Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Blue grey days

We’ve been watching Alex Polizzi’s Secret Italy on TV and I’m finding it extremely hard to survive a whole year without the Mediterranean. Yet again. 2014 was hard enough but it went all right because we were so busy.

Now that there is nothing pressing happening and the days are mostly grey – and even when we do see some sunlight it will only stay for such a short moment it seems like seconds – I must confess I’ve been more than tempted to slide into hibernation, once again. It feels as if my years of practice had now led to an unwanted success but without the total sleep part. How else could you explain the ever increasing chilly feeling and aching body even though our room temperature stays practically at summer digits (around 20-21°C, ie 68-70°F) all through the winter season? The older I get the clearer it becomes I for one was not made for this climate.

How wrong I was when I thought all the winter ills would go away when you are spending an active summer by the sea and living the cold season downtown! Sunsets like the one in the photo above do not exactly make you jump for joy. Fortunately, there are lots of lovely things to post about in store from last year. Below is a sneak peek at what I’ve been up to recently. I am hopefully returning to Italy soon.

Monday, 21 November 2016

More than curvy babes

One of the exhibitions we recently visited in Helsinki was that of the intriguing and often provocative self-taught artist Niki de Saint Phalle (born Catherine-Marie-Agnès Fal de Saint Phalle, 1930-2002). (If you missed my posts on the other shows chick here and here.) You may have come across her sculptures in a public space somewhere as her colourful curvaceous babes, the Nanas, can be seen at numerous locations especially in Europe but elsewhere around the world, too. There is also one in the restaurant of a local art museum a few blocks from where we live.

The Three Graces (1995).

Niki was born outside Paris to an American mother and a French aristocrat father who lost his fortune during the great depression and the family moved to the USA. Niki was only in her late teens when she started to model, eloped to marry and began to develop an interest in art. A few years later, she was posing on the cover of the French Vogue, met artists in Paris and moved with her husband to Europe. She often had health problems, once even a nervous breakdown, finding relief through art. She was inspired by the work of many contemporary and modern artists, especially that of Antoni Gaudí. The couple had two children who stayed with their father when they divorced after a decade or so. Niki continued to concentrate on her art.

Clarice Rivers (1965), collage of a friend whose pregnancy inspired Niki to create the first Nanas.

Almost every story about Niki de Saint Phalle begins by quoting her early decision to become a heroine. The rejoicing Nanas, either painted brightly or covered in pieces of ceramic, glass and mirror, are representations of the empowered and self-confident modern woman. Like a true heroine, they are bold, powerful and fun thus particularly lovable as public art.

Detail of a Tir (1961)
But before all that was the ‘troubled soul period’ which was portrayed in Niki’s early Tirs or ‘shooting paintings’, sometimes executed as a performance. These were pieces containing hidden paint bags that she fiercely shot at to release the paint onto the piece to create the final work of art.

The Pink Birth (1964).
Her rage can also be seen in her early radical collages made up of every imaginable kind of items and junk often depicting the different aspects of a woman’s life in a grim and oppressive manner. Even today, those daringly feministic pieces are almost too shocking to behold at close range.

Self-portrait (1958-9).

Pink Nude in a Landscape (1956-8).

During the 1960s, Niki made friends with many prominent artists one of them being the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely (1925-1991). They soon moved together often collaborating in various commissioned projects around the world. However, they married only in 1971 when they no longer lived together. This was to ensure they would be able to manage each other’s artistic legacy. If you have visited the Centre Pompidou in Paris since 1983 you must have spotted the whimsical Stravinsky Fountain at the Stravinsky Square very close by. It is the most popular fruit of their collaboration with Jean’s moving mechanical pieces, Niki’s colourful ones and water running from both.

Grande tête (1971), from a series of big heads.

The Blue Cathedral (1962).
My Heart Belongs to Rosy, homage to Rosa Parks (1965).
Artwise, their most famous project would have to be the Hon, a huge sculpture of a reclining woman that was entered through an opening between the legs. It was created for an exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1966. No wonder the ‘cathedral’ as it was called won worldwide attention.

The Helsinki exhibition showed quite an impressive selection of paintings, prints, sculptures and collages from Niki’s wide-ranging oeuvre. I found the diary-like drawings, in particular, very captivating. Any of them could have made a fabulous album cover, for example. A few models of her crazy designs for children’s playground-like architectural projects were also presented. They were quite fascinating to look at although not necessarily viable.

The Palace (Guesthouse) (1978-9).
Ever since seeing Antoni Gaudí’s Park Güell in Barcelona, Niki had cherished a dream to build a sculpture garden of her own. It would be based on symbols from the tarot cards. She managed to find some land in southern Tuscany through the brothers of a friend, the wife of Gianni Agnelli, the late head of the Fiat dynasty. In the 1980s and 1990s, she devoted much of her time to creating the monumental Tarot Garden also living on the site in an apartment inside one of the sculptures.

A few years ago when we were spending some time in southern Tuscany, we happened to visit a small town called Capalbio. There was a black Nana, similar to one of The Three Graces, standing at the little square in front of the gate to the old town. I’ve been familiar with Niki’s babes since the late 1980s but I didn’t know about the park in Tuscany. It would have been less than a 15-minute drive from Capalbio to the Tarot Garden, Il Giardino dei Tarocchi, at Garavicchio. I will try to keep that in mind.

Shot of a video on the Tarot Garden shown in the exhibition.

Temperance of the tarot cards (1994).

Temperance, Nana at the Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova museum in Turku, Finland (1985).
Through the 1980s, Niki was also working on various kinds of ‘lighter’ projects from jewellery and furniture to a 52-page informative book on AIDS that was translated into seven languages. She had her first attacks of rheumatoid arthritis at that time and finally moved to California for health reasons in 1994 never stopping her creative pursuits. Queen Califia’s Magical Circle, a sculpture garden in Escondido, California remained her final work. Shortly before her death, looking elegant as ever, Niki donated hundreds of her pieces to a museum in Hannover and to another one in Nice. Her legacy is being managed through a foundation led by her granddaughter.

Black Nana Upside-down (1965-6).

Both Niki’s pain and empowerment were evidently sprouting from the same early experiences. Even though she didn’t remember it until her father apologised to her in a letter, he had abused her sexually when she was a child. Her method of coping was her determination to become something out of the ordinary, something unique, someone who would not stay silent but would make her voice heard whenever she saw an evil to fight against. That is exactly what she did gaining great acclaim and becoming one of the best-known female artists of the 20th century.

Sorry folks, Niki was such a magnetic character I couldn’t make it any shorter. The exhibition at the Taidehalli or Kunsthalle Helsinki closed yesterday but I feel Niki’s art will carry on touring the world both delighting and shaking us for a very long time.

Niki taking aim (1972).

Sunday, 13 November 2016


A few days ago, I stayed by my laptop through the night feeling my distress grow hour by hour. Ever since that morning the same thoughts have been circling in my mind: the notion of the seven deadly sins. Dante’s Divine Comedy lists them as pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony and lust. (For my Finnish readers: ylpeys (turhamaisuus), kateus, viha, laiskuus, ahneus, ylensyönti, himo.) Even though the deadly sins or capital vices are no longer that familiar to an everyman those qualities are the exact opposite to what is generally appreciated and valued in any person.

I have also been thinking about personality disorders, especially the narcissistic one. It is manifested by grandiosity, an unrealistic sense of superiority, a need for admiration, a demand for preferential treatment, manipulation, envy or a belief of being envied, lack of empathy, arrogance and impudence. When you add pathological lying and the lack to comply with the rules and regulations in society because you believe you are so superior laws couldn’t possibly be meant for you, we have a ‘fine’ example of a sociopath.

I do not know what kind of genetic predispositions or early disturbances are required to make someone become like that. I do not understand how some people manage to live their whole life without ever maturing to adulthood. But most of all it is beyond me that time and time again the true nature of these kinds of climbers and upstarts is being left unnoticed by so many. We have seen it happen repeatedly in history, more than once with catastrophic outcome. We are seeing it happening in the ‘newer democracies’ in Africa, South America, Asia and the Middle East, recently even in some older ones in Europe. Just think about Italy only a few years ago. Our eastern neighbour is wrestling in a league of its own, not to mention the many nations that haven’t been even close to any kind of democracy yet.

What is it that makes great proportions of nations time and again fall under the charm of persons motivated by little more than narcissism, self-seeking and/or greed? This is so much beyond me that one of these days I must have a serious discussion about this with my son who has a degree in social psychology.

For quite some time now, I’ve been wondering about the endurance of the man in the street. How long will the ordinary man and woman consent to funding society and propping up the Earth while the ‘rich and mighty’ are taking – and indeed allowed to take – all kinds of measures not only to increase their wealth further but to skip any kind of social responsibility? I can’t help feeling a major clash is lurking around the corner. Electing leaders with low-minded inclinations, let alone with such a track record, certainly doesn’t offer any hope in finding cures for the serious progressive disease the world is suffering from. Amen to that. I’m done with public preaching. Sorry hubby, I can’t promise I’ll be able stop at home.

The photos of this post do not have any connection with the text other than through the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). The statue of him by sculptor Enrico Pazzi on the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence was inaugurated in 1865 to commemorate the sixth centenary of his birth. The cenotaph by Stefano Ricci inside the basilica was completed in 1830.

OK, perhaps also a bit through the façade of the Basilica di Santa Croce. The church, the largest Franciscan basilica in the world dating from 1385, had a modest stone façade for centuries until the present neo-Gothic all-marble one designed by Niccolò Matas was completed in the mid-1860s, again to commemorate Dante’s birth. For the most part, the construction was funded by donations from a certain Francis Joseph Sloane. He was a librarian and tutor turned manager of mines who gained enormous wealth in Italy. I don’t think it’s that far-fetched to assume donations like this were often made not only to boost one’s ego in this world but to slip through the gates to the next one.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Feeling hopeful

The other day, we happened to meet the owner of the little summer cottage we are renting and heard his proposed construction project on the site hasn’t seen any progress whatsoever. This is an excellent piece of news to us. We are starting to feel hopeful the lease will be renewed in March and we would be able to spend at least another summer by the sea.

Getting your hopes up is a wonderful feeling now that we’ve truly entered the gloomy period after an unusually short ‘midseason’. These days I’ve barely warmed up by the time the sun is setting. Not that I feel warm even then but it is a heart-warming sensation to have this kind of delight to look forward to now that all of a sudden the temperature is staying below freezing point throughout the day.