Featured image: Magnus Enckell, View from Kaivopuisto, 1919, oil on canvas, 59cm x 68cm. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Pakarinen

From Chaos to the Security of Home: the Late Work of Magnus Enckell

Marja Sakari, PhD, Museum Director, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum

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

We have become accustomed to thinking of modernism in art as a continuous process of renewal and regeneration. In this light, art history has been written as a sort of bildungsroman, from the art movements of the late 19th century to the triumphal march towards Abstract Expressionism in the 20th century. The careers of individual artists are also examined according to this narrative, which aims at ever-improving results and emphasises the artist’s path towards stylistic purity and clarity.[1] Jaakko Puokka, author of a monograph on Magnus Enckell, sought to see increasing clarity and consistency through the phases of the artist’s career. In his view, Enckell’s late phase brought a mellowness and ‘a return to the Classical-Hellenic style, the birthplace of the crystal-sharp young male figures that he created three decades earlier’.[2] Puokka continues his analysis of Enckell’s late period, writing that, in his painting of Diana and Endymion, Enckell broke free from the imbalance that had led to his ‘aestheticising gourmandism’.[3]

Puokka’s interpretation of Enckell’s development of new content and sustainable form seems, however, to be wishful thinking based on the writer’s own artistic ideals and valuations of Enckell’s work from his own era.[4] During his final decade, Magnus Enckell’s art seems heterogenous and even hesitant: his gaze became retrospective, repeating similar mythological motifs from his younger years, turning inward to his home environment and nostalgic park scenes, or seeking a lost paradise and the support of religion. The style of his paintings also varied between cubist-like structuralism and Nabis-style symbolism. Enckell was undeniably problematic to his contemporaries, but Puokka’s text emphasises a need to develop a narrative around the artist’s career and life that would satisfy them.[5]

How then should we approach Enckell’s late period? How should we interpret his tentative art, which at times looked towards something new and at other times harked back to the past?

[1] See e.g. Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison (eds.). Modern Art and Modernism. A Critical Anthology, 2018 (1982). New York: Routledge.

[2] Puokka, Magnus Enckell: Ihminen ja taiteilija. Helsinki, Suomalainen tiedeakatemia & Otava, 1949, 210.

[3] Puokka, Magnus Enckell, 212.

[4] Puokka, Magnus Enckel, 208.

[5] Harri Kalha and Juha-Heikki Tihinen, whose studies have focused on Magnus Enckell’s homosexuality, emphasise how difficult it was for his contemporaries (and later researchers) to approach Enckell’s art that features strongly homoerotic characteristics. See e.g. Harri Kalha. Tapaus Magnus Enckell. Historiallisia tutkimuksia 227. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 2005; Juha-Heikki Tihinen. Halun häilyvät rajat: Magnus Enckellin teosten maskuliinisuuksien ja feminiinisyyksien representaatioista ja itsen luomisesta. Taidehistoriallisia tutkimuksia 37. Helsinki: Taidehistorian seura, 2008.

Featured image: Magnus Enckell, View from Kaivopuisto, 1919, oil on canvas, 59cm x 68cm. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Pakarinen
Public domain. This image of a work of art is released under a CC0 licence, and can be freely used because the copyright (70 full calendar years after the death of the artist) has expired.

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