There are not that many people that can boast about being 100 years old and many of those cannot claim to be artists, especially artists of such renown as Åke Hellman (born 1915). A Shared Atelier is an exhibition at Kunsthalle Helsinki that takes you on a journey through his life with his cherished wife Karin Hellman (née Wisuri, 1915 – 2004). She wasn’t lucky enough to reach her husband’s ripe old age.
A wide scope of genres is represented by the works of this couple that lived in Porvoo, a small town east of Helsinki. Their children Åsa and Karl-Johan are still alive to give some insight into this exhibition of over 150 pieces stretching from the 1930s to the 2000s. We also get a glimpse of what it was like to live with them. Åsa explains,
“Father was quite analytical and cool and loved to discuss and talk about art while Mother was very much in tune with nature and could be described as an earth mother.”
Massive collages line the walls of the museum depicting abstract images and shapes, some colourful, others in ‘black and white’, as it were with fine dark thread sewn onto cream fabric. Themes range from trees to emotional outbursts as in ‘Scream’, prompted by the disproportionately small snake, fear detectable in the eyes of the by-standers. ‘Clay Medals’ show a series of ceramic buttons created by Åsa, a collaboration between mother and daughter. Karin’s paintings too span a range of eras and styles.
Portraitist of his time, Åke Hellman has painted many of his contemporaries. The President’s wives Sylvi Kekkonen (1978) and Tellervo Koivisto (1990), bishops, professors, doctors and others have sat in his studio to be immortalised. There’s a distinct change of technique from the 50s to his later paintings. When I ask Åsa about the ‘stick figures’ in some, she explains that one must keep in mind that he was a Professor of Art at the University, that he was teaching art and hence, probably the simplification. It’s extraordinary to compare these naïve, but yet beautiful, works with the more voluptuous nudes which are striking in their maturity. Then he delves into cubism and then into surrealism, a wide palette indeed, not only of colour but of variety too.
Owned by the people, for the people, is what HAM is and even though it’s Christmas, it’s got nothing to do with its culinary counterpart or has no allusions to its verbal use as in hamming it up. The collection of the Helsinki Art Museum numbers more than 9000 works and is located in their newly renovated building in Tennispalatsi and on the streets and in public areas for all to see. Quite fitting then are the superlative works of Ai Weiwei, focusing on his wooden sculptures, a material that Finns are more than familiar with.
Defender of freedom of speech and expression, he knows all too well that art is not going to change a system but that opposition to that system has to be put under the glaring spotlight. He has suffered for this having been imprisoned for 81 days on a trumped up charge of tax evasion. Yet he has managed to maintain his sense of humour and warmth, his gentle nature as can be seen in the video with his son. Lover of heavy metal music and antiques as ancient as those from the Qing Dynasty, the contradictions are clear in his ability to take apart, chop up, repurpose and re-assemble some rare pieces, much to the alarm of conservationists.
The White House made its debut here in Helsinki. A huge temple-like structure standing 80m tall is made from the wood used in a Qing Dynasty residential building. It’s been recovered in white paint and depicts a protest against the urbanisation of China but also perhaps has some connotations with the well-known US landmark, showing the middle finger to this icon of power.
His tenderness and concern with children is clear in Garbage Container based on a true story of 5 boys, all cousins, ranging between the ages of 8 and 12. Scavenging on the streets for food, they found shelter in a rubbish bin, lit a fire to keep warm and died of carbon monoxide poisoning as a result. This is a harsh criticism of the number of children whose parents are migrant workers far from home. Wry too, if you consider the story of The Little Match Girl who died in the cold and widely purported in China as a symbol of Western negligence. This too is one of the new works never seen before but now at HAM in Helsinki.
What struck me most was the minute and skilled craftsmanship of the antiques now unrecognisable from their former appearance. The intricacy and attention to the artistry of the perfectionists who first created these objects is what makes Ai Weiwei one of the leading artists of our time. From the tiniest detail to the mammoth structures he creates, his art in the same way defies time and spans centuries way into the future.
Ai Weiwei’s exhibition will be at the Helsinki Art Museum until 28 February 2016.
Let’s pretend you were a Hi Fi specialist and businessman on a trip to Paris and to while away some hours, you slip into an art gallery. Something magical happens while you’re in there, some light goes on in the deep recesses of your psyche and you ‘get it’ for the first time. You buy a piece or two, hang it on a wall at home, light up a cigarette and start gazing at it intently, uncovering and analysing every detail of the shapes you see before you. This leads you to another and another and yet another that holds your attention and pleases you without diminishing in interest as the years go on. There is no particular plan behind your acquisitions, only feelings and fascination.
This is the story of Erling Neby who found himself in Galerie Denise René in Paris in the 1970’s. The revelation that occurred there has blossomed into a collection of concrete art rivalling the most important in the world in his collection of some 2000 to 2500 works.
Colour, Line and Square comprise the paintings and sculptures of artists spanning genres from op art to geometric abstraction. I especially liked Peinture avec des billes bleus by Romanian artist and sculpture Damian Horia. Look at it from a distance and it looks like a sculpture, come closer and the intricate painting simply stuns you with its detail and fine nuances. The Finn Matti Kujasalo does something similar with his black and white Sommitelma palying tricks with your eyes. Lars Gunnar Nordström’sTriple Formation stands tall in a space of its own and draws you in to examine it for its carefully composed juxtaposition of shapes in blue, black and cream.
Erling Neby seems undeterred by trends, famous names or genres. He knows what he likes and that sets him apart from the investor who has a sense of taste but is hungrier for the increased revenue that might line his pockets in time to come. Erling Neby has sold 5 of his paintings.
This is what goes on in my infantile mind”, he says pointing at the screaming faces in psychedelic colours that adorn his paintings. He’s the outrageous Davor Gobac of Psihomodo Pop, the punk rock band that has a serious cult following who are at the New Jelacic Mansion to greet us. What’s more, the exhibition hangs in a former wheat mill listed as a Grade 0 building i.e. ‘don’t you touch it’ at the New Jelacic Castle listed at a mere Grade 2 meaning ‘be careful where you touch it’.
Like the Croatian men I’ve met, he’s a character with a great, albeit, slightly grey sense of humour which includes himself. Handsome he is, with an eye for the ladies.
The boys bragged of being the first to paint abstract art but while she was honing her skills on landscapes and portraiture, minutely depicting every detail of realism, she was exploring her higher conscious.
Spring Landscape – Scene from the Bay of Lomma 1892
The ‘boys’ included the likes of Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, František Kupka and Piet Mondrian. But where was she at that time, the early 1900’s? Where was her art? Why don’t we know more about her? Smart lady. She knew and surmised that the public simply wouldn’t be ready for it and kept it all hidden in a loft somewhere in Stockholm only to be released at least 20 years after her death. It was the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm that took the plunge followed by highly successful showings in Berlin, Malaga and Louisiana.
Now for the first time in Helsinki, we are able to marvel at her broad scope of styles ranging from minute realism through naivety to huge bold sweeping brush strokes to geometricality that is intense in its complete balance and accuracy.
As Iris Müller-Westermann, curator of the Moderna Museet puts it, “She didn’t say she was the first, she was the best, that she did it. Her approach was different. She believed that she was merely an instrument of spiritual forces who worked through her. Her quest was to understand the world and her place in it.”
Hilma af Klint – A Pioneer of Abstraction was on show at Kunsthalle from 16 August until 28 September 2014.