Friday, 27 June 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.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Midsummer memories

Friday was Midsummer Eve. Back in the 1990s when my children were young, that was the day when we used to drive through Sweden.

The night before, I and their father would start our 4-week annual holiday. We would take the night ferry to Stockholm arriving in the morning and, after some 12 hours of driving, overnight in Denmark or somewhere in northern Germany.

On Midsummer Day, we would continue on the fast motorways of Germany down to France where we would stay another night somewhere around Strasbourg or thereabouts. The next day, we would head down to the south of France and the Mediterranean.

We would arrive at our holiday destination on Sunday evening being numb and half-dead because of sitting such a long time practically motionless in the car. Nevertheless, our feeling of happiness about the sweet caress of the heat and the certainty that the weather would stay warm throughout the holiday would overrun the discomfort tenfold.

Depending on how our Nordic midsummer or St John’s Day was placed – by us it always falls on a Saturday between June 20 and 26 – we had often times settled down in our rented apartment well before the locals would start celebrating their Fête de la Saint-Jean on June 24.

Especially in the Nordic countries and the Baltics, the feast that elsewhere commemorates the birth of St John the Baptist is primarily a festival of the summer solstice. The tradition to celebrate the longest day of the year dates back to pre-Christian times.

This June, we have had such cold and rainy weather you could hardly have guessed this weekend saw the shortest night of the year. At a time like this I do miss the Mediterranean summer. Even if it is hot and sticky it would be so wonderful not to have to sit under a blanket by a fireplace when watching the FIFA World Cup from Brazil.

All the photos of this post were taken not in the department of Var, where we used to stay, but in Nice and the surrounding towns and villages on our latest trip to the region two years ago in early August.