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.

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