Sunday, May 25, 2008

From Helsinki to St. Petersburg

From Helsinki
Sunday, May 25 (I think)

Another very poor night’s sleep. Ellie and I both seem to get to sleep okay, but wake in the wee hours and can’t get back to sleep again. I took a sleeping pill in desperation at about one o’clock and waited for what seemed like an hour for it to kick in. Then woke at about seven fifteen.
Well, anyway, as you may have noticed, I did finally manage to get online (at vast expense) to post an entry covering the past couple of days. Then enjoyed another generous buffet breakfast in the hotel before getting ready for another arduous day in pursuit of the art and architecture treasures of Helsinki. Iiro was again on hand as our guide in chief, along with Timo Valjakka, our resident art expert, as we boarded the bus for a forty-minute drive out into the country to the communal residence of three of the great Finnish architects of the last century, Eliel Saarinen (whose son Eero was born here), Armas Lindgren and Herman Geselius. They seem to have shared wives, among other passions…

Along the way, we sped past the national monument to Sibelius, “Finlandia,” the six-year product of the labors of a woman artist (my apologies to her for not having registered her name), a large, free-standing exterior piece composed of organ pipe-like elements which, we were told, compose their own music in response to the lakeshore breeze. There was no more than a moment to catch a photograph as we drove past, and I recalled that hoary poem about the “fat white lady” seen from the train: “Oh, fat white lady whom nobody loves,/Why do you walk through the fields in gloves/Missing so much and so much?” It often puzzled me as a child that no one loved her. Because she was fat? Because she was all alone in the fields? But I digress. It just seemed to me that, dashing past the Sibelius monument, we could claim to have “seen” it—but to know not the first thing about it or its maker. Sad, really.

We found the Saarinen house

at Hvittrask (literally “White Lake”) a truly lovely location amidst the woods and rocky hillsides by the eponymous lake. Touring the house, we were delighted not only by the fine architectural design of the house,
but by the exquisite care bestowed on the smallest detail of construction and furnishing. The influence of the Arts and Crafts movement was everywhere, of course, though I confess I’m unsure as to which was the chicken and which the egg. I do believe that Arts & Crafts, beginning in England in the early days of the 20th century, came before this great period of Finnish creativity, but I’m no historian of design, so I couldn’t say for sure.
After the tour of the house, we walked single-file down a steep, narrow path to the lakeside,

where a sauna house had been installed at a much later date—and were regaled by Iiro with presumably semi-fictional accounts of the winter delights of hot saunas followed by naked dips in the lake through holes made in the ice.

Back on the bus, we drove back into town for a visit to Kiasma,

the new museum of post-1960 art designed (to the consternation of many Finns) by the American architect Stephen Holl. It’s one of those buildings whose interiors are more impressive than the exterior, with minimal lines and cathedral-like heights within. Our first stop was in the cafeteria, where we enjoyed a pleasant buffet lunch with grand views out over the city. And after lunch we were escorted upstairs to the project room by the museum’s chief curator, Dr. Marja Sakari and the artist of the current exhibition there, Jiri Geller.

I found Geller’s installation quite delightful, a combination of three pedestal pieces and fourth, placed high above the viewer near the gallery’s skylight.

Balloons, molded and cast in fiberglass: one perky group of three white ones, happily titled “Happy Together;” a single, shiny black one on its side, “Dunkelheit” (German for “darkness”); and a yellow one, burst and deflated, called “Shettered.” The last, a red one, floated way above us, a reminder of the joy—and loss—experienced in childhood, watching a favorite balloon drift far out of reach into the blue sky.

We were treated next to a guided tour through the current exhibition by the chief curator, and were once again impressed by the quality and variety of art being produced by the middle generation of Finnish artists… Our next stop, at the converted Tennis Palace, introduced us to the next generation, new graduates from the School of Fine Arts Academy, an exhibition that had all the exuberant freshness and much of the derivative quality you’d expect from graduate student work. A further stop at the Finnish National Gallery gave us the historical context, and an education in a hundred years and more of Finnish artists of whom most of us had never heard. Oh, and an interesting, unfinished Van Gogh and a couple of small pictures by Gaugin.
Finally, we made a brief stop at Design Forum Finland, where three current exhibits and a gift shop rich in current examples of the excellence of Finnish design offered another, different understanding of the heritage whose origins we had explored in the first part of the day.
Ellie and I decided, after a short night’s sleep last night, to picnic in our room and have an early night. Tomorrow, we have to be up and about at 5:15 AM, ready for a 6AM departure for the train station and the train across the border into Russia—a six-hour journey, I’ve heard, from here to St. Petersburg.

Monday, May 26
Aboard the Sibelius Express

Up early, as planned. Earlier, in fact. I was up and about at 4:30, way before the alarm and the wake-up call from the front desk. Breakfast served at 5:45AM in the hotel dining room, and we took advantage of the usual spread to make sandwiches for the train journey. Our bus was on hand to take us all to the train station, but the promised “portage” never arrived, so we ended up toting our own bags to the platform. The train was scheduled to leave the station at 7:23, and left, surprise, at 7:23 precisely. This update written on board as we cross the border from Finland into Russia, our passports carted off to parts unknown by a dour Russian immigration official. We hope to see them again before we reach St. Petersburg.

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