Hanna-Leena Paloposki, PhD, Senior Researcher, Finnish National Gallery
23 July 2020
The extraordinary situation we faced this spring with the Covid-19 virus and the subsequent lockdown prompted many interesting art-related phenomena on the web, among them the amusing challenge to the general public to restage famous artworks in their homes. People used their imaginations to set the scenes and role-play the figures in real-life artworks, then posted myriad images of the real artworks alongside their ‘art selfies’ on social media. This quarantine art challenge brings to mind, quite naturally, the tableaux vivants tradition that was flourishing in the 19th century and has survived to some extent up to today. As people around the world chose their favourites among the well-known – iconic – artworks, it would be interesting to know which ones inspired people most, both internationally and in Finland. What are the most iconic artworks today? I do hope somebody is already studying that.
Another kind of look to inspiration and iconic works is the Ateneum Art Museum’s current exhibition, which opened a couple of weeks after the museums in Finland were allowed to reopen at the beginning of June. ‘Inspiration – Contemporary Art & Classics’ presents art that draws inspiration from iconic masterpieces, created by contemporary artists. These include internationally known artists, like Marina Abramović, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Nancy Fouts, Ola Kolehmainen, Yinka Shonibare CBE, Jeff Koons, Sara Masüger and Joseph Kosuth. The exhibition was first on show at the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, but only for a month because of the lockdown, and now it is on display with slightly modified contents at the Ateneum.
The canon of iconic masterpieces varies in different times, but there seem to be artists and artworks that have maintained this status for a long period, some of them since Giorgio Vasari published his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, in 1550. Italian Renaissance art still comes very high on the list, as does Dutch Golden Age art with Rembrandt at the top. Besides the contemporary artworks that are inspired by these masters, the exhibition at the Ateneum features works from the historical collection of copies at the Finnish National Gallery. These include copies of works by European masters, created, for example, by Magnus Enckell and Helene Schjerfbeck, which reveal to us what was appreciated at the turn of the 19th century.
At the Ateneum show, there are also 10 display cases highlighting the exhibition theme via the archive and library collections of the Finnish National Gallery. These were curated by an expert team working in the Archive and Library Unit at the FNG, and I had the pleasure of being a member of this team. I find this element an essential part of the exhibition (although, I admit, I may not be objective in this matter, having worked for a long time with the archive collections). The material goes back to the foundation in 1846 of the precursor to the FNG, the Finnish Art Society, and to the construction of the Ateneum building in the 1880s with its façade programme representing the iconic artists and architects. It covers themes like the role of copies both in art studies and in the collections, the importance of photographs documenting historical works for artists and art education before the time of the internet, the art history books promoting the iconic status of artworks and museums, and naturally iconic artists, too. There are handwritten documents, from letters to inventory lists, a wide range of photographic material, and art history books and picture portfolios on display. The archival material is indispensable for art history research, that is obvious, but our exhibition once again proves how this kind of material can widen the context of the subject for those who want to deepen their knowledge. The ‘Inspiration’ exhibition is a dialogue between history and contemporary art at its best.
In this issue of the FNG Research we take a look at the theme and research behind the ‘Inspiration exhibition’ from two angles. Gill Crabbe talks about them with one of the main curators of the exhibition, Susanna Pettersson, former Director of the Ateneum Art Museum and now Director General of the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, but also a researcher and museum historian herself. Besides that we republish two excellent articles from the exhibition catalogue. Michaela Giebelhausen, from Central St Martins, London, writes in her article ‘Page, Canvas, Wall: Visualising the History of Art’ about ‘how the history of art, embodied in art-historical canons, schools, periods, and aesthetic standards, has been conceptualised through writing, the organisation of collections, and the decoration of new museum buildings’. In his article ‘1842 – The Art History of Handbooks and Anachronic Icons’ Dan Karlholm, art history professor at Södertörn University, Stockholm, discusses two buildings that were commissioned to express the German spirit and Germanness – the Walhalla and Cologne Cathedral – and how they are actually both anachronic and contemporary, mixing different historical styles and elements.
In this issue FNG Research proudly continues its commitment to publish new research as peer-reviewed articles. In Dr Ari Tanhuanpää’s article, a totally different kind of approach to an artwork or its existence is offered, through discussing Jacques Derrida’s quasi-concept the reste and the neologism he derived from it, restance. The article consists of Tanhuanpää’s reading of an essay by Derrida entitled Athens, Still Remains (2010) (Demeure, Athènes, 2009), which the philosopher wrote to accompany photographs taken by Jean-François Bonhomme in Athens. In his article, Tanhuanpää’s starting point, however, is a tiny painting in the FNG collections at the Sinebrychoff Art Museum, depicting a dancer, which has a great deal of its paint missing. Tanhuanpää suggests that the painting’s mode of being is not subsistence, but rather restance. When looking at the painting we are actually standing before the reste.
Let’s get back to the earlier and contemporary modes of making tableaux vivants: in the ‘Inspiration’ exhibition, in one of the showcases, there is a photograph from the FNG Collection of Archived Photo Prints featuring members of Turku Artists’ Association, taken probably in 1932. The artists are copying a very famous and iconic artwork – see the picture above this editorial.
With the current issue of FNG Research I wish you all a very inspirational summer.
Featured image: Adaptation of Rembrandt van Rijn’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. Featuring members of Turku Artists’ Association from left Hannes Siivonen, Ilmari Kaijala, Aarre Aaltonen, Kalle Rautiainen, Yrjö Liipola, Jussi Vikainen, Einari Wehmas and Otto Mäkilä. The cadaver is Johan Dielhardt. The boy on the left is possibly Heikki Liipola, probably 1932.
Photograph: probably by Atelier Alppila.
Collection of Archived Photo Prints. Archive Collections, Finnish National Gallery