Sunday, 27 June 2010

Edinburgh, Scotland, Day 3: Feeling better

When I visited Edinburgh the first time, one of the things I didn't do was take in the art at the National Gallery, so this was the first place I went after checking out of the Balmoral on my third, and final, day in Edinburgh. I was feeling remarkably better, but still a bit under the weather, so the museum offered a nice, low-key way to pass the next couple of hours.

I try very hard to appreciate art, and so I schedule museum stops whenever I am in places with extensive and/or important collections. It is not exactly accurate to say that I don't enjoy or understand art, but it's not quite accurate to say that I like viewing it, either. I'm impressed by the fact that anyone can create realistic-looking representations of objects, since that is a skill I lack but have always wanted. I love wood carvings and embroidery, photography, music, ancient artifacts, anything with nature (particularly bird) imagery, and the disturbingly morbid religious iconography from that era when everyone is painted with a gray-green skin tone that makes them look several days dead (ca. 15th century). I truly dislike modern art, I don't like scenes that are posed, I hate melodrama, and I don't understand the point of neo-classicism (Greek columns are SO last millenium!). Unfortunately, in most museum collections, the things that I do like are usually vastly outnumbered by the things I don't like, and I wander from room to room attempting, but failing, to connect with any of the pieces.

All of this is a rather long-winded way of admitting that I didn't much enjoy the offerings at the National Gallery. However, the museum did have two things going for it: First, it was free, as are all the state-run museums in Britain, and I think that is pretty awesome. Second, it gave me a chance to play Caitlin's Museum Game, wherein I have to locate at least one piece of art that I find intriguing for some reason or another, and then go learn more about it. That is how I came to find myself reading up on the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, and his painting, Virgin and Child:

(Virgin and Child, ca. 1490, by the Master of the Embroidered Foliage)

This is one of those paintings you really need to see up close, because that is the only way to fully appreciate the vines and grasses and ivy and leaves that are swirling all over the place at the Virgin's feet. Out of that whole picture, the foliage at the bottom really is the thing you notice most--hence the name of the artist. The name, "Master of the Embroidered Foliage" (MEF), either applies to a single individual or a group of individuals who were taught in the same school, in Brussels and southern Holland (in other words, the artist was Flemish) during the late 15th century. According to the sign next to the painting, MEF was highly influenced by Rogier van der Weyden and Hugo van der Goes. That means absolutely nothing to me, but I include it for the sake of those individuals who are better versed in art history than I (which wouldn't be hard).

Over the years, I have noticed that I often quite like the paintings of Flemish artists, which is interesting since I didn't even know what "Flemish" meant for the first two-thirds years of my life. Flemish paintings always seem very honest, with clean, crisp lines and detailed backgrounds, and the colors are often rich but muted, with kind of a Gothic or melancholy/somber air. I would definitely hang one of these in my house (if I were filthy rich and could afford one, that is).

Virgin and Child shares something in common with the other piece that I most liked at the museum, which was a triptych called Three Legends of Saint Nicholas, by Gerard David:

(Three Legends of Saint Nicholas, ca. 1500-1520, by Gerard David)

This was originally part of an altarpiece, the rest of which is in my home state of Ohio (Toledo Museum--how weird!) and Washington, D.C. (National Gallery of Art). Here we have a nice example of that dead-looking skin tone, which utterly fascinates me; the artist clearly had access to pink and red paint, and he didn't think to splash some of that across the cheeks of these people in order to make them look a bit more lively? The thing that I was particularly taken with in this series is the baby Saint Nicholas on the far left; he has just been born and is thanking God for his safe delivery. Throughout the museum, I viewed many images of prematurely adult-shaped babies, as was the style in many religious pictures. This one was particularly extreme, because the baby is a newborn, and is not only about twice as large as he should be, but also is skinny and mobile and able to hold his head up straight. It is creepy. In the middle image, St. Nick (who is, by the way, the same St. Nick who became known as Father Christmas) is leaving money for three orphaned girls so they will have dowries and therefore will not need to turn to prostitution for their livelihoods. At the far right, he is shown reanimating three young boys who were killed during a famine by their own townspeople, who had then placed the boys' bodies in a vat for brining in preparation for cannibalism. Fun stuff--exactly the sort of motivational and inspiring imagery I would like to be presented with at mass every Sunday morning.

After getting my fill of art education for the day, I decided to head back to the other museum across town, in order to revisit the Lewis chessmen. My husband is not exactly a fan of museums and our previous trip through the Lewis exhibit was a bit rushed, so I wanted to go back through at a slower pace and examine the pieces in more detail. This turned out to be an excellent idea, because, as I strolled through the chessman-specific shop at the entryway to the gallery, what should I spy but a hnefatafl set on sale? Of course, I purchased it immediately; now all I have to do is find someone who is willing to sit down and learn how to play a centuries-old Viking strategy game with me (any takers?!). In any case, it was interesting to read about the Lewis pieces in more detail, though really there isn't that much known about them. I also snapped a few photographs, most of which were pretty terrible. Fortunately, a couple came out all right:

(Examples of chessmen used in the Viking era. )

The piece on the far right is incomplete, but is thought to be the early stages of a knight. Those heads you see are horses, though I think they look very much like sheep. In fact, given the color and shape of the stone, plus the pock-marks that had begun to appear as the ivory aged, I found the overall effect to be very wool-like, and I would like to think that the carver was trying to create an image of Siamese sheep (or possibly two friendly sheep snuggling very closely).

The piece on the far left is one of the most detailed sculptures in the whole collection; the bit facing forward in the above picture is actually just the side, with the front facing off to the left:

(I am not exactly sure what position this piece was used for, but he looks very much like a king to me.)

I can't imagine being able to create such a thing, but I particularly can't imagine a) the process of harvesting a walrus tusk wide enough to make a piece this large, b) sculpting something with this level of detail, and c) doing all of it in the 13th century, when they didn't exactly have the most advanced tools imaginable.

While strolling through the rest of the museum, I passed a display of some items that had been found at a Viking burial site in Ballindry. Two of the graves were close together and appeared to be a well-to-do husband and wife. Here is what the woman had been buried with:

(Items left in the grave of a Viking woman in northern Scotland. Her husband was buried with armor, weaponry, and tack.)

The pieces at the upper left are jewelry, and the pieces at the bottom right are probably decorations from a wooden box. The items in the middle include a ladle (top), a linen smoother (the thing that looks like a paperweight), needles/needle case (left), and heckles for cloth-making (the bits at the bottom that look a bit decomposed). Now, I am sure that this woman took a great deal of pride in being able to keep her family clothed in neatly-pressed, beautifully-embroidered homemade fabric, but do you really think that she envisioned spending her afterlife ironing and sewing and sitting at a loom...for eternity? If anyone even thinks of placing anything related to a household chore in my grave, I will come back and haunt them until they remove it. I would, however, be quite happy with the jewelry.

My next port of call was the museum cafe, where I had a nice cup of tea after purchasing a bit of light reading to keep me company:

(Reading about tea while drinking...tea. I spy a theme.)

By this point, it wasn't long until I needed to meet up with my husband to head to the airport, but I thought I'd pop in to the mall and have a look around a few shops in order to confirm that there really are no articles of clothing in Britain that are my size. I then headed back to the Balmoral, where I took a quick trip to the lobby toilet. Imagine my surprise when I opened the door and found this:

(Good Lord, that is a lot of unnecessary floral print.)

In case you were curious, this is what it looks like up close:

(I am informed by a very reliable source that the men's restroom is not similarly decorated.)

The only other interesting event of the day was our discovery, upon reaching the airport, that our flight had been delayed by 40 minutes because a medical emergency had occurred on the plane en route to Edinburgh. Of course, we felt bad for whomever suffered the medical emergency, but we also felt bad for ourselves for having to wait longer in the airport and then for having to drive 1.5 hours home at 11:30 PM. Luckily, the waiting area had two coin-operated massage chairs, one of which was broken and therefore continually offered free neck rubs.

To make matters even better, someone left behind a copy of a celebrity gossip magazine, Closer, which I immediately grabbed and began perusing. In the US, I will occasionally look at Us or People, which offer reviews on movies and TV shows, interviews, and other occasionally redeeming elements of more or less real journalism. Closer, on the other hand, has absolutely no redeeming qualities, and is purely a collection of gossip and conjecture; it is a glossy, paginated, portable version of high school:

(I do not think I will be subscribing to this publication, enlightening though it was.)

This type of publication appears to be extremely popular here, as evidenced by the amazing variety of such magazines available, and the frequency with which I see them ported about by all the fashionable young ladies. Thanks to Closer, I learned that footballer Peter Crouch, forward for the Tottenham Hotspurs (another of my favorite players) is engaged to a model who once packed two left shoes for him when helping him prepare for an away game, thus forcing him to borrow a pair of shoes from the lost and found. Isn't that a delightful and edifying tidbit that changes your world view, as all good journalism should? I can't wait to pull out that factoid when I am next sitting around watching football with the guys. I'm sure they'll enjoy it as much as I did.

You can imagine how excited we were to discover that Cornwall was going through the same warm spell as Edinburgh, and that we did not even need our jackets while walking to the car. In fact, the sun and heat continue, and London is supposed to be 30 degrees (Celsius) over the next few days. That sounds very conducive to a pleasant trip up to visit the Royal Society and celebrate my husband's birthday this week...

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