Fine Art Contexts Essay (Opinion)

In this essay I will compare three works of Art and examine their readability to the contemporary viewer. The contemporary viewer in this case is myself, and I will be looking at the works through the prism of my own cultural heritage and understanding. The intention of a work is not a matter of irrefutable fact: rather it is always open to interpretation. As Fish (1993 p.55-56) states “…intention… is made when perceptual or interpretive closure is hazarded; it is verifiable by an interpretive act… it is recognized as soon as you decide about it…”. The reader, or in the case of this essay the viewer, creates meaning simply through the act of viewing, interpreting and recognizing the individual nature of that interpretation. Given that “All understanding is necessarily and by nature intrinsic...” (Hirsch Jr. 1993 p.54) it becomes necessary to state the basic parameters through which I have viewed the following works. I am: a woman; a feminist; Generation Y by default; consider myself to be European first and Scottish second; grew up surrounded by my African cultural heritage inherited through my maternal lineage.  

Each of the works have in common: utilisation of figurative depiction; deal loosely with perceptions of what it means to be from a particular country; explore an aspect of duality or the inner self; link to myths and stories of the artists’ home countries; are not the only piece that the artist has created using the same imagery. All the works are concerned with changing perceptions and provoking new perspectives related the artists’ home nation(s) in some way. I will examine the works in chronological order on their individual merits within the constraints of my investigation before comparing them and drawing my conclusion.

Aino Myth, Tryptych, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1891
The first work is called Aino Myth, Triptych by the Finnish Artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela completed in 1891. I am looking at the second version of the painting, commissioned by the Finnish Government. The first version was painted two years earlier in 1889 while the artist was living in Paris (Reitala 2016).

Aino Myth, Triptych depicts a small part of the epic Finnish poem The Kalevala, collected from various Suomi traditional oral mythologies and committed to writing by Elias Lönnrot (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2015). Aino Myth, Triptych follows the story of Aino, a young girl promised to the old sage, Väinämöinen, by her brother, Joukahainen. Instead, Aino chooses to join “… the water maidens who swim happily and freely in the lake.” (Pentikäinen 1999). In the left panel Väinämöinen stalks Aino through the forest, in the central panel Väinämöinen chases Aino as she bathes and in the right panel, Aino sits upon a rock preparing to drown herself.

Gallen-Kallela’s work falls under the banner of Symbolist Painting (Musée d’Orsay 2006), as a Symbolist he would have been concerned with the “psychology of the human being” (Barris 2008). The Symbolists “…turned to mythology in part because they believed that ancient myths were still alive in primitive cultures.” (Barris 2008) and “stressed the subjective, symbolical, and decorative functions of an art that would give visual expression to the inner life” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2013). In Aino Myth, Triptych Gallen-Kallela perfectly demonstrates this, depicting the sad lament and inner turmoil of both Aino and Väinämöinen.

In the 1889 Aino Myth, Triptych Gallen-Kallela used models available to him in Paris (Reitala 2016). However, in the 1891 version his new wife Mary modeled for Aino and a local man in Lentiira, Kainuu modeled for the sage (Martin and Sivén 1984). The figures in the 1891 Aino Myth, Triptych are bolder than those in it’s predecessor and more weight is given to the figures’ physicality. Due to changes in colour and tone they fit more confidently into the landscape and as Reitala (2016) states, the painting is “… significantly improved by the use of Finnish models”.

One of Gallen-Kallela’s aims within his life’s work was to spark a Finnish renaissance (Facos 2011) and so his choice to depict The Kalevala would have been influenced by the fact that, by 1889, it was “…a powerful symbol of Finnish identity” (Sander 2015). Gallen-Kallela originally planned to depict the whole of the Kalevala (O’Sullivan 2015), ultimately completing eight oil paintings (Lephälahti 2015) and by doing so would cement his commitment to strong representations of Finnish culture rooted deep in the history of the country.

This is a difficult painting to read without knowing the context of the history and it’s importance within Finnish culture. At the time Aino Myth, Triptych was painted Finland was working towards gaining it’s own identity and independence, having been ruled by both Russia and Sweden over the preceding six centuries (O’Sullivan 2015). I could read within the panels that the old man is creeping on the woman in the woods and chasing her while she bathes. However, the third panel is more elusive. Without knowing that it is a depiction Aino drowning herself to escape the attentions of Väinämöinen or being able to read the frame, on which Gallen-Kallela painted the fourth and fifth runes of the Kalevala (Atteneum Art Museum 2017), the full weight of meaning within the painting is hard for a contemporary, non-Finnish viewer to grasp.


Monster Reborn 1996/2002, Douglas Gordon, 2002
         The second work is the photographic double self-portrait Monster Reborn 1996/2002 by the Scottish contemporary artist Douglas Gordon. Influenced by Jekyll and Hyde (National Galleries Scotland 2016), Gordon has photographed himself twice: once with a face distorted grotesquely by tape and secondly with an unmarked visage, displaying both side-by-side.

Monster Reborn 1996/2002 is the third related work bearing a similar title. The first was simply Monster and displayed the distorted face on the right, and the straight portrait on the left. The second work is a silent video called The Making of Monster, which depicts the artist creating the “monster” from his own flesh by applying tape to his own face to create the titular Monster (Artsy 2017). In the 2002 variation, Monster Reborn 1996/2002, Gordon has taken the photographs from Monster and “reversed [the image] so that the distorted face is on the left instead of the right.” (National Galleries Scotland 2016). By changing the placing of the monster from the right to the left, Gordon’s work becomes more than just about dual or double identity and starts to question if the monster or the sane man came first.

Gordon’s “conception of practice is located in postmodernist developments” (Mulholland 2004) and his work largely deals with examining the human vs. inhuman and black vs. white splits in human nature. Inspiration for this vein of investigation, especially within Monster Reborn 1996/2002, comes from Scottish Literature which looks at the “… rift between good and evil – even within a single personality.” (Gayford 2002).

Where Gallen-Kallela was concerned with emboldening and uniting the Finnish people behind an idea of Nationalism based on shared and commonly known history.  As a postmodernist Gordon “…advocated that individual experience and interpretation of our experience was more concrete than abstract principles.” (Tate 2017).

However, there is a definite aspect of Monster Reborn 1996/2002 which is rooted deep in Scottish culture and what it means to be Scottish: to live with a sense of ‘dual identity’ (National Galleries of Scotland 2016) and “otherness” (Allan 2016). Considering the school of thought which proposes the idea of a Scottish Endarkenment in literature and the arts as opposed to the Scottish Enlightenment (Dovecot Studios 2016) Monster Reborn 1996/2002 displays both the individual and the wider hegemony in which Gordon’s ideas have been formed.

Gordon’s work “embrace(s) complex and often contradictory layers of meaning.” (Tate 2017) and as I look deeper into the reasoning behind Gordon’s works I do find myself drawn into the ideas he explores. However, I see them more in a nationalistic than personal framework. As a Scot I do feel that I have a dual or changeable identity, but that is represented through my flexible nationality as opposed to my inner light and dark Scottish psyche. As such Gordon’s work becomes lost to me and by taping up his face, it seems that Gordon’s monster actually comes from the outside. That it is a meaning or mask he has applied as an external projection through active choice as opposed to something that is a part of his intrinsic nature.
          
Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumours, Wangechi Mutu, 2004-05
The third work is Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumours, a collection of twelve mixed-media collages created in the period of 2004-05 by the Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu. Mutu’s work has a very different flavour to Gallen-Kallela and Gordon’s works. Firstly she is a woman, secondly she was born on a different continent: Africa, and lives and works on another: North America (Saatchi 2017). As an artist this gives her a very different outlook and approach to the two Europeans I have been looking at. However, Mutu’s work has thematic commonality as she deals with “…duality and the split nature of cultural identity.” (Kerr, 2004).

The images that form the foundation of Mutu’s Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumours are a series of Victorian medical illustrations of diseases of the uterus. They are, by nature, specifically female diseases. On top of this Mutu has arranged splices of over-the-top fashion photography, glitter and ink into strange anthropomorphic portraits forming “ambiguous re-presentations of the multifaceted, processual nature of both art and the self.” (Fletcher 2014). As Mutu states: “Females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body.” (Saatchi 2017).

Mutu’s work belongs to the Afrofuturism movement (Richardson 2012), a movement which is “… non-linear, fluid and feminist; it uses the black imagination to consider mysticism, metaphysics, identity and liberation; … blends the future, the past and the present.” (Thrasher 2015). Where Gallen-Kallela sought to create a new Art movement based in part on old mythologies and Gordon creates refractions of old Scottish literature, Mutu is inspired by “… the aesthetics of traditional African crafts” but her work concerns “…contemporary myth-making...” (Saatchi 2017).

Mutu trained as both an artist and anthropologist (Saatchi 2017) and Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumours manages to speak on both a psychological and societal level. Psychologically speaking she examines “…modernism's fixation with the Other.” (Richardson 2012) by exploring the grotesque, alien and monstrous duality within. In this way Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumours can be likened to Gordon’s Monster Reborn 1996/2002, although by using found imagery Mutu is speaking a more global and less personal language. Societally speaking however, much of Mutu’s work relates to perceptions of the female black body and racism (Gordon 2017). By speaking from a strongly black perspective and likening racism and perceptions of females and blacks to diseases, she opens up questions and re-interpretations of the way we might view blackness (Richardson 2012). In this way Mutu’s work shares the drive that Gallen-Kallela had in changing perceptions of Finland and Finnish Art.

Combining widespread imagery of glossy magazines and medical illustrations, while utilising African imagery and aesthetics, Mutu has created imagery that can be easily deconstructed by the contemporary viewer. I found Mutu’s message quick and easy to understand and further, by basing her portraits on specifically female diseases I believe Mutu has found an important universality in her woman-hood.

To conclude: I have found Histology of Different Classes of Uterine Tumors is the most easily readable to a contemporary viewer. Perhaps this is because it is because it is the most recently created. Artists now speak a global language in a way that would have been unimaginable to Gallen-Kallela, and even still a distant dream when Gordon created the first iteration of Monster. The advent of digital communications in the late 20th C, which as part of Generation Y I have embraced, has meant that though access to a broad range of culture has improved (Kutchinsky 2014) language (Kleinman 2010) and imagery (Vincent 2014) changes and develops very quickly. Gallen-Kallela’s work is deeply rooted within 19th C Finnish culture, and though his work is well known even to this day there (Lephälahti 2015 p.111), his paintings have not spread far from the borders of his home country (Snow 2008). Gordon’s work is also very rooted in the country of it’s creator: Scotland. Even though Gordon examines a base duality within the individual, his reliance on an allusion to specific works of Scottish literature, means for the contemporary viewer his message can easily get lost in translation.


In terms of my analysis of these works, as a white European woman perhaps it would seem unusual to identify most strongly with Mutu’s work. However, being a feminist of Generation Y and having grown up in a household surrounded by contemporary African Art and Culture Mutu’s work is that which speaks most clearly to me. I am not alone in this conclusion: Kaitano (2013) states “Mutu's use of specific and intentional imagery and symbols can be fairly easily contextualised, making her art essentially, accessible.”

This essay was written in response to the question 4) Choose THREE of the “Images/Sounds” of the week shown in class during semester two. Compare and contrast them, putting them in an appropriate critical and theoretical framework. set by Prof. Jon Blackwood at the beginning of 2017 as part of the Stage 2 CCS Course.

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