Challenged by colour

1 April 2010 | Authors, Interviews

Hannu Väisänen. Photo: Paula Kukkonen

Interview with Hannu Väisänen, author of the novel Kuperat ja koverat (‘Convex and concave’, 2010)

For the painter and writer Hannu Väisänen, colour speaks volumes.

In the novel Toiset kengät (‘The other shoes’, 2007, Otava) awarded the Finlandia Prize for Fiction), teenage wannabe artist Antero manages to escape his grey northern hometown of Oulu; he is heading for the eastern Finnish town of Savonlinna, where he will go to art college. Triumphantly Antero dyes his blond hair black in the bus station toilet.

‘Perhaps it was all a question of the right colours and the right timing of colours,’ Antero thinks. In Kuperat ja koverat (‘Convex and concave’, 2010), he leaves for the capital, determined to get into the academy of art. His hair is still black.

But ‘colours do not really have timing; it was an ironic reference to calculation, a mode of working that I hope I will not be forced to use as an artist’, Hannu Väisänen (born 1951) pointed out when he last spoke to us at Books from Finland (2/2007): ‘The bourgeoisie and manuals of good taste paint interiors in correctly timed colours. But colours must be left their capacity to surprise. A colour must not only be a bringer of pleasure – it must also be allowed to challenge.’

In Kuperat ja koverat Antero learns more about shapes than about colours: in studying the three-dimensional world he has to negotiate shapes and forms, and in his graphics class he returns to the shades of grey. In the woollen duffel coat of someone he falls for he discerns a colour resembling ‘the grey of the robe of Saint Francis of Assisi and the hopeful beige of a newborn camel’.

Antero embarks on his first trip abroad on a scholarship to Budapest. There he falls head over heels in love both with fellow art student Tamás and with a Sienese painting the size of a chocolate box showing Saint Thomas Aquinas at prayer. It has a particular shade of green with which Antero becomes enchanted.

SL: It turns out that, unfortunately, Tamás is not right for Antero. But what about the shade of green?

HV: The green is absolutely right. It’s a chromium oxide green, in a technical sense one of the most durable shades of green. And flexible in the extreme, meaning that you can get almost any tone of green you want form it. In Sassetta’s time, artists didn’t have access to as wide a colour palette as those of today, but that chromium oxide made possible a wide scale of greens. He who has the why also has the how, as the philosopher put it.

Now that I’m in a painting phase again, I’ve dug my colours and brushes out of a two-year sleep, almost the first thing I did was to check that I had some chromium oxide. I did, and I use it. The kitchen table, cupboard and benches that appeared In my first novel, painted ’Sassetta green’, still exist, now in different parts of Finland, in the care of my sister and brothers. In the colour elements of my own home all I have kept is a tray painted by my aunt; it, too, wanders through my trilogy of novels.

’A gentle scale of greys, full of contrasts, Antero, but I should have thought colours might have suited your nature,’ says one of the academy’s teachers at the opening of Antero’s first exhibition: the works are pencil drawings on bone-white paper.

Perhaps the fact that colours matter so much to both Hannu Väisänen and his alter ego Antero is due to his childhood, which was somewhat devoid of strong colours. In the single-parent family of an alcoholically inclined NCO, four boys and a girl, life in the austere, post-war Oulu with its harsh winters was not exactly colourful as regards things material.

And yet the grey of the barracks, army uniforms and blankets is a colour, too, with an immense number of shades.

In Väisänen’s first volume of the fictionally autobiographical – or autobiographically fictional – trilogy, Vanikan palat (‘Pieces of crispbread’, 2004), the school’s spring festival tableau is immersed in perfect blue, and little Antero is overwhelmed by it; he discovers the language of colours in making art.

SL: Your third novel ends with a viewing of space through a telescope, the examination of the convex and concave surface structures of the Moon. So Antero remains in a pretty monochrome world, and your series of novels is at an end. But does Antero, in fact, begin to speak the language of colours?

HV: Certainly. If Antero is anything like me. In my paintings, I’m using more and more unmixed colours – that is, colours straight from the tube. It feels as if, after writing – which I always experience as black-and-white – I need to paint in pure primary colours. What a lot a large yellow surface can say!

A recent experience was to spread pure bright yellow for a week on to a canvas measuring 2 by 3 metres. I don’t believe in colour therapy, or particularly in the metaphysical dimensions of colour, but when there began to be more colour before my eyes than my own physical size, it really felt like bathing or swimming.

The trilogy is finished, but writing continues. I’m working on my next novel, in which Antero doesn’t appear. But colours do. I can’t help it. (Happily!) Even in this first drafting stage, colour makes its presence felt. In addition, it’s very invigorating to use words to describe colours and the way they behave.

The basic difference between writing about colours and painting with them is, I suppose, that in painting a colour refers only to itself, without references. Within sentences, a colour, however accurately it’s described, appears like a symbol, within the framework of the agreements of language.

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