Marja Sakari, PhD, Museum Director, Finnish National Gallery, Ateneum Art Museum
24 January 2019
Last November (29–30.11.2018), the Academy of Fine Arts of the University of the Arts Helsinki, along with the Art History Department of Helsinki University and the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, got together to organise a two-day conference, ‘Connoisseurship in Contemporary Art Research’, which had as its theme the importance of the archival approach in research into contemporary art. One of the highlights was Katharina Günther’s presentation, which was based on the results of her year-long residency at the City Gallery in Dublin. Her research project was concentrating on the material from Francis Bacon’s London studio, which had been transported from London to Dublin in 1998 in the exact same condition as it had been left when Bacon died. She worked with the original material in the studio with a variety of items, from photographs to all kinds of ephemera. Seemingly worthless material transformed, in the hands of the researcher, into authentic evidence. With that material, she was able to prove that despite Bacon’s own observations that art has nothing to do with illustration, most of his artworks were based on everyday media images. The composition, details and figures were often borrowed almost identically from images published in printed media.
For a researcher, material that has previously gone unnoticed, has been abandoned or considered as apparently unimportant might become the very core of the research and a source of new knowledge.
In this first issue of FNG Research in 2019, two researchers are presenting their new findings. Both articles are good examples that show how important it is to study profoundly different archives and to experience original material. For these researchers, archival material and the rereading of the material in connection to previous research, is of utmost importance.
Both Sandra Lindblom – whose article is dealing with the early career of the painter Eva Cederström – and Antonella Perna – who has as her topic the friendship, mutual respect and influence of two scholars of Asian art and culture – base their research on letters, diaries and other archival materials.
Lindblom, whose article is resulting from the research internship at the FNG, writes in her preface: ‘The study reassesses and gives new information about the narrative on Cederström’s early career, using previously unstudied archive material, drawings and paintings.’ In her article she is able to show that Cederström eschewed the label of being a woman artist, but at the same time she was the victim of conventions prevailing pre- and post- Second World War. Despite her talent and passion for art she was obliged take on office work because of lack of money. With the archival material Lindblom shows the contradictions in the start of Cederström’s career. Her early years as an artist contained ‘failures, successes, institutional support and economic problems’. The article points out that despite her being appreciated as a promising artist at an early phase, she couldn’t advance as an artist in the way she would have wanted. Being a woman was significant, it seems.
Antonella Perna writes in her peer-reviewed article how her attention was drawn to the relationship and position of Osvald Sirén in Italian studies of Asian culture by a single letter in the Sirén Archive in Stockholm. According to that letter, Sirén was appointed Doctor Honoris Causa of the University of Rome La Sapienza. To Perna this single letter was not sufficient to explain why this happened and she started to look for other evidence to find out why he was honoured this way. Perna found the evidence in the correspondence of Sirén with the Italian scholar of Asian studies, Giuseppe Tucci. Perna is revealing new knowledge of this relationship. She writes: ‘since there are no previous studies on the relationship with Tucci, I would like to present a first analysis of unpublished letters and other archival material that can throw some light on this aspect of Sirén’s professional life: his particular role in the development of Oriental scholarship in Italy.’
I started to write this editorial for the FNG Research issue just when the annually organised Days for Science were about to start. In the main Finnish newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, there was an interview with three academics, namely the former rector and chancellor of the University of Helsinki Risto Ihamuotila, Professor of Cosmology Kari Enqvist and researcher of political history, Johanna Vuorelma. They all defended the significance of the sciences, the meaning of knowledge based on facts and profound research, at a time of the increasing dominance of social media, when it is possible to spread all kinds of knowledge just with one keystroke.
According to them, in science it is important to understand that knowledge is constantly changing and that it is always important to recheck already existing information: what we know and what can be known (Helsingin Sanomat 9 January 2019). In undertaking this kind of rechecking, the role of archives and the development and deeper understanding of their content is extremely important.
Featured image: Aarre Heinonen, Railway Square, 1945, oil on canvas, 81cm x 60cm. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Jenni Nurminen