Thursday, October 22, 2020

Magnus Enckell 150 (an exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum)

Magnus Enckell: Självporträtt / Self-Portrait (1918). Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Pakarinen. The year is the one of Finland's Civil War.

Magnus Enckell. Exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, 23 Oct until 14 Feb 2021. Tampere Art Museum, 13 March until 23 May 2021.
    Curators: Marja Sakari (the director of the Ateneum), Riitta Ojanperä (the director of collections management at the Finnish National Gallery), Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff (the chief curator of exhibitions at the Ateneum).
    I visited the press event of the exhibition on 21 October 2020. The curators introduced it.

Magnus Enckell. Editor: Hanne Selkokari. Photo editor: Lene Wahlsten. With contributions by Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, Jukka Cadogan, Timo Huusko, Harri Kalha, Marja Lahelma, Riitta Ojanperä, Anna-Maria Pennonen, Marja Sakari, Hanna-Reetta Schreck, Hanne Selkokari, Riikka Stewen, Juha-Heikki Tihinen and Anu Utriainen.
    Graphic design and layout: Maria Appelberg, Station MIR.
    Ateneum Publications Vol. 141.
    Three editions: Finnish, Swedish and English.
    244 pages.
    Printing: Grano Oy, Helsinki.
    ISBN 978-952-737118-3
    Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum, 2020.

AA: Magnus Enckell (1870–1925) is a beloved hero of the Golden Age of Finnish art, a period of cultural awakening in music, art, architecture, poetry and literature that started around 1870 and flourished until Finland's declaration of independence in 1917. When Albert Edelfelt died in 1905, his protégé Enckell inherited his position as an unofficial grand ambassador of the Finnish art scene.

Key paintings by Enckell are on permanent display at Ateneum and Amos Rex, and his monumental works can be seen for instance in the National Library and the Tampere Cathedral. Recently a wealth of his paintings were represented in an exhibition dedicated to his friend, the great patron of the arts Sigurd Frosterus. His "rainbow period" was prominently on view in another recent exhibition called Colour Liberated. (There is a fine Enckell gallery in Wikipedia. Click on the first image, set it to full screen, connect to a big monitor with an HDMI cable, and use the arrow cursor for a home exhibition. The quality of the reproductions is quite good.)

Never during my lifetime, and perhaps never at all has there been such a comprehensive exhibition as the one that opens at Ateneum this week. (PS. 23 Oct 2020: the art critic Harri Mäcklin confirms in Helsingin Sanomat that this is the biggest ever Magnus Enckell exhibition). Enckell got a flying start to his career as an artist as a teenager, when he found a mentor in Albert Edelfelt in the city of Porvoo.

Albert Edelfelt (1854–1905): Christ and Mary Magdalene, a Finnish Legend. 1890. Oil on canvas. 216 cm x 152 cm. Ateneum. Magnus Enckell stood model for Christ.

Enckell was well connected. Among his early friends was Yrjö Hirn, the great cultural historian. Soon he learned to know Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of Ballets Russes. Later on a key contact was Sigurd Frosterus, architect and philosopher of the arts. Enckell valued his female colleagues on equal terms, artists including Ellen Thesleff and Beda Stjernschantz. He painted numerous portraits of women, emphasizing their spirit and intellect.

Initially Enckell became known as a realist. Soon he embraced symbolism, but without rejecting realism. He was influenced by Oscar Wilde, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Arnold Böcklin. Mythologies of the antiquity inspired him, as well as the Nietzschean dialectics of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. In his symbolist period, Enckell rejected colour.

Magnus Enckell: Gosse med dödsskalle / Boy with Skull (1893). Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Yehia Eweis.

A profound meditative current was also evident in sober realistic representations such as The Concert (1898), a favourite of Diaghilev's. Enckell loved to play the piano, and his favourite composer was Beethoven. I happen to be celebrating Beethoven's 250th anniversary by listening to his complete works. During the exhibition visit my inner soundtrack was the Andante of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 25 in G major, Op. 79.

In the same year Enckell participated in the launching of Diaghilev's Mir Iskusstva / The World of Art movement in the Exhibition of Russian and Finnish Artists in the Stieglitz Museum of Applied Arts in Saint-Petersburg.

Magnus Enckell: Koncert / The Concert. 1898. 90 × 76 cm. Oil on canvas. Ateneum / Hoving Collection.

Around the turn of the century Enckell was waking up to the beauty and colour of life, switching from a fin de siècle mood into a Belle Époque attitude. Seaside views brought literally a breath of fresh air into his art. At the same time his classical, symbolist and spiritual visions found new, sunny, airy and life-affirming expressions in The Golden Age painting in what is now known as the National Library, and the radiant Resurrection (1907) at what is now called the Tampere Cathedral.

Magnus Enckell: Guldåldern / The Golden Age. 1904. K. H. Renlunds Museum, Karleby. Oil on canvas. 93 x 205 cm. Photo: K. H. Renlunds Museum.

Enckell became active as a curator of international exhibitions. In 1904, together with A. W. Finch, he organized an exhibition of Franco-Belgian art in Helsinki, and in 1908, he curated the Salon d'Automne in Paris, displaying contemporary Finnish art. In 1912 he was a co-founder of the influential Septem group whose works were exhibited together with the French guest visitors Pierre Bonnard and Charles Guérin.

Influenced by neo-impressionists and pointillists, Enckell experienced an explosion of colourism. In contrast to his austere and monochromatic works of the 1890s, he now created in the colours of the rainbow. Enckell was present in the premiere of Sergei Diaghilev's 1912 Ballets Russes production of Claude Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun, and it inspired him to paint his version of the theme.

Magnus Enckell: Faun / The Awakening Faun. 1914. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum, Collection Hoving. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Jenni Nurminen.

Magnus Enckell was both a figure of the establishment and a stranger. Until the declaration of independence Finnish national romanticism was not narrow-minded but actively seeking international connections and friendships. Enckell was a man of the world, at home everywhere where art flourished.

Nobody could miss a queer look in many of Enckell's paintings, especially in those that celebrated nude virility. There was an ambience of "a love that does not dare to speak its name", to quote Lord Alfred Douglas.

The name of homosexual love was never spoken at the time, but in recent decades there has been no such inhibition. There is a continuity from Magnus Enckell to Tom of Finland, but only in a narrow current of a bigger landscape.

In a way we need to say no more than that since childhood (his father being a docent of Greek) Magnus Enckell was profoundly influenced by the classics of antiquity, including Ovid's Metamorphoses and Plato's Symposium. Or that among his biggest idols were Leonardo and Michelangelo, remembering their sexual orientation.

Enckell's world is pansexual, a celebration of male virility and female spirituality. While it is not wrong to call certain works by Enckell erotic, I find it confined, unless Eros is understood in the spirit of the Greek classics.*

Enckell was not a political artist, but something happened in 1918, the year of our Civil War, that shocked and disturbed him to create a series of "Chaos Pictures". I am grateful to Marja Sakari's essay about Enckell's "late style" in the exhibition catalogue, drawing attention to the series of paintings with titles such as "Chaos undated", "Chaos ca 1917", "Chaos 1919" and "Year of the Rebellion" (1918). These scary paintings are like nothing else that Enckell had produced. There are no press photos of these images.

In January I visited the three Pinakotheken in Munich, and the collections at the Neue Pinakothek cover pretty much the same trajectory as the oeuvre of Magnus Enckell. The Chaos Pictures belong together with startling views such as Lovis Corinth's The Red Christ. Something had been broken. Beyond repair.

But Enckell kept reinventing his art in works such as the radiant "modern Ganymedes" vision The Wings (1923), a passionately blazing Purgatory (1923), as well as a charmingly Bonnardian domestic view called The Artist's Study in Kilo (1920).

Magnus Enckell: Kaos / Chaos. 1919. Oil on paper. 77 x 56. Turku Art Museum. Photo: Kari Lehtinen.

Magnus Enckell: Vingarna / The Wings. 1923. Oil on canvas. 100 x 83,5 cm. Turku Art Museum. Mobile phone photo at the exhibition.

Magnus Enckell's career coincided pretty exactly with the first four decades of the cinema. Symbolism was important also in the cinema: in Italy and Russia, and in the early American films of Maurice Tourneur. Colouristic neo-impressionism for obvious reasons did not have a place in the cinema of the time. Febo Mari's Fauno and Cenere might convey some of the same artistic moods as Enckell the symbolist, as well as Nino Oxilia's Rapsodia satanica and certain films by F. W. Murnau.

Then there is the figure of Mauritz Stiller, ahead of his time in the same way as Enckell. He also created a work called The Wings. That one was a film (Vingarne, 1916) based on the novel Michael by Herman Bang, the first feature film to portray love between men. Enckell died in 1925 in Stockholm, from where Stiller had just moved to Hollywood with Garbo. Perhaps Stiller and Enckell had been aware of each other before 1905 when Stiller was a young actor on Finland's Swedish-speaking stages.

The Ateneum exhibition has been curated intelligently and with loving care, including displays of drafts on digital screens. The lighting and hanging is beautiful, and works that need protection from light are displayed in appealing ways. Key themes are presented in a multitude of versions and connections. Of monumental works we get to see preparatory works of independent artistic value. A recurrent concept is the double portrait: we see Enckell's portrait of a fellow artist, and the fellow artist's portrait of him. This exhibition is a rich and rewarding journey, and also the exhibition catalogue is worth reading from cover to cover.

Magnus Enckell's oeuvre evolved at the heart of world art. After the declaration of independence in 1917, Finland paradoxically became more insulated, and artistic reputations such as Magnus Enckell's suffered, because they had not enough room to grow in international artistic exchange. It would be interesting to learn about today's art historians' assessments / reassessments of him based on this exhibition. Sadly, the corona lockdown makes it difficult.

* Enckell was sympathetic to Henri Bergson's idea of "élan vital" in L'Évolution créatrice. It was a topical interpretation of the concept of the life force, with affinities with Hesiod, Zeno, Parmenides and Plato. Eros as the God of Love is not incompatible with the core idea of love in Christianity. For both Freud and Plato, Eros is central. After WWI, Eros and Thanatos were the twin forces in the thought of Sabina Spielrein, Freud (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur), Marcuse (Eros and Civilization), Brown (Life Against Death) and Ricoeur (Freud and Philosophy). All contributed to a liberation from repression. An unchained life force can be felt as the primus motor in Enckell's art in a never-ending search for greater harmony and balance between the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

Mauritz Stiller: Vingarne / The Wings (1916). From: The Movie Database. The famous sculptor Claude Zoret (Egil Eide) creates a sculpture about Ganymedes called "The Wings". The model is his protégé Eugene Mikael (Lars Hanson). It's a meta-film: the famous sculpture by Carl Milles (1910, 1914, 1916) gives the director Mauritz Stiller a film idea, and we see the finished film in the premiere. The "fiction" intertwines with the "reality" of the framing story.

Magnus Enckell: Guldåldern / The Golden Age. 1904. Lunette painting in the reading room of the National Library, Helsinki. This postcard presents the picture in lush colours in sharp contrast to the pale ones of the actual painting.

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