Two exhibitions in Helsinki : Pekka Halonen (1865-1933) and Isaac Wacklin (1721-1758)


Helsinki, Ateneum Taidemuseo, from 7 March to 24 August 2008

1. Pekka Halonen (1865-1933)
The River Bank, 1897
Oil on canvas
Helsinki, Ateneum Taidemuseo
Photo : Ateneum Taidemuseo Press Office

One hundred twenty years ago, the Finnish Fine-Arts Association inaugurated the Ateneum building. The museum was celebrating the anniversary by offering a retrospective on one of the first students to have been welcomed there : Pekka Halonen. Born into a family in a rural setting which nonetheless encouraged the arts, the young man tried his hand at academic drawing in Helsinki from 1886 to 1890, then completed his studies in Paris at the open academies of Julian (1891) and Colarossi (1893). His early works, such as The Reapers (1891, private collection) reveal the traces of his training in the style of Dagnan-Bouveret, Jules Lefevre, Benjamin-Constant, Cazin… He was not interested in the Impressionist division of the stroke and in Paris frequented the company of his fellow countrymen Gallen-Kallela, Magnus Enckell, Vaino Blonsted and their leader Albert Edelfeldt. He met Gauguin who had returned from Tahiti and took private classes from him for a while. Thus, his manner combined Bastien-Lepage’s Naturalism, Puvis de Chavannes’ influence and the innovations of Gauguin and his circle. In 1894, he returned to Finland and worked in Carelie where he painted his first winter scenes. The landscapes produced between 1894 and 1915 are exceptional. With an all-encompassing stroke, creamy without being thick, in these diagonal compositions inspired by Japanese engravings (ill. 1), Pekka Halonen evokes a mysticism of a wild and unspoiled nature, giving the impression of being looked at through the eyes of an animal, as in the painting The Hare (private collection), just springing from his hole. The animal becomes the artist’s alter ego, and the viewer’s chaman. This is painting and magic all at once. In fact, Halonen transposes Gauguin’s visions of the Tropics to the Northern Latitudes following the master’s advice to return to his original Finnish roots. This is indeed Symbolism, devoid of any of the esoteric aspects often used by the movement (and differentiating him from Gallen-Kallela).
There is no doubt that the visitor feels a sense of serenity and respect towards the typically Finnish or Scandinavian, pantheist, type of nature, with its very topical ecological implications. In 1898, Pekka Halonen settled into a new workshop on Tuusula Lake (the house is now a museum) in a particularly well-preserved environment where he lived in total self-sufficiency with his family.

2. Pekka Halonen (1865-1933)
Washing Clothes in the Ice
Oil on canvas - 125 x 180 cm
Helsinki, Ateneum Taidemuseo

3. Pekka Halonen (1865-1933)
The Lynx Hunter
Oil on canvas - 125 x 180 cm
Helsinki, Ateneum Taidemuseo


4. Pekka Halonen (1865-1933)
Vainolaisia vastaan
(Leaving for War), 1896
Oil on canvas
Pohjola Society Collection

During this period in the 1890’s it seems that he succeeded in everything he did. He painted beautiful introspective portraits (The Guitar Player, 1894, Helsinki, Gyllenberg Foundation private museum), with artificial light effects, several landscapes with a unique crystalline luminosity as well as some rare historical paintings with an elliptical sense of representation (The Prodigal Son, private collection). Although they are marginal and paradoxical elements of his art work, the pochades done during a trip to Italy (Naples, 1897) are in the line of Corot by the paucity of elements used and seem to foreshadow Giorgio Morandi’s landscapes later. During this trip, he studied Giotto’s and Massacio’s frescoes. This experience imparted a greater plasticity and power to his figures and a sense of the monumental which dominates the large decorative formats commissioned for the Finnish pavilion at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900. These are among the artist’s most well-known canvases, such as Washing Clothes in the Ice (ill. 2) and The Lynx Hunter (ill. 3) [1]. Halonen, who until then had joined in the Caréliasnism and the national Romantic movements only by incarnating the beauty of the Finnish scenery, created several historical scenes or drew them from the Kalevala, close to Gallen-Kallela’s contemporaneous works and treated very diverse subjects : workers’ scenes ; group portraits, nudes. Other landscapes contain a political message : in the menacing storm, the dead trunks indicate his stand in favour of the country’s threatened liberty during this time of ideological resistance to Russian oppression.

5. Pekka Halonen (1865-1933)
Winter Landscape at Myllykylä, 1896
Oil on canvas - 69 x 48 cm
Helsinki, Ateneum Taidemuseo
Photo : Ateneum Taidemuseo Press Office

6. Pekka Halonen (1865-1933)
Winter Landscape at Kinahmi, 1923
Oil on canvas - 95.5 x 65.5 cm
Helsinki, Ateneum Taidemuseo
Photo : Ateneum Taidemuseo Press Office


7. Pekka Halonen (1865-1933)
Tomatoes, 1913
Oil on cardboard - 42 x 51 cm
Helsinki, Ateneum Taidemuseo
Photo : Ateneum Taidemuseo Press Office

The exhibition was very complete as it presented over 300 works, spilling out through the second floor of the Ateneum, essentially paintings but also drawings, photographs and some of the artist’s personal souvenirs. Beginning with the academic works produced in Helsinki, the visit followed a chronological order, except for one room. There, although snow scenes were evident everywhere in the show, about twenty of them dating from his forty-year long career, were grouped together for an easier comparison, and form subtle monochromatic variations (ill. 5 and 6). The next room was devoted to views of greenhouses and gardens executed starting in 1910 (ill. 7), the Colorist period which became popular in Scandinavia around that time. This production constitutes a break in his work. After it, nature would still be his source of inspiration and he continued to paint the different stages in ice formation : spring, the thaws, the lakes became his favorite subjects. These are beautiful paintings, bigger, more descriptive and decorative, but part of the charm has disappeared ; the intimate communion with nature is less intense, as is their poetic reach. This period reflects the celebrations, the purchases by museums and international recognition (he received the Legion of Honor in Paris), before falling into oblivion just after the war except in his own country where he was never forgotten. With the return of Finnish painters to the limelight [2], from Gallen-Kallela to Hellen Schjerfbeck, the exhibition proved that Pekka Halonen is just as deserving and on a par with them. The visitor can easily see for himself by walking over to the section devoted to 19th century Finnish painting in the same building.

The catalogue, under the guidance of the exhibition’s curator, Anna Maria von Bonsdorff, with an English version as well, includes essays by Finnish and French specialists. It is very thorough and serves as a monographic study as it also carries a brief catalogue at the end with illustrations of 556 paintings and drawings [3].

Catalogue : Anna-Maria von Bondsdorff, Pekka Halonen, ATE, 2008, 450 p., 45 €. ISBN : 978-951-53-3039-0.

Ateneum Internet website (the catalogue can be purchased on this site).

Nuori tuntematon Isaac Wacklin (1721–1758) (Young and Unknown - Isaac Wacklin),
Helsinki, Sinebrychoffin Taidemuseo, from 6 June to 7 September 2008


8. Isaac Wacklin (1721-1758)
Portrait of Dorothea Maria Losch, 1755
Oil on canvas
Helsinki, Ateneum Taidemuseo
Photo : Ateneum Taidemuseo Press Office

9. Isaac Wacklin (1721-1758)
Portrait of a Man, 1757
Oil on canvas
Helsinki, Ateneum Taidemuseo
Photo : Ateneum Taidemuseo Press Office


We would like to take this opportunity to also point out the small exhibition in the Sinebrychoff Palace devoted to Isaac Wacklin, who died prematurely two-hundred-fifty years ago. In the 18th century, Helsinki had no University [4], no Academy, no Salons, not even an art market or art lovers. Within this Lutheran society wracked by the plague and foreign invasions, an artist could barely survive without another profession to earn his livelihood and the only commissions he could hope for were those of local merchants. One of the rare painters who strived to elevate the level of art at the time was Isaac Wacklin. As his life and work remained obscure, even enigmatic, for a very long time, a group of researchers were brought together in 2005 under the direction of Tuulikki Kilpinen. The work produced by the scientific laboratory enabled significant progress to be made by uncovering barely legible signatures, hidden inscriptions under later recanvasing, thus identifying a self-portrait (thus the double meaning of the show’s title) and definitely excluding any canvases of poor quality. The art history research was conducted by Jouni Kuurne.

10. Isaac Wacklin (1721-1758)
Portrait of Mrs Heckford, 1757
Oil on canvas
Helsinki, Ateneum Taidemuseo
Photo : Ateneum Taidemuseo Press Office

A list of his body of work comprising 36 paintings has been drawn up from different Finnish museums and private collections. It is well-known that the artist was in Saint Petersburg in 1740 and that he spent part of his career in Denmark and in Sweden, with a workshop in Stockholm.
The exhibition, which is in a magnificent setting on the ground floor of the 18th century palace, reveals a Rococo portraitist with a fine talent, provincial but well informed of what was going on in the rest of Europe at the same time. He was in no way naïve. Most of his models are young and idealized (ill. 8, 9 and 10). They remind the viewer at times of Pesne or Hogarth. In contrast, in the last two rooms, there are some 18th century portraits belonging to the Sinebrychoff Museum, some of which are recent acquisitions (Adelaide Labille-Guiard, Alexandre Roslin…). Given the very specialized focus of the subject, the catalogue is meant for those who wish to have a complete overview of the Enlightenment in Europe or, more specifically, the origins of Finnish painting [5]

Sinebrychoffin Taidemuseo Internet website

Let us also add that this summer the workshop-home of Gallen-Kallela in Espoo is presenting an exhibition on Charles de Vallombreuse from 24 May to 31 August 2008.


Jérôme Montcouquiol, mercredi 27 août 2008


Notes

[1] These two works were shown in Paris in 1987 in the exhibition Lumières du Nord. La peinture scandinave 1885-1905 at the Musee du Petit Palais.

[2] We would like to list in recent French events the exhibition last winter at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris on Hellen Schjerfbeck, the one on Scandinavian painters and France which is due to open at the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Lille this fall and the recently-appointed director of the Musee d’Orsay, Guy Cogeval’s intention to prepare a retrospective on Gallen-Kallela (see also the news item of 21/5/08 concerning Orsay’s acquisition of a work by this artist).

[3] It includes almost exclusively only those works held in Finland and Scandinavia ; we did not find, for example, a reproduction of the magnificent painting from the Szepmuveszeti Muzeum in Budapest.
It is well known that fakes exist, and that some painters such as Victor Westerkilen, or the Swede Gustaf Fjaestad painted snow landscapes which on first impression seem very close to Wacklin’s.

[4] Helsinki did not become the capital of Finland until 1812, supplanting Turku.

[5] A large part of the catalogue is devoted to the tests from the scientific laboratory : raking light, x-rays,...



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