Guernica

Thankfully my last day in Madrid was pretty calm. A late afternoon flight meant that I was able to take my time before heading to the airport (which is accessible by metro). The one thing that I was really determined to see before I left was Picasso’s Guernica. It’s housed in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, and because I didn’t have a ton of time to spend in the museum, I made a beeline for the floor that it’s located on. Because it’s such a notable piece, Guernica is housed in its own room. The room is located in an inner room, so I took my time exploring the surrounding outer rooms. Much of what I saw wasn’t really to my taste, but I still found the odd work of art that I really liked.

I did however really love seeing Guernica. To give the museum due credit, they really did a great job of presenting the painting. It’s huge. Thus the room is huge. This is all just emphasized by the fact that the painting is pretty much the only thing in the room. The other things displayed there are some pictures of Picasso working on Guernica. His mistress Dora Maar did an excellent job of photographing the various stages of the work, and it’s fascinating to actually see how Picasso went about painting Guernica. It was also interesting to see some of the works that Picasso did to compliment Guernica, called his Postscripts to Guernica, located in a neighboring room. While it seems a bit of a shame to go to a museum just to see one particular painting, I would have to say that it was absolutely worth it.

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Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to take many pictures inside the museum, hence the limited pictures above. Once I had finished checking out Guernica and a few of the museum’s other rooms, I was off to the airport.

One Last Trip to Oslo

Now that the sun has (sorta) returned to Norway, I’ve been lucky enough to have a few visitors! Thanks to great discounts on Norwegian Air, one of my friends from university, Alyssa, and her friend Kani decided to make a spontaneous weekend trip to Oslo. Because I’ve already blogged about some of these Oslo sights, I thought I’d keep this trip a bit on the simpler side and opted for a list format with this post.

Oslo Opera House

I absolutely adore the Oslo Opera House. It’s definitely one of my favorite places in Norway, and a part of that has to do with how affordable it is (even by non-Norwegian standards). Alyssa and I were lucky enough to get last minute tickets to the opening night of La traviata, one of Verdi’s operas. La traviata is based on a novel and play by Alexandre Dumas, La Dame aux camélias, which is based on Dumas’s life and affair with Marie Duplessis, a famous Parisian courtesan. Sadly for the two lovers, Marie dies from consumption at the young age of 23. If this story sounds familiar that’s unsurprising. The story has been retold in countless art pieces and movies, one famous example is the 2001 movie Moulin Rouge!. Unfortunately, we actually turned up a few minutes late due to a slow restaurant, but, lucky for us, we were still allowed to enter the opera once there was an opportune break in the singing.

Although the set was surprisingly bare, overall the opera and the singing was great. I especially enjoyed the singing done by the lead, the soprano Aurelia Florian.

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Mathallen Area

Following one Susan’s suggestions, I took a stroll by Oslos’ Mathallen, or literally translated, food hall. I only popped my head into the hall for a minute, but it had quite a nice selection of produce, fish, and the like. My main reason for walking around this area was to check out the local graffiti. To my delight, most of it was actually quite good, and there were a number of nice looking bars next to the nearby river, something that I wouldn’t mind checking out in the future.

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The Fram Museum

Because I didn’t really have a chance to walk around the Fram Museum when I visited in winter, I was determined to give it another shot on this trip. Alyssa, Kani, and I still didn’t have time to get through everything before the museum closed, but I learned a bit more than I did last time.

The Fram Museum is notable for housing the Polarship Fram, a boat was used by Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen on their North Pole expedition and Amundsen’s South Pole expedition (it is the boat that helped Amundsen be the first person to reach the South Pole). One of the big reasons why the Fram was revolutionary was that the ship was deliberately allowed to freeze in the Arctic Ocean. No ship had ever survived the ice pressure before, so Nansen’s desire to knowingly subject the ship to the ice was considered nothing short of insane. Lucky for Nansen and his crew, the ship’s special design allowed it to withstand the ice pressure. There were several design choices that allowed this to happen, but the one that is talked about most often is the rounded hull and smooth sides, which were built to mimic a round nut. The idea was for the ice to push the ship up onto the ice (similar to squeezing a nut between your fingers and having it slide along your fingers instead of being crushed) which would prevent the ice from crushing the ship.

Nansen also happened to be a very careful planner and prepared to spend 3-5 years on board the ship. Because of this, not only did the ship have plenty of food, it also had plenty to keep the crew occupied. There was a library of 600 books, paintings, card games, and even an organ on board. Overall the crew did quite well, remaining both healthy and well entertained.

The crew and its ship was only gone for three years, and upon its return Nansen was greeted as a national hero. Afterwards, Nansen was primarily known for his political career, becoming an ambassador to Great Britain in 1906 and later working in the League of Nations.

Sadly we weren’t able to finish exploring the entire museum, but again it’s something that I would pay another visit to. It was a really well laid out museum, and at times hilariously blunt and/or politically correct (our favorite translated sentence was “The friendliness and generosity of the Inuit was repaid by the white men’s goodwill and respect.”).

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Vigeland Park

Another one of my Oslo favorites is Vigeland Park. No visit would be complete without it, so I was happy to take Alyssa and Kani there. We were blessed with a gorgeously sunny day, so sunny in fact that we actually ran into a zumba dance class that was going on in the park.

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Vigeland Mausoleum

The three of us also went to the Vigeland Mausoleum thanks to a recommendation from Susan. While Gustav Vigeland is the mastermind behind Vigeland Park, Vigeland Mausoleum is actually done by his brother, Emanuel Vigeland. The mausoleum requires taking the subway to Slemdal, but it’s well worth the trip. The mausoleum is tucked away in a nice residential area, which also happens to have a nice view of Oslo.

The Vigeland Mausoleum is also known as the Vigeland Museum, and it was originally supposed to house Vigeland’s future sculptures and paintings. Vigeland later ended up changing his mind, and now the mausoleum is a huge dark room covered in frescoes. Many of the frescoes have a religious undertone, and more information on them can be found on the museum’s website. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any pictures inside the mausoleum, but Google Images can still give you a good idea of what the interior looks like.

The museum itself resembles a church, not only in its construction, but also in its silence. We were strictly told not to talk before entering, and we soon found out why. One visitor accidentally knocked into one of the museum’s chairs and echo was unbelievable. It’s definitely not your classic museum, especially considering that Vigeland’s cremated remains are stationed above the door, but I would definitely recommend a visit if you have the time.

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Munch Museum

I have to say that one of the coolest parts about being a Fulbrighter is getting to meet other Fulbrighters. One of the current Norwegian Fulbrighters, Alyssa, happens to be the only conservation scientist in Norway and works at the Munch Museum. Alyssa graciously agreed to take me and another visiting Fulbrighter, Kyle, on a tour of the Munch museum and show us what she’s been working on. I have to say that I never really considered myself a Munch fan, so while I was not particularly excited to go through the museum, I was very excited to catch up with Alyssa and learn more about her work.

Once Kyle and I checked into the museum’s staff entrance, Alyssa came out and brought us to her workspace. I have to say her office is probably the most exhilarating and terrifying places I’ve ever been. There were about a dozen Munchs that the conservationists were working on, and it’s probably the closest I’ll ever be to that many priceless paintings with no security in the immediate area. Needless to say, Kyle and I spent the whole time terrified that we’d end up accidentally damaging one of these paintings. Luckily we managed to be accident free.

I learned a ton from Alyssa about conservation and came away from her office pretty awed. For her Fulbright project, Alyssa is working on identifying what exactly went into the paint that Munch used, something that is very important from a conservation standpoint since it helps researchers better understand why and how Munch’s paintings are deteriorating. First, Alyssa told us a bit about some of their non-destructive methods for examining the paintings:

  • Sight: I was pretty impressed listening to Alyssa talk about how much you could tell by just looking at a painting. I for example could not quite see the difference between say cerulean blue and prussian blue, but am now impressed by those who can.
  • Lighting: Putting the paintings under UV or infrared light can give conservationists an idea of what metals or other elements are in the paint, helping them guess at what specific paints were used.
  • Other Instruments: We didn’t get to see this in action, but Alyssa says there are instruments they can use to can analyze the chemical composition of the paint without actually scraping any of the paint off.

As for destructive methods, this involves taking minuscule pieces of paint off of the painting and them analyzing them directly. Alyssa told us that overall it’s much easier to analyze paintings that don’t have flat surfaces and don’t have a matte finishes since it’s easier to get samples.

Alyssa also told us that Munch is a bit of a hassle to work with from a conservation standpoint, and that Munch provides them with a lot of interesting ethical questions. Munch believed in subjecting many of his painting to a “Kill or Cure” treatment, or leaving his paintings outdoors for a few years. If the paintings survived, Munch figured that they would last forever. But because these paintings underwent such harsh treatment, it leaves conservationists with the question of whether or not paintings should be restored to their original form, or left in their dilapidated post “Kill or Cure” state. There is even debate as to whether the bird droppings that have been left on these paintings are now part of the art or are something that should be removed.

Munch is also a finicky artist in other ways. Some of his paintings have been left looking unfinished, which calls into question whether or not the unfinished paintings are in fact finished, or whether they are actually works in progress. Additionally Munch loved experimenting with different types of materials. One of the paintings we saw is in a truly sorry state, partially because Munch painted the picture on cardboard. From Alyssa’s standpoint, Munch’s experimentation makes it much harder to figure out what exactly he put in his paint. Not only did Munch mix different ingredients into his paint, apparently the paint tubes that he used don’t always have accurate ingredients labels.

Things are also made more difficult for the conservationists because the museum often loans out Munch’s works. While sending Munch’s paintings out on tours helps generate money for the museum, it can be hard on the paintings since they can suffer damage when they are constantly moved about and put on display. In case you’re wondering why you aren’t allowed to take flash photography in museums, Alyssa told me that it’s because older paint tends to contain unstable chemicals. This means that they are reactive to light, so your flash photo is actually changing the color of the painting, and causing it damage.

Additionally, conservationists still don’t have a complete grasp on all the things that can damage a painting. Alyssa told us that she used to work with someone who has been working for almost eight years on why cadmium yellow occasionally darkens over time.

Alyssa also told us a bit about conservation philosophy and how it functions in Norway. Everything that conservationists do should be both reversible and visible. Things don’t necessarily have to be visible to the naked eye, but they should show up under UV light. Alyssa even showed us one of the paintings to demonstrate. To the naked eye the painting looked completely normal, but once it was put under UV light it was clear that a great section of the painting had been damaged and restored (unfortunately Kyle and I weren’t allowed to take pictures in Alyssa’s workspace so you’ll have to use your imagination for this). Furthermore, in Norway conservationists believe that paintings should not be restored. Conservationists simply try to prevent paintings from deteriorating further and try to preserve their current state.

As for what Alyssa does, she is working a lot with Munch’s old paint tubes. Munch left everything he owned to the city of Oslo, even his hats, and that included approximately 1200 paint tubes. While many of these are from the brand Windsor Newton, their ingredients labeling isn’t always accurate. Alyssa analyzes these paint tubes as well as bits from Munch’s paintings and uses special instruments to determine what exactly went into his paint. The picture below is some of modern day paint that Alyssa occasionally uses as a baseline sample in her work.

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After patiently answering all of our questions, Alyssa showed us around other parts of the building. Unfortunately, Alyssa doesn’t have access to the museum’s vault of Munch paintings, but Kyle and I were pretty happy just to stand in awe outside of the vault door and stare at the retinal scan. She also showed us a hidden exhibit of Munch’s printing stones. Apparently the exhibit isn’t on display (and can’t be photographed) because of their reproducible quality. Since the stones are meant to mass produce Munch’s work, it would be incredibly easy for someone to take a picture of them and do just that–in short they present a copyright issue that the museum would like to avoid.

Afterwards, we went to the museum itself. The museum currently has an exhibition of Munch’s work in conjunction with a natural history exhibit. The connection between the two wasn’t really well explained but I suppose it was still nice to see the two all at once. The museum itself is pretty small and took us less than an hour to go through, but I’m definitely glad that I went. Not only did I find Alyssa’s work pretty amazing but it was nice to get a better idea of what Munch’s work is like beyond The Scream.

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