A national portrait

Self-portraits of Finnish artists at the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

I’m just back from Helsinki, a delightful city, easy to warm to and welcoming in every degree. I liked the even line of the buildings (Helsinki has no skyscrapers, and almost every building in the city centre whether new or old is four or five stories high, giving a great sense of harmony about the place). I liked how there was a coffee place at every corner (Finns drink more coffee than anywhere else – reportedly four cups per day per person, adult or child). I mastered only one word of the language (Kiitos – meaning ‘thank you’), but despite what Jean-Claude Juncker may hope for, English is Europe’s lingua franca, and in a European city such as Helsinki, everything tends towards a cultural and linguistic mash-up in any case. You are somewhere and anywhere at the same time.

Finland is wedged between the Scandanavian countries and Russia, and for much of its history has been overrun by one or the other. Fear of the latter combined with a close affinity is a constant undercurrent. You can observe how the Finnish elides into the Russian if you take the ferry, as I did, from Helsinki to nearby Tallinn (Estonia’s pretty capital city) and see how the faces shift in tone. Another undercurrent is, inevitably, immigration. A recent map of what white Europeans associate with race reveals that Finns overall hold attitudes less liberal than their Scandinavian neighbours, and you had to go to the fringes of Helsinki before you saw many who weren’t white Finns or visiting Chinese. A poster from some service company that I saw in several places showed a wide range of faces designed to show how all of Finland was there to welcome you. And all were white.

Greta Hällfors-Sipilä: St. John’s Church, c. 1918, and Helene Schjerfbeck: Self-Portrait, 1912, via www.ateneum.fi

To get a nation’s picture of itself, you can learn a lot from its advertising, but equally from its art galleries. Helsinki’s two major galleries are the Ateneum and Kiasma, both part of the Finnish National Gallery. Ateneum is home to the classical art collection. I have confess I knew little about Finnish art before going there, being only vaguely aware of names such as Hugo Simberg, Tyko Sallinen, Albert Edelfelt and Pekka Halonen. The gallery has them all, plus names new to me now firmly established as favourites – in particular the exuberant Greta Hällfors-Sipilä, and Helene Schjerfbeck, an artist of the highest calibre.

The narrative of the nation’s art was an expected one of landscapes intended to evoke feelings of national pride (Finland achieved independence from Russia in 1917) and recreations of national myth (the omnipresent Kalevala epic poem), interspersed with portraits of withdrawn characters caught between thought and vacancy in spartan rooms. But then you come across the gallery’s inspired installation, a wall of self-portraits by Finnish artists.

The full self-portrait wall at the Ateneum Art Museum

This was just marvellous. It’s a corridor wall of self-portraits, arranged in rough chronology of artist, with the name of each person printed large enough to stop the viewer from peering up close at each one and instead taking in the full display. First, the conceit works because you have been working you way through the gallery with these names and their styles have become familiar, and suddenly there they all are, a gathering of your new friends. Then it works because you see a nation looking at you. It’s not that a collection of artists is representative of the people of a country – by definition they are atypical – but it is what their eyes have seen and what they have endeavoured to convey, within the constraints of their times, that is significant. The stiffness of early portraiture turns to the freer expression of closer times, following the lines of art history, but the quality of the eyes is constant throughout, interrogating us while investigating themselves.

‘Receptor’, a video installation by Tuomas A. Laitinen, via www.kiasma.fi

Ten minutes’ walk away is Kiasma, Helsinki’s contemporary art gallery, a building of stylish and surprising modernist curves, inside and outside, positioned next to a statue of Finnish war hero and statesman Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, who might have been taken somewhat aback by the building’s contents. I was a bit taken aback myself, as after the classical works of the Ateneum, it was something of an assault on the sense to be confronted by installations inspired by (and constructed out of) video games, social media, virtual reality and digital technologies. Eventually my mind was re-oriented towards the way we must interrogate things in 2017, and I was particularly taken by a video installation by Tuomas A. Laitinen, ‘Receptor’. This explored tactility and human interaction in a cryptic, engrossing manner, featuring text and speech that had been AI-generated from a machine trained on experimental literature, spouting truthful absurdities. I didn’t know what it meant, but then neither did the machine, I assume.

What sort of national portrait was here? It was one in which nation had disappeared. The specific exhibition, ‘ARS17‘, was on the theme of the digital revolution, with work from a range of artists, not just Finnish. It was intended to reflect the impact of a world where communications and consequently identity have overrun borders. It had that bias towards the Finnish in that the explanatory labels were in Finnish (and Swedish, and English), and Finnish artists were featured to a degree, but the dominant language was English and the images were universal. It could have been anywhere, though it has to be somewhere. Much like Helsinki.



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