Saturday, November 09, 2019

Birger Carlstedt: Le Chat Doré (exhibition)

Birger Carlstedt: Mélodie orientale, 1954, putrido on hardboard, 60 x 49. Carlstedt-arkivet / Amos Rex. Photo: Stella Ojala.

Birger Carlstedt: sketch for Le Chat Doré, 1929. Photo: Stella Ojala. Please do click on the images to enlarge them!

Birger Carlstedt: Le Chat Doré
Birger Carlstedt: Den Gyllene katten
Birger Carlstedt: Kultainen kissa
Amos Rex, Helsinki, 11 Oct 2019 – 12 Jan 2020
Curators: Synnöve Malmström, Tuomas Laulainen.
In charge of the project: Teijamari Jyrkkiö (utställningschef), Kai Kartio (museichef).
Exhibition architect: Taina Väisänen.
Photographer: Stella Ojala.

Books to the exhibition:
– Birger Carlstedt: Modernismens utmaningar (in Swedish)
– Birger Carlstedt: Modernismin haaste (in Finnish)
Writers: Susanna Aaltonen, Rauno Endén, Liisa Kasvio, Tuomas Laulainen, Marie-Sofie Lundström, Synnöve Malmström.
Hard cover, 216 pages, 155 images.
Amos Rex skriftserie nr 5.
ISBN 978-952-7226-39-1
Helsinki: Parvs Publishing / Amos Rex, 2019

Official introduction: "Amos Rex presents Birger Carlstedt (1907–1975) in an extensive exhibition that encompasses the artist’s entire career, all the way from his abstract experiments of the 1920s to the Concretist period beginning in the 1950s. The exhibition includes a reconstruction of the legendary café Le Chat Doré, “The Golden Cat”."

"Birger Carlstedt was a pioneer in abstract art and a multitalented dandy who worked with fields such as interior design, design and staging, in addition to painting. He followed and participated in the discussion around art during his time, dared to experiment outside the mainstream and familiarised himself with new artistic movements during his many travels."

"The exhibition is based on Amos Rex’s collections, which the museum has inherited from Birger Carlstedt and his spouse, concert pianist France Ellegaard

AA: Amos Rex, which opened last year in the heart of Helsinki, delves for the first time deep into the core of its own holdings with a large exhibition of Birger Carlstedt, a pioneering Finnish modernist who donated his legacy to the museum. This is the most extensive Carlstedt exhibition so far. On the occasion also the first comprehensive Carlstedt monograph is published.

The exhibition is a visual journey through six decades. The ample exhibition space is dynamically put to use in an odyssey through many stages of creation. The word "odyssey" is apt. Since childhood Carlstedt was well-travelled. He was multi-lingual, and French was his main language next to his native Swedish and Finnish.

From early on, Carlstedt's work was exhibited in Paris, an endless source of inspiration and influences for him. He was also exhibited in Stockholm before his real breakthrough in Finland. When it finally came, he stood in the front rank of abstract painters together with his younger friends Lars-Gunnar Nordström ("Nubben"), Sam Vanni and Ernst Mether-Borgström.

Major rooms in the exhibition include: Early Modernism, The Circus, The Idyll at the Villa, The Journey to North Africa 1938, Surrealism and Magic Realism, The Rupture, From Morning Till Evening: the Mural at Kauttua, Form and Colour, and Music.

The heart of the exhibition is a built space, a reconstruction of the functionalist Le Café Doré (established in 1929 at Unioninkatu 22 in Helsinki, during the Prohibition), the first functionalist interior in Finland. It is delightful in its imaginative colour world.

Birger was influenced by his first wife, Jacquette af Forselles, his fellow student at the art school. She travelled to Germany in 1926, stayed apparently with the Bauhaus, and weaved rugs with Margaret Dambeck and Liesel Henneberg. The artist couple was inspired by Bauhaus and De Stijl. Jacquette died already in 1933.

The Café Doré reconstruction is a real functioning café, open during the museum hours. Like the manifestos of the modernist Torchbearers movement, it was an avantgardistic lighthouse in a gloomy and regressive Finland. Carlstedt worked also as an art director for theatres and as an interior designer for official and private spaces.

The Russian Cabinet of Café Doré has been reconstructed as augmented reality, accessible via mobile applications.

Carlstedt possessed a powerful abstract (and cubist) impulse already in the 1920s, and also Giorgio de Chirico's pittura metafisica impressed him, but a crushing and reactionary reaction in our pre-WWII atmosphere was overwhelming. Even Carlstedt's surrealist touches, including three stylized vulvas, were rejected.

Carlstedt reverted mainly to figurative art, often with a passionate expressionist accent. Carlstedt let himself be inspired by the sunlit nature at his villa, the full-figured curves of the nude female form (his second wife Inga posing as the model), the glowing colours of Africa, the circus world, and the possibilities of the still life.

Carlstedt's still lives were celebrations of the bright colours of fruit and flowers. All his life he was a colourist, and in some African visions and still lives the abstract and metaphysical impulse was close. A surrealist inspiration kept emerging in works such as Nightmare (1945) which seemed to reflect the horrors of WWII and the nuclear threat.

Carlstedt received huge commissions, most importantly, the giant From Morning till Evening (1949, 2,5 x 12,5 meters) for the A. Ahlström factory. In cinematic terms, the format is double CinemaScope. A projected image of the fresco in life size is on display, as are intriguing sketches in which we can observe the evolution of the imagery.

After the completion of the figurative mural a magnificent takeoff took place. At last Carlstedt moved irrevokably towards abstraction, to the nonfigurative, and found his true self in a series of works that he called concretist – referring to concrete elements of the painting such as colour, form and space. He had already been inspired by concretism in Paris in the 1920s, but there had been no response in Finland to such an initiative either.

Carlstedt was increasingly inspired by music having married the pianist France Ellegaard in 1949. Carlstedt carefully built and cultivated something that he called his "colour piano" (it is also on display at the exhibition) and created paintings based on dynamic geometric forms. A sense of movement and suspense was always present.

These rooms (Form and Colour, and Music) are the highlights of the exhibition. The most impressive paintings include Mélodie orientale (1954), Transparences lumineuses (1954) and Suite musicale: Serenata (1955–1972). The joy of colour is engaging, the play with forms is stimulating, and the hanging has been executed in perfect taste, doing justice to Carlstedt's sense of art direction.

In the Music section of the exhibition we can see and hear a video of France Ellegaard playing the piano while examining some of Birger's finest abstractions.

In many works Carlstedt used a paint solution called putrido, a mix of oil paint and tempera. Evidently he had no long term experience in mixing putrido, and durability issues are emerging in his paintings as colour surfaces are turning brittle. The conservator team at Amos Rex must have been busy in preparing this impressive exhibition.

The book to the exhibition is the first major study focusing on Birger Carlstedt's entire career. It is very rewarding to read. As for the illustrations, Carlstedt was very particular in his colour decisions. Unfortunately the colours of the illustrations do not do justice to Carlstedt. They are too bland and too pale. For better reproductions in books it is good to turn to Pinx, Ars, Modernin kahdet kasvot and Valon rakentajat for comparison.


Revisited: Wednesday November 20th at 6 pm
Pianist: Satu Elijärvi

Claude Debussy (1862–1918): Suite bergamasque (1905)
– Prélude
– Menuet
– Clair de lune
– Passepied

Franz Liszt (1811–1886):
– Nuages gris/ harmaat pilvet (1881)
– Le mal du pays/ koti-ikävä (1855)
– Liebestraum/ lemmenunelma no. 3, As-duuri (1850)

Piano artist Satu Elijärvi is currently pursuing her doctorate in the DocMus Doctoral School at the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki. At the center of Elijärvi’s research and doctoral concerts is a review of the 19th century, and especially of Franz Liszt’s piano music performance practices.

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