Susanna Pettersson, PhD, Museum Director, Finnish National Gallery, Ateneum Art Museum
July 25 2017
In 1891 Eliel Aspelin-Haapkylä (1847–1917) published the art history book Suomalaisen taiteen historia pääpiirteissään which was the first ever art history presentation printed in Finnish. It was a supplement to Wilhelm Lübke’s famous book Grundriss der Kunstgeschichte (Outlines of the History of Art, 1860) that had been translated into several languages, including Finnish in 1893.
Aspelin-Haapkylä told the general story passionately. And he was certainly the right man to do the job: he had already written two artists’ monographs – one published in 1888 on the sculptor Johannes Takanen, and the other in 1890 on the painter Werner Holmberg. As one of the first art historians in Finland, he felt that the country needed to understand the importance of art and its development.
There were many publications that were to follow. By the end of the nineteenth and early 20th century, art historians such as Johan Jakob Tikkanen, Onni Okkonen and Johannes Öhquist continued to research and write the story of art. In addition to these general presentations, artists’ monographs also became increasingly important. The key artists all deserved an analysis of their lifetime achievements.
These early publications explain what was valued and why, what was regarded as good and what less so, and why certain artists became more celebrated than others. The authors were all gatekeepers of their own time, having several roles such as art history writers, critics, university professors, and active members of the art world, thus being in the possession of a fair amount of cultural, economic and societal capital. Their choices mattered a lot.
Contemporary research can revisit the formation of the history of art history. It can – and must – look into what was trending at the time, what the authors read and whom they followed, how their taste was built and why, who were their friends and how the professional networks were built. The archives of the artists add to the story in a significant way.
In terms of the historical material, we can still rely on archives: rich correspondence, minutes of meetings and other documents. The closer we come to the present, the thinner the material we leave behind. Thinking about my discussions with my international or in-house colleagues, or any discussions of any member of the art world – they are mostly floating in the cloud of emails or social media messages. And who knows, some of that material could be valuable one day.
The articles in this issue remind us of the importance of the source material for research: physical art works, oral history i.e. interviews that can still be made, material that already exists in the collections that can be revisited and analysed from today’s perspective, and documents such as artists’ letters that are being acquired for the collections.
Most importantly this issue of FNG Research reminds us – as all of them do – that we must continue asking questions. This is the only way forward and the gateway to new discoveries.
Featured image: One of the Finnish Art Society’s minute books shown open with additional inserts. Archive of the Finnish Art Society. Archive Collections, Finnish National Gallery.
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Minttu Juvonen