Name-dropping

There has long been a debate on whether knowing background information to a literary or artistic work or details about the creator’s life is useful or even essential to be able to appreciate and understand it fully. The same can be said about an unattributed piece. We can enjoy and be provoked, stimulated, satisfied by a book or painting, but knowing who it is by can alter our perspective of it, for better or worse. If the Mona Lisa in the Louvre turns out to be a forged replacement, as is very possible, it would certainly spoil many people’s enjoyment. This is an issue that has been treated by Arthur Danto in his theory of indiscernible counterparts. If you have two paintings that are identical in every way, it is obviously outside factors – the title, the artist’s (or artists’) purpose in executing them, and the dates on which they were produced – which enables us to distinguish between them. One thing is for certain: knowing who made a work can radically affect its market value.

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One person whose work always fetches robust prices is Björn Weckström (above). This Finnish designer, born in 1935, enjoys an international reputation for his creations, and quite rightly so. He has worked in many media, including silver, gold, marble, and glass. The artist tends to spend some months obsessively plunged in one medium before moving on to another one. His jewellery designs are very distinctive and I would categorize them by one word: seductive. They seduce because they flatter the wearer or spectator by their very organic purity and raw honesty. An example, from his gold phase, is below, a 14kt-gold cuff entitled Goldfire (image taken from here). It is crafted from gold ore mined in Lappland.

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Is this not beautiful? This cuff item does something mildly, almost imperceptibly, radical with gold. It distorts the normally smooth lines associated with the precious metal and endows it with a savage quality. This is very apt, since gold is not only completely natural -and we know nature is a savage mistress- but it is also a trope for greed, and ultimately, misery. Weckström has taken inspiration from mythology, astronomy, and above all his homeland. I’ve only been to Finland once, and then just within Helsinki, but the Finns have a very understated welcoming attitude coupled with a hint of the whimsical. Weckström’s enthusiasm for his profession is absolutely evident both from his work and from his site. He has led a very full life and has left a brilliant legacy.

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His international profile was radically enhanced by one of his pieces, a necklace, being worn by Princess Leia in the original Star Wars movie. The design is called Planetaariset Laaksot, or Planetary Valleys, making it a particularly apt choice for a science-fiction themed film. It was designed in 1969, so had been around for eight years before its cinematic debut. The jewellery company which made the necklace is Lapponia, which enjoys an iconic if not mythic status among collectors of jewellery for its select range and its collaboration with gifted designers such as Weckström. The designer himself didn’t know it was going be used on the big screen until he went to see the cult film of 1977 and was caught unawares.

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Today’s cufflinks are crafted from sterling silver and were acquired several months ago. I thought they reminded me of Weckström’s work, even though they weren’t advertized as such. It was only when I looked at the maker’s mark with an eyeglass that I discovered they were, in fact, created by him. They bear his signature and a Finnish date stamp of 1971, being part of a series entitled Seen in Mars. The reason why they were not recognized as Weckström’s work is because there is no mention of Lapponia on them, the company with which he has long been associated. However, they do bear the symbol of Lapponia, the name not yet having been chosen for the firm. The pair is worth at least 1,000% more than I paid, given who made them. It is not the fiscal value, however, that enhances my enjoyment of them but rather the knowledge that they were designed by such a passionate man. They are brutally beautiful and beautifully brutal and I particularly like the fact that the backs (the foot, in technical terms) is also patterned.

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The cufflinks are chunky, highly conspicuous, items that command attention and positively reward it. While they are rooted in the contours of a hibernal, glacial Finnish landscape, and therefore the present, they are equally, unequivocally, futuristic. They employ the crumpled folding technique that Scandinavian artists have perfected. Above all, I relish wearing these cufflinks as they sing aloud of the sheer joy of life.

Turquoise delight

The name of the colour turquoise comes from the stone that exemplifies it. The gem’s name, in turn, is a medieval English corruption of Turkish, since it was believed to originate in that country. In fact, turquoise is to be found all over the world and is part of the fabric of all of the great and minor cultures in the history of the planet. The range of hues of turquoise, both the colour and the stone, goes from greenish to blueish with the evocatively named celeste being the extreme blue shade and the equally pleasing pearl mystic turquoise marking the end of the greenish dominance. In the gemstone, the scale depends on the degree of copper present, which is why the colour suggests the patina of oxidized copper. It is a stone that does not belong to one region and is quite ecumenical in its scope with strong turquoise traditions among Native Americans, the Aztecs, the American Southwest, the ancient Egyptians (see, for example, the inclusion of turquoise in Tutankhamun’s death mask, below), the Middle East, China, and Europe. It is mined across the world, from Cornwall to Arizona and from Queensland to Chile.

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I’ve always found it a surprising choice for jewellery for two reasons. Firstly, the colour itself can be very attractive but often seems to just miss being garish. Secondly, the stone itself is somewhat fragile and can fracture. I’ll add to these two reasons that the market has been inundated with synthetic turquoise to the point that one is naturally suspicious of its authenticity. However, my own natural prejudices cannot get in the way of the fact that turquoise has a long pedigree of positive symbolism. Tibetan monks often carried it as it gently can change colour over time and it served as a reminder of the wheel of life. Some Native American tribes saw the shades of the sky and the sea in it and thus it represented life itself to them. These natural tropes together with its availability has meant that it has long been used in jewellery. My own favourite use of the gem is in tiaras. The photograph below is of the Persian tiara of Princess Margaret (Queen Elizabeth II’s late sister). The turquoise outshines the diamonds, even though these precious stones are vastly worth more, and the overall effect, somewhat paradoxically, is a natural one.  The Duchess of Cornwall often wears turquoise, including a tiara, and never fails to look stunning in it.

ImageIt is somewhat surprising, given its noble lineage, that there isn’t a particularly strong use of it in Christian art and architecture, with the exception of some Orthodox churches. It has perhaps been eclipsed by the deep blues obtained from lapis lazuli, long used in representations of Our Lady. Islamic art has a much more visible tradition of turquoise and it is often found on mosques, in both the interior and exterior, both the colour and the stone. A particularly striking example is the portal of the St Petersburg Mosque, a building completed in 1921, below. The Wilayah Mosque in Malaysia is crowned with twenty-three composite domes clad with turquoise mosaics. This traditional use is offset by the decidedly modern use of computerized pixel technique to achieve the pattern.

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One tradition attached to turquoise is that it should never be purchased but only received as a gift. This, incidentally, was also a norm that held for cufflinks; a gentleman was never supposed to buy his own pairs. Sometimes iconoclasm is not only a good thing but is also positively to be relished.

ImageToday’s cufflinks have three turquoise cabochons, rather appropriately for Trinity Sunday, set on sterling silver. They carry the maker’s mark of MLV and the three-eagles symbol denoting that they were made in Taxco, Mexico. While we don’t know the name of MLV, he or she is a recognized designer who was active in the 1940 and 1950s, and this pair looks like it dates from the 1950s. MLV loved working with turquoise as most of the pieces that bear this maker’s mark (brooches, wrist cuffs, and rings) incorporate the gem. Since it widely symbolizes healing and protection, turquoise is often associated with guardian angels. It is thus perhaps not a bad thing to have in our lives.

Viking revival

On 8 June, 793, the abbey of Lindisfarne, a beacon of learning and a bastion of Celtic spirituality, was brutally destroyed by a Viking incursion, thus marking the entrance of the Vikings onto the western stage. This event had profound shock waves that reverberate across time and have demonized the Vikings for centuries. The island of Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island because of the saints who were fostered there -notably St Aidan and St Cuthbert- housed the monastery until 875, which rebuilt itself following the first attack but whose community finally left after waves of successive raids over the decades. Many lives were lost, buildings destroyed, and treasures plundered during those eighty odd years of barbarian molestation, but the Lindsfarne Gospels, one of the world’s great treasures, survived them all, a symbol of the tenacity of truth amid the worst trials. It was following the last onslaught in 875 that the dispirited monks finally upped and left, taking with them the body of St Cuthbert. The relics of the saint were not to find rest until the end of the following century, when they would not be moved from a spot on which a church was erected and this was the foundation of the city of Durham, site of my alma mater.

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Holy Island, or Lindisfarne. Courtesy of http://nuoveidee.wordpress.com/

The ransacking of Lindisfarne was the beginnings of a campaign of expansion and colonialism that was to stretch over two centuries, yet what is absolutely astonishing about it is that the reasons for this aggressive Viking policy remain almost entirely mysterious. Some scholars have argued that it was because of the failure of Scandinavian agriculture, others have suggested that it was in response to the success of north-bound Christianization penetrating the southern parts of Scandinavia. If it was the latter, then there is a singular irony to be found in the fact that it was Christianity that was to neuter Viking expansionism in a definitive way; when the factions embraced Catholicism they had to renounce the practice of slavery while at the same time forge new alliances with their new co-religionists, both of which eliminated their modus operandi. While their attacks on monasteries such as Lindisfarne and Iona were for the purposes of pillaging precious items, the fact that the invaders had no real developed written system meant that it was their victims who were able to memorialize these events. The view in the photograph below was taken from my bedroom of the cottage my mother and I rented on the Isle of Iona last summer; she loved this island with all of her heart and was able to enjoy two weeks there not long before she passed. The sandy beach that is visible in the image is Martyrs’ Bay; in 806, sixty-eight monks were massacred on this stretch by Vikings after having fled the Abbey with relics, treasures, and, temporarily, their lives. Twelve centuries later, it is the violence of the Vikings that is remembered rather than any contribution to civilization.

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The extent of Viking ventures is astonishing, as evidenced in the plan below. They made forays into and settled in four continents, including North America with a settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows in present-day Newfoundland, five centuries before Columbus’s trip. My own theory about Viking growth is that they quite simply were looking for two things: sunshine and respectability. The search for warmer climes is what similarly led the British to seek other places outside of their moist island. I’ve always been struck by northern Scandinavians’ absolute fetishization of the sun during summer. Everyone is outside no matter how hot it is, and it is unthinkable to retreat into welcoming air-conditioned interiors. It is impossible to think of Ingmar Bergman’s version of a road movie, the exuberant Wild Strawberries (1957), as taking place during any other season than summer (you never forget your first kiss or your first Bergman movie; this was the first film I saw by the director). Cold, merciless, and dark winter days explain this pining for solar light and warmth. I’ve already blogged on the Vikings’ quest for external acceptance in connection with the Norman in this post.

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It is perhaps misleading to speak of any kind of Viking identity, since at no time did any of the Norse adventurers think of themselves as Vikings. The term derives from a Norse word, a feminine noun, denoting expedition overseas.  The proper noun began to be applied to them during more recent times, and during a period of romanticizing this short era of Norse misrule particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, finding its pinnacle in the operas of Richard Wagner. Nazi ideology would take up this Wagnerian glorification of the Vikings and use it to justify its aggressive and expansionist underpinnings.  A more realistic and fairer view of the Vikings, in the absence of their own literary voice, would be to feel some empathy towards their mass angst and identity crisis, a culture that was at a crossroads and whose form of invasive therapy has tainted it with a deeply negative brush. As I mentioned earlier, the destruction of the monastery that inaugurated their entry into history is a fitting one since the institution that they attacked would be the one to tame them. Mythology fuelled the Vikings and it would be destroyed without any mercy by the Church. At the same time, the attacks on the monasteries taught monks to be more resourceful, cunning, and tenacious than ever. It is generally recognized that Celtic monks preserved Western civilization after the fall of Rome and during the Dark Ages and the Vikings purified them for their greatest achievement in kick-starting the golden era of creativity during the Middle Ages.

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Today’s cufflinks are made by the Finnish designer Jorma Laine. He worked with many metals but is most famous for, and perhaps most gifted in, bronze, the metal out of which these cufflinks are fashioned. They are undated but are typical of pieces that he was producing in the very early 1970s. Laine, who died in 2002, often used a ludic and nostalgic aspect to his work, paying homage to the Viking roots of his nation.  The very virile yet non-threatening forms to be found in the brutalist design is gently warmed by the reassuring notes of the bronze base.  The pattern is very reminiscent of Viking artifacts. To me, these cufflinks represent an acknowledgment of the past while not necessarily playing up its excesses, and in this Laine shows himself to be a master craftsman.