The Wolf and the Watchman

Last night I headed to the Swedish Ambassador’s Residence (an absolutely exquisite Adam building), for a talk by Swedish author, Niklas Natt och Dag to celebrate the launch of the English language edition of his bestselling Swedish novel, 1793, called ‘The Wolf and the Watchman’ in English.

The book is set in 1793, the year after King Gustav III was famously assassinated. It tells the story of a watchman, living in a rough and gritty Stockholm, suffering after years of foreign wars, who discovers a body in a swamp and hands over the case to an investigator. The Swedish Academy of Crime Writers gave the book the award for best Crime Debut novel in 2017 even though Niklas Natt och Dag said in his talk that he had not in fact thought of the book as a crime novel. Barry Forshaw, the Nordic crime expert and commentator , was in the audience and commented that the book seemed to him a blend of Nordic Noir and serious historical fiction.

I was touched to hear Niklas Natt och Dag had been quite a solitary child and books for him were like companions, as he escaped into an imaginary world. Now as an adult, he has published his own novel providing companionship to others.

The author belongs to the oldest surviving noble family in Sweden dating back to the thirteenth century; his surname, Natt och Dag translates as Night and Day- the origin being his family crest, a shield split into gold and blue. He signed books after his talk and had a wax seal so everyone who took home a copy literally had a signed and sealed book.

The author signing copies of his book. A bust of Gustav III behind him

The Wolf and the Watchman is by all accounts is beautifully written. It is out in UK book shops today.

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Swedish Church Christmas Fair

It was the opening of the Swedish Church’s Christmas Fair on Wednesday night.  This is the start of the Christmas season for me, and I really enjoyed wandering around with a glass of warm glögg, chatting to familiar faces and picking up some Advent candles, Advent calendars and quite a few items of Swedish Christmas food.  Everything is beautifully displayed and the sales ladies wear the pretty traditional costumes from different regions in Sweden.  There are gorgeous hand-knitted items and beautiful woven textiles.

Fancy a tomte?

I went back again yesterday to meet some friends for lunch and have an open sandwich and a saffron bun and it was packed.  I imagine it will be even more packed at the weekend but there is a very warm, happy atmosphere and it is a great spot for Christmas gifts and decorations.  There are also lots of chidren’s books by Swedish favourite, Elsa Beskow- the illustrations are wonderful.

Crisp bread and ginger snaps

The Swedish Church Christmas Fair is open from 11am-7pm on Saturday and from 12-5pm on Sunday

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Rasmussen Auction

Went to the Danish Embassy in London for a talk on Scandinavian design combined with a viewing of highlights of Danish auction house, Rasmussen‘s autumn sale.  The talk was mainly about chairs (this may sound weird but the Danes are famous for their beautiful furniture design and Danish mid twentieth century furniture is now highly collectable); it is fascinating how the politics of the twentieth century influenced art- Sweden who had a Socialist government from the 1930s right up until 1976 were producing industrial produced furniture for the masses, Denmark by contrast were creating exquisite hand crafted chairs that were expensive but made to last.  Finland, independent from Russia since 1917, were creating wonderful free-flowing curved designs in their furniture (think of Alvaro Aalto).

Rasmussen had a few items of furniture and several paintings on display including quite a few abstract oil paintings by artists belonging to the Danish CoBrA movement founded after World War II.  I  however, leaned towards the earlier works particularly one beautiful eighteenth century drawing.  Maybe it will be a Christmas present to myself….

Finn Juel ‘Spade Chair’

 

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Copenhagen

I am just back from a couple of days visiting Copenhagen.  The weather was bleak and dreary; the skies the colour of Hammershøi’s paintings but the city was anything but dull.  I crammed in lots of art galleries revisiting the enchanting Hirschsprung Collection,  crammed with works by the Skagen painters, who, at the close of the nineteenth century, congregated at Skagen, on the tip of Jutland, the northern most point of continental Europe, creating an artists’ colony.  The painters went to Skagen for the exceptional light; it is worth visiting the Hirschsprung just to see the works of Peder Severin Krøyer who captures the light and beauty of the Skagen beaches exquisitely.

Peder Severin Krøyer, Boys bathing, sunshine, Skagen.

Another highlight was the David Collection, an elegant eighteenth century townhouse, formally the home of the prolific collector and wealthy and successful lawyer, Christian Ludvig David.  He began collecting Danish Golden Age paintings and branched out first to European porcelain and furniture and then Islamic art.  The Islamic Collection is world class and contains some exquisite jewellery and porcelain.  The highlight for me was a room devoted to the work of Denmarks arguably most famous painter, Vilhelm Hammershøi.  I love the calm quiet interiors, the clean lines and the soft grey palette that is so very northern.

I also visited the Renaissance Castle, Rosenborg- beautiful but dark, and I found the collection of Royal treasures slightly overwhelming.  The rooms were a chronology of the riches of Danish kings- I realised don’t know my Frederiks and Christians well enough.  Someone told me to read Rose Tremain’s novel, Music and Silence, to get a real feeling for the court of Christian IV.

I stayed in a relatively new hotel, 71, Nyhavn: a large warehouse that has been converted to a substantial sized hotel.  The service and food were good and the design sleek and minimal although I missed out on a room with a view. The harbour at Nyhavn is very pretty-lined with colourful eighteenth century houses, all now listed buildings.  Hans Christian Andersen lived at number 20.  The Nyhavn of today, is alive with restaurants, bars and stalls selling souvenirs, food and mulled wine: a delightful place to wander down.

Nyhavn

The Opera House, Copenhagen.

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Elmgreen and Dragset, Whitechapel Gallery

‘Wow did there used to be a public swimming pool here?’ my friend asked. A whiff of chlorine hit us as we entered the spacious white room with stained walls and tiled floors- an abandoned swimming pool stood before us, empty aside from bits of dust and debris. On the wall is a sign relating the history of the pool, beginning with its founding in 1901 thanks to generous funding from a Victorian philanthropist, through to its closing during Thatcher’s time and ultimately  its sale for ‘luxury redevelopment.’ The pool was apparently where David Hockney got the inspiration for his first drawings of swimming pools and it had even featured in a novel.  It all sounded fascinating (perhaps a little too fascinating).  Indeed it was all fiction.  The pool is the creation of Danish/Norwegian art duo, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, most well known in the UK for their sculpture of the Boy on the Rocking Horse for the forth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

The Whitechapel Pool

Their swimming pool, in common with many exhibits in the exhibition is a social commentary.  This is not the glamorous, inviting pool of Hockney’s work but a pool that used to be for the people but has been closed down and privatised.  Rising gentrification has led to a loss of public places of enjoyment and indeed general welfare.  Lying by the side of the pool is the abandoned carseat of a luxury car (the work is beautifully cast in bronze- it is very tactile and hard to believe that it is not covered in soft leather).

Pregnant White Maid, Aluminium, stainless steel, clothes.

Other works in the exhibition include a sculpture of a young boy staring at a gun and even more eerily one of a boy in school uniform sitting crouched by the fireplace; nearby stands a maid hands behind her back and heavily pregnant.  The viewer can weave a whole story here.  Not all is misery and sadness though-there are touches of humour throughout, notably in the double pair of Levi jeans and Calvin Klein underpants left hurriedly on the floor.  There is plenty to explore and think about here and the craftsmanship is highly skilled and beautiful.

This is How we Bite Our Tongue is at Whitechapel Art Gallery until 13th January 2019.

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ABBA Super Troupers

As an antidote to Bergman, I made a trip to the Southbank Centre to see the pop up exhibition, ABBA Super Troupers.  And so I entered a world of nostalgia for the 1970s,  when ABBA mania hit Britain, following the bands now famous win of the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton.

The exhibition takes you on an hours musical journey through the history of ABBA from their coming together to their break up; it is full of Abba memorabilia, costumes and recreations of 70s interiors including the hotel room where the band stayed during Eurovision and the flat full of packing boxes, that appeared in the video ‘One of Us’. There are clips of interviews with band members and a recreation of Abba’s Stockholm recording studio with an opportunity to try your hand at karaoke. Our guide was great- brimming with an infectious enthusiasm, and overall it was all a bit of kitsch fun.  Definitely one for the die-hard ABBA fans.

Abba Super Troupers runs at the Southbank Centre until 29th April.

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Fanny and Alexander, Old Vic

I was at the Old Vic last night to see the new stage production of Fanny and Alexander that opened last month.  Fanny and Alexander is probably Ingmar Bergman’s most well known and also most accessible film winning him the Academy Award for best foreign language film in 1984. I sometimes struggle with Bergman but I love Fanny and Alexander and the Christmas scene at the beginning is by far the most wonderful portrayal of a Swedish Christmas that I know (I watch it every Christmas).

I went to see the play with a slight sense of trepidation, not quite sure what British theatrical creatives would come up with in a stage adaptation.  But Stephen Beresford had   done a wonderful job with a clever balance of the funny and entertaining with the dark and cruel. The acting was in part excellent Penelope Wilton as Helena Ekdahl was a strong and humorous matriarch presiding over her complicated theatrical family and Kevin Doyle played the evil bishop with a chilling stillness.  I also enjoyed Michael Pennington’s performance as the endearing and kind ‘Uncle’ Isaak.

The production managed to feel sufficiently Swedish despite being acted in English; I was impressed with the singing of Sweden’s most well known drinking song, Helan går and the catchy Christmas song Nu är det Jul igen. Bergman’s film is a very hard act to follow but this play succeeded in capturing the powerful, funny and moving story of Fanny and Alexander to a degree that I, for one, was not expecting.  I talked to a member of the Old Vic’s staff after the performance and she mentioned that Pernilla Allwin, who played Fanny in the film, had been in to see the play and given it her firm seal of approval which I think says a lot.

Fanny and Alexander runs at the Old Vic until 14th April 2018.

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Gott Nytt År!

Happy New Year!  It feels as though this week everyone is getting fully back to work/ school and into a proper routine again.  I spent Christmas in Stockholm and it felt like proper Scandinavian Christmas with lots of candles, Swedish Christmas food such as home cured gravad lax, a variety of herrings and rice porridge and a visit from the Jultomte on Christmas Eve, the main day of celebration in Scandinavia.

Julbord starter!

We did lots of fun Christmassy things with the kids such as a visit to Skansen, the big open air animal park with historical houses and dwellings from different parts of Sweden. Skansen always has a big Christmas market selling food, textiles, decorations etc and an outdoor dance floor where you can dance round the Christmas tree.  It’s a magical place.

A new discovery for me on this visit to Stockholm from a children’s point of view was Nordiska Museum which has recently opened a new room, the Children’s Playhouse, where you basically step back in time to 1895.  There is a grocery store to shop in, a mill, a little farmhouse, period clothes to dress up and so on.  My kids had lots of fun running around, exploring and playing make believe.

Nordiska Museum, Stockholm

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Finnish Independence

Today Finland celebrate 100 years of independence; Finland was under Swedish governance for almost 700 years and then, following the Finnish War of 1809, was annexed to Russia as an autonomous Grand Duchy. The National Gallery in London are celebrating Finnish independence with a small exhibition, centred on one painting, Lake Keitele by Akseli Gallen-Kallela.  This morning I attended a talk by Anne Robbins, the exhibitions curator followed by a breakfast at the gallery hosted by Sotheby’s.

Gallen- Kallela, who worked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is Finland’s great national painter.  Lake Keitele, an exquisite oil depicting a lake in central Finland, is, surprisingly for a painting by an artist little known in Britain, one of the most popular paintings in the National Gallery (postcards are a bestseller in the shop)!  The serene landscape with its silvery criss cross lines lying across the water, a phenomenon in the Northern hemisphere caused by currents and wind movements (or perhaps the wake of the boat of Finnish folkloric hero, Väinömöinen), is beautifully painted.  It has here been assembled with three other versions of the same subject together with related works which bring the painting and its historical and cultural context very much to life.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela was a technically gifted painter, who travelled a great deal, but always returned to his native Finland. Stepping into this jewel of an exhibition is the closest you will get in London to experiencing the exquisite light of the North and the sheer beauty of the Finnish landscape.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lake Keitele, 1905, oil on canvas.

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Ett Hem, home from home

Had breakfast today at my absolute favourite hotel in Stockholm, the wonderful Ett Hem- a little gem hidden away on an unassuming street in the Lärkstaden area of Stockholm.  This twelve room hotel, which opened in 2012, is housed in an elegant red brick early twentieth century town house.  The design, by half Dane, Ilse Crawford, is exceptional, with every detail carefully thought through- modern and exciting Scandinavian lighting, Gottland sheepskins casually thrown over pretty wooden Arts and Crafts chairs, handspun rugs, gorgeous vases from leading Swedish design firm, Svenskt Tenn and engaging contemporary art.

Ett Hem

The staff are friendly and welcoming and the idea is is that you can relax on a sofa or armchair and have a glass of red wine or a cup of coffee and feel as though you were at home (an extremely elegant home).  The concept works and it is a really special place to stay- I can’t recommend it enough.

ETT HEM 1

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