We had a lovely time in Helsinki, mostly having to do with The Decorative Arts--ours and Ellen's mother's as well as Eliel Saarinen's house at Hvittrask and the Gallen-Kallela museum outside of Espoo. Plus, Moomins.
The house tour took place under the auspices of the sisters Sari and Merya (yes, everyone has last names, but my brain is unable to deal, just now, with anything over 2 syllables, so they'll forgive me for the informality, I hope). They picked us up at our hotel, popped us into Sari's car, and off we drove to Hvittrask (which is pronounced--to my ear--kind of like Wheat-trraask, with a flipped "r"). And there we met Hannah (the Purple Hive-Queen of fury and wonderfulness at the Finncon Masquerade), in her character of art historian and history teacher and good person to have along on a excursion.
For anyone who likes early 20th C. houses, Hvittrask is pure heaven. Three architects--Eliel Saarinen, Hermann Geselius, and Armas Lindgren, bought a nice piece of land next to a large lake and built a little colony of houses around a central lawn. The museum is in the main house, Saarinen's house, built in the National Romantic style. Sari (who prefers the machine-romance of Art Deco) said that she loves Hvittrask because the library had always reminded her of Rivendell. It reminded me of Rivendell, too, with its groined ceiling all painted with stylized flowers, its windowseat covered with a rug that spills on out over the floor, and a beautiful tiled stove with beaten copper doors. Really, the whole place has a Last Homely House feel to it, from the warmly splendid Great Room, all dark teal walls and red-brown wood and sylvan carpets, to the children's playroom, with scaled-down white furniture and a big space to play in and a beautiful view of the lake and tree-tops out the window. All of us got into a jocular argument about the best place to put a desk in the children's bedroom, whose window, at little-kid height, would be perfect for thoughtful gazing between sentences.
The second-floor porch smelled beautifully of pine tar, from the shingles. I imagine children running barefoot up and down the stairs, and parties in the great room, with music and laughter and the quieter folk in the library, talking or reading by the stove.
It was very hot, but we walked down to the lake anyway, to look at the moss-covered rocks and the gorgeous log sauna house. Ellen took off her sandals and paddled her feet in the lake while Merya and Sari picked blueberries. And then Hannah had to go home and we pressed on to the Gallen-Kallela museum, which was a completely other kettle of fish.
Gallen-Kallela was a genius artist, a great craftsman, a visionary, and a bit of a nut. The first two are obvious from his art, which is everywhere. He was the man whose images of the legends of the Kalevala are best known. He did frescoes and monumental paintings and small, intimate paintings (which we saw yesterday, at the Ateneum in Helsinki) that simultaneously humanize the larger-than life characters of the Kalevala and turn them into visual icons that have been reproduced almost as many different ways as the Moomins. I was reminded of Ruskin, of Leigh Hunt, crossed with . The man could do anything: carve wood, paint sensitive and perceptive portraits, work in pencil, watercolor, oil, gouache.
What he couldn't do was design a livable house.
Gallen-Kalela wanted an old-fashioned, deep-eaved homestead with a tower and a great room for his studio and a gorgeous roofline and lots of nooks and crannies. So he designed just that, and asked his friend Saarinen if he'd draw up the plans for him, to make sure that it didn't fall down around his ears. I'm guessing it was Saarinen who pointed out that he hadn't thought of adding a bathroom, and found room for one up one flight of stairs and half-way down another, both spiral, both narrow. I don't know whose idea the sunken bathtub was. What I do know is that--except for the splendidly-proportioned studio, lit by a huge, multi-paned slanted window--the whole place was dark, oddly laid-out, strangely-proportioned, and not particularly pleasant to be in. I am not alone in my opinion. After two years (possibly after the birth of their first child), he built a more conventional clapboard villa across the yard, decorated with tasteful ornamental fretwork, where his wife and children lived while he camped out in the tower and painted, wrapped in a monk's robe against the cold.
If you've been following this blog, you've probably figured out that traveling, for us, is about food as much as it is about museums and nature (although we are very fond of both). We had lunch at Hvittrask (salmon soup for Ellen, a salad for me--there's only so much protein I can eat before my nose starts twitching for greens), tea at the Gallen-Kalela museum (a remarkably lovely lingonberry tart, with custard and a crumbly sugar-cookie crust), and dinner at the restaurant on the Helsinki Esplanade, called (I think) the Chapel, in a Belle-Epoque structure that looks like a huge and elegant greenhouse. The food was lovely (smoked reindeer and a mushroom salad--it's chanterelle season. Ellen had reindeer steak and new potatoes), and so was the company. When I mentioned how friendly and kind everyone was being, Sari said it was very different in November, when people began to turn inward in response to the shrinking light and the growing cold, wrapping themselves in layers of scarves and sweaters and grumpiness.
But the winter is a long way away just now, with temperatures reaching record highs, and everyone wearing as little as possible and sitting at cafes drinking cold beers and ice-filled long drinks. Yesterday, blessedly, wasn't quite as hot as it had been, or we'd never have gone running all over the city in search of glasses frames (I have fallen in love with Scandinavian glasses frames) and presents for friends. I now know the Finnish for Sale (Ale). Also the Swedish (Rea). Which brings my Finnish vocabulary up to 7 words (Ravintola=Restaurant; Kittos=Thank you; Naiste=Woman; Drag=Pull; Otto=ATM; Vaste=water (although I'm probably spelling that wrong)). I found the perfect glasses (round, blue-grey metal with green at the temples), we added some necessary items to our wardrobes (even with much washing in basins, 2 pairs of pants is too few for a 3 week trip in extreme heat), and bought (on big dog sale) a tablecloth and potholders that will be Just The Thing for Ellen's parents' apartment.
After which, flushed with triumph, we went to a small museum running yet another 65th Anniversary Exhibit on Tove Jannson, with an entire English booklet that told me much more than I'd known before about her comic strip (which I hadn't even known about before this trip), and the trajectory of her career from complete unknown to world-famous. And then (after a brief rest and email-check at the hotel) we went to the Ateneum Art Museum, where we saw lots of early 20th C. Finnish art, which I loved. And an exhibit called "The Women of Helsinki," which focused on the work of a poet, essayist, and journalist named L. Onerva. It was a wonderful exhibit, but the part I loved best was a room called "Workroom," which featured a writing table, suspended maybe 5 feet from the floor, with a desk chair at an angle behind it and an old-fashioned upright typewriter suspended above it, and a flight of folded pages hung across the ceiling, as if they'd flown out of the typewriter.
And that was Helsinki. We'll have a little more than one day there at the end of the trip, during which we'll visit the National Museum and the Academic Bookstore and do a lot of fancy packing. But we will have left many things unvisited that we'd like to see. I guess we'll just have to come back, won't we?