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Moments in ArtAlong Our Questing Paths, Part 3
by Lawrence Jeppson
Arctic blackout, millions of bones, trapped in a walled cemetery at night!
Add to these the celebrated Basel Art Fair, art discoveries in Copenhagen and Oslo, marooned north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden: there was no end to adventures for my artist daughter and me as we roamed Europe for more than two months on our Eurail passes, beginning with the weeks we spent with Fantasy Artist James Christensen and a group of art students.
We traveled with no advance reservations (except for first-class Eurail tickets, which usually were secured at the last moment). After our sour taste in Vienna, we used Europe on $20 a Day and Visitor’s Bureaus to find acceptable places to stay, often in private homes. In Basel it was in university facilities that were unoccupied by students during the summer.
After Vienna, we stopped in Salzburg and took a daytime picnic trip that crossed back into Bavaria, where we visited the Sound of Music setting before going on to Munich, where I looked for more paintings by Paul Brill (see last week).
At the time, the Basel Art Fair was the most important annual commercial art fair in the world. Subsequently, other important fairs blossomed — in Madrid, Maestricht, New York, and so on. As we wandered the vendor booths we were impressed by the diversity and energy of the offerings.
My previous visits to Copenhagen had come when the Tivoli was closed. This time it was in full swing. It is one of the most delightful places I have every enjoyed — a kaleidoscope of entertainment, performances, craft shops, restaurant, and lights.
But the eye openers in Copenhagen, Oslo, and Stockholm were the discoveries of the great Scandinavian Impressionist painters: Peder Severin Kroyer, Anna Ancher, Harriet Backer, Karl Larsson, Anders Zorn. In Oslo the unforgettable excitements were the Edvard Munch Museum and the park filled with the statuary of Gustav Vigeland (not to mention the Kon Tiki Museum).
Munch left the bulk of his work to the state, and the Munch Museum is justly famous for the boggling collection. The museum itself is a work of art. The skills of the Norwegian craftsmen who built stave churches and Viking longboats are manifest again in the beautiful wood interiors of the building.
Vigeland’s statuary, more than 200 works in bronze, granite, and wrought iron, stand in the largest park in the world dedicated to a single artist. They depict all aspects of human life. When I first saw them in 1951, I was a little put off by all the unclothed figures, but my tastes changed, and when I saw them 30 years later with Anne and then again in 2000, my unease had changed to admiration.
We wanted to see the midnight sun. We could get to Narvik, 140 miles north of the Arctic Circle, on our Eurail passes. The train itself went only as far as the town of Bodo on the Arctic Circle. As we traveled north towards Bodo, we watched the trees get smaller and tried to sleep while the Norwegians stayed up all night partying, since the night never darkened. At Bodo we boarded a bus for Narvik on a route that required several fjord crossings by boat and took most of the day.
During World War II, the British captured Narvik but had to withdraw when France fell and Dunkirk was evacuated. The British Commandos raided various places in Norway 12 times, including a raid that destroyed a heavy-water plant the Nazis needed in their attempt to develop an atom bomb.
Our reason for going to Narvik was to see the midnight sun. The weather was so rainy and overcast that we could not see the sun, not during the daytime, not during the night. For us, it was the great Arctic grayout.
We could not get tickets to return the way we had come! The only way out of Narvik was to take a train to Kiruna, Sweden, the heartland of Swedish iron ore deposits, and then take a Swedish train for the thousand-mile ride to Stockholm. Because of an offshoot of the Gulf Stream, Narvik was an ice-free port, which the Swedes needed and developed to ship Kiruna ore; hence the Narvik-Kiruna rail connection.
Anne and I were still far north of the Arctic Circle as we waited several hours for the Stockholm train. We walked the small town and bought reindeer meat for sandwiches and crisp granny smith apples from Argentina!
Stockholm, another stay in Copenhagen, and then our second stay in Paris.
My friends Nat and Paule Leeb owned an apartment that he used as his painting studio. It had a primitive kitchen, tiny baths, and two bedrooms. It was near park Montsouris, where Anne made sketches of an in-park café.
We had a convenient place to stay not far from the Metro/Railway Station Denfert Rochereau, where once a month guides lead tourists through the Paris Catacombs. “Denfert” is a corruption of the French words “barrier from hell.”
The catacombs are a municipal ossuary built underground in caverns and tunnels which once were stone mines for above-ground buildings and bridges. At various times Paris cemeteries were emptied, and the remains of about six million people were stacked in the underground rooms. Some rooms are packed high and deep with nothing but skulls. To put it mildly, a visit is a macabre experience.
A sunnier location is the walled Montparnasse Cemetery. This was also within walking distance. Many distinguished people are buried there, and a list of them and where their graves are located can be obtained from the sexton.
After a long afternoon sketching in a children’s park near the Bois de Boulogne, Anne decided she’d like to sketch things in the cemetery. I left her and went back to the apartment. Although we were no longer in Scandinavia, France is still so far north that mid-summer daylight lasts a long time.
Anne did not know that the cemetery’s closing time had come and all the gates and doors had been closed. She was locked inside!
The prospect of wandering all night in a cemetery or maybe napping beside a tombstone was not appealing. Eventually she found a watchman, who smiled and let her out.
After Paris we took a hovercraft to England for our second stay in London and our plane back home.
In two months and a week we had visited lots of places and seen lots of art. After returning home Anne turned many of her sketches into watercolors. It was an enriching experience for both of us.
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