The starting point for this exhibition is the long friendship and collaboration between Elina Brotherus (b. 1972) and Hannele Rantala (b. 1952). Having made significant careers for themselves, they presented a joint exhibition, Correspondances – Conversations on Art 1999–2009, at Photographic Gallery Hippolyte in 2009. The ongoing dialogue has broadened since then and it ties naturally to the Modern Woman exhibition. The two artists’ key themes include power and free will as well as borders and crossing them, but they also touch on friendship, collegiality and the importance of human contact.
The exhibition originated in 2018, when Brotherus and Rantala were both working abroad. They began to work on assignments they gave to themselves and each other, ones that were thematically linked to the very core of their practice: experiencing, seeing and articulating the world. Elina Brotherus often refers to Fluxus event scores from the 1960s–1970s, whereas Hannele Rantala’s approach is founded on her vision of the poetic qualities of photography. The works were created in part as direct responses to the assignments. Brotherus and Rantala have also gone back in time and revisited their earlier production to combine existing material with new images and contexts. Many of the resultant pieces relate to the identity and role of the artist and to the position of women in a (still) maledominated art world.
The largest assignment category pays tribute to early Finnish women photographers who have largely been neglected: Emmi Fock, Nancy Pietinen, Hilja Raviniemi, Edith Södergran, Petra Tiirikkala and the Kuvasiskot studio (Margit Ekman and Eila Marjala). Elina Brotherus and Hannele Rantala have selected their photographs from archives and created companion pieces for them.
The exhibition has been curated by Marja Sakari, Director of the Ateneum, and Chief Curator Sointu Fritze.
The exhibition is produced in cooperation with the Finnish Museum of Photography.
Elina Brotherus (b. 1972), based in both Finland and France, works with photography and moving image. Her work has been alternating between autobiographical and art-historical approaches. She often uses herself as a model. After her early selfportraits, Brotherus focused on the relationship between the human figure and the landscape and, later, that of the artist and the model. In the series Annonciation (2009–2013) and Carpe Fucking Diem (2011–2015), she returned to autobiographical imagery. Her recent performative work is informed by the art of the 1960s and 1970s, including the Fluxus group and conceptual art.
Elina Brotherus first began exhibiting in the late 1990s and her work has since then been shown broadly both at home and internationally. Brotherus is represented in over 60 public collections and has published 11 monographs. The most prestigious of her many awards is the Carte Blanche PMU, in connection to which she became the first Finnish artist to have a solo show at Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Art follows life. As an art student in the 1990s, I used my personal experiences as the starting point for my work. I put an end to my previous (science) studies as well as my first marriage. This sudden liberation became visible in my images. After moving abroad I became interested in the iconography and the methods of expression in painting. I continued to use myself as model, but now I was an image-maker instead of an autobiographer. As I approached forty, autobiography crept back in through the back door.
It wasn’t planned, but nor did I refuse it, for my strategy as an artist is to accept the images that need to happen. Since I have no children, I am always the youngest in the family. That allows for playfulness and freedom, qualities that I appreciate more and more as I get older. I don’t have to represent the traditional way of being a woman. I can give a middle finger to the norm.Elina Brotherus, 2022
1952 I am born in Helsinki.
1956 Mother teaches me to survive train journeys alone. I have a mustard-yellow matching jacket and hat and red gloves.
1963 Mother makes pancakes for breakfast because I refuse to eat anything else.
1964 I fall off my bicycle.
1969 I hitchhike home from Savonlinna. The driver tries to rape me. I talk my way out of the situation.
1970 On a winter night I walk alone on the thin ice of a lake.
1970 I draw a ten-mark note so accurately that it could be lifted off the paper.
1971 I get excited about integral calculus. I think I might become a physicist. I don’t.
1972 I get excited about acting. I think I might become an actor. I don’t.
1972 I meet Vesa. Vesa plays the accordion and we get married.
1977 I meet Mikko and we jump into bed.
1978 I meet all sorts of men.
19xx Mother plants oak trees all over the country.
1982 I gain weight.
1983 I move to Moscow.
1985 I stand alone in the sleet in Khabarovsk. It is spring.
1986 I learn a lot about totalitarianism.
1986 I learn a lot about fear.
1986 I learn a lot about cheating and betrayal.
1987 I will never forget it. I know how hate is born.
1987 I lose weight.
1987 I move out of Moscow.
1987 The night darkens and becomes dense.
1987 The psychiatrist’s car registration number is BUM-2.
1988 I begin from the beginning.
1989 I notice bitterness lurking.
19xx The past is left behind.
19xx I’m feeling ashamed all the time.
1992 I move to Paris. I collect rubbish from its streets and turn them into a series of works.
1993 I am hit by a ray of light.
1994 A long silence commences.
1994 I wonder how long one can live out of a single suitcase.
1994 I read Spinoza. There’s no point in pursuing happiness; it has unhappiness built into it.
1994 Father dies on Midsummer Day.
1996 I move to Brussels.
1997 I run out of money.
1997 I rent out my apartment and live here and there.
1997 I fight my own nastiness.
1996 The world expands.
1996 I become a better artist. I learn to make works without money.
1996 Not having any money does not make you a better artist. It makes you a survivor.
1996 I start all over again.
19xx Only that which is of tangible benefit has value. I don’t believe that.
19xx Success is measured in power and money. I don’t believe that.
19xx The most important thing is of no use.
19xx The past is left behind.
19xx I believe in kindness.
19xx I stay on the periphery. I don’t look towards the centre, I look outwards.
19xx A veritable Copernican turn occurs in my thinking. I am able to think of things the other way around. Earth orbits the Sun.
19xx I read Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
2012 I’m about to lose my eyesight. My eyes are operated on. I have prostheses made of my eyes, just in case.
20xx My hair is going grey.
20xx I sweep a parking lot in Stockholm.
20xx I sweep the Salakkalahti waterfront in Viipuri.
20xx I sweep the Williamsburg Bridge in New York.
20xx I return to the beginning.
20xx I unpack my suitcase.
2011 Mother dies at Christmas.
2012 I begin from the beginning.
2013 I gain weight.
20xx I forget the shame.
20xx I pack the bag.
20xx I look for wastelands. 2022 I think about the future.
Photographic Gallery Hippolyte, 2009
Hannele Rantala’s 47 Departures and Elina Brotherus’s The Fundamental Loneliness were key works in their joint exhibition Correspondances at Hippolyte in 2009. This is how the artists described their work at the time:
Our exhibition arises from a friendship that has lasted for ten years and the discussions about art we have had during that time. Our twoperson workshop has given itself assignments such as colour theory, body, landscape, and art postcard, both of us interpreting the topic in our own way. The first pair of works dates from 1999 and has a handkerchief as its central element. Hannele enclosed an unused paper handkerchief in the invitations to her Departures exhibition, Elina used it her in her work The Fundamental Loneliness. This has subsequently begun to feel relevant.
Edith Södergran (1892–1923)
”I photograph. It’s so nice.” Thus wrote Edith Södergran, the future Finnish-Swedish modernist poet, to her schoolmate Taimi. Södergran took photos of her family and friends in Karelia and also photographed in Davos, Switzerland, where she was undergoing treatment for tuberculosis in a sanatorium. Of all the photos taken by her, 400 survive.
The photographer-poet was energetic to the point of impatience: quick observations led to quick reactions. Södergran had mastered the composition and technique of landscape photography, but more often than not she sought fresh ways to capture the moment. Some of her self-portraits are striking in their experimentalism.
When the Russian Revolution undermined the family’s financial situation, photography seemed one possible way to earn money, alongside translation work: ”I’ve begun to make prints of beautiful negatives of Raivola to sell, but it’s a hard sell. People can’t tell the difference between a fine photograph and a simple landscape card.” (Som en eld över askan, Helsinki 1993).
pictures by forgotten women photographers
and create parallel works.
Elina & Hannele
The Artist on the Road to Tarascon, 2009
The Artist on the Road to Tarascon is Hannele Rantala herself, who has captured the shadow of her friend Elina Brotherus in the photo. In 2009, Rantala and Brotherus walked the same road from Arles to Tarascon that Vincent van Gogh immortalised in his 1888 painting. In van Gogh’s work, which has since disappeared, the artist is seen trudging along the sun-scorched, tree-lined road carrying his painting tools. The most disconcerting detail in the painting is its only shadow, an odd dark shape on the ground next to the artist.
Hannele Rantala juxtaposes her work with a photo of a lone woman on a winding road in the Swiss Alps, taken by Edith Södergran when she was in a sanatorium there. Like van Gogh, Södergran’s career was marred by illness and a lack of understanding among critics of the day, yet full of fiery passion and belief in one’s choices. The famous quote below from Södergran, a pioneer of modern poetry in Finland, could also describe Rantala’s long and independent path as a photographer who intuitively pushes the boundaries of photography: ”…I let my instinct build up what my intellect sees in expectation. My self-confidence comes from the fact that I have discovered my dimensions. It does not behoove me to make myself smaller than I am.” (Edith Södergran, introduction to The September Lyre 1918.)
Hilja Raviniemi (1915–1973)
”Where is the woman’s place vis-à-vis the camera – in front of it or behind it?” Hilja “Hili” Raviniemi asked in her 1954 article Nainen ja kamera (”Woman and the Camera”). For most of the 20th century, the photography scene in Finland was tantamount to camera clubs. Raviniemi entered this masculine world in the 1940s and quickly made it her own. The first woman chair of the Finnish Federation of Camera Clubs, she was recipient of the international Honorary Excellence FIAP award, which could be held by no more than 250 photographers in the world at the same time.
In the heated debates within Finnish photography, Raviniemi was a balancing factor. She understood the perspectives of both old school ”realists” and the new generation ”gimmick artists” while condemning the attempts of both camps to curtail expression on ideological or technical grounds. Raviniemi’s most famous works were X-ray still lifes that were completely exceptional at the time. Her work as a laboratory technician at the image institute of Helsinki University enabled her to carry out sustained experiments with X-ray technology.
pictures by forgotten women photographers
and create parallel works.
Elina & Hannele
Before Necessities, 2021
The corner of Eerikinkatu / Morandi
This is the beginning. I stand in front of a house on Eerikinkatu and then inside in the hall of my aunt’s flat. There’s a shallow green bowl in front of me, like a still life by Morandi. Although in reality I thought of Morandi afterwards. Unknown fruit in the bowl, a hand is offering me one. Apparently I ate it, because a big seed remained in my palm. It was like a stone made of the two hemispheres of the brain. Outside in the streets, you could still see signs of war, of bombs. Although I didn’t understand it at the time. A southern fruit signified a new era. I kept the stone from one year to the next, looking at it and stroking it, until it became rubbish.
The corner of Kalevankatu / Šibbolet
There’s a huge crack in the street. It must have been dug there, because where would it otherwise have come from. It seems impossible to cross. Rubbish and dust fall off the edge into the deep chasm. To get to the other side, would you have to be able to say a password flawlessly, like “yksi”, or in really suspicious cases, “höyryjyrä”? Foreigners don’t know how to say words like that. Finns, and only Finns, can pronounce those words correctly and pass. Words separate us from others with precision. The others are left on the opposite side of the abyss waving their permission slips. Hordes of migrants stand there with brooms and rags, ready to clean up our mess when we give them permission.
The corner of Kalevankatu / Oysters
There used to be a fine restaurant on the corner where you could get oysters before anyone around here had even heard of them. Later, when I was penniless in Paris, I used to eat oysters by the dozen in the autumn, because they were almost the cheapest food there at the time. One by one, the tiny fine de claires slipped down my throat. They tasted fresh, like the sea. I had come to Paris to flee misery and sorrow, but pennilessness trailed a dark cloud behind me. The beautiful green colour of the fine de claire was comforting. I thought about little oysters emerging from the sea at full moon to feed on green grass on the shore. That’s how they get their beautiful colour, I was told by someone who had green eyes.
The corner of Bulevardi / Legacy
Everyone should get to experience love at least once. My love once told me that his sister had inherited a flat opposite the old opera house. She rented it out to a Chinese man who ran a brothel in the flat. The rent barely covered the cost of the flat, but anyway the man paid it on time. Because of a renovation, my love had to clear out a storeroom in the attic, where he found two wooden crates used to carry booze. I wanted one of them for myself, so as to have some memory of the man. After all, he was married to another woman, and thirty years of love with me had not changed the situation. The fate of the boxes was clear: landfill.
Everything in life always happens in the wrong order and at the wrong time. When you are strong and able to endure any adversity, life just meanders along in quiet streams of boredom and sweet fragrances. And then the very next moment, you heart lies in tatters along the streets, and you try to stitch it back together among the waste. As if life itself were somehow a whole somebody. Lipsticks, broken glass, handkerchiefs, champagne corks, pieces of sausage abandoned by rats, odd gloves, underpants, masks. Someone is walking his dog. And just when it all comes back together, you fall in love with the wrong person again and your lipstick and gloves and your whole life and heart are in pieces all over the streets.
The corner of Bulevardi / Embassy
The Soviet Union bombed out the windows of its own embassy in the Winter War and then the rest of the house in the Continuation War. Such a beautiful building. There were plenty of ruins to clean up for years to come. A few years after the war, students razed the building and took the bricks to build their campus in Otaniemi. The rest was swept into a landfill, and dust settled on the empty lot. The Soviet Embassy moved to Tehtaankatu, where a huge new building was completed in 1952. I was born that same year in Midwifery School on the plot next door. Later, the old buildings of the Midwifery School were demolished and the Soviet Embassy expanded onto the adjacent property. The Soviet state itself collapsed 45 years later. On spring mornings, a blackbird sings in the empty plot.
Uudenmaankatu / Oblivion
For ten years I lived in a building on Uudenmaankatu where a wall in the stairwell had been cracked by a bomb that fell in the centre of the block. Otherwise, all the ruins of destroyed and damaged houses were cleared away in a hurry, and walls and windows torn apart by bombs were patched up so as to make it easier to forget. So that there would be no talk, only business as usual. That went on for many years, until everything started again. But the war was never forgotten completely: the ruins were simply swept under the carpet. Now the battle is dusted off when necessary, again and again, in times of celebration.
I’m thinking of a town in the Balkans where a river runs through it. Its main bridges were bombed out around twenty years ago. Repairs were delayed so that people would not forget the war. Revenge completes the mayhem. Later on, a man from the same town murdered his wife in the basement of a suburban house in Helsinki by hacking her to pieces with a knife, then crammed the body into a freezer in the basement. She too had come from elsewhere, a cleaner. No one knew to miss her until dirt began to accumulate in a corner somewhere.
A 500-mark banknote was lying in the sleet on Uudenmaankatu when I returned from delivering a friend’s obituary to the Ludviginkatu offices of the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper that morning. It hadn’t been there when I’d walked past earlier, or else I would have noticed it. There were no other people in sight. I had spent almost all my money on the notice, but the street had made up for the loss. And not a penny more. I knew of course that some fellow passer-by had dropped the note, but I picked it up anyway. The freezing-cold street was now completely deserted, and the snow was about to cover the money.
The corner of Bulevardi / The lives of others
There’s more and more dust all the time. Past the old opera house, the entire street is blocked by ruins as if a bomb had exploded. There are lots of things in the heaps of rubble and waste, things that we all know but can’t talk about. Traces of fraud and selfishness. When you try to protect and improve only your own life, you do so at the expense of others. An almost insurmountable mountain of dust and waste. It should be impossible to push it along, but I try anyway. It should be easier from now on, since there’s no room for more baggage. Yet the mountain of dust just keeps growing bigger and heavier. It even captures the town of Vyborg and the bombs that fell there, bombs that my father fled to the gatehouse on Ilmarinkatu in Papula. I keep sweeping those mountains along as well.
The corner of Uudenmaankatu / Lottery
Mother left me dozens of cardboard boxes full of lotto coupons. When she was fading away, she would dictate a lotto line to me once a week, which I then took to the shop. She remembered every lotto line she had ever played; those thousands of strings of numbers usually had something to do with war, childhood evacuations, sudden departures. One of the string of numbers she dictated was the same she had submitted twenty years earlier when we had bumped into each other at the corner shop. I hardly remembered anything about the encounter, maybe only that mother had been in a hurry, as always. The last years, mother slept with her shoes on, ready to go, ready to win, ready for everything.
12. Albertinkatu 12
Yet we were others, those who had come from somewhere else, suspicious in some way. Not quite aliens but almost. Outsiders. In Tivoli, even we were tolerated. There, and on the stages of fancy restaurants, the radiant beauty of my aunts, their acrobatic tricks and their dance moves, were appreciated, but when the applause died down, the performers were ushered out the back door and into the street. Once, when one of my aunts was having a really bad time, she’d dig out her mink coat and, with a bored appearance, drag it everywhere. When someone would ask her, how are you auntie dear, she would reply, what does it look like, and straighten her back and break into a brilliant smile. Even the dust that got stuck to the hem of the fur coat follows me.
My parents worked with fur, so I was taught how to handle it too. The cat regularly brought moles into the house. Mother taught me to skin the fur off the small carcass, to tan and nail it to the drying board for stretching. After softening, the mole’s velvety, grey fur made a fine collar for a doll’s jacket. I was later taken along to the fur traders’ warehouse in the Rautatalo building to select mink pelts. Mother taught me how to recognise and choose the best pelts. My fingers still remember the soft feel of fur and its strength when you stroked against the grain.
14. Albertinkatu 16
There, on the right, used to be Kultakellari, the goldsmith shop of my father’s friend from Vyborg, Allu. When my parents’ house was burgled and the thieves stole my christening spoon, father got a new one from Allu, who engraved my birth data on it. The engraving was so sloppy that were you to read my length and weight from the squiggles, it would indeed have been a guess. The silver dust released by the engraving also gets caught up. Just up the hill, that’s all. A crow crosses the crosswalk on foot. Somewhere you can hear muffled music. All moments are present here, childhood, each destroyed and renewed cell.
The corner of Punavuorenkatu, sand circle
Of all living things, I feel the greatest connection with plants. In one work, I encircled plants pushing up from a crack in the asphalt with a thin line of sand. I thought it would be a tribute to the plants, to their beauty and vitality. In reality, the sand circle was probably their death sentence, because people’s eyes were drawn to the weeds. They pulled out the green leaves and swept them into the rubbish to allow the asphalt to better come into its own, its black glory. The job was then finished with poison, in case the plants didn’t have the sense to wilt otherwise. The same poison took care of the bumblebees too. There’s more and more waste. By the end of the journey, I know that the huge pile of dust and ruins will have been transformed from a burden into raw material.
16. Albertinkatu 10
There was a dark-green Peugeot parked opposite the laundry. From the front door, you descended three steps to the floor, with its grid of red and grey tiles. Then you faced a sales counter with a cash register on it, a steel spike for receipts, an ashtray for customers and a high stool in front of the counter. To the right was a huge, hissing steam press, on which a man was leaning, reading the paper. He had a white work coat on and black wooden shoes. He was very beautiful and friendly looking when he looked up from the paper. Father. Often a gentle smile hides the greatest pain. Then one day he climbed up the ladder to replace a burnt-out bulb. A pool of blood trickled from his ear to the floor.
Petra Tiirikkala (1894-1984)
A chequered career led Danish Petra Aasmull turning into Finnish photographer Petra Tiirikkala. Aasmull began her career as a student of court photographer Karl Anderson in Oslo, subsequently working in Swedish and Danish photo studios and in Carl Klein’s studio in Helsinki in the 1910s. Aasmull’s career in photography was interrupted when she married Lauri Tiirikkala of Finland. After being widowed in 1938, Petra Tiirikkala returned to photography, brushing up her skills in photography courses in Denmark and eventually setting up a studio on Tarkk’ampujankatu in Helsinki under her own name.
She initially experimented with tinting her pictures in keeping with the pictorialist ideal of soft tonalities but later developed her style in an increasingly modern direction. Her most distinctive photographs are black-and-white, low-key and high-key close-ups, in which a completely black or white background is used to emphasise the sitter’s figure.
Nancy Pietinen (1888–1967)
Born in Viipuri, Nancy Pietinen was an artistically talented power figure in the Pietinen family of photographers. She took up photography in her youth. The ”Pietinen clan” – Nancy’s husband Aarne and their sons Matti and Otso – founded what eventually became Finland’s largest photographic company, in which Nancy Pietinen served as authorized signatory. As a photographer, however, her focus from the 1920s onwards was on artistic photography, a field in which she excelled in competitions and exhibitions.
Private painting studies under Wäinö Aaltonen infused fine art influences into Nancy Pietinen’s photos. Along with Emmi Fock, she was one of the few Finnish photographers whose work included nudes, and she used her growing sons and later her daughter-in-laws as models. Like all the Pietinens, Nancy was a master of photographic technique and lighting. Indeed, the fiercest competition in art photography came from her own family. Photographer Hilja Raviniemi once recalled Otso Pietinen saying: ”Mum is the best of us all.”
pictures by forgotten women photographers
and create parallel works.
Elina & Hannele
A Woman behind a Thin Fabric, 2021
One of the finest and most enigmatic portraits in Western art is Venetian Renaissance master Titian’s 1558 painting of Cardinal Filippo Archinto. The ascetic portrait with its veil is the primary visual source of Hannele Rantala’s work. Francis Bacon, a favourite artist of Rantala’s, referenced the same painting in his poignantly tragic series from the 1950s and ’60s. The tortured popes in Bacon’s paintings are lonely captives of their own power, personifications of the horror of existence.
The shrouding of the subject feeds the imagination and makes us look upon the artwork differently. Many artists have painted themselves or their models behind a veil, curtain or mask. The effect can be seductive, as in Nancy Pietinen’s nude study from 1945. It can also be a protective device, showing oneself only in part. In this picture, Hannele Rantala portrays herself half behind a gauzy veil, looking directly at the viewer. The interface between presence and absence and the dynamic between exposing and distancing oneself are key themes in Rantala’s art. Composed in the format of a classical half-length portrait, the work draws on the powerful psychological charge in Titian’s and Bacon’s paintings and raises questions about what we want to conceal and what we want to reveal.
Margit Ekman (1919–2011) & Eila Marjala (1919–1983)
Studio Kuvasiskot (Finnish for ”picture sisters”) was a colourful beacon in Finnish portrait photography. The studio was run by Margit Ekman and Eila Marjala, Finnish pioneers of colour photography, to which they devoted themselves from the 1950s onwards. For a public accustomed to black-and-white photos, the intense palette in the Kuvasiskot pictures took some getting used to. Studio photography was generally regarded as a breadand- butter activity, yet in their exhibitions and writings, Kuvasiskot staunchly defended the status of photographic studio portraits as art. This often led the temperamental and self-respecting duo into clashes with influential figures in the world of photography.
Countless Finns have memories of visiting the Kuvasiskot studio. The duo thrived in high society and photographed many political and cultural heavyweights. The defining quality of their portraits was the desire to bring out the personality of the sitter. As Margit Ekman once put it: ”The wall we protect ourselves with is quite thin. Our job as photographers is merely to drill a hole in that wall.”
Emmi Fock (1898–1983)
German-born Emmi Fock was one of the key practitioners in modernist fashion and portrait photography in Finland. She had an exceptionally wide education for a photographer in the early 1900s: she studied painting at the Turku Art Society’s Drawing School under Victor Westerholm and photography at the Cologne Art School in Germany. She subsequently honed her skills by working in Germany, Mariehamn and Stockholm.
Fock founded Atelier Irmelin in Turku in 1922, specialising in high society portraits. Her repertoire included fashion and product photography, with fashion houses and garment manufacturers in Turku her main clients. She also photographed Finnish variety stars, most notably the dancer Mary Wallén. Emmi Fock followed keenly international trends in photography. Her glamorous fashion photos included graphic elements, while her art pictures contained nudity and sensuality. She gained recognition in photographic exhibitions in Finland and abroad in the 1920s and 1930s.
pictures by forgotten women photographers
and create parallel works.
Elina & Hannele
Head with Closed Eyes / Head with Open Eyes, 2019
Elina Brotherus created Head with Closed Eyes, Head with Open Eyes in December 2019 in Oman, where she had been invited by The Wapping Project and the British Council to work with local women artists. The pictures were taken in an abandoned village, a cultural and social environment where the limits of women’s right to speech and expression are defined differently from those in the West.
The title of the piece is a direct quote from the Norwegian artist Kurt Johannessen, whose work Elina Brotherus came across while creating a commissioned work for Nicolai Tangen’s art collection in Kristiansand, Norway. Brotherus once said that things are constantly happening in parallel and overlapping in her work. This piece fuses together an image of Andromeda, the mythic princess chained to a rock, as evoked by Emmi Fock’s nude study from the 1930s, with Johannessen’s performances and Brotherus’s experiences of the reality of Arab women artists.
Genital Panik (Freud’s Study), 2018
This picture was taken in the waiting room of Sigmund Freud’s practise in Vienna. The text on Brotherus’s T-shirt is a reference to VALIE EXPORT (b. 1941), an Austrian pioneer of feminist avant-garde art with whom Brotherus once collaborated. VALIE EXPORT has explored psychoanalysis, female hysteria and power structures in her art. One of her best known performances is Aktionshose: Genitalpanik (Action Pants: Genital Panic) (1968), in which she walked in a porn cinema in Munich wearing trousers with the crotch cut open and – according to her own account – a gun in her hand.
VALIE EXPORT wanted to elevate women, objectified by men, into independent and creative agents. Elina Brotherus’s Genital Panik is also a tribute to Emmi Fock’s portrayal of women as self-conscious and unapologetic subjects. Taken almost a century ago, Fock’s photo encapsulates the defiant liberation that Brotherus says women still need.
Portrait of Marcello as a Victorian Baby, 2020
Emmi Fock’s studio photograph of a woman with a dog inspired Elina Brotherus to portray herself and her dog Marcello in the spirit of the Victorian genre of photography. The ”hidden mother” was a common practice when taking photographs of children in the daguerreotype era, with a mother holding her child in place in the picture but being masked herself by a fabric or curtain or even disguised as a chair. These pictures are often quite eerie, with the mother being both present and absent at the same time.
Brotherus’s new work also references her autobiographical series Annonciation (2009–2013) and Carpe Fucking Diem (2011–2015). Both series explore the grief of involuntary childlessness but also the process of coping and moving on. The most famous of these pictures is My Dog Is Cuter Than Your Ugly Baby, in which Brotherus gives the viewers the middle finger while holding a dachshund puppy in her arms.
Interval signal, 2021
Imagine the sound of a snowy forest.
Imagine a pause.
Imagine the sound of a squirrel dropping a pinecone.
Imagine the sound of snow falling from a branch to the ground.
Imagine the sound of a violin that keeps on playing a single note.
Imagine a radio interval signal.
Imagine a pause.
Imagine a silent forest.
Imagine a dark land in shadow.
Imagine music from far away.
Imagine the sound of a violin string breaking.
Imagine a violin being tuned.
Imagine the soundless playing of a stringless violin.
Imagine a pause.
Imagine free will to do good or evil.
Imagine what happens after this.
Imagine a road to Paradise.
Don’t imagine – Paradise is a dead end of thoughts.
Listen to the sound of the cuckoo clock at every hour in the kitchen.
In a moment it is spring.
In a moment it is autumn.
You’re the one I think about most.
Imagine a cheap copy.
Imagine the sound of a picture of a winter forest being crumpled.
Never mind them.
(Yoko Ono, from the book Live in the Light of Hope, Bakhåll 2018)
Never Mind Them. Keep Creating. 2021
Hundred Heroines: Women Photography Today is an international community dedicated to promoting the global appreciation of women photographers. It showcases artists who have broken through the glass ceiling and challenged the way we see and depict the world. Elina Brotherus was the only Finnish artist to be selected as one of the ”hundred heroines” of 2018.
In the poster, started as a Hundred Heroines collaboration, Brotherus has pictured herself in front of Gillian Wearing’s suffragette monument in London. The 2018 sculpture depicts the British equality campaigner Dame Millicent Fawcett. It is the first public statue of a woman to be placed in Parliament Square in London, and the first one created by a woman artist. Fawcett is shown holding a banner with her famous slogan Courage calls to courage everywhere. This is a reference to a photographic series Wearing made in the 1990s, in which she asked hundreds of strangers to write on a piece of paper what they would like to say – not what others would like them to say. Elina Brotherus’s work aligns with a broader demand for equality but also with the courage and necessity to find one’s own personal voice.
Rejected II, 2022
The University of Art and Design was housed in the Ateneum building up to 1982. The university’s two-week admission exams were held in the large drawing class, which today serves as the lobby of the art museum. Once the admission decisions were made, the list of accepted students was pinned to the wooden door of the classroom, where applicants would come to see if their names were included.
The letter to a young poet is for myself, standing at the door looking at the list of students accepted to the school. In 1973, I was not admitted to study photography there. I was told that the reason for my rejection was gender. The selection committee considered the profession too onerous for a woman.
Later on, I got into the school, and many were the times I walked through the door into the classroom to study drawing and painting. Yet the disappointment and sadness remained at the back of my mind, and I was reminded of them every time I opened the door.
For me, the hand represents touching, connection between people. The work continues in the ticket lobby on the first floor. During the exhibition, gold-coloured palmprints can also be found around Helsinki.
Helsinki, February 2022
Touch the sky
and keep a little bit of it for yourself.
Artist as Mirror | Artist as Fountain | Artist as Lamp, 2019
In these images Elina Brotherus investigates how artists see their role in the world and how they shape their own public image. In particular, the images reference The Mirror and the Lamp (1953), a famous book by M. H. Abrams, who argued that until the end of the 18th century, art was understood as a mirror that reflects reality, whereas in the romantic era, imitation was replaced by a focus on expression. This was the period that gave rise to the idea of the artist as a genius who is like a lamp that illuminates the world or a fountain that spouts ideas.
In the surreal Magrittean Artist as Mirror, a piece of the sky is captured in a mirror, whereas the ironic Artist as Fountain is a direct paraphrase of a 1966–1967 series of photographs by the American artist Bruce Nauman. At the time, Nauman used the statement ”The true artist is an amazing luminous fountain.” in many of his works, playing on the cliché of the artist as a prolific genius who spews forth an inexhaustible stream of masterpieces for the audience.
Photograph two similar things
and study their differences.
One Minute Sculpture.
(After Erwin Wurm)
tu es l’auteur
de ce tableau.
you are the author of
(Rémy Zaugg, from the book Le tableau te constitue et tu constitues le tableau, projets Kunstmuseum Luzern, 1991)
Self-Portraits with Self-Portraits
Vintage photo, 1981
Painting (untitled), 1997
Self-Portraits with Self-Portraits 1, 1998
Self-Portrait with Self-Portrait with Self-Portrait, 2021
Swiss conceptual artist Remy Zaugg (1943–2005) is known for works in which he explores perception and the meaning of words, factors that crucially contribute to our idea of the world. Zaugg sought to enhance viewers’ awareness of their observations. Elina Brotherus’s kaleidoscopic continuum of self-portraits is inspired by Zaugg’s thinking. Brotherus has a dual role in her works: she is both the artist (viewer) and the model (the object of the gaze) – she both sees and is seen. Moreover, she is also the creator of the work, who decides what is presented in the picture and how. Resembling a journey in time, the autobiographical installation has several components. The earliest is a photo of nine-year-old Elina, taken by her mother in 1981, with a photograph of the family’s recently deceased father in the background. The tempera painting from 1997 was created in Thomas Nyqvist’s class at the University of Art and Design Helsinki, where the assignment was to choose a photograph and make a painting based on it. The following year, Brotherus photographed herself in the studio with her painting. In the last picture, made in 2021, the artist stands next to the photographic work from 1998. An endless chain like this is new in her art, ”something that had to be completed because I want to see how things look when they are made into pictures”.
Imagine a distant land.
Find the centre of the world
and stand there for a moment.
Up close everything is sharp, clear,
but the farther you go
the blurrier the picture becomes.
But still cross the border.
Turn off the lights in the room
and see what remains.
Build a labyrinth and see
what you find in its centre.
Make a piece
that has to do with measuring things.
Steal something and use it in your own work.
Create a forgery.
Shot in the Lofoten Islands in 2004, Der Wanderer 2 is one of Elina Brotherus’s best-known works. Based on Caspar David Friedrich’s iconic painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), the picture belongs to Brotherus’s early-2000s series The New Painting, which references classical Western painting.
In her new work, Brotherus borrows both from her own work and from Friedrich. The figure, with its back to the viewer and wearing the same long coat as in the 2004 photograph, is recognisable. The landscape too is familiar to most Finns, reminiscent of iconic depictions of national landscapes in Finnish art history. The work was created at Koli National Park in November 2020, when Brotherus, who mostly works abroad, was unable to leave Finland due to the pandemic.
Friedrich’s Wanderer stands in the viewer’s way, obscuring a large part of the landscape with his back. Indeed, the painting is first and foremost a picture about looking. ”This entire Western apparatus of the gaze”, as Brotherus puts it, is a baggage that she too must carry. ”Nevertheless, I have made it my own and I use it as I please.”
Something invisible, something forgotten is present
And suddenly I remember everything:
In the absence of one shines the presence of the other.
Thanks from the artists
Thanks from Elina
Del Barrett / Hundred Heroines, UK
Marie Docher Julie Faitot / Galerie Duchamp, Yvetot
Marcel Fortini / Centre méditerranéen de la photographie, Bastia
Hlynur Hallsson / Akureyri Art Museum
Ilona Ilottu / Dog Design, Helsinki
Marianne Jørgensen, Margrete Møller / Sculpture Village Selde
Petri Kuokka / Aarnipaja, Helsinki
Nelly Laitinen, Janne Rentola / Svenska litteratursällskapet
Bettina Leidl, Verena Kaspar-Eisern / Kunst Haus Wien
Hassan Meer / Stal Gallery, Muscat
Eglantine Mercader / gb agency, Paris
Marta Michalowska, Thomas Zanon-Larcher / The Wapping Project, Lontoo
Christiane Morsbach / Museum Kunst der Westküste, Alkersum, Föhr
Navneet Raman / Kriti Art Gallery and Artist Residency, Varanasi
Claude Renouard / Conseil général de l’Yonne
Louma Salamé / Fondation Boghossian – Villa Empain, Bryssel
Nicolas Savary / CEPV, Vevey
Centre méditerranéen de la photographie, Bastia
Fondation Boghossian – Villa Empain, Bryssel
FRAC Normandie, Rouen
Hundred Heroines, UKMuseum Kunst der Westküste, Alkersum, Föhr
Sculpture Village Selde, Selde
The Wapping Project, London
Thanks from Hannele
SKR Uudenmaan rahasto / Uusimaa Regional Fund
Suomen Kulttuurirahasto / Finnish Cultural Foundation