Sunday, December 31, 2017

Veljekset von Wright / Bröderna von Wright / Brothers von Wright (exhibition)

Ferdinand von Wright: Forest Landscape from Haminalahti (1880). Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Pakarinen. This magical painting looks profoundly different when examined at close range. God is in the detail. Please do click on the images to enlarge them.

Veljekset von Wright / Bröderna von Wright / Brothers von Wright
    Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, 27.10.2017–25.2.2018
    Over 300 works on display.
    Museum director: Susanna Pettersson.
    Chief curator of the von Wright exhibition: Anne-Marie Pennonen.
    Viewed on 29 December, 2017

The catalogue:
Veljekset von Wright: taide, tiede ja elämä / ed. Erkki Anttonen and Anne-Maria Pennonen; valokuvaus: Hannu Aaltonen, Ainur Nasretdin, Hannu Pakarinen. Helsinki: Ateneumin taidemuseo, 2017. Printed: Helsinki: Libris Oy. 205 p., illustrated; 28 cm; hard cover. Series: Ateneumin julkaisut, 1238-4712; n:o 97. Written by: Anne-Maria Pennonen and 13 others. Art: Magnus, Wilhelm and Ferdinand von Wright.
    Three editions: Finnish, Swedish, English.

Official synopsis: "The artist brothers Magnus, Wilhelm and Ferdinand von Wright, who lived during the period of the Grand Duchy of Finland, are known as painters of landscapes, still lifes and nature subjects, and as scientific illustrators. This exhibition will introduce new perspectives, as it explores the historical significance of the von Wright brothers for Finnish art, culture and science. Adding a contemporary art angle to the exhibition are the artists Sanna Kannisto and Jussi Heikkilä."

From the official information: "The artist brothers Magnus, Wilhelm and Ferdinand von Wright are known as painters of portraits, landscapes, and nature subjects, especially birds, and as creators of scientific illustrations of flora and fauna. New contemporary works by Sanna Kannisto and Jussi Heikkilä will complement this colourful major exhibition. The exhibition is part of the programme celebrating the centenary of Finland's independence.

Scientifically accurate works convey a love of nature

"The von Wright brothers grew up in a manor in Haminalahti, Kuopio. The brothers' interest in nature originated in the hobby of hunting, as practised by their father, Major Henrik Magnus von Wright. Skilled hunters, the brothers began to document the birds they caught. Through watching and painting birds over a long period of time, the brothers gained a wide knowledge of nature. Their works are characterised by detailed scientific accuracy. At the same time, their art conveys a special love of nature. The works reflect the aesthetic values of their time, the 19th century."

"The eldest of the brothers, Magnus (1805–1868), known especially for his landscape paintings, was an influential cultural figure in Helsinki. He worked as a teacher at the University of Helsinki drawing school and as an expert at the Finnish Art Society. Wilhelm (1810–1887) was active mostly in Stockholm and on the island of Orust on the west coast of Sweden. He worked as a scientific illustrator for the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The most famous of the brothers is Ferdinand (1822–1906), who was one of the first visual artists in Finland to make a living from art. He enjoyed the longest career of the brothers, and later attained the status of an old master and earned respect from young artists.

A sobering exhibition to make us think about lessons from nature

""The exhibition is in many ways connected to the present. The themes in the von Wright brothers' art are current at a time when the balance between man and nature, as well as the earth's carrying capacity, is becoming critical for our future", says the museum director, Susanna Pettersson."

"This exhibition will introduce new perspectives, as it explores the historical significance of the von Wright brothers for Finnish art, culture and science. The exhibition will feature more than 300 works from the Ateneum collection, and from Finnish and Swedish public and private collections. Exhibits will also include birds stuffed by Magnus von Wright, courtesy of the Finnish Museum of Natural History. The chief curator of the exhibition is Anne-Maria Pennonen. In 2018, the exhibition will travel to the Kuopio Art Museum and the Tikanoja Art Museum in Vaasa."

"The brothers' works will be accompanied by new art by the photographic artist Sanna Kannisto (born 1974) and the conceptual artist Jussi Heikkilä (born 1952). Kannisto photographs nature subjects as still lifes, as she takes the photography studio out into nature. She sees herself as a kind of a collector, adding species, one after another, to her own collection. In his works, Heikkilä comments on the state of the earth and, above all, on the significance of birds as indicators of the state of the environment and the burden on the seas.

Magnus von Wright: View from Katajanokka (1868). Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen. - This startling landscape of the old Katajanokka is unrecognizable for a contemporary viewer. This part of the city belongs now to the touristic center of Helsinki, but this view is anti-touristic, indeed.

AA: The von Wright brothers were among the founding fathers of the young Finnish art. The youngest of them, Ferdinand, lived until 1906, and during his last decades he was already considered old-fashioned, yet admired and respected as an old master and teacher.

The brothers' breakthrough coincided with the breakthrough of photography, yet they continued to work with photorealistic accuracy, and, indeed, photography still had many limitations, and painting and drawing was usually still the best way to produce a faithful visual reproduction of reality. Not least because its ability to render colour in precise nuances.

The brothers portrayed life in scientific detail. When they painted a fish, the number of scales was precisely correct. They were masters and key contributors in legendary foundational complete visual sources of Nordic birds, fish, and butterflies. They also contributed to the first comprehensive visual atlas of Finland's major views.

For Finland and Sweden the brothers von Wright have the same legendary status as Audubon has for the U.S.

My first reaction to many works of the von Wright school is: these are academic illustrations, ultra sharp and ultra bright like early digital cinema, but lifeless, without a feeling of atmosphere, objects captured in bullet time (and indeed the brothers first shot the animal, then painted it), frozen, and airless. They are figurative and representational in a narrow sense: they capture the external surface detail impeccably, but a sense of breathing, blood circulation, and movement is missing, even in the legendary Fighting Capercaillies painting which looks like a reproduction of three stuffed birds, which it is. The fighting spirit is missing. We merely see dead puppets.

In the approach to life we have the Biedermeier approach, idealized and conventional.

Wilhelm von Wright: Merikokki, koiras / Sjökock, hanne / Male Dragonet (1836-1857). Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen. - Sea creatures like this prove that truth is stranger than fantasy.

But there is more than that. The scientific illustrations are uncanny in their accuracy, new proofs that reality is stranger than fiction. The brothers took care to study both dead and live fish, and they had aquariums in which they could observe the true fabulous colours which they knew start to fade as soon as the fish is dead.

Also the accuracy in the rich detail of the landscapes means that their value keeps growing with time.

Two years ago I visited the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg where it is possible to study masters like Ivan Shishkin, and his magical masterpieces such as The Mast-Tree Grove (1898). Not far from Shishkin's locations, near the Eastern border of Finland, the von Wright brothers painted similar landscapes (Finland, then, also belonged to the Russian Empire).

Ferdinand von Wright's The Forest Landscape from Haminalahti (1880) may look conventional at a distance, but it reveals its treasures when examined at close range. You discover ten animals in their natural habitat. You discover refined textures to convey many kinds of foliage. There is a sense of infinity, of the unfathomable, of the sublime.

Invaluable are Magnus von Wright's Helsinki landscapes. Helsinki was the young capital of Finland (Turku had been the capital when Finland belonged to the Kingdom of Sweden). It was still very agrarian, and the silhouette of the Cathedral of Helsinki is startling in the background of rustical wooden houses. Katajanokka (see photo above), near the Cathedral, now a major tourist area, is revealed to have been a slum.

One of the delights of the exhibition is a reproduction of a Helsinki panorama in the year 1847. It has been mounted as a panorama circle inside which you can step and watch the views as if you were standing on top of the Ullanlinna Observatory Hill. The first railway for person traffic in Helsinki was launched in 1858. In this panorama we can understand the much more central role of ships in Helsinki before the epochal introduction of the railway.

A recurrent detail in many of the von Wright rural landscapes is smoke. Their typical landscape painting shows a view from the top of a hill, everything conveyed in reverent detail. A distant trail of smoke introduces a feeling of life. There is something warm there. A fire is burning. Every day there is a different sticker label for the visitors of the exhibition. My favourite was a couple of weeks ago: a sticker with a trail of smoke.

The brothers were ardent observers of light, colours, and seasons. A strange and attractive feature in Nordic and Russian snowy winter landscapes is a pink hue, faithfully and magically conveyed by the von Wright brothers.

The catalogue to the exhibition covers many aspects of the von Wright brothers: ornithology, landscape painting, the introduction of lithography, the art of colour, and taxidermy. There are case studies of the most famous bird paintings. And there are insights into cultural history: Magnus von Wright was a close collaborator of Zacharias Topelius, both sharing an idealistic view of the Finnish nation. Both also collaborated in the production of the first Finnish opera, King Charles's Hunt, composed by Fredrik Pacius in 1852. The illustrations give a faithful impression of the original colours of the paintings.

Nantti Vonrikti: Taistelevat ankat. Ankallisgalleria / Ferdy von Wren: The Fighting Ducks. National Gallery of Duckburg. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen.- Finland is the world's number one country in Donald Duck fandom. Ferdinand von Wright's The Fighting Capercaillies is our painting cliché number one, endlessly parodied and appropriated. Look at Daisy Duck's gloriously bored expression.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Ernst Mether-Borgström (centenary exhibition at EMMA)

Ernst Mether-Borgström, Tecumseh, 1966, oil on canvas, Sara Hildénin Säätiö / Sara Hildénin taidemuseo. Image: Yehia Eweis / EMMA. [Tecumseh, 1768–1813, was a Shawnee chief]. Please do click on the images to enlarge them!

Ernst Mether-Borgström, centenary exhibition 21 June 2017–7 January 2018.
Henna Paunu, Chief Curator, EMMA
Hanna Mamia-Walther, Curator of the Ernst Mether Borgström exhibition, EMMA

EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art
The WeeGee Exhibition Centre, Ahertajantie 5, Tapiola, Espoo.
    Visited on 28 Dec 2017.

The catalogue:
Ernst Mether-Borgström. Editor: Tiina Penttilä. Writers: Eeva Ilveskoski, Leena Lindqvist, Hanna Mamia-Walther, Tiina Penttilä, Timo Valjakka. Translator: Markus Sandberg. Espoo: EMMA – Espoon modernin taiteen museo, 2017. Printed: Porvoo: Bookwell Oy. 255 p. illustrated; 26 cm. Series: EMMA – Espoon modernin taiteen museon julkaisuja, ISSN 1796-735X ; 56.
    Two language editions: Swedish and Finnish.

From the official introduction: "On 21 June 2017, two exhibitions open at EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art, bridging two artistic periods, modernism and contemporary art."

"The larger of the two exhibitions, Ernst Mether-Borgström’s (1917–1996) 100th anniversary exhibition, is a continuation of a series of exhibitions at EMMA introducing the leading names of Finnish modernism. Mether-Borgström lived and worked in one of the Nallenpolku artists’ atelier homes in Espoo’s Tapiola district and was one of the pioneers of abstract art in Finland. He was a prolific artist who actively exhibited his works in Finland and abroad. Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of Finland’s independence, the exhibition adds to the existing image of Finnish modernism by showcasing more than 150 of the artist’s prints, paintings, sculptures, sketches and illustrations. In conjunction with the exhibition, EMMA will be publishing an extensive art book on Mether-Borgström and the exhibition will also feature a biographical video documentary on the artist: I speak to my dog, my dog replies.The exhibition and the book are realised in collaboration with the Mether-Borgström Foundation."

"“The exhibition reveals a sensitive aesthete and a master of colour, whose infinite ability to reinvent himself and breadth of talent we wanted to present in a unique way, while making full use of the WeeGee building’s architecture and EMMA’s spacious exhibition rooms. The concrete structures of the WeeGee building and Mether-Borgström’s use of colour create a fascinating dialogue, which is superbly complemented by Sarah Morris’ exhibition,” says Hanna Mamia-Walther, the curator of the exhibition."

"“Finland has a strong modernist tradition, which is particularly well-presented in EMMA through the architecture of Aarno Ruusuvuori and the Tapio Wirkkala and Rut Bryk collections. Another strong thread running through Finnish tradition is geometric abstraction, illustrated by Lars-Gunnar Nordström’s exhibition a year ago and the new Ernst Mether-Borgström retrospective. Sarah Morris’ exhibition sits extremely well within this framework. Morris nods to the legacy of the 1950s and 1960s, but without nostalgia and with a sharp focus on the contemporary. She is showing what the impact of modernist tradition is in our time and proves that the potential of geometric abstraction is by no means exhausted,” says Timo Valjakka, the curator of the exhibition."

"EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art is one of Finland’s central art museums. Located in Tapiola, Espoo, EMMA’s collection and exhibition programme profiles Finnish and international modernism, contemporary art as well as design. EMMA’s exhibition spaces – the largest in Finland – are situated in the architecturally impressive WeeGee building designed by Professor Aarno Ruusuvuori. The modern architecture adds to the experience-focused presentation of the changing exhibitions and permanent collections of EMMA, the Saastamoinen Foundation and Tapio Wirkkala Rut Bryk Foundation." From the official introduction

Ernst Mether-Borgström, Nappipeli, 1961, oil on canvas, Kansallisgalleria / Ateneumin taidemuseo, Ernst ja Eila Mether-Borgströmin kokoelma. Photo: Hannu Aaltonen.

AA: The Western Metro from Helsinki to our Western neighbour city Espoo was opened last month, on 18 November 2017, an instant hit and a cause for spontaneous celebrations. Today it's our turn to have a test drive. The target is EMMA, the Espoo Museum of Modern Art, next to the Tapiola station. The Tapiola district itself is a creature of Modernism, built in the 1950s and the 1960s as a Garden City.

There are several exhibitions at EMMA, but I am here only for Ernst Mether-Borgström (1917–1996), an artist active during seven decades, belonging to the Swedish-speaking intelligentsia of Finland. He was also known by the acronym EMB.

EMMA has a profile of magnificent exhibitions of key Finnish modernists such as Nubben / Lars-Gunnar Nordström (1924–2014) two years ago. Nubben was a painter, graphic artist, sculptor, designer, and jazz collector, and for a while in 1949 he shared an atelier in Paris with EMB.

Like Nubben, EMB was highly versatile. His passion was for abstract and constructivist art, but it was impossible to make a living in Finland with that. Thus Ernst Mether-Borgström, a talented and prolific draughtsman, worked at advertising agencies and as a magazine illustrator. He also designed book covers. Here I learn that the covers of two book favourites of my childhood were painted by EMB: Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It makes sense that EMB loved the outdoors, dogs, boats, and fishing. The holiday paradise of him and his wife was the Korpholm / Korppiholma island in Gustavs / Kustavi on the southwestern coast of Finland.

Mether-Borgström also painted landscapes, but by the middle of the 1960s he gave them up, realizing that it was overwhelming to focus both on landscapes and abstract art. He still made a living painting portraits, although he hated them. He was one of the leading portrait painters, and in fact, very good in conveying character, but generally with a traditional approach. None of his conventional portraits are included in the exhibition, but there is a striking sample in the catalogue, the portrait of Heikki Waris, minister and professor of social policy, from 1962, personal and memorable.

EMB was a master in many techniques. He created watercolours, pencil drawings, etchings and lithographs. He painted in oil, gouache, and acrylic paint. The silk-screen method was a revelation in the 1940s for advertizing and print clothing design for instance at Marimekko (apparently EMB introduced Maija Isola and Armi Ratia to each other). The silk-screen was crucial for Nubben and influenced EMB very much, although he started to create his own silk-screens only in the late 1960s.

Watching this retrospective I can understand the inspiration of the silk-screen for Mether-Borgström, but there is something a bit too slick and facile in his silk-screens seen today. The resistance of the material in Mether-Borgström's oil paintings and gouaches makes the result seem more exciting and rewarding. I have a slight aversion towards acrylic paintings (I sense a fundamental irony and a sense of caricature in them), but I was surprised to discover that I liked EMB's acrylic paintings almost as much as his gouaches and oils.

Mether-Borgström was inspired by the great tradition of abstract art, especially by Malevich and Kandinsky. He dedicated works to Gris, Miró, and Klee. He loved Van Gogh, Magnelli, Calder, Herbin, Vasarely, Arp, Mondrian, Braque, and Picasso. But he was not a copycat, not an imitator. These pioneers merely showed the general way: they opened new spaces of expression.

Artists hate "isms", but Mether-Borgström has been defined as a concretist, a leading one in Finland, together with Birger Carlstedt, Nubben, and Sam Vanni. With EMB concretism means that the colour and the form are facts of existence, facts of life, concrete realities. They are not means of expressing some other substance. They are the substance.

Unlike Nubben, Mether-Borgström did not care too much about theory, geometry, calculation, and precision. Most of all EMB loved colour. His art was colour art emerging from his own dream world, his unconscious.

His abstract works have an organic quality. They go to the foundations of our sense for nature. The earth, the sea, the elements, the seasons, the sunlight are of the essence. His colours are facts of life, and artworks are created to be a part of lived human environment.

Since the 1960s EMB created art for public spaces, including monuments such as the modernist sculpture The Shipwrecked in 1995, one of his last works. Among his inspirations was the art of the Native Americans such as totem poles. Also railway semaphores fascinated Mether-Borgström, and some of his sculptures are crossbred totem poles and semaphores.

Mether-Borgström had a social mission in his art: a spiritual mission, to elevate and enrich the lived space of the home and the community.

At the same time he was a vocal spokesman of pure art. Art is at its most powerful as abstract art, as a school of the spirit and of the senses, pushing us to the limits of our capacities, to elevate us, and to help us to make the most of our mind. Mether-Borgström was articulate in this, as documented in his "Seven Theses" originally published at his exhibition at Galerie Artek in 1977 and reprinted in the current catalogue.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

I am not I – famous and forgotten portraits (exhibition at the Sinebrychoff Art Museum)

Albert Edelfelt: Portrait of the Artist's Wife Ellan Edelfelt. 1896. Oil on canvas. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Kansallisgalleria / Janne Mäkinen.

I am not I – famous and forgotten portraits, 8 June–31 December 2017. Sinebrychoff Art Museum, Bulevardi 40, 00120 Helsinki. Curated by the director Kirsi Eskelinen. Visited on 27 Dec 2017.

Official introduction: "The exhibition I am not I approaches portraiture through a range of different themes and perspectives, while also providing an insight into the history and development of the genre. Themes explored include power and identity as well as memories and their preservation. The works on display cover the full range of portraiture, from imposing portrayal of royals and other powerful figures to intimate depictions of families, along with artists’ own self-portraits. In addition to well-known persons and notable figures of their day, the exhibition features not only portraits of people whose identities have faded into obscurity over the years, but also portraits that for some other reason have been consigned to oblivion. The time period covered by the exhibition extends from the 16th century until present day."

"The exhibition includes several rare works that have not previously been displayed in public, including Lorenz Pasch the Younger’s (1733–1805) portrait of King Gustav III of Sweden (1783). The Royal High Court of Vaasa was founded in 1776 and to mark the occasion, King Gustav III donated his portrait to the institution. It is currently displayed in the court’s main chamber, and normally accessible to only a few people."

"The exhibition also features highlights that will remain on display for a limited period only. The first highlight is a series of works themed around former President of Finland, Urho Kekkonen, including a portrait by Ilya Glazunov from 1973, self-portraits created under the tutelage of Finnish artist Kimmo Pyykkö as well as a further self-portrait from 1975. The Urho Kekkonen highlights will be on display 8 June–3 September 2017."

"The second highlight is a portrait of former President of Finland, Tarja Halonen, painted by Rafael Wardi. It will be on display as part of the exhibition 5 September–29 October 2017. The third highlight comprises portraits of a further two former Finnish presidents, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim and P. E. Svinhufvud painted by Eero Järnefelt. These can be viewed 31 October–31 December 2017."

AA:  A compact but intriguing exhibition about the theme of the portrait and the self-portrait.

The perspective of eternity is introduced in samples from ancient Egypt and classical antiquity. On display are ancient death masks as well as those of Finnish masters of the Golden Age such as Edelfelt and Gallen-Kallela.

An attractive feature is the presence of several portraits by artists of their fellow artists. A chain of reflection and self-reflection is put into motion.

One of the most startling juxtapositions is the presence of the contemporary artist Pasi Tammi's portrait of Kari Raivio MD, rector and chancellor of the Helsinki University together with the artist's self-portrait of his own face horribly bloodied and disfigured in a bicycle accident.

There are warm and affectionate family portrait series for instance of Albert Edelfelt's family. Hanna Frosterus-Segerstråle painted her own son Lennart Rafael at the age of six weeks.

The theme of power is introduced in the first room with changing portraits of presidents of Finland. On display today are Carl Gustaf Mannerheim (our President #6 in 19441946) and P. E. Svinhufvud (President #3 in 19311937), both portraits in unique copies painted by Eero Järnefelt on commission by the Kymiyhtiö company in 1933. Mannerheim's commanding posture is impressive, and the earthy authority of Svinhufvud is convincing. Both figures are topical in Finland's current centenary reflections. Svinhufvud was the leader of the Finnish delegation to Lenin to acquire his signature to the recognition of Finland's independence on 31 December 1917. Mannerheim was the military leader of the White Guards in Finland's Civil War of 1918.

In the same room there are also two portraits of the Swedish King Charles XII, Carolus Rex, our war-mad king, a key figure in the fate of Finland. He was the leader of the Great Northern War in which he (we) attacked Norway, Denmark, Poland, Lithuania, and Russia. Facing Peter the Great's army Charles XII sought an alliance with the Ottoman Empire but failed. His defeat was the beginning of the end of Sweden's reign as a great power in Europe. Peter the Great conquered Finland and conducted a horrendous rampage (isoviha) while Charles XII was stuck in Turkey (kalabaliken i Bender). As a reaction to Charles XII's attack Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg, the sea fortress of Kronstadt, and Petrozavodsk.

We live in an age of an inflation of the portrait and the self-portrait thanks to the ubiquity of the cell phone camera and the mania of the selfie. But nothing can replace a professional photographer's insight in taking a portrait photograph.

And no photograph can replace an artist's vision in painting a portrait. A painted portrait is a story of a relationship, usually of affection, or love, or (in official portraits) respect and admiration. An interpretation of character, spirit, dignity, and personality. For now and forever.

Wilho Sjöström: The Composer Leevi Madetoja. 1941. Oil on canvas. 100 x 81. Purchase 14.4.1941. A III 2448. Finnish National Gallery. Photo: Asko Penna.

The House Museum of Paul and Fanny Sinebrychoff (permanent hanging)

Rembrandt: A Reading Monk. 1661. Oil on canvas. 82 x 66. Donation 1920-7-8, A II 1410. Hjalmar Linder Collection / Sinebrychoff Art Museum / Finnish National Gallery. photo: Yehia Eweis. The photo fails to convey the impact of the painting. Please click to enlarge to see something.

The House Museum of Paul and Fanny Sinebrychoff. Bulevardi 40, 00120 Helsinki. Visited on 27 Dec 2017.

Official introduction: "The collections of the Sinebrychoff Art Museum include some of the most valuable and internationally important paintings by old European masters to be found in Finland. The collections have mainly been made up of donations. The unique house museum of Paul and Fanny Sinebrychoff, a permanent exhibition on the 2nd floor makes up the core of the museum. The art collection of the Sinebrychoffs, including furniture and other artefacts was left to the Finnish government as a bequest in 1921."

AA: There is room for meditation at the Sinebrychoff Museum, based on the first high quality private collection of old European masters in Finland. It grew into the biggest private art collection in the Nordic countries.

Paul Sinebrychoff (1859–1917) was the owner and CEO of the successful brewery carrying the family name. He and his wife Fanny Sinebrychoff (1862–1921) were devoted to art, and as they had no heirs, they bequathed their beautiful house and collections to the nation. Substantial donations have been added to the collection afterwards.

In the second floor the Sinebrychoff home milieu has been preserved intact with the original furniture, art collection, and miniature cabinet. The same floor is the exhibition space for the museum collection of old European masters. There is an atmosphere of peace and quiet in the middle of noisy Helsinki.

Johan Tobias Sergel: Amor och Psyke. 1789. Marble. 76 cm. Purchase October 1930, B I 372. Sinebrychoff Art Museum / Finnish National Gallery. Photo: Henri Tuomi & Hannu Pakarinen.

There are oil paintings, etchings, sculptures, plates, and miniatures. Some paintings have interesting provenances including the Rembrandt painting above whose luminous darkness the photograph fails to convey. Johan Tobias Sergel was a Swedish sculptor whose name is still prominent in Stockholm (Sergelgatan, Sergelhuset, Sergel-Teatern, Sergels torg). His sensual Amor and Psyche was intended for Madame du Barry, but in the year 1789 the French Revolution took place, and other homes were found for the sculpture inspired by the mythical figures familiar from Apuleius's novel Metamorphoses (The Golden Ass).

The study of Paul Sinebrychoff.

The view from the Sinebrychoff Park.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Vihreä kulta / [Green Gold] (2014 KAVI digital transfer in 4K)

Vihreä kulta. Forester Suontaa (Olavi Reimas) escorts Mrs. Kristine Bergman (Hanna Taini) on a sleigh ride through the deep forest of Lapland. They fall in love but both are married and stay discreet.
Vihreä kulta. Forester Suontaa (Olavi Reimas) and Mrs. Bergman (Hanna Taini).
Vihreä kulta. Mrs. Bergman (Hanna Taini) and Suontaa (Olavi Reimas). Pallas.

Grönt guld / Det susar i Nordanskog
    FI 1939. PC: Suomi-Filmi. P: Risto Orko. D: Valentin Vaala. SC: Valentin Vaala, Ossi Elstelä – based on the play (1938) by Juhani Tervapää (Hella Wuolijoki). DP: Armas Hirvonen. M: Felix Krohn. S: Pertti Kuusela. AD: Ville Salminen, Igor Karpinsky. ED: Valentin Vaala.
    C: Hanna Taini (vuorineuvoksetar* Kristine Bergman), Olavi Reimas (senior forester / ylimetsänhoitaja Suontaa), Sven Relander (vuorineuvos* Gustav Bergman), Lea Joutseno (Mrs. / rouva Suontaa), Aino Lohikoski (Mrs. / rouva Sarma), Topo Leistelä (forester / metsänhoitaja Klickman), Eero Leväluoma (engineer / insinööri Sarma), Kosti Aaltonen (forest foreman / metsätyönjohtaja Virkkula), livari Kainulainen (Kusti Mykkänen), Antti Väisänen (Heikkinen), Arvi Tuomi (vuorineuvos* Cederlöv), Elsa Rantalainen (Mrs. Doctor / tohtorinna Aromaa), Gerda Ryselin (Mrs. / rouva Sarén), Vilho Auvinen (Lehtinen).
    *Vuorineuvos (bergsråd / Conseiller des Mines / горный советник) is one of the highest honorary titles in Finland, awarded to leaders of industry and commerce. There is no English translation. The appearance of these titles means that we are among the financial elite.
    Loc: Kittilä: Sirkka, Pallastunturi (Lapland, Finland).
    "Green gold" means "forest" in Finland.
    Premiere: 15 Oct 1939 – telecast: 20 Oct 1979 MTV2 etc. – vhs 1991 Suomi-Filmi – dvd 2014 Finnkino – film control A–1277 – S – 2350 m / 85 min
    Digital transfer: 4K DCP (KAVI 2014).
    Screened at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Finland 100 / Masters of Finnish Cinematography / I Was Cast In a Role I Did Not Fit In: Great Finnish Female Writers), 19 Dec 2017

Revisited one of Valentin Vaala's best films. The film did not get the wide exposure it deserved at the time of premiere because it took place during the alarm-ridden autumn of 1939. WWII had just started in full, and Finland was about to be caught in the Winter War.

Green Gold was a green film of ecological awareness ahead of its time. Based on a play by Hella Wuolijoki, the critics for once preferred the film adaptation to interpretations on the stage. A sense of the forest is essential to the drama, and obviously it was easier for a film to convey.

The film was shot on location in snowy Lapland, and the magic of the winter was caught brilliantly by the ace cameraman Armas Hirvonen who had debuted two years ago with the director Vaala in Juurakon Hulda, also based on Wuolijoki.

Green Gold is also a part of our Finland 100 series. This year in the newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet Staffan Bruun published a countdown of 50 key themes in "How Finland Was Formed" (now also available as a book, at the top of my Christmas present list). His Number One theme was the forest – forest industry has been a / the key industry in Finland for centuries.

Central in Green Gold is the conflict between industry and forestry. The captains of the industry are eager for profit. The foresters want to protect the wood as well as utilize it. Circumstances have changed many times over the decades, but the basic conflict remains.

The leading lady is Hanna Taini (Hanna Schlimowitsch / Chana Rachel Slejmovitsch / Hanna Taini-Lefko / חנה שלימוביץ) who had been discovered by Vaala at age 18 for her debut role in Gypsy Charmer (1929). She became a star of the Finnish screen for over a decade. She was also a theatre actress and a businesswoman, and her family was prominent in the Helsinki Jewish community, its Kamras branch active in film distribution and exhibition. Hanna Taini's main language was Swedish, she played at the Swedish Theatre, and at a later stage of her life she was an instructor in Swedish. Her sister was murdered in Germany in the Holocaust.

Hanna Taini's Swedish accent makes the character sound foreign, but it is in character. Finland is bilingual, and that's how a character whose first language is Swedish may sound.

Olavi Reimas had also been discovered for the film by Vaala, the greatest starmaker in Finland. Green Gold was Reimas's first role, but because of a processing error the rushes were ruined and the film had to be reshot during the next winter, and meanwhile Reimas played in two other films (including the intriguing cross-dressing saga Sysmäläinen, also by Vaala) which premiered first.

Critics were not happy with the stilted atmosphere in certain sequences. Taini spoke Finnish, not her first language. Reimas was a newcomer. In my opinion the occasional stilted feeling is not fatal. Reimas is supposed to play a strong and silent man who is called "vallesmanni" ("sheriff") with his abrupt and domineering manners. Taini is a woman of the world who yearns for the infinite freedom of the deep forest. They are strangers who meet in the winter, both firmly married, the Reimas character with children. In the play the Taini character has a child, as well.

Besides a film of ecological consciousness, Green Gold is a romantic love story. The Taini and Reimas characters realize at their first date that they are meant for each other, but they drop the issue since both are married and Reimas would never consider becoming the lover of his boss's wife. Things are different when Taini accepts that her husband has a lover and Reimas's socialite wife (Lea Joutseno) who finds no future in their relationship takes a divorce.

A distinction of Green Gold is a refusal of melodrama. In high circles of society melodrama is not the approach to relationships. There are scenes, but they are based on misunderstandings, soon overcome. But neither is Green Gold a sober story of relationships. The Taini and Reimas share a passion for the wild nature, and for each other, and in a profound way it is the same thing. The love story of Green Gold has affinities with Victor Sjöström's Berg-Ejvind and Gustaf Molander's Hans engelska hustru, but it is different and unique.

Green Gold is a highly visual film, and Armas Hirvonen catches the breathtaking luminosity of Lapland's snowy forests, hills and plains. Lapland is a land of magic and fairy-tales where no visual or special effects are needed. I was thinking about Max Reinhardt's Venetianische Nacht in which the locations of the real Venice were enough to convey the haunting atmosphere of the dreamscape.

Felix Krohn has composed his original score with a pantheistic, romantic approach with affinities with the young Sibelius at some points. Krohn composed only a few selected films, mostly for Vaala (Sysmäläinen and Green Gold were his first scores).

The digital transfer in 4K conveys the visual beauty of the cinematography very nicely.


Monday, December 18, 2017

Istoriya Asi Klyachinoy / Asya's Happiness

Istoriya Asi Klyachinoy. Iya Savvina as Asya.

История Аси Клячиной, которая любила, да не вышла замуж / Istorija Asi Kljatshinoi, kotoraja ljubila, da ne vyshla zamuzh / Nuoren naisen onni / En ung kvinnans lycka
    SU 1967. PC: Mosfilm. P: V. Kovalevski. D: Andrey Konchalovsky / Andrei Mihalkov-Kontshalovski. SC: Yuri Klepikov / Juri Klepikov. DP: Georgy Rerberg / Georgi Rerberg – b&w – full frame. PD: Mikhail Romadin / Mihail Romadin. ED: L. Pokrovskaja. S: Raisa Margachyova / Raisa Margatshova.
    C: Iya Savvina / Ija Savvina (Asya Klyachina), Lyubov Sokolova / Ljubov Sokolova (Maria, mother of Mishanka), Aleksandr Surin (Stepan), Gennady Yegorychev / Gennadi Jegorytshev (Sasha Chirkunov), Ivan Petrov.
    Loc: Shot in the village of Kadnitsa in the Gorky oblast. / Фильм снимался в селе Кадницы Горьковской области, в большинстве ролей заняты жители села.
    Sequel: Курочка Ряба / Kurochka Ryaba / Kurotshka Rjaba (1994) starring Inna Churikova as Asya.
    Helsinki premiere: 4.11.1988 Kosmos 1, distributor: Kosmos-Filmi with Finnish / Swedish subtitles (n.c.) – VET 95669 – K16 – 2710 m / 100 min
    A KAVI print deposited by Kosmos-Filmi screened at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Woman in Soviet Film), 18 Dec 2017.

Plot from the Russian Wikipedia: "Chirkunov returns from the city to his native collective farm and proposes to the cook Asya. She rejects him. She does not like Chirkunov. Instead, she loves Stepan the chauffeur, the father of the baby she is expecting. Stepan himself is almost indifferent to it."

Revisited Andrei Konchalovsky's second feature film. His debut had been the powerful The First Teacher (1965) based on a tale by Chingiz Aitmatov. Asya's Happiness, one of the last Soviet new wave films, was shelved for some twenty years. I saw it during its first true release in the years of glasnost.

The First Teacher had been a bold and stark film, and Asya's Happiness is even less conventional. It is dedramatized, and in fact, antidramatized. It's a grassroots film, seen from the perspective of a little community, focusing on the everyday flow of life. It belongs to the cinema of duration, the cinema of eventlessness.

One could see Asya's Happiness in the context of the second neo-realism, of directors such as Ermanno Olmi and the Taviani brothers.

Asya's Happiness was the debut of the great screenwriter Yuri Klepikov who also wrote Larisa Shepitko's The Ascent.

There are only three professionals in the cast, and they blend seamlessly in the flow of the life of the community.

Iya Savvina had had her screen debut in film adaptations of Chekhov (the excellent The Lady with the Dog) and Dostoevsky. In this movie she is almost unrecognizable as the tanned, proud cook of the collective farm.

There is a strong documentary impulse. We are invited to witness the everyday in the countryside. The view is the opposite of a glossy public information vision of Soviet agriculture.

We hear confessions and remembrances which cover the Great Patriotic War and even GULAG camps. There are a lot of songs which presumably convey a rich web of associations to the Russian viewer.

There is something Viscontian in the aristocratic devotion to the tough circumstances of the everyday. The performances are lively, the characters are engaging. We can feel the joy of life in the community. And yet I remembered from 30 years ago that there is something studied in this film, and I still feel this way.

The cinematography by Georgi Rerberg is magnificent. There are epic long shots and slow, majestic panoramic movements over the impressive landscape. The visual tension between the antidramatic views of the everyday and the spectacular vistas of the land is quite effective.

The print has been very little screened. It is clean and intact. The visual quality is good.


Saturday, December 16, 2017

Yösyöttö / Man and a Baby

Yösyöttö. Antti (Petteri Summanen) and Paavo. Image: © Solar Films Inc. Oy / Marek Sabogal.

Yösyöttö. Enni (Marja Salo) and Terttu with Antti (Petteri Summanen) and Paavo. Image: © Solar Films Inc. Oy / Marek Sabogal.

En man och baby
    FI © 2017 Solar Films Inc. Oy. P: Markus Selin, Jukka Helle. D: Marja Pyykkö. SC: Marko Leino, Marja Pyykkö – based on the novel (2010) by Eve Hietamies. Cin: Konsta Sohlberg – digital post-production: Post Control Helsinki Oy. AD: Sattva-Hanna Toiviainen. Cost: Tiina Kaukanen. Makeup: Kata Launonen. M: Antti Lehtinen. S: Panu Riikonen. ED: Harri Ylönen.
    C: Petteri Summanen (Antti), Marja Salo (Enni), Ria Kataja (Pia), Juha Muje (Antero), Santero Helinheimo Mäntylä (Janne), Marjaana Maijala (Anna Reponen), Niko Saarela (Ilkka Reponen), Kimmo Taavila (Peippo), Ulla Tapaninen (Ulla), Hannele Lauri (Vihanta), Anna-Maija Tuokko (Nelli), Pihla Viitala (Pihlaja), Ada Kukkonen (Jannika), Minttu Mustakallio (Tiina), Esa Illi (welfare officer / sosiaaliviranomainen), Katariina Bärlund (welfare officer / sosiaaliviranomainen), Lauri Tilkanen (Markku), Ella Mettänen (Satu), Leea Klemola (midwife / kätilö), Ona Kamu (bartender / baarimikko), Heidi Lindén (salesclerk / kaupanmyyjä), Jaana Saarinen (mother-in-law / anoppi).
    The film was withdrawn from the repertory of the dominating cinema chain Finnkino a few days before the premiere as the distributor and the theatre chain could not agree on sharing the income. According to the producer Finnkino wanted a bigger share than usually. Instead of Finnkino the film premiered in many other cinemas, even in Orion (daytime screenings, even baby bio screenings).
    Premiere: 6 Oct 2017, distributed by Nordisk Film on DCP, Swedish translation by Frej Grönholm, English translation by Mika Karttunen, 86 min
    Viewed at the cinema Riviera, Helsinki, with English subtitles, 16 Dec 2017

I watched Yösyöttö at the cinema Riviera in the district of Harju on Harjukatu 2, a couple of blocks from the Sörnäinen subway station, on the corner of Helsinginkatu. It was opened in its present incarnation one year ago, in the autumn of 2016. Starting from its website there is a special approach at the Riviera, and each screening is treated as a special event. The main feature starts 30 minutes after the announced start time. I used the extra half an hour to read weekend editions of international newspapers. I don't want to eat or drink in a cinema or during a screening but neither do I mind if others do as long as it does not distract from my concentration. In this screening it didn't. Instead there is an appealing atmosphere of anticipation and focus. The seats are not the usual cinema seats. Instead, they are ultra-comfy easy chairs. Everybody has a small counter or table for drinks and snacks. I used the counter for taking notes, my neighbour for snacks and drinks, and as I said, he did not bother me at all.

Marja Pyykkö is an experienced professional on the Finnish film and television scene, well-known as a director, screenwriter and actress, including in high profile tv series. Yösyöttö is her third theatrical feature film. All her feature films have been shot by Konsta Sohlberg, her husband.

I liked very much Pyykkö's theatrical debut film Sisko tahtoisin jäädä, a wild and irreverent coming of age story of two teenage girls played by Ada Kukkonen and Sara Melleri. The film was strong on performances and atmosphere, managing to discover rarely or never filmed aspects of Helsinki. There was a cinematic sense of space and the city in this bright debut. I have so far missed Pyykkö's second feature Kekkonen tulee! (2013).

This new film of Pyykkö's is based on the novel Yösyöttö ([Night Feed], 2010) by Eve Hietamies. The novel was so popular that Hietamies has written two sequels, Tarhapäivä ([Nursery Day], 2012) and Hammaskeiju ([Tooth Fairy], 2017) following the saga of the single father Antti and his son Paavo and their best friends, the single mother Enni and her daughter Terttu. Paavo has been abandoned by his mother Pia immediately after birth. Pia has a serious case of depression and, more fatally, she realizes that she is not mother material, instead heading to spend a year in Fuengirola, joining her own mother, who, it turns out, has not been mother material, herself.

The story of a single man having to take care of a baby has been popular in the cinema since the silent age. The Kid (Chaplin), The Crown Prince of the Republic (Ioganson), and Trois hommes et un couffin (Serreau) with its remakes and sequels come to mind. As well as one of my favourite Christmas films, John Ford's Three Godfathers based on a story which had been filmed many times before, very well by William Wyler as Hell's Heroes. In that story, three villains in the Wild West take care of a baby whose mother has died in the desert.

Marja Pyykkö's approach is fresh and original, and Petteri Summanen gives an excellent performance in the saga of the ordeal of Antti. Antti gets to feel the full weight of nursing a baby alone. The young mothers he keeps meeting show little mercy with him, although in one sense his task is harder: as a single father he is alone in the peer groups, and he feels isolated in many ways. But his neighbours help, as do Antti's father and brother. And his best friend at the office, Peippo. One of the running jokes of the movie is that it turns out detail by detail that Antti the workaholic knows nothing about Peippo.

There is documentary delight in the detail of maternity clinics, playgrounds and peer group meetings. The approach is unvarnished but not naturalistic. The film is well cast and the performances are credible down to supporting roles such as Ulla Tapaninen as Antti's maternity clinic contact or Antti's father and mentally handicapped brother.

Much of the film is carried by Antti's inner monologues, task lists and dream sequences. Antti has an issue with honesty. Often in the inner monologue we hear the truth but in the dialogue proper something different, even the opposite, and besides, Antti is also chronically lying to himself. During the 24/7 baby nursing period he keeps getting increasingly tired and has a hard time keeping track of his fabrications. It has been overwhelming for him to confront the reality of his baby's mother having left them.

Yösyöttö moves briskly thanks to the good performances, good dialogue and good timing. Visual and special effects (time lapse and doubling) are used to show Antti taking care of overwhelming tasks such as cleaning in record time before the arrival of welfare officers.

Antti has been dreaming of liberty, the symbol of which is his project to acquire a boat of his own. Instead, he becomes a "prisoner" of his own baby, but he faces the task and hardly complains. His neighbours have to force him to take a night out. Antti becomes so baby-oriented, and he is still so shocked at his wife leaving him that he loses initiative with women. He is even bullied by mothers of babies who have a dialogue on the theme of "panisin". (Impossible to translate with the right nuance, this means roughly "I'd like to fuck / screw", but the verb "panna" is not cheap. It is a sober and matter-of-fact verb; maybe "get laid" would be closer.) Anyway Antti is made to hear that the answer regarding him would be "no" because baby-caring men are seen as nerds. It seems that no matter what a man does, it is never the right thing.

Thus Enni (Marja Salo) the single mother of her daughter becomes the active one seeking contact with Antti. There is a romantic air in their involvement, but "nothing" happens. Sex roles are unusual also in the detail that Enni is a master karateka. Marja Salo gives a bright and witty performance as Enni. Worried, Antti's neighbours arrange a date at a party at their home, Tiina (Minttu Mustakallio), who single-handedly makes things happen as Antti has become too distracted to even think about picking up somebody.

I liked the cinematography of Sisko tahtoisin jäädä. The digital transfer from 35 mm had been performed very well in a period when it was far from self-evident. Now the visual look is even better. In Yösyöttö one can enjoy a good lighting and a good colour which is often pleasantly bright but never garish, for instance in Enni's theme colour yellow.


Thursday, December 14, 2017

Svetlyi put / Tanya / The Shining Path

Svetlyi put: Lyubov Orlova as the shock worker who can operate 150 machines.

Svetlyi put: Lyubov Orlova sings a duet with her former self reflected in a living mirror.

Svetlyi put: a Lyubov Orlova photomontage of three stages of her development by MyShared.

Svetlyi put: Tanya is now an engineer and a member of the Supreme Soviet, finally ready to meet Lebedev on equal terms, protected by the guiding spirit of Stalin.

Svetlyi put: Evgeniy Samoylov and Lyubov Orlova in front of the statue Worker and Kolkhoz Woman (Рабочий и колхозница) by Vera Mukhina (1937). Photo: Pinterest / Екатерина Мартыненко.

Светлый путь / Valoisa tie / Den ljusa vägen. SU 1940. PC: Mosfilm. D: Grigori Aleksandrov. SC: Viktor Ardov. CIN: Boris Petrov. AD: Boris Knoblok. SFX: Andrei Boltyansky.
    M: Isaak Dunayevsky / Isaak Dunajevski. Lyrics: Anatoli D'Aktil & Mihail Volpin. Theme song: "Marsh entuziastov" / «Марш энтузиастов». Other songs: "High, Under the Cloud (The Bird Song)" / "Высоко, под самой тучей (Песня-птица)", "The Great Kino Waltz. The Waltz from The Shining Path" / «Большой киновальс». Вальс из фильма "Светлый путь". The Cinderella song: "В старой сказке говорится". Folk song snippets: "Частушки".
    Choreography: G. Shakhovskaya. ED: Yeva Ladyzhenskaya / Jeva Ladyzhenskaja. S: Valeri Popov & Nikolai Timartsev.
    C: Lyubov Orlova / Ljubov Orlova (Tanya Morozova / Tanja Morozova); Evgeniy Samoylov / Jevgeni Samoilov (Lebedev); Yelena Tyapkina / Jelena Tjapkina (Pronina); Vladimir Volodin (Taldykin); Osip Abdulov (Dorokhov / Dorohov); Nikolai Konovalov (Zubkov); Rina Zalyonaya / Rina Zeljonaja (blond secretary).
    Loc: "A significant part of everyday scenes were filmed at the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius and the production episodes at the Bogorodsko-Glukhovskaya factory in Noginsk (Novotkatskaya factory building)".  (Wikipedia).
    Helsinki premiere: 19.11.1944 (Metropol), distributor: Kosmos-Filmi Oy – film control 23948 – S – 2787 m / 101 min
    A Gosfilmofond print. The complete and uncut original version.
    Introduced by Ira Österberg.
    Screened at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Woman in Soviet Film) with e-subtitles in Finnish by Mia Öhman, 14 Dec 2017

The Shining Path is "Cinderella meets Stakhanov", to boil down Ira Österberg's introduction to the screening, and in this musical comedy the fairy-tale approach takes over even the Stakhanovite theme.

In 1935 the jackhammer operator Aleksei Stakhanov had set a new record in mining. He became a model of the shock worker, a member of the Supreme Soviet and the founder of the Stakhanovite movement. Stakhanov's record has been disputed, but it was not pure fabrication, either.

The Shining Path is a monument to Stalin's cult of personality, the centralized, planned command economy, an accelerated industrialization project based on five-year plans, and a cultural revolution aiming at a culture for the masses. Socialist realism was the official watchword, but films such as The Shining Path were fantasies set in an alternative reality. Although set in the 1930s, there is no hint in the film about the great famine or the great terror.

Some of the high Stalinist films have an irresistible, oneiric drive, but The Shining Path is not one of them. There is something studied and forced in it, perhaps symptomatic of a strained atmosphere in the creation of a virtual reality while everyone knew how things really stood, including with director Grigori Alexandrov's longtime partner Sergei Eisenstein. This was a period of "crippled creative biographies" to quote the title of the book by Herbert Marshall. The account of the building of socialism is anti-realistic.

But there is something strong and real in the movie: its true theme, the Bildungsroman of Tanya Morozova. It is her growing-up story from a simple country girl to one of the leaders of the country. She learns everything the hard way, but thanks to her spirit she is never discouraged. She has to fence off unwanted attentions of men ("ne nado"). Lebedev is different, but she wants to join him only when she can do so on equal standing.

Lyubov Orlova was a great musical comedy star. In this film she is at her best in the final stages of her development story. There is something sketchy and unconvincing in her act as the ignorant country girl.

There was a similar hugely popular success play and film in Finland in the 1930's: Hella Wuolijoki's Juurakon Hulda / The Farmer's Daughter, adapted for a film by Valentin Vaala, the Hollywood remake starring Loretta Young who won an Academy Award for her performance, later also a basis for a television series starring Inger Stevens. The great inspiration for women of such stories cannot be underestimated.

The Shining Path is a hallucination, a dream play, full of animation, mirror tricks, camera magic and special effects. The mirror theme is original: distorting mirrors and interactive mirrors have a special role. There are even Jean Cocteau and Lewis Carroll connections in dream and day-dream sequences where Tanya is invited into the looking-glass and taken to a flying car ride over the Soviet Union, a display of dream turning into reality in the land of socialism. The apotheosis takes place at an immense agricultural exposition.

We screened what was evidently the full, uncut Stalinist version with an encouraging telegram from Molotov and a benevolent presence of an oversized statue of Stalin.

In the finale Tanya and Lebedev come together in front of Vera Mukhina's statue of The Worker and the Kolkhoz Woman which had been unveiled in the 1937 Paris World's Fair. In 1947 it became the logo of Mosfilm, first seen in Vesna / Spring directed by Alexandrov and starring Lyubov Orlova.

Another great score by Isaak Dunayevsky.

An excellent Gosfilmofond print. The Shining Path was a blockbuster, and it was distributed in thousands of prints. I was amazed that a print of such good contrast and a refined sense of detail has still been possible to produce.

PS. 12 Jan 2018: reading David Bordwell's Reinventing Hollywood I am struck by his discussion of a magic portrait in Kitty Foyle (also 1940, starring Ginger Rogers).


First a Girl

GB 1935. PC: Gaumont-British Picture Corporation. [P: Michael Balcon, n.c. Ass. P: S. C. Balcon, n.c.]. D: Victor Saville. SC: Marjorie Gaffney [– based on the screenplay Viktor und Viktoria (1933) by Reinhold Schünzel, n.c.]. CIN: Glen MacWilliams. AD: O. F. Werndorff. Cost: [Coco Chanel {costume design}, n.c.], Joe Strassner (dresses), Marianne (wardrobe). [M: Bretton Byrd, n.c.] M dir: Louis Levy. Songs: Maurice Sigler, Al Goodhart. [Choreography: Ralph Reader, n.c.]. S: A. C. O’Donoghue. ED: Al Barnes.
    C: Jessie Matthews (Elizabeth / "Bill"), Sonnie Hale (Victor / Victoria), Anna Lee (Princess), Griffith Jones (Robert), Alfred Drayton (McLintock), Constance Godridge (Beryl), ”Monsewer” Eddie Gray (goose trainer), Martita Hunt (Seraphina), Donald Stewart (singer), Billy Watts (reporter).
    The film was not released in Finland – 94 min
    A BFI National Archive print.
    Screened at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (History of the Cinema: Remakes), 14 Dec 2017

The director Victor Saville and the actor-director Sonnie Hale were Jessie Matthews's main collaborators in the 1930s when she was Britain's number one musical comedy star. Sonnie Hale was her husband, co-star, and later director. They are at the top of their game in this sparkling remake of Reinhold Schünzel's Viktor and Viktoria made two years earlier.

"From shopgirl to showgirl": the early proceedings follow Schünzel's script quite closely, even in amusing detail, such as Victor's frustrating audition delivery of Mark Antony's funeral speech. But Saville and his team fill the narrative with original and affectionate detail relevant to the British music-hall scene and colourful characters in the dressing-room.

Both Jessie and Sonnie appear in double roles, and they perform as a team in this adaptation. The production numbers start with a farce approach. They grow in splendour, and the most gorgeous performances are seen towards the end, culminating, as all the adaptations do, with the male star reclaiming the cross-dressing role. All his life he has tried to promote himself as a great tragedian (Hamlet, Shylock, Richard III... ) but finally his true talent as a comedian is revealed, even to himself. Instead of Mark Antony, "I'll be the greatest Cleopatra". But as for Jessie Matthews: "first a girl, always a girl".

As in Schünzel's own film adaptation, Robert seems to be fascinated by the female cross-dresser both as a woman and as a man. The obligatory "manhood test" sequence is repeated with an outsized cigar and double whiskies and brandies.

Right after Jessie's debut performance she and Sonnie are booked for a Continental tour which takes them to the Riviera. While Jessie is taking a swim in the Mediterranean, Robert definitely finds out about her.

A brilliant BFI print. I wouldn't be surprised if it would turn out that it has been struck from the camera negative.


Saturday, December 09, 2017

Strannaya zhenshchina / A Strange Woman

Странная женщина / Strannaja zhenshtshina / Kummallinen nainen. SU 1977. PC: Mosfilm. P: Vladimir Tseitlin. D: Yuli Raizman / Juli Raizman. SC: Yevgeni Gabrilovich / Jevgeni Gabrilovitsh, Juli Raizman. CIN: Naum Ardashnikov. PD: Gennady Myasnikov / Gennadi Mjasnikov. Cost: Vera Romanova. Makeup: I. Kireyeva, T. Tikhomirova. M: Roman Ledenyov / Roman Ledenjov. S: Ekaterina Popova-Evans. ED: Klavdiya Moskvina.
    The only music record at the mother's home: "Мне без валенок беда" (Grigori Ponomarenko, Viktor Dyunin, 1973), known in Finland as "Huopikkaat" .
    C: Irina Kupchenko / Irina Kuptshenko (Yevgeniya / Zhenya Mihaylovna), Yuri Podsolonko / Juri Podsolonko (Andrey Lebedev), Vasiliy Lanovoy / Vasili Lanovoi (Nikolay Andrianov), Oleg Vavilov (Yura Agapov), Antonina Bogdanova (Maty), Svetlana Korkoshko (Viktoriya Anatolievna), Tatyana Govorova / Tatjana Govorova (Tamara), Valeri Todorovski (Volodya), Vera Enjutina, Juri Mazhuga
    The film was not released in Finland. A vintage KAVI Orwocolor 35 mm print deposited by Kosmos-Filmi – 147 min – duration of the screening 145 min
    Screened at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Woman in Soviet Film), with e-subtitles in Finnish by Mia Öhman, 9 Dec 2017

In his last three films, A Strange Woman, Private Life, and Time of Desires, Yuli Raizman focused on private life. In A Strange Woman and Time of Desires the protagonists are women, completely different. In A Strange Woman the protagonist is a lawyer, a successful professional. In Time of Desires the protagonist is a social climber who wants to advance via her husband. In Private Life the protagonist is a male bureaucrat who is asked to retire (or gets fired) and discovers that he is a stranger in his own family.

These last three films of Raizman have affinities with classics of Russian literature such as Anton Chekhov. The affinity lies in the talent of observation of small everyday details which convey big issues about the meaning of life.

There is also an Anna Karenina affinity, although the differences are greater than the similarities. Like Anna, Zhenya is a woman of reason, a family woman who suffers from a lack of passionate attention in her life. She has married before she was eighteen, and there is a son in the family. Zhenya leaves her husband to have an affair with Nikolai, but Nikolai is a serious and rational man, not particularly passionate. Like in Anna Karenina, train stations are significant, and the finale takes place at a train station.

Raizman's films provide gratifying roles for actors in performances of psychological depth. Irina Kupchenko was a theatre actress who had had her breakthrough in Andrei Konchalovsky's adaptations of Turgenev (A Nestle of Gentlefolk) and Chekhov (Uncle Vanya). Her performance as Zhenya is rich and complex, showing her as a canny lawyer, legal adviser, and teacher answering legal questions of young people. We meet her as a patient mother to a teenage son, a frustrated wife, and even as a helpless child finding refuge with her own mother. From the lack of love she suffers emotionally and physically and is confined to a sickbed for months. In the second part of the film she receives a young admirer whose contact attemps she rejects kindly and firmly.

Vasili Lanovoy is Irina Kupchenko's real-life husband, and the tenderness in their love scenes is not pretense. Lanovoy's breakthrough role had been as Alov and Naumov's Pavel Korchagin, but his most famous parts were in the big Tolstoy adaptations of the 1960's. He was Anatol Kuragin, Natasha's dashing but fickle suitor, in War and Peace. And he was indeed Count Vronsky in Anna Karenina, reinforcing the connection with A Strange Woman.

In Raizman's approach to human relationships in the contemporary world there are affinities with the Italian modernists, even Antonioni. We have moments of emptiness, silence, embarrassment and alienation. There are temps morts and passages in real time. We even have a long date scene where the other partner fails to appear.

The theme is the destiny of romantic love in the age of cybernetics. Romeo and Juliet, and duels and suicides for love are evoked, but "perhaps we have started to be afraid of great feelings". Burning passion is not appreciated. But "I do not want to be an equal partner", exclaims Zhenya (meaning a love relationship).

The account of the legal world feels credible. In the beginning representatives of a factory meet Zhenya equipped with a bribe, but the older factory representative is a good judge of character and motions his partner to forget about the attempt. There are montage sequences of legal issues (husband has abandoned wife, children don't help elderly parents, a father has bequathed everything to a new young wife and left nothing to the child, disputes about heating in a communal home). We witness legal services in a big city and in a little rural town.

A Strange Woman is a long film, and there is time for digressions which are not necessary for the plot but interesting in themselves. The most funny sequence is Zhenya's long wait on a Moscow railway station with interactions of several characters who never reappear. Another humoristic scene is Zhenya and Nikolai's visit to a huge restaurant filled to capacity where they are seated in the middle of an African table.

The camerawork by Naum Ardashnikov is rich and varied, starting with an elaborate long tracking shot introducing Zhenya's office. We visit many locations, including a tourist trip to Berlin, complete with views of monuments of antiquity at the Pergamon Museum. Views of the rainswept rural town are among the most memorable.

The film ends with a classic Russian farewell sequence at the station. Zhenya returns home to take care of her son Volodya after the death of his Moscow grandmother. But Zhenya's mother notices Yura in a train window – although Zhenya has strictly forbidden him to follow her anymore.

A clean and intact print which has hardly ever been screened before. A somewhat soft and duplicated look, and a slightly drab colour world in a regular 1970s Soviet kind of way.


Neokonchennaya povest / [Unfinished Story]

Neokonchennaya povest / [Unfinished Story]. The finale. The doctor Yelizaveta Maksimovna (Elina Bystritskaya) helps cure the paralyzed shipbuilder Yuri Yershov (Sergey Bondarchuk).

Неоконченная повесть / Neokontshennaja povest / ...Ja tarina jatkui / Det var bara början. SU 1955. PC: Lenfilm. D: Friedrich Ermler. SC: Konstantin Isayev / Isajev. CIN: Anatoli Nazarov. AD: Isaak Kaplan, Bella Manevich / Manevitsh. M: Gavriil Popov. ED: E. Mahankova.
     C: Elina Bystritskaya / Elina Bystritskaja (Yelizaveta Maksimovna Muromtseva / Jelizaveta Maksimovna Muromtseva); Sergey Bondarchuk / Sergei Bondartshuk (Yuri Yershov / Juri Jershov); Evgeniy Samoylov / Jevgeni Samoilov (Aleksandr Aganin); Sofiya Giantsintova / Sofija Giatsintova (Anna Konstantinovna Yershova, Yuri's mother); Yevgeni Lebedev / Jevgeni Lebedev (Fyodor Ivanovich / sekretar raikoma / aluekomitean sihteeri).
    Loc: Leningrad.
    Helsinki premiere: 24.8.1956 (Capitol). telecast: 10.3.1960 (TV1). distributor: Kosmos-Filmi Oy. VET 44299 – S – 2640 m / 97 min
    A vintage KAVI Agfacolor 35 mm print with Finnish / Swedish subtitles, 93 min
    Introduced by Susan Ikonen.
    Screened at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Woman in Soviet Film), 9 Dec 2017

In her introduction Susan Ikonen covered, among other things, the Stalin era "doctors' plot" and "Leningrad affair" backgrounds to the film, a huge popular hit with an audience of 30 million. For the contemporary audience it was a rehabilitation story. The name Yelizaveta Maksimovna was typically Jewish, and the actress Elina Bystristskaya was known to be an Ukrainian Jew. She and her parents were decorated heroes of WWII thanks to their contributions in medicine. Unfinished Story was Bystristkaya's breakthrough role, soon followed by her most famous part in Quiet Flows the Don. She then joined the Maly Theatre in Moscow.

Bystritskaya's dignity and authority carry the film. Hers is an excellent performance, restrained yet passionate, sober yet moving.

Unfinished Story is very specifically a Leningrad film, filmed during the four seasons on its distinctive locations, culminating in an allegorical finale which is open to many interpretations.

Doctor Muromtseva is busy both at the clinic and with house calls. There is an air of reality in the account of her schedule. Her most challenging patient is the paralyzed shipbuilder Yuri Yershov (Sergei Bondarchuk). When they are about to fall in love Yershov's mother begs Muromtseva to stay away because Yershov cannot do anything halfway, and to be a disappointment for her would be overwhelming for him. The separation is a bitter ordeal for both, and only when Muromtseva is being criticized for neglecting a patient whose condition is getting worse she feels justified and obliged to meet him, and a successful rehabilitation starts. The glossy and idealized photographs above do not give a fair impression of the film.

Doctor Muromtseva is a fine professional but her work orientation has not changed her to a cold and distant figure. She is a mature personality, at ease with children and old people, with men and women, with workers and architects. Her emotional strength is a major resource in her work as a doctor. She also seems to have endless patience in fielding unwanted male attention.

Yuri Yershov brings to mind the male protagonist of Yuli Raizman's A Lesson in Life which had its premiere in the same year. Both are overbearing authoritarians who do not suffer fools gladly. Yershov is aware of his limitations and rough edges. Among his habits are mirror monologues. With his stick he actually turns a mirror on himself to conduct self-analysis: "when are you going to start to treat people in a more friendly fashion?". Muromtseva and Yershov are very different, but there is a sense that Muromtseva might help Yershov grow as a human being.

Unfinished Story belongs to the films in which music matters. A key scene is a symphony concert at the Saint Petersburg Philharmonia. Tchaikovsky's Pathetic Symphony is being played, and Lauri Piispa reminded us that the conductor is Mark Ermler, the director's son (he is not credited, but this fact has been pointed out by Peter Bagrov in his Ermler essay). The music is a test of character: it brings together two of Yershov's students; it helps Muromtseva judge between her two suitors. There is also an attractive sing-along sequence accompanied by accordeon.

Interestingly, the politruk of the story, the secretary of the regional committee, is portrayed as a negative character, a meddler into people's affairs, and a bad loser as Muromtseva's rejected suitor.

In the discussion after the film interpretations were suggested to the allegorical ending. Perhaps the paralysis is a symbol for the Soviet Union, and maybe a more human approach is a way to a cure.

IMDb claims that Unfinished Story is black-and-white, but we screened our vintage colour print. However, the colour is drab in a regular kind of way.


Friday, December 08, 2017

Viktor und Viktoria (1933) (2013 FWMS digital transfer)

Viktor und Viktoria (1933). Adolf Wohlbrück, Hilde Hildebrand, Renate Müller, Hermann Thimig, Fritz Odemar

Viktor ja Viktoria / Viktor och Viktoria. DE (Deutsches Reich) 1933. PC: Ufa – Universum Film AG. Herstellungsgruppe: Alfred Zeisler. Produktionsleitung: Eduard Kubat. Aufnahmeleitung: Günther Grau. D: Reinhold Schünzel. Ass D: Kurt Hoffmann. SC: Reinhold Schünzel. CIN: Konstantin Irmen-Tschet. AD: Benno von Arent, Artur Günther. M: Franz Doelle. Lyrics: Bruno Balz. “An einem Tag in Frühling”, “Komm doch ein bisschen mit nach Madrid”, “Man sagt zu einer Dame nicht beim erstenmal ‘Komm mit’”, “Rosen und Liebe”. Choreography: Sabine Ress. S: Fritz Thiery, Walter Tjaden – Tobis-Klangfilm. ED: Arnfried Heyne.
    C: Renate Müller (Susanne Lohr), Hermann Thimig (Viktor Hempel), Adolf Wohlbrück (Robert), Friedel Pisetta (Lilian), Fritz Odemar (Douglas), Hilde Hildebrand (Ellinor), Aribert Wäscher (theatrical agent F. A. Punkertin).
    French parallel version: Georges et Georgette (1933), D: Reinhold Schünzel.
    Helsinki premiere: 15.4.1934 Bio-Bio, distributor: Adams-Filmi Oy – film control: 18354 – K16 – film control length in Finland 2810 m / 103 min – original length 2772 m / 101 min – Filmportal: 2703 m / 99 min
    2K DCP from Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung via Transit Film (2013 digital transfer), 99 min
    Screened at Cinema Orion, Helsinki, with e-subtitles in Finnish by Lena Talvio, 8 Dec 2017.

A touch as light as this is hard to achieve, but Reinhold Schünzel managed it with panache in his string of 1930s hits such as Viktor und Viktoria, Die englische Heirat, Amphitryon and Land der Liebe. The amazing fact is that they were produced during Hitler's reign before Schünzel's exile to Hollywood. Yet nobody can have ignored the subversive quality of Schünzel's work, also including his playing one of the main roles in Die 3-Groschen-Oper.

I knew Viktor und Viktoria only from a home video viewing in the 1980s, and it was a completely different experience now to see it on the screen.

Viktor and Viktoria is a true musical comedy where not only the song and dance numbers are sung but also much of the dialogue is in verse.

The cross-dressing theme is not just a source of superficial jokes but an introduction to more profound insights about sex roles, sexual identity, and in fact the human condition itself.

Since his participation in the 1910s in Richard Oswald's Aufklärungsfilme, including Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others, 1919) Schünzel had privileged access to portrayals of sexual ambivalence and otherness on the screen.

His approach to cross-dressing and sexual metamorphoses belongs to a great tradition that harks back to Shakespeare and Ovid. The 1930s were an interesting decade from this angle. Josef von Sternberg revealed Marlene Dietrich in top hat and tails in Morocco, Rouben Mamoulian made Queen Christina with Greta Garbo, and George Cukor directed Sylvia Scarlett. Valentin Vaala made Sysmäläinen, the most fascinating Finnish cross-dressing saga. In France, Richard Pottier directed Fanfare d'amour, the first adaptation of the story that metamorphosed into Some Like It Hot. Teinosuke Kinugasa directed his first Yukinojo henge films. Of Schünzel's Viktor and Viktoria eight film adaptations have emerged so far.

In a comedy like this everything must run smoothly, and the illusion needs to remain perfect. Schünzel can handle all this: the immaculate performances, the choreography of the musical numbers, the eloquent cinematography. The result is a work of elegance and ambivalence.

The whole ensemble is strong, but more than anything else Viktor und Viktoria is a showcase for the wonderful Renate Müller. She is a great performer who can project gentleness and strength, comedy and sadness, embarrassment and charisma, masculinity and femininity. Her presence is remarkable from the start.

Adolf Wohlbrück (Anton Walbrook) was a veteran of the screen, but like Renate Müller he rose to true stardom with the sound film. His rapport with Müller was so good that Schünzel cast them both next year in Die englische Heirat.

The cinematographer Konstantin Irmen-Tschet had debuted in films of Fritz Lang (Metropolis and Frau im Mond) and Joe May's remarkable Heimkehr. He had shot Liebling der Götter, one of Renate Müller's first sound films. In the year when Viktor und Viktoria was made he also photographed Hitlerjunge Quex.

The digital transfer does justice to the brilliant cinematography.