Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Playful Wind.


Many creative people do their best work when collaborating within a circle of likeminded friends. Experimenting together and challenging one another, they develop the courage to create things they would not have otherwise created. Out of their discussions they develop a new, shared vision that guides their work even when they work alone. If it were not for my friendship with Bartosz Kowalski - a young, hugely talented Polish composer, I would have never dared to create poems in English. Thanks to his encouragement and a subtle push I did venture to write my first English poems. I used to write lyrics in my native language which is Polish but did not feel confident and competent enough to create poetry in Shakespeare's language! Bartosz suggested that I should give it a try one day, because he would be happy to translate my poem in English to a choir song. He commissioned me to write some poems in English and I took a chance. Listening to "The Playful Wind" sung by a choir made writing the poem all worthwile. When I listened to the choir rendition of my poem for the first time I felt really proud and elated. I thought - It is me who wrote the words - I am a lyricist ;-).
I like surrounding myself with creatives. They help us to unleash our own creativity!

Bartosz Kowalski, a graduate in composition from Chopin University, Warsaw, composes in a variety of genres, including both sacred and secular choral music, instrumental music, film music. The Playful Wind  is a colourfully dynamic setting of Dora Lorenc's poem "To the Playful Wind" - about 6 minutes' duration and was premiered in October 2015 and is eager to be performed again.

The composer is more than happy to make arrangements for other forces on demand.

Composer's website:

Composer: Bartosz Kowalski
Lyrics: Dora Lorenc

Warsaw University of Technology Academic Choir
Conductor: Justyna Pakulak
Solo: Katarzyna Piątkowska
15th Anniversary of Choir Concert in Warsaw Philharmonic (28.10.2015)

Sunday, 13 September 2015

How my solo travel to Amsterdam changed me: on contemporary art and Stendhal syndrome (2)

Have you ever heard of Stendhal syndrome? I was not even aware that such syndrome had existed until my memorable visit to Van Gogh Museum. I obviously knew that Stendhal was the famous 19th-century French author so the word and the name did ring a bell to me, but getting to know that a syndrome and psychosomatic illness is named after him really surprised me. Well, well I have another reason to never underestimate educational value of traveling!
So what exactly Stendhal Syndrome is? It is a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art in a single place. 

Although there are many descriptions of people becoming dizzy and fainting while looking at Florentine art, dating from the early 19th century on, the syndrome was only named in 1979, when it was described by Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini. Looking at great art, according to Magherini, can be bad for your mental health. But it was Stendhal after whom the illness was named. After visiting the Basilica of Santa Croce  in Florence and seeing Giotto's frescoes for the first time, Stendhal was overwhelmed by emotions and wrote that he "had palpitations of the heart" and "walked with the fear of falling". 

According to Magherini this psychosomatic, aesthetic reaction to the wonders of the world and beauty of art does not affect everyone the same. He claimed that after a few minutes of looking at a masterpiece, the typical tourist can put the wonders of the world in their place and flee towards comfort zones. Others have a mental immunity, "always remaining rational" despite aesthetic delights. He argued that there are those who can succumb to a complex crisis when faced with the beauty of Florence (he observed and described more than 100 similar cases among tourists and visitors in Florence). Magherini identifies these individuals as "sensitive and easily susceptible to emotions".

I am highly sensitive to beauty both in art and in nature. I often embark on quest of beauty: I travel, visit art galleries and museums. I consider myself an aesthete. As far as I can recollect I did experience certain symptoms akin to those described by Magherini on multiple occasions, especially when contemplating works of art in Louvre or The National Gallery in London. I remember feeling a bit dizzy while appreciating Botticelli's frescoes in Louvre (especially Three Graces) and my head felt as if it was not getting enough blood. In addition, I experienced increased heart rate and increased perspiration. I attributed these reactions to prolonged standing and visual stimulation however. I did not realize that I could have been experiencing Stendhal syndrome. Have you ever experienced intense psychosomatic illness while contemplating an artwork? Share your story!

If you happen to experience Stendhal Syndrome in Van Gogh Museum there is a special rescue remedy for you. You can shelter yourself in a wooden pavilion which offers treatment for this intriguing and elusive syndrome. Stendhal Syndrome Pavilion creates a space where visitors can seek retreat and solace, reflect meaningfully on the power of art and the fragility of human perception.


Being in Amsterdam on my own for five days was a rejuvenating feeling. The trip made me fall in love with myself, and it taught me lessons I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. To grow as individuals, we long to see different places and to experience new things, and solo traveling allows us to do just that. 

My solo trip made me realize that my "weaknesses" are just a part of my imagination. We all have certain things we think we are bad at. I often proclaim that I am worst at directions. I joke that I can get lost anywhere even in a box. But on my first day in Amsterdam, I walked 30 minutes throughout the entire town with only a paper map and no cell phone but with a smile plastered to my face. I took my time figuring out where I wanted to go, and when it was time to head back, I challenged myself to find my lovely, cosy hotel - Hotel Galerij. And guess what? It worked. I walked my way home from pure memory. At times, I questioned myself, but I stuck to my intuition. I arrived without anyone else’s help.

Taking a solo trip can really help you to understand who you are. Solo trip is the answer for self-discovery. And when you discover who you really are you will be free! Sounds liberating, doesn't it? If you want to transform yourself into something better, if you want to optimize your life, if you want to expand your world and stimulate your vision, you should embark on a solo journey. You will never regret it.  No matter the circumstances, you will figure out how you thrive and survive in certain situations. No matter the circumstances, you will figure out what makes you tick and bubble with excitement. The thing is, that we often censor ourselves or hesitate to do certain things because we are with other people. We often restrict ourselves, wear masks and conceal who we really are while being surrounded by people whose opinions we value. But when we are on our own, we have the freedom to do whatever we want. Who is there to judge us? 

I am pretty certain that if I hadn't gone to Amsterdam on my own, Van Gogh's unfinished painting would not have elicited such an unexpected emotional reaction from me (I would have to censor my emotions and reactions in company of my friends), I would have never visited Stedelijk Museum (I am pretty sure that none of my friends would be happy to pay 15€ in order to gaze at upturned chairs or Matisse's monumental, wall-filling cutouts). I am no art expert myself but I am highly attracted to different forms of artistic expression. I might say that Stedelijk was a bit of a novelty for me. It did open my eyes to a new world of art. When I first encountered the largest-ever retrospective of work by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) in Stedelijk I hadn't really seen much of modern art up close. My initiation into the world of abstract art took place some time ago in Tate Modern in London. But I went there with a friend whose bubbly predisposition and extroverted nature impeded severely my reception of and engagement with  contemporary artistic creations. 

So what happened in Stedelijk? Well, lots of things. Stedelijk redefined or even revolutionised my relationship with modern art. I can honestly admit that it was my first genuine interaction with abstract art in my life. I saw modern art UP CLOSE for the first time and it left a lasting impression on me. People say "Do not judge a book by its cover" and I will add: "Never judge abstract art if you haven't let it confront you yet". Understanding abstract art does not come naturally for everyone. It is the kind of art that leaves some people puzzled and makes them say: "Even I could could do that. Even my kid could do that too!". This is a kind of remark people say when they see prints or illustrations presenting examples of abstract art in books or magazines. I was equally puzzled when I browsed through a history of art coursebook many, many years ago and reached the final chapter devoted to abstract art. I remember thinking that contemporary artists sadly lacked drawing skills and a sense of beauty of the Old Masters (forgive me my ignorance my dear readers but I was an inexperienced teenager at that time). 

What I am trying to say now, is that you should not denigrate abstract art and dismiss it as some silly, meaningless scribbles and doodles unless you have experienced it and saw it UP CLOSE. I know that abstract art does not contain familiar objects, so there is not much to grasp or hold onto. This can be very confusing and even threatening.


   € 15
I am going to describe my experience of the artwork above now. Six huge canvases. White paint spread out and rubbed all over their surface. You may look at it and say that it is boring, monothematic, static, it bears no meaning. It does not have any beginning or any end. But you are looking at the tiny picture at the moment.  You can't experience the size, texture and real colour of these gigantic whitish creations. They will not speak to you through your computer screen. I stood in front of them for a while. It was very quiet in the gallery, very intimate. I gazed and gazed and after some time I started to experience all sorts of strange feelings: whiteness started to ooze and engulf me, I felt a sense of alienation combined with a feeling of emptiness and hollowness in depths of my being, then increasing fear and anxiety. Fear of what?  Was it fear of whiteness and sterility? These paintings made me think of the future world. They conjured images of futuristic sterile white laboratory in my head. Perfectly clean, with no bacteria. Hermetic and sound proofed like a capsule. Futuristic world. The unknown world. Uber-Civilized World. Uber-Technologized World. World of Science and Experimentation. And what the condition of humanity is going to be in such kind of world? Humans? Humanoids? Artificial Intelligence? How are they going to communicate? Will they feel isolated?

This seemingly nonsensical piece of art created a room for a silent dialogue with its viewer. It encouraged deep process of thinking and envisaging. And that's what abstract art is all about. It allows the spectator to decide what the artwork is about, on a very personal level. A large part of the beauty of abstract art is that we, viewers, can bring our own meaning and assign our own context to an artwork based on our associations, memories and unique emotional response. Abstract art is open to interpretation and speculation. It requires you to have an open, enquiring mind, you must confront and enter the painting and see where it takes you. This intensely personal process enriches a viewer's perspective and stimulates their imagination.

When you stand close to a painting so that you become spiritually immersed in the experience of colour different ideas and associations might suddenly and unexpectedly spring to your mind. Different colours radiate different frequencies and energies. In abstract paintings colours play vital role and invite the spectator to open their emotions to an intellectual and emotional kinship with art.  

Oscar Wilde wrote that "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all". I just thought I would borrow and change his aphorism to sum up my entry about abstract art: "There is no such thing as a well painted, or badly painted painting. Paintings either speak to your soul or not. They either stir your emotions or not. That is all". 


Sunday, 30 August 2015

How my solo travel to Amsterdam changed me: on happiness and determination (1)

Can a single travel abroad change us? Dora in Amsterdam - my first solo trip abroad entry tells you how wonderfully empowered I felt when I came back safely home and what makes Amsterdam an ideal pick for a female solo traveller. When I completed my first alone trip to Amsterdam I felt a sense of achievement and pride. My confidence has increased. The ability to be unencumbered by others, to see all the new places with my own eyes and at my own pace was so refreshening and liberating. I was not impeded and slowed down. I was perfectly free to do what I wanted.  My first solo trip abroad was one of the most enriching, character-and-confidence-building experiences I have ever had in my life.

When you travel on your own you have much more time to think, explore, make your little discoveries, reflect, contemplate and experience those amazingly illuminating 'aha' moments. Solo travel gives you a great deal of flexibility. You can observe and analyse things more carefully. Solo travel gives you time and mental space for introspection and self-analysis. I had many illuminating 'aha' moments along the way. I experienced them in various places, for example while strolling between plastinated specimens displayed in Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds Exhibition, while exploring The Van Gogh Museum and Stedelijk Museum,I experienced them in Anne Frank House or even during our relaxed guided walk around the Red Lights District. I learned many lessons during my journey: I discovered a recipe for happiness, I realized the importance of determination and perseverance in achieving one's goals and potential, I redefined my relationship with contemporary art and became familiar with Stendhal syndrome. My trip to Amsterdam taught me how to live a more meaningful, purposeful and happier life. It has also shown the significance of determination in our lives.


What is happiness and how to be happy?


If you want to find the answer to these two big and fundamental questions about the attainment of human happiness and fulfilment, book a trip to Amsterdam and head in the direction of Damrak 66 where BODY WORLDS: The Happiness Project is located. It's just two-minute walk from Amsterdam's Dam Square or a five-minute walk from Amsterdam Central Station, which is accessible by train, tram, metro and bus.

Body Worlds: The Happiness Project marks an entirely new chapter in the already impressive range of Body Worlds exhibitions.

Recipe for happiness

The exhibition tells the amazing story of our bodies and the influence that the emotional phenomenon of 'happiness' has on our health. The Happiness Project is a specially-developed interactive exhibition examining what happiness is, the science behind it, and its effects on both body and mind. 
What did I learn from the project? Well, lots of interesting, eye-opening things! I am going to share my little discoveries with you now. Firstly, the project made me redefine success and the concept of successful living. I think that most of us tend to correlate success with happiness. Many people pursue success as they believe that it will make them happy. But research suggests the opposite: happiness fuels success, not the other way around. When we are positive our brains are more motivated, engaged, creative, energetic, resilient and productive. But how to stay positive? What psychological vitamins should we take in order to be happy? Research shows that thriving and happiness occur when these three needs are met:

1) Autonomy: doing what you choose.
2) Competence: doing it well.
3) Relatedness: connecting with others. 

So to cut the long story short, if you want to be successful in your life you have to learn how to maintain enthusiastic and positive attitude in the first place. When you radiate positive and happy energy you are more likely to attract and achieve success.  You can achieve state of happiness through autonomy, competence and relatedness but also through movement and action. Our body is designed to move. A complex scaffolding of muscles and bones it allows us to achieve remarkable feats of coordination and balance. Movement and excersise prompt the release of endorphins - hormones secreted in the brain that reduce pain and increase happiness. Physically active people have greater feelings of enthusiasm and excitement. Due to its many positive effects, regular exercise is a fountain of youth and tonic for happiness. Tune your body as you would a fine instrument and see how far it takes you.
Happiness like every other emotional experience is the result of electrochemical reactions in the brain brought on by stimuli. Nerve impulses produce feelings and chemical substances (neurotransmitters and hormones) act as transmitters. According to research each person is born with the potential for happiness in their genes. The happiness marker or 'set point', the natural level of happiness to which each person returns even after failures and triumphs - varies from person to person.

50% of Genetics

Our ability to be happy depends at least by half on our established marker or 'set point'. 

40% Activities 

Our ability to change our lives through our actions contributes to happiness also as much as our genes. Amazing, isn't it? We can consciously shape our own state of happiness.
Progress on our goals makes us feel happier and more satisfied with life. Interestingly, positive emotions have the potential to motivate goal-directed behaviours and volitional processes that are necessary for further goal progress or attainment. The research literature also reveals that we experience the strongest positive emotional response when we make progress on our most difficult goals. It is important to have different goals and pursue them! So set a new goal and an action plan  today. Your new goal can be anything from learning a foreign language, starting a travel blog to taking classic ballet dance course or driving lessons. The list of goals to choose from is endless. Working towards achieving our goals is extremely rewarding. But attaining the goal itself fills us with a sense of pride and achievement. That's how our small personal achievements are created - through reaching our goals. Setting goals and achieving them should become a life-long habit. It has become a new habit for me. My new short-term goals are: solo trip to Bruges this autumn and Community Interpreting Course Level 3. I have just had a pre-screen conversation with the English & Community Interpreting Lecturer this morning and I have been offered an interview on Tuesday. Wish me good luck! If things go fine I start my Community Interpreting Course next Thursday. I feel enthusiastic, thrilled and excited. I feel happy!

10% Life Conditions

Our circumstances in life - financial, physical, marital, social - have only little impact on our happiness.

Happiness is rather a state of continuous pursuit. 

Our brains are genetically programmed to be sprouting nerve cell branches that create connections with one another. These connections form pathways. If we have the same experience several times our behaviour begins to form permanent patterns while unused pathways are gradually pruned away. Due to its make-up, the brain thrives on learning and loses its agility when performing only habitual and easy tasks. Therefore just as our bodies need regular exercises our brains require challenges. Happiness can be trained too by focusing on the happy side of life. Make focusing on the bright side of life your habit. 

As illustrated in the picture above, happiness follows a U-shaped curve during a person's lifetime. We are happier when young and old and least happy in middle age. 

We tend to blame ourselves if we haven't met our standards and we often feel regret about the roads not taken. Eventually, too many choices may make us unhappy, frustrated and even mentally paralysed. No matter our circumstances, having all areas of our life - family, work, health, friendship, leisure well-balanced, gives us satisfaction. When our life balance is out of kilter we may feel resentful, disappointed or burnt out, and our physical and psychological health may suffer. 




,“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. Genius will not. Education will not. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
Calvin Coolidge

I have always known that persistence and determination are the key factors in achieving one's potential and dreams. But my visit to Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam only confirmed and strenghtened my faith in the omnipotence of persistence and determination. Van Gogh has become my new role model and an inspiration. He was an indisputable genius, an extraordinarily gifted painter and an extremely driven and persistent individual. I was surprised to find out that Van Gogh discovered his true calling to paint at the age of 27. He consciously decided to train himself as an artist. He diligently studied instruction manuals and spent much time practicing. He taught himself the rudiments of perspective, anatomy, and colour. However, the lukewarm reactions to Potatoe Eaters made Van Gogh realise that he still had much to learn. Accordingly, he decided to take some lessons. He first studied for a short while at the art academy in Antwerp, and then in the studio of the painter Fernand Cormon in Paris. Van Gogh did nothing other than practice, practice and practice for an entire year. With singular feverishness and dedication, he studied and practised on his own. He read extensively on  theory of colours, their practical use and concepts of how they complement each other. He painted portraits inspired by the work of 17th-century masters. He studied the human body by drawing nudes, and copying classical sculptures. And by concentrating on still lifes he perfected his skills in painting techniques and in combining colours. He was very diligent, self-disciplined and determined. In just over a decade, he produced more than 2100 artworks, including 860 oil paintings and more than 1300 watercolors, drawings, sketches and prints. Producing so many paintings in the space of only ten years is a great testimony to Van Gogh's determination, commmitment and self-discipline. He managed to paint over one and a half painting a day! That's a torrent of creative activity! In addition to being a prolific painter, Van Gogh was also a very prolific epistolarian (a letter writer). He wrote about 820 letters to his brother Theo. Van Gogh was not only a master of painting but also a master of self-motivation. He was a man of immense persistance and determination - he wouldn't let any obstacle, hardship or setback block him from achieving his goals. Next time when I find myself in the grip of procrastination or indolence I will think of Van Gogh!

"If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced."
Vincent van Gogh (1853 - 1890)

 Genius redefined
Few words on the importance of being persistent

Van Gogh was an indisputable genius. It came as quite a surprise to me that Van Gogh did not start painting until he was 27! I have always thought that great artists were child prodigies and the moment they jumped out of their cradles they meddled with musical instruments or painting paraphenalia and produced extraordinary pieces of art. To me a genius was a person endowed with an innate and almost supernaturally superior ability, intellect and creativity. I think that many people tend to attribute phenomenal inventions or creations down to genius alone, while being completely unaware of the gut-wrenching effort an artist or inventor puts into developing their project or creating their work of art. I reckon that many of us share common misconceptions that our ability to excel depends on innate qulities. The case of Van Gogh challenged my preconceived notions about genius and showed me that genius takes effort and passion. Above all, it takes perserverance, commitment and hard work. Genius does not tolerate laziness. Thomas Edison is known to have worked up to 112 hours a week (that's 16 hours a day. He was a realist when it came to the process of invention, saying: "Invention is 2% inspiration and 98% perspiration." Great works of art, inventions and ideas are born of vision and relentless commitment to that vision.

"Life leaps like a geyser for those who drill through the rock of inertia." 
~ Alexis Carol, Nobel Prize Winner

 My visit to Van Gogh Museum made me realize one very important thing: talent is great if you have it but no amount of talent will take you to the stars if you don’t have determination and persistence to keep trying. Talent is just a raw material. It will be wasted if it is not explored and cultivated in a continuous and ruthless manner. "Talent without deliberate practice is latent" - that is the response of Geoff Colvin. I am going to buy and read Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World Class Performers From Everybody Else by Colvin (available on Amazon). It is a fascinating study of great achievers from Mozart to Tiger Woods. The author has brilliantly highlighted the fact that great effort equals great success.  

You can be an expert in your chosen field too. You can excel and leave the world in awe. Passion, commitment, hard work and persistence can take you anywhere you want.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

A gem within a gem: Venus Verticordia, 1868, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth

When I stumbled upon Russell-Cotes Museum and Art Gallery some time ago, I thought to myself: what a treasure, what a gem! The museum and gallery is a wonder itself and it contains many other, smaller wonders within its Victorian walls. One of them is Pre-Raphealite oil painting Venus Verticordia, 1864-1868, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I have always liked this painting. The first time I saw it in an art magazine it has captured my attention and imagination. I was captivated by its brilliance and vividness of color, the sitter's lush copper hair, full cherry-coloured lips and pensive yet somewhat wistful expression. And I knew from the very beginning, from the first time I laid my eyes on it, that there was something intriguing behind this painting - a mystery perhaps,a dark secret or a fascinating story. I did some research regarding the history of the painting as I wanted to know who the artist's sitter was. Her name was Alexa Wilding. She was an independent woman, a dressmaker, a seamstress, artist's model and muse, and latterly a landlady, who never married (WoW!). She became Rossetti's model and a silent witness to the most turbulent years in his bohemian life. I highly recommend a fascinating and a beautifully written novel A Curl of Copper and Pearl by Kirsty Stone Walker available on In her outstanding narrative and a magical evocation of Alexa Wilding's story, Walker charmingly mixes facts and fiction. Kirsty Walker fictionalises the life of Alice Wilding, whose beauty and mass of copper red hair led  Rossetti to  approach her in the street and request her to to sit for his painting.
Plucked from the street by the artist and taken completely aback by his offer, Alexa's life turned upside down. Rossetti transformed her life of drudgery and poverty into one of art and beauty.

"As his muse, she witnesses infidelity, madness, forgery, lust, theft and death. A Curl of Copper and Pearl is memoir of the lives of others in a world where truth is reliant on who is painting the picture". A Curl of Copper and Pearl, Kirsty Walker.

The gallery is full of paintings, mostly female portraits, but Venus Verticordia does stand out from the crowd and the moment you enter the gallery you can't take your eyes off her, like you are connected by an invisible cord and can't break free. She is mesmerizing. She will hold your attention as if you were under hypnosis, she will have you under her spell. She is a magnet painting, a magnet face. Her regal bearing makes her look like a queen. She is the queen of the gallery. She radiates so much sensuality and powerful female sexuality. She is Venus after all, goddess of love and 'turner of men's hearts'.She is a vision, madly beautiful vision

Stand in front of her, and you are aware that you are looking at something deeply contemplated. Every object is intimately described, every motif freighted with meaning. The viewer is drawn in by an uncertainty or a puzzle. She is shown with one of Cupid's arrows and the Apple of Discord awarded to her by Paris of Troy. There is a butterfly, a bird and a festoon of honesuckle flowers. Rossetti complained that buying fresh flowers daily to paint left him penniless. The honey suckle flowers were meant to represent the fleeting nature of love. The title of the painting refers to a quotation from the Roman poet Ovid. He describes one of Venus' attraibutes as being able to assist Roman women to turn their hearts towards virtue and modesty. This does seem contradictory for such a heavily sensual and sexual image, but perhaps it is a warning of the dangers of sexual obsession.

When I look at Alexa's portrait, I am not surprised that she turned Rossetti's head in the street. She was a Victorian stunner - tall and voluptuous, with distinctive lips and a mane of glorious red hair. Her long strong neck, her angular jaw, nose and cheekbones, and her flexible fingers established the androgynous appearance that would become the Pre-Raphaelite 'type'. Alexa became the archetype of Pre-Raphealite canon of beauty.

It took Rossetti four years to complete this painting, which is his only nude work in oils Originally, the model for Venus was a cook who worked in Chelsea. However, when the work failed to sell, Rossetti replaced her face with his new model - Alexa Wilding. 

 An x-ray of the painting taken in 2003 has shown that Rossetti used two, or possibly even three models for the painting. The first model was tall, striking woman who worked as a cook for neughbouring family. Rossetti met her in the street, where he found several of his models. Dissatisfied with this portrait, he painted over it using the face of Alexa Wilding. It is also possible that Fanny Cornforth modelled for this painting. 

'Venus Verticordia' was acquired by the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum via the Art Fund in 1945, and has been loaned for many contemporary exhibitions. These include two at Tate Britain, and other international venues including Germany, Holland, Italy, USA, the Canary Islands and Japan. The museum regularly receives loan requests from museums and galleries in the UK and abroad. Most of these requests have to be declined to allow the picture to be shown in its home gallery; to minimise the inevitable risks and deterioration caused by travel; and for other reasons, such as high insurance costs for borrowers. 

Monday, 24 August 2015

Hidden Bournemouth Gem - The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum

When you think of Bornemouth, the first thing that springs to your mind is the sea. Glorious sea, majestic cliffs, spectacular sandy beaches, charming white pier, grey squirrels running up and down the pine park,  a cheerful colorful balloon floating high up in the sky. Bornemouth is a fantastic playground for both children and adults: it is full of sunshine, life, vibrant colors, happiness and fun things to do. It smells with the sea and fish and chips.

I like Bornemouth. And so did Thomas Hardy. He liked Bornemouth enough to recommend it to his friends as a holiday place, and a "good place to winter in". It is described by Hardy thus:

"This fashionable watering-place, with its eastern and its western stations, its piers, its groves of pines, its promenades, and its covered gardens, a fairy place suddenly created by the stroke of a wand, and allowed to get a little dusty. An outlying eastern tract of the enormous Egdon Waste was close at hand, yet on the very verge of that tawny piece of antiquity such a glittering novelty as this pleasure city had chosen to spring up". 

Bornemouth was Hardy's "Sandbourne". In The Hand of Ethberta (1876) he describes the old wooden pier which was replaced by an iron pier in 1880, and it is in Sandbourne that Ethelberta's family have their last home, called "Firtop Villa". Tess in Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891) murders Alec in an imaginary boarding-house called "The Herons". Hardy was a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson who lived in Bornemouth, and on one visit he stood by the grave of Mary Shelley. 

Bornemouth has much more to offer than you might imagine. If you are an art and history lover you should definitely go up the East Cliff and visit one of the most fascinating museum-houses in England: Russell-Cotes. Sheltered in the bushes, sitting proudly on the top of the cliff, Rusell-Cotes Art Gallery is not an easy place to find. Its location makes it a bit secluded and thus getting there will fill you with a sense of thrill and achievement. The house is a great testimony to Victorian, imperial England. Carpeted with crimson, richly decorated, hung with beautiful works of art, the house is a delight to visitors' eyes. It is lavish, opulent, splendid and with a touch of fantasy. Moreover, the origins of the place are very romantic. On the 15th of 1901 July Sir Merton gave his wife Annie a dream house on a cliff-top, overlooking the sea. It was an extraordinary, extravagant birthday present. The date when Sir Merton presented East Cliff Hall to his wife as a gift on her birthday is significant, as it was the year that Queen Victoria died and makes it one of the latest Victorian buildings ever built.

"For many years I had it in mind that some day I would build a house after my own heart, as an offering of "love and affection" to my wife". (Merton Russell-Cotes writing in his autobiography Home and Abroad).
The house was begun in 1897 and was completed in its first form in 1901. It was designed by the architect John Frederick Fogerty, who moved to Bornemouth in the late 1880's. Nevertheless there can be no doubt that there was a great deal of input from Rusell-Coteses. After considering several designs, Sir Merton wrote, "I had made up my mind to construct it architecturally to combine the Renaissance with Italian and old Scottish baronial styles". 

Like many wealthy Victorians Sir Merton and Lady Annie travelled the world visiting many countries including Japan, Australia, New Zeland, Russia, America and Hawaii and used the house as a showcase for their growing collections. Many of the individual rooms were devoted to the places they visited such as The Mikado's Room based on their visit to Japan. 

In 1907 Sir Merton and Lady Annie Russell-Cotes announced that they were giving their home together with their collections of art and beautiful objects to the people of Bornemouth. They continued to live in the house which was oficially opened in 1909 with public admission on the first Wednsday of the month up until their deaths in 1920 and 1921.

The picture shows the authentic reconstruction of Annie's wedding dress. Turning the two dimensions into three was process requiring lots of patient and scrupulous research and informed guesswork, looking at garments in museums, early phootographs, fashion plates and other material culture resources for style and construction details. Annie's dress is typical for the day. It has a large skirt supported by a crinoline frame, a kind of steel-hooped petticoat trimmed with bold decoration. A corset underneath the bodice helps keep a small, neat waistline.

Although concepts of the 'traditional' wedding emerged during Victoria's reign, mostly women wore a dress they could incorporate into their wardrobes afterwards, often as a 'best outfit'. This practical requirement means that day, not evening styles were more popular. Annie's style of the dress show it is for day wear.

The picture above presents The Dining Room. Grand, isn't it? The Dining Room is one of the principal show rooms of the house and contains some of the finest paintings to be found in East CLiff Hall. The peacocks and fruit that decorate the coving were painted by John Thomas, the painter for the Roayl Bath Hotel. The room is a burgundy, traditional in dining rooms to show meat on the plate at its best. The inglenook fireplace and the ceiling owe their scheme to earlier English design which reflects the Russell-Coteses ambition to create a historic family seat in the style at least. Stained glass reveals the patriotism and imperialism of the Russell-Cotes and four of the panes depict Patron Saints of the British Union whils the panes in the bay window represents countries from the British Empire.

The decor of the house is deliciously sumptuous: rich colours, stained glass, luxurious wallpaper, painted ceilings, frescoes and patterned tiles. Rooms and collections are inspired not only by their extensive travels but also by their love of the theatre and the decorative arts.

The house is an awe-inspiring work of love.  Every room is a surprise and a delight, each possessing its own unique atmosphere and ambiance through the rich use of different colours, decor and artifacts. Some rooms have an oriental theme, others a more European feel. If you love Victoriana you will definitely be impressed by this. The Russell-Cotes Museum is an absolute gem and should be a must visit for anybody either living or visiting Bournemouth. It is full of fascinating items from all over the world and the art collections are superb.

Rich, opulent rooms in Russell-Cotess Villa illustrate how wonderful the drawing-room in Thrushcross Grange must have looked like:

"Both of us were able to look in by standing on the basement, and clinging to the ledge, and we saw—ah! it was beautiful—a splendid place carpeted with crimson, and crimson-covered chairs and tables, and a pure white ceiling bordered by gold, a shower of glass-drops hanging in silver chains from the centre, and shimmering with little soft tapers" (Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights).

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

10 things to do in Amsterdam

Despite its compact size, Amsterdam offers a plethora of fun things to see and do. The city is home to some of the world's finest art galleries, cultural sights and sublime buildings, there are bustling markets for those in search of street life, there is also a great choice of guided tours and canal cruises. I would like to help you to get the most from your stay in Amsterdam.

     I amsterdam sign in the Museumplein

Amsterdam and its split personality.

Amsterdam is a city of many faces: it is full of culture and history and full of oddities and quirks, some parts of it are quiet and have village atmosphere, others are loud and pulsing with life and promise of adventure and new experiences; it is a home to Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House, Rijksmuseum but also a home to Sex Museum, Hash Marijuana Hemp Museum (the only one in Europe to to chart the history of marijuana) and Red Lights District.  It is a city full of contrasts: its beauty and charm co-exist happily with a slightly seamy underside. 

10 things to do in Amsterdam:

1.Take a relaxed walk!
Amsterdam is a relatively small city. And as I have mentioned earlier, it reveals itself well on foot. Moreover, plenty of evidence suggest that being simply near to water makes people more content - so what better place to spend your leisure time than alongside a picturesque canal or Amstel river? I did lots of walking on my first day in Amsterdam, simply because I wanted to  immerse myself slowly and steadily in the city's unique atmosphere and architecture. Walking on the first day helped me to create a visual, intuitive map of the city and its landmarks in my mind. A pleasant walk took me past museums, tourist information centres, shops and numerous cafes. I lost myself in Prinsegracht - the most charming Amsterdam's canal, which is full of funky houseboats and little shops where you can buy many unconventional things. As I wondered along canals I admired the grace and elegance of waterside mansions and watched an array of boats floating by. The city's canals and waterways embody the very spirit of Amsterdam. They are spanned by many beautiful bridges. 

If you want to learn more about the city or just fancy some company, why not join Amsterdam walking tour? It is informative and educational. During 2,5 hour walk around historic centre you will be introduced to over 800 years of Amsterdam's history, culture and traditions. The tour will take you to Dam Square, the Bengijnhof and the Red Lights District. You will also have a chance to taste some typical Dutch delicacies: herring, cheese and genever. For more information about walking tours check out Keytours.

2. Taste the flavours of Amsterdam!Sample cheeses and soups!

Although the Netherlands does not enjoy the gastronomic reputation of France or Italy, the chances of finding delicious food at a reasonable price in Amsterdam are high. Dutch cuisine is simple and straightforward and contains many diary products. Holland is a dream destination for cheese lovers. There are hundreds of cute cheese shops in Amsterdam.

Any shop will be happy to let you try free samples before making a purchase. In front of every cheese there is usually a small plate with chopped pieces of cheese. Grab a toothpick and start sampling. There are many types of handmade Gouda cheese of different maturity. There is a great variety-aged cheese: smoked cheese, pesto cheese, Delft Blue cheese, Contadino cheese, Mustard cheese, Cumin cheese and many, many more!


WoW! I bet that all you can see now is CHEESE :-) Don't be surprised if you find deliciously melting slices of Gouda cheese even in your soup!The Dutch are great soup eaters, often featuring soup as a meal's main dish. Since they like cheese so much it is no wonder that one of the nation's most beloved dishes is cheese soup. Erwtensoep is also a popular soup in the Netherlands. It is a thick pea and smoked sausage soup, which is often served with bread and ham. Two soups which I strongly recommend are caramelised onion soup and cream mushroom soup.

 I became a huge fan of Dutch soups. They are thick, wholesome, hearty and wonderfully filling. As you burn lots of calories walking and exploring the city; a bowl of delicious, warm and creamy soup served with crusty rolls and garlic herb butter will recharge your energy levels for many hours to come.

Caramelised onion soup looks incredibly humble. However, richness of its flavour compensates humble looks.

Cow skin tapestries in La Colina - a lovely,tranquil, rustic, brown restaurant which serves the most delicious caramelised onion soup in the Netherlands.

Fancy something sweet? Amsterdam is brimming with mouth-watering delicacies, colourful delights and gorgeous desserts topped with fresh fruit.

Traditional Dutch cuisine may come across as simple, wholesome and hearty, but the variety of food on offer in the city is huge and influenced by culinary styles from across the globe. Holland was once a major colonial power and its trading ships brought back exotic ingredients, ideas and people from former colonies to settle. 

If you are up for exotic food you should go to the Floating Palace. It is the largest floating Chinese restaurant in Europe. This floating, enormous, pagoda-style restaurant is impressive and unforgettable sight on a dock, 5 minutes from Centraal Station. The huge menu offers Cantonese staples such as won ton soup, alongside more unusual Pekingese and Szechuan dishes.  

3. Delve into the history of the city at the Amsterdam Museum. 

Amsterdam has a rich history and this interesting and illuminating museum does it justice. A wealth of historical information is on display here. The museum  takes you on a journey starting from the Medieval Ages and going through the Age of Intolerance, The Golden Age, the Age of Industrialisation and then onto Amsterdam at War History to the present time. The museum has on display paintings, models, archaeological findings, photographs, but also less likely items such as a penny-farthing, a "white car" (environmentally-friendly vehicle from the 1960's), a dial-time recorder - a clocking device or a quirky specimen of obstetric model. 

Provo began in May 1965 in Amsterdam, as a protest movement of the young, of students and artists against the established order. I like the word Provo it sounds provocative to me.

Provo appealed to people's imagination with its journal, happenings and plans for free white bicycles, libertarian creches, a free sexuality and a new relation between individuals and authority. 
In 1966 it gained a seat on the city council. A year later it abolished itself. According to one of its founders, Provo was a name to conjure with, bewildering the authorities with its spectacular happenings. Like the peace movement, the women's movement (Dolte Mine) and the young left-wing Liberals of D'66, Provo with its dashing style left a mark on the Amsterdam of the 1960's.

No matter whether you are homosexual or straight, Bet van Beerem is a name worth remembering. Bet was one of Amsterdam's legendary café proprietors. Her Café  't Mandje was one of the first cafés where homosexual people did not have to conceal their predilection. Bet was a lesbian and 't Mandje became a favourite watering-hole for gays and lesbians. Bet discovered her taste for women at an early age. As the oldest daughter of a family of 12 from Amsterdam's Jordaan district, Bet van Beeren began working young. Café life was what appealed to her and in 1927 she took over 't Mandje café on Zeedijk.In her leather jacket she roamed through the city on her motorbike, sometimes with her latest flame riding pillion.
When Bet died in 1967 she was laid out for two days on the billboard table in her own cafe. 
Her sister Greet continued the business until life on the Zeedijk became impossible due to the heroin traffic. 

4. Rent a bike and get cycling.

Cycling is a quintessentially Dutch means of getting around Amsterdam so do as the locals do and experience Amsterdam by bike. This is certainly the fastest, most flexible and most fun way of getting around in Amsterdam. While cycling you can discover the city's many canals, museums, attractions and other famous sights at your own pace. By bicycle, you can reach places that would otherwise remain inaccessible. 

If you don't want to cycle on your own you can take a guided bike tour. These safe tours will give you a nice impression of Amsterdam's rich history and charming architecture. You will pass all the interesting spots, including the harbour, the Jordaan quarter, the Anne Frank house, the Western Church, the Rijksmuseum, the Vondelpark, the River Amstel, the Skinny Bridge, Rembrandt's house and the Red Light District. You will also see hidden parts of Amsterdam, with its tranquil small canals and quiet hidden courtyards. 

5. Visit Body Worlds Exhibition.

I strongly recommend a visit to Body Worlds. It is an exhibition of preserved human bodies and body parts that are prepared using a technique called plastination to reveal inner anatomical structures. The exhibition's developer and promoter is a German anatomist Gunther von Hagens who invented the plastination technique in the late 1970s at the University of Heildelberg (Wikipedia).

The museum will take you on a fascinating journey through the human body and its functions. For me the visit to the Body Worlds was an illuminating and eye-opening experience. Over 200 anatomical specimens of real human bodies reveal the complexity, resilience and vulnerability of the body. It was the best anatomy class I have ever had. The exhibition  teaches you respect for your body, it inspires sense of awe and wonder, it shows what a fine instrument your body is, it reveals a complex scaffolding of muscles and bones. We can look into the mirror and see our external appearance but Body Worlds also allows us to discover what lies beneath the skin: respiratory track (plastinated lung capillaries look incredibly  fantastical, they resemble ethereal coral reefs), digestive system, reproductive system and nervous system. Body Worlds is a must. The educational value of this exhibition is enormous. After a visit to this museum you will never look at your body in the same way.

The exhibition not only tells the story of our bodies but also of the influence that the emotional phenomenon of 'happines' has on our health. BODY WORLDS: The Happiness Project is a specially-developed interactive exhibition examining what happiness is, the science behind it, and its effects on both body and the mind. I am going to write about The Happiness Project in my next blog entry.

6. Visit the Rijksmuseum for Rembrandt and Vermeer paintings. 

A trip to Amsterdam would be incomplete without at least a single visit to Rijksmuseaum. I visited Rijksmuseum twice: on Tuesday afternoon and then on Wednesday evening. The museum is simply too vast to be seen in a single visit with its 80 galleries and more than 7,500 works of art and historical objects to see. It is famous for owning probably the best collection of Dutch art in the world. Click the link to check opening opening hours and prices.

Below Still Life with Cheese, by Floris Claes van Dijck (1575-1651). The illusion of reality is astounding, the pewter plate extending over the edge of the table seems close enough to touch. The Haarlem painter Floris van Dijck ranked among the pioneers of Dutch still-life painting.

The applied art and sculpture sections, and the Asiatic artifacts, are equally captivating. 

The picture below presents The Lombok Treasure. Indonesia, before 1894 (gold, silver, precious stones).
In 1894 Dutch troops captured the royal palace on the Indonesian island of Lombok. The native inhabitants had enlisted the help of the Netherlands, which used this as an excuse to further its colonial expansion. The troops took 230 kilograms of gold, 7000 of silver and countless gemstones as booty. The scorched coins and bracelets on display are silent witnesses of the atrocities of war. Most of the Lombok Treasure was returned to Indonesia in 1977.

If time is short, visit the Golden Age section, taking in Frans Hals, Vermeer and scores of other Old Masters, to arrive finally at Rembrandt's famous The Night Watch.

 Rembrandt's Nightwatch, 1642

The use of chiarascuro - a strong juxtaposition of light and shade allowed Rembrandt to achieve a dramatic intensification of action and mood. 

  Rembrandt's The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (1661-62)

7. Visit the Van Gogh Museum.

The Van Gogh Museum houses the world's largest collection of the Dutch painter's work, with almost 800 paintings and drawings along with the painter's own collection of glorious Japanese prints and an array of paintings by his contemporaries. It is a dazzling collection of Van Gogh's paintings and letters to his brother Theo, and you should allow at least 3-4 hours to take it in at leisure. 

It might be hard to believe but Van Gogh Museum struck an emotional chord with me.  It doesn't happen frequently, does it? It's not the kind of thing that normally happens to me; I mean, I don't usually get that whole "moved to tears in front of a work of art" reaction. Visiting Ann Frank's House was impressive and emotional too. It was somber, it was claustrophobic, it was thought-stealing. That's understandable. But Van Gogh Museum? Yes, indeed. I was deeply moved by Van Gogh's Tree Roots (1890) which is considered to be his unfinished and last painting. When you look at it, you see wilderness of twisted tree roots, trunks and leaves, all laid down on canvas with powerful brushstrokes. Left side of the painting looks dolefully bare and incomplete in comparison to the right side, as if the artist's hand was too weak and too depressed to finish it up with black lines and short brushstrokes. When I was looking at the painting I swallowed hard on a lump in my throat, I welled up and struggled to hold back my tears. I felt a deep sense of connection and sadness that I can't ever recall feeling in a museum or gallery. I imagined Van Gogh and his life's struggle, his unbearable mental pain and existential anguish, his isolation and his lingering and "withering" hand. Unfinished painting telegraphs such  a dramatic message of hopelessness and surrender. Capitulation of will, art and life. I went into deep mourning for Van Gogh in front of Tree Roots.
The museum has organized its material in a very comprehensive way: from Van Gogh's birth, childhood and adolescence (ground floor), through his journey as an aspiring artist who discovers his calling to paint at the age of 27 (first floor) and his  relentless and awe-inspiring effort to establish himself as a successful painter (second floor) to a series of mental breakdowns which open the final chapter of the great painter's legend (third floor).
We get to know Van Gogh not only through impressive display of his art but also through the clever combination of his biography, family pictures, stories, quotes directly from the artist, letters to his brother Theo and friends, a mix of videos and artifacts. This interactive, immersive experience makes us bond with the artist - during our visit to the museum we get insight into his deepest thoughts, fears and his unique world. We get to know him as an extremely sensitive individual, a gifted artist and a master of letter writing (his letters to his brother Theo are pure art). We befriend Van Gogh...I hope that my emotional reaction to Tree Roots is fully justified now. 

8.See great Dutch art at the Stedelijk Museum.

The Stedelijk Museum became the national museum of modern art in 1938, displaying works by artists such as Pisasso, Matisse, Mondriaan, Chagall and Cezanne. After years of planning and preparation, the renovated museum and its spectacular wing holds collections from present-day artists.

I am Curious, 1973
Bill Copley
Oil on canvas, acquired in 1973

 If you are fan of Henri Matisse art you should definitely go to the Steledelijk Museum. 

If you are a fan of Henri Matisse art you should definitely go to to the Stedelijk Museum.The Oasis Matisse is the largest-ever retrospective of work by Matisse (1869-1954) to be shown in the Netherlands. The exhibition traces the multi-faceted and inspiring development of Matisse's artistic practice from his early experiments to the dazzling cutouts of his final years. 

The exhibition comprises of two parts: 

Ground floor

This section of the exhibition features paintings, drawings and sculptures by Matisse in dialogue with works from Stedelijk Museum collection. Matisse's art is presented alongside works by Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso and others.

Top floor

Top floor presentation focuses on Matisse's monumental cutouts. In his later years, while confined to to his home by illness, Matisse developed a new and spectacular way to make art. With the help of assistants, he devoted himself to his cutouts. The first were the cutouts Polynesia and Oceania, inspired by memories of Tahiti, followed later by oases such as The Parakeet and The Mermaid and Memories of Oceania. These wall-filling cutouts are now at the heart of the second half of the exhibition.

  The Parakeet and The Mermaid, 1952-1953

"I have made myself a little garden around myself where I can walk" was Matisse's comment on this work.

9. Visit the Anne Frank Museum 

The Anne Frank House's museum is unique. It is the hiding place where Anne Frank wrote her diary during the Second World War. For two years during the war, the Frank and van Pels families, both Jewish, hid here until their betrayal to the Nazis. The 13 year-old Anne began her now-famous diary in July 1942. It gives a heartrending account of growing up under persecution, and of life in confinement and never-ending fear.
The museum is full of quotations from Anne's diary, original documents concerning the Frank family and photohraphs.There is a set route for visitors to follow through the museum. Visitors enter the annexe via the revolving bookcase that hid its entrance. The museum's rooms are now empty, except for the film-star pin-ups in Anne's room, and a model of annexe as it was during the occupation. 
Get here early or late in the day - with nearly one million visitors a year, the museum gets tremendously crowded.

The picture above illustrates massive crowds snaking around the museum. I waited three hours to enter the house. If you want to avoid waiting so long you'd better get there as early as possible ;-) 

 10. Take a canal cruise. 

The Amsterdam canal area is over 400 hundred years old and has recently been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Canal cruise is one of the best ways to discover its beauty. Admire the elegant merchant's houses that have lined the canals since the Golden Age, the decorated facades and gables beautiful churches, the iconic Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge), the VOC-ship, the docks and many more highlights. During the cruise a commentary is offered in several languages. 

There are lots of options to choose from. You can go for a small open-top boat cruise. Thanks to its diminutive size, the boat can access places that regular canal cruise boats can't. If you chose a small boat cruise you will boat down not only the wide Amstel river and the popular 17th century canal belt, but also the narrow canals of the Red Light District. Boats run on solar energy and are therefore environmentally friendly, clean and completely silent. You can listen to your captain's stories while taking pictures of beautiful vistas and the famous canal houses.

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