Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Back to normal

Hello there! Life has finally returned to normal after the FIFA World Cup. I’m not at all a sportswoman – very far from that to tell the truth – but such major events tend to get me carried away. There is something addictive in watching top-class team sports. The entertainment, excitement and skill will turn anyone into a fan, at least for a while.

It might have been annoying to spend so many hours with the matches had we not had such a cool and rainy June. However, the further the World Cup progressed, the better the weather turned. We are now back to normal summer conditions. Not perfect but tolerable, with quite a lot of sunshine and an occasional shower.

So we are again occupying ourselves most of the time outdoors and are finally having most of our meals on the patio, terrace or balcony.

A moment or two in the hammock by the clematis ‘Hagley Hybrid’ or under the maple on the hanging chair facing the blooming mock orange and loosestrifes is all you need to feel completely happy: life is good!

Instead of sitting by the screen watching soccer into the small hours of the night I’m again free to sit by my laptop, in principle that it. I’m trying to force myself to bed by midnight, at least every once in a while. I do hope this will be the new normal one day.

More about my clematises here.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Patterns from Paris

The other day, I was driving by the Church of St Lawrence at the Helsinki Parish Village or Helsinge in Vantaa, the northern neighbour of Helsinki, and decided to have a look inside. I’ve visited the church just once at a concert years ago. It must have been a late evening and I must have been sitting under the gallery because I was under the impression that the interior is rather gloomy dominated by dark wood.

Now that I had the whole church to myself, I walked around and the feeling was different. I even climbed the stairs to the gallery stretching on three sides of the church. With the white-washed walls and pillars leading up to the richly decorated vaults, the interior is simply beautiful and far from gloomy.

The Church of St Lawrence was built around 1460. It was located on the so-called King’s Road, the coastal road leading from Turku, the oldest and for centuries the most important town in Finland, to Vyborg and further to St Petersburg. Thanks to its convenient position it used to be the principal church for a vast area, including most of that of the present-day Helsinki.

In 1893, however, a fire stripped the church to the bones. A few items such as the altarpiece, brass chandeliers and liturgical vestments were saved but other than that nothing but the stone structures remained intact.

The church was repaired already by the following spring according to a plan made by architect Theodor Höijer from Helsinki. The result is a unique mixture of medieval and ‘Höijerian’ styles. The neo-Gothic windows date from that time and so do the galleries, pews and pulpit. The stained-glass window is a private donation made at that time.

But the jewel in the crown are the fabulous ornaments and floral decorations painted on the vaults. In the Middle Ages, the walls and vaults were decorated with simple paintings of humans and animals which were white washed after the reformation. The fire revealed some of those. They couldn’t be saved but were copied for the archives of the National Board of Antiquities.

Höijer’s solutions for the vault decorations are striking, almost too good to be true in a small country church like that. When I finally believed my eyes I couldn’t help wondering about their origin. Little did I know Höijer had patterned the stylized Gothic paintings after the decorative friezes of the Notre-Dame Cathedral of Paris!

I’ve been to the Notre-Dame twice but both times before the digital camera era. I do not have any recollection of any resembling paintings in the cathedral. It is such a huge construction full of details a humble visitor will be overwhelmed, afterwards finding it hard to remember anything of it precisely without photos. I must definitely start planning a new trip to Paris to pay a third visit.

The Church of St Lawrence is a very popular church for weddings. In fact, it is so popular that since 2009 the parish has arrange a special ‘Wedding Night’ when up to a few dozen couples will have a chance to experience an unpretentious church wedding. In recent years, this delightful practice has spread from Vantaa to several other parishes around the country.

(Carl) Theodor Höijer (1843-1910) was the leading Finnish architect of his time. Höijer’s designs represented mostly neo-Renaissance, his best-known work being the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki.

An earlier post of mine on another medieval Finnish church here.

Laurentius, the summer café by the Church of St Lawrence, opens at 11 am (closed on Mondays and Saturdays).

Friday, June 27, 2014

An ideal home

Let’s go back a century to Visavuori, a gorgeous example of the lifestyle of the most successful artists of the Finnish national romanticism era. The men were cosmopolites having lived abroad and studied at the best art schools of Europe. However, when returning home they wanted to settle down in the countryside and lead an uncomplicated life close to nature finding their inspiration in national traditions.

I already wrote about the studio of sculptor Emil Wikström (here). This post concentrates on his home, the other of the turn-of-the-century buildings at Visavuori, now a museum in Sääksmäki.

The first building on the site housing both Wikström’s home and studio was completed in 1894. Only two years later it burned down in a fire when a kitchen maid placed a basket on coals that she didn’t notice hadn’t been extinguished yet. Wikström was not discouraged by the setback but started sketching a new studio and a separate home. A few years earlier, he had won a major sculptural competition for the pediment of the House of the Estates in Helsinki. It still is the most demanding sculptural project in our country. The huge commission provided him the means to create a new, even grander Visavuori.

While the new home and studio were being built, Wikström returned to Central Europe living there for almost five years, but now he also had a wife and a daughter. His wife Alice was the daughter of a French-speaking tutor from Switzerland who had come to Finland through marriage, which must have been one of the reasons why they chose Paris as their temporary residence.

The family moved back to Visavuori as soon as the new home was completed in 1902. (The first phase of the new studio was completed a year later.) Today, the house is a fabulous and rare example of Karelian style architecture. It is built of logs treated with tar tinted with red ochre. There are two verandas, one small balcony and even a lookout on the rooftop, all rich in decorative wood carvings adorned with a colour scheme of red, green and yellow.

Portrait of Alice Wikström by Dora Wahlroos.

The interior, however, is very far from the national romantic exterior. The style of the decor is strikingly Central European reflecting the background and taste of Wikström’s wife. The walls are papered. There are crystal chandeliers and oriental carpets. The period pieces of furniture were brought from abroad, mainly from Paris.

Portrait of Emil Wikström by Wilho Sjöström.
Yet, also inside the house every little particularity has been thought of and perfected with elaborate decorative details designed by the master of the household himself. The ceiling of the elegant parlour, for example, is based on an oriental ornament but here it also indicates the cardinal points of the compass. Each stove has an individual look designed by Wikström, etc., etc.

The kitchen maid's bedroom.
The kitchen was rather dimly lit so I didn’t take any photos there, which I regret. I later read it was equipped with all the latest appliances of the time, such as a special stove to warm the plates and an ice cream machine. Alice Wikström was a sophisticated lady who carried refinement in her bones. In fact, it is said she never felt completely at home at Visavuori.

The French style master bedroom.

I am amazed a city lady like her, who spoke French to her children and Swedish to her husband, a lady who had the maid change to a black uniform for dinner and  “…ran the tablecloth through the mangle daily, unless it was replaced with a clean one”, I am amazed a lady like that actually lived at a secluded place like Visavuori for years. Their marriage that produced three daughters must have been a very happy one. Seeing her spouse completely contented leading his ideal life in his ideal habitat must have made her kind of happy, too. I am sure I would have been overjoyed to live at a place like this with views like this – at least during the summer season...

After the 1918 civil war, the family moved to Helsinki. From that time on, Visavuori served as their summer and holiday residence. It remains Wikström’s best-known work of art. 

The four ‘lantern bearers’ also called ‘stone men’ at the main entrance to the Helsinki Central Railway Station are his best-known sculptures. The beloved men were refurbished last winter and the building itself is currently under renovation.