Saturday, November 07, 2015

In the Stream of Life - Alvar and Ragni Cawén (an exhibition)

Alvar Cawén: Taiteilijan vaimo [The Artist's Wife], 1925. Yksityiskokoelma. Kuva: Jari Kuusenaho / Tampereen taidemuseo. Do click to enlarge the images.
Ragni Cawén: Pihanäkymä [A View on a Courtyard], 1960-luku. Yksityiskokoelma. Kuva: Jari Kuusenaho / Tampereen taidemuseo
Tampereen taidemuseo / Tampere Art Museum. Puutarhakatu 34, 33230 Tampere
12th September 2015 - 10th January 2016
In the Stream of Life - Alvar and Ragni Cawén
Over 230 works of art (paintings, prints, sculptures) and furniture, painting equipment, sketchbooks, photographs, letters, and documents.
Curator: Riitta Konttinen.

The book to the exhibition:
Riitta Konttinen: Elämänvirrassa - Alvar ja Ragni Cawén [In the Stream of Life - Alvar and Ragni Cawén]. Edited by Liisa Steffa. Graphic design: Heikki Kalliomaa. 312 pages. Helsinki: Kustannusosakeyhtiö Siltala, 2015.

The official introduction:

An artist couple

"Towards the end of her life, Ragni Cawén (1891—1981) observed: “We loved each other boundlessly. There was nothing that we wouldn’t have done for each other.” By that time, she had been a widow for decades. Her husband Alvar Cawén (1886—1935) died only eleven years after they were married, as their life together had come under way."

"Both Alvar and Ragni (née Holmberg) grew up in families involved in the arts, and painting was natural career choice for both of them. When they were married in 1924, both had studied art in Helsinki and Paris. Alvar had become known for his radical colourism and paintings influenced by Cubism and he had held several solo exhibitions. Ragni proceeded at a slower pace, not sure whether to choose a career in the applied arts or the fine arts. She, too, held a solo exhibition before marrying, but that was the end of painting for her for the time being. Although Alvar would have wanted her to continue, she felt that there wasn’t room for two artists in the same family."

"The Cawéns’ studio and residence in Fabianinkatu street in Helsinki was known for its comfort and ingenious solutions. Since they did not have too much money, they sought to make as many things as they could with their own hands. Both husband and wife were also interested in old objects that were still regarded as junk in the interwar years. The comfortable home and its hospitable residents attracted friends, the closest being the artist couples Eva Törnwall-Collin and Marcus Collin and Signe Hammarsten-Jansson and Viktor (Faffan) Jansson. Tove Jansson has described their parties in her autobiographical book Bildhuggarens dotter (The Sculptor’s Daughter)."

"After the death of Alvar, Ragni began to paint again and she managed to create an extensive oeuvre. Her paintings are spontaneous and direct and she described herself as a “natural” talent as a painter. She regarded Alvar’s contribution to art, however, to be far more significant, for it required greater effort. Alvar Cawén was one of the leading representatives of early Modernism in Finland.
"

The stream of life in art

"In the Stream of Life – Alvar and Ragni Cawén is an exhibition presenting an extensive selection of works by these two different artists, who nonetheless complemented each other. The title of the exhibition comes from Alvar’s notebook in which he describes his experiences in the stream of life in Paris, the same stream of life that he also found in the art that he saw. It also constituted the core of his own work: the stream carries along with it people whose joys and sorrows he depicts in a painful yet subtle manner. Music is also important, and the “musical colours” of his works are often mentioned. Alvar Cawén was a refined and restrained colourist, while Ragni Cawén was unbridled in her celebration of colour, finding her main subject matter on her trips to Southern Europe."

AA: Alvar and Ragni Cawén are among the most highly regarded artists in Finland. My true initiation to Alvar Cawén took place in the big 1978 Ateneum exhibition (216 works), which made a deep impression. I did not see the first double retrospective of Alvar and Ragni Cawén in 2009 at Didrichsen, curated by Riikka Laczak and linked to the first book where the couple was discussed together as artists; there was a simultaneous exhibition of Kim Simonsson which leads me to believe that that retrospective may not have been extensive.

Be that as it may, Tampere Art Museum gives a lot of space to the intensive and productive career of Alvar Cawén who died too young and the long career of Ragni Cawén who got really started first after the death of her beloved husband.

Riitta Konttinen, the curator and the author of the highly readable and splendidly illustrated new book to the exhibition, is an expert on Finnish artist couples. She has written, among other things, the books Taiteilijapareja [Artist Couples, 1991], Alvar & Ragni Cawén (Didrichsen, 2009), and Modernistipareja [Modernist Couples, 2011]. She curated the big and inspired Artist Couples exhibition at Retretti in 2011. As I have not read Konttinen's previous Cawén book I cannot compare it with the new one.

This exhibition is a very gratifying art experience with a strong sense of the main theme which is colour for both Alvar and Ragni Cawén. The dramatic turning-point in Alvar Cawén's life was his bicycle accident in 1903 where his optic nerve was damaged, a result of which was a revelation of colour and, after recovery, a determination to become a painter. Colour is the main drive in Cawén's art, and this exhibition is interesting to see in the context of a simultaneous tribute to the art critic and collector Sigurd Frosterus at Amos Anderson Art Museum. The architect Frosterus even wrote his dissertation on the problem of colour in painting. Frosterus was an admirer of Cawén's and a speaker at Alvar Cawén's funeral.

We get to follow Alvar Cawén's development from a skilled young realist of often huge and dramatic canvases to the full revelation of pure colour during his first Paris stays in 1907-1909 and to the impact of cubism (Cézanne, Picasso) during his next stays in Paris in 1912-1914, his loose connections to the Septem and November groups of Finnish modernists, the long honeymoon in Italy in 1924 where Alvar was most impressed by the spirituality of the late medieval and early Renaissance painters such as Giotto and Fra Angelico, and the tendency to matte surfaces. Since 1924 Cawén paints many of his most profound masterpieces. There is a unique spirituality in his late landscapes, three of the very best of which have been collected in the final room where also his work for altarpieces is on display. Otherwise many of his greatest paintings have been hung in the biggest hall around the stairway. Sigrid Schauman summed up that the theme of Alvar Cawén's art was the struggle of the spirit towards freedom.

There is a partly chronologic dimension in the exhibition; and partly it is thematical. We get a good idea of themes such as the nude, the children, the musical, the religious, and hunting in Alvar Cawén's art. He was also a soulful portrait painter. His favourite subject: his beloved wife, Ragni Cawén.

Studying my copy of the 1978 Alvar Cawén programme guide where the illustrations are in black and white is a dramatic confirmation of the essential role of colour in Cawen's art. For instance the painting The Violinist (1922) is almost unrecognizable in black and white.

Ragni Cawén was Alvar's student and at first in his spell, but after his death she found her personal style. She was also a colourist, but completely different. She had an increasing interest in glowing, vibrant colours. She was inspired by the Finnish summer but also by trips to Italy (including Sicily), France, and Holland. Late in life she discovered Lapland, also its gorgeous autumn colours which she caught in flaming reds. She never switched to abstraction but was always bent to the pure painterliness of colour, uninhibitedly exposing the texture of the oil paint.

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