Magnus Enckell, Boy With Skull, 1893. Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Yehia Eweis.

Conferences: AAH Annual Conference 2015, Norwich

Finnish National Gallery’s Contribution

Grey Matters

Interview by Gill Crabbe

For many years, Dr Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, Chief Curator of the Ateneum Art Museum, has taken part in the Association of Art Historians’ conferences. Here, she discusses the paper she gave at this year’s conference in Norwich, in the session on Shades of Grey

Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff is something of a pioneer in Finnish art-historical circles. Since 2007 she has been a keen participant in the conferences of the Association of Art Historians which are a platform for art historians to present their research to colleagues from all over the world. ‘I first took part when I was a postgraduate student, giving a paper on Finnish Mural Art at the turn of the 20th century. At some of the conferences, I was the only Finnish delegate’, she says.

Over the years she has been promoting these annual conferences to her Finnish colleagues and within the Finnish National Gallery. Now every year people from different departments at FNG are beating a path to it. The conferences, which take place in Britain, are usually attended by around 300 professionals worldwide, and offer several sessions on different themes, with four or five papers presented within each session. Von Bonsdorff’s enthusiasm for the benefits of taking part is palpable. ‘It’s an amazing chance to get a 20-minute glimpse of someone’s life’s work. Often the surprises come when you attend a session that is outside of your own field.’

At this year’s AAH conference in Norwich, Von Bonsdorff brought her own area of interest in the use of colour in late 19th-century Nordic and European art to the session on ‘Shades of Grey: Painting Without Colour’. Given the title of the session, why did she choose to title her paper ‘Picturing the Immaterial With Colour: Symbolist Ideal’? Was she making a point about how grey has been regarded as a non-colour?

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Picturing the Immaterial with Colour – Symbolist Ideal?

Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, PhD, Chief Curator, Ateneum Art Museum


When I first read about this session, ‘Shades of Grey: Painting without Colour’ I was thrilled since there are very few sessions that are actually devoted to colour and its research.

I’m delighted to have this opportunity to introduce a concept, which formed a big part of my doctoral thesis, namely Colour Asceticism. With this colour concept I have studied colour and meaning in Finnish and international art from the 1860s to 1906.

In this paper I discuss how the turn towards colour – that is when ‘material’ became a part of the content – is one of the main signifiers of Modernism in European art. First, my focus is on the new adaptation of the more achromatic palette which was broadly used during late 19th century, not just in the Nordic countries, but also elsewhere in Europe. The use of a colour ascetic palette was especially popular within the Symbolist circles. At the time, this kind of ‘reduced palette’ carried certain connotations, such as spirituality, musicality, harmony, melancholy, stillness, intimacy, silence and immateriality, and these concepts were among the topics widely discussed in the art circles of the turn of the 20th century. Moreover, ‘abstract’ elements, such as musicality and spirituality, which were so highly valued in this period, were not introduced through form, composition or subject, first, but through the idea of colour harmonies.

Featured image: Magnus Enckell, Boy With Skull, 1893. Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Yehia Eweis

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