Sunday, January 15, 2012

Books on my coffee table this week

It has been almost seven weeks since my traffic accident, and tomorrow I have the doctor's permission to return to the office. Little by little I am rehabilitating and starting to frequent my regular places. Yesterday I returned to Café Aalto, a favourite café of mine, located at the Academic Bookstore, the architecture and the furniture design of course by Alvar Aalto. An excellent place for intellectual and romantic meetings, and reading. I also finally ventured to the sauna and even a few meters of swimming, selecting the Yrjönkatu Bath. Established in 1928 it is the oldest public bath in Finland. Too bad that the bath turns are for men only or for women only. The neoclassical architecture, beautifully restored, is by Väinö Vähäkallio with inspiration from the Roman bath culture and touches of Art Deco. Upstairs they have a café and private lodges where it is possible to take a nap after the sauna and delve deep into good reading while enjoying a cup of coffee.

1. Financial Times Weekend (Saturday Jan 14, Sunday Jan 15, 2012 Europe) surprises us by launching a "Capitalism in crisis" series. In the first dossier the articles are by Edward Luce on the American situation and Arundhati Roy on the Indian questions. There is also a special section on their website: Relevant is also the interview with the legendary cold warrior Zbigniew Brzezinski, 83 but not sclerotic, and with startling things to say. I admire Peter Aspden's cultural section (great interviews with Quincy Jones and Charlotte Gainsbourg, for instance), but these days financial news are more exciting than culture. In my student days I was a subscriber to three economic magazines, Talouselämä [Economic Life, the equivalent of The Economist in our country] and the quarterlies of the then two main merchant banks, known at the time as Suomen Yhdyspankki (their quarterly was called Unitas) and Kansallis-Osake-Pankki. The slogan "Capitalism in crisis" was heard then, too, but never in their quarters, although the beginning of the 1970s was turbulent, too. Towards the end of the costly Vietnam war President Nixon called the Bretton Woods agreement off which meant the end of the gold standard. But the IMF could deal with that, and the "capitalism in crisis" remained a purely Marxist slogan.

2. Ene Mihkelson: Ruttohauta (Katkuhaud, 2007) [The Plague Grave], translated into Finnish by Kaisu Lahikainen. Helsinki: WSOY 2011. A woman's bitter journey into the past of her family and her nation, a novel by one of Estonia's leading authors and intellectuals. In the recent years books by Imbi Paju, Seppo Zetterberg, Sofi Oksanen, Erkki Tuomioja, and others have opened new depths to the Finnish understanding of the Estonian tragedy during the Soviet and Nazi rule. We are deeply moved, because the same thing could have happened to us, and almost did. We have known about this, but not in such a profound and shattering way. This journey proceeds both outwardly (the realization of the horror of the torture chambers) and inwardly (the guilt inside the family).

3. Eugene O'Neill: Pitkän päivän matka yöhön (Long Day's Journey into Night, written in 1942 / posthumously published in 1956), translated into Finnish by Juha Siltanen. Helsinki: Love, 1989. I missed seeing the Sidney Lumet film adaptation of O'Neill's powerful autobiographical play about his childhood home while laying at the hospital, but as a compensation I read the play itself. In a rare arrangement for a major film, there was no screenplay for Lumet's production. He directed the movie directly from the O'Neill play itself. It is a page-turner, a dark and grim tragedy, yet (and maybe inevitably) full of humour. Unforgettable.

4. Peter Brunette: Roberto Rossellini. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1987, 1996. While writing the Cinema Orion programme note for Luciano Serra pilota I again enjoyed reading Peter Brunette's book on the fascinating career of the master of neorealism and his roots in the development of the Italian film culture since the 1930s, including his friendship with Vittorio Mussolini, the son of Il Duce.

5. Maailmantaide: Michael Kitson: Barokin aikakausi. Barokki, rokokoo ja uusklassismi (Landmarks of the World's Art: The Age of Baroque, 1966). Translated by Sakari Saarikivi. Helsinki: Tammi, 1968.

6. Maailmantaide: Norbert Lynton: Moderni maailma (Landmarks of the World's Art: The Modern World, 1965). Translated by Raija Mattila. Helsinki: Tammi, 1967.

7. Maailmantaide: Peter Kidson: Keskiajan taide (Landmarks of the World's Art: The Medieval World, 1967). Translated by Pirkko Lilius. Helsinki: Tammi, 1968.

8. Maailmantaide: Ernst J. Grube: Islamin taide. Rakennustaide, keramiikka, maalaustaide, matot, metallityöt, koristetaide (Landmarks of the World's Art: The World of Islam, 1967). Translated by Panu Pekkanen, supervised by Sakari Saarikivi. Helsinki: Tammi, 1968.

9. Maailmantaide: Kaukoidän taiteet: Jeannine Auboyer: Intia ja Kaakkois-Aasia. Roger Goepper: Kiina, Korea ja Japani (Landmarks of the World's Art: The Oriental World, 1967). Translated by Sakari Saarikivi. Helsinki: Tammi, 1968.

I have now finished revisiting in its entirety a favourite book series from my school days. In these books I have had some of my first encounters with images by Klee and Miro. At school age I sometimes even copied images from these books via drawing (pencil, charcoal, crayon) and painting (watercolour, oil), but soon enough realized that my talent was limited.

Now I realize there are imbalances in the concept of the book series. There are two volumes on the same period: one about early Christian art and another about Medieval art, both covering the same arid thousand-year period. The volume on Baroque actually starts with Mannerism and includes the Rococo and Neo-Classical periods. Certainly the series is Eurocentric. But in the world of Islam there is the question that muslims take the Biblical prohibition of the (graven) image seriously, which is why representative and figurative art has not flourished in their cultures. No such problem in the Oriental world which would have deserved many more volumes. As it is, the single Oriental volume is one of my favourites, presenting approaches to art radically different from the European tradition.

All the time I am rethinking my habits of seeing. The digital world in the 2K transitional phase of the digital cinema has brought us a relative poverty of visual quality. The 2K image in the cinema is deservedly praised for its brightness and sharpness. But visiting art galleries and art history books everybody can see that brightness and sharpness are not the hallmarks of refined art but of primitive art, also of children's drawings (often astounding in their own right). Leonardo and Turner did their best to avoid brightness and sharpness.

Primitive art is not inferior art. It is a sign of vitality that artists go back to the roots. See Picasso. Klee and Miro and Abstract Expressionists have their own direct links to the origins of art. Some modern paintings could be installed into the caves of Lascaux, and nobody would notice the difference. We need the whole richness of the experience of art.

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