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.
As modest as the Finns may be, selfies have caught on here too, dating all the way back to the 19th Century. The exhibition Me: Self-Portraits Through Time is a collection of 160 works by 102 artists from Finland ranging through the Finnish Golden Age to noteworthy contemporary ones.
In the early days they were called self-portraits and perhaps the focus was slightly different from today’s aren’t-I-stunning approach. ‘The eyes are the window of the soul’ is an expression we’re all familiar with, but what if you’re too shy or simply don’t want to reveal it to the onlooker, but you still want to be immortalised? Is it about immortality or just vanity?
Thank God for Justus von Liebig who invented the mirror in 1835. Without it, some of these would never have existed and while they all used it, only a few admit to the fact and show it in their pieces. But even mirrors can be too self-revealing and hence reflections come into distorted focus in the metal of blenders as in Pauliina Turakka Purhonen’s Oaig, referring to the only visible letters on the cardboard Laphroaig box in which she keeps her paintbrushes. Or could it be a groan, an utterance of loathing? Or the sculpture in wood of 84 year-old Radoslaw Gryta strangely staring out at you from the backdrop of honeycombs.
As a foreigner, I find the Finnish style rather intriguing. Seeing the exhibition as a whole, shows that most of these are realistic in the way they bare themselves to the general public. Some are perhaps flattering, some are distinctly distorted, others horrifying and abstruse. While you wonder about the character in the painting or photo or sculpture, it also brings you to a point of self-searching and your own reaction to it. The creator must have had this in mind and while they couldn’t predict the response, they could control it to an extent. This is where emotion comes into play. Seeing the irony and humour in Sampsa Sarparanta’s The White Man’s Burden, the Heidi man-girl ridiculously laughing back at you, the grotesque Last Man Standing evoking fear, the sadness, the playfulness, the sorrow – it all draws you into their world and their feelings at the time of execution. Finally, you walk out with a bag of mixed emotions to sort through and the memory of faces you never knew but will never forget.
Niki De Saint Phalle – Kunsthalle, Helsinki 20 August – 20 November 2016.
It’s impossible to tell what your child is going to grow up to be. The process of bodily creation is over and the newborn is set free in a world largely made up of their parents’ circumstances. When Niki de Saint Phalle was born in 1930, the world didn’t know what had hit it. She was going to make a splash and a big one at that.
Art became her therapy, creativity, her life force. As she put it, “If I didn’t have art, I would have to be pregnant all the time because I can’t live without creating something.” At a time when the bourgeois female was expected to be, putting it crudely, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, she was out there sculpting voluptuous females, both black and white, in colourful bathing costumes, dancing away to their hearts’ content. She called them ‘nanas’, a derogatory word corresponding to ‘broad’, or in Émile Zola’s eponymous novel, ‘whore’. Her rebellion against the slim female figure, a throw back to her time when she herself was working as a fashion model, was blatant. At a time when Black was hardly beautiful, she was not ashamed to colour her figures dark or couple them with white men as in her Le Palais. And then the guns and the shooting. Not the archetypal feminine activity one would associate with the women of the day, she excelled at it and became the first performance artist, shooting her works to bits with precision and planning and skill, allowing the paint to explode at exactly the point where she wanted it to happen. The process was as much art as the finished work.
In other words, don’t be fooled by the vibrant colours, the naivety and playfulness you encounter when looking at her pieces. She is dead serious about joie de vivre and wants everyone, including children, to exclaim with delight when they see her sculptures or explore her Tarot Garden in Tuscany. Her message is clear, art for all and all for art.
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.
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.