Elga Sesemann, Street View, 1947, pastel on paper, 48.3cm x 37.5cm Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Jenni Nurminen

Hauntings: Taking a Look at Elga Sesemann’s Landscapes

Emmi Halmesvirta, MA student, University of Helsinki


Inspired by the exhibition ‘The Modern Woman’ at the Ateneum Art Museum earlier this year, I consider the work of one of the artists in the show, Elga Sesemann (1922–2007), who is now becoming an increasingly interesting figure after largely being consigned to obscurity in Finnish art history.[1]

I will attempt to introduce a new analytical perspective into the discussion regarding Sesemann’s career in the 1940s and my text is to some extent experimental. The decade of Sesemann’s powerfully expressionist painting has already attracted curiosity among scholars, but nevertheless research on this artist remains limited. In 1959 Sesemann wrote an autobiographical novel, Kuvajaisia – erään omakuvan taustamaisemaa (Reflections – the background view of a certain self-portrait[2]). The novel has been applied to the study of her self-portraiture.[3] The framework in this article is taken from sociology, but my hope is that by reconciling sociological writing with art history, it will be possible to bring something new to the discussion of the expressionism for which Sesemann’s paintings from the period are known.

Elga Sesemann was born in 1922 and raised in Tienhaara, in the vicinity of Vyborg, in Karelia. She was from a family of Baltic-Russian-Finnish heritage, who had migrated from Lübeck to Vyborg during the 1660s. Her father Edgar Sesemann, an engineer, was the director of a local oil company.[4] The family home of the young Elga was both bourgeois and artistic, with music being especially important in the family.[5] The languages spoken at home were Russian and German.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the 17-year-old Elga had to leave her hometown behind.[6] Earlier in 1939, to the great sorrow of Elga, her father had passed away. They evacuated briefly to Nakkila, in Western Finland, from where the family of now three (Elga, her sister Nelly and mother Olga) made their way to Helsinki. Settling in the Kaivopuisto neighbourhood, Elga then began her art studies.[7] These years were formative in giving birth to Sesemann’s vision of how to paint original, powerful, and even radical work.[8] Elga met her future husband Seppo Näätänen (1920–64) at the art school, and in 1945 they married.

In addition to producing self-portraits of psychological depth and mystery, during the 1940s Sesemann also made portraits (many of them commissions), landscapes, interiors, still-lifes and works that the art historian Riitta Konttinen describes as ‘pictures of the mind’.[9] This short article looks at a couple of her landscapes and interiors, which so far have received less attention than the self-portraits from the same period.

The first section introduces the theoretical background. The second scrutinises Sesemann’s landscapes depicting the urban environment, and the final section draws the themes and concepts of the article to a conclusion.

[1] E.g. Master’s thesis by Rosa Huupponen in 2021. ‘Kaikki tämä on ollut eikä tule koskaan enää. Sitä on vaikea ajatella.Omaelämäkerrallisuus, eksistentialismi ja moniaikaisuus kuvataiteilija Elga Sesemannin tuotannossa. Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Jyväskylä. https://jyx.jyu.fi/handle/123456789/76326 (accessed 15 October 2022).

[2] Free translation by the author of this article. To the best of the author’s knowledge, the novel has not been published in English.

[3] Rosa Huupponen applies textual references from the autobiographical novel to the analysis of Elga Sesemann’s self-portraits. The author claims that the themes and subjects in Sesemann’s paintings resonate with the subject matters in the novel. Huupponen, ‘Kaikki tämä on ollut…’, 5.

[4] Riitta Konttinen. Täältä tullaan! Naistaiteilijat modernin murroksessa. Helsinki: Siltala, 2017, 238.

[5] Edgar Sesemann, Elga’s father, made instruments, which were so-called ‘Sesemann-violins’ and repaired cellos. Her mother, Olga Sesemann, played the piano. Konttinen, Naistaiteilijat modernin murroksessa, 240–41.

[6] E.g. Konttinen, Naistaiteilijat modernin murroksessa, 238.

[7] Her first studies were in the evening classes of the School of Applied Arts, where she was subsequently accepted as a student of the drawing school. In 1943 she began her studies in painting at the same school, continuing at the Free Art School until 1944. Konttinen, Naistaiteilijat modernin murroksessa, 242.

[8] Konttinen, Naistaiteilijat modernin murroksessa, 242.

[9] Konttinen, Naistaiteilijat modernin murroksessa, 243.

Featured image: Elga Sesemann, Street View, 1947, pastel on paper, 48.3cm x 37.5cm. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Jenni Nurminen

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