Magnus Enckell, Man and Swan, 1918, oil on canvas, 108cm x 80cm Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation, Mänttä Photo: Vesa Aaltonen

Colour Revolution, Vitalism and the Ambivalence of Modern Arcadia

Marja Lahelma, PhD, Scholar, Adjunct professor, University of Helsinki

Also published in Hanne Selkokari (ed.), Magnus Enckell 1870−1925. Ateneum Publications Vol. 141. Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum, 2020. Transl. Don McCracken

At the end of the first decade of the 20th century, Magnus Enckell, whose works were formerly known for their sparse content and reduced colour, began to make paintings using a free brush technique and a bright palette. This new direction is represented by Boys on the Beach, a landscape he painted in Suursaari in 1910, which glows in shades of pink, purple, blue and yellow. The sea is calm, but the curve of the shoreline, the tense position of the boy in the foreground and the strong brushstrokes infuse the work with a rhythm and a sense of movement. The sparkling light of the sun is reflected through the tops of the trees, from the stones on the shore and the boys’ bare skin. The work can be said to be vitalist in terms of both its subject matter and its execution.

The vitalist movement, which advocated a natural, healthy and liberated lifestyle, emerged at the turn of the 20th century in opposition to the decadence of modern life and its destructive impact on physical and spiritual wellbeing. Although the development of technology and science, and the industrialisation and urbanisation that went hand in hand with that, ushered in greater prosperity, it was felt that modern life had at the same time alienated people from nature. The prevailing mechanistic world view and profit-based culture created a deep division between the body and spirit, and between people and their natural environment. Vitalism manifested in the content and ideas of the art world through, for instance, depictions of outdoor life, sunlight, water and the naked – especially the male – human body. Vitalist-themed works often employed a style and composition that emphasised an impression of dynamism and also expressed the deeper philosophical foundation of vitalism.[1]

[1] Sven Halse. ‘Wide-Ranging Vitalism: On the Concept and Phenomenon of Vitalism in Philosophy and Art’, in Gertrud Hvidberg-Hansen and Gertrud Oelsner (eds.), The Spirit of Vitalism: Health, Beauty and Strength in Danish Art, 1890–1940. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum, 2011, (47–57) 52.

Featured image: Magnus Enckell, Man and Swan, 1918, oil on canvas, 108cm x 80cm. Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation, Mänttä
Photo: Vesa Aaltonen

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