Taking a line for a walk
Paul Klee, who is often cited as a pioneer of abstract art, often gave his works names associated with literature. We do not know whether these names arose before he began work, or only as he looked at the finished painting. Probably both.
Klee was well-versed in literature and also wrote himself. In addition to his essays and diaries, he wrote music and theatre criticism. He was also a professional musician, playing the violin in various ensembles. His literary and musical background is clearly visible in all Klee’s work. It is difficult to consider him a purely abstract painter in the traditional sense of the word. Paradoxically, the pioneer of abstract art defies a strict categorisation as abstract or figurative. Behind almost all his works lies a figurative and literary development. And of course music, its transposition into painting.
Klee was in the habit of writing the name of the work, in his fine handwriting, along the bottom edge of the painting, and underlining it. This suggests that he did not consider the associative power of the name of the work trivial or insignificant. It was not, however, intended to direct the viewer, and often the name functions in counter-point to the content of the image. The viewer is both directed and led astray. He sets out to seek correspondences between image and title but finally uncovers his own imagination.
This is an invitation to play. Not so much with the associations and experiences of the artist, but with those of the viewer. Bo Carpelan has accepted the invitation. It is, to my knowledge, fairly rare for a poet to take as his muse the names of an artist’s works. And apparently without particularly examining the works. The wrapping-paper is recycled. Such recycling creates, in his book Namnet på tavlan Klee målade (‘The name of the picture Klee painted’, 1999), a frankly tropical atmosphere, although some of the names of Klee’ s works are transposed directly into Finland-Swedish surroundings. The tropical gaudiness of the poetic images is born with the help of continual metamorphoses. They recall, unbidden, the masterpieces of African recycling in which the renaissance of some worn-out object is celebrated – for example, an empty sardine tin is miraculously reborn as an oil lamp.
The tropical atmosphere of Carpelan’s poems, however, does not conceal the primitive stabbing of things or the minor triads of the private life they depict. Comedy and tragedy are so densely packed in the wrapping paper offered by the paintings that, as one unwraps them, one can hardly distinguish joy from sorrow.
I do not know whether Carpelan has looked at Klee’s works at any point. I do not know how well he knows his Klee. At all events, he has been able to stay within the sphere of original improvisation without making any kind of concession to art, for example by analysing Klee’s work. And this, of course, is to the benefit of the poems.
Carpelan’s improvisations on themes taken or given take them close to music, sometimes so close that one does not know whether one is reading a poem or a musical manuscript.
The poetic image awoken by the name of a Klee painting grows its umbilical cord and denes gravity. The result is both the joy of floating and the terror of detachment. In some poems, on the other hand, the calming grace of gravity feels essential. Carpelan goes faithfully through all the keys offered by the names of Klee’s paintings. The reader cannot but notice how the poems are arranged in the book alphabetically by title. Just as if the octave had grown to encompass all the letters of the alphabet. From ‘Ab ovo’ to ‘Öppen bok’ (‘Open book’).
I am an artist, and I have to find names for my own works. Sometimes, however, I simply cannot find one. The work remains unnamed, although it is not necessarily any worse than the others.
After reading Bo Carpelan’s book, I found myself wondering what he would have written about a work called ‘Untitled’.
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About the writer
Hannu Väisänen (born 1951) is a painter, graphic artist and writer. In 2007 he was awarded a Government Prize for Art, and the same year he won the Finlandia Prize for Fiction for the second volume of his series of autobiographical fiction – Toiset kengät (‘The other shoes’) – about a childhood in the northern town of Oulu. His most recent book is a collection of short stories, Piisamiturkki ('The musquash coat', Otava, 2015). Among his art works are the illustrations for the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, in 1999. Väisänen lives in an old vicarage in northern France.
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