Nina Roos, Lost in Yellow, 2000, oil on polycarbonate sheet, metal stand, 90cm x 175cm x 241cm (each sheet), installed in the lobby at Kiasma Finnish National Gallery / Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Petri Virtanen

Celebrating Three Decades of Collecting Contemporary Art

 Gill Crabbe, FNG Research

When a national collection marks a milestone in its history, it offers a chance to get a glimpse of the changes that have contributed to its evolution. Gill Crabbe asks three curators from the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma / Finnish National Gallery about the process of preparing a new book that opens the doors to the past 30 years of the museum’s acquisitions

In our digital age when e-books and online webzines are the order of the day, the production of a book is a special project. It is an In Real Life event, a hand-held object that has a physical life and span, something not only to be read, but for the reader or readers perhaps to adorn with personalised marginalia, a concretised narrative that can be physically place-marked with folded page corners, easily navigated (no endless screen scrolling) and delved into anywhere anytime without plugging-in. The book, far from being an anachronism, is in fact gaining in value as the exponential expansion of electronic media progresses. And books, especially when commissioned to commemorate or celebrate, can be a multiple monument, honouring achievements over time. This is the case with a beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated book, The Many Forms of Contemporary Art, which celebrates 30 years of collecting contemporary art. It is the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma’s monument to its own art collection, in book form.

I think a physical book is still important and it’s a topic we discussed a lot ourselves,’ says Kati Kivinen, Chief Curator of Collections at Kiasma, one of three of the museum’s curators who were driving the project. ‘Personally, I prefer to roam through a book when accessing a theme or topic, rather than looking at hundreds of images of artworks online, even more so after two years of watching everything on screen during the pandemic. Also the book is closer to the works themselves, being concrete – a book lying between an image on screen and the actual artworks.’

In addition to its celebratory aspect, the decision to publish the book was also practical – Kiasma has been undergoing renovations since early 2021 and with its exhibition spaces out of action, and many projects off the agenda, the museum’s curators found themselves time-richer, and in Kivinen’s words ‘with an opportunity of a book project on 30 years of collecting. We have never done a comprehensive overview of the collection like this before and since our publications have always been linked to the exhibitions that we present, this offered a rare chance to concentrate on the collection without this kind of agenda.’

Featured image: Nina Roos, Lost in Yellow, 2000, oil on polycarbonate sheet, metal stand, 90cm x 175cm x 241cm (each sheet), installed in the lobby at Kiasma
Finnish National Gallery / Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Petri Virtanen

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Slavs and Tatars, Prayway, 2012, installation. Courtesy the artists and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin Photo: Bernard Kahrmann

Living Encounters: Creating a Landmark ­Contemporary Art Show

Gill Crabbe, FNG Research

Putting together a survey show that takes the pulse of the global art world is a complex task. Ahead of the ARS22 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Gill Crabbe discusses the research and curatorial processes involved with Museum Director Leevi Haapala and Chief Curator João Laia

There’s an old saying that we can become what we dwell on, and this springs to mind following meeting Leevi Haapala, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma and the Chief Curator João Laia. They have been working on the latest in a series of exhibitions, which are held every four to five years in Helsinki to test the water of the contemporary arts scene both nationally and internationally. Each edition of this long-established show is eagerly awaited, with its selection of around 40–50 artists ranging from emerging Finnish artists to global icons, and expectations are high. Hearing Haapala and Laia speak about their vision for ARS22 and the research processes involved, it seems clear that the two of them have been in many ways embodying or exemplifying the vision they have evolved for this landmark exhibition. They are walking the talk.

For the theme around which ARS22 is conceived is mutual empathy, neatly encapsulated in the show’s title ‘Living Encounters’. Looking at the world, as artists do, it is easy to see the processes of social fragmentation (accelerated by Covid-19) and increasing polarisation within the discourses and issues of today, be that politics, ecology, technology, belief systems, gender or race issues – ‘concerns,’ says Haapala ‘that contribute to determining our actions in collective and private spheres’. The vision for ARS22 centres on presenting artworks that individually, collectively or in dialogue with one another, offer the possibility to question or obviate such divisions. With this approach ARS22 sets out to create a ‘renewed way of thinking which acknowledges the complexities of the world as fruitful’ rather than divisive, and provides a ‘forum for sharing experiences and examining issues that touch us all’.

Featured image: Slavs and Tatars, Prayway, 2012, installation. Courtesy the artists and Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin
Photo: Bernard Kahrmann

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Magnus Enckell, Awakening Faun, 1914, oil on canvas, 65.5cm x 81cm Hoving Collection, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Jenni Nurminen

Magnus Enckell – Decoding an Enigma

Gill Crabbe, FNG Research

Following a major exhibition of the Finnish painter Magnus Enckell (1870–1925) at the Ateneum Art Museum, Gill Crabbe asks art historian and author, Dr Harri Kalha about how the artist’s work has been received over the years, and what issues have surrounded Enckell’s placement in the canon of Finnish art

Gill Crabbe: The Ateneum exhibition is the first full-scale survey of Magnus Enckell’s output, covering a wide range of his production, from intimate portraits to landscapes, from monumental public commissions for churches, to explorations of archetypal themes, such as Fantasy and Melancholy. Harri, you have contributed two essays in the accompanying catalogue. Can you say a little about your background and how you came to be interested in Enckell’s art?

Harri Kalha: I began my scholarly career in the 1990s, deconstructing the idea of ‘Finnishness’ in and around the post-war Golden Age of Finnish Design and Crafts, and gained a PhD in 1997. So questions of reception, textual analysis and discourse were already second nature to me when I wrote my first study on Enckell in 1999. I have since worked on several ‘problematic’ cases relating particularly to scandals concerning (in)decency, such as the public debate around Ville Vallgren’s Havis Amanda, a fountain and a statue in Helsinki, on which I published a book in 2008.

As for Enckell, what initially inspired me – and baffled me – had to do with a sense of frustration, going all the way back to my first years as an art history student. At that time Enckell was certainly presented as part of the canon, but with qualifications. What is worse, Enckell the person, as well as any concrete meanings that might have been attributed to his art, eluded me. Even the lecturers seemed ill at ease, awkwardly regurgitating acquired terms and attitudes. There was much use of sanahelinä, as we say in Finnish – lofty words with little substance. Sexuality was of course not even an issue, God forbid.

GC: Looking at the role played by art historians in evolving the canon of art, on what basis has Enckell been placed in the canon of Finnish art and what place does he occupy internationally?

HK: Enckell’s canonic status derives mainly from his role as a turn-of the-century Symbolist and the ‘modernist’ starkness of his early works, which have for long held a central place at the Ateneum Art Museum, for example. On the other hand, art history recognises his later role as a spokesman for Post-Impressionist ideals. Internationally Enckell is little known, and quite understandably so. His oeuvre is not vast, particularly when it comes to the Symbolist period. It lacks the nationalist subtext that has traditionally intrigued foreign critics and curators – Post-Impressionist painting has not been considered as sexy for foreign audiences as National Romanticism has. However, Enckell does enjoy a certain ‘underground’ status deriving from a tradition of gay sensibility; that is to say that certain works have always resonated with queer viewers. More recently, international gay histories and encyclopedias have included Enckell in the global catalogue of ‘gay art’, although truth be told, we know precious little about his sexuality.

GC: If art-historical research involves a process of revealing the factors influencing the construction of the art-historical canon, what methods have you used in evolving this process in relation to understanding Enckell’s art?

HK: In my book Tapaus Magnus Enckell (2005) and a group of related articles, I analysed both the contemporary reception of the artist’s work and later art-historical accounts, in order to deconstruct ‘Enckelliana’ as a textual corpus. Unlike traditional studies of how various artists have been received, my take was informed by post-structuralist conceptualisations of discourse (Foucault) and mythology (Barthes). Whereas a text itself is, as it were, innocent, discourse is what we arrive at through close-reading: this can be rife with chauvinistic attitudes, ideological presences or mythologising narratives – various ‘regimes of truth’ that art history thrives on. There are often hidden agendas, if you like, since the meanings are not necessarily explicit, but lurking between the lines or embedded deep within metaphorical language. So it is really an exercise in reading, and in subtle contextualising.

On the other hand, back then I was in the process of discovering myself as writer, so I wanted to give my pen some leeway as well, not least in order to modify the sense of scholarly scrutiny, of ruthless dissection of the work done by my peers and predecessors. So I devoted a couple of chapters in Tapaus Magnus Enckell to reading, not just texts, but chosen artworks, thus positioning my writing as an object of scrutiny for contemporaries and future scholars. I named these chapters lukuhäiriöitä (‘reading disturbances’; unfortunately the pun doesn’t translate) and they are a tad more essayistic than the rest of the book. Come to think of it, my work from that period thrives on puns and palimpsest, reflecting my natural investment in writing, and particularly in metaphoric language, which is a declining art in academia today.

Featured image: Magnus Enckell, Awakening Faun, 1914, oil on canvas, 65.5cm x 81cm
Hoving Collection, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Jenni Nurminen
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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Featured image: Lorenzo Tiepolo, after Giambattista Tiepolo, Triumph of Venus, Catalogo di varie Opere (…), 1774, etching.  The National Library of Finland, Helsinki Photo: The National Library of Finland

Tiepolo and the Russian Connection

Gill Crabbe, FNG Research

Following the recent opening of a groundbreaking Tiepolo exhibition at the Sinebrychoff Art Museum, one of the key contributors, Tiepolo expert Dr Irina Artemieva, Keeper of Venetian paintings at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, discusses the research and international collaboration involved in the FNG project

Dr Artemieva, you joined The State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg in 1982 and became Keeper of 15th to 18th-century Venetian paintings in 1985. How did you become interested in the works of the Tiepolos?

Works by the Tiepolos make up a very important part of the collection of Venetian art of the 18th century and therefore from the start I set about finding out as much as I could about them and about the works, with the intention of adding in new information to that gathered by my predecessors.

 

You are also the scientific director of The Hermitage-Italy Centre in Venice. What is the importance of The Hermitage-Italy Centre for your research and for your links to Italian colleagues?

I was appointed scientific director of The Hermitage-Italy Centre in Venice because over the course of my work – and it’s nearly 40 years that I have been working at the Hermitage – I have formed very friendly and fruitful relationships with many of my Italian colleagues. I know nearly all the key members of staff of the leading museums in Italy and lots of specialists in specific areas. As for my acquaintance with Tiepolo specialists, my own interest – and the reason why I have gone more deeply into the study of Tiepolo – has been connected with the preparation of a major international exhibition and conference that marked the 300th anniversary of the birth of Giambattista Tiepolo, which took place in Venice back in 1996. For that conference I prepared a large paper on the history of the ceilings by Tiepolo painted for St Petersburg.

 

The art of Tiepolo found its way into important Russian collections already in the 18th century and its popularity continued throughout the 19th century. How do you explain this and the importance of Tiepolo in Russia?

Giambattista Tiepolo is, of course, one of the leading artists of the 18th century. His art marks the apotheosis of Venetian painting: the triumph of light and colour, its ability to convey aspects of reality through even the most imaginary subject. Tiepolo’s imagination had no limits and he was able to master any format, any form, from the smallest to most grandiose, but it was in the latter that he most majestically gave embodiment to his art. Art that demanded above all great internal spaces. Interiors of this kind were only to be found in royal and princely residences and, of course, to commission a master of such a level demanded huge financial resources. So it’s not surprising that he worked in the area of monumental painting in Venice both for the old and the new aristocracy – particularly the new – creating grandiose cycles and fresco wall paintings at the Palazzo Labia in Venice, and at the Villa Cordellina, and Villa Valmarana in Vicenza, as well as abroad. There’s a particularly interesting article in the catalogue accompanying the Sinebrychoff Art Museum exhibition devoted to Tiepolo’s links with Swedish clients and the attempt to invite him to paint a grand ceiling for the royal palace in Stockholm, although unfortunately this commission never took place. For Russia too the grand style was close to the heart of the monarchs and during the reign of Elizabeth, from 1741–62, when there was a huge amount of palace building, there was particular interest in the art of Tiepolo. His painting was really best suited to the style and the architecture of Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli (1700–71) and attempts were made to commission works by Tiepolo for Elizabeth’s new winter palace. Three ceilings were also commissioned by the Chancellor of the Russian Empire, Count Mikhail Illarionovich Vorontsov (1714–67), for his palace on Sadovaya Ulitsa in St Petersburg.

As for later purchases, even in the 18th century, we see that only the richest Russian aristocrats could afford to adorn their mansions with works by Tiepolo, among them Prince Nikolai Borisovich Yusupov (1750–1831) and Chancellor Alexandr Andreyevich Bezborodko (1747–99). At the start of the 19th century a large monumental canvas, The Banquet of Cleopatra (1747), was acquired for the new imperial residence the Mikhail Castle. We see thereafter how even in the second half of the 19th century, thanks to the Russian patron Baron Alexandr Stieglitz (1814–84), half of the monumental cycle created by Tiepolo for the Ca’ Dolfin was also acquired. Later Russia became the home of one of the best collections of monumental paintings by Tiepolo. The significance of this collection cannot be exaggerated, even though not all of the works have survived to the present day.

Featured image: Lorenzo Tiepolo, after Giambattista Tiepolo, Triumph of Venus, Catalogo di varie Opere (…), 1774, etching.
The National Library of Finland, Helsinki
Photo: The National Library of Finland

 

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Giandomenico Tiepolo’s oil sketches from the Trojan Horse series: The Building of the Trojan Horse (1773–75) and The Procession of the Trojan Horse (1773–75) Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

Tiepolos travelling North

Gill Crabbe, FNG Research

As the Sinebrychoff Art Museum brings together works by the 18th-century Venetian masters from across Northern Europe, Gill Crabbe meets Chief Curator Ira Westergård to discuss the research findings behind this groundbreaking exhibition   

Any art-historical research project that sets out to delve into the provenance of artworks, carries with it some risk. The risk that, after committing the valuable resources of time, professional expertise and funding, one might draw a blank. Unexpected and unwanted surprises, such as an unfavourable reattribution, misleading information, or a tainted provenance, are just some of the hazards. Add to that the pressure of linking a research project to an international exhibition that plans to present the research findings, and you have quite a task on your hands. Top that with the unforeseen consequences of a global pandemic at the eleventh hour of mounting an exhibition, and one is navigating truly unprecedented circumstances.

Sitting in the office of Dr Ira Westergård, Chief Curator of the Finnish National Gallery’s Sinebrychoff Art Museum, two days after the opening of its exhibition ‘Tiepolo – Venice in the North’, I am struck by the indefatigable energy – the renowned Finnish sisu – the show’s mastermind exudes, as she apologises for the piles of books and papers spread across all available surfaces – ‘they are all part of other projects I have had to put on hold and are now waiting to be dealt with’. One can see how this dynamism has driven an ambitious project that has brought together paintings and works on paper by these Venetian masters, the Tiepolos father and son, that found their way north and now reside in the UK, Denmark, Sweden, Russia and Finland. Not only that but, perhaps even more importantly, in gathering together key players in the international Tiepolo research community to contribute to the show’s accompanying catalogue, she has spearheaded a publication that is bound to impact the Tiepolo research community for some years to come. ‘This catalogue is as important as the exhibition,’ she says, gripping it with both hands, as she holds it up in front of her. As the many narratives and their twists and turns unfold during our interview, one begins to understand why.

Featured image: Giandomenico Tiepolo’s oil sketches from the Trojan Horse series (1773–75): The Building of the Trojan Horse and The Procession of the Trojan Horse , both on loan from the National Gallery, London, and the Sinebrychoff Art Museums’ The Greeks Sacking Troy. Installation view of the ‘Tiepolo – Venice in the North’ exhibition at the Sinebrychoff art Museum, Helsinki, 2020
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

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Magnus Enckell, Angel (detail copy after Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Annunciation), 1895, oil on canvas, 100cm x 100cm State Copy Collection, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Pakarinen

Making Art’s Milestones

Gill Crabbe, FNG Research

Reimagining iconic artworks from the past has been a continuous thread in creating the story of art. Director General of the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, Susanna Pettersson, discusses with Gill Crabbe the vision for the exhibition on iconic artworks she has curated, which travels from Stockholm to Helsinki this summer, and how this wide-ranging thematic show was put together

What turns an artwork into an iconic artwork? Who defines a work as iconic, and how does such status evolve, endure or dissolve over time? These are questions that have distilled in the mind of Susanna Pettersson since she started out as a doctoral student in the 1990s studying the history of museums and their collections; questions that matured over the decades as her career path took her from curator to Director General of the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki, and now Director-general of Sweden’s Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, to bear fruit in the exhibition ‘Inspiration – Contemporary Art & Classics’.

Nowadays it is acknowledged that these are questions that can only be partly answered, through offering perspectives made conscious in a given place and time. But when the era of establishing museums began in Europe in the 19th century the (his)story of art was instilled with definite parameters, parameters that determined the art-historical canon and persisted in such a way that it is only relatively recently that they are being challenged, reinterpreted, and augmented.

‘It really started all those years ago in London when I sat in National Art Library of the V&A, reading old publications describing what was appreciated in early 19th-century art, with their clear detailed recommendations as what to keep in mind when travelling in Dresden, Berlin, Munich etc. So this research laid the ground for the conception of this exhibition,’ says Pettersson.

In putting together an exhibition on such a vast theme, the task facing the curators of presenting material that can be approached on many levels by a diverse audience, from the interested ‘general public’ to the artistic and academic community, was a complex one. ‘Inspiration – Contemporary Art & Classics’ achieves this in a number of ways: through mapping the key museums emerging in Europe in the 19th century, analysing their collections and the criteria for acquisitions, and tracing their influences on other museums, such as the Ateneum Art Museum itself; through pairing iconic art-historical works with contemporary artists’ reinterpretations of their themes; and through commissioning new works by contemporary artists to underline key ideas in the exhibition. An accompanying catalogue broadens out the contextual research, with essays by a range of international experts, and focus interviews spotlight specific contemporary artists in the show.

Featured image: Magnus Enckell, Angel (detail copy after Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Annunciation), 1895, oil on canvas, 100cm x 100cm. State Copy Collection, 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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Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Mt. Donia Sabuk, 1909, oil on wood, 14cm x 18 cm Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Petri Virtanen

Akseli Gallen-Kallela: Travels through his Colour Palette

Gill Crabbe, FNG Research

Materials research is a vital part of maintaining up-to date information on artworks in museum collections. Gill Crabbe meets FNG assistant researcher Hanne Tikkala, who is compiling a comprehensive database of the pigments used in Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s paintings

As one of the largest repositories of works by the Finnish visionary artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865–1931), the Finnish National Gallery is continuously looking to refine and update its technical and art-historical understanding of the artist and his oeuvre, including knowledge of the materials he used. With some of his finest paintings fetching six-figure sums on the international art market, this continuing research is an essential part of maintaining the most up-to-date information on the artist, especially as it is often the FNG that collectors and museums approach to provide authentication of works in their possession. Since Gallen-Kallela – an iconic figure in Finnish art of the ‘Golden Age’ – was prey to forgers even during his own lifetime, research into the artist’s materials becomes even more important. Moreover, such data is also of indispensable help in solving conservation and restoration-related questions and problems. It also contributes to an increasing understanding of the techniques the artist evolved during his career, as well as providing corroborative evidence for art historians in their research.

Since 2017, FNG’s Senior Conservation Scientist Seppo Hornytzkyj and his colleague Hanne Tikkala, assistant researcher in the FNG’s materials research laboratory, have been conducting an extensive analysis of the pigments Gallen-Kallela used, selecting works spanning his entire career, from 1880 until 1929. The research has been partly funded by the Finnish Cultural Foundation, which has awarded Tikkala three year-long grants to cover her salary to undertake this research work for her PhD under the auspices of the University of Jyväskylä.

Featured image: Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Mt. Donia Sabuk, 1909, oil on wood, 14cm x 18cm. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Petri Virtanen
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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Hugo Simberg, Fantasy, 1896, watercolour and gold on paper, 16cm x 15cm, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

European Revivals in 2020 and beyond

Gill Crabbe, FNG Research

Following the recent concluding conference of the Finnish National Gallery’s European Revivals research project, Gill Crabbe asks its keynote speakers, art historians Professor Murdo Macdonald and Professor Patricia Berman, to assess the impact of the ten-year initiative as they look to the future

In 2009, when the Finnish National Gallery initiated its European Revivals research project the main aim was to examine the phenomena surrounding European national revivals from a more wide-scale international perspective. This included looking for parallel processes and similarities in the cultural constructions of nationhood within the European region, at a time when national art-historical discourses had emphasised a specific local uniqueness of each cultural revivalist narrative. As one of the prime movers in the Project, Director of Collections Management at the FNG Riitta Ojanperä, pointed out: ‘We didn’t want to name the project “National Revivals” but rather “European Revivals” to emphasise the transnational aspect.’ The FNG thus set out to generate a series of international conferences organised by both themselves and by institutions in other countries, that would bring together both museum and academic scholarship, fostering and broadening international networks, stimulating and publishing new research, inspiring affiliated exhibitions, and encouraging a reassessment of existing art-historical narratives.

Ten years on, and six international conferences, scores of published papers and a number of exhibitions later, the scope of European revivals has evolved substantially, as could be seen in the wide-ranging presentations at the concluding conference organised by the Finnish National Gallery in January 2020 at the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki. During this period, the cultural revivalist discourse in art and art history has been re-examined and recontextualised, so that even the concept of a Golden Age in the long 19th century has come under scrutiny. As Patricia Berman, Theodora L. and Stanley H. Feldberg Professor of Art, Wellesley College, Massachussetts, noted in her keynote speech at the conference: ‘The idea of a Golden Age is always equivocal. When pictured in paint, it’s a perfect past in the midst of a tense present. That perfect past, in European Golden Ages was almost always an ethnic discourse, erasing or marginalising certain populations. What we increasingly and collectively see is how profoundly shaped by stereotypes our discipline has been and how to shape the tools to defuse and move beyond them.’

Indeed, in the collection of peer-reviewed papers by those who had contributed over the years which was published by the FNG to coincide with the 2020 conference, Riitta Ojanperä and Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, Chief Curator at the Ateneum Art Museum, who were both initiators of the project, wrote: ‘The issue of cultural revivals, whether national, universal or local, is far more wide-reaching, multidimensional and complex than we could possibly have imagined at the beginning of this journey.’ It is a journey that has centred around a series of conferences that has taken those involved on a round trip from Helsinki to Oslo, Krakow, Edinburgh and back to Helsinki, with institutions from these cities hosting them in an impressive example of international collaboration. Themes ranged from ‘Myths, Legends and Dreams of a Nation’ (2009) to ‘Artists’ Colonies and Nature’ (2015), ‘Aesthetic Values in the National Context’ (2014), ‘Modern Identities’ (2012) and ‘Cultural Mythologies around 1900’ (2017).

Featured image: Hugo Simberg, Fantasy, 1896, watercolour and gold on paper, 16cm x 15cm, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen
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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Featured image: Helene Schjerfbeck, Cypresses, Fiesole, 1894, oil on canvas, 43.5cm x 62.5cm, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

Beyond Borders

Gill Crabbe, FNG Research

The Helene Schjerfbeck exhibitions in London and Helsinki are a result of extensive international collaboration between the researchers, curators and the two institutions involved. Chief Curator of the Ateneum Art Museum Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff discusses the research processes, preparations and the themes that emerged for the two shows with Gill Crabbe

In 2018, when the Chief Curator of the Ateneum Art Museum Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff travelled to the UK to undertake new research in preparation for the Helene Schjerfbeck exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, she was keen to visit St Ives in Cornwall, as Schjerfbeck had done in the 1880s. Among other things von Bonsdorff hoped to find out whether any of the works known to have been sold in England, but whose whereabouts were currently unknown, might come to light.

‘This is the period in Schjerfbeck’s career that we don’t know so much about,’ she explains, ‘so it was a great opportunity to collaborate with the Royal Academy’s curator, Desiree de Chair, and really get to know more about the artist’s time in St Ives.’ Von Bonsdorff in fact spent two months in the UK alongside her counterparts at the RA, as part of her research for the exhibition, which has now travelled back to Finland to be presented in an expanded version at the Ateneum Art Museum. She was enabled by an innovative and generous professional development scheme in which the Finnish National Gallery provides opportunities for staff to work for an extended period in a museum or cultural institution abroad. ‘London is a very international scene, so for us it was important to be able to show Helene Schjerfbeck there – and like Jeremy Lewison, who curated the show with us, said, the RA is a perfect place to show Schjerfbeck.’

Von Bonsdorff travelled to Cornwall with Desiree de Chair, who was researching for the essay on the St Ives period for the catalogue. ‘I wanted to find out more about the times when Schjerfbeck was travelling and building her career,’ says von Bonsdorff. ‘We were there in March, at the same time of year that Schjerfbeck was there, to see the places where she was living, drawing and painting. St Ives has this extraordinary luminous light, steep streets and very particular air and atmosphere.’ While there, von Bonsdorff was struck by the primroses in bloom, as Schjerfbeck had used the flower as a motif in The Girl from St Ives (Redhead), from 1890. It is the only painting that the artist signed as being from St Ives, although at least 12 of her known paintings come from her time spent there.

Featured image: Helene Schjerfbeck, Cypresses, Fiesole, 1894, oil on canvas, 43.5cm x 62.5cm, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

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Helene Schjerfbeck, Self-Portrait with Palette I, 1937, tempera and oil on canvas, 44.5cm x 33.5cm Moderna Museet, Statens konstmuseer, Stockholm Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Yehia Eweis

Helene Schjerfbeck – only an Image?

Gill Crabbe, FNG Research

As the Helene Schjerfbeck exhibition opens at the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki, Gill Crabbe discusses the artists self-portraiture with contemporary art curator Patrik Nyberg and art historian Marja Lahelma 

Patrik, you are a curator at the Finnish National Gallerys Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma and you have just published your doctoral thesis on Helene Schjerfbecks self-portraits. How did you become interested in Schjerfbeck?

Patrik Nyberg I have always been interested in art that seems to critique or subvert its own representation, be it in a video, or any contemporary art, or painting from the modernist era or earlier, so I wanted to look at Helene Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits in this light.

Where would you place Helene Schjerfbecks self-portraits in the modernist canon?

PN Well, that’s a question I’m thinking about in my thesis – what is the modernist canon and what kind of painting is defined as modernist painting? I think Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits go beyond the parameters of how modernism is defined by its defenders, such as Clive Bell, Roger Fry and the Greenbergian tradition. These works also question the way that, in the postmodern era, we tend to define painting in the modernist era as self-sustained autonomous art and in favour of an autonomous subject. I think Helene Schjerfbeck’s self-portraits go beyond that idea and are more contemporary in a way.

Marja, you were the opponent for the public defence of Patrik’s doctoral thesis. You have seen the recent Helene Schjerfbeck exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, in which the self-portraits were given a central focus by presenting them chronologically in the room at the heart of the gallery space. What did you make of that kind of presentation – do you think this shows that the self-portraits are the most important of her works?

Marja Lahelma I thought it was quite powerful to walk into that room and as I had already read Patrik’s thesis I was aware of the fact that, although these self-portraits were presented as a chronological sequence, they didn’t really produce a narrative, which I liked. Apart from the early self-portraits, you couldn’t really see a progression that starts from likeness and representation, then going towards abstraction – it doesn’t really work that way with her.

So how did it work?

ML They are all such different kinds of works. In his thesis, Patrik discusses the performative aspect of these works and that became very clear to me in that room. It appeared almost as some kind of a game. I had the impression that Schjerfbeck was really conscious of what she was doing, that there was nothing accidental. I was also aware that these works don’t really say anything about who she was – for example that they reveal the soul – in fact there was nothing of that kind there, it was all about surface. I really liked that.

Featured image: Helene Schjerfbeck, Self-Portrait with Palette I, 1937, tempera and oil on canvas, 44.5cm x 33.5cm
Moderna Museet, Statens konstmuseer, Stockholm
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Yehia Eweis

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