Big Fish Art in Small Pond Luleå

A truly big fish has made a splash in Luleå´s small cultural pond. Internationally renowned artist Karin Mamma Andersson, who grew up here, is currently exhibiting at the Culture House. We can thank the people behind Emma and Karl Olsson`s Memorial fund for it, as they awarded Mamma Andersson a scholarship three years ago with the condition that she exhibit here in 2013.

Mamma Andersson was honored with a doctorate at the university in 2010, which was the first year my husband was dean, so she was the first honorary doctor he got to crown with a hat. Even I have had the pleasure of meeting her a few times, and she really is what everyone says: the nicest, humblest, chattiest, most generous person. Not that she in the least tries to diminish her own importance. She has a sturdy confidence, or so it seems, anyway. Everyone likes her a lot, and as hard as it can be to get recognition in one´s own home town, I haven´t heard anyone say anything negative about her art, even though it´s clear that what she does is challenging.

I have already been to see it three times, first a quickie glance alone, then with a friend, then with another friend (Anneli, my artist chum) - and this time we took the half-hour guided tour, which was very interesting. It was great to see the enthusiasm of the guide (whose name was also Victoria, and she did a great job!), and really illuminating to hear more about how Mamma Andersson works. There is also a ten-minute video showing non-shop in a corner of the exhibition hall, an interview done with her for a collection she did a few years ago, "Dog Days".

This exhibition feature a selection of work from different shows from the last few years, borrowed from the owners. In the exhibition catalogue she calls it a kind of "mixed tape" or "best of album". In Sweden, most of her work is exhibited at Galleri Magnus Carlsson, and their website displays more of her paintings (and much better photos of it, I just snapped a few illustrations from the exhibition catalogue).

What I understand from having listened to her talk, and from what the guide also said, Mamma Andersson is a keen student of other artists, and has a serious interest in photography. Many, perhaps most, of her paintings are based on photographs. She is much interested in homes and the things that we surround ourselves with, but she wanted to go behind the idealised home-scapes, so to speak, behind the glossy images of interior decorating magazines and the edited version of our homes that we show our friends, to what our homes look like on a Thursday when no one is coming. (Confess, we all clean up when Mother is coming to visit. And if we live in a show home all the time, there is probably something about us that needs attending to. Or perhaps Mother makes surprise visits.) Mamma Anderssons solution was to use photos from crimes scenes, from old books about real crimes.

She has also worked with the Royal Dramatic Theatre, and in their archives she has found images of old stage designs, which is perhaps a faked reality, but a recreated "real", even heightened, reality. Of course, she doesn´t copy other people´s work, she makes her own painting, subtracting and adding elements to the composition.

Many artcritics have commented on how many of her paintings communicate an absence. Like something has just happened, or something is about to happen. Someone has just walked out, or is about to walk in. There is some kind of tension in there. Some find it disturbing, others find in it a kind of comfort. As if Mamma Andersson is saying that this is how it is, and it´s ok. Of course, we don´t know exactly what she is saying. I suspect she is listening more than preaching.

The absence is tangible in this piece on the left, where the person who was in the original photograph has been edited out, but Mamma Andersson has left a black shadow in his or her place.

The gallery guide told us that when she was very young, not yet in art school, she would spend a lot of time in an art shop, looking at pictures. Years later, as she was searching thorough some flea market or other for more pictures (she has an extensive archive), she found an old picture of that very art shop, bought it and turned the motif into a painting called "Samla tankarna" (collect one´s thoughts).

After the guided tour, Anneli and I remained in front of it for quite a while, and she pointed out some details in the foreground that didn´t quite make sense. You can see this in many, if not most or all of her work. She messes it up, lets a background bleed into a foreground object, or some such thing, that really can provoke the viewers sense of order, neatness, and expectance of technical skill. It´s like a poke in the side of the viewer, saying don´t look at the painting, think about the picture, will you?

Our guide said that Mamma Andersson is a slow working artist, at a pace of 16 or 17 paintings a year. Well, that´s something like one painting every three weeks, and that doesn´t sound slow to me! She clearly puts a lot of thought into every picture, and she works in projects, every exhibition is made up of paintings that all belong together, that are united around one theme. Of course, as they are sold they are also scattered, but perhaps that´s the point too, that each painting changes with the context it´s shown in.

I was recently introduced to William Eggleston´s photograps, and it struck me that their work has many similarities. Illustration editor Mark Holborn has said of his work:

"[Eggleston's] subjects are, on the surface, the ordinary inhabitants and environs of suburban Memphis and Mississippi--friends, family, barbecues, back yards, a tricycle and the clutter of the mundane. The normality of these subjects is deceptive, for behind the images there is a sense of lurking danger." (From Wikipedia´s article on Eggleston.)

Not in the exhibition, alas, but in the catalogue: my favourite.
This is not unlike what you see in Mamma Andersson´s work. It´s like both of them focus on what others choose to edit out, and not just in photography, but as we see, really. I´m personally often surprised when I see something of interest and take a photo of it, how much crap is around it and in the back- and foreground that I didn´t really notice in the moment, as I was so focused on the object that I was interested in. Trying out my new telephoto lens was a joy, as it allowed me to capture the world as I see it. And I´m not the only one walking around myopic, or partially blind. Which is why Mamma Andersson and Eggleston are so interesting and challenging and important.

Some critics, like Eudora Welty said of Eggleston, suggest that artists like these bring out the beauty in the "ugly". But I feel that´s not right. Why does it have to be beautiful and pleasing to be of worth, to be interesting, to be important? Why must we always like art, be it paintings, installations, performances, music, to appreciate it? Can´t we rise above our feelings, our prejudices, our likes and dislikes, and challenge our minds a bit? Thinking is more than a bit underrated these days. How many (myself included, probably) doesn´t use the word feel, when they actually mean think? I feel think that this is something to consider. And for sure, the way we think affects how we feel.

It´s all very much about the eye of the beholder, isn´t it? I find that their art is an appeal to go with them out of our comfort zones and look at the world from another perspective. I think what we do, inside our every-day-scape, is that we identify with it, and that way, it becomes invisible to us. It´s like looking at a picture of oneself, something that makes a lot of people uncomfortable: is that what I look like? We are more comfortable with what we see in the mirror, but that is distorted, not only by the fact that the image is reversed, but the way we always meet and greet our own image when we know it´s coming. Kind of like we clean up for Mother. We are always very cordial to our own image (and protective of our ego), and catching ourselves unawares in the morning (in the laptop screen when it goes black for a second as it starts up: oh my god, I need to pull myself together) is rarely a pleasant experience. I have known people who need that first fag and cup of coffee to be able to face the bathroom, no kidding.

I have seen more than one person go quiet, and close up, in front of Mamma Andersson´s work. And I have read a few reviewers who focus more on her international successes and "apparent" genious, without really adressing her work. Like I said to begin with, she is a big fish. And I have heard that she sniggered at the praise from the representatives from the local art school during the vernissage (which I couldn´t attend). When she applied there in the 80´s, she was not accepted.

Anyway, bottom line: this is great stuff. It´s challenging, it´s work worth starting a conversation with. It can be infinitely rewarding. 


The Sun on Film

Summer has exploded in the last week, due to much longed for warmth and sunlight. This little film (sorry, but I couldn´t upload it), showing the times of day the sun rises and falls, has been a regular on Swedish television since 1963. They have tried to cancel it a few times, but people have always protested until it came back.

My husband is still a bit bitter, local patriot that he is, that Luleå lost it´s place as the norther reference point to Kiruna, but it makes total sense to me, since Kiruna is above the arctic circle, and it´s only fair that part of Sweden is represented.

I took a walk with my new telezoom lens the other day, and I have to say, we are fast becoming friends. I think it´s the first time I have a camera that frames the world just the way I see it! 


Art On Line

My favourite museum in Stockholm, Nationalmuseum (the national art museum), is closed for renovation. This morning, I read in the newspaper that it´s possible to do a virtual tour of it, and see some of the collections, through the service of Google Art Project. It´s not the only museum featured, and I can see myself easily getting lost in there.

For me, Nationalmuseum is where you can find all the clues to Swedish identity. Most of these images are iconic, even Swedes not particularly interested in art will know them well. Artists like Carl Larsson, Helmer Osslund, Anders Zorn, Alexander Roslin, John Bauer, and Bruno Liljefors can be seen in school books, printed on trays, napkins, posters, in commercials, and they are constantly being refered to in contemporary culture. I could go on and on.

You can also explore the collections on the museum website. 

I just realized it´s been a long time since I posted any reading on this supposed book blog. It´s been hectic, shit has happened, what can I say? I am reading something really interesting, but it´s slow going.


Concert Night

This Sunday, we had the fortune of being invited to a CD release/concert in the Culture House. It was Erik Westbergs Vokalensemble releasing "Dreamlike", with pieces from composers like Emil Råberg, Henk Badings, and (perhaps more well known) Johannes Brahms. Also performing, both on stage and on the recording, was pianist Helge Kjekshus.

The concert was not in one of the concert halls, but in the art exhibition hall, currently showing Swedish artist Karin Mamma Andersson (and I am soon posting about that). I really like concerts in that space, I think it´s how chamber music in particular should be heard, but the down side is that noise leaks in from outside, since it´s not really made for music performances. This evening, the bass line from a show on the next floor was a bit disturbing. Not that anyone pretended to notice.

I got really excited about a piano piece Kjekshus did on his own, Per Aspera ad Astra by Maj Sönstevold, and as happy as I was to get a free CD (thanks!) I was disappointed that that particular piece was not on it. Wish I could say anything more intelligent about it, but I know so little about music. Can´t find it anywhere on Spotify to point you to either, but you could follow this link and get a 30 second taste of the piece. That´s the best I can do. The vocal ensemble is on Spotify if you are curious. 

Update: Better link, thanks to Divers and Sundry. Unfortunately, I couldn´t upload the film and put it up here. 

Erik Westberg is a professor at the university and a collegue of my husband, which is how we came to be there. I have been searching youtube and other places to find something of theirs to present to you, but all I can find is a church opera from 2010, about Jesus´suffering on the cross, and that just felt so depressing right now. 


The Victoria Gun, and More

On our recent trip to Stockholm, on our walk out to lovely Djurgården, we decided to pop into Sjöhistoriska, the Maritime Museum. Neither of us had been there before.

They were renovating, and while the exhibitions were nothing to complain about, the whole museum lacked, well, vitality perhaps. It felt dark and dusty, and perhaps this is because some of the things on display shouldn´t be exposed to sunlight. Or perhaps it was just the contrast to spring and birds and girls in short skirts and all that which was going on outside. Also, my interest in boats are limited, but a great display and a great presentation can get me excited about almost anything.

Remember our visit to the Victoria Fort last summer? Well, in the museum was a model of the ship that the gun was taken from, the Queen Victoria (named after the Swedish queen Victoria, wife of king Gustav V). She was one of three battleships that was built in the years before and during the First World War.

The first one was Sverige, and the means for it came from a collection among the Swedish population that raised 17 million crowns - a staggering sum, considering it was launched in 1915! The Swedish parliament then granted additional means to build another two, one of which was the Queen Victoria. And the canon on that ship was later built into the mountain in Vuollerim.

The most beautiful thing in the museum is probably the stern from the royal pleasure schooner, the Amphion. Not much of it remains, but it is exhibited in a way that gives you an idea of what it was like on board when it was used by king Gustav III in the later part of the 18th Century. He didn´t just use it for fun trips with his entourage (he was very interested in the theatre, acted himself, and was probably gay), he also used it as a command ship in battle against the Russians. More pictures here.

Before the Amphion was finally broken up in the 19th Century, she served as a quarantine ship during a cholera epidemic, among other things. Not a very glamorous ending to such a posh vessel.

The museum also has a very comfortable library corner, with comfortable sofas, and interesting books about ships and sea-faring for all ages and levels of expertise. I became particularly engrossed in this classic: Astrid Lindgren´s "Pippi Longstocking goes on board", with all the original illustrations. (I just looked the title up on amazon, and I don´t even want to look at those new illustrations...)

The museum is situated very prettily along the Folke Bernadotte Road, named after the diplomat and vice-president of the Red Cross who is best known for the "White Buses" mission that saved around 10.000 Jews during the Second World War. He was also the grandson of king Oscar II, and his bust is displayed along the road.

I should amuse myself writing a blog post sometime about the Swedish royal family. There are some great characters among them. The "old king" - as we think of him, the one who came before our present king Carl XVI Gustaf - was the present king´s grandfather. Gustav VI Adolf was his name, and he was also a very keen and competent archeologist. Both his wives were descendants of Queen Victoria of England. There are some great photo books about his digs in Italy at the library, must share some of that with you.

Anyway, if you look back towards the city from the museum stairs, you can see the very impressive, palatial Nordiska Museet, the Swedish museum of cultural history. This is one of those places I always think I am going to visit next time I come to Stockholm. Because it´s huge. Overwhelmingly huge. I doubt you can do it justice in just one day. But I will try. Next time.


Street Photography

This entire weekend I have been totally wrapped up (and still is) in this amazing blog I stumbled into while writing my blogpost about Fotografiska´s exhibition of Henri Cartier-Bresson´s pictures.

Eric Kim is a street photographer and teacher (obviously a gifted one), who writes lengthy articles about his art, other photograpers, and what can be learned from them. The comments are also very interesting, most of the time.

I am really enjoying myself, even though street photography is not something I want to pursue. I always enjoy entusiasts talking about their art - I learn so much from them that I can apply to whatever I am doing at the moment, even if it doesn´t seem related. All creative pursuits have a lot in common.


Pretty Flowers

Fellow blogger Divers and Sundry has a fun post about a Swedish botanical exhibition in Memphis! Well, the botanical side of things are looking brighter over here as well, after a long winter, and last weekend we had the pleasure of taking a walk in Djurgården, the old royal hunting grounds in Stockholm, now a very popular recreational area. It was the first really warm day of the year, and there were people all over the place.

I got a bit crazy about all the flowers, and came home with lots of close-ups of wood anemones.


Museum of Photography

Last Friday, we went to Fotografiska, the photography museum in Stockholm. We hadn´t been before, and I was particularly lured in by a retrospectiv exhibition, "The Man, the Image, & the World", of Henri Cartier-Bresson´s images, many of them famous, like the one on the right, which I borrowed from the museum´s website.

Cartier-Bresson was one of the founders of the Magnum photo agency, along with other legends, like Robert Capa. This exhibition was put together by them, and there is a focus on the way Cartier-Bresson used geometry in his photography. For me, that´s just so deliciously inspiring, I have a love for patterns and such, being also very into textile art&craft. Many of these photos would transform into wonderful knitting patterns!

Cartier-Bresson´s portraits of Giacometti and Faulkner.
He was also a man with good timing, often being where things were happening. He worked fast, with simple tools, and prided himself on not doing any darkroom work, finishing his picture in the very moment that he pressed the shutter release.

I really wish I lived in Stockholm right now, or that Fotografiska was in my backyard, because this exhibition is large and impossible to digest in one visit.

There were two other photographers being exhibited. One was Ruud van Empel with "Pictures don´t lie". His images are collages, basically.

Most of the pictures are of children, dressed up, still, looking with enlarged eyes straight back at you. The backgrounds are mostly made-up forrests, they look real at first glance, but something is off. Everything is hightened, slightly tweaked or completely fabricated, and brightened. It has an eerie quality to it, like one of those horror movies where seemingly well-behaved children go out at night and kill people. Van Empel himself uses the word uncanny.

What he makes me ask myself is how many of the images I am fed on a daily basis are tweaked in similar ways? All of us who are interested in fashion are aware of the ongoing debate about the way fashion and advertising images are edited, giving models perfect bodies and flawless skin. But when are we aware that we are being fed lies, and when are we not? In what contexts do I have my guard up, and when do I unthinkingly equal "photo" to "evidence"?

Then, there is Swedish photographer Anna Clarén´s "Close to home", a collection of dreamy images of her personal life. Here is also a tension, a clash between the personal photo album, the holiday or everyday snapshot that we are all familiar with, and the very arty, staged, professional photo.

For me, on Friday, this was perhaps the least interesting exhibition. However, looking now at the postcards that I bought, it occurs to me that she could be asking questions about the "family project", as it is presented through media like Facebook, blogs, and such. On our way out of the museum, I saw an advert for a course in "baby photography" for "the stay-at-home parent". I am not a parent myself, but I sometimes get the feeling that there is quite a competition among young families, presenting themselves and their happiness to the world. At the same time, there are regularly alarming reports about the increasing number of children on antidepressants, divorce, domestic violence, and what have you.

I find that increasingly, in all areas of life, "the image" of something is so often confused with the content, what it actually is.

In the shop, you could buy 8 postcards for 100 crowns, so I picked two by Swedish legend Christer Strömholm, whose work has been exhibited earlier. Both are from Paris 1962, both classics in Swedish photography. On his website, there are aphorisms of his, only in Swedish unfortunately, but some things he said was:
"Right can be wrong."
"Every day has it´s own method."
"The meaning of the picture is what it depicts."
"Don´t let the motif get in the way of the picture."
"Reality is not art."
"Art is to question."

Oh, and here is a good article on what you can learn from Cartier-Bresson!

Fotografiska is housed in a beautiful building on the northern shores of Södermalm. It´s an old customs building in Art Nouveau style, designed by Ferdinand Boberg, one of the most well-known architects in Sweden.

Opening hours are extremely generous, they close at 9 or 11 pm every evening except on Christmas Eve and Midsumer Eve. They have a self-service bistro on the top floor, with fabulous views over Stockholm. The food is not cheap, but so so good! And it´s probably the only place I have been in this country, where couples sit English style, on the same side of the table - because they both want to enjoy the view!


Greta Garbo´s Ghost

Due to a series of flukeish circumstances, we ended up at Strand Hotel, in the Greta Garbo suite. A hotel suite is like a small flat without a kitchen, giving the guests ample space to lounge and relax. I can´t say it´s something we normally get to do, and it was fun to have a sofa each, instead of trying to be comfortable on the bed while reading the paper or a book. Not that the bed in this suite was anything to complain about, you understand.

Instead of going out to a café in the afternoon, we bought some exotic pastries in the market halls and used the hospitality tray to make afternoon tea for ourselves, just to get the chance to enjoy our surroundings properly.

We still had lots of time for museums, long walks, restaurants, and such. Strand Hotel is so conveniently located, in the middle of town, that nowhere interesting is very far away, really. Just outside our window was Nybro Quay, with it´s old-fashioned-looking entertainment ships. I spotted a wedding party on Saturday afternoon, going on board for a ceremony on the waves, and what looked like a proper banquet. The fine weather didn´t hurt, either, but it´s still pretty cold in the air, you feel it as soon as the sun hides behind a cloud. I felt sorry for those who decided to leave their jacket at home.

The suite was decorated in a way that intended to give the impression that the Divine Garbo was still staying there, just not being in at the moment. There was a handbag on a drawer handle, an evening purse in the window, a few hats resting on armchairs. All the art was all images from her pictures. Like this one, which demonstrates that Garbo really knew the art of spreading herself on a sofa. (And she did actually stay at this hotel.)

There were several coffee-table books on the, well, coffee-table. Luckily for me, the only one that didn´t set my asthma off, was the most interesting one. It was an auctioneer´s catalogue, from a series of auctions in 2010, where all of Greta Garbo´s personal things were sold off. All of it. And from what it looks, she saved everything. There are loads of clothes. And shoes, and handbags. And just ordinary things, like kitchen bowls, Swedish guest towels, and Christmas ornaments.

I became totally fascinated, leafed through it several times, feeling like I was getting to know her a little. She had one of the books that I have. She liked silly toys. And she painted, as a hobby.

Her clothes, most of it, could easily be worn today, you wouldn´t know they were made in the 30´s, 40´s, 50´s, and 60´s. She never got into 70´s and 80´s fashion, not in a big way anyhow, and just as well, probably. She died in 1990, after all. Much of it was designed by Valentina Schlee. According to the book and Garbo´s nephew, Garbo had a good relationship with the Schlees all her life (there were rumours that Garbo had an affair with Valentina´s husband), but some rumours say they avoided each other from the 60´s on, still living in the same apartment building in New York. Since none of them talked or wrote about it, I suppose we will never know what really happened between Garbo and the Schlees.

There is not a single high-heeled shoe in Garbo´s wardrobe. And I don´t count one-inch healed loafers. This didn´t make her any less glamorous, or elegant. It just made her look more powerful, I think. She has a reputation for having been very sensible, but there are lots of clothes and shoes that are on the whimsy side. I really think she would have been an interesting person to know!



It´s been a few days now since I posted, but we have been cursed by illness, and then blessed with a short vacation over the Ascension holiday, a trip to stimulate the senses, and remind ourselves that summer is just around the corner.  First a cruise to Tallin, and then a few days in Stockholm, which has been glittering in the sunlight, offering it´s best smile, best beds, and very best food. I have been more spoilt than I have ever been in my life.

Also, it´s been fun to try out the new camera. I haven´t been doing anything fancy with it, just set it on auto, and shot. One immediate difference is, every picture is in focus. My old one was pretty much blind in the sunlight, and I would take several frames of every motif, to up my chances of getting at least one picture with the focus where I wanted it to be. Of course, it takes more than focus to get a good picture. And sometimes, you don´t need focus at all.

I had never been to Tallin before. It´s a classic place to go on a short cruise. We left Stockholm in the late afternoon, crossed the Baltic over night, spent the day in Tallin, and then went back to Stockholm the next night. The point of the trip is to shop and eat, and dance, perhaps, if you are inclined to. I used to go on a lot of cruises in the 80´s, it was really popular then because of the cheap alcohol. People still buy alcohol, and more of it, as there are no restrictions any more. But it´s not such a big thing as it used to be.

In the Swedish history books Tallin is mostly known by the name Reval. It was founded in the 13th Century by Swedish traders belonging to the Hansa trade union. Before then there was a Danish castle there, by the name of Lindenäs. It was Swedish territory for more than 150 years, but in 1721 it became Russian, after the great Northern war.  The Estonians gained independence after the First World War, but lost it again in 1940, and was a Soviet state until 1991. In 2004 they joined the European Union.

The old town is an amazing place, it feels really medieval in places. Outside the old city walls, however, it looks a lot more Soviet. Not that we had much time to explore. I was mostly looking up the walls, delirious with joy over the architecture. Streets are narrow, and most buildings are pretty much impossible to photograph in their entirety.

We also managed to find an Estonian restaurant for lunch, right on the Town Hall Square. The husband had "Mommy´s sallad", which had smoked chicken in it, and I had a green pea soup. For dessert we shared panncakes, and a traditional Estonian dish called Kama, which is a flour made of roasted barley, oats, rye, and peas. It can be mixed with milk, buttermilk, or sour milk. The stuff we got seemed to resemble whipped cream, and was served with something called foxberries. According to the net, this is supposed to be the same as lingonberry, but that was no way what we got. Whatever it was, it was tasty, though. Particularly if you put the kama on the panncakes. Yum!