Saturday, November 1, 2008

Three Museums

JoeWith a little time off in between study periods, I felt like I needed to take the opportunity for a little sight-seeing. Late October is not, however, the ideal tourist season in Sweden, at least not if you like things like being outside, or going to places that aren't closed for the year. The solution? Stockholm, of course, where most of the museums are open all year, and nearly all of them have some protection from the elements. So this Tuesday I headed down to Uppsala Centralstation to catch a train to the metrop, for some serious museum hopping.

The day did not start off on a promising note: I was trying to make the 9:09 train so as to be in Stockholm at 10:00 when museums start to open, but I pressed a wrong button on the automated ticket kiosk at 9:07, and by the time I'd corrected it the thing was convinced that the train had left the station, so I had to get a ticket for the 9:35 train instead. This turned out to be a good thing, however: while I was waiting on Platform 1 for my train (and eating the tuna sandwich I'd packed myself for lunch), a woman in an SJ uniform came running down the platform to announce something, the only words of which I caught were "Stockholm" and "Platform 0", after which everyone standing around me began sprinting to the other end of the station. Turns out the 9:09 train hadn't left yet, so those with more flexible tickets were hurrying to board it. Over the next 20 minutes, I watched commuter after commuter walk out of the station, peer at the departure board, and then suddenly start running for Platform 0. Despite all of the excitement, that train appeared still appeared to be sitting at Platform 0 when my train pulled out of the station a mere ten minutes late.

So I got to Stockholm by 10:30, and walked through the pouring rain towards my museums of choice. Now, Stockholm has plenty of museums, the best of which (Vasamuseet) we've already been to, so I'd spent a few hours with a guidebook over the weekend deciding what my strategy would be for this particular trip. I ruled out some cool sounding museums for the moment, either because they were under construction (such as the Museum of Medieval Stockholm) or because Jennifer especially wants to see them (such as the Matchstick Museum). Eventually I decided on the Architecture Museum, which is one of the four major museums on (or next to) the island of Skeppsholmen, all of which are open late on Tuesdays. I figured I'd head that way and museum until I couldn't stand it anymore. In the end, I wound up covering three out of the four. With apologies to both Frank Stella and the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, here's what I saw:

Nationalmuseet, or "What You See Is Not What You See"

My first stop was the country's biggest art museum, which would not normally be at the top of my list museum-wise. At the moment, though, it has an exhibition on trompe-l'œil art throughout the ages (hence my subtitle) that looked like fun. It had all the usual stuff, the "looking out a fake window" trick, the "bunch of objects lying against this wall" trick, and then also some more modern tricks. The one that stood out for me the most was a roughly built driftwood crate, which was actually cast bronze.

As for the rest of the museum, about half of it was a typical collection of European paintings. The main hallway does have a couple of large works made by Carl Larsson specifically for the space, including his controversial "Midwinter Sacrifice" which depicts a Viking king about to be sacrificed outside the temple at Gamla Uppsala. I say that it was painted for that space, but the museum never asked for it; Larsson just decided he wanted to paint it, and was then deeply embittered when the museum refused to hang it. They didn't relent until the late 90s.

Slightly more interesting than the paintings was the design floor, which has a large exhibit of Swedish design in the 20th century. I was pleased to note that the red Ikea end table we have in our living room was there as an iconic piece of modern Swedish furniture. I guess we chose well.

Arkitektmuseet, or "What You See is a Wee Model of a Big Building"

My next stop was the excellent Museum of Swedish Architecture. I have sort of a love/hate relationship with architecture: I love looking at buildings, and I can spend hours reading about styles and techniques (such as the five hours I spent reading every panel in this somewhat diminutive museum); on the other hand, I find architectural writing to be just about the most pretentious form of writing on the planet. I was probably better off only being able to read the (no doubt more restrained) text in translation here. In any case, there were plenty of model buildings and explanatory diagrams to peruse while listening to the roughly 45% of the English language audio guide entries that were functional (to be fair, the audio guide was free, and I was warned up front that there were some "technical difficulties").

There was also an exhibition on modern Catalan architecture, about half of which focused solely on the Sagrada Família in Barcelona—that place creeps me out more and more the closer I look at it.

Modernamuseet, or "What You See Is What You See"

… and what I see is a bunch of galvanized steel boxes bolted to the wall. Seriously, writing about architecture may be pretentious, but at least it's being pretentious about something. In Modernamuseet the free audio guide was working, and having paid good money to get in (mostly because it's cheaper to get a dual ticket with the architecture museum, with which it also shares a building) I decided I would go through all of it. So I grabbed a stool and sat myself in front of each and every piece that had an audio description, and listened to all of them. OK, I gave up halfway through the somewhat breathless bit on Munch. The one that just about made me fall off my foldy stool was the description of the piece I mentioned above. I listened patiently to the explanation of how the artist's choice of a material not normally associated with art removed our expectations, and how the material gave no clue as to technique, or indeed any indication that it had even been worked by human hands. The part that got me went a little like:
By arranging identical pieces in sequence, instead of causing them to interact in some way, the artist is removed from the situation of having to say something to the viewer, and the viewer from having to listen.
I'll only mention two other things from Modernamuseet. The first was the Video Corridor, a dark room with a large video screen and two very comfortable couches. It was late in the day when I got here, so I probably spent more time watching this than I otherwise would have. Imagine West Side Story set in the Baroque period, if the Baroque period had been inhabited by hippies, anyway. Then remove all the music, singing, and, indeed, dialogue, leaving nothing but large groups of masked figures dancing in unison. Finally, imagine that the cinema has lost the last reel of the film, and that instead they keep playing the next to last reel on endless loop while they search for it, before finally giving up and simply running the whole movie in reverse. At some point I was having trouble telling whether or not I'd drifted off, so I gave up and left.

The temporary exhibition at Modernamuseet was a retrospective of Max Ernst, and they had an impressively large collection of his works. The Dadaist stuff didn't really grab me, but he did some etchings as book illustrations that were pretty interesting (especially the stuff for his "Forbidden Astronomy" book). It was the abstract painting he did in the 70s that really caught my eye, although possibly not in a good way. A couple of them I found deeply unsettling, by which I mean that they made me almost physically uncomfortable. I actually had to leave the room at one point. I'd hoped to be able to link to an image here (specifically to either "The Good-Humored Ravens" or "The Cardinals Die Here"), but oddly none of his later stuff seems to be even mentioned on the web. Actually, I think that's probably even more disturbing than the paintings themselves: if they aren't on the web, can I be sure that I really saw them?

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