Featured image: Sigrid af Forselles, Youth, 1880–89, bronze, 43cm x 41.5cm x 26cm, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Pakarinen

Strong, Self-Sufficient and Sharp – Nordic Women Sculptors 1870–1940

Anu Utriainen, MA, Senior Researcher, Ateneum Art Museum / Finnish National Gallery

 A research and exhibition project co-ordinated by the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo, and the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki.

This research project aims to chart and compare the women sculptors in the Nordic countries who were active at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. The criterion for the selection is that the women were professionals, meaning that they had been trained as sculptors, exhibited sculpture at public exhibitions or that their work had been acquired by museums.

The project is led by Curator of Sculpture, Linda Hinners PhD of the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. Members of the editorial board are Curator Vibeke Waallann Hansen of the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo and Senior Researcher Anu Utriainen of the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki. The research group consists of scholars and researchers in the Nordic countries, Belgium and France. The results of the research project will be released in the form of a publication and an exhibition at the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm in 2022.

The increased presence of women in artistic life at the end of the 19th century marks an important shift and reflects the discussions about gender in this period. This was a pioneering time for women’s rights and particularly for gaining the opportunity to enter professional careers and paid employment. Art was an attractive choice for the daughters of the middle classes. In 1848, Finland became one of the first countries in Europe to give open access to basic art studies for women and men alike at the Drawing School of the Finnish Art Society. In Sweden, the Fine Arts Academy offered art studies for women from 1864 onwards. At the same time, there were still limits placed on women having careers as independent artists, and conventional opinions had a powerful influence on what were deemed to be suitable activities and occupations for women.

Featured image: Sigrid af Forselles, Youth, 1880–89, bronze, 43cm x 41.5cm x 26cm, 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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Elga Sesemann, Self-Portrait, 1945, oil on canvas, 73cm x 54cm, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Janne Tuominen

Elga Sesemann – A Woman Artist Rediscovered

Anu Utriainen, MA, Senior Researcher, Ateneum Art Museum / Finnish National Gallery

Research project and exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum (1st floor, 13 Aug–14 Nov 2021)

Elga Sesemann (1922–2007) is one of the post-war women artists who made a remarkable debut in the mid-1940s, but then vanished from the Finnish art scene very soon after that. She has only recently been recognised once again and brought back to the attention of researchers and museum visitors.[1] The aim of the forthcoming exhibition and research project is to study the reasons for this development, as well as to show Sesemann’s original and independent artworks in the context of Finnish post-war modernism.

The role and significance of women in the Finnish art scene has been a subject of study in art history for many decades. As a result, numerous creditable publications, academic dissertations and exhibitions have been made about Finnish women artists, teachers and critics from the turn of the 20th century. Due to the pioneering work of professors Riitta Konttinen and Riitta Nikula from the 1980s on, women’s studies became an essential paradigm in art history. This development has made it possible for interdisciplinary researchers to re-evaluate and examine more critically the works of art and careers of women not only as individuals but also in terms of social class, gender and artistic style. In recent years, the research focus has moved on from the turn of the century to the inter- and post-war periods, as there is a growing interest in studying women artists of the first decades of the 20th century. In Finland this was the time of reshaping culture and art for the new independent nation within a modernistic ethos – with an arts scene that seems to have been astonishingly male-dominated.

[1] Sesemann’s works have been included in the exhibitions ‘Urban Encounters’ 2018–2019 and ‘Artists in Ruovesi’ 2019-2020 in the Ateneum Art Museum, ‘State of Mind – Helsinki 1939-45’, 2019-2020 at Helsinki Art Museum HAM and in ‘Täältä tullaan, naistaiteilijat modernin murroksessa’ in Tampere Art Museum 2017. See also corresponding exhibition catalogues.

Featured image: Elga Sesemann, Self-Portrait, 1945, oil on canvas, 73cm x 54cm, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Janne Tuominen

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Sigrid Schauman, Italian Landscape, 1930s, oil on canvas, mounted on cardboard, 44.5cm x 35cm Antell Collections, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen

Finnish Women Artists in the Modern World

Anu Utriainen, MA, Senior Researcher, Ateneum Art Museum / Finnish National Gallery

Also in Anu Allas and Tiina Abel (eds.), Creating the Self: Emancipating Woman in Estonian and Finnish Art. Tallinn: Art Museum of Estonia, 2019 (to be published in December 2019)

The works of Finnish women artists, and the choices they made both in their lives and careers show how women worked independently in this demanding profession in the early decades of the 20th century. They were forced to strike a balance between expectations and restrictions arising from their gender and their professional goals, as well as from their personal desires. Women who established professional careers in art refused to make concessions regarding the content of their work; they had a firm idea of themselves as artists and were well aware of their abilities and talents. For example, Ellen Thesleff considered herself a creative genius, regardless of gender, while Helene Schjerfbeck wanted to be treated and addressed first and foremost as an artist, without reference to her gender.[1] What is noteworthy is the uncompromising attitude of these women towards their work. Many of them were able to renew themselves as artists even at advanced ages and to learn new techniques.

Although gender was not an obstacle to studies in the fine arts in Finland, many women artists at the turn of the 20th century were nevertheless forced to make choices in their private lives in order to continue in the profession. For example, those who remained unmarried included Fanny Churberg, Ester Helenius, Helmi Kuusi, Sigrid Schauman, Helene Schjerfbeck, Ellen Thesleff and Maria Wiik. Thesleff believed that solitude was part of creative work and a sign of a strong ego.[2] Many others found spouses or partners who were also active in art and culture, among them Ina Colliander, Elin Danielson, Hilda Flodin, Greta Hällfors, Tove Jansson, Tuulikki Pietilä, Elga Sesemann and Venny Soldan.[3] Sigrid Schauman’s solution was perhaps the most radical: she did not marry the father of her daughter and decided to raise her alone. At the time, this was exceptional by any standards and was certainly not socially acceptable for an upper-class woman such as herself.

Women played an important role in the construction of the field of art in Finland in the latter half of the 19th century and later in the portrayal of a modern civic society. They were also bold and innovative, experimenting with styles and forms, as well as techniques. In this essay, I discuss modernist trends in Finnish art from the particular viewpoint of the construction of professional careers for women artists.[4]

 

[1] Konttinen, Riitta 2004. Oma tie. Helene Schjerfbeckin elämä. Helsinki: Otava, 249.

[2] Konttinen, Riitta 2017. Täältä tullaan! Naistaiteilijat modernin murroksessa. Helsinki: Siltala, 54.

[3] Ina Colliander’s husband was the author Tito Colliander; Elin Danielson married the Italian artist Raffaello Gambogi. Hilda Flodin was married to the painter Juho Rissanen, and Greta Hällfors to the artist Sulho Sipilä. Tove Jansson and Tuulikki Pietilä were partners for several decades. Elga Sesemann married a fellow student, the artist Seppo Näätänen. Venny Soldan was married to the author Juhani Aho (Brofeldt).

[4] Even though women played a significant role in the Finnish art scene at the turn of the century, only about 10 per cent of professional artists were women. The number of works acquired for museum collections at the time was the same: around 10 per cent were made by women.

Featured image: Sigrid Schauman, Italian Landscape, 1930s, oil on canvas, mounted on cardboard, 44.5cm x 35cm. Antell Collections, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen#

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Helena Pylkkänen, Masculine / Recumbent Torso, 1986–87, bronze, 68cm x 42cm x 36cm Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

The Nude Stripped of Dignity

Anu Utriainen, MA, Senior Researcher, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

Also published in Anu Utriainen (ed.), Urban Encounters. Finnish Art in the Twentieth Century. Ateneum Publications Vol. 105. Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum 2018, 138–66. Transl. Don McCracken

The nude body has appeared in visual art and culture in myriad ways and styles; it has been interpreted from different starting points throughout history and imbued with various meanings. The nude has reflected transitions, both within the arts and in broader historical, political and social contexts, and it reveals changes in the concepts of beauty, morality, and attitudes towards gender. As an art object, the nude exposes the model’s surface and depth: especially in the modern age, the nude is an image of both the human form and the psyche.

It is worth asking why and for whom the nude image has been created, and in what context it should be viewed and interpreted. The classic male nude is presented in Western art as a heroic, universal subject, or a mythological deity.[1] The body of a naked man has also been perceived as a sensuous object, but it is not automatically regarded as an object of sexual desire, despite its virility and masculinity. A traditional male nude was portrayed as self-motivated, actively shaping his own world, while women found themselves subject to a demeaning erotic gaze, stripped not only of clothing, but also of their power and autonomy. Masculinity symbolises both vitality and a well-developed mental and intellectual capacity. In contrast to his female counterpart, the male nude embodies a potent mix of power, control and agency, and the gaze appears to be directed outwards from the work of art towards the spectator, rather than the other way around.[2]

[1] See Natter, Tobias G. & Leopold, Elisabeth (eds). Nude Men: From 1800 to the Present Day. Exhibition catalogue, Leopold Museum, Vienna 19.10.201228.1.2013. Munich: Hirmer 2012.

[2] E.g. Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. Male Trouble: A Crisis in Representation. London: Thames & Hudson 1997, 33–35. In Finland, Marja-Terttu Kivirinta has addressed Modernism and modernisation in her dissertation, e.g. through the concept of biopower, cf. Kivirinta. Vieraita vaikutteita karsimassa. Helene Schjerfbeck ja Juho Rissanen. Sukupuoli, luokka ja Suomen taiteen rakentuminen 1910–20-luvulla. Helsinki: University of Helsinki 2014.

Featured image: Helena Pylkkänen, Masculine / Recumbent Torso, 1986–87, bronze, 68cm x 42cm x 36cm. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

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