Modern Life!

Modern Life! – Finnish Modernism and the International Dimension is an exhibition still running at the Helsinki Art Museum (it's situated next to the big cinema in the Tennispalatsi, next to Kamppi) until the end of July - and parts of it will continue until later on in the year.
If you're in Helsinki during the Summer or passing through, I'd encourage you to take a look. Although the title may not tell you very much, it's a major part of Suomi 100 and for myself, it was eye opening. The thing is, when you start to learn about Finland and its history, you hear a lot about the struggle for independence and in particular, the Winter War. Those are certainly extraordinary stories, but surely far more impressive is what Finland has achieved in peace. In population terms, Finland is tiny, and yet, as this exhibition at HAM shows, it has had a major impact all over world culture.

The exhibition is wide ranging and you will be familiar with many of its elements, especially such as Marimekko, Alvar Aalto and other notable architects, Iittala glassware and much more. But it is fascinating to see it all given a context like this. And it filled in so much history I was unaware of, in particular how it was the various World Fairs of the 1920s and 30s which really gave Finland the opportunity to show what it had to offer. 

One small part of the story was fascinating to me, and very well explained; it was how Finnish architecture was introduced to the world. It happened on the occasion of the highly prestigious competition organised by the Chicago Tribune newspaper to design a new building for them. Remember, Chicago already had the reputation as the birthplace of the skyscraper. As expected, an American architect won it. But out of nowhere, in second place came a startlingly modern design (oikealla) by the Finn, Eliel Saarinen. It may never have been built, but the world of architecture took note, and many of the experts quietly remarked that in truth it was much the best design. 

It's hard to keep this short! But I'll finish by mentioning one story which to me was surprising and funny. Funny, because today Finland has the reputation of being highly sympathetic to all forms of artistic modernism. But one part of the exhibition, by way of some videos, cartoons and other images, tells of what happened when 'modern art' - abstract expressionism etc. - arrived in Finland at the end of the 1950s and into the Sixties. Were the Finns impressed? No! Very much not impressed, at all! For the most part it was roundly mocked and ridiculed, and even made a lot of people angry. My take on this is that it wasn't just a matter of the Finns being conservative. I think it was a very straightforward sense that somebody - ie. any of those fashionable artists - was trying to pull the wool over their eyes. I think it was also a reaction born out of the way Finnish art and craft was developing, with a keen appreciation of natural forms and materials, and great skill in working with them; and this kind of modern art seemed to be saying to them that none of that mattered, all you had to do was splash some paint and con your way past the art critics.

And now...? Well, in time all things change, don't they? In my view Finns are amongst the best and most interesting of modern artists, even if they're not world renowned, precisely because they so often draw from nature, as they always have. But maybe that's a story for another post!
In the meantime, I would say again, for an interesting alternative take on Finland's place in the modern world, go and see this exhibition.


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