High & Low Art: Gallen-Kallela, Russian Avant-Garde And The New Sherlock Holmes Film

January 19, 2012 · Posted in Art & Entertainment, Imagery, Movies & TV 

Last Saturday was a nice day for culture. Susi and I went to see an exhibition of Russian avant-garde from around 1900, an Akseli Gallen-Kallela exhibition that was upstairs, and then just to balance things out, to suffer through the new Sherlock Holmes film.

The Defence of Sampo

My relationship to traditional forms of high art, like art exhibitions, theatre, opera and concerts could be described as passive but appreciative and interested. I’ve been wanting to see more of that stuff, but I rarely get around to getting my ass over to a theatre or in an exhibition. Susi and I have been discussing of fixing this oversight. She tends to visit art exhibitions with her mother whenever she is in the city, but it’s usually at a time when I’m working or otherwise busy, but we’re going to start doing art excursions of our own.

So, last Saturday we started with an exhibition of Russian avant-garde from the turn of the 1900 – a bit before and a bit after. The exhibition was in Helsinki Art Museum / Tennis Palace and it was titled Värin voima (The Power of Colour). The exhibition had paintings from such artists as Natalia Gontšarova, Vasili Kandinski and Aristarh Lentulov. Susi had a suspicion that I would like it, and she was totally correct: the clear cut colors and shapes, and the surreal and even naivistic forms, characters and depictions really hit the spot for me, they were very comfortable things to watch mentally and really appealed to my sense of aesthetics. Also, heh – the term RUSSIAN CUBO-FUTURISM just sounds really damn cool. This looked like stuff that I myself would like to try and paint, which is something I’ll tackle later this year. Incidentally, if you know of good resources and information on how to start painting with acrylics or oils, drop me a comment.

St. Basil's Cathedral, 1913, oil and paper stickers on canvas, by Aristarkh Lentulov

Upstairs there was an exhibition of a totally different calibre, and one that hit me right between they eyes. It was one by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, a locally and internationally rather well known painter from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. A lot of his work is about Finnish nature and the Finnish national epic Kalevala. His style is at times almost hyper realistic, which is a weird kick in the knees for me. Although I’m more or less a city boy, the Finnish nature and countryside is very important for me, but I haven’t seen it depicted that much in quality paintings (those paint-by-numbers barns that were on everybody’s walls in the 80’s don’t really count). It still feels a bit weird in a good way to see nature scenes, which might as well be photos from my springtime skiing trips on the lake and forest, on a large canvas, painted painstakingly accurately and beautifully.

Lemminkäinen's mother has just gathered the pieces of her son in the river of Tuonela, which separates the land of the living from the land of the dead, and sewn him together. She is waiting for a bee to bring honey from the god Ukko to resurrect Lemminkäinen.

Then, there were the Kalevala illustrations. When I was a kid, Kalevala made a pretty big impression on me. It’s a collection of old Finnish poems detailing the adventures and antics of old heroes of Kaleva. The epic starts with the creation of the world, and goes on to follow the main character, Väinämöinen, who is a kind of a shaman, wizard or even a small demigod of sorts, depending on how you look at it. There are magical duels with people singing others into swamp, there’s a magical mill called Sampo that produces gold, salt and grain, and the stealing of Sampo from the evil Mistress of the North, there’s the proto-geek Ilmarinen who could artifice everything, starting for the firmament, but was so bad with women he tried to make a wife for himself from gold. Then, in the end, when Christianity came to Finland, Väinämöinen recommended that baby Jesus should be taken to the swamp and his head caved in with a log. When the people refused, Väinämöinen took his boat of brass and left to the skies below and the earth above, where he waits for the land of Kaleva to need him again. You know, pretty standard national epic stuff put together in the national romanticism era of the 1800s. Here is one English translation of Kalevala, by the way.

When the people refused to take Baby Jesus into a swamp and bash his head in with a log, Väinämöinen got pissed off, took his boat of brass and left for the sky below and the earth above to wait until people would need him again.

What makes Kalevala interesting is that it’s had a surprising amount of influence to the fantasy genre. Tolkien famously borrowed a lot of stuff from Kalevala for The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf has a lot of similarities with Väinämöinen and some stories, like the one of Túrin Turambar, was lifted straight off the pages of Kalevala.

I’m not the most emotional guy out there, but some surprising things make me go all misty and poke a lump into my throat. Seeing these paintings live was one of them. I was quite silent throughout the walk around the upper floors, trying to wipe my eyes surreptitiously.

And Then The Low Culture

After the show we went to Ilves, which is a restaurant attached to a longstanding premier rock club in Finland, Tavastia. The place is known for its food, mainly that a) there’s a lot of it and b) it’s really damn good and heavy. That’s more or less what saved the end of the evening.

We went to see Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, mainly because it was the only film that started right about then. I hadn’t seen the previous one, but I was waiting for something that’s silly but entertaining. Instead what I got was something that was just dumb-dumb, not entertaining dumb. So bad in fact that after the first third I was ready to leave the theater for the second time ever. The thing was, I was still so full from the dinner that I just parked my ass on the seat and waited it to be over. It got a bit better towards the end, but not much.

What made it so bad was that it seemed like one of those films that didn’t have real script for many of the scenes. It seemed that the actors were trying to ad lib some kind of farce on the spot, which resulted in a lot of cargo cult jokes, that had all the trappings of a joke but all the funny and the whole point was totally missing. Most plot twists were introduced there and then, as if the writers had just come up with them and introduced them right on the spot, etc. I feel dumber for having seen that film.

Okay, maybe I’m overly harsh because we’ve been watching the excellent British Sherlock TV series, and it’s hard not to compare this tripe with it. Nevertheless, I’m pretty damn far from being a film snob and I like silly entertaining stuff on the vein of Mummy and such, but this just didn’t measure on any scale. Especially with the totally non-existent chemistry between the actors.

All in all a pretty perfect Saturday – all kinds of culture and a good meal to boot. This is something I hope I’ll get used to this year.


1 Comment


One Response to “High & Low Art: Gallen-Kallela, Russian Avant-Garde And The New Sherlock Holmes Film”

  1. Florence on January 30th, 2012 20:12

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I also like the artworks of Akseli Gallen and my favorite painting is Aallotaret as I find it very innovative.

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