Echoes of War

Stories of Finnish Art. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

Stories of Finnish Art. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

The 1940s in Europe were severely distinguished by war. Finland fought three wars during this period: the Winter War (1939–1940), the Continuation War (1941–1944) and the Lapland War (1944–1945). Artists spotlighted the threats and anxieties generated by the conflicts, and material shortages continued for a long time even after the war.

As a counterpoint to empty streets and silent towns, artists also depicted scenes such as riotous living and parties and objects such as exotic fruit and colourful flowers. Belief in a better future was reflected in the reconstruction of towns and roads. Clowns and fools in art demonstrate the existence of a vitality and optimism that bubbles up even from beneath deep wounds.

Birger Carlstedt: View from the Lallukka Artist Home, 1944

Birger Carlstedt: View from the Lallukka Artist Home, 1944. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Karjalainen

Birger Carlstedt: View from the Lallukka Artist Home, 1944. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Karjalainen

In the wartime conditions of shortages and uncertainty, floral motifs made an appearance in the work of many Finnish artists. Carlstedt had studied art at Ateneum in the 1920s. A widely travelled cosmopolitan, he was an early Finnish abstract artist and a constructivist. In the early 1940s he painted colourful interiors and still lifes that contained echoes of Italian metaphysical art: their deep shadows and somewhat unreal atmosphere link them particularly to the work of Giorgio de Chirico.

Afro: Herald, 1949

Afro: Herald, 1949. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

Afro: Herald, 1949. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

Works representing the very latest trends in international contemporary art were purchased for the Ateneum collections from other exhibitions also held in Finland. Coming from a family of artists, Afro (Basaldella) was one of the most prominent representatives of post-war painting in Italy. He specialised in murals and mosaics. This painting was purchased from an exhibition of Italian contemporary art at Kunsthalle Helsinki in 1951. Herald is a prime example of Afro’s post-cubist colourism. It contains human-like totemic elements that recall primitive art, as well as strong contrasts between light and shadow.

Elga Sesemann: Street, 1945

Elga Sesemann: Street, 1945. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Karjalainen

Elga Sesemann: Street, 1945. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Karjalainen

Elga Sesemann was born in Vyborg. During WWII she moved to Helsinki and between 1941 and 1944 acquired a thorough education in art, first at the school of the Fine Arts Academy and subsequently at the Free Art School. Sesemann often painted street views and interiors, with a lone human figure emphasising their emptiness. The palette of her works is pale and sensuous. In this piece she has used thick layers, applied with a palette knife to create a sense of growing light on a quiet street at the end of the war in 1945.

Yngve Bäck: Melody of War, 1944

Yngve Bäck: Melody of War, 1944. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Antti Kuivalainen

Yngve Bäck: Melody of War, 1944. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Antti Kuivalainen

In the 1920s Yngve Bäck studied at the drawing school of the Finnish Art Society and at the art studio of the University of Helsinki. During travels to France, Spain and Italy, he was enthralled by the work of French modernists and expressionists. Yngve Bäck is known as a skilful colourist. In the 1940s his style began moving in an increasingly abstract direction. Melody of War is dominated by angular silhouette forms and cold tones accentuated by red. The faceless, robotic player and the human figure holding its ears are suggestive of a gloomy period in Finnish history. The bombings at the end of the Continuation War in the summer of 1944 were exceptionally heavy.

NOTE! Its status as a national gallery requires the Ateneum Art Museum to lend its works to other museums in Finland and abroad, and this is one of the reasons why the selection of works on display in Ateneum varies to some extent.

 

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