Heroism and enigmas

For a few months now I’ve been waiting for a day of rain and cold that would compel me to seek the shelter of the city art museum. There has been a particular exhibition on that I’ve been pining away for, but the opportunity never turned up. I regularly faced ex-Queen Christina’s look of betrayal as I thought, ‘next time for sure’. So rather than wait for the weather the provide an excuse, last Sunday we made an outing of it, thumbing our noses at the threat of sunny skies.

Which is not to say that the weather was fine and clear; rain and winds threatened as we headed into town and a couple of times we were caught in brief flurries. The flurries became meaningless when we stepped inside a burger restaurant just off Avenyn, all brick walls, low ceilings and warmth. We were soon warmed on the inside as well by a meaty, carby meal and a few drops of wine and beer.

Thus heartened, we faced the light rain again and were soon inside the Konstmuseum, and facing a rather long queue. It seemed we were not the only people to decide that an overcast day is best remedied with art, preferably inside a warm building.

Tickets purchased, we scurried up the stairs to the first of the exhibitions, a painted history of Sweden. The first thing we saw as we turned a corner was the famous photo of the US soldiers erecting an American flag on Iwo Jima. Further inspection showed a large version of the crying Vietnamese girl running naked from her napalmed village and a grainy shot of Jackie Kennedy clambering past the slumped form of her husband. Among them were various paintings from Swedish history, with heroic figures and dramatic scenes.

A tour had just started and as we tagged along, the guide explained that the intent was the contrast the use of paintings as propaganda, and to consider the purpose and impact of art on culture.
A number of the paintings showed heroic kings fighting and dying in battle, from pietà scenes, gigantic victory parades and contrasts of blonde, light Swedes and dark, bearded enemies.

On a wall opposite a huge battle scene, a tv showed a scene from the film Arn on repeat, armies lining up, serious battle-faces assumed and then forces crashing into each other again and again.
Next to this was a photo the was purported to show the moment that Osama Bin Laden was killed, watched by President Obama, Biden and Clinton, among a host of others. The guide pointed out the almost solitary emotion shown by Clinton, contrasted with Biden and others, and then the way that Obama was portrayed. He was in the centre, but smaller, hunched and intense, a different sort of heroic figure than the warrior kings of Sweden.

Queen Christina by Johan Fredrik Höckert

Queen Christina by Johan Fredrik Höckert

There the tour ended, but I spent a little while considered the final painting, the one from the advertisements. The text by the painting described the moment the former Queen found out a close friend and possibly lover had betrayed her, and sentenced him to death with a flick of her hand. She looks both vulnerable and angry, a rare image of a ruler shown outside a moment of heroism.

Queen Christina is someone who I would very much like to find out more about. From first hearing about her in University as the cause of Descartes death, to a photo recreation of a pale woman with haunted eyes at a museum in Oslo to finding out she was examined after death to confirm that she was a woman, she has floated around enigmatically, waiting for me to find out more. Soon I will.

From Swedish history we descended to investigate an heroic theme playing downstairs, and found an exhibition of darkly romantic landscapes. It included a teaser from the latest Elder Scrolls video game playing on a large screen, as well as paintings of dramatic landscapes, monsters, light and darkness. There were sinking ships, crows, mountains, travelers and cloudless nights in dark forests.

The complexity and broad strokes suddenly disappeared as we turned a corner into an exhibition of photography from a woman whose work may have been lost if not for chance.

The photography on show ranged from a shadow of the photographer, Vivian Maier, to hunched homeless men, crying children, contemptuous well-to-do women in furs and incongruous feet among cans of soup. They were all gently humourous, curious and like doors onto the streets of not terribly long ago New York and Chicago. My favourites were the portrait of Vivian and a little girl and a young man feeding pigeons, his hair curling like feathers.

Young man with pigeons by Vivian Maier

Young man with pigeons by Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier is another woman who I had found out about some time ago, an enigmatic woman who died before she became famous for the many photos and short films she made during her life. It was exciting to see her work on display and find out a little more about her life.

Finally we made a quick trip through the rest of the museum to see a painting and a room that I remember fondly from my previous visit. The painting that I had felt such a strong feeling towards seems to have faded slightly, though is still lovely, and the quirks and beauty of the little exhibition room were still charming. From there we made a brief visit to the museum shop (anyone fancy an eraser in the shape of a peanut? Or a walnut? Well your wait is now over!) and then exited into a world that seemed slightly sunnier than before.
A world for the moment free of heroic battles, betrayed ex-Queens and crow haunted lakes, but could possibly have felt familiar to a lone and curious photographer with an eye for humour and humanity.

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