May 31, 2010

Stockholm Sojourn

The beautiful city of Stockholm is built on an archipelago of 14 islands connected by bridges, railway and watercraft, on the edge of the Baltic Sea. It is the capital of Scandinavia, has a very high standard of living, and a considerable reputation for producing items of great design and its famous culinary feast, the smörgåsbord!

I had never been to Sweden. Heck, I'd never been farther North than London, so I was very excited when the possibility of a trip to Stockholm was raised. Despite the combined threats of another eruption of the Icelandic volcano and/or a strike by the British Airways cabin crews, we arrived in Arlanda International Airport last Thursday under sunny blue skies and mild, for Sweden, temperatures.

This is the "Summer of Love" in Stockholm, and before you start to fantasize about gorgeous Nordic goddess', I'll tell you that this is a nation-wide celebration of the nuptials of Sweden's Crown Princess Victoria with Mr. Daniel Westling on June 19th. Their pictures are everywhere and the shops are full of royal wedding souvenirs from china to chocolates. Every public place in the area of the Royal Palace, or Kungliga Slottet, is a construction zone as tents, viewing stands and dance floors are being installed for this much anticipated event. In the egalitarian spirit of the country, everyone will be able to participate in celebrating this joyous occasion and the enthusiasm was contagious.

As Stockholm is surrounded by water, the sea has always played a vital role in the city's history. I began my sightseeing tour with a visit to a very special maritime museum on the island of Djurgården, the Vasa Museet. Regular blog readers know that I visit a lot of museums, but this has got to be the most unusual one yet! Housed in a totally crazy barn-like structure, with 3 masts sticking out of the roof, is the restored wreck of the Vasa, a warship that sank to the bottom of Stockholm Harbour a mere 15 minutes into her maiden voyage on August 10, 1628. There she lay, at the bottom of the sea, covered with mud and cold, not too salty water, until 1961 when she was raised, gently floated to a special dock and lovingly reconstructed and preserved to her 17th Century glory. In a remarkable salvage and restoration project, the Vasa has overcome her ignominious sinking to become a major tourist attraction as well as an on-going project in history, conservation and forensics.

Then it was time for a totally different kind of museum - The National Museum on Blasieholmen. Dedicated to the fine and decorative arts, this museum focus', naturally, on Swedish and Nordic art, but has a lovely collection of French and Flemish paintings as well. Of course, I loved the works by native sons Carl Laarson and Anders Zorn but my favorite part of the museum was their superb group of miniature portrait paintings. 230 examples, culled from their holdings of over 5,200 works, are currently on display under glass in several galleries. Varying in size from a pencil eraser to small painting, executed on materials from ivory to vellum to porcelain, and often framed in precious metals, jewels or enamel, these exquisite works were intended as very personal symbols of love and devotion that could be kept close to the heart of a lover or a parent. It is this intimacy that makes the faces so poignant and interesting whether or not the person was famous or totally unknown.

Enough of being indoors on this beautiful Spring day! It was time to walk around another harbour and cross the Strombron bridge to get to Gamla Stan. This island is dominated by the Royal Palace, and is also home to the Nobel Prize Museum, Stockholm Cathedral, and the medieval section of the city. Walking among the narrow twisted streets with colorful old buildings of Old Town was charming, despite the multitude of touristy shops and restaurants. I finally succumbed to temptation though and enjoyed an absolutely delicious lingonberry tart with a cup of coffee! A perfect pick-me-up before the clouds came in and a squall started up sending me scurrying for the protection of my hotel!

I began the next day with a walk up Nybrogatan to visit the Saluhall Food Market. It's a good thing the hotel provided an ample breakfast or I would have gone wild in that paradise of cheese, fish, meat, chocolates and bread! Catering to both tourists and locals with fine, fresh food products, the market was a feast for all the senses and a showcase of Sweden's outstanding cuisine.

Not being able to stay away from museums for long, I headed over to Skeppshomen, an island that is home to several museums but most notably the Moderna Museet. This modern art museum was built in 1958 and houses a very distinguished collection of works by modern and contemporary masters such as Miro, Picasso, Dali, Rauschenberg, Brancusi and Andy Warhol. In fact, Moderna Museet was one of the first institutions to make an exhibition of Pop Art while it was still in its infancy. So it is no surprise that their current special exhibition is an outstanding 50 year retrospective of the American artist Ed Ruscha. Born in Nebraska in 1937, Ed Ruscha traveled West to California in 1955 and has without doubt achieved the status of icon among living artists today. From Pop Art to Conceptualism to Post Modernism - Ed Ruscha was a pioneer and is now a living legend.

Such a show can only be followed up by something totally different so I ventured back over to Gamla Stan and avoided a rain shower by ducking into the historic and impressive Storkyrkan, Stockholm Cathedral. Built as a simple village church in the 13th century it was enlarged and adorned during the 15th century to accommodate its role as Royal Cathedral - a position it still holds. The interior is dominated by an ebony and silver altar and a pair of ornately gilded Royal pews, used only during official ceremonies, but imposing at all times. The other amazing work inside the church is a magnificent sculptural altar monument of St George and the Dragon. This 15th Century work is made of oak and elk horn and depicts the legend of St George slaying the terrible dragon that had demanded human sacrifices in exchange for not destroying the town of Selene. It is a not-so-discreet allusion to its commissioner, Sten Sture the Elder, who fought the armies of Denmark to save Stockholm from its Danish Dragon, and remains a monument to the forces of good versus evil.

After a full day of sightseeing it is time for a culinary reward in the form of a delicious seafood dinner! White asparagus are in season and the always delicious Swedish salmon make for an excellent meal, especially with a little taste of Aquavit as a "digestif"!

Unfortunately I've come to the end of my visit to Stockholm. It has been a wonderful few days and my biggest regret is that I did not have time to take a boat ride to visit some of the other islands. This means only one thing - I'll have to come back and it will be an enormous pleasure to revisit the land of the Vikings and the midnight sun. Adjö and see you soon!

May 22, 2010

"American Woman" Part I

American women have come a long way in the last century, and no where is this better reflected than in the clothing styles of then and now.

This year The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute presents a special exhibition chronicling the changing perceptions of American women from 1890 to 1940 as reflected in the clothes they wore. "American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity" uses the language of dress to trace the evolution of American, and indeed global, femininity from the Gilded Age to modern times. Beyond just practical applications, these changes in style truly reflect the social, political and sexual revolutions that the 20th Century has seen in the role of women in our society.

The exhibition is beautifully installed with over 80 gowns and outfits displayed by the decade in sumptuously decorated galleries. Beginning with the 1890's era of "The Heiress" where elegant evening gowns by Worth are presented in a salon setting befitting an Edith Wharton novel, we move on to the relative athleticism of "The Gibson Girl". Here, the American ideal of a "slender Diana" is shown in its full glory with models wearing sporting costumes for activities from golf to tennis to horseback riding. The 1900's are represented by "The Bohemian" woman wearing designs by Liberty of London, Paul Poiret and Callot Soeurs in a re-creation of Louis Comfort Tiffany's studio, complete with original antique lamps.

The next gallery is not the most beautiful, but it is compelling and very important. The 1910's were the age of World War I, and while no physical fighting occurred here in the United States, a major conflict was being waged by women who served in the military overseas but were prohibited from voting here at home. "Patriots and Suffragettes" comes alive with film footage of female armed forces and women marching for the right to vote, alongside original military uniforms worn by nurses and other female veterans of The Great War.

1920 brought American woman the right to vote and was also the age of "The Flapper". Modernism is everywhere in this gallery from the decor inspired by Tamara de Lempicka to the fabulous chemise dresses with tassels and boas and beading by Jeanne Lanvin and Molyneux. And the glamor of the 1930's "Screen Siren" is revived with black and white film clips featuring Garbo, Hepburn and Horne and actual Hollywood gowns by Madelaine Vionnet, Madame Grès and Chanel. The final gallery wraps it all up with a video montage of American women from Josephine Baker to Venus Williams, from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to Madonna, driving home not only the unique style of women on this continent, but the evolution of women in general.

Last year the Metropolitan Museum of Art was the lucky recipient of the entire fashion collection of The Brooklyn Museum. No longer able to properly care for or display their vast holdings in this field, they very generously gifted it to The Costume Institute with the stipulation that they can "borrow back" pieces as they wish. This exhibition is a celebration of the gift and is a special collaborative effort as The Brooklyn Museum simultaneously mounts "American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection" - a show that I will visit over the summer and report on in "American Woman - Part II".

This exhibition is more than a display of pretty dresses in lovely rooms - it is a true social history of women using sartorial landmarks and a pleasure for all who come through!

P.S. This week I am leaving on a big business trip through Europe so please stay tuned for blog posts from Stockholm, Berlin, London, Basel and a few other places too!

May 16, 2010

A Visit to The Frick Collection

One of my favorite places to visit in New York City is the paradisaical Frick Collection located on the Museum Mile section of Fifth Avenue. From the exterior it looks like a large but rather un-remarkable mansion. But just step inside the East 70th Street entrance and you will be amazed at the wealth of art and objects that grace the interior.

The Frick Collection began as the private residence of Pittsburgh based steel and coke magnate Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919). When construction began on the home in 1913 Mr Frick was already a well respected collector of Old Master, Italian Renaissance, English 18th Century portrait and 17th Century Dutch paintings as well as Chinese porcelain and French 18th Century furniture. No expense was spared in creating a showcase for this magnificent collection initially for the private enjoyment of the Frick family but with the long-range vision of leaving the house and its contents to become a public gallery to be known as The Frick Collection. Built at a then-staggering cost of $5,000,000, the institution boasted an endowment of three times that amount to properly fulfill Mr Frick's ideal of "encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts".

With the death of his widow in 1931, Mr Frick's dream of a museum bearing his name could be realized, and, after a scrupulous renovation of the residence to accommodate the visiting public, The Frick Collection opened its doors in 1935. Now, 75 years later, it remains a showcase of collecting and connoisseurship that speaks of a more elegant time.

For me, one of the joys of visiting The Frick is knowing that I will see some old favorites on every visit. Despite temporary exhibitions that occasionally alter the display certain classics remain, no matter what. Like the Fragonard Room with its fantastic panels painted in the 1750s by François Boucher and depicting the Arts and Sciences (see "Poetry and Music", left). In this room we are surrounded by beauty both on the walls and in the furnishings and it is easy to fantasize that one is a visiting guest, dressed in a magnificent silk gown, sipping tea out of Sèvres porcelain cups with a harpsichord playing in the background!

Or step into the Living Hall where a trio of delights includes Hans Holbein the Younger's pensive portrait of "Sir Thomas More", 1527, El Greco's stunning "St Jerome", 1590-1600, and Giovanni Bellini's inspiring "St. Francis in the Desert", 1480. Or the Enamel Room with its gilded icons, the cavernous West Gallery with the immense Turner oils and The Halls by the Garden Court that boast three of the 37 works painted by the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer.

I must confess that I was disappointed not to see my beloved Whistler portraits hanging in the four corners of the East Gallery (they had been put away temporarily to accommodate the Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition), but that just means I'll have to come back soon! And if you're in the neighborhood, I would urge you to take an hour or so and step back into a different time, a gilded age when an appreciation for fine things was a worthwhile pursuit.

May 08, 2010

Tears for Nashille

Regular readers of my blog will remember a two part story I posted last September following a wonderful visit to Nashville, Tennessee. I loved every minute in The Music City and explored the sights from The Hermitage Plantation to the Grand Ole Opry. It was an amazing visit - I had not expected such a wealth of interesting things to do and see and the hospitality of the Tennesseans was phenomenal. I couldn't wait to go back.

Now the City of Nashville is recovering from a once-in-a-lifetime flood as the Cumberland River overflowed its banks by some 30 feet. As well as immeasurable damage to private property, many of the city's landmarks have been seriously damaged and forced to close. Not to mention that 33 people lost their lives in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi.

I don't know if it is because I feel a personal affinity to the city and its residents, but it seemed this story has been somewhat downplayed in the media. I have been in touch with some of my new friends at The Frist Center for the Visual Arts and was relieved to hear that they were, for the most part, fine and the building had survived intact. But a disaster like this affects everyone, regardless of class or color, and all the denizens must pull together to get their city back on its feet.

This blog is simply my little way of saying "Hang tough Nashville - we're with you" Mother Nature dealt you a powerful blow, but you will persevere. It won't be long till that magic circle on the Opry stage is back in the spotlight and I fully intend to pay it a return visit!