Helsinki City Art Museum has pretty much got Finland covered this summer. If you’ve seem the City — and there is only one city that feels very much like a city — and if you’ve seen the forest, then you’ve seen pretty much everything — except the lakes of course. And the sea. And then there’s the islands. But apart from the lakes, sea and islands, and I suppose the smaller cities and towns, Finland is it’s forests and it’s capital city.
In The Golden Forest, Ritva Kovalainen and Sanni Seppo show views of forests in Finland and Japan. At the centre of the exhibition is an installation, The Wishing Tree by Reiko Nireki. A new sapling grows out of a tree trunk. Followers of Shinto traditionally place a branch in the stump of tree used to make a boat to express gratitude and reverance.
Hannes Heikura’s Dark Zone is a series of prints in black and white, mainly black. Anonymous figures are caught in various streets of Helsinki with the title giving the place, date and time. And while many are taken in daylight, in Heikura’s world, it’s always night. It’s hard not to suspect that some of the shots are posed — they are so perfectly composed. A hoodied figure stands by a wall, an end of Lasipalatsi in a sea of apshshalt, a lone skateboarder, Heikura says these are just the everyday streets and everyday people we pass without noticing. But once seen through his lens, they tell their stories of loneliness and beauty.
The Golden Forest and Dark Zone are at the Helsinki City Art Museum (Helsingin taidemuseo) until 4th September.
A short visit to Helsinki leaves me with more questions than answers. Does sisu still exist in Finland and if so, where could I buy some? Why did Descartes vacillate between there being a multitude of extended substances and just one? What do ice-breaker crews do in the summer? But no question is more strange than the one that is the subject of today’s post and it concerns non-ambulant spiritual beings and child labour.
On Friday night we went to see/hear the Finnish National Opera’s production of Gounod’s Faust — pacts with the devil, lust, witches sabbats, deception, eternal damnation…you know the kind of thing. Some point in the third act, during Magueritte’s nightmare something happened that for any but an educated Finnish audience would have seemed bizarre and surreal.
Two child actors walk across the stage, slowly from right to left, one in front of the other. They carry between them a kind of stretcher or rather a primitive sedan chair on which is seated the unmistakable form of an angel. Identifiable as a member of the celestial classes by her feathered wings, the angel is also blindfolded.
The respectful hush was broken as a knowing whisper went around the auditorium. What I and most the audience recognised in this seemingly incongruous sequence was an allusion to a painting by the Finnish artist, Hugo Simberg. This strange and melancholy painting has the title of the Wounded Angel (Haavoittunut enkeli in Finnish). Simberg painted it in 1903 after recovering from meningitis for which he was treated in the Helsingin Diakonissalaitos hospital. Today it hangs in the Ateneum Museum in Helsinki and Simberg also created another version as a mural for Tampere Catheadral. No doubt many PhD students have spent there days contriving detailed theories to explain the symbolism. Why is the angel wounded? What do her bare feet signify? Why does the boy on the right look so sullen? Grove’s Art Online suggests that the work refers to the expulsion from paradise. In fact the landscape depicted is that of Eläintarha park in Helsinki.
So far as I can discover, Simberg was laudably silent about the symbolism of the painting, preferring the audience to draw their own conclusions . Verbosity is an ailment that is rare among the Finns.
There’s a way to understand a painting that’s rather gone out of fashion in these days of audioguides and accompanying texts taking up more wall space than the paintings themselves. That is, to look at it. And then look at it some more.
Now what was the question again?