Juhani Palmu communicates through traditional means of art

by Edward Lucie-Smith


What is an artist to do, when he wants to remain faithful to his own culture, his own roots, yet also wishes to play a part on the international stage? This is the dilemma that faced Juhani Palmu, when he decided to commit himself to a career as a painter. Finland is a country with a very distinctive culture or, rather, if one examines matters more closely, several regional cultures, all of which are identifiably Finnish. Its identity is reinforced by a language which has few links to other language groups in Europe, and which is notoriously difficult for outsiders to learn. In one sense, it counts as part of Scandinavia – these links have been steadily reinforced since Finland became a member of the Nordic Council in 1955 – and many elements in modern Finnish society are similar to things found in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Swedish is still a minority language in Finland, which was in fact ruled by Sweden from the 12th century until 1809. Yet, despite this, a passionate nationalism has played a dominant role in the history of Finland, and all Finnish art, literature and music show its fertilising effect.

Palmu, in creating a major artistic career, has instinctively followed models which were already available to him in the history of Finnish culture. The Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, is, for example, a 19th century compilation, made by the scholar Elias Lönnrot, using old Finnish ballads, lyrics and incantations for his raw materials. Despite this hybrid origin, it has played a vital role in the creation of the Finnish national consciousness. Palmu has similarly brought together modern Finnish reality and a very ancient world of legends and signs.

He has also had to take into account the fact that the hierarchy of the visual arts is not precisely the same in Finland as the one which prevails in most of Western Europe. In the majority of Western Euro-pean countries, painting is seen as one of the chief vehicles of cultural continuity. French painting, for example, has a history of masterpieces which begins in the late 14th century, and which has continued to the present day. The pre-eminent names in Finland, by contrast, and despite the achievements of Akseli Gallen-Kallela at the beginning of the present century, have been those of architects – Aalto and Saarinen come immediately to mind – and also those of craftsmen and designers.

As a result, Palmu, while respecting the Finnish visual tradition, has also had to reinvent this tradition as it applies to painting. His basic images are simple – Finnish vernacular buildings, the quality of northern light, ancient pictographs, the landscape itself and its inhabitants. The geometrical forms of Finnish farmsteads drew his attention, for example, the way in which this geometry extended into the landscape itself, which, with its pathways and fences showed how man had tried to impose order on nature, while respecting the rhythms of the land and the seasons.

Because it lies in extreme northern latitudes, Finland has extraordinary qualities of light – the winter twilight often intensifies colours in an unexpected fashion, and the snow covered ground throws what illumination there is upward at buildings. In spring, the new greens have wonderful force and purity. Summer and autumn have their own characteristic colour gam-ut. Many of Palmu’s earlier compositions are mechanisms to contain, and at the same time activate, these characteristic colour effects.

Gradually, as his art developed, subjectivity began to play a greater role. The landscape becomes a reflection of the artist’s mood – it mirrors a state of personal feeling. Palmu’s work established links with the tradition of Scandinavian Expressionism exemplified in the work of the great Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. The human figure also started to play a more important part in his compositions. Basically these figures are of two kinds. Finland is a profoundly Protest-ant country. The issue of religion, as well as the difference of language, was one of the things which maintained its separation from Russia, during the period of slightly more than a century when the country was a Russian Grand Duchy, ruled by the tsarist bureaucracy. When Palmu lived in Hämeenlinna during the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was fascinated by the Pietists, who were the local inhabitants. Pietism was a religious reform movement that began in German Lutheranism in the 17th century, and which later acquired great influence among Lutherans in both Finland and other Scandinavian countries. It emphasised personal faith in protest against secularisation in the church, but later expanded its emphases to include social and educational concerns. As such it was peculiarly sympathetic to the Finnish rural temperament. Palmu saw in the simplicity and unpretentiousness of Pietist costumes and customs something which was profoundly attuned to his own art.

But he is also, as his love of colour demonstrates, a painter of profoundly sensual temperament, and this is reflected by the presence in his work of the female nude. He first started to paint these nudes in 1975, but they acquired an enhanced role in his painting after 1989, the year when he moved to Bonn for a time to live and work. He expatriated himself for much the same reasons that Munch did in an earlier generation – because of access both to a wider market and a larger cultural sphere. At this time his paintings became less specific, less firmly grounded in quotidian reality. He began to experiment with wooden sculptures, which have an affinity with the wooden reliefs made by the Dadaist Hans Arp, but which also refer specifically to Finnish rural architecture and rural crafts.

He also became increasingly fascinated with the theme of modern communication, often symbolised in his art by the image of a gate door. The paintings acquired a new richness and complexity in their use of imagery, one system of series of images being laid over another, with (most typically) pictographic signs superimposed upon the silhouettes of monumental nudes, which in turn, are placed against the shapes of simplified buildings. Yet these paintings, too, remain profoundly Finnish. One of Palmu’s inspirations in the 1990s has been the quintessentially national experience of the sauna, which is, as one writer about his work has remarked, "a world apart from ordinary routine" – a meditative, ritualised rite which is also profoundly democratic, since all the participants are naked. For Palmu, the sauna symbolises on the one hand the stubborn separateness and cohesiveness of the Finnish nation, which has survived so many attempts to tear its culture apart, and the contributions made by Finland to the outside world.

If one looks at the continuing development of Palmu’s art, from its early quasi-realist phase when he was painting Finnish rural landscapes to the present, one sees a gradual process of accretion. Unlike many contemporary artists, Palmu does not proceed by a series of stylistic jumps, in the course of which one system of imagery is summarily abandoned for another. What one sees instead is a gradual accumulation of ideas and themes added to another, in a process of layering which is now quite literally represented in the work. That is, his painting has an admirable transparency – one sees a painted surface, but one also sees through that surface into a complex world of feeling where nothing is ever entirely renounced.

In recent years, Juhani Palmu has become obsessed with the notion that we live in a world where we both need to explore our own identities, the origins of personality, and yet at the same time need to be in touch with others. Modern communication systems such as the Internet are in the process of abolishing all the old barriers – distance and separateness are no longer imposed by geography, only by ourselves. His work is a contribution to the new post-modern culture, the more sophisticated because it acknowledges the necessity, not only of retaining a clear consciousness of himself as an artist, communicating through the traditional processes of art, but also of himself as an individual who is specifically Finnish, and who therefore speaks for a peculiarly well-defined and recognisable national sensibility.

All rights reserved

Juhani Palmu, Galleria Strindberg