Peer Reviewed Article: Crossing between Textual, Positioned and Biographic

Riitta Ojanperä, PhD, Director, Collections Management, Finnish National Gallery

First published in The Challenges of Biographical Research in Art History Today. Taidehistoriallisia tutkimuksia 46 – Konsthistoriska studier 46 (Studies in Art History). Edited by Renja Suominen-Kokkonen. Helsinki 2013: The Society of Art History in Finland, 151–159

The purpose of this paper is to reflect, from a researcher’s subjective standpoint, on some key points of the narrative of my doctoral thesis, which I defended in December 2010. The thesis discussed the writing and cultural positioning of Einari J. Vehmas (1902–1980), an influential Finnish art critic and art museum curator, over a period of 30 years from the 1930s to the 1960s.[1] Decisions taken in the course of the research and writing process reflect changing methodological stances, which ultimately ended up in a set of ambivalences, especially in relation to the question of biographic research. It is obvious that the theoretical challenges that arose during the research process and that also tended to lead to contradictory argumentations, reflect in a general way the multidisciplinary character of practising art history. With this retrospective and (self) critical meta-narrative I therefore wish to portray a fundamental fluidity and openness in our discipline’s premises over the past decades, both in Finland and internationally.

When my thesis finally saw the light of day in written form, its theoretical and methodological settings were somewhat inconsistent and it had proved a challenge not to let all the paths of survey lead to a fatal dissonance with the pragmatic aim of the work. Ultimately I had decided to take a risk in not introducing a clearly argued theoretical framework to support the discussion. In the formal academic procedure my opponent in her critical response posed one mainly coercive question, a question that outlines the problematic kernel at stake also in this paper. She wished to know whether the thesis was about researching texts or a person. [2] I was stunned by the question. Had I missed a point or had she missed mine, had my intellectual ambiguities blurred my sight, was it really mandatory to choose? I was unprepared and unwilling to take a stance, but shortly afterwards I was stimulated by the controversy which, in fact, should not have been so unexpected.

[1] Riitta Ojanperä, Kriitikko Einari J. Vehmas ja moderni taide, Valtion taidemuseo / Kuvataiteen keskusarkisto 20, Helsinki 2010.

[2] Some key points of PhD Tutta Palin’s statements were published in her critique on the published thesis: Tutta Palin, ‘Taidekirjoittajan muotokuva’, TAHITI Taidehistoria tieteenä. Konsthistoria som vetenskap, 1/2011. (8.7.2015.)

Featured image: The 1958 retrospective exhibition of the Finnish painter Tyko Sallinen at the Ateneum Art Museum. Director Aune Lindström (far left) and the show’s curator Deputy Director Einari J. Vehmas (far right) welcome the Finnish President Urho Kekkonen and his wife. Photo: Archive Collections, Finnish National Gallery. Photographer unknown

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