Sunday, July 02, 2006

Form and Function in Finland

The past several days we've spent wandering the streets and museums of Helsinki. This city takes its architecture and design very seriously, which is no accident considering that the city is the only European capital without a medieval past and was actively planned by a Berliner and modeled, in part, after St. Petersburg. The three main styles are Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, and Functionalism. The buildings are very dramatic, and even modern buildings fit very well with the older ones, even those that look like they come from a Soviet version of Blade Runner.

On our first day, hobbling and lurching, we did a walking tour that took us through the marina and examples of all the architectural styles. The city streets are a blend of old and new, with narrow, wire-guided trams running along tracks and expensive luxury cars bustling through. A trip down Bulevardi, a wide residential street, took us to Saaga, a restaurant featuring traditional Sami dishes. Jenifer had root vegetables with wheat and cep (mushroom) soup. I had snow grouse with mashed potatoes and crowberries. These little black berries have a tart flavor that quickly dissipates, and are exclusive to northern Finland, Sweden, Norway, western Jutland in Denmark, northern Canada, and Alaska. For dessert we had cranberries served in a bowl made of ice, with hot caramel sauce drizzled over them. Very tart, strong, and good!

On Saturday we visited Kiasma, Helsinki's modern art museum. Our favorite piece was an installation called "Solitude and Stability." After taking off our shoes as instructed, we "carefully and silently" entered a dark room. We stepped onto the gold-painted wood floor near a smooth boulder -- and then our reality shifted. Everything was moving, and the boulder was somehow gliding towards us. Jenifer squealed as we fought to maintain our balance, and suddenly we realized that the floor was moving back and forth, and the boulder was moving independently. Most of the exihibits were equally thought-provoking and amazing.

Next we visited the Design Museum, located in the heart of the city's design district. The museum provides an in-depth history of Finnish graphic, furniture, and industrial design over the past 150 years. Just as with the Historical Museum's Viking Room in Stockholm, we could see the lasting influence of past Finnish designs on modern products. For example, a particular stool designed in the early 20th century is still mass-produced and today available through IKEA. We even saw a number of these stools in the open-air market by Helsinki's harbor. And old glassware designs are still sold by iitaala, a major Finnish design firm.

Afterwards, we walked to the main square in front of the cathedral and enjoyed a traditional Finnish meal. Jenifer had onion and cep pancakes with dijon sauce and root vegetables. I had reindeer soup, followed by the "forest man's skewer" -- reindeer meat and moose sausage, as well as mashed potatoes and lightly marinated cabbage. Again the food was excellent.

Today we continued our journey through Finnish art at the Art Museum of the Ateneum. This museum houses the most significant part of the Finnish National Gallery, featuring the country's finest paintings and sculptures. Most of the work dated no earlier than the 1860s, when Finland's artists began seeking a cultural identity independent of the influences of Sweden and Russia. Landscapes, portraits of Finnish everyday life, and the Romantic depictions of the Kalevala, Finland's national epic, formed the bulk of the collection. The museum is currently running an exhibition featuring works from all the Nordic countries -- Finland, the three Scandinavian countries, and Iceland -- as well the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Two things about the collections particularly struck us. First, the great number of women painters represented and the high esteem in which they were held in their day and after. Second, the paintings of Akseli (Axel) Gallen-Kallela, who has been called Finland's national painter. Some works are powerful landscapes, others are intimate portraits of both European luminaries and everyday folk, and still others were highly stylized depictions of scenes from the Kalevala. These last were particularly bold, with strong outlining around the figures, vibrant colors, and a style reminiscent of N.C. Wyeth's illustration work.

We've been both moved and surprised by both the powerful creativity of the Finns, as well as how highly they value design in all forms: from everyday objects designed for function and beauty to commanding public buildings and spaces.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Art mueseum sounds pretty cool. And Reindeer meat! I'm so jealous.

--- GJ

4:53 PM  
Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

I'm intrigued by this moving floor/boulder thing. And the squealing. Was it a delightful squeal or the kind of squealing the precedes a beheading?

9:20 PM  
Blogger David said...

Art Nouveau? Isn't that Art Vandella's younger cousin? Oh never mind.

It just occurred to me that this 'research' you are doing for your screenplay means the entire trip is tax deductible. To hell with offshore shelters, the IRS has clamped down on them.

My hats off to you Ryan. Brilliant. Asbolutely brilliant.


11:33 PM  
Blogger David said...

Oooppps. I pushed the wrong button, I 'published' before I was finished....... I guess I'll have to wait until you post more research notes.


11:38 PM  

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