Sunday, August 09, 2009

Two Faces of the Modern (art exhibition)

Modernin kahdet kasvot. Exhibition at Amos Anderson Art Museum, Curated by Mr. Timo Valjakka. Helsinki, 29 May 2009 - 20 Sep 2009. Viewed 9 Aug 2009. - Book: Timo Valjakka: Modernin kahdet kasvot. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 2009.

An amazing exhibition full of discoveries for lovers of Finnish art.

The official presentation:

"The Association of Finnish Fine Art Foundations (STSY) presents the exhibition Two Faces of the Modern with art from the 1920s and 30s from its member collections. The exhibition, curated by Timo Valjakka, exhibits some eighty paintings and sculptures by artists central to the period. Several exhibits are on public display for the first time.

The period between the world wars is not very well-known as a whole. The art scene in the first two decades of the newly independent Finnish state can be characterized as rich, versatile and internationally oriented with strong contradictions. The young nation looked towards the arts in search of an identity, which in a way received two outward faces due to the wishes and expectations placed on it. Some looked towards Paris or similar metropolises, embracing Cubism and Futurism, while others turned towards Finnish history and subject matter thought to pertain to the Finnish national identity. Some renowned artists such as Wäinö Aaltonen, Ragnar Ekelund and Väinö Kamppuri were able to unite these two opposing strands, creating a fine-tuned and controlled modernism.

The Great Depression of 1929 was a turning point. It had a direct impact on art, also in Finland. Artists faced hard times. Some went door-to-door selling their work, while others found supporters in the larger banks and in the wood processing- and paper industry – the backbone of Finnish exports. Hence, art from the decades between the world wars is thoroughly represented in the STSY member collections.

When the economy improved in the late 1930s, Finland resumed active participation in the World Fairs. Exhibition pavilions designed by Alvar Aalto shaped Finland's outward image towards that of a modern welfare state, an image that is still widespread. The success rubbed off on artists, whose visual expression became freer in the wake of developments in architecture and design. However, the war that started in the autumn of 1939 put an end to this promising development, bringing the young nation right back to square one."

This is the second of a series of remarkable exhibitions based on the collections of seven great private art collections comprising some 5.000 artworks. Although the artists on display belong to Finland's best and best-known, included are many works that the general audience has never seen before.

The reproductions in the exhibition book do not convey the quality of light and colour of the paintings very well.

The artists on display include Birger Carlstedt (an Art Deco design sketch for Chat Doré, 1929), Väinö Kamppuri, Väinö Kunnas, Yrjö Ollila, Ragni Cawén (A Suburban Street, 1923), Ilmari Aalto (Still Life, 1927, very different from the reproduction in the book), Tyko Sallinen (one of my special favourite artists with several paintings I don't think I had seen before), Wäinö Aaltonen (the cubistic Aleksis Kivi bronze, 1929), Vilho Lampi, Martti Ranttila, Sulho Sipilä, Helene Schjerfbeck (A Red-Cheeked Girl, 1927), Eero Järnefelt (The Läskelä Factory, 1921, J.K. Paasikivi, 1931), Antti Favén, Santeri Salokivi (a series of paintings of The Helsinki Market Square, 1930), and, in the most remarkable entity in the exhibition, Marcus Collin (From the Helsinki Market Square, 1931, a series of pastels, etc.). Unforgettable is Aukusti Tuhka's wartime canvas Kollaa River (1941 / 1961).

Valjakka's curatorial treasure hunt is rewarding. He does not basically change the general view of an era seen as grey, stuffy and isolated in Finnish art history. According to Valjakka, too, a chasm opened in the 1930s between Finnish modern art and the rest of the Western world, and one had to wait until the 1980s to see it narrow.

Following Valjakka: Modernism had strong roots in Finland before the Independence in 1917 and the Civil War in 1918. But the young, agrarian republic did not cultivate contacts with the avant-garde of international art. The general goal was to create a culture easily comprehensible for all and based on rustic traditions. Provocatively, Valjakka hints that the art ideology of the fiercely anti-communist Finland was not that far removed from Stalin's "socialist realism".

In this thankless atmosphere, however, talented artists created fine works such as on display now.

No comments: