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

Introduction

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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Juhana Blomstedt, sketch from Minneapolis series, 1972, gouache on paper, 33,5cm x 44,3cm (leaf). Finnish National Gallery /Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen

Juhana Blomstedt’s Art and Thought 1970–80

‘I always return equally humbly to the same: To give form, alright, but to what?’[1]

 

Emmi Halmesvirta, MA student, University of Helsinki

This article is published as a result of a three-month research internship at the Finnish National Gallery

Introduction

My painting deals with astronomy, history, psychology, politics, culinary art, anatomy, obsessions, warfare, reproduction, erotica, gravity, diving, whirls, bobbins, velocities, atmosphere, animal and plant kingdoms, minerals, statistics, aesthetics, mathematics etc. phenomena and with such things. If my painting cannot convey my personal ‘pathos’, my sense of reality, I have failed.[2]

With this note from 1974 I want to start my endeavour to reveal how the artist Juhana Blomstedt’s (1937–2010) thinking has formed the core of my research during the internship period at the Finnish National Gallery. Blomstedt’s career spanned many decades from the late 1950s[3] until the 2000s. In this article I specifically focus on one decade in his career – the 1970s. I chose the 70s in order to study his development as an artist and thinker at an early and pivotal stage in his career. He had had his true artistic breakthrough in 1966.[4] Moreover, I wanted to study his use of the grid, which I knew he had experimented with, but how and to what purposes I had no idea. Curiously, in the 70s Blomstedt seems to have occupied an interface between a promising young artist and a mature artist, one who had grounded his place in artistic circles. This impression came to me via newspaper articles from 1973, as he was, on two separate occasions in that year, considered part of both the younger and the older generation of abstractionists.[5] This led me to think that this artist and his art are not easily categorised or defined, and this complexity is something I was interested in exploring further.

This article will explore the ways in which Juhana Blomstedt developed or changed his thinking during the 1970s and in order to do that it is necessary to consider his many occupations. Blomstedt was not only an artist, but also a professor, a theorist and writer. As a writer he was industrious, expressing his ideas concerning art, art theory and philosophy among other topics. From his abundant writings, letters and notes, it is clear that his manner of writing varied depending on the purpose and the audience for whom they were intended. His personal notebooks contain a blend of diary-like personal entries and art theory. As an artist Blomstedt worked full-time, taking on commissions for public works, collaborating with the prestigious Galerie Daniel Gervis in Paris from 1970 onwards[6], as well as participating in solo and group exhibitions in Finland and beyond. He also held a position as a visiting fine arts professor in the United States in 1971 and for a year taught at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. This was an opportunity which had opened up for Blomstedt thanks to his collaboration with Daniel Gervis.[7]

[1] ‘Yhtä nöyrästi palaan aina samaan: Antaa muoto, OK mutta mille? […].’ Juhana Blomstedt’s notebook, entry likely in January 1980. 6/3. Juhana Blomstedt Archive (JBA). Archive Collections (AC), Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki (FNG). The numbers before JBA refer to the numbers of the notebooks and files. All translations in this article are by the author.

[2] ‘Maalaukseni on tekemisissä astronomian, historian, psykologian, politiikan, keittiötaidon, anatomian, obsessioiden, sodankäynnin, lisääntymisen, erotiikan, painovoiman, sukeltamisen, hyrrien, kelojen, nopeuksien, atmosfäärin, eläin- ja kasvikunnan, mineraalien, statistiikan, estetiikan, matematiikan ym ilmiöiden ja asioiden kanssa. Ellei maalaukseni pysty välittämään persoonallista “paatostani”, todellisuudentunnettani, olen epäonnistunut.’ Juhana Blomstedt’s notebook, 8 July 1974. 5/3. JBA. AC, FNG.

[3] The curtain for the hall of the Finnish Adult Education Centre in Helsinki, from 1958, can be considered his first major commission.

[4] Ville Lukkarinen. ‘Juhana Blomstedt’, in Rakel Kallio, Veikko Kallio, Saara Salin & Helena Sederholm (eds.), Pinx. Maalaustaide Suomessa: Siveltimen vetoja. Porvoo: Weilin + Göös, 2003, (132–35) 133.

[5] During the same year, in 1973, he was called in two different exhibition reviews in one of them ‘our international constructivist representing the younger generation’, and then in the other ‘a constructivist of the older generation’. See Raimo Viitala. ‘Rakenteellista taidetta, taiteen rakenteellisuutta’, Tyrvään Sanomat, 24 February 1973 and Raimo Reinikainen. ‘Merkintöjä kuvataiteesta’, Kansan Uutiset, 11 February 1973.

[6] In 1970 Juhana Blomstedt had his first solo exhibition at the Daniel Gervis gallery, which kickstarted a long-lasting collaboration. See Timo Valjakka. ‘Elämäkerrallisia tietoja’ (Biography), in Timo Valjakka (ed.), Juhana Blomstedt. Helsinki: WSOY, 2007, (103–15) 106.

[7] Imy Douillard. ‘Elämää muovikuutiossa’, Eeva 2/1973.

Featured image: Juhana Blomstedt, sketch for Minneapolis series, 1972, gouache on paper, 33,5cm x 44,3cm (leaf). Finnish National Gallery /Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen

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