Saturday, 25 July 2015

Gothic Art in Spotlight: Creepy illustrations by Kittelsen and The Magic North exhibition

Theodor Kittelsen - Waldtroll - 1906.jpeg
"Theodor Kittelsen - Waldtroll - 1906"
by Theodor Kittelsen - repro from art book.
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
The main star of this post is a Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen (1857 - 1914). His most famous works are illustrations for Nordic sagas and fairy tales, of which some he wrote himself. Many fairy tales of this era and from previous centuries were quite scary. They were more for adults' entertainment than good night stories for kids. So, the illustrations for these stories were often quite horrific too.

Kittelsen studied at a drawing school in Christiania (nowadays Oslo, the capital of Norway) in his teens and after that studied in Munich and later he got a scholarship to study in Paris. after this he returned to Norway. The Nordic nature was a source of great inspiration for him, especially combined with old folktales and sagas.

In the Nordic woods and remote lakes there are many a creature who can harm you. At least if we believe the old folktales. Different subspecies of trolls roam around and eat humans, and almost in every lake there is a creature called Näkki (in Finnish) or Nøkken (in Norwegian), who is a cruel and manipulative water spirit, and who lures humans into their doom. The real form of Näkki is hideous but it can change its form into a beautiful maiden or to a graceful white horse or to an innocent looking pretty little child. What ever is the best and most luring form to get a human into water.

Theodor Kittelsen - Nøkken, 1887-92 (The Water Sprite)
Nøkken (The Water Sprite) by Kittelsen
In Kittelsen's drawing on the right Näkki or Nøkken is not yet on a hunting mode. It is creepy, slimy and spooky. The lake (or pond) is so still it reflects perfectly the surroundings and the viewer can not see what Nøkken really looks like and what else might be lurking underwater.

To be a part of fairy tales, it is not enough to be a creepy creature eating humans. If everybody knows there is just some ravenous brute under surface, they won't go near water! Näkki must have something human in it, or at least it must have something humans would want.

In most Finnish tales Näkki is a divine violinist. And if you are brave enough, you might get Näkki to be your tutor, but it is cunning and tries to grab you into the water after the lesson. It is a very similar story with all those stories about men selling their souls to devil, if you think about it. They put themselves at risk and they have to be even more crafty than Näkki (Devil) in order to save themselves. Many of old folktales are more like instructions, how to deal with magical creatures, how to get what you want without being destroyed and devoured.

Kittelsen - Die Pest auf der Treppe - 1896
The Plague on the Stair by Kittelsen
Folklore was not the only inspiration Kittelsen had. History and its sad events were intriguing too and according to numerous critics, Kittelsen's historical works of The Black Death are his best works in black and white.

As mentioned, Kittelsen did not only draw, he wrote too and The Black Death is made of fifteen poems and/or poetic prose sections with illustrations all by Kittelsen.

This human form of the Black Death was inspired by a real live person Kittelsen saw. For his creation he gave the name "Pesta", since in many languages the Plague is called Pest. In this most famous drawing of Pesta, she is creeping up the stairs. For me at least, the point of view is familiar from all those horror movies we have these days.

While I was doing some light research for this post, I noticed there are a lot of works by Kittelsen on Pinterest, if you are interested. From there you can see how versatile Kittelsen was and that he also made many beautiful and delicate illustrations about fantastical creatures, little princesses and creatures of forest.

I saw Kittelsen's works at Ateneum, the Finnish national gallery. The exhibition The Magic North is open till the end of September (more precisely 27th of September) and I do recommend it, if anyone is visiting Helsinki in near future. The exhibition features art from Norway and from Finland.

The Magic North is not merely about trolls and fairy tale drawings, even though the name of this exhibition might indicate so. It is more about the general atmosphere of the turn of the century, the dying gasps of Romanticism and roars of Nationalism.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela - Portrait of Edvard Munch
Portrait of Edvard Munch by Gallen-Kallela
Of course there were many trends in art in the end of 19th century and in the beginning of 20th century, but in Norway and Finland (though I should say the Grand Duchy of Finland because back then Finland was under Russian throne) Neo-Romanticism and Nationalism were more important than lets say Impressionism. I have written a bit on this subject on this post about another artist from this same era.

So, the exhibition The Magic North has many paintings of nature without any visible indications of trolls or other fairy creatures. There are also many portraits of peasants and of other artists. One of my favorites is The Portrait of Edvard Munch by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, both men were very famous artists throughout Europe and they used to hang out together.

I think this painting shows a more melancholic side of Munch than his own self-portraits. Many of them have this slightly extravagant illusionist sort of feeling, or at least I feel so. I have written about two paintings by Munch in another previous post.  They are not self-portraits, though.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Trip to Hunting Museum spiced with ethics and twisted humor

This weekend I went to the Hunting Museum of Finland. It is situated in the city of Riihimäki, which is accessible by train, bus, and private car. By car the trip takes about an hour from Helsinki to Riihimäki.

I ended up there because I had bought a Museum Card, which is a card that grants access to about 200 different museums in Finland for a year. Probably had not visited the Hunting Museum of Finland without that card so I am really glad I bought the thing since the museum about hunting was a surprisingly interesting experience.

Hunting Museum and Goths

I am featuring this museum on my blog because it reminded me that like hunting, goth subculture considers aesthetic many things that can be seen as ethical dilemmas.

Goths tend to have a fascination towards death. Goths tend to like skulls. It is not easy to have a skull as a decorative object without something dying first. Trophies are really popular at the moment even among more mainstream styles. How to acquire a piece of a dead creature ethically? What does that even mean?

Also, vampires are pretty popular among goths: is it necrophilia, if the dead one is still moving? ;) 

Is it ethical to roam around woods or motorways trying to find leftovers of a wild beasts' lunch or remains of a roadkill? Even carcasses have an important role in the functioning of an ecosystem in the woods, taking them all away could be problematic. With road kills something else has done the violence, so that is not on the human scavenger's conscience and the ecosystem of an asphalt road is not exactly depending on rotting substance.

Still, is there something questionable at having a part of a dead creature as art or decor at one's home? Could there be some problems with the fascination towards death among goths?

Trophies have their issues but the Hunting Museum is a great place to go to admire old trophies. (Trophies of endangered species are surely more problematic than trophies of common creatures, unless they are antique) The museum had a huge collection of exotic creatures. The trophy collection of Jaakko Ojanperä, a Finnish big game hunter, contained 90 different species. Mr. Ojanperä was born 1939 and he moved to USA 1964, mainly because of the hunting prospects. His hunting trips took him to many parts of Africa and North America.

The most natural death is a violent death. Animals in nature tend to get eaten or killed by a rival in a fight for better living space, food resources or for the right to reproduce.

Some moral views state that killing is wrong for humans. Preserving life is usually the point. In Finland a large amount of hunting is about maintaining the balance and diversity of species in nature. I learned at the Hunting Museum of Finland that a mink, which is nowadays found in Finland, is a North American species and it ended up into the nature of Finland during the 1920's. American mink is small but a real killing machine and it reproduces a lot. It is a danger for many native bird species and could cause extinction if left in peace. In Finland 50 000 - 85 000 wild minks are hunted yearly. That amount keeps the mink population at it's current size.

For me ethical hunting, whether it is for food or for decorative elements, is about trying one's best to not cause suffering. Same thing goes for the meat I buy from supermarket. I think a steak from a hunted wild creature is more ethical than eating a battery cage hen. I must say though that I myself have never hunted or participated in killing a mammal. I do eat meat and sometimes I wonder, am I hypocritical eating a lamb if I could not actually kill it myself.

From ethics to exhibitions

The museum had several exhibitions open at the same time. One featured the trophies, another hunting themed art by a famous Finnish artist Seppo Polameri, who had specialized on them. The third exhibition showed hunting knives. The fourth exhibition is about hunting in Finland and the last one is called "Thrill of the Hunt". If I understood correctly, the trophies and the two last ones about hunting are permanent exhibitions.

As you can see from the photo above, almost every museum in Finland produces information in three languages, the official languages of Finland, Finnish and Swedish, and then in English. The Hunting Museum of Finland is no exception.

This reindeer installation was quite surprising, since all other taxidermy was made life-like.

Herding reindeer is a way of living in Northern Finland. Not for everybody of coarse, but it has been practiced centuries. For people herding the reindeer it is important that the population of beasts of prey is maintained on a reasonable level.

The exhibition of the Thrill of the Hunt was well executed, The atmosphere was almost mystical.

One last thing about the museum that made me snicker:

In the front yard they had these wood screens with holes for people to put their head there and present them selves as animals. Animals, that people shoot in the nature. Photoshoot just got a new meaning...

Little something about guns in Finland

I have never fired a gun or even considered hunting as a hobby so it was interesting to read about it in the museum. In Finland there is quite a lot of guns compared to the population. According to the Washington Post Finland comes third when they compared "developed" countries and their number of privately owned guns in relation to the number of citizens. Statistics tell us that in Finland there is about 4,5 guns per 10 people. In reality those guns are owned by tiny minority of Finnish population who either hunt (6% of population) and/or take an interest in shooting sport.

The laws about guns are really strict in Finland. To get a licence to own one requires you have had shooting sport or hunting as a hobby for at least two years and you also need to pass a psychiatric assessment test. That is to make sure that a person who gets a gun has no tendency towards erratic & violent behavior nor suicide.

I hope you enjoyed my post, even though it was a bit off the usual material!