Tuesday, December 23, 2008

My Top Fifty Highlights From Our Trip Through Europe and Egypt - Part One

50. I picked up a pack of Fluxx cards at the markets in Greenwich. What is Fluxx, you ask? It's a game in which the rules and goal of the game change depending on which cards are played. With five or six players, it becomes a convoluted frenzy. With just the two of us for most of the trip, it served to pass the time.

49. The dodos haven't been wiped off the face of the earth - there are a couple on display at the Natural History Museum in London. And they look every bit as dumb as you have been led to believe.

48. The two sweetest words in the Italian language and 'quattro formaggi' (four cheeses). Probably the only thing stopping me from ordering it wherever I went was a concern about my long-term health.

47. The Chateau de Versailles was the house of the royals at the time of the French Revolution. While the place itself is imposing enough, what makes it really memorable is the enormous estate on which it is situated. In an effort to escape the grandeur, Marie-Antoinette had a house erected on the estate that was aimed to return her to the simple life. She failed.

46. Walking through the streets of Paris and London re-inspired me to absorb the entire canon of European literature... but I only ended up reading 'Tristram Shandy' instead. The back of the Penguin edition of 'Shandy' (not the one I bought) describes author Laurence Sterne as being 250 years ahead of his time. The postmodern tropes are there - the meshing of disparate texts, the problems of language and narration, the frequent reflexivity - but it can be tiring to read, with Shandy the narrator taking his sweet time to get anywhere. An entertaining book, but one for which I found it best to skip chapters judiciously.

45. Rough Trade West in Notting Hill, London, is a cool little record store, albeit one that completely baffled me with its layout. A vinyl collector would have a great time in there, given its eclectic catalogue. As it was, I picked up a New Order disc, a compilation of early US punk tunes, and the new Bon Iver album (Rough Trade's #1 record of 2008).

44. The highlight of the Karnak Temple in Luxor, Egypt, is the Great Hypostyle Hall, which contains a forest of large stone columns, each with its own particular carvings. (As you may already be able to tell, 'large' is a major advantage when it comes to cracking my highlights list.)

43. The introduction of the euro has made one of the hassles of travelling through Europe - changing currencies every several hundred kilometres - considerably more bearable. Now if only the UK could get with the program...

42. The Valley of the Kings in Luxor is a smorgasboard of pharoahs' tombs, although the standard entry ticket only allows you to pick three of them. Each of the tombs we saw was quite different in its layout and design. My favourite was the one in which the rooms are connected by narrow, slanting shafts, and the walls were decorated with what seemed to be the antecedent of the comic strip.

41. We went to the Musee d'Orsay on our first full day in Paris, so by this stage all that is left to me are only impressions. I do remember seeing the Renoir painting that is on my mother's coasters, as well as the green-skinned Van Gogh portrait and a bunch of Monets, Cezannes and Pisarros. Perhaps I will see a reproduction in a cafe or dining room somewhere and it will jog my memory. For now, it's mainly a blend of bright green trees, washed-out streets, and petal-faced Parisians.

Monday, December 22, 2008

My Favourite Paintings From Our Trip Through Europe

10. Michelangelo Buonarotti - Holy Family

Most of the paintings of the Madonna and child had the baby Jesus planted firmly on Mary's knee, often surrounded by adoring onlookers. Only Michelangelo's Virgin seemed to be saying 'Here, go and annoy someone else for a while.'

9. Joseph Wright - An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump

A chilling portrait of the conflict between reason and emotion, science and nature - the old man sagely explains to the two young girls why the cockatoo is about to have the life sucked out of it, while the expressions of the rest of the party are a mixture of curiosity, excitement, and horror.

8. Georges-Pierre Seurat - Bathers At Asnieres

If I was sitting on Seurat's beach, I'd be thinking, 'Yeah, that's the good stuff.'

7. Jacques-Louis David - The Coronation of Napoleon

David's painting is so huge and life-like that you almost feel as if you are there, witnessing Napoleon's ego in all its splendour. As Lauren pointed out, the pope looks mightily 'pissed off' that Napoleon has gone and crowned himself.

6. Raphael Sanzio - The School of Athens

In the days before fantasy sports, Raphael had to content himself with creating an all-star line-up of Greek intellectuals. And as a true fanboy, he even painted himself in the corner.

5. Eugene Delacroix - Liberty Leading the People

My favourite painting from possibly my favourite painter. After seeing it in the Louvre I wanted to smash the windows, spray-paint the ceiling, and start flogging masterpieces left and right.

4. Sandro Botticelli - La Primevera

'The Birth Of Venus' is simply pretty, 'La Primevera' is both pretty and utterly confounding. Why are those three chicks dancing? What is on the cheek of the girl that is being chased? What the hell is Mercury doing there? It's like the product of some sort of free-associating, partly deranged imagination.

3. Nicolai Abildgaard - The Wounded Philoctetes

This is one guy you do not want to mess with.

2. Roy Lichtenstein - Whaam!

Lichenstein took an otherwise innocuous comic book panel and made it a high-impact image of mid-air conflict. More paintings should have sound effects, don't you think?

1. Theodore Gericault - The Raft of the Medusa

Welcome to hell... The waves are crashing, the sky is burning, and the doomed sailors are reaching for salvation. I first saw this image on the cover of The Pogues' album, 'Rum, Sodomy & The Lash' - the original version, sans Pogues' faces, is awesome.