Getting There - Aneel's Travelogue

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Technology and Art Riga, Latvia, Thursday, 20 June 2013 11:09pm

This morning was a bit rushed, but it worked out excellently. We started off with a trip to the Energy and Technology Museum. It's built in a retired power plant, which was originally built to burn coal, but was changed to burn natural gas. It's really neat to be able to go inside the combustion rooms and look at the pipes that were heated to make the steam. They have taken apart the steam turbines so you can have a look inside, and you can see the whole control panel for the Vilnius power grid.

After that, we headed over to the Kazys Varnelis House-Museum, which is the one I've been trying to arrange a visit to for the past few days. Varnelis was a modern artist, most active in the Op Art movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was also a collector of Lithuanian historical art and art in general. The museum houses his collection, which includes many fascinating historical maps and portraits. We got to see a print of the first map of Lithuania drafted by Lithuanians. It's amazing how much bigger the country used to be. He also owned classic prints by Durer and Piranesi and sculptures by Donatello and Remington, and a wide variety of other art.

After browsing the collection of other artists on the ground floor, I spent a long time with Varnelis's own works on the second floor. A lot of his pieces create a visual vibrations. They're repeating patterns or variations on a theme that create optical-illusion like movement. They would usually use smooth gradients, carefully masked, to create flat images that seem to have three-dimensional forms. It's great to be able to stand right up next to them and have your whole visual field filled with the effect.

Op Art seems very serendipitously timed to me. There was a narrow window when it could have happened: the mindset for mechanistic paintings had to combine with painting techniques that allowed the ideas to be realized, so it couldn't have happened much earlier than it did. However, advances in computer design techniques make it too easy to be as fascinating as it was (though I may be wrong about that). The idea that someone has taken a brush and actually painted all of those smooth gradients on actual canvas... it's amazing.

After looking at Varnelius's works, the docent/museum organizer showed me Varnelius's home furniture (Eames chairs, mid century modern desk), and brought out a full folio of original prints of Piranesi etchings. Most of the ones I've seen are reduced-size reproductions, where you can't make out the detail. I'd love to go back some time and just browse Varnelius's library.

After visiting the museum, we rushed to the bus station (which took us 15 minutes to reach, not the 7 that the man working the desk at our hotel told us it would), and caught our bus to Riga with about ten minutes to spare. The bus ride was quite warm (the LED display claimed it was 30C in the bus), but otherwise unremarkable.

We had a low-key evening in Riga. Just a stop at an ATM, dinner (including incredibly tasty pork ribs that I think must have been marinated in pure MSG, they were that tasty), and a short wander around the area near our hotel. Sunset wasn't until 10:21. The solstice is tomorrow!