Juhani Palmu, Harmony at the Threshold

by Michael Duffy

 

The art of Juhani Palmu engages us with striking impressions of the Finnish national experience. It captivates viewers with scenes and objects that appear monumental and partly unexpected. The village landscapes, individual buildings and architectural fragments that Juhani Palmu represents in his paintings and sculptures communicate the unmistakeable feeling of old environments that have been lived in and worked. Through a painstaking process of distillation, the artist creates milieus that are strangely familiar and visually exciting. We are placed at the threshold of that world. Standing there, we are invited to discover for ourselves the elusive harmony that informally binds us to nature, to our place of work and rest, the memories of the past.

 

From the time that he moved to Turku in 1962, at the age of 18, to complete his education, until 1970, when he began his art career in Lapland Province, Juhani Palmu gradually internalized the commitment and practical experience of an artist’s life. When in 1974 he moved southwest from Kemijärvi in Lapland to Alahärmä, in the old province of Ostrobothnia, the artist had a good idea about the subjects that interested him. He became occupied with the human presence in natural surroundings, which left a strong impression on him. Already possessing a considerable knowledge of the history and folklore of the region, Palmu became interested in the lifestyle and traditional culture of the modest Ostrobothnian farm communities. Palmu rented a studio in Alahärmä and began to paint old farmsteads and houses in the historic villages of Härmä, Kauhava and Lapua, to the south and east. He also explored Satakunta province, to the south, where the patterns created by land cultivation and settlement appeared to be well-organized. Palmu became interested in the emotional possibilities of visual elements in the landscape. In his paintings, there was a contrast in energy between hot and tense horizontal lines and the cool and restful verticals. ‘‘Even though I sometimes included some human figures into the landscape," the artist recalled, "my main focus of interest was the excitement caused by the interplay of lines."

 

At that time, Juhani Palmu discovered how generations of farmers had created a landscape that demonstrated rural organization and an apparent harmony between humans and the land:

 

"The landscape of Satakunta somehow helped me to redefine my aim in art. There the landowners respected every juniper and tree. They placed their buildings into nature in such a way that a harmony with nature was retaine... The perfection of the structural aspects of the landscape in Satakunta impressed me greatly. There I also learned to see the Ostrobothnian rural milieu in a new way, and I grew to understand and to internalize it better."

 

In landscape paintings from this time period, the viewer may see well-worn paths and picket fences placed between fields, farm buildings and dwellings. In their placement, the buildings appear to relate directly to paths. They intersect or parallel one another to suggest their careful planning and interdependence. Trees abut buildings while buildings are aligned with slopes and ridges. The freshly plowed fields and functional fences are signs of hard work and productivity in this agrarian sector.

 

The well-configured farming villages are also symbols of the longstanding independence and prosperity of the region. Since the late 1500s, the peasant class of southern Ostrobothnia was a staunch defender of Finnish regional autonomy against the central government and the nobility. In the 19th century, the region was an important center of religious Revivalism and the area most supportive of the very important Fennomanian nationalist movement. In the early 20th century, south and central Ostrobothnia became an outspoken defender of traditional values. Many attribute such a rich history to the independence and entrepreneurial successes of the rural working classes of farmers and traders of south-central Finland.1 Palmu’s paintings of a rural lifestyle and architecture in Ostrobothnia, Satakunta, Häme and Lapland document a traditional environment at the time when it has faced a considerable threat from internal migration and changing markets.2 On the other hand, many of these paintings express social cohesion that is felt by family members and close neighbors who have lived together in the Finnish home village.3 This sense of closeness is spatially and intuitively felt from the presence of buildings that are related to one another in different ways to reflect the known sentiments and activities (human and work) of the inhabitants, who live there either year-round or seasonally.

 

In 1976 Palmu moved to Hämeenlinna, situated to the southeast in Häme Province, in the heart of old Finland. This was the year of his one-man exhibition at the prestigious Strindberg Gallery in Helsinki. Over the next decade, he would greatly expand his subject matter. From 1976 to 1979, he painted medieval graystone churches. This was followed in the early 1980s by paintings of Finnish Pietists. The traditional fashions and simplicity of Pietist dress and the unchanged appearance of their surroundings greatly attracted the artist. Their simplicity and unpretentiousness were for Palmu "symbols of internal peace," which became the name for a series of paintings. In the early 1980s, the artist was also making his international debut, with exhibitions in Stockholm, Bonn and Amsterdam in 1980 and 1983, respectively. Palmu’s 1986 exhibition at the world-famous Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris, run by Michel and Guy-Patrice Dauberville, clearly promoted artist and artwork beyond a regional audience, to include southern Europe, the western United States and Japan.

 

Throughout his career, the Finnish landscape has remained a viable and lucrative theme for Juhani Palmu. His paintings describe the transformative power of nature in the seasonal colors, shapes and patterns of the inhabitated landscape. For example, the autumn season is characterized by ochres, very dark browns and greens, and streaks of white. There is, however, a new soberness to the grays and low cloud cover of early winter. Palmu memorializes early spring with its contrast of brilliant white, deep snow set against a clear blue sky. There can be light blue and yellow shadows in the snow, while colors of trees and buildings grow more distinct. In winter, the paths of summer and autumn become human tracks in the snow. The sharp geometries of rural wooden architecture have become blunted in winter through snow and mist. Although their energies are muted, the buildings continue to snuggle close together while maintaining their individuality. The snow covering is a symbol of the duration of seasons but also of continued life and accomodation.4 There is a sense that humans and nature live in harmony. Villagers have compromised their independence and mobility in winter in return for the use of precious natural resources and extended summer light.

Juhani Palmu utilized his earlier experience in advertising art to develop the communicative power of his paintings. As a young boy in Lieto, in the vicinity of Turku, Palmu learned at the local Aura cooperative store the art of printing advertising posters. At the store, he was soon given the job of planning the texts. This was an incentive to further develop his Finnish language skills. Under his father’s direction, Juhani became an accomplished draughtsman and learned about the composition and uses of paint material. When he went to live in Turku in 1962, Palmu applied for a position as an advertising artist and continued to study the communication arts. At the same time, he also received from the well-established artist and critic, Kalle Rautiainen, valuable encouragement in his drawing and a foundation for the art of painting. After his groundbreaking move to Lapland in 1970, his advertising background enabled him to use the work space and various materials at the local store. The techniques and materials he learned in advertising art were adapted to painting. When Palmu moved to western and south-central farming regions in Finland in the middle of 1970s, he continued to develop the graphic qualities of his landscape paintings, to "prune" the landscape and "leave as little as possible," as the artist has put it. He used cutlining and blocking to simplify the visual impact of his compositions. Palmu wanted to communicate the artwork’s message with a certain directness and profundity. His philosophy of graphic style has parallels with the Swiss International Movement in design that peaked in northern Europe during the 1960s.

 

When Juhani Palmu began his career in the early 1970s, he was interested in a modern and figurative approach to painting. He recalls that when he began to paint, Realism dominated group exhibitions in Finland, as the principal style that had succeeded the abstract art of the 1960s. He responded to his chosen theme of landscape with a new degree of stamina and a healthy respect for the wealth of factual information. He continually explored the land and its inhabitants with his sketchpad always close by.

From the beginning, Palmu included in his paintings an element of mystery. As a boy growing up around Turku, he was interested in a Surrealist group of painters that developed around Otto Mäkilä. In the 1970s, curiosity and anxiety might arise in Palmu’s paintings from an under- or overemphasized shadow, an animated contour, the unexpected repetition of like motifs, or the illusion of water created by luminous fog at night. Palmu might create a feeling of foreboding by threatening shapes in the snow, an unusual juxtaposition of angles of buildings and a penetrating twilight sky. In the early 1990’s, the female nude resurfaced in Palmu’s paintings, but with a more pronounced sense of Surrealism. Frontal nude and occasionally reclining abstract figures appear close to walls and doors. They often are accompanied by simple figurative symbols that refer to magic and human life.

From Palmu’s paintings, there can arise a certain intrigue in the unexpected which enhances the emotional life of objects. Giorgio de Chirico’s metafisico estetico early in the century confirmed this seemingly clairvoyant aspect of "factual" things, with their heightened drama. In "Meditations of a Painter," de Chirico argued for an art of painting whose aim was "to create previously unknown sensations." "One has to but isolate oneself from the world for a few moments so completely that the most commonplace happenings appear to be new and unfamiliar, and in this way reveal their true essence."6 This "metaphysical" reality is so reordered with new sensitivity to space and solitude that it creates wonder, pleasure or terror. An angle, line, shadow, and geometrical figures like the arc and triangle awaken strong feelings that come from the subconscious.7 In the art of Juhani Palmu, shapes, lines and values can for the moment have strange relationships with one another. They appear out of place and create a feeling of joy and anxiety that sets the scene apart from routine experiences.

Palmu’s artwork is real and hyperreal, at the same time. According to Jean Baudrillard, "hyperreality" characterizes the third and contemporary phase of the modern sign. In this stage of simulated, postmodern reality, diffracted models or distinct oppositions have replaced general equivalents of production. "The hyperreal . . . effaces the contradiction of the real and imaginary," notes Baudrillard. "Irreality no longer belongs to the dream or phantasm, to a beyond or hidden interiority, but to the [aesthetic] hallucinatory resemblance of the real to itself."8

Juhani Palmu and his family moved to Bonn in 1989. With its pre-eminence in the 1980s as an active residence and art market for European avant-garde artists, Germany was attractive for Palmu. Germany’s large economic base, and its cultural ties with Finland were important factors. Additionally, the abundant exchange of ideas and competitiveness in this region provided the necessary stimulation for Palmu to move forward, to be able to experiment with new ideas. Palmu soon made valuable contacts at the nearby Cologne Art School, where he was admitted to the Masters’ class. Cologne had the largest annual German art fair, an unusually large population of artists with a strong international flavor, and one of the most active gallery scenes in Europe. Shortly after his arrival in Bonn, Palmu became a member of the BBK, the German Artists’ Association. He has developed important working relationships with galleries in Bonn and Munich.

The artist’s 1992 exhibition in the Kleinsassen Art Center, sponsored by the Fulda City Museum, re-vealed new directions in his art. A series of wooden sculptures expressed the theme of the harness bow press. Straight strips of wood are stretched between a solid half-circle and a circular path of wooden pegs, carefully attached to a backing of vertically arranged boards between which seams are exposed. Although the harness bow press may recall the Dada and Surrealist wood collages of Jean (Hans) Arp, with their hovering forms, cast shadows and contrast of straight and curved lines, Palmu’s sculptures are at once richer in history and collective identity. The artform, expertise and construction aspects of traditional handicrafts also relate to Palmu’s own familiarity with carpentry. The subject of the harness and the wheel contains codes that identify the heavy rural labor of past generations that is done with efficiency and regularity. The press also signifies the submission and bending of wills that takes place in the naturally straight wood. This will take place in animals that are fitted to the yoke. It also occurs in people who must submit to the forces of nature, or yield to pressure from family or superiors seeking control and productivity. The subject of handicraft and of traditional or regional culture has also been of interest to other contemporary Finnish artists.

In Bonn Palmu reintroduced the nude female figure, a subject which he first painted in 1975. The nude figure was now more freely accepted in his new environment. The artist paints stylized human couples who appear in front of square wooden buildings, where there is a vague association with ancestors or parents. In the very large nude single figures and pairs that appeared in the Bonn studio in 1991 and 1992, Palmu presented an image of the idealized figure, without specific features, who frequently and willfully stands frontally with arms and hands at the side. The large mass of hair that extends laterally and curves upward in the female nudes creates the impression that there is power and perhaps danger in these figures. The narrow shape of the heads makes the shoulders appear wider and stronger.

The stylized nudes and the image of doors and doorways emerge and intersect at this moment in the artist’s activity to establish a dialogue on exploration and self-discovery. In a recent photograph of the Bonn studio, the artist stands frontally with a thoughtful look and with paintbrushes and pail in his hands, down at his sides. He stands directly in front of his monumental 1991 triptych, Gates. Palmu is in front of a painted gate with his own head just below and directly in front of a generalized male figure. The gates symbolize a personal journey through a passageway, which is flanked by two other entrances occupied by frontal female nudes. These large figures, which are shaded, appear to stand in front of an endless and indeterminate space in which smaller shadows at some distance appear to be walking forward. "The meeting with oneself is first the meeting with one’s shadow," wrote Carl Jung in On the Roots of Consciousness (1954):

The shadow is a tight passage, a narrow door whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well. But one must learn to know oneself in order to know who one is. For what comes after the door is, surprisingly enough, a boundless expanse full of unprecedented uncertainty, with apparently no inside and outside, no above and no below, no here and no there, no mine and no thine, no good and no bad.9

When we become aware of our psyche, we may, according to Jung, discover content from a collective unconscious that exists in all people. It is given definite forms when brought into view. One archetype, the anima – the soul and life – is either projected as an opposite-sex figure or as an ancestral (or divine) pair. When the chaotic urge and intensity of the female anima figure for a man becomes subdued, she is accompanied by a concealed knowledge and wisdom which yields new understanding about the meaning and order of life. Palmu says that the artist’s pictorial language and imagery should, by association, be able to renew the viewer’s mind with fresh feelings and meanings, "where something from the subconscious is returned to the conscious mind." "If this kind of art, made up of local element, be it in whatever field of art, becomes universally applicable even beyond cultural boundaries then the artist has achieved his goal. I have strived and worked for this end."

Palmu explores how the door, an artifact of everyday life, symbolizes the drama of moving through life. He has reflected on the meaning of the door in his own life to open up new opportunities. Yet, he knows that the door can stand for confinement of the individual, protection of old ways as well as for untapped possibilities for growth. In Christian religion, the door symbolizes the possibility of Salvation: ‘‘For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds: and to him who knocks, the door will be open’’ (Mt. 7:8). The door has been a prevalent motif in Surrealist paintings. Palmu feels fortunate that he has stood in front of a number of large doors in his own life and had the courage to open them. In his recent wooden doors, he has introduced cracks into the beams and wound rope around them to signify the bonds between uncertainty and the feeling of being limited by the society’s codes of behavior. Cracks may also denote age and life’s experience while cross bars express an element of prohibition and fear. The door is deconstructed through a number of signs and associations so that it becomes insecure in its purpose. The door as an opening is further controlled by its opposite role as a barrier.

Palmu’s doors provide us with symbols of work, meditation and domestic life from both past and present. His Finnish audience remembers the significant doors of churches, villages and farmsteads in earlier landscape paintings. They recognize implements and structural supports from an old tradition of agrarian life in Finland. This recent work after 1989 has been called Postmodernist. More than before, the artist’s wall-hangings, recent paintings and doors have a strong autobiographical current that, at the same time, looks discriminately into the past. His use of wood gives to his objects a humanized and localized appearance, while the subjects bring together separate and sometimes competing activities. Palmu’s work continues to merit comparison with recent sculpture in Germany which also has elements of architecture and constru-ction, while expressing physical being and a strong feeling for the past within the present.

In the early 1990s, Palmu has turned to the subject of the sauna, as a symbol of Finnish identity that is even more invested in national culture of past and present than the village landscape, harness bow and old-fashioned door. The unique experience of the sauna bath, and its effect of lightness, well-being and increased stamina on those who use it, has long been associated with the sense of community and of individual initiative in Finland. Many Finns spend time at the small summer cottage, where the almost daily use of the sauna hut can symbolize a return to nature and to the ancient Finnish past. L. M. Edelsward asserts that the traditional Finnish world view of "real life," which recognizes individual self-reliance in the village and woodlands, is maintained through the experience of the sauna.10 The logwood walls, the dry sauna heat and the very pleasant aroma created from the smoke of the wood-burning stove (heated stones) and the heated birch-branch whisks all celebrate the presence of the forest, lake and air in a holistic sense. Juhani Palmu has made a roofless logwood sauna hut of authentic design and construction, which measures 220x220x180 cm (7.2x7.2x5.9 ft.). A local German carpenter, Richard Kepplinger has made the structural solutions and cut the wood while Palmu planned the installation and finished the wood surfaces. The logs have additional color and markings that carry associations of being old, smoke-stained and unoiled.

The longstanding tradition of sauna bathing on the eve of feast days and the Sabbath as well as the quiet and respect for the place of the steam bath underscores the sanctity that has surrounded the sauna since ancient times. The cleansing and healing power of the sauna is legendary. The pre-Christian magus may have performed conjurations in the sauna, where fire was sacred and the stone pile served as altar, the steam suggesting the presence of spirits. Rites were observed that would chase diseases and evils away from the body. Most important, the sauna marked the rites of passage through life. Birth, marriage and death were observed with special baths, in sauna-time. The sauna experience, therefore, is a world apart from everyday routine. It is a greatly anticipated activity where warming up, whisking, sweating and plunging into lake or river bring about relaxation, stimulation, cleanliness and new life.

The sauna provides an opportunity for self-reflection and individual growth through the experience of simpler and more elemental levels of being. Since the sauna bath is enjoyed slowly and in complete nudity, the participant can shed troubling thoughts and become open11 to deeper layers of feeling. It is a place for self-analysis and recuperation. Palmu’s paintings of the sauna theme include ancient pictorial symbols of humans, animals, buildings, boats, and immaterial life forces that symbolize the psychic drama and shamanistic milieu of the original sauna – close to the birth of national culture. They are often accompanied by strong, expressionist color. In the sauna, the artist has discovered an activity shared by the majority of Finns, which also represents present-day continuity with Finland’s national and epic past. It appears to be a suitably strong symbol for the post-Cold War era. The sauna has an international resonance in Europe and North America, where it has been introduced. On the other hand, the sauna, the artist believes, can symbolize the separateness and cohesiveness of Finno-Ugric peoples who must maintain their culture and self-determination in the new Europe.

Juhani Palmu further deals with the Finnish presence in the global community in his most recent solo exhibition at the Montserrat Gallery in the Soho district of Manhattan, New York, where the central theme is communication. In this show, he recognizes how his own tradition-based symbolic language of art can be adapted to the message of images and sign language in contemporary postmodern culture. This exhibition includes symbolic imagery that derives from prehistoric rock paintings from Finland, which may be from 2,000 to 4,000 years old. The paintings recall a past age where visual imagery had a strong affect on the people of that time and place. On the other hand, Palmu argues, the average viewer of art today, who is conditioned by electronic media, has in some ways become a passive "receiver" who does not have control over the flood of available information. There is even the fear of producing "image illiteracy" in the contemporary world. For Juhani Palmu, the answer may lie in the creation of artwork with strong human content that will allow us to see ourselves and to build our own identities. There should be mutual participation between the artist and viewer. The viewers of Palmu’s paintings, for example, can achieve a sense of belonging when confronted with images that cause them to look within themselves for insights that are buried below the surface. When Palmu’s artwork takes us to the "essence" of our being, we face the ethical dilemma of discovering that longing and reality are opposites.

Juhani Palmu encourages this sensitivity and openness of communication by way of his tried and true themes. When we are affected by his imagery, we become relieved of our anxiety and confusion, and arrive at serenity and order through a simpler level of consciousness. At peace, we are more accepting of a life that has been freed of many of the inhibitions from our upbringing. Palmu’s own art resembles electronic media in its suggestiveness and its ability to slowly unfold layers of meaning. It is open to the viewer’s own interpretation. In examples from his most recent work, Palmu introduces the theme of changing interpersonal relations. In the course of a relationship, people can become fragmented, fossilized and opinionated in their close communication with significant others. The recent paintings display the soft shapes of people and walls against a warm background of pinks and yellows in order to reflect the euphoria and emptiness experienced in this setting. The deep blue sky with the planet earth and the reindeer appears filled with the electromagnetic signals of telecommunication. It appears that electronic communication may be partly responsible for effacing our cultural and psychological differences as individuals.12 The artist has noted how the mainstream Western electronic commercial media has posed a real danger to traditional Finnish culture and independence. It also has the potential to bring us all together as equals, as we stand at the threshold and observe the elusive harmony of the global village. Juhani Palmu’s artwork is a symbol of what telecommunications can deliver to people worldwide. It has a universal appeal, since it opens up to all of us new ways of perceiving and valuing our activities in the world within our reach.

Sources: 

  • On Ostrobothnian patriotism and independence, see Heikki Ylikangas, ‘‘Ostrobothnia in Finnish History’’ in Finland: People, Nation, State, eds. Max Engman and David Kirby (London: Hurst, 1989), pp. 73–84. Ostrobothnia is described in W. R. Mead, ‘‘The Natural Provinces’’, in Finland. An Introduction, eds. Sylvie Nickels, Hillar Kallas and Philippa Friedman (New York: Praeger, 1973), pp. 106–108.

  • After World War II, there was a great movement of displaced villagers from the East into settled areas of the Finnish countryside. Since the 1960’s, many young people have left the rural areas for the towns and cities. The overproduction of crops and livestock as well as changes in the national diet have further contributed toward financial uncertainty in rural Finland. See, for example, W. R. Mead, An Experience of Finland (London: Hurst & Co., 1993), pp. 14–24, 31–32.

  • The strong social bonds of the home village in Finland are discussed in Frederic M. Roberts, Under the North Star: Notions of Self and Community in a Finnish Village (New York: Phd dissertation, City Univer-sity of New York, 1982), p. 90–; L. M. Edelsward, Sauna as Symbol. Society and Culture in Finland (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), pp. 60–62, and Wendy Hall, The Finns and their Country (New York: Paul S. Eriks-son, 1968), pp. 66–71. On the grouping of home plots and farmsteads, see Finland and its Geography, pp. 87–93.

  • Traditionally, the snow in Finland protects the farmer’s winter wheat and rye crop and prevents deep freezing of the ground. It can also provide substantial spring meltwater for flotation where the transportation of logs is of great concern. See Finland and its Geography, pp. 114, 206, 343. Work and recreation in the winter are described in Seppo Parta-nen, ‘‘The Winter Way of Life’’ in Finland. An Introduction, pp. 142–149.

  • Armin Hoffmann, one of the great masters of the post-war Swiss school of Basel, for example, emphasized in poster advertisements the simple communication of meaning and symbolic content of an object or activity being promoted. This could be accomplished through a basic pictorial language built up from point, line and plane and through a restrained treatment of the verbal message. As with Palmu, Hoffmann liked to use contrasts of value and of straight versus curved lines to create a certain tension, which however was subordinate to a higher sense of unity. See Armin Hoffman, Graphic Design Manual. Principals and Practices (n.p.: Reinhold, 1965) pp. 9–19, and Armin Hoffmann His Work, Quest and Philosophy (Basel: Birkhäuser, 1989) pp. 11–22.

  • James Thrall Soby, Giorgio de Chirico (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1955) p. 251.

  • Giorgio de Chirico, ‘‘On Metaphysical Art’’ (trans. Joshua Taylor), in Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art (Berkley: University of California Press, 1968), pp. 448–53.

  • Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. H. Grant (London: Sage, 1993), p. 72.

  • The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, eds. Herbert Read, Michael Fordham, Gerhard Adler and William McGuire, trans. R. F. Hull, 2nd ed. vol 9, pt 1, The Archtypes and the Collective Unconscious (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 21.

  • L. M. Edelsward, Sauna as Symbol. Society and Culture in Finland (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), pp. 49–80; Hall, The Finns, p. 60. In his sauna handbook, H. J. Viherjuuri, one of the founders of the modern Sauna movement, extolled the properties of the original wooden sauna and the authentic Finnish sauna experience. H. J. Viherjuuri, Sauna. The Finnish Bath, 2nd ed. (Battleboro, Vt.: Stephen Green Press, 1972), pp. 44–60.

  • See, for exemple, L.M. Edelsward, ‘‘We Are More Open When We Are Naked’’ Ethnos 56 (1991), pp. 189–199, and Sauna as Symbol, pp. 33–35.

  • 12. For a criticism of the artificial, compressed time of T.V. and video, and its assault on the authority of the ‘‘self’’, see Margot Lovejoy, Postmodern Currents. Art and Artists in the Age of Electronic Media, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1992), pp. 97, 207.

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Juhani Palmu, Galleria Strindberg