Art to Heart with Edvard Munch, Gustav Vigeland, El Greco and Picasso

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All of my art experiences, well the ones that have touched my heart, have been more or less accidental. I think it is this stumbling into art which has had the most impact on my life. I didn’t grow up with a specific artistic or literary education, but one of the biggest influences was of course religious art, iconic images from my Catholic childhood. It was astonishing for me as a young woman travelling through Spain in the seventies to step into a chapel in Toledo and find the original El Greco’s which I knew intimately as a child from the Columban Calendars that hung in all good Catholic homes. I had the very good fortune that day to be travelling in a group that included a young Australian priest in training, on temporary leave from the seminary, who took me on a guided tour of the El Greco’s. And, confession, it was many, many years later, in Kalamata, Greece in 2007 that I finally realised, attending a movie on the life of El Greco, that of course, he was ‘The Greek’, and not a Spanish artist after all.
SantoDomingo
It is a very fine thing I do believe to uncover these secrets accidentally, rather than academically.
A friend recently emailed me a link to two beautiful images by the artist Edvard Munch… ‘The Madonna’ and ‘The Voice’ and

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch

interestingly, the poems written by Munch about these paintings (from a book by Bente Torjusen – The Words and Images of Edvard Munch which is copyright, or I’d include the poems on this blog). The poems are exquisite – unnecessary you could say, for what is art, but a visual not verbal experience… but beautiful as well, because the lines of the poems are expressed in different colours (the mind of an artist). It reminded me of my first encounter with Edvard Munch, in Oslo, January 1973. I was on my way to taking up a job as a waitress in the Haukeli Mountains and staying in Oslo at a youth hostel. I found Munch and Vigeland. They’re pretty hard to miss in a small city the size of Oslo. It was snowing too, that much I remember. I was in love then with all things Norwegian and still hold huge affection in my heart for that time in my life. It was here I first learned to ski and to haltingly speak snippets of another language.

Gustav Vigeland sculpture

Gustav Vigeland sculpture


In Paris in 1997, with my youngest son who back then was just fifteen, together we literally stumbled upon the Picasso Museum. We had just previously laboured our way through the great halls of the Louvre in search of the Mona Lisa, almost running through a room of Rubens – so overwhelming was the art experience that we couldn’t take it in.

This delightful accident, the Picasso Museum, remains an unforgettable art experience both the intimacy of the setting, the sharing of it with my son and the lack of expectation enabling a true heart to art experience. I purchased this poster advertising an exhibition which now hangs in our bathroom and the other is a print which hangs in our bedroom.Poster from Picasso MuseumPrint Purchased from Picasso Museum

Years ago, when my children were preschoolers, and we didn’t have a lot of money to decorate our humble Edwardian villa in Brooklyn (not New York, but Wellington), I used to drive my olive-green Mini down to the Wellington library and fill the boot with art for hire. It was a lot of fun and a cheap way to dress our house and the great advantage being you never got bored as you just took the picture back and got another one. These were reproductions such as Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and Van Gogh’s ‘Bedroom in Arles’ but oh the joy racing through the Louvre to see the Vermeer original. I know, I know, they’re practically clichés, but they looked lovely on our wall.

At primary school in the fifties, one of my most humbling experience was being part of a team in class where you had to run to the front of the room and draw something – my task was to draw a hand – all I had to do was place my hand on the blackboard and draw around it to get a fairly reasonable image – but I didn’t have the confidence or imagination for that, and instead I froze at the board mortified, unable to even decide how many fingers a single hand held. It’s one of those frozen moments of life that you never forget. My own version of ‘The Scream’. Nowadays, I teach English as a second language and I find being unable to draw a big advantage – I have no shame and I attempt to draw and the students laugh and through their laughter they name the object that I have so poorly tried to represent – you see my lack of shame unlocks their language.

My friend has reminded me of my introduction to Edward Munch, my astonishment and attraction to ‘The Scream’ before I knew it was a famous painting, and too, of the joy of Frognor Park, my very first up close encounter with stone brought to life. Coming from New Zealand in the early 70’s I was too, a teeny bit startled by so much public nude abandonment (even in stone)… I loved the girl with the flying hair and now I am a grandmother, and I see my granddaughter, her plaits flying as she dances for me in our garden.

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Cona coffee and a club sandwich, please

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We were talking last night about food fashions.    I recalled how back in the late seventies, the height of cool for us, in our wee Brooklyn apartment (Wellington, not New York), was cracked pepper pâté on Vogel toast – yum – Friday night, after a week at work, and then home to an easy dinner.   Dead cool, delicious and yes, high fibre toast and something as exotic as pâté.    Well, you might smile.   But you may not have grown up in the 50’s when the closest thing to high-fibre bread was a ‘brown loaf’ or Nu-soy bread and pâté well…

It reminded me of an essay I wrote back in the nineties about the changing face of New Zealand cuisine, and how the tables had turned (so to speak) from the early 70’s when we lived in Norway, to the 1990’s, when our Norwegian friends came to visit us in New Zealand.

Cona coffee and a club sandwich, please

We came back from our OE in the mid seventies armed with our Moulineaux – a smart, European sounding and superior coffee-making machine.  It worked by filtering freshly ground coffee beans through a sort of blotting paper and we added mustard and salt to add flavour and flair.   We were sophisticated travellers who now knew how to make real coffee.  We’d learned in London about milky instant coffee and in Norway about brewing coffee on a stove, but our Moulineaux was an advance on all of these options. We even purchased a Spong coffee grinder (think of your mother’s meat mincer) so we could startle our friends with freshly ground coffee beans.

Growing up in small-town New Zealand, our first taste of coffee had been Gregg’s chicory essence followed by Gregg’s instant.  And then there was the subversive Dutchman who opened a dimly lit coffee bar in Richmond, replete with candles burning in Chianti bottles and coffee was over-brewed into the wee small hours (probably as late as ten in the evening) in a Cona Coffee pot with a mysterious glass stopper.

In the eighties as world travellers, we would cross the Tasman for our cappuccino and marvel at the hot froth, delighted by the dusting of cinnamon or chocolate.  Choosing between cinnamon or chocolate on your cappuccino, being one of the defining moments of trans Tasman travel, back then.

And gradually (or was it all of a sudden?)…  the coffee industry began to infiltrate (excuse the pun) New Zealand.   People abandoned their cups of tea for coffees and the options began to grow.    You could still buy Cona coffee, and you could enjoy filter coffee of various varieties, but now the cappuccino was gaining favour.   And another competitor entered the scene – the plunger!    People argued in favour of and against the plunger.   People argued about the size of the grounds required for plunger versus filter coffee.

Cafes came and went – as good as their last lukewarm latte.   We marvelled at the flat white and debated the difference.

A cappuccino was now passé.  The latte bowl was in.   People sat in cafes all over New Zealand worshiping a white bowl of not too frothy froth.  It took two hands to hold and it required concentration and a teaspoon if you wanted to make sure you got your money’s worth.   People, who normally had good manners, could be seen spooning coffee from enormous white bowls, their noses no longer powdered with cinnamon or chocolate, but possibly dipped in spume.

Then somehow, when we weren’t looking, chocolate crept into the equation.  Peopled nonchalantly ordered moccachino’s and worse than that…decaffeinated flat whites…   Even barristers cringed at this new fad.  What was the point of coffee without the caffeine?

And then, from out of the blue, we had word from our friends in Norway that finally, after thirty odd years, they were coming to visit us.  When we first left home in the seventies and lived in Norway, we were gob-smacked by the variety of food and the taste of coffee in Europe.   And so, we couldn’t wait to show them our beautiful mountains and we hoped, some authentic kiwi fodder.

We set out on our journey to the South Island on the fast ferry (normally crossing Cook Strait on a ferry guarantees you a look at authentically awful Kiwi food) – but fashion had overtaken us and the food was passable even quite good.   It reminded us of the food we had eaten on the hydrofoils in Norway thirty years ago – salad sandwiches and pastries.   But we still had high hopes of finding the real thing.

In Blenheim we visited the vineyards and our Norwegian friends were astonished at the variety and quality of our wines.   We recalled working in the mountains in Norway serving European wines, most of which we had never heard of before.  Many of the guests were wealthy oil and shipping magnates from Haugesund and Stavanger.  The most popular dinner wine was Egri Bikaver (which means bulls blood and has something to do with the Turks, the Ottomans, and Hungary) and for the wealthier (oil and shipping) guests the prestigious (we’d never heard of it back then) Châteauneuf de Pape…

Thirty years later, we watched, as our Norwegian friends sat, eyes closed, breathing in a Mudhouse Sauvignon as if it were the equal or more exotic than Egri Bikaver.

We ate in Nelson and almost drowned in haute cuisine.    But still we hopes.   We would seek out the club sandwich, the mini mince pie and the chocolate éclair.   We were determined to enlighten our Norwegian friends.

Instead, on the West Coast, we ate whitebait patties the size of dinner plates at a salmon farm and even our take-away pizza at Fox Glacier was edible.  The glacier rated, even with our Norwegian friends who were awed by the rapid movement forward of the glacier, the accessibility and the pretty, but dirty blue of the snow.

Then, driving through the Haast, hubby and I marvelled at the uncanny prehistoric canvas that enveloped us, while our Norwegian friends slept in the back of the car, sated, resting, and ready for the next gourmet experience.   Which, as it happened was not that far away, when we found Saffron in Arrowtown and although the mains (minus vegetables) were thirty-five dollars each and upwards, our Norwegian friends (converting the kroner to NZ dollar) didn’t even blink or notice that we did.  Leaving Otago, we popped into the Gibbston Valley vineyard…

The Gibbston Valley Pinot was the Eiffel Tower and the Prado rolled into one as far as we could tell from the glazed and glorious expressions on our guests’ faces.    They slept through the Lindis Pass and missed a moving feast of Graham Sydney landscapes.  I think, but cannot be absolutely certain, they did glimpse Mt Cook, but possibly they slept through this, digesting and resting.  We headed for Christchurch and out to Banks Peninsula.   At Little River, the old store had burned down and a new and modern tin shed had risen from the ashes and instead of just oversized pumpkins and Swandris, we found doormats made of river stones that even Aucklanders would drool over.

We set off for Akaroa, imagining their awe at Onawe, and instead they discovered Barry’s Cheese Factory.  Please, please, no more – our stomachs groaned, but our Norwegian friends were amazed.   We couldn’t convince them that when they first met us, our most exotic cheese experience was smoked cheddar quarters in foil wrap.   We had been impressed with the goat’s cheeses in Norway back then – the peanut butter colour of them – the textures and flavours, the sheer range of cheeses… not to mention the awful smelling gammel ost (literally “old cheese) housed in a glass cover to keep the pungent smell at bay.

And then Akaroa in all its French quaintness invited us in.   We stayed with an old sailing friend who had restored a French Colonial historic home to former glory and planted hundreds of roses.  Each bathroom basin adorned with a freshly picked rose, themed bedrooms and, dare I say it, European, exotic… our Norwegian friends were delighted and so were we, but we had hoped for a small colonial cottage with no frills, or at the very least, a Spartan L-shaped motel with candlewick bedspreads.

Dinner was yet another taste-bud extravaganza on the waterfront with a roaring fire and endless good wine and food.  It wasn’t that we really minded, it was just we wanted them to know how bad it had been – and we had hoped to find some remnant…some shreds of evidence of a former civilization when the pubs closed at six pm, and people ate our for the first time on their twenty-first birthday at the local hotel…where the menu might have said roast lamb, or roast something…when dessert might have been Pavlova and when the best wine might well have been a very sweet German Riesling (even a green Nun would have done).

Breakfast at our B & B (no over-fried bacon and rubbery eggs) was fresh salmon or poached eggs with hollandaise…and yet another rose.

And so, we hoped and prayed that our favourite South Island town Kaikoura would not let us down.   It was November and it snowed, and the sun shone and we rocketed from almost sub-zero temperatures to almost mid summer.    We booked the White Morph, determined to give our Norwegian friends a truly memorable and authentically New Zealand experience but instead of authentic Kaikoura old-style crayfish in newspaper from Nin’s roadside bin …we were in for another gourmet treat, courtesy of the White Morph’s new chef.      We were thwarted once again and our friends were now convinced that we had been keeping New Zealands’s fine cuisine and amazing wines a secret for thirty-odd years.  The roadside cray bins weren’t selling crays that day…it seemed their catch had all gone to the restaurants.

We tried to explain about the New Zealand roast, the Cona coffee, the lamingtons and the pies…but they didn’t believe us…  They left New Zealand promising to return…but not for the scenery…  they had vineyards in their sights, and they hadn’t tasted our oysters or scallops yet…

It was weird to think how sophisticated Norway had seemed back then and to see now, how sophisticated and “European” New Zealand had become. How exciting it had been to pour European wines and eat from the smörgåsbord for breakfast and lunch.  Pickled herrings, smoked and hung and dried meats, and at lunch-time after skiing in the morning, a Pilsner.   And, now New Zealand was afloat with boutique breweries and we couldn’t even extol the virtues of Pilsner, or their extra strong (with a health warning) Christmas beer Jule øl .

We laughed about the fried egg joke – which was the meal that any good hotelier in Norway would place on the bar while you drank your beer (the law said you had to eat when you drank)…and then put away again, uneaten, for the next guest.   Of course with our six o’clock swill still a recent memory, we hadn’t thought too much about this.   But, now our friends from Norway were astonished, and delighted that we could take wine with a picnic to the Botanical Gardens in Wellington and enjoy the summer evening concerts without getting arrested.

Norway doesn’t even make wine (not unless you count the rosé, that we used to drink made from old jams at Easter time by Bestemor (Grandma) at the hotel we worked at – it kicked a fair punch indeed, was a gorgeous colour and texture, but hardly Ata Rangi), and in thirty years, we’ve gone from Villa Maria Rejoa by the flagon, to prize-winning Pinot Noir from Otago; from Velutto Rosso in a cardboard box (not bad in mulled wine), to endless choices in a bottle… from corks to screw tops.

It was odd, but I still hoped we’d find a little café with over-brewed coffee, sausage rolls, and prize of all prizes, a carefully cut, lovingly filled, slightly soggy, cheese and pineapple club sandwich.

Tolstoy and the Chambermaid

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Tolstoy and the Chambermaid

Forty years ago, I was the chambermaid reading War and Peace in the beautiful Haukeli Mountains in Telemark, Norway.  It’s quite a big book really, and the reason I became absorbed was two-fold.   First of all, I couldn’t speak Norwegian very well, and the book became my companion on my work breaks, something to engage in when I couldn’t hold a conversation.    Secondly, I had purchased a number of literary classics on my classic Kiwi “OE “ while living and working in London, Newcastle, Manchester, and Edinburgh –  as part of my literary self-education.  Now here I was in Norge reading Tolstoy surrounded by snow, metres deep on the sides of the road … the perfect setting.   Even you might say, as close to Russia as a Kiwi girl could imagine being at that time in my life.    A couple of years later, I was on a train in Finland that stopped right on the Russian Finnish border and we (my now husband and I) were arrested for taking photographs as we walked towards the Russian border.   And that is still as close as I have been, but I do dream one day of actually getting there.

I fell in love with Vagslid, a most enchanting area which includes the Vagslid Vatn (lake) and beautiful mountains.   I learned to ski here, at first unable to even stand on skis on the flat, and then eventually able to set off alone, to traverse the frozen and snow-covered lake, to climb and ski to places with magical names like Fossen, Langasae, Åmlinuten.        I was a chambermaid and a waitress and Norway was newly rich.   I knew very little about waiting tables but I knew how to make hospital corners when making beds.  I’d learned this the previous winter in Edinburgh working at the North British Hotel during the Edinburgh festival.   But I didn’t need to know so much about hospital corners in Norway, as they had duvet (dyne) bedding which back then was quite a novelty for me.   My Norwegian language skills developed in an ad-hoc way with quite a lot of Danish imellem (in-between).   The wife of the manager of the hotel was Danish and many of the young women who worked alongside of me were also Danish – I assumed we were all talking Norwegian! My very first Norwegian phrase that I learned to say off by heart,  was Vil du være så snill å våkne meg i morgen which translates as “Would you be so kind as to wake me in the morning” (travelling as I was sans alarm clock and possibly back then, sans watch).

I plan some day to re-read War and Peace because it is such a long time since the first reading in my very early 20’s.  I’m sure that a re-reading will reward.  My hope is that I am en-route to Russia when I do this so that I can inhabit not only the pages but the real landscape.     I’ve just been reading a book to review which is based in my favourite city, Wellington.   Someone I was talking to recently, said that they love Wellington because you are constantly in touch with and aware of the elements.  The book that I was reading milked all of these elements for atmosphere and to convey somehow the mental collapse of one of the characters.  I liked the weather, perhaps even more than I liked the characters in the book.  But it struck me that as readers we inhabit so many physical landscapes in our imagination and when we encounter a landscape we know, it is doubly exciting, if done well.

Here is a recent photo of the snow at Vagslid where I spent three winters and one summer, the first winter by myself and the next two winters and one summer with John.   We have some terrific photos of our own, but mostly they are old-fashioned slides which we need to convert.

Together our greatest skiing triumph was the return trip through mostly virgin snow from Vagslid to Saesnuten and back (if I recall correctly approximately a 40 kilometre round trip). Here is a poem I wrote inspired by Vagslid.

Cross Country

From Hogmanay to Hauklisetter
the Telemark Waters once liquid
solidify
I learned to ski, instead
of love
Carol King’s earth moved
Under my feet, the frozen
possibilities
assumed a shape, snow on
ice, ice on water
Boats upturned lay lost
til summer
Fossen was a destination
and destiny
a frozen fragment
I followed reindeer
tracks, when I
might have followed you

And here is, a photograph of my battered copy of ‘War and Peace’ a Christmas present to myself as you will see from the inscription I have written, in Edinburgh, Christmas, 1972.

This was my very first Christmas without family, and as I seem to recall, without flat-mates either, as I think they’d all escaped back to the Scottish Highlands or Europe for the festive season.

Tolstoy was my consolation and he travelled with me to Norway.   Thinking of War and Peace I was reminded of the amazing spirit of the Norwegian  people recently when they gathered in Youngstorget Square, 40,000 of them, to sing ‘Children of the Rainbow’ to celebrate multiculturalism in defiance of Anders Behring Breivik.

Learning to sing

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There is something quite extraordinary about discovering your voice.    Although…  to be fair, my journey of discovery has only just begun.   For years I have sung my heart out, but always with the knowledge that I was out of tune, “flat”, unable to match pitch.     I didn’t know it was called matching pitch, until last weekend.     I didn’t even know what a major scale was … perhaps it is no wonder I couldn’t always match pitch.

Well, what joy I had at the Reclaim your Voice workshop with the help of Nikki Berry and Gary Easterbrook, and seventeen other extraordinarily courageous women over a weekend at Turnbull House in Wellington.    We were warned on the Friday night that it would be an interesting journey and that perhaps there would be tears.   Well, I thought to myself, tears there may be, but not from me, because I don’t do ‘crying in public’ unless of course, it is a funeral.   And this was no funeral.  I had booked to reclaim my voice.   I’d been assured that this was definitely a workshop for people who couldn’t sing and not as happened when I tried to learn French and the people in the Beginners class all turned out to have studied French at school, or university.

As it turned out, some of the people in my singing workshop, actually sing in choirs, and on hearing this during the obligatory personal introductions, I felt the terror rising.    But, it turned out we all had a level of terror, even the most beautiful of our voices was constrained by some inner critic, childhood memory, grief, or embarrassment.   I was quite shocked to hear women who to me sang like nightingales, who didn’t believe they could sing.   At least my terror was somewhat more warranted.   But then too, some of my own fears were manufactured, as it turned out to my great surprise and delight, on the first round, solo, I matched pitch.  I got the thumbs up from Nikki.   I was taken aback, but found very quickly that Nikki Berry doesn’t do thumbs up when it’s not warranted.

Over and over, throughout the weekend, we sang solo in front of strangers, who became friends, shed tears (sobs sometimes), as our voices emerged, tested new styles and we sang, belt, twang, sob, falsetto… mostly new terms to me but the sounds were amazing.    People surprised themselves first and then the rest of us.  I was filled with admiration for the women who took courage in hand and wanted more, even when their voices sounded beautiful to me, they wanted more.    They stood alone in the room, encouraged by Nikki, took risks and we applauded with our laughter, and often our tears of joy for their achievement.

Don’t go away.   This isn’t therapy.   Hubby was puzzled when I told him how much I had cried.   He enquired was it singing lessons I had enrolled for?    Yes, before this weekend, I might too have looked a little askance at someone telling me how much they had cried learning to sing.     Well, as it turns out, laughing and crying are a great start for the vocal folds, and once you’ve released all that air and emotion, something beautiful happens (eventually, and after a few false starts and horrible noises), music happens, clarity occurs, voices surprise their owners.

I thought about what happened over the weekend, and it reminded me of skiing.  I learned to ski as a young adult in Norway  on a working holiday in the early seventies, in the Haukeli Mountains on what was then called the E.76 highway between Oslo and Bergen at the Vagslid Høgfjellshotell .   I had no fear of failure back then because I was so excited to have this opportunity.   Falling was just part of skiing and the snow was metres deep and the world was at my feet.    Then I returned to New Zealand and had a family in the late seventies and began learning downhill skiing, so very different from cross-country.   My fears began, I didn’t want to fall, my technique was wrong, and I was self-conscious.   My progress at downhill was so much slower than my first foray into skiing as a young woman on her OE, unencumbered by expectations and fear of failure.

But too, something else about skiing and singing…  If you’ve ever been on a crowded ski field and stopped to listen, you will know what I mean.  People don’t compete (perhaps some do), but the average family skier is just so thrilled to make it down the hill trying out a few new turns, tackling a slightly trickier track.   Over and over you hear people saying ‘did you see me’…. with joy, as much as pride… did you see me … they’re not looking at the other skiers, they’re so excited at their own unexpected progress and their families and friends are happy to applaud, agree, be delighted with and for them.

It felt like skiing a little, when I learned to sing this weekend.   Everyone seemed as happy for me as I was for me, when I sang on one note, then two notes, oh my goodness, I can sing on five notes… we were all engaged with each other and our progress was not in comparison to one other, but simply about each person’s individual progress, in comparison to their expectations (whether just meeting them, or going beyond).

Turnbull House in Wellington, lends itself to the intimacy needed for this sort of workshop.  It was here, back in the late nineties that I read my very first poem in public.  I’d just finished the undergraduate Poetry Course run by Greg O’Brien at Victoria University, and our class was invited by the Poetry Society to read.   I turned up with my whanau (husband and two sons), and the rest of my class just turned up and I recall one of my sons, who is now a builder, told me that he endured the boredom of the poetry readings by counting the ceiling panels or some such detail.  It seemed fitting that my first solo public singing, was also within these walls.

And so, I am writing to thank the extraordinary women who shared my singing journey this weekend, for their tears, for their laughter, for their courage, for their beautiful voices.   Of course, none of this could have occurred without the insightful, grounded, guidance of Nikki Berry, a talented teacher and singer.   Nikki generated an environment that was completely safe for all emotions and enabled us to take risks with our voices and our hearts.    I felt at times for Gary (the only male) who so expertly accompanied us on guitar and piano, exposed to so much joy and grief and laughter among so many women, but he didn’t seem to mind.   Evidently there are usually men too in these singing groups but for some reason, our group was all women.   Maybe this allowed more emotion, who’s to say, but it is true, that the emotions propelled the singing and made our journey all the more valuable.

If like me, you think (or know) you can’t sing, take a risk, enroll in one of these workshops and be surprised.    Oh I won’t kid you, I’m still singing out of tune, but now I know how to find that voice, how to match pitch and I am practising.  I have a song to sing to my granddaughter, and it goes like this.

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