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.

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