Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, PhD, Chief Curator, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum, co-curator of ‘Magnus Enckell’ exhibition 2020−21
Also published in Hanne Selkokari (ed.), Magnus Enckell 1870−1925. Ateneum Publications Vol. 141. Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum, 2020. Transl. Don McCracken
Magnus Enckell may not be a household name but some of his works are very well known. Boy with Skull (1892) and The Awakening (1894) are paintings that have retained their fascination for generations in Finnish art history. But what was Enckell like, as a man and an artist? How did his career begin and how did it progress from the late 19th to the early 20th century?
Enckell was already an influential person from a young age, and his interests and bold artistic experiments were the subject of much attention. His artistic career differed from others of his generation, not least because from the start, he received support from Finland’s most prominent artist, Albert Edelfelt, who also later served as his mentor, yet he was also very international in his artistic taste. When many of his fellow artists were involved with the transnational ideas of national revival, Enckell’s interests were focussed on international art and especially on Symbolism.
Enckell’s life as an artist is intriguingly contradictory, and on a personal level he was apparently complex and often divided opinion. Yet he had many supporters, and he influenced ideas and perceptions about art among his close artist friends. Enckell was also good at networking and he forged his own international connections with artists in Paris. Unlike his contemporaries, he worked and socialised closely with women artists, making no distinction between the sexes, which was very unusual in the late 19th century. In his youth he enjoyed deep mutual appreciation and friendships with Ellen Thesleff, Beda Stjernschantz, and the sculptors Sigrid af Forselles and Madeleine Jouvray, although these relationships changed with the times. As we will see, Enckell was able to move smoothly between the Finnish and international art scenes, private and public, between a wide variety of worlds, both at home and abroad.
Magnus Enckell’s early output, from 1884 to 1896, was prolific but also full of experimentation and ambitious exploration. As with many other artists, it is also fragmented, and not just because he is known to have destroyed some of his work from this time: this makes it rather difficult to compile a coherent picture of the early stages of his career. Jaakko Puokka’s 1949 monograph on Enckell provides a comprehensive, chronological list of works but, since many are undated, my research has led me to form slightly different conclusions.
 Johannes Öhqvist. Suomen taiteen historia. Helsinki: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Kirja, 1912, 453−57.
 See Marja Lahelma. ‘Beda Stjernschantz’, 70−71; Anu Utriainen. ‘Sigrid af Forselles’, 94−95 and Hanna-Reetta Schreck. ‘“The you of my youth” – Magnus Enckell and Ellen Thesleff’, 35−37, in Hanne Selkokari (ed.), Magnus Enckell 1870−1925. Ateneum Publications Vol. 141. Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum, 2020.
 Enckell is known to have destroyed works that he was unhappy with in the 1890s in particular. Jaakko Puokka. Magnus Enckell: Ihminen ja taiteilija. Helsinki: Suomalainen tiedeakatemia & Otava, 1949, 83; Salme Sarajas-Korte. Suomen varhaissymbolismi ja sen lähteet. Helsinki: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Otava, 1966, 197.
 See the new Illustrated Catalogue compiled for the Magnus Enckell exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum, 23 October 2020 to 14 February 2021, https://research.fng.fi/2021/01/23/magnus-enckell-illustrated-catalogue.
Featured image: Magnus Enckell, Death’s Walk, 1896, watercolour and pencil on paper, 50.5cm x 67.5cm, Ahlström Collection, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Jenni Nurminen
Read more — Download ‘Tones of Black – Magnus Enckell’s Early Work’, by Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, as a PDF