can see him happily puttering around, going from one table to the next. The jumble made perfect sense to him. He just kept a separate place for each one of his many projects. If only I had the space to do the same.


The other unforgettable room at Plas Newydd is the dining room. In 1936, the 6th Marquess commissioned Rex Whistler to paint the entire long wall as a mural.


The artist was happy to spend endless hours on the mural, partly because he was in love with one of the daughters of the family, whom he also painted. Tragically, Rex Whistler was killed in action in Normandy in July 1944, having insisted on fighting rather than serving in some less dangerous way. He had just arrived at the front.


I could spend hours taking in the detail of the Whistler mural, which is full of gentle humor and family references.


If I get to return to Plas Newydd, I’ll try to find time to look into the grounds and gardens, another interest of Henry’s.


Meanwhile, I’ll dream of having a room all my own, like Henry’s. “A man of parts” is the British term for a multi-talented Renaissance man.Henry is the best example I know of. Now, about my basement storage room…

There’s an article about the 1st Marquess at:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/11682406/The-Battle-of-Waterloo-is-this-the-most-British-conversation-ever-to-be-held-on-a-battlefield.html

Golden Kingdoms at the Getty

Sometimes I come face to face with how little I know about non-European cultures. For example, who made this life-sized mask and how  was it used? Was it made to scare the pants off anyone who looked at it, or is it just me? Well, this particular mask was found in the grave of a high-ranking person in Peru, dating from around 900 to 1100 A. D. Possibly there were demons to scare off?


In the fall of 2017, the Getty Center in Los Angeles has a spectacular exhibit called “Golden Kingdoms.” I was immediately attracted because the poster had kind of a Viking look. But no! Instead, it’s a completely different set of cultures, with artifacts from all over the Americas. The objects, all of them with sacred meaning, date from 1200 B.C. up to the beginning of European colonization in the 1500s.

It’s not all bling, at least as we understand bling. The Incas valued feathers and textiles above all else. There’s a perfectly preserved wall-sized rug made entirely of tiny blue and yellow feathers. It was preserved because it was hermetically sealed in an ancient grave.


Peruvian artists of the Moche culture, around 200 A.D., made these heavy mosaic ear ornaments, about the diameter of baseballs. They depict a pair of gorgeous running animals, maybe owls. 


I was puzzled about how some of these ornaments would be worn, until I took a close look at a breastplate and diadem belonging to a ruler of the Calima-Yocoto, Columbia, all the way from 200 B.C. to 800 A.D. They wore nose ornaments! Not for the faint of heart.


Nose ornaments were really a thing in these parts.  They look pretty uncomfortable to me–heavy, with a little slot cut out so they can be worn in the nostrils. Special occasion jewelry, I have to think.


This beautiful ceremonial knife from the north coast of Peru, around 900 to 1100 A.D., gave me pause. What kind of ceremony would that be? No doubt some kind of sacrifice was involved.


From the exhibit poster, I expected the dragon-like gold figure to be huge. But it was tiny, and took some hunting to locate. It’s an Aztec “labret,” an ornament signifying political or military power. It’s from Mexico, 1300-1500 A.D.


It was a mouth ornament in the shape of a serpent, made to fit in front of the wearer’s lips.


The tongue can be retracted, or flicked side to side in scary fashion.


An Aztec effigy vessel from the same time period in Mexico depicts the Sun God. 



I especially liked this image of Chalchiuhtlicue, the Aztec goddess of lakes, rivers and moving waters.  Her name means “Jade Her Skirt.” Jade and other gemstones were valued more highly than gold in this time period, around 1500 in Mexico. 


Spanish conquistadors began arriving in the 1500s, changing the native cultures forever. The spectacular painting above could not be photographed, but I sneaked a shot from the exhibit catalog. It shows a political leader from Ecuador and his two sons. In exchange for swearing fealty to the Spanish king, they were allowed to rule a large area. They naturally began dressing somewhat like Spaniards, but they kept their traditional nose and ear ornaments.


Christianity began to replace the age-old beliefs in gods and goddesses. This 1539 piece, composed of gold, paint, and tiny feathers, is a visual explanation of the new-to-the-Americas sacrament of the Catholic communion. 


The new rulers of the Americans needed to catalog their new possessions. The book shown above is part of the Codex Mendoza. It carefully lists everything paid as tribute from the native Aztec people to their conquerors, the Spanish. It reminds me of the Domesday book that the Normans compiled in 1086, after they conquered England in 1066.


The mask above is from the grave of a long-dead young warrior, around 525 A.D.  He’s a fearsome sight, but does he also look a little apprehensive about what comes next? None of us know what’s in store for us. Still, we keep studying the past for clues and maybe some understanding.

There’s an article about this exhibit at:

http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/golden_kingdoms/index.html

Chagall on Stage at LACMA

In his long career as an artist, Marc Chagall designed sets and costumes for four stage productions. I wish I had seen any one of them, but the next best thing is the glorious special exhibit this fall at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). 


The exhibit begins with some borrowed paintings that illuminate Chagall’s lifelong passions for music, performance,  and colorful memories of his childhood village in Russia. The painting above is “The Red Circus,” 1956-1960.


Violinists were always prominent in Chagall’s work. “Green Violinist” was from 1923-1924. It’s a fiddler on the roof–literally. This image was used in one of seven murals in the Moscow State Jewish Theater in 1920.


Like countless Jewish artists, intellectuals, and ordinary people, Chagall had to leave Russia. But for the rest of his long life he celebrated and mourned the lost life of his village of Liozna in his work. 


By 1942, he was in Mexico working on a production of the Tchaikovsky ballet “Aleko,” which opened in New York City. I love the costume for my favorite animal, the fox. Chagall did all the set design and hand painted the costumes and sets. The work had to be done in Mexico because American union rules prohibited hands-on work on costumes and sets by the artist. His wife worked alongside him, organizing materials and seamstresses.


In 1945, he did the same for a production of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.”


The sets and costumes were fabulously wild. I love the alligator and the green bird.

In 1945, Chagall did sets and costumes for Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe.” 


The pirates were as lovingly costumed as the pair of lovers.


The exhibit at LACMA displays not only the costumes themselves, but the artists’ joyous renderings of them as he worked.

Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute,” in 1967? Sure, coming right up!


Mozart’s fantastic story required fantastic sets and costumes.


Chagall said, “I adore the theater and I am a painter. I think the two are made for a marriage of love.” Amen to that!


If you have a chance, go see this exhibit, and take your time seeing it. The painting above is “The Dance,” 1950-1952. 


The 1965 photo above is by Yousouf Karsh. The artist was still working, twenty years later, on the day he died at age 97. No doubt he still had the same joy in life and in his work. We should all be so lucky!

There’s an article about the exhibit in LA Weekly at: http://www.laweekly.com/arts/lacma-exhibits-marc-chagalls-fantastical-ballet-costumes-and-backdrops-8483565

Should I Learn Swedish?


Major disappointment: the first time I went to Sweden, I kept seeing signs that said “Runt Hornet” on doors. I was enchanted. What a fine way to say “Ring the Doorbell!” Then I saw this sign on the corner of a building and went to investigate. Bummer! It actually meant “Round the Corner.” Oh, well, it still sounds cool.


And “Obs” must mean “Careful!”, especially if it’s printed in red.

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Smoking is “rokning.” I like the sound of the words.


Ok, I freely admit I’m a klutz in any language. Obviously, I don’t want to run for my train and risk “snubbeling.”

There are practical reasons to know the language.

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Every breakfast buffet has a big tube of this stuff. I thought it was some kind of hummus.


No such luck! It’s really “Fish Roe Paste.” Not my favorite. In fact, I had to discreetly spit it into my napkin and then look around for something to erase the taste. Lingonberry sauce?

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Sometimes, admittedly, words are not needed.


Sometimes, I’m not even interested in the words.


I don’t really want to know the translation of this sign in a subway car in Stockholm. For me, it says, and always will say “Sucks your job?” Or, for English speakers, “Does your job suck? Call this number and we’ll hook you up with a better gig.”

One big point in favor of learning some Swedish: it’s the second language in Finland. And the Finnish language looks much, much harder to learn.

In Finland, almost every single sign and caption is printed in both Finnish and Swedish. English is hit or miss.


At the Helsinki dog park near where I stayed in April, the rules are spelled out in great detail. Finnish and Swedish speaking dogs are all set. English-only speaking dogs are out of luck.

Yup, I guess this is telling me something. After years of traveling in French and German-speaking countries where I can at least muddle through with the native languages, I’ve found that  I love Scandinavia. Time to learn a little Swedish.

Now, about those Danish and Norwegian languages…

Viking Artistry in Oslo

Talk about spectacular resting places! The Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway displays boats and artifacts from four different boat burials along the Oslo Fjord. Three of the boats are well preserved, and the fourth was reduced to iron nails and other bits and pieces. They date from about 820 A.D. to about 900 A.D. All the boats were used at sea for some years, then drydocked and fitted with burial rooms before being dug into the ground. They were found and excavated between 1852 and 1904.

The most beautiful of the three, the Oseberg, was used to bury two women. How important must they have been? A pair of the legendary shield-maidens, perhaps? Maybe a couple of princesses? How did two powerful women die at the same time? There’s a story here, but it’s lost in the mists of Scandinavian history. Modern dating techniques place this burial at 834 A.D.

The intricate carved wood detail is beautiful.

Oar openings are still present–fifteen of them on this boat. Still-intact shields were hung from some of the oar holes.

Some elements, like the serpent above, were reconstructed from fragments. Mostly, though, preservation was excellent, because the ships were buried in moist ground with high clay content, and covered with turf for centuries.

More beautiful carving…

The solemn fellows shown above worked on the excavation in 1903. The photo clearly shows the intact wood carvings. The graves had already been looted long ago of precious materials, but plenty of grave goods survived.

Who is the bearded fellow above?


He’s part of a fantastically carved wooden cart found with the Oseberg ship. Vikings were known to use utilitarian carts, but this elaborate one was most likely used in ceremonies and religious processions.

The cart is made of oak. Every surface is covered with carved people and animals, possibly showing Norse legends or historical events.

Did Vikings have cats? I think so! The Norwegian Forest Cat is said to have sailed on ships. Who doesn’t need a good mouser?

The cart is not only beautiful, but quite a feat of engineering.

The cart was most likely pulled by two horses. A bridle, decorated with metal studs, is on display in a case nearby.

There’s also a sleigh, proof that the Vikings knew their way around snow and ice.

The sleigh carvings are as elaborate and beautiful as the ones on the cart.


Solid wood sleigh shafts are intricate carved and studded.


Burials included cooking pots and a good supply of food for the journey to Valhalla.


Rattles were most likely used in religious ceremonies. This one would make quite a racket. Maybe it scared away evil spirits?


Leather shoes? Sure.


There are even a few surviving textiles. Most likely some were woven at home, and some were came from trading–or raiding.


This is by far the most complete Viking exhibit I’ve seen anywhere. I wouldn’t care to see fearsome Viking raiders on my horizon, but from the safe distance of many centuries, their faces are fascinating.

Art Nouveau Vikings at Frederiksborg 

Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerod, Denmark houses tons of fine historic art, but one of my favorite pieces is pretty humble: it occupies a long lower-level hallway leading to the exit.

From 1883-1886, Lorenz Frolich painted a commissioned piece: a 37-meter frieze depicting the Danish conquest of large chunks of England. It was to be a Danish counterpart to the embroidered Bayeux Tapestry, which documented the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The style of the frieze was from the very early years of Art Nouveau,  also known as Jugendstihl, also known as Skonvirke in Denmark.

The Danish Vikings began sailing their shallow-depth longboats across the sea and up the rivers of England in the late 700s. Before that, they had only ventured as far as the Baltic countries on their raids. The trouble was, the Baltics were almost as poor in resources as Scandinavia. Pickings were slim. But England had rich soil where Danish settlers could grow much more food than in their own rocky soil. English monasteries were crammed with gold and silver candleholders, crosses and chalices.

Raiding was wearying work, but somebody had to do it, right?


After a couple of centuries of striking fear into the hearts of the Brits, and much bloody axe-swinging, the Dane Swein Forkbeard was crowned King of England in 1013.

When Swein died, his son Canute the Great took the crown, and in due course Swein’s grandsons Harold Harfoot and Hardecnut had their turns at ruling the rich land of England. The printed information at Frederiksborg skips over the period when the Danes lost their grip on power in 1042 after the death of Hardecnut. But we’re informed that 1066 was all about the Danes: the Normans were direct descendants of the Danish Vikings who had conquered the part of France that became Normandy.


The Frederiksborg frieze is at pains to depict the conquering Vikings as reasonable, law-abiding fellows willing to sit in orderly rows and debate issues like gentlemen.


There’s also emphasis on their domestic qualities. And it’s true: they were fine farmers and they had domesticated animals.

Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok, photo from review in “Variety,” Feb. 21, 2014

 

All the qualities of the Vikings are on display in the History Channel’s TV series “The Vikings.” I’m anxiously awaiting the 5th season. A disclaimer: yes, I know the show is full of appalling violence. Don’t even ask me what a Blood Eagle is. But for the first time, I begin to understand the Vikings, their world view, and the elaborate mythology that guided their behavior.

The series tells the story of Ragnar Lothbrok, an early Viking of song and legend, and his descendants, who eventually became the Normans of 1066 fame. Following the time-honored traditions of TV showrunners everywhere, real events are compressed and characters invented. But historical research is said to be quite accurate as far as clothing, houses, community organization, laws, and religion.

Travis Fimmel, pictured above, plays Ragnar. He is a former Calvin Klein model, but he has real acting chops to go along with his fierce blue eyes and intimidating tattoos. I’ll watch him do anything, from his early daring voyage to pillage Lindisfarne monastery, through adultery and divorce, and right on into the murderous madness of his old age.

Katheryn Winnick and Travis Fimmel in “The Vikings,” photo from review in “The Telegraph,” May 3, 2014

 

Another big selling point of “The Vikings,” for me, is the depiction of strong women. Lagertha is Ragnar’s brave and loyal wife, a formidable “shieldmaiden.” Even after their messy separation after he takes up with a tall, graceful, ladylike beauty, Lagertha graciously returns again and again to bash heads alongside Ragnar and their sons. Axe, sword and shield in hand, she’s ready save Ragnar’s bacon when he finds himself in trouble. What a woman!


I like the kinder, gentler version of the Vikings depicted in Frolich’s frieze paintings. But I’ll take my Vikings at their fiercest, too.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles!

Helsinki Design Museum


Past and present are comfortable together in Helsinki. The Helsinki Design Museum occupies a neo-Gothic building designed by Gustaf Nystrom in 1894.


Inside, it’s the liveliest and most forward-looking museum I saw in Helsinki.


It’s all about beauty and color…


and form and function.


This intriguing outfit was part of an artist’s MFA project.


A Finnish necklace, designed by Bjorn Weckstrom in 1977, adorned Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in the final triumphant scene of  “Star Wars.” (May the Force still be with her).

Finnish design is more than fashion, though. Finns are a practical lot whose work has found its way into all our lives.


Doesn’t everyone own at least one pair of orange-handled Fiskars?


Nokia’ first cell phone was about the size of a lunchbox. But the design kept getting smaller and better.


I especially liked a display by designers working on solving the problems so many women across the world face: giving birth in less-than-ideal conditions.


Designers have come up with portable, easily manufactured childbirth beds and chairs.


How about a portable shower stall?


Worn out from admiring all that fine design? Take a break in Eero Aarnio’s iconic Bubble Chair, a classic since the day he invented it in 1968! After a bit of a rest, head out to enjoy more of Helsinki.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art, from ancient to contemporary, of Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles.