Hannu Väisänen has always used images from his childhood in his work as an artist, but now he has also recorded the life of his family in an autobiographical novel entitled Vanikan palat (‘Pieces of crispbread’), in which colours, smells and sounds paint a word-picture of 1950s Finland. Interview by Soila Lehtonen
Hannu Väisänen (born 1951) is a graphic artist and painter. His major projects have included illustrations for the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, for an edition published in celebration of its 150th anniversary in 1999. He now lives in France, and his work has been shown in numerous European countries.
Mixing his colours himself, Väisänen aims for a state in which ‘even black would be a colour’. Characteristic of his art are two-dimensionality, the absence of perspective, ‘the sanctity of surface’, and a subject recurrent in his image, a seriality associated with numbers. He has also used literary subjects, including a serigraphy sequence on Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies and a sequence of paintings about the Kaspar Hauser story. Väisänen has made art for churches, a television series about art classics, opera sets, and has written articles about art as well as a collection of poetry.
SL The main character of your novel, little Antero, lives in Oulu in the 1950s, 700 kilometres from Helsinki, in a modest household with his alcoholically inclined single-parent father, four brothers and one sister. There is little in the way of visual stimulus – but at school there are watercolours and a supportive teacher, Aune Kääntä.
There is also the school’s spring festival, in perfect blue: a dramatically limping tableau with scenery built by the wives of the non-commissioned officers, performed to the words of a children’s song by the popular 1950s ballad-maker Tapio Rautavaara. A blue Sandman drives in a blue car along a blue road eating blue ice-cream, reading a blue book of dreams as a blue bird sings: it is perhaps dramatically a flop, but for Antero it is an overwhelming colour experience which even Yves Klein’s ‘maximal blue’ cannot later surpass …?
HV Oh, it was absolutely not a failed performance, quite the reverse! It was precisely the hair-raising catastrophes associated with the performance that made it unforgettable. The disturbances in this instance made a positive impression on me. I realised that they reminded me not only of what life is like but also how the making of observations in a confusing context is important and how wherever one is, even in apparently difficult circumstances, one should try to concentrate on the essential.
SL Does ‘the essential’ here mean particularly the use of colour? What is colour?
HV In that situation I learned at least the following: in colour and the use of colour the question is above all of trust. Colour emerges fully only when trust in it is complete. And trust in colour is difficult to acquire if you do not have it to begin with. The concept of grace, familiar from Christianity, may cast light on what I mean: grace cannot be earned, but faith can be placed in it. I should certainly add that in my personal life it is colour that is important to me, not grace.
SL Your fellow artist Silja Rantanen used the term ‘charming allegory’ about the treatment of your childhood history in your work in her article ‘Minä laulan’ (‘I sing’, in an exhibition catalogue published by the Sara Hildén Art Museum, 2000). ‘At that point [in the 1950s] in literature and the visual arts an entire generation countered the post-war materialist belief in the future with transcendental ideas,’ she remarks, and says that in that allegory ‘experiences of beauty comfort a little boy in an unspiritual environment.’
Now that your fictional and literary depiction of your childhood has appeared, some four years later, one could ponder how ‘charming’ an allegory that 1950s childhood really is: the reader, at least, is touched by the harsh, even sad reality that is experienced within the family. The mother dies when Antero is five years old; the father takes to drinking; the queue of potential stepmothers is a long one – and even the family’s food seems to be based rather extensively on blood pancakes and vanikka, which means plywood – a stone – hard, thick, rye crispbread produced for army consumption. A good measure of comedy is interleaved with the tragedy, of course, and a survival story is evident in the novel, but here, in a strongly lived childhood depicted with strong colours – and even the grey of the barracks, army uniforms and blankets is a colour – there seems to be more than the usual amount of dark colours and schooling in suffering.
HV Silja Rantanen’s essay is a fine one, but I cannot help but differing on certain matters. The Oulu barracks and childhood are not an ‘allegory’, even though they are full of metaphysics and poetry and such! The stepmother with lettuce and salad servers is perhaps for someone a ‘transcendental idea’. But also the plain truth about the mutual rejection of things.
The ‘unspiritual environment’ is also a slightly incorrect expression. I do understand that Silja meant well with it – but in its unspirituality the barracks was most generous! She does not wish to believe in the setbacks suffered by Antero/ Hannu, because that would make me into some kind of suffering figure or poet maudit in the romantic mould. In a way Silja is right in resisting any tendency for my childhood to be cast in that sort of mould, the mould that gives rise to the ‘damned poet’ who tears himself free simultaneously from the bourgeois and corporate framework. For of course I am not a damned poet destroyed by absinthe, but a rational, tax-paying being.
‘Belief in the future’, on the other hand, means Finland’s post-war modernism, design, Tapio Wirkkala, Kaj Franck, or, in architecture, the new children’s hospital Lastenlinna, the Olympic Village etc. In her own Helsinki childhood, Silja lived all these wonders – we only heard about them as distant whispers; modernism was, for me too, some kind of messiah who would overturn the other deities and whose arrival I expected there at the Oulu latitude, 700 kilometres away…. Of course, I felt it was wrong that we were not able to march together in the vanguard of modernism.
SL Is it divine or devilish that for the artist the world feels full of unpainted subjects – at least for you? Is it difficult to make a choice? The question came to mind as I became acquainted with your way of approaching your subjects; you have often painted huge colour surfaces with a tiny brush.
HV For the artist and perhaps for others, the world and life are full of unpainted subject. If one grasps some paintable subject, behind it one immediately finds an endless sequence of in a sense unbidden subjects which should also be taken into account in one way or another. Some Indian philosopher has said that every object of interest can be the centre point of the universe or the nucleus of the atom. According to its nature the nucleus, itself indivisible, nevertheless branches out in all possible directions.
The making of choices is also one of the tasks of the artist or the writer or the composer. Especially if, like me, one does not believe in muses or inspiration – any more than in Father Christmas! Too often the importance of the path, the way which leads to objects, which is itself full of events and choices, because it is believed that for the creative spirit only the end result is important. The more I work on a book or a picture, the more I realise that the road travelled is at least as important, at least for the maker. Creative work that aims only at the result is horribly well suited to the norms of profit-making. And I want to stay well away from those. Which of course does not mean that a creative result does not emerge from time to time.
The subject chooses the artist if the artist believes in that, in other words believes to be a piece of driftwood himself. The artist Kain Tapper, a particularly dear friend of mine, often mutters to me that his is just a piece of melting ice that moves according to the coming thaw and bashes its edges against the stones of the shore. I listen to Kain with all my heart but note that I am made of different stuff. I also wish to decide a large part of what concerns my creativity. – I examine the stages of my own creative process, the accumulation of objects, without worrying whether the result is a masterpiece or crap!
SL How much have you directly depicted your childhood in your work? Has it been a particular ‘period’ or is it still cropping up in your work? For example, ‘Mother’s lipsticks’ – 1994, portraying a row of golden-yellow cases of crimson and scarlet lipsticks on a bathroom shelf – is a very moving work now that its background is revealed in your book. Antero finds some wonderful sticks of colour after his mother’s death – in fact the only concrete memorial objects.
HV The barracks as an experience, as a visual theme, as an aesthetic package, is eternal and will always be with me until my grave. Of course I don’t intend to give it up. I t is continually present and it would be wasteful to turn my back on it. Although don’t think I’ll write another novel on the subject, I do intend to use some subjects that have already become archetypal for me, such as ‘Mother’s lipsticks’. In my next exhibition, in October, I am sure there will be some delicacies from the barracks, arising from memory, as yet unused. I’m sure I will paint Sergeant Lystilä’s toe-rags, a map of the barracks and a new portrait of my teacher.
SL Colour and sense experiences – particularly concerning smell – are strong in your prose, ‘Cheap NCO’s cologne mixes with liquor to form a sweet stench that can be found only inside an undercooked sourmilk bread.’ Sourmilk bread is not a very international food, but I believe the impression is clear. And in Oulu there was the smell of the cellulose factory, in the barracks the floor wax and various combinations of sweat.
When you write, do your memories automatically bring with them smell or taste experiences? The range of taste experiences, like visual stimuli, was not vast in your childhood. Since they were few, did they perhaps leave memory traces that were all the stronger? One wonders what the memories of today’s children will be like, how they will survive the terrible sense chaos in which they live.
HV The Finnish gene memory certainly includes sourmilk bread – that sweet stench. I remember that in Ireland, at least, I have eaten something like a ‘beer pie’ and that, too, smells pretty bad as it gets old.
Smell and taste experiences are born first and, when they have risen into consciousness, supported by memory, they become sentences that take me into different situations. So writing itself does not bring cognitive sense experiences; instead, well-cared-for senses and their cognition extend the past to form an eternal present and aid the discovery of new, more important details.
I have always championed the sensitivity of the senses, not in a hedonistic way but because they are working tools which should be serviced from time to time.
It is clear that when sense stimuli are few and receptors well-tuned, a slight contradiction is born; one feels that one is never satisfied. The only weapon then is to extend one’s objects of examination and zoom into all the details, to learn early to consider everything exceptional, possibly unique, and to record it all. Untrammelled senses and of course the desire to record help.
I believe that a book about an oppressive childhood could also be written sometime in the future by a child of today. He would of course be writing about the oppression of over-abundance. Both scarcity and over-abundance can oppress and inspire. Everywhere there is still room for oppression, trauma, survival stories and also stories about shipwrecks. I imagine a well-brought-up western child of today standing in the middle of busy hubris, looking at the coloured lights changing, the traffic lights changing, but more quickly than before. You can never stop, you can never wait, you can never get, you can never go. That fractures the head so that you have to write about it, even just to survive intact.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
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Also by Soila Lehtonen
Colour me beautiful? - 29 June 2015
Leena Krohn: Erehdys ['The mistake'] - 8 June 2015
Pekka Lassila: Maininki [Surge] - 5 May 2015
About the writer
Soila Lehtonen is a journalist and theatre critic and the Editor-in-Chief of Books from Finland from 2007 to 2015. She edited a collection of writings about the city of Helsinki together with Hildi Hawkins, Helsinki: a literary companion (The Finnish Literature Society, 2000).
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