Sunday 12 April 2015

Picture Galleries

I was in Hamburg on a Monday. As seems a common convention in Northern European countries, the Hamburger Kunsthalle was closed. This may have been frustrating if I had the time to do anything other than get wet in my search for locations from The American Friend. On the trip from London to St Petersburg, we had 24 hours in Copenhagen - on a Monday. As a result, with culture shut for the day we went up the Round Tower, worth the small fee for the uniqueness of walking up a spiral ramp to the top, blessed with views all across the rooftops of the city - and, in the distance, the Oresund Bridge and the just visible outline of Sweden, the next day's journey by train. Returning from St Petersburg, we found ourselves in Helsinki on a Monday, with almost everything shut there.

Last week, in Copenhagen on a Wednesday, I went to the Statens Museum for Kunst. Enjoying their permanent collection (as well as an excellent temporary display on Durer's Triumphal Arch of Maxilimilian, shaming the British Museum's desultory display of the oversized print, for years badly lit next to the toilets), there was a realisation of the parochial qualities on institutions back in the UK which pretend otherwise: the National Gallery in London has very thin coverage of Northern European, specifically Scandinavian, painting. Of course, the National Gallery began as one man's collection, and represented the limitations one would expect; however, the idea that Italian painting, and specifically Italian Renaissance painting, was the pinnacle of the art persisted for many decades and perhaps is still informing acquisitions.

I arrived in Stockholm on this occasion in time for the Easter weekend. Certain things were shut, but some places ritually closed on a Monday were in fact open on Easter Monday - because this counted as Sunday for the purposes of opening times. However, the National Museum in Stockholm is currently undergoing major rebuilding work, so is closed (I did see the Denise Grunstein exhibition under the auspices of the National Museum at the Konstacademian; the most interesting of the photographs were those showing the backs of paintings from the National Museum, echoing the Cornelius Gijsbrechts painting in the Statens Museum in Copenhagen from the late seventeeth century of a back of a painting). I also visited the Thielska Galleriet. This is the house and collection of Ernest Thiel located at the far end of Djurgården. Most of the paintings, sculpture, drawings and prints were contemporary art from the decades immediately each side of 1900. Gifted to the state as a whole in 1924, it is the collection of one man, again, but the effect of the stasis of the collection as a capsule of taste is interesting: as well as those artists whose reputation has endured (Munch, Gaugin, Toulouse-Lautrec) or has increased (notably Vilhelm Hammershøi, represented by the large Five Portraits), it also includes artists whose reputations have dissipated since (I'm thinking of Anders Zorn, previously I've known Zorn from Lumsden's The Art of Etching; the collection having many etchings and some paintings, still popular in Sweden, but not more widely). Then there are the artists whose work remains largely unknown outside Scandinavian countries: Carl Larsson, Bruno Lilijfors, Gustav Fjaested, Karl Nordström, Esther Almqvist.

Two of the Karl Nordström charcoal drawings in the Thielska Galleriet concentrated on skies, taking up enough of the composition to be considered cloud studies; one of which featured just one large cloud. Having recently made a few paintings of clouds, as a means of making work free from many other concerns of subject matter that they felt as near to being just about painting itself as I can approach. Some of these paintings were based on photographs taken on the journey to St Petersburg; in the Hermitage, we saw a painting of a large cloud by Fyodor Vasilyev, which felt like a felicitous coincidence; the whole journey once leaving Copenhagen, through Sweden, the Baltic and Finland, was accompanied by bright and fine September weather. As well as the trompe l'oeil paintings by Gijsbrechts in the Statens Musuem For Kunst in Copenhagen this Spring, I also found some cloud paintings by  J. C. Dahl.

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