The National Museum of Finland has presented a remarkable opening, both on the symbolic and concrete level.
The National Museum of Finland Plan by the architects Gesellius-Lindgren-Saarinen; completed in 1910 in Helsinki. (Photo credit: The National Museum)
As the world and the times change, this traditional museum, centering on the history of Finland, has re-evaluated its relationship to the world and the museum’s clientele. The dusters have been taken to use, doors have been opened and the vistas widened. An important part of this development process is the new and impressive space for temporary exhibitions and with them, the welcome arrival of art and potential new curious visitors. This is certainly a key downtown location for a grand gallery space!
The first new exhibitions opens up thoughts that align logically with the initial core definitions of the museum policies; a man’s relationship to history and its treasures, to the current times and to the future; the modern man surrounded by history, or as a link in a chain; the signs of change in the environment and milieu, in habits, times and styles.
The photo artist Jaakko Heikkilä’s newly opened exhibition ”Rooms hidden by the Water” offers a fascinating perspective to both the daily life of the Italian nobility in the extraordinary palaces of the world’s most romantic city, Venice, and in general, to the passage of time and the poetic, looming melancholy in the vicinity of change.
The Grimani Palace, 2010
At the exhibition opening, the artist told in his characteristic, jovial and accurately observant way about the 10-year project in Venice. He has been able to gain the confidence of the project’s key persons, and thus get access and spend leisurely time with the Venetian nobility: everyday life and interiors of private palaces. Beauty and decay exist simultaneously in the photos, without exclamation marks.
Artist Bobo Ivancich and his painting of Ezra Pound, 2010
About fifty large scale prints are hung in a relaxed but well thought manner in the grandly spacious gallery halls of the National Museum. Heikkilä’s works are just as his way of speaking: jovial and accurately observant. The persons in the photos are relaxed, at ease, ”ordinary”, and surrounded by interiors recounting a glorious past.
The light of Heikkilä’s photos is of today, but its long (historical) impact on the interiors has faded the colours and made the silk of the curtains and wall panels brittle in very much the same way as the water, surrounding everything in Venice, also seeps into the built structures and the core of all.
Water and light are the constant in Venice while people -nobility or not- are just visiting. In their extended visit they construct and maintain their buildings as a sign of life, they live their city, they inhabit the amazing spaces created through the longing for beauty, through imagination and skill, even as they defy the gnawing erosion outside and in, and the powers of water, light and time.
A Venetian double chair from the 19th century. Collection of the National Museum of Finland.
Flamboyant examples of Venetian crafts have been dug out of the museum’s own collections, and placed sparsely in the exhibition galleries. They add welcome focal points in the rhythm and flow of the spaces and bring in a concrete hum of history. This gives an opportunity to the museum visitors to view, for the first time, these dazzling examples from the museum’s storage vaults: 19thy century mother-of pearl furniture, ornamental Murano mirrors, masterpieces of glass blowing. What other museum treasures await us when new art exhibitions will be opened in these spaces, and the inspired curatorial approach continues!
A successful book has been published of Heikkilä’s Venetian photos. In its graphic design, the choices to pair, for instance, a close up of the face of an old marble statue on one page, and the close-up of a living person’s face on the page next to it, create a dialogue slightly different in emphasis from the exhibition’s curatorial and design choices. This opens yet another perspective to Heikkilä’s insightful documentation: the people, the statues, the interiors and the buildings are the same, a section of a historical continuum and of the light of time.
I finally made it to the newly curated and designed permanent collection of the Ateneum, and I am giddy with joy! Finally, for the first time in my life, the collections are presented with mastery and a deep understanding of their meaning and value!. It’s not question of cosmetic choices. The museum director Johanna Pettersson and her team of curators, researchers and designers have thought through their task, they have dedicated themselves to the project, their research has been thorough and wonderfully inspired. The team has acted with curiosity and brave creativity! The National Gallery has risen to an impeccable international level!
The arches and pulse of art at the National Gallery’s newly curated and designed exhibitions. (Photo credit: Ateneum)
THE BASIC COLLECTION: http://www.ateneum.fi/nayttelyt/suomen-taiteen-tarina/?lang=en
There’s lots to be thankful both in the big alignments and the smallest delicious details. The gallery walls once again reflect the original Neo-Renaissance period of the building in their grandly befitting rich, deep and occasionally passionate colours. This creates both intimacy and a level of celebration; and when there’s height and breadth in the spaces, even the darkest wall colours won’t constrict. The new thinking has pushed aside the sterile whitewashed walls reminding of the Lutheran ideals of ”purity” that we are so familiar with in the timid restoration projects of many historical buildings in Finland between the 1960’s and 2000’s.
The way of presenting the art work has refreshingly returned to the ways of the 19th and earlier 20th century of showing paintings in layers above each other and with less space in between. The grand hall of ”The Classics” is thus now devastating, breathtaking in its impact. The present exuberance and lushness is a logical result in this thinking, and the things could not work better. Thematic arches are created in which stories travel in revealing paths and insight. Next to the big themes, much pleasure and delight is created with the relationship and dialogue between the individual works.
The National Gallery’s collection of Finnish art through the ages is enormous, while one often before had the impression that the few but meaningful examples of ”foreign art” in the collection were usually pushed into a small hall at the end of the route with the hidden compliant under-thought: ”well, we do have a few of these, too…”.
Now the small gems of the well known international artists are cross-exposed with the works of their Finnish contemporaries, with much thematic and stylistic delight. The main revelation of the exhibition really becomes The Stories and The Dialogue, to the benefit of the viewer. When the eras and the themes coincide, the works of the Finnish artists are revealed in their contemporary timeliness and their lasting quality. Placing a landscape by Pierre Bonnard and the Finnish master MagnusEnckell next to each other, one is happily torn between which painting to love more, or the fact that they now are joined. There is only an irrelevant 4-year age difference between Marc Chagall’s ”The Mandolin Player” and Greta Hällfors-Sipilä’s painting of the ”Johanneksen kirkko” church, each shining brightly with the other and passing on a view of the world and showcasing the wave-strength of art!
The narrow gallery presenting portraits and self portraits doesn’t -luckily- reflect the traditional Scandinavian minimalism either. The abundance and the dialogue that the wall exudes is a testament of the joy of art and its virile pulse over the decades!
Blown up details of artists’ sketches have been pasted on well chosen walls here and there in the museum. It is not an over-blown superficial impact but a delicate message that carries the curatorial attitude so impressive elsewhere.
The special exhibition ”Japanomania” was not a big surprise to me thematically. Japanese visual culture is quite familiar to me, and Japanese influences have had a deep impact on my own visual work since the early 1980’s. Even in this part of the museum, I was moved by the curatorial research that resulted in such a beautifully designed exhibition.
Albert Edelfelt: ”The Parisienne” (Virginie), 1883 (Photo credit: Ateneum)
Since Helene Schjerfbeck has always been one of the Finnish painters closest to my heart, and the influence of Japanese art in her work quite clear to me, it was delightful to see these visual links so cleverly and concretely presented in the show.
One beautiful solitary hall upstairs, dedicated to the works of Rodin, felt like a delightful odyssey; the space and the works breathed together, and the bagatelle lingered into significance in the mind.
A visit to the Savonlinna Opera Festival has become a summer ritual for me, something I eagerly look forward to.
One of the reasons is the possibility to hear well known opera companies and orchestras that the festival always invites as guests to widen the season’s repertoire. At best, there are two visiting companies in the month long festival season.
I have planned some of my holiday trips around the possibility to hear opera in a famous house, but my travels have never taken me to Dresden. However, the Swedish soprano -and court singer- Lena Nordin has told me about the wonderful quality of the Semperoper Dresden, and I planned my Savonlinna visit this year to catch them, and their much praised orchestra, the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden.
The performance was of Mozart’s opera buffa Le nozze di Figaro in a production that the company had premiered just a few weeks earlier.
The director Johannes Erath and his dramatist Francis Hüsers had concocted the directorial concept with a basis on the three original Figaro-themed plays written by the French Pierre Beaumarchais. (The libretto by Mozart and Da Ponte is based on the central play out of the three.)
The creative and rehearsal process has lead into an oddly plausible and fascinating sequence in which the first act is a brilliantly played-out performance of Commedia dell’arte, the second and third act refer to the times and minds of the Rococo and the theater of the Revolution. Gradually sliding out of the third act, the final fourth act is in the mood and visuals of a bourgeois tragedy, with Mozart’s recitatives spoken, not sung.
A close-up of Act 1 of Dresden Figaro
What worked gloriously on stage was the music. The orchestra is worthy of its reputation, and the singers were a truly polished ENSEMBLE in command of memorable vocal and acting quality. In theater, comedy nearing farce, with ironic sub-tones, is the most difficult style; these singing actors performed and sang with nouance and much skill. (Christoph Pohl as Count Almavira, Sarah-Jane Brandon as Countess Almavira, Emily Dorn as Susanna, Zachary Nelson as Figaro, Christina Bock as Cherubino, Sabine Brohm as Marcellina, Matthias Henneberg as Bartolo and the young Finnish Tuuli Takala as Barbarina.)
I can imagine that the stage design of Katrin Connan could work well in an intimate theater setting with proper theater machinery to create ”theater magic” with quick changes and shifting moods. However, Savonlinna’s stage is wide, shallow and totally open, and the space continues into the auditorium of 3000+ seats. The stagehands, dressed in the traditional black, were cleverly choreographed into the theatrical proceedings, but this did not help the visual entity from becoming cluttery and unintentional; everything is there on the stage to be seen, even if pushed aside for the next act.
The costumes designed by Birgit Wentsch followed delightfully the central concept, but Savonlinna’s grand scale did tricts again; to be truly enjoyed, a much more intimate setting would be needed.
While the evening proceeded, I often wondered about the magic of Mozart, and the never-changing human nature regarding love, lust, jealousy and greed, passion and longing, and what tangles all this can create. Somehow the timelessnes of the topic, and the love of Mozart for all his characters, and life, made the directorial concept work.
As a quite talkative opera, with the many recitatives here accompanied with either harpsicord or pianoforte by the conductor Omar Meir Wellber, Figaro is intimate, ultimately a chamber piece. The Savonlinna scale naturally calls for a verismo sweep in the repertoire choices.
Tampere, the second largest city in Finland, used to justly boast its success both in textile and shoe industries. Times have changed, and these industries have ceased in the city. However, shoes and success are evident and to be enjoyed in the recently opened Museo Milavida –formely a private palace, and now beautifully restored by the city– and its first two exhibitions. At Milavida you get a fabulous glimpse of the milieu and the life of the late 19th century Tampere industrialist family, The von Nottbecks, and of the magical innovations of the ”shoemaker for the stars”, Salvatore Ferragamo.
Museo Milavida with its fascinationg exhibitions and cafe-restaurant, is the former private palace (1897) of the von Nottbeck family in Tampere. Photo: Pirkanmaan Päivä
When you meld the ideas of Italy, glamour, luxury and quality, one of the first associations must be FERRAGAMO, a luxury goods brand recognized around the world.
The man behind the brand, Salvatore Ferragamo (1898-1960), grew up as the 11th kid of 14 children in Southern Italy. He found his calling in designing and making shoes already when nine years old, and by age sixteen, he had emigrated to Boston where his brothers worked in a cowboy boot factory. At Salvatore’s initiative, the brothers soon moved to California, opened a shop for shoe repair and made-to-measure shoes, and the rest is history.
Among the key elements for great shoes is the understanding of human anatomy and the perfect lasts. Salvatore Ferragamo at the core of his art; view from the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum at Palazzo Spini Feroni in Florence.
The Hollywood film industry was on the verge of its first real boom, and eventually the top celebrities of the whole golden era of Hollywood became Ferragamo clients, both on screen and off. From Mary Pickford to Gloria Swanson, Lana Turner and Bette Davis to Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren. This man seemed to have an uncanny eye for giving powerful, influential women their finest shoes; a rewarding co-existence!
Salvatore Ferragamo was a brilliant innovator whose shoes at the most striking were like pieces of sculpture. He was inspired to search and find new technical solutions (many resulted in patents) and he experimented with combinations of materials sometimes most precious, other times quite ordinary, turning out clever and stunning creations. Science and technology were an important aspect of Ferragamo’s success, and to truly understand the relationship of feet to shoes, he wisely studied human anatomy on university level.
The lasts fitting the stars. For the film musical Evita (1996), the house of Ferragamo designed the glamorous shoes and wardrobe for Madonna. Originally, Salvatore Ferragamo created shoes for the real Eva Peron.
What becomes a legend most: shoes that fit comfortably and appear elegant. Celebrity status was quite influential in expanding the Ferragamo business into a widely known luxury brand.
After thirteen years in the United States, Ferragamo returned to Italy. Settling in Florence and opening a workshop, he was able to utilize the Italian craftmanship, retaining and growing the celebrity clientele. In the 1930’s he had become successful enough to purchase the formidable Palazzo Spini Feroni in the heart of Florence. The palace serves today as a Salvatore Ferragamo flagship store and office.
The boy-wonder of shoe design, Salvatore Ferragamo made his first shoes at age 9.
Palazzo Spini Feroni, Florence Photo: Museo Salvatore Ferragamo
In the basement of Palazzo Spini Feroni, there is an impressive museum, a favorite project of Salvatore’s gifted eldest daughter Fiamma (who died in 1998). Divided into two interlocking exhibitions, the museum tells the story of Salvatore with original desighs through the decades, and then turns into a fine art exhibition, changed periodically. The temporary exhibitions deal with key issues in Ferragamo’s innovations. The exhibition that I saw last spring addressed the aspect of balance. Smart and inspiring!
Ferragamo’s invention, the steel reinforced heel, served Marilyn Monroe well in the late 1950’s and created the modern classic pump.
The evolution of a shoe, a daring stiletto heel pump – an architectural statement for femininity.
A balancing act at the Ferragamo museum’s fine art exhibition.
In the temporary exhibitions, the Ferragamo museum connects theme’s of Salvatore Ferragamo’s work with objects of art in other media. In this exhibition the theme is ”balance”.
At the Ferragamo flagship store in Florence, some of Salvatore Ferragamo’s original creations, both for women and men, are recreated in limited edition. Elegant use of material, impeccable craftmanship, and prices fitting a luxury brand.
At the Museo Milavida opening in Tampere, it was delightful to meet Fiamma Ferragamo’s eldest son, Diego di San Giuliano who had travelled to honor the first ever presentation of Salvatore Ferragamo’s work in Finland.
We talked for a while, with intensity and enthusiasm, about his grandfather, whose enormous creativity and technical cunning had developed into a world wide luxury brand in just two generations. I felt that the exhibition’s message was loud, clear and joyful. It pays to take risks, to specialize, to build on creativity and passion for excellence. In these dire times with gloomy economic prospects, that message is more timely and important than ever.
Jonas Kaufmann recently had his debut recital in Finland. It was organized by the Turku Music Festival as a pre-festival event in July. The talented and ambitious tenor Topi Lehtipuu is the festival’s artistic director, but this particular recital was the result of the connections and will-power of the festival’s managing director, Ms. Liisa Ketomäki.
This was an orchestral recital with opera arias, spiced with overtures and interludes that built a convincing program of Puccini, Giordano, Leoncavallo, Verdi, Massenet, Bized and Wagner to showcase the Kaufmann talent.
Jonas Kaufmann in Turku. Skills and charm in spades.
Jonas Kaufmann clearly added heat to the already hot summer evening in the practically un-airconditioned Turku Concert Hall. It is a plain 1952 building with mediocre acoustics, and presently in a shabby connection. (There was a serious plan to build a new concert venue in Turku by the year 2011 when the city was a European Culture Capital. Unfortunately populist political horse-trading destroyed the plans, alas the poor venue.)
Kaufmann brought along his own conductor, Jochen Rieder. The Finnish orchestra, Jyväskylä Sinfonietta (expanded with musicians from major orchestras) rose to the occasion, but would have benefited from more rehearsal time amidst the holiday month, and from lesser heat and humidity inside the hall.
The surroundings were soon forgotten as Kaufmann was in his element and revealed himself to be genuinely a ”gift from heaven”. Every music lover present at the recital will have marked that day in the mental calendar of life: I was there then.
The nouanced warmth and depth of Kaufmann’s voice is not what you would expect from a ”tenor”, but all the tenor qualities needed were at his disposal when required for. The interpretations were touching and genuinely felt but also clearly intelligent. Those sublime pianissimi that carried through the hall, and the uncanny ability to thin the voice and build it into a formidable crescendo! Time and again, he brought the house down.
An artist and a singer quite in his own league. Also remarkable how unfussy and un-divo his stage presence was; no grand gestures, no mannerisms. Just a man who knows how to -and loves to- sing!
The Finnish audience was in ecstacy from early on, and a beaming Kaufmann gave four sublime encores.
Initially the recital had been quickly sold out, and the 1000 seat capacity could have been sold three times over. The recital set a great example. Finnish venues have long tended to bring to Finland vocal artists who are at the end of their careers. They may have enjoyed decades of success and fame, and this populist view of the names’ familiarity and fame has over-ridden the actual remaining singing skills. It is OK to appreciate a singer for the memory of what the voice was, but boy, does it make a difference to actually hear a singer in his peak!
WNO and Manon Lescaut at Savonlinna Festival
The medieval castle in the rapids is the venue for the Savonlinna Opera Festival.
Every summer, The Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland gives the audiences a possibility to also get acquainted with a foreign opera company, usually with two different productions, in the month-long festival.
It’s a good opportunity to compare the skills and the approaches with Savonlinna Festival’s own productions, and with Helsinki’s National opera, too. (The possibility to compare is oddly strengthened in the next season when both Savonlinna Festival and the National Opera are presenting Boris Godunow, Figaro and The Merry Widow, despite their planning committees’ joint sessions to avoid such clashes.)
This summer, the Wales National Opera (WNO) paid a welcome and on many levels, successful visit.
Upon my arrival in Savonlinna, I heard from many friends in the music business that the previous evening’s premiere of Nabucco had been quite impressive: a first-class orchestra, the mixed chorus in great form, and many good singers in the lead roles. I was eagerly awaiting my evening’s Manon Lescaut.
Reconceived by Mariusz Trelias as a Film Noir style melodrama and set in a vague ”modern times” with visual influences from the 1960’s to the 80’s and the 2010’s, this Manon Lescaut was a fascinating experiment where Puccini and the orchestra came out as the winners.
Convincingly conducted by Lothar Koenigs, the WNO orchestra sounded roundly lush, exact, seductive and made one think about reasons for such a sound: musn’t it, behind the collective polish, be based on the musicians’ sociability? In addition to the skills and the conductor, a matter of personality and culture? Must a good orchestra player be a chamber musician at heart first?
Film Noir moods and various spaces were created on stage with three large video screens which cleverly changed the sets from a subway station with rushing trains to a lonely bar, or more symbolically, into an expanding crimson pool of blood/passion, or a thinning flame of life. At its most successful, Puccini’s orchestral passages were seamlessly interwoven with the video screens’ calmly nocturnal runs through a wistful city gleaming with neon-lights; stunning.
Film Noir urban gloom in WNO’s Manon Lescaut.
Puccini and Film Noir have much in common: a sea of melancholy through which sparks of hope for love or bursts of passion break through, a sense of doom or fatality, the arch of drama and The Inevitable at its conclusion. Associations of the music and this production reminded me how much the film composers of epic style & ambitions actually owe to Puccini. A live opera production as cinematic as this presented Puccini as the The Film Composer of All Times.
Despite the effort, the transition into modern times did not quite work. Towards the end, the events started to feel scattered, the props seemed to clutter, something vital of the story vanished. The direction seemed lost, and certainly Manon, the Roman soprano Chiara Taigi, was lost: she ran around the stage trying to choose a place to die, and upon death, remembered to fold her skirt to fall more attractively on her legs… This concept called for a Femme Fatale and a calmer approach; Taigi’s Manon was girlish and hysterically jumpy.
Taigi’s soprano had a fascinating darkness to it, and a depth surprising for a soprano. But her top notes came out forced and sometimes neared screaming. As the lover des Grieux, the tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones’s Italianate voice took its time to warm but reached an impressive splendour. Unfortunately the chemistry between Taigi and Jones did not blossom on stage, they remained strangers, and that had an impact on the believability of the whole story.
The most spot-on scene in the concept takes place in the house of Manon’s keeper, Geront, when visiting musicians start to sing madrigals. The chanteuses have identical glitter miniskirts and 1960’s blond wigs. The music is sung into microphones with The Supremes -poses, and with good vocal skill. The concept works, and Manon’s boredom in the Salon receives an ironic underline; Poor Little Rich Girl.
The Mirjam Helin Competition
Mirjam Helin, photo: Mona Mannerheimo
The Finnish soprano Mirjam Helin (1911-2006) became a singer and a pedagogue despite her father’s and fiance’s warnings and threats. She studied singing in Rome, Vienna and Paris, had her praised debut recital in 1938 and completed her diploma in 1941. A solo recital in Paris in 1950 was a great success, and offers landed for Wagner roles even from the Paris Opera. But instead of a career in opera, she had chosen a married life in Finland and to work for her father’s business as he had insisted. Ultimately she became a beloved vocal coach.
In 1981, as a 70-year old widow, she decided to depart with a grand portion of her financial wealth, and with the Finnish Culture Foundation, an international signing competition was established under her and her late husband’s name. The first competition was held in 1984, and they have taken place every five years since.
Miss Helin was a formidable character who relished the possibility to follow the success of her competition well into her 90’s. She loved cars, and even when old and frail, she possesed the stamina to drive her own. She had a wonderful sense of style and occasion. I was invited to a private dinner with her not long before her death. She arrived well coiffed, wearing an elegant suit by Chanel, the perfect heels and simple but important jewellry to match, and a nicely understated bag. Her wit was sharp as ever, and we had a ball!
The Mirjam Helin competition is going on in Helsinki right at this moment, and what a special opportunity it is for all involved! Nearly 400 singers had applied to the competition, and 46 singers were chosen. Nineteen singers continue to the semi-finals on August 9 and 10 at the Helsinki Music Centre, with the final on the 13th. Master classes are arranged, and one of the jury members, the American soprano Deborah Voight, gives a Q & A ”tell all” to vocal students.
The competition gives a great boost to music lovers and students alike, to the pianists and the producers. A fabulous time for budding talent, vocal blossom, and the future!
Link to the competition’s official web page: http://mirjamhelin.fi/en
The most important festivity and annual society event in Finland is the December 6 Independence Day Ball given by the Finnish president. It traditionally takes place in the charming and delicately pompous neo-classic presidential palace in the heart of Helsinki. It has gradually and somewhat absurdly become the most watched tv-event in Finland.
There are perhaps 50-100 society ladies in Finland (population 5,5 million) with a serious fashion sense, and perhaps 10 of those at a time get the invitation. Weeks before the ball, magazines launch articles about the evening gowns these women, and some invited wannabes, are having made for the occasion.
The 200 members of the Finnish Parliament are, for some strange reason, automatically invited to the ball along with their spouses. Other guests include the diplomatic core stationed in Helsinki, and some people the president has met during his travels and meetings during the year. Representatives of culture, science, industry and education, finance, religion, sports, war veterans and general celebrity are invited as well, as are all the former presidents.
The people NOT invited to the party turn on the telly, as the event is broadcast LIVE, and as the main content of the broadcast, watch the arriving guests queue to shake hands with the president and his spouse in a non-stop row for two hours. There are tv commentators who try to their best knowledge to pick up the names of the arrivals correctly, and a fashion commentator, who wants to point out those dresses that are supposed to be best in tune with the international high fashion trends, and whose designers or users have sent press releases to the tv-production team beforehand about their wardrobe and jewellry decisions.
Then the selected celebrities and timely politicians, cultural people and choice veterans are asked the usual questions of What Does The Finnish Indepencence Mean To You Personally, and the usual appropriate answers are given. The menu of the tasty things to nibble on is explained and presented in lushious close-ups. Soon the band starts playing dance music (waltzes and tangos) and people rush to the dance floor way too small for the approximately 1900 guests. But lots of ”imitation dance” without room for movement follows, perfect photo ops for the abundant press present. When the photos have been taken, and having left their mark, everybody rushes out of the palace to party in more relaxed settings in various Helsinki restaurants and night clubs where some tv-crews and all the press follow.
I’ve been invited there twice. The mood can actually be surprisingly jolly, and the rooms are so cramped and hot (all that glaring lighting for tv) that it brings out a physical (sweaty) no-nonsense human quality in most guests.
Next morning the best and the worst dressed are on blunt display in the papers and the net, and the ”Queen of the Ball” is announced.
December 6, 2013 was a different case.
The old palace in Helsinki is under major renovation, the art from the walls and apparently some of the antique chandeliers have been put on display at the National Gallery. In a smart choice, the smart president Sauli Niinistö and his beautiful and culturally inclined wife Jenni Haukio decided to move the event out of Helsinki, to Finland’s second largest town Tampere, and Finland’s largest congress and concert venue, the Tampere Hall. No dancing this time, instead, there should be a 55-minute concert; tv-friendly in length. The dress code was not white tie and tails but something more flexible. The pre-ball fashion buzz was as lively as ever, and the largest Finnish newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, published a full page article on the occasion of this important event, of the up-and-coming young conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali who would lead the Tampere Philharmonics in the concert. The invitations list was far less Helsinki centered than usually; some good intentions.
The freshest aspect about the event was, unfortunately, the Tampere Hall itself, completed in 1990. Even that proved to be problematic. The architecture follows the post-Alvar Aalto ideals of clean (sterile) spaces, white on white, white marble, white painted walls, white tiles. In a country with long cold winters, this impact is chilly, it’s as if the architects and interior designers had invited the winter inside. In the live tv-presentation the coldnes of the interior spaces was underlined with the cobolt blue lighting designed for the broadcast. Freezing cold.
Most problematic was the ”concert”, however, to a great extent planned by the presidential couple. Ms. Jenni Haukio is a published poet and her literary interest is to be applauded. But the program was fragmented by quotes of literature recited by actors of various skills, all with the air of seriousness, put-on importance and solemn gravity.
The program commenced ominously, as the Tampere Philharmonics played ”Porilaisten marssi”, the honorary march of the Finnish Defence Forces since 1918, in a version arranged by Jean Sibelius (much advertised in the pre-event press for eliminating the gun-shot sounds of the usual arrangement). To illustrate it for tv-viewers, the whole duration of the march was used to follow the presidential couple descend the stairs slowly (awkwardly) to front orchestra and their seats in the middle of the crowd with the whole audience in silent standing ovation. It might have followed an aged protocol but the impact did not honor the much liked presidential couple nor make great tv-programming. The combination of pompous military music, taking painfully long steps down and standing ovation reminded me of the entrances of Putin to show off importance, or Chinese leaders in official communist congregations. Why on earth didn’t anyone in the production team dare intervene and to look for the interest and image of the presidential couple!
What is it about the Finnish idea of a ”proper” celebration! Why does everything have to be so serious, deathly serious, and gloomy? Why is indepencence not a happy thing? Why does ”celebratory” in this context only refer to the worship of the dead, of suffering and sacrifice, of remembering the wars, the famins, the miseries of our long gone past?
The music of Sibelius in short fleeting passages connected the chosen bits of recited literature. The sublime soprano Soile Isokoski’s talents were wasted for two melancholy, hopeless hymns. The gifted young baritone Waltteri Torikka could not show his claws with the material given to him. There was a motionless young boy lying on the stage, being patted by a woman in olden peasant costumes. Was the boy malnourished or dead (remember, the great famine of 1866?) or was he dosing off as an ”homage” to democratic Finland’s health care system and it’s recent scandal of flu-vaccination causing sleep apnea?
There was the most populist of choice of performers present in the actor Vesa-Matti Loiri, loved by the nation for his silly movies of lowest-caliber fart humor (picture alcoholic man who never washes, smiles thru rotten teeth, wears a worn&torn t-shirt –and it aint fashion-ripped– and yet succeeds where he never should). Well, the actor SINGS, too, and has developed a style so very self-important and ”deep” on ”interpretation” that one shudders. In recent years he has shared in the press much of his battle with obesity –no-one dares mention ”alcohol use” in this context– and on Tampere Hall stage, he happily appeared a bit less obese. But he put on 120% volume on the ”important interpretation” factor of the two very melancholy songs he had, and I almost turned the tv-off. But I lingered on, in awe and horror.
When the singing choirs, dressed in various monastery cloaks, started to descend down the orchestra ailes, holding candles and most serious faces, and we ended up with the predictable must, ”Finlandia” by Jean Sibelius, I asked in my mind: whose f…..g funeral are we at? Is this all the music Finland has to offer that is ”suitable” for the occasion? Does ”Independent Finland” only mean sadness, famine, death, gloom, coma by doom, hopelessness, imprisonment by winter, masochism, lethargy?
In our accepted view on the Finnish Independence, and on that Tampare Hall stage to celebrate the occasion, wherewas and is our energy, joy, optimism, where the mischievous sense of anarchy and humor through which we truly have survived in the severe climate of the North and under both Swedish and Russian oppression? Where is our cunning and ”underdog” cleverness? Where is the current, modern multiethnic Finnish society, where are our young people, where is our future? And is there no classical music in Finland since Jean Sibelius (who stopped composing in 1931), and no worthy popular music since Lasse Mårtenson’s ”Myrkyluodon Maija” tv-series of the 1970’s?
And last but not least, ”a topic that never must be touched”: the war veterans of 1939-45 who fought against Russia. Kudos and thanks to them, we did not become a total Soviet satellite!
But why is it that in the iconography of ”Finnish Indepencence”, the few surviving members of the troops, now in their late 80’s and 90’s, are always paraded, wheeled and carried to the fore and used as one-dimentional representatives of a somber legend, as if they were cartoon characters? No matter what the veterans’ actual personalities and backgrounds are and were, how complex as human beings, what they really felt of the war then and now, and what impact the war had in them as persons. (My late father was a war veteran, and gosh, do I know the complexity of HIS character, and how unfortunate and sad the impact of the war was to him, and through him, eventually to all his closest family.)
The veterans are invited to this annual Indepencence Day celebration spectacle to project the quality that befits the populist and culturally accepted view: heroes, solemn saviors of our nation who sacrificed everything. No one dares ask aloud how many of the men returned from the war mentally damaged and never received help, how many became wife-beaters, child abusers, detached loners or prone to various psychosis. To ask -–to think it possible– would be blasphemy. To think anything beyond worship regarding them is automatically considered an outrage and blasphemy…
As if this live broadcast from Tampere wasn’t enough, the national tv-channel topped it with the original and nowadays canonized 1955 black-and-white film version of Väinö Linna’s ”The Unknown Soldier” about the Finnish war with Russians in 1941 (why not the newer and morally more complex 1985 version by Rauni Mollberg), and with a rerun of the last World Championship ice-hockey game where Finland beats Sweden.
– – –
The Finns have long been pathologically interested in the outside views of others on Finland. Commitees of ministers, masters, professors and scientists, experts of industry and education have spent weeks and years in planning ”branding strategies” for Finland to help create a positive image of Finland in foreign countries.
I think it is high time to think about branding Finland for the Finns. We celebrate the 100th year of our independence in 2017. Will that also be an occasion to mourn the dead only?
Maanpäällinen paratiisi – Markku Pirin muotoilua ja taidetta Hämeenlinnan Taidemuseossa 23.11.2013 – 2.2.2014
Hämeenlinnan näyttelyssä taidemuseon Engel-rakennuksen alakerrassa on esillä yli 30 vuotta poikkitaiteellista suunnittelutyötä tehneen, suvereenisti materiaalista toiseen liikkuvan Markku Pirin menestyksekkäästi maailmaa vuosina 2011–2012 kiertänyt näyttelykokonaisuus; Pirin uusinta tuotantoa, painokankaisiin ja taidelasiin keskittyen.
The ambitious Amos Anderson Art Museum, a private institution in the center of Helsinki, explores the early development of French Art Deco in the arts, and the period’s impact in Finland. The exhibition lasts until July 21.
Expressive, brilliant Fauvism delighted but caused alarm in some art circles and resulted in seeking classicist ideals; Henri Matisse: ”Woman with a Hat”, 1905 (San Francisco Art Museum)
The emphasis of the exhibition is in the painting and fine arts, paving the way for the style that later became known as Art Deco and most glamorously recognizable in 1920’s & 30’s design, interiors, architecture, fashion and film. The exhibition’s curator, art historian Laura Gutman, makes a point of the 1910’s attack against the exceedingly expressive and colorful Fauvism (1900-1912…) –think of Matisse’s ”Woman with a Hat”, 1905, or the work of André Derain– a backlash that favored the emergence and popularity of Classicism, which in some ways joins hands with the early steps of the evolving Art Deco in design, crafts and architecture.
The exhibition gives valid scholarly arguments on the early stages of the development of Art Deco, but it misses the heart and soul of Art Deco and its finest achievements. Art Deco defies exact defininitions in its many-faceted call for naughty, vibrant, urban, eclectic and initially elitist way of design, a call for a new, modern life and sense of fun, a change of outlook after the grim Great War of 1914-1918. Art Deco never became a favored style in Finland. Our 1920’s Classisism, the Nordic Classicism, rooted here much more easily, as did the strict and pure, modern Bauhaus ideals in the 1920’s and 1930’s Finnish ”Funkis” or Functionalism. (We Finns are still often too cool and sober for much sense of fun in design).
The Amos Anderson exhibit presents several paintings by Maurice Denis as influential to the Finnish artists of the era, such as Juho Rissanen, Eero Järnefelt and Venny Soldan-Brofelt. The organic, twining lines and flat surfaces of Maurice Denis owe as much to the Art Nouveau style (1890-1915) as Classicism, and the attempt to discover the Art Deco spirit of the Finnish painters amongst the folds of the models’ robes and dresses, aking to the Ideals of The Antique, seems a bit forced. None of the Finnish artists’ works exhibited in this context can be considered their strongest, and the exhibition presents only a few works of art that I would consider great.
Iconic ART DECO painting, Tamara de Lempicka: ”Spring”, 1928. Originally Polish, de Lempicka was the first woman artist to become a glamour star.
Sonia Delaunay’s 1920’s geometric paintings find their way for fashions for women and as designs for stage sets and costumes.
Certainly it is interesting to see the way the Finnish sculptor Wäinö Aaltonen carved the hair of his models in stylized three-dimentional tubular swirls and remember that Tamara de Lempicka painted the hair of her models in her iconic Art Deco portraits in a similar style. But this flashback only emphasizes what is missing in this exhibition: indeed, the decadently glamorous work of de Lempicka, the geometric yet sensuous and theatrical designs and art of Sonia Delaunay and her husband Robert, the tubular stylizations of Legér, the angular and energetic influence of Cubism (peaking around 1909-1915 with Picasso and Braque and continuing to the 1920’s) bringing fore the echo of cities, technology, Machine Age, jazz, and new angles to view the world.
Fernand Legér: ”Creation of the World”, 1923; painting for a theater set.
Sonia Delaunay’s simultaneous fashion for liberated women and speedy cars, 1923.
The wonderful, few pieces of furniture and objects in the exhibition, both French and Finnish, do represent Art Deco, but have less to to with the paintings of the show. An exception is the Finnish Nikolai Kaario whose 1920’s and 30’s works are designs as much as they are paintings, stylized, they are or could be plans or parts of Art Deco interiors or stage sets.
Nikolai Kaario’s ”Masquerade”, 1927, could also be a plan for an Art Deco interior or stage design. (Turku Art Museum, photo: Vesa Aaltonen)
Alas, the exhibition tells a fascinating but marginal tale of the early emergence of Art Deco, and in this context the name in a big bold font, ART DECO, is a teaser that does not fulfil its promise. The exhibition lacks the energy, mystery, pizzaz, decadence, and sense of fun that is in the core of Art Deco.
There is a great wealth of material to build a show on Art Deco! Victoria and Albert Museum in London did one in 2003; different resources there! In 2010, a special exhibit in New York featured furniture and interiors of the legendary oceanliner Normandie (1935-1941). In the fast-evolving fashion industry, Art Deco has been an inspiration in the last couple of years. The witty, daring and visually talented director Baz Luhrmann is bringing out in 2013 his new film version of The Great Gatsby, a tale of wealth and misfortune in the 1920’s, designed very much in the mood of Art Deco.
Leisure travel is the ultimate luxury in the 20’s and early 30’s. The pinnacle of French Art Deco in 1935, S/S Normandie offered glamour for its mostly 1st class passengers The restaurant was said to equal the mirrored hall of Versailles in its wow-impact.
Legendary graphic designer and painter Cassandre’s 1935 poster for S/S Normandie
The Italian Futurism (Futurismo, 1909-1916) was a cross-cultural movement that involved all the arts, design and architecture. It glorified the ideals of future, technology, speed, urban living and youth. Futurism was influenced by Cubism, and it inspred both Constructivism and Art Deco.
A key member of Futurism was the architect Antonio Sant’Elia whose drawings for an industrialized and mechanized futurist city with its interconnected skyscrapers, ”Citta Nuova” turned out to be vastly influential. There is much in Sant’Elia’s elegant architectural drawings that remind you of the elements that were to become familiar in the later Art Deco buildings. Sant’Angelo was killed in the World War I. – It is fascinating to watch Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1925/27, Germany) and draw parallels between the film’s cityscape and that of Sant’Elia’s visions.
Many Russian avant-garde artists studied and lived in Paris, and Cubism was influential in their workl. Futurism has its links with the arts and theater movement in Russia, too, and Kazimir Malevich (active in 1910-1935) their spiritual brother.
Leon Bakst designed the costumes, sets and the program for ”Afternoon of a Faun”,
Incidentally, the Imperial Russian porcelaine factory Lomonosov produced some of the most fabulous Art Deco tableware in the early 1920’s, before that modern style was deemed ”corrupt” and the factory shifted into communist propaganda porcelain. (The old skills and designs have resurfaced in stunning new production since the Soviet system’s collapse.)
During times of distress, people have a tendency to seek solace in romance or entertainment involving far-away, exotic and longed-for places. After major catastrofies, such as wars, people eagerly expect and embrance a change, something different. The French Orientalism and Exotism of the 1910’s and 20’s blossomed in fashion, silent films, music and ballet. Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes presented exotic tales in exuberantly fashioned costumes and scenography by Leon Bakst, with new music commissioned and composed by Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Satie.
Parade, a 1917 ballet with music by Eric Satie on a story by Jean Cocteau, sets and costumes by Picasso; a video glimpse of its later recreation:
After the horrors of the World War I, a changing world, developing technology, new ideas, a new kind of life would seem to be in order. The growing popularity and fascinating possibilities of film as mass entertainment, changing tunes in popular music and the arrival of jazz, the ideals of speed (cars!), height (skyscarapers!), the growing independence of women, expressed as boldly in clothes, haircuts as in the right to vote, the belief that developing technology, faster production methods and the human brain behind it all could lead into a better world, changed ideals, styles and fashion. The world was becoming modern.
Art Nouveau’s pastoral curving lines received cubist fractures and jazzy urban syncopation.
The treasures and style of Tutankhamun influenced design, architecture and fashion from 1922 till the 1930’s. The dispersing sun-ray motif typical in Art Deco can be seen in the back of the gold mask.
A style revolution emerged towards the mid 1920’s that seemed to tie in all the before mentioned elements: change, cubism, cars, orientalism, exotism, modernism, sensuality and angularity, luxury, jazz, joy & fun and a kind of unabashed physicality. The great inspiration and kick was the stupendous world-news of the 1922 finding of the intact tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt, and a decade long major trend that followed. Melted into the imagery and shapes of the King Tut findings, Art Deco blended traces of the ideals of classism, of German Bauhaus movement and the Dutch De Stijl, a touch of Futurismo, ideals of technology, speed and height. The modern was embraced but ornamentation and decoration were not discarded. In Art Deco style, Art Nouveau’s pastoral curving lines received cubist fractures and jazzy urban syncopation.
1. Drawing of the Egyptian papyrus plant 2. Egyptian Papyrus column (Metropolitan Museum) 3. Papyrus motif in facade tiles; Sun Reality Building, Los Angeles (1930) 4. Wall lamp, Hotel Bauer-Grünwald, Venice 5. Courthouse detail, Boston 6. Stacked, interlocked papyrus flowers in table lamp at the Parliament of Finland (1931) 7. Chrysler building door (1930) 8. Papyrus inspired chandelier (Olde Good Things antique store, Manhattan) 9. Stylized papyrus flower as seen from above; dancing girls in a Busby Berkeley 1930’s movie spectacle.
In the 1925 Paris World’s Fair, or The International Exhibition of Modern and Industrial Decorative Arts (Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes) in Paris, the French were the pioneers and decided to show only what was ”modern”. Art Deco came together and blossomed in the French entries, and excited and intoxicated the visitors who included hoards of influential producers, art directors and designers of the fast developing Hollywood movie industry. Art Deco found a welcome home in the fantastical sets of Hollywood pictures as they were being dreamt up and built for mass consumption. In this respect, the American Art Deco’s emphasis on ”entertainment” quality, and the oversize styling as if all was a stage spectacle, is understandable in American architecture also.
Exotic Japanese influence in Art Deco: ”Fortissimo screen”, 1925–26 by Jean Dunand, Séraphin Soudbinine; Lacquered wood, eggshell, mother-of-pearl
Tourbillons (Whirlwinds) vase, glass, ca. 1925, René-Jules Lalique The Metropolitan Museum of Art
I have a fascinating portfolio book, published in Paris in 1925, of Madame Pangon’s batiks. Her scarves and dress and upholstery materials feature Art Deco’s typical geometric elements and dispersing sun-ray motifs.
Erté (Romain de Tirtoff) was a Russian born artist-designer who made a career in France and USA as illustrator, fashion illustrator and costume and set designer. His long life and career saw the renewed popularity of Art Deco style, when his illustrations were sold as as signed editions of prints. (WikiPaintings)
In the 1926 French film La Vertige, directed by Marcel L’Herbier, the actor Jaque Catelain in an Art Deco interior, and a bath robe designed by Sonia Delaunay. In the 1929 Greta Garbo film The Kiss, the city interior is by the famous designer for films, Cedric Gibbons, who visited and was greatly inspired by the 1925 Paris exhibition.
In Paris 1920’s and 30’s society, a muse to great artists, Josephine Baker oozed beauty, fun, sex and glam.
Josephine Baker in Art Deco jewelsI
If Isadora Duncanis the dancer for the classicists, then Josephine Baker is the choice for the wild and wicked Art Deco society.Originally from St Louis, she came via Broadway to Paris, gradually developing into a glamorous entertainer icon who socialized with the cultural elite and was a muse for famous artists, including Cocteau, Hemingway and Picasso. Here in the video, in her earlier, earthier incarnation in 1927, she jimmies & kicks to Charleston with relaxed abandon, clad in a post-cubist frock. And look at the faces she makes! In 1934 she became the first African-American female to star in a major motion picture, Zou-Zou (1934, with Jean Cabin).
Travel as tourism
In the 1920’s travel as tourism developed, by train, car, ocean liners and by air. Far away and exotic places were closer, and inspired the imagination of artists and any other travelers. Art Deco became the distinct design style for the finest trains and passenger ships, as well as the era’s travel posters. The Finnish national airlines, Finnair, was founded in 1923 under the name AERO.
From the 1920’s, the world’s wonders were closer for travelers by train, car, ocean liner or by air. Art Deco reflected in the 20’s and 30’s graphic design and posters. Charles Lindbergh was the first to fly non-stop solo over the Atlantic. When the hero landed in Paris, he was greeted by 100 000 spectators.
Deco in Finland?
If Art Nouveau as a style is feminine, romantic, organic, whimsical, winding and flowing, and deeply rooted in Nature’s inspiration, then Art Deco that follows is masculine, angular, urban, bursting, whirling, climbing, jumping and speeding. Even Art Deco’s feminine curves are usually in tension, in contrast or counterpoint with rhythmic, geometric elements. In the work of the Vienna Secession artistic group of the great architect Otto Wagner, the designer-architect Josef Hoffmann and the painter Gustav Klimt, or the grand cafes of Prague, or the apartment houses of Barcelona, you get a sense that the Art Nouveau style develops effortlessly into the more geometric and iconically urban Art Deco style. In Helsinki, the popular National Romantic Style, as we call our Jugendstil or Art Nouveau, takes a more robust form and less excessive than in France, Belgium or Germany. The Finnish architect and designer Eliel Saarinen echoed some early Deco influences in his major works, and by the time of the excitement of his near-win of the Chicago Tribune Tower competition and 1923 move to the USA, Saarinen was a budding modernist of international quality. In his architecture and furniture designs for the Cranbrook Academy, Art Deco styling is evident.
Eliel Saarinen’s influential entry for the Chicago Tribune Tower competition, 1922.
Saarinen’s dining room at Cranbrook. The furniture (1929) features typical Art Deco elements of stylized sun-rays.
Instead of the entertaining Art Deco, Finland followed more the ways of 1920’s Classicism and the more modern, somber and reduced Bauhaus movement’s functionalistic aspirations. Alvar and Aino Aalto’s 1924 travels in Italy so inspired them that the plans for the Workers’ house in Jyväskylä were changed mid-building. The completed house (1925) combines elements of Nordic Classicism and Art Deco. The new, thrilling means of mass entertainment, the movies, offered architects and designers exciting possibilities. When the new Bio Capitol (1925/26) opened, it was the finest, coolest, largest movie theater in Helsinki. Designed by the architect W.G. Palmqvist, with interiors by Hilding Ekelund and interior decorations by noted artists Toivo Vikstedt, Gunnar Finne, Göran Hongell and Gunnar Forström; it was a melange of Nordic Classisism and Art Deco. Architect Martti Välikangas designed both the building and the interiors of Bio Athene (later named Orion), and his work is pure Art Deco, with the entrance hall as if to a royal Egyptian palace with glossy columns and gilded details. In Tampere’s massive 1929 building named Tuulensuu of condominiums and shops(by the architect Bertel Strömmer), a glamorous movie theater with the same name opened, too, and was later named Kino Palatsi. It was recently renovated into dinner-theater, carefully utilizing the original interiors. Art Deco style in Finland is so little appreciated that it was impossible to find good photo material of the movie palaces in the internet.
Bio Capitol, opened in 1926 in Helsinki; audiences entering in 1931. Photo: Helsinki City Museum/Olof Sundström
Kino Palatsi (originally called Tuulensuu) was a grand movie theater in Classicist/Art Deco style, opened in Tampere in 1929.
Alvar Aalto’s 1925 Workers’ house in Jyväskylä. Aalto and his wife Aino travelled in Italy in 1924. Clearly inspired by the Italian Renaissance palaces, the Workers’ house reflects the Nordic Classicism but also Art Deco influences. /Photos: Alvar Aalto museum
The only major Art Deco building (left) in Helsinki is the Parliament. The architect J.S. Siren won the architectural competition in 1926, clearly inspired by the international King Tut craze of the 1920’s. The building was completed in 1931, a young independent nation’s proud achievement. The exterior is grandly classicist, with the side entrances as if into the tombs in Egypt’s Valley of The Dead. The interiors are quite ”hollywood” in their flamboyant elegance. Wonderful staircases of marble, brass and chrome, glossy paint surfaces in smooth accent colors, geometric, patterned linoleum floors, exotic dark woods, fabulous Art Deco chandeliers (made in Finland) and the Tutankhamun inspired furniture create an impressive artistic whole. Arttu Brummer (works seen at the Amos Anderson exhibition) designed furniture and Gunnar Finne painted the sublime ceilings. Even the papyrus plant, a popular Art Deco motif, received its interpretation by Siren as a Parliament table lamb.
The Parliament in Helsinki was designed by J.S. Siren in 1926 and completed in 1931. The exterior is grandly classicist with Egyptian influence in the side entrances.
Art Deco styling in the Parliament interiors.
The State Room in its grandeur, patterned stone floor, massive golden doors, Tutankhamun inspired furniture and Art Deco chandeliers made in Finland.
The Finnish Parliament’s ceilings in rich colors.
Tutankhamun inspiration in the Stateroom chairs of the Parliament.
The Chanin Building (1929); entertaining Art Deco ornamentation close to the street level in Manhattan, 42nd St.
New York City was my home for ten years. For a young designer hungry for inspiration and fascinated by Art Deco, Manhattan is a true treasure trove. Countless hours of walks with a camera, poking one’s nose into lobbies and halls, checking out staircases and elevators…
Radiator covers for the Jazz Age (or Machine Age); The Chanin Building.
In Manhattan architecture, the sky is truly the limit, and in the mood of ”higher, faster and prouder” and with a reliance in the advancement of technology, Art Deco became the style of the new Machine Age’s skyscrapers. Zoning laws and building permissions allowed added height to the buildings if special attention was given to the artistic quality and decoration of the buildings’ first 2-3 floors’ facades and public spaces. This gave the architects, designers and skilled craftsmen ample opportunity to show what they can. The results are often impressive and entertaining.
The mood, speed, danger and sex of the new modern city is shown as a feverish vision in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis; Manhattan meets Metropolis, or vice versa. In 2008, the film’s original cut -thought forever lost- was found in Argentina, and Metropolis has since been restored. It is the first film ever to have been inscribed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. In the enclosed clip, a dancing Art Deco siren or goddess –with a head-dress inspired by the Egyptian papyrus flower– climbing out of an Art Deco jewel box is suitably seductive and drives a crowd of gentlemen so wild that The Grim Reaper is alarmed! The editing of the montage is nothing short of sensational.
New York’s Empire State Building (1931) is possibly the most famous landmark Deco tower, and the occasional home of King Kong. The most magical skyscraper, however, must be the Chrysler Building (1930) in Manhattan. With an internal steel skeleton, it is still the tallest brick building in the world. The lobbies, stairways and elevators are masterpieces of craftsmanship, with Egyptian motifs stylized in colored marbles, inlaid brass and exotic woods. The top exterior is an interpretation of the classic Egyptian inspired Art Deco theme of the sun and its dispersing rays.
Chrysler Building, 1930. Photo: David Shankbone
Chrysler Building stairway, like a chamber in an exotic temple. The polished marbles, brass, gold leaf and the Art Deco mood would have impressed King Tut. Photo: Brian Dubé.
Chrysler Building’s elevator designs echo Egypt’s papyrus plant, a typical Art Deco motif; inlaid hardwoods and brass.
Circular motifs meet the zig-zag V-shapes; Art Deco’s Egyptian and Mayan influences. Chrysler’s symbol, a stainless steel eagle, has landed in a corner.
Rockefeller Center (1932-39) is a proudly planned, elegant consortium of 14 Art Deco buildings; fantastic reliefs in the facade, fascinating paintings in the public hallways. But a great pity that the original Diego Rivera fresco (100 square meters) of the RCA building was destroyed as Nelson Rockefeller disliked the small Lenin face included. The fresco was replaced with a stunning, larger mural by the Catalan artist Josep Maria Sert.
A Grand Concourse lobby. Photo: Sara Krulwich, N.Y.Times
A European inspired boulevard, the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, north of and leading into Manhattan, is a nearly five-mile stretch with a number of significant Art Deco apartment buildings; it makes an interesting walk for an architecture and design enthusiast.
The magic of movies
Art Deco style became a megatrend in the United States from the early 1920’s till the mid-1940’s. The power and growth of the film industry was a great means of building the trend. Movies offered unheard-of magic, and great movie palaces were built to take the breath away, with exotic Mayan and Egyptian motifs already before Tutankhamun was found. The Egyptian Theater (1922) and The Pantages in Los Angeles, (1930), Loew’s King’s Theater (1929) in Brooklyn, Radio City Music Hall (1932) in Manhattan are all landmark Art Deco theaters of many in the USA. I once toured Atlanta’s wonderfully ornate and very Egyptian Fox Theater (1929) , conceived as if it was to be a world’s wonder. I wonder what it must have felt like to the contemporay audiences to experience then and there a showing of Claudette Colbert’s famed film Cleopatra (1934) with its iconic Egyptian style Art Deco sets and costumes. In the Radio City Music Hall interiors, luxury materials such as exotic hardwoods and gold leaf were inventively combined with new industrial materials like bakelite and aluminum.
Radio City Music Hall was completed in 1932. With 6 000 seats and showing movies and song-and-dance spectacles, it became ”the people’s palace”, and the home for The Rockettes, dancing girls famous for the precision footwork.
The Hollywood musical is an art form in itself. It reaches its black-and-white best in the work of the actor-dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. Here a glimpse of a new hit dance, The Continental (to Oscar winning music), amidst some grand Art Deco hotel sets, in the 1934 Gay Divorcee.
Top Hat (1935) is one of the ultimate Hollywood Art Deco musicals. The art directors, set and costume designers were at the top of their game in this most elegant, stylized black-and-white film. The lack of color emphasizes the Deco sets, and the glow of the materials, lit to offer genuine movie magic.
The director/choreographer (auteur) Busby Berkeley develops the Hollywood film musical into powerful, highly kinetic expressions of storytelling and art. In The Gold Diggers of 1935, Berkeley builds a moving spectacle on a simple story of one day in the life of ”ordinary” folks living in New York. There is a stylized reality to the sequence, a strong undertone of sexuality and hope, a great physical quality, almost like an American parallel to Socialist Realism. The strong artistic vision, set to Harry Warren’s haunting show tune The Lullaby of Broadway, reaches a great, tapping climax when the evening in the city changes into night…
In Cleopatra, the 1934 hit film directed by Cecil B. DeMille, the Egyptian King Tut background of Art Deco meets the grand skills of the new Hollywood ”dream industry”.
Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra and Henry Wilcoxon as Marc Anthony in Cleopatra, 1934. – During the 1980’s the film’s massive outdoor sets were found outside Hollywood, covered in sand. Excavating Hollywood history…
When Claudette Colbert arrived at the filming of Cleopatra, she had her costumes redesigned to be even more glamorous.
Art Deco’s oversize elegance as presented by Hollywood in 1930’s films. The wall lamps continue the interlocking papyrus plant motif typical of Deco since the 1922 found of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Art Deco became the trendy style to create impressive interiors for clubs, restaurants, hotels, theaters, bars, oceanliners and the houses, villas and apartments of the rich and the famous. The rich & famous still enjoy this style; both Madonna and Barbra Streisand have owned large Art Deco collections of furniture, and paintings by Tamara de Lempicka.
Streamlined Deco for the masses
The stock exchange crash of 1929 and the Great Depression had a profound influence in the American life, but Art Deco continued to flourish in design and the movies; people wanted to be entertained. In the developing design trends of the 1930’s, Art Deco’s angular elements became more streamlined.
The stage designer, Norman Bel Geddes opened his design studio in 1927, and in the 1930’s was influential in shifting the angular Art Deco into Streamline-Modern, and into consumer products and everyday life. The work of the all-round designer Raymond Loewy is a great example of that, designing everything from buses and trains to mass-produced china and cutlery. The whole Miami Art Deco district is fun streamlined-deco with pastel color accents and a beach feel.
With the help of designers as Raymond Loewy, Art Deco became streamlined in the 1930’s to early 40’s. Loewy designed everything from trains and buses to kitchen- and tableware.
Miami’s streamlined Art Deco glows with tropical seaside accents.
In America the Art Deco influence continued in architecture and design through the 30’s towards the mid-40’s. It became a standard in government or municipal buildings, with a layer of austerity added. It then sometimes brings to mind the official buildings that Mussolini had built in Italy, or what Albert Speer designed for Hitler’s Germany. Stalin’s architectural dreams for Soviet Union could not have come about without the preceding Art Deco, though both in Hitler’s and Stalin’s favored architecture, Neoclassicism prevails.
Let’s close with two highly energetic, escapist and optimistic Art Deco musical numbers from an era of depression, oppression, rising fascism and upcoming war. We’re in the Money from Golddiggers of 1933, and Marika Rökk singing Ich brauche keine Millionen, 1939 – I need no millions, as long as I have music, and your love…
Masterful Japanese fiber artists at the Design Museum in Helsinki
The successful and surprising Fiber Futures exhibition at the Design Museum in Helsinki (until May 5) is co-organized by Japan Society, New York, International Textile Network Japan, and Tama Art University Museum, and originally curated by the esteemed, experienced and energetic professor Hiroko Watanabe.
Strength and sublety; Naoko Serino’s innovative use of fiber in a sculptural piece at the Design Museum
The exhibition is rewarding on many levels and goes to the core of the Japanese approach (philosophy) in the arts and crafts tradition. This difference in the attitude between the Finnish (our western) approach and the Japanese is also a reason why arts and crafts in Japan are part of such long, evolving and strong tradition, with a freedom for the masterful use of new -and old- materials and techniques,
Japan represents the approach, tradition and culture of thinking and doing, of mastering the craft, of developing skills through repetition, slowly gaining the understanding of materials, their nature, behavior and ”soul”, and by painstakingly doing, and doing over again. This awareness of the exterior and interior qualities of materials and the meaning of different methods is extraordinary in Japanes arts and crafts.
The reach of superb skills open a new, different freedom and liberty for expression. And, for a reason, an experienced master-artist or artisan can be acknowledged with a status of a National Living Treasure in Japan.
The western culture, Finland included, is a culture of seeing, not doing. We believe that once we see something, we posess it and that we gain the ability to make someting perfectly just by having observed it, instantly. The idea of spending years and years learning a special craft, polishing skills, makes us anxious and intimidated. Dedication, patient hard work in arts and crafts is not for most Finns.
Tetsuo Kusama’s woven works are often developed in collaboration with architects to be an integral part of an inspirational space. Textures, colours, shapes, scale and light in fascinating dialogue.
The spiral by the architect meets the spiral by the fiber artist Tetsuo Kusama.
Anyone who can weave rag carpets or knit a sweather can call her- or himself a textile artist in Finland. Part of the problem of evaluating -and pricing- the works of finest crafts in our culture is that our sense of quality has slipped, thus qiving the possibility for mediocre (and lazy) artisans to try to sell their works at a higher price as ”art”.
The Fiber Futures exhibition showcases the work of 30 Japanese artists and designers, and their works clearly demonstrate the importance of serious thinking and doing, and through that, being liberated in their choice of materials and most laborious processes. The works can be enjoyed as art or sculpture. For anyone contemplating the substance, the possibilities, and the difference between art and craft, this exhibition is a horn of plenty.
I have been personally very strongly influenced and inspired by the Japanese textile and design culture. I received my first grant from the Finnish Culture Foundation in 1980, to visit Japan and to learn about Japanese design & craft tradition. During a month long stay, I met with several important artists & master craftsmen. Tetsuo Kusama, Naomi Kobayashi and the late Masakazu Kobayashi were amongst them. It was a special delight to meet the two former visiting in Finland and find their work in the exhibition.
Tetsuo Kusama’s three horizontal weavings in the show, with magically shifting colours, are but a fraction of his major output of large scale works, often created for public spaces in close collaboration with architects. One would certainly hope that new generations of Finnish architects could find a way to include fiber arts as a possibility in creating inspirational spaces.
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The newly curated and designed permanent exhibition of the Design Museum is a lively whole that tells of the development of design in Finland. The exhibition is filled with objects that evoke epochs and bring back to life decades of creative minds and ambitious production. The exhibition serves also as evidence of the Design Museum’s desperate lack of exhibition space. The story of Finnish Design is much more many-faceted than the present, rather obvious and limited edition, and a proper venue and ample space would be needed for the presentation.