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?