Thursday, January 26, 2017

Tyko Sallinen – HAM’s roots (an exhibition)

Tyko Sallinen: Windy Day in April, 1914 © HAM / Photo: Hanna Rikkonen. Please do click to enlarge the images.

Tyko Sallinen – HAM’s roots (exhibition)
HAM Helsinki Art Museum • 27.1.–27.8.2017
    Curator: Tuula Karjalainen.
    Vernissage introduced by Maija Tanninen, Tuula Karjalainen, and Tuula Haavisto.
    Visited on 26 Jan 2017.

A book to the exhibition:
Tuula Karjalainen: Tyko Sallinen. Suomalainen tarina [Tyko Sallinen. A Finnish Story]. Helsinki: Tammi, 2016. 248 p.

Official introduction: "The exhibition explores the story of Tyko Sallinen (1879–1955), a pioneer in Finnish painting and expressionism. Consisting of 50 works, the show focuses on Sallinen’s most important period, the 1910s. The exhibition also includes works by the artist’s first wife, Helmi Vartiainen, and by their daughters Taju and Eva."

"The thematic focuses of the show are portraits, landscapes and genre paintings. Helmi Vartiainen was Sallinen’s muse, but their relationship was very dualistic, as evidenced by Sallinen’s famous and controversial portraits of his wife, whom he called Mirri. Many of Sallinen’s other portraits, such as Saaren Anni and Dwarf, were also scandalous in their time, seen as being coarse and excessively candid. His landscapes, on the other hand, with their stunning colours and powerful moods, represent the apogee of his expressionist period. Sallinen’s genre paintings combine fanatic religiosity with earthly amusements."

"Tyko Sallinen was a modernist pioneer whose expressionist works had a profound impact on Finnish art in the 1910s. Sallinen and the other likeminded artists in his circle introduced fresh ideas into Finnish art, in spite of the opposition and ridicule of the older generation of artists."

"“As a person, Sallinen was both a victim and a monster. He had had a difficult childhood, but he made the life of his first wife and their daughters even more difficult. As an artist, Sallinen was a rebel, waging a war in which the enemies were Finnish-speaking proletarian artists and traditionalists from the intelligentsia. That war changed the face of the Finnish art world profoundly. Sallinen’s art spawned several ‘Sallinen-strifes’ and left no one indifferent. As if in celebration of Finnish independence, he painted the canvases Devil’s Dance, The Religious Fanatics and The Barn Dance. The people in the pictures look like they have been lifted straight out of the Finnish nightmare of the age,” says Tuula Karjalainen, curator of the show."

"The exhibition is part of a series called HAM’s roots. The series presents research in Finnish art history. The series is founded on the Bäcksbacka Collection, which forms the core of the collection at HAM.

AA: I always rush to the exhibition whenever there is a chance to see works of Tyko Sallinen, my favourite Finnish painter. I have written about him recently in this space in the context of the 2012 Retretti exhibition Tyko Sallinen and the Wild Expressionists, my remarks included here, the 2015 Amos Anderson exhibition The Sigurd Frosterus Collection: Art as an Attitude, the 2015 HAM exhibition 100 Years of Taidesalonki and the Bäcksbacka Collection, and the 2015 Didrichsen Colour Liberated anniversary exhibition.

None of these displays have managed to achieve the impact of my first Tyko Sallinen exhibition, his centenary exhibition at Taidehalli, Helsinki, in March 1979, when I experienced something that resembled the Stendhal syndrome. I felt a volcanic force erupting from the display.

The contemporary Tyko Sallinen displays are respectful, at best highly distanced, and always with an undercurrent of hardly disguised contempt. The reason for the contempt is the dubious character of the artist, especially his open misogyny. Because we condemn the artist we also distance ourselves from his work.

Tyko Sallinen: Mirri, 1910 © HAM / Photo: Hanna Kukorelli

The focus of the controversy is Sallinen's cycle of Mirri paintings inspired by his then wife Helmi. They are raw and wild and figuratively quite unlike the model. They are nightmare portraits, "monsters from the Id". I have written before that to me they are not really portraits of Helmi at all but eruptions from the depths of the tormented artist's psyche. They might be seen as emanations of the painter's deranged anima. We can compare those portraits with contemporary French artists like Picasso and van Dongen, and the entire school of German expressionism. "Madame Bovary, c'est moi". These portraits are a cycle of distorted mirrors of the artist, himself, who was uncomfortable with his powerful sexuality and his own marked feminine side.

There are three rooms in this exhibition, focusing on Landscape, Mirri, and the November group. We start with elegance, proceed to the passionate Mirri colourism, and end with the muted November approach of brown and gray "colours".

Tuula Karjalainen's book is illuminating and worth reading. We are reminded that Tyko Sallinen's parents still remembered the great famine of the 1860s. Sallinen had a stern religious background in the Laestadian revival movement in which sex equalled sin. He never overcame it. In Paris Sallinen was influenced by Matisse, van Dongen, and Rouault. He was taught by Bonnard.

I agree with Karjalainen's view on the Mirri mystery. She finds its source in the self-hate of the artist based on his forbidden sexual desire (pages 99 and 133).

Tyko Sallinen: Strongman, 1917 © HAM / Photo: Hanna Rikkonen

The word "beautiful" is occasionally used in the context of Sallinen's works, but to me his oeuvre is a consistent attack on the very concept. In this he was a true modernist. There is an overwhelming passion and energy flooding in Sallinen's work, and there seems to be an especially marked joy when the artist succeeds in conveying this via characters that might be conventionally seen as "ugly". Sallinen never tries to prettify, sweeten, sugar-coat, embroider, or varnish over. Quite the contrary. Nobody wanted to stand model to him because he made everybody look uglier. Or rather, Sallinen's art was beyond "ugly and beautiful", in touch with the basic high voltage electricity of being. He tore away the varnish and exposed us to the throbbing elementary force of life.

Tyko Sallinen: Hihhulit / The Religious Fanatics, 1918 © Private Collection / Photo: HAM / Hanna Kukorelli

A subject worth exploring: I do not know if anyone has studied the impact of the prohibition of the image in Laestadianism in the life of Tyko Sallinen. Not only was sex sin but also Sallinen's very talent and career was in service of the Devil from the viewpoint of his religious community.

Tyko Sallinen: Alders in Spring, 1911 © HAM / Photo: Hanna Rikkonen

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