21 November 2006

What's Showing at the Ateneum

I live in one of the world’s great museum cities, which is I why a strict accounting of the number of hours per week, or month, or year, I manage to log in the museums of Washington, D.C., would be profoundly embarrassing. The problem is that the regular round of errands and chores somehow fills every minute of every day.

As a Fulbrighter in Finland, however, I have plenty of time, after fulfilling my duties as teacher, housekeeper, and self-improvement faddist, to hit the museum trail, and I have been taking careful notes.

This is the first installment of a series on museums in Finland.

While I was in Helsinki last week, I was encouraged by a fellow Fulbrighter to visit the Finnish National Gallery, also called the Ateneum. The collection, consisting of some 17,500 works of art, is housed in a late 19th century palazzo situated directly across the street from the main railway station, an Eliel Saarinen shed that has been a city landmark ever since its completion at the end of World War I.

Let me confess up front that I generally prefer railway stations to museums, and that if forced to choose only from a list of museums, I would always select the one specializing in urban history over those devoted to art, per se. In D.C., for example, I will, ceteris paribus, gravitate toward the National Building Museum. In Helsinki, my default destination is the City Museum on Sofiankatu, which, by the way, has a very interesting model of one of Saarinen’s planned town extensions. It’s worth a look.

The argument that persuaded me to visit the Ateneum had to do with a special exhibition of works assembled by a Stockholm-based museum administrator and curator named Pontus Hultén. Here’s a link: http://www.ateneum.fi/default.asp?docId=14926. I had never heard of Hultén, but it turns out that he was a devotee and promoter of Marcel Duchamp and subsequently of a number of avant-garde artists, including Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, and Niki de Saint Phalle, who have long since ascended to the modernist hall of fame. One of the interesting things about Hultén is that he did not systematically collect art. He was, evidently, a charismatic fellow who inspired artists to give him things, which just sort of accumulated. Andy Warhol also seems to have been one of his pals.

I don’t know how many Warhols are in the permanent collection of the Hultén collection over in Tukholma, but there are two on loan to the Ateneum, one a relatively uninteresting self-portrait, the other Warhol’s oddly affecting portrait of Chairman Mao, or more precisely, Warhol’s gloss on the official PRC icon—I guess you could call it the “Gilbert Stuart” Mao. (I have borrowed the expression “oddly affecting” from a music review I read years ago that described Neil Young’s voice as “oddly affecting,” when it was clear that what the reviewer really meant was untrained, unsteady, generally not worth much, and yet…. Somehow, I don’t think Neil cares about such reviews when he cashes his royalty checks. Neither did Andy.)

Anyway, I gaped at the works in the Hultén exhibition, some of which are quite humorous, and several of which are portraits of Hultén. It took about a half-hour to take in the Hultén show, which left me wondering how I was going to get my 8 euros worth out of the Ateneum.

I needn’t have worried. I wandered through the other rooms and was reminded straight away that Finland is, by European standards, a very young nation, and an even younger independent state. The oldest work in the collection dates from about 1750, when it was a colony of Sweden. According to the Ateneum’s English-language guidebook, the eighteenth century “is best represented by Isak Wacklin’s (1720-1758) portraits.” I never had heard of Wacklin, but I found his work in the Rococo style to be subdued and urbane. I didn’t quite get my fill of Wacklin.

Then I discovered Albert Edelfelt. I had never heard of Edelfelt either, which completes my personal Trifecta of Artistic Ignorance. Edelfelt (1854-1905) was only “the most esteemed Finnish artist abroad, and his foreign contacts influenced the development of art life in Finland. The best known paintings by Edelfelt include the historical painting Queen Bianca, 1877, and the outdoor scene A Child’s Funeral, 1879. From the Luxembourg Gardens, 1887, tells of Edelfelt’s close contacts with France.”

Putting aside the issue of foreign “contacts,” I found Queen Bianca to be a profoundly humbling work of art. The Queen is shown bouncing her young son on her knee. Perhaps there is more to the story, but that is all the narrative I can detect here, and it is more than enough. With extraordinary technical skill, Edelfelt has managed to produce, not a queen, and not a secular Madonna and Child, but what seems to me a faithful representation of the intensity of the mother-son relationship. How it is possible for an artist to capture so much human emotion and hold it on a humble canvass is quite beyond me, and always will be. And then there are the folds of her dress!

To characterize A Child’s Funeral as a mere “outdoor scene” is surely unjust. It is a heart-rending account of a family in a rowboat carrying a small casket out to sea. The dead child’s sister clutches a small bouquet in a hand that has gone pathetically limp. I have to believe that even those who genuinely abhor sentimentalism would be moved by this painting. A Child’s Funeral is an unsparing depiction of grief, and also of duty, which is etched in the faces of the rowers. Edelfelt had a gift for fashioning convincing faces.

And feet. While studying these paintings, I found myself thinking of Edelfelt’s contemporary, Winslow Homer, and wondering whether he knew Edelfelt’s work. Edelfelt's angular boys, teetering precariously on rocks, elbows all akimbo, to launch their toy boats, are entirely convincing. The feet clasp the rocks as best they can, within the limits of the human anatomy. I am aware that Edelfelt’s art represents precisely the kind of bourgeois claptrap that dismayed the great Impressionists of the late nineteenth century, but those of us who never advanced beyond stick figures must stand in awe of this level of technical skill.

The Hultén exhibit is on display through 10 December 2006. For Wacklin and Edelfelt, there is no particular hurry. They are part of the permanent collection of the Ateneum.

Click on the title of this post for a link to the Finnish National Gallery.