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.
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