So let us be Finns

August 28, 2013

“We are no longer Swedes, and we don’t want to be Russians—so let us be Finns.”- 19th century Finnish saying.

(This article was originally published in Artsatlantic #64, Summer/Fall 1999, pgs. 45-48)

Any country with an identity crisis should be of interest to Canadians as much of our history has been a search for our own identity. So when a Finnish friend of mine, art critic and artist Antero Kare, invited me to Finland last fall to give some lectures on Canadian art I jumped at chance to learn something more about this Nordic nation and, in particular, what role art plays in Finnish identity.

Late October in Finland is not tourist season. Daylight hours are already short and, at least while I was there, the sun never shone. But then Canada isn’t famous for its weather either and while the skies might have been grey while I was in Finland, the hospitality was anything but. I had told Antero that I was interested in finding out all I could about Finnish artists, art galleries and art education. I wasn’t disappointed. I had a full schedule during the two weeks that I was there, visiting many different places and meeting the key players of the Finnish art scene.

It had been arranged for me to give lectures at the Helsinki Academy of Fine Arts and at the Satakunnan ammattikorkeakoulo in Kankaamnpää—the latter being a new art school in a town about four hours by bus from Helsinki. One thing that I have noticed over the years is that art students everywhere are very similar and those in Finland are no exception—they dress the same, most of their work looks very similar (right out of current art magazines), and they think that their teachers are ‘old hat’.

However, there is one major difference from Canada. Post secondary education in Finland, while highly selective, is free. Not only does the state pay tuition, it provides students with a stipend to cover some of their expenses. The results of this policy are that the student population more closely mirrors that of the general population than it does in Canada and that students can finish their education free of debt. Further, more students choose to study subjects such as fine arts rather than those which might be seen as directly related to the job market.

Finland, like other Scandinavian countries, spends quite a bit of money on culture.

This is because culture is taken very seriously not only by the government, but also by the people on the street. There is considerable support by all levels of government right down to the municipalities. Cities and towns give their own artists grants, supply studios, and have active contemporary galleries and sculpture parks. Certainly there is more active support for the arts from the middle class and above, but as well there is an appreciation of culture from all levels of Finnish society.

Finland has been an independent country since only 1917 after centuries of rule by Sweden and Russia. One factor that has saved their culture over a thousand years of foreign domination has been their unique language. Words such as the before mentioned Satakunnan ammattikorkeakoulo and Kankaamnpää do not easily roll off the tongues of non-native speakers of Finnish.

Their epic saga, the Kalevla, has also reinforced a national identity. Late in the 19th century Finnish artists, in particular Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Pekka Halonen, used landscape painting as an symbol of nationalism. The artists in the Group of Seven are synonymous with the issue of Canadian nationalism and there is a direct connection with Scandinavia art from the late 19th and early 20th century. The Group needed a model for their nationalistic art and they found it in an exhibition in January of 1913 as Lawren Harris recalled in 1954: “ (J.E.H.) MacDonald and I had discussed the possibility of an art expression which would embody the varied moods, character and sprit of this country (Canada). We heard there was an exhibition of modern Scandinavian paintings at the Albright (Knox) Gallery in Buffalo—and took the train to Buffalo to see it. This turned out to be one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences either of us had. Here was a large number of paintings that corroborated our ideas. Here were paintings of Northern lands created in the spirit of those lands and through the hearts and minds of those who knew and loved them. Here was an art bold, vigorous and uncompromising, embodying direct first hand experience of the great North, and our conviction was reinforced…From that time on we knew we were at the beginnings of a great adventure.”

I was not sure that national identity was still a problem in Finland but, as I found out, there are new worries on the subject now that the country is becoming a full member in the European Union. There very well might be, in some peoples minds, a loss of a measure of their uniqueness. The EU demands uniformity in many regulations. One example that was repeated to me more than once, was that in Finland there is something called the rule of first sale which means that when an artist makes the first sale of an art work, be it through a dealer or a private sale, there are no taxes on the sale. No small thing in a country whose version of HST is 22 ½%. Europe wants this rule changed, but so far, in a fight led by the Artists’ Association of Finland, the rule remains.

One of the first places that I visited was the Artists’ Association of Finland office in downtown Helsinki which is located in a handsome block square 19th century building called House of the Art just kitty-corner from The Academy of Fine Arts.

I spoke with president Kari Jylhä and acting secretary general Liisa Murto. The association is an umbrella organization for the visual arts in Finland and has over 1500 members. The membership is divided into separate groups: the Finnish Painters Union, the Association of Finnish Sculptors, the Society of Finnish Graphic Artists, the Society of Artist Photographers, and Union of Finnish Art Associations. The Artists Association was founded in 1864.
Kari told me that the Association is a strong voice for the visual arts in Finland and that nearly all professional artists in the country are members. Individual membership in the various sections of the Association is by election. Artists must have a certain number of professional level exhibitions before they are qualified for membership. The number of exhibitions varies from union to union, but the emphasis is on professionalism. Certainly artists can operate outside of the Association, but very few do as opposition to unions is rare unlike it is among North American artists who generally see themselves as rugged individualists.

The Artists’ Association of Finland championed ideas such as the tax free government grants that are given to artists for one, two or three years. The current grant is worth 70,000 FIM (about $22,000C) per year. They also administer copyright laws that apply to the visual arts. These laws give Finnish artists far better protection than do our copyright laws in Canada. Finnish laws provide compensation for the reproduction of art works, artist fees for exhibitions, fees for works shown on other media, and a droit de suite law that gives artists 5% of the resale price when one of their works is resold in Finland. Further, the copyright protection continues for seventy years after the death of an artist.

The following day I visited Kiasma, the brand new contemporary art gallery in Helsinki. This new five storey building was designed by the American architect Steven Holl. I spoke with director Tuula Arkio who told me that the gallery’s mandate is Finnish and international art from 1960 on and that the collection was formerly housed in the Ateneum, the Finnish National Gallery. The gallery opened its doors in May of 1998 with a major exhibition called This Side of the Ocean which was concerned with the question of identity in Finnish art. What I found strange was that when I visited the gallery in October of 1998 that Finnish art was notably absent from all of the gallery’s walls and the major exhibition was of the work of the American artist Bruce Nauman. I was not sure if this was due to the gallery’s desire to encompass internationalism or if it showed a lack of confidence in contemporary Finnish art. I was assured by the director that what I saw that day in the gallery was an anomaly and that the permanent collection had yet to be installed. Nevertheless, this left me in the position of seeing very little contemporary Finnish art in an institutional setting in Helsinki.

The new building itself, like so much new museum architecture—such as Frank Gehry’s new Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa, Spain—is more an architectural statement than a functional building. Kiasma looks more like a giant outdoor sculpture than an art gallery. This is rather the opposite of the old modernist adage of form following function, but these are post-modern times and I wouldn’t want to get into the way of an architect’s ego. Nevertheless, I found the interior layout of Kiasma to be very confusing. Just getting from point A to point B proved to be quite a task. However, there is no denying that the metal clad building stands out in its setting amidst the more traditional architecture of its downtown neighbors.

During my first weekend in Finland I took a train to the city of Lahti to meet the sculptor Olavi Launi. He is one of the best known senior artist in Finland. Now in his early seventies he represented Finland at the Venice Biennial in 1978 and his work is in many collections in Scandinavia and elsewhere. What I wanted to see was Launi Park. It is a sculpture park in Lahti that is dedicated to the work of the artist. Here some twelve large sculptures wind around a wooded hillside at the edge of the city. The works were completed between 1989 and 1995. To say that he is highly regarded in Lahti is an understatement. While walking through the park with the artist and his wife Tarja—who is a painter and acted as a translator to the non-English speaking Olavi, we were approached by a young Finnish woman and her American boy friend because they had heard us speaking English. Lahti, it appears, is not a place where you find many tourist at least in late October. When she found out that I was interviewing Olavi Launi, she said, in her excellent accent free English, that it was “awesome” to meet the famous artist and insisted that she have her picture taken with him so she could show it to all of her friends. It would be difficult to imagine such an event taking place in North America where most people would be hard pressed to come up with the name of a sculptor much less hold an artist in the high regard as this young woman obliviously did Launi.

During the next week I met more artists, museum directors, curators, art critics and editors. I travelled to Tempere and visited the city museum of art; the Sara Heldén Art Museum of Contemporary Art; the Lenin Museum (this museum shows contemporary art, but is the place where much of the planning for the Russian revolution took place and where Lenin first met Stalin); and Museokeskus Vapriikki where there was an outstanding exhibition on Arctic shamanism.
I spoke with Kimmo Sarja, a Helsinki artist of a younger generation than Olavi Launi, whose work was included in Kiasma’s exhibition This Side of the Ocean. Kimmo had studied in New York in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, but he also has a degree in Political Science from the University of Helsinki. He is currently completing a Ph.D. at University in Aesthetics. I was interested in his ideas about the issue of Finnishness in contemporary Finnish art. His work in This Side of the Ocean, which was done with film-maker Kimmo Koskela, was a video of interviews with senior Finnish intellectuals on the subject of what it means to be a Finn. Those interviewed included writers, artists, composers, philosophers, psychiatrists and art historians. The youngest of this group was sixty-five years old and the oldest had died in 1997 at the age of ninety-seven.

Kimmo was concerned that the voice, and the image, of these people be preserved for future generations. These people such as artist Aleksanteri Ahola-Valo and philosopher Sven Krohn were, in Kimmo’s opinion, the foundation of Finnish culture. His fear is that their voices and ideas might be lost in Europe’s headlong rush into gobalisation and in tandem, some of what it means to be a Finn. Kimmo also believes that the voice of the old, along with their experiences, are often over-looked in a world obsessed with youth and technology. His video is a testament to the belief that we are results of our collective histories and that without a shared past we face a doubtful future.

My host, artist Antero Kare, like Kimmo Sarja, studied at the University of Helsinki rather than at an art school. Kare combines science, principally archaeology and microbiology, with painting and sculpture with interesting results. His ‘living’ paintings, which are works that are painted with live, and I might add harmless, microbes, have been exhibited in both Europe and the United States. These paintings are quite literally about life and death. The large abstract paintings change in colour as the microbes go through their short life cycle. The colour only becomes stable with the death of the microbes.

Antero’s most recent work are installations that combine video images, sound and sculpture. An installation in an exhibition in Austria last fall was of a carved moose head within a closed glass environment. The moose head was coated with microbes which grew during the course of the week long exhibition. The piece, complete with video images and sound, was about the wilderness and the place of nature in a northern country. I thought that this piece was a perfect demonstration of the similarity between Canada and Finland. We may not be world powers nor are our artists world famous, but we do have moose in some abundance.

On my last day in Finland I had an interview with Soili Sinisalo the director of the Finnish National Gallery, the Ateneum, in Helsinki. This gallery is responsible for Finnish art prior to 1960. Sinisalo is an art historian who not only knows historical Finnish art, but is very aware of the contemporary scene as well. I was interested in what had influenced Finnish art over the last century. She told me that the major influences were from Russia, through St. Petersburg and Paris. I could see the French influence in much of the art, but was less aware of that coming from Russia; it made sense as St. Petersburg is very close and Finland was controlled by Russia until 1917.

Sinisalo also knew of the Scandinavian influence on the Group of Seven as her museum lent works to the Art Gallery of Ontario’s 1984 exhibition, The Mystic North. This exhibition, curated by Roald Nasgaard, showed the similarity late 19th and early 20th century of Scandinavian and Canadian landscape painting. I came away from the interview with Sinisalo with the strong conviction that Finland was a country with a short history as an independent nation, but with a long history as a people because they have a sense of themselves through their culture and art.

The high regard that average Finns have for all their artists is because of their excellent education in the arts and the subsequent importance that culture takes on in their day to day lives. Would that it were the same in North American, but I am afraid that what culture means to most Canadians is, at worst, the latest American television situation comedy or, at best, Masterpiece Theatre on PBS. Both of these examples, one low brow and the other, middle brow, are imported and reflect our reoccurring belief that if it is from someplace else, it must be better than anything that could be done here. I have often thought that if we had our own unique language—and I don’t mean French which is fraught with its own problems—and a currency that was called something other than a dollar, then we would have a much stronger culture than we have now. At least it would be ours, just as Finland’s is theirs and something that they take pride in.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville, NB Canada, 11 January 1999.

One comment

  1. Virgil, do the the “rule of first sale” and “droit de suite” provisions still prevail in Finland? The microbe-infested moosehead carving reminds me of a singer that I read about on Facebook the other day who had something on her face the growth of which others contributed to by interacting (viz., breathing) on her.

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