Woodcut Art in Finland

Woodcut Art in Finland

Woodcuts entered Finnish art in the mid-1890’s as the first serious form of graphic art. Until that, printmaking had mainly been associated with reproductions utilised by art schools. The printmaking reformers in Britain and France emphasised the essence of drawing in the images, with etching as their favourite method. The Japanese woodcuts that had poured in Europe had kindled an interest in the technique of woodblock printmaking, but it was far too laborious and elaborate for Europeans as such. Yet the woodcut provided artists with tools for a synthetic, archaic expression, as well as for decorativeness favoured in art nouveau. This was the form of expression that fascinated Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931). He had learned about the method through art magazines already before travelling to Berlin in 1895 to search for new inspiration and study the Japanese woodcut technique.

Yet Gallen-Kallela finally had to learn the method on his own, practising the craft in the autumn of 1895 in his recently completed wilderness studio in Ruovesi. After a short period of experimenting, he carved his first woodcut, Kalman kukka (The Flower of Death) on a pine disc; it was also the first woodcut in Finnish graphic art. During the months that followed, Gallen-Kallela made a number of woodcuts, which formed a base for an essentially nationalist movement of woodblock printmaking flourishing until the 1970s and favoured by many artists. Vilho Askola (1906-1994) and Erkki Tanttu (1907-1985) were among the most notable names; both had a long and creative career. Askola focused on Finnish landscapes, his best works excelling in the tonality of black and grey. Tanttu commemorated Finnish way of life and the Finnish folk, recording vernacular culture in a highly personal, rough style, which became well-known thanks to his many illustrations.

In addition to the movement exploring national themes, there was another movement initialised by Ellen Thesleff (1869-1954). She was a student of Edward Gordon Craig, a stage designer and actor as well as a pioneer in modern woodcut. His works witness of a happy union between the woodcut and wood engraving: the carved line meets the clear surfaces. Craig was an excellent choice to teach Thesleff the secrets of the craft, and Thesleff was obviously a gifted, responsive student, providing the art with a new appearance. Thesleff was essentially a painter, rejecting Craig’s notion about graphics being based on the dialogue of black and white lines and surfaces. She made her Marionettes originally in black and white to illustrate an article by Craig, but printed it later in colour; the latter version is far more famous. Thesleff began to use thin plywood, on which she sketched her designs in charcoal and only cut the necessary lines; the rest was sheer painting. All colours were painted and printed at a go. The method enabled great variation; the most important was the painting, the role of the block was not nearly as great. The knife cuts finally mingled with painting. In this sense, Thesleff’s woodcuts can be considered monotypes.

Thesleff was followed by Ina Colliander (1905-1985). She made her first woodcuts on found pieces of wood in Kuokkala in 1930. These early works already manifested the central features of her art: the skilful utilisation of the grain and outlines and a certain kind of primitivist approach drawing from Munch and Gauguin. Like that of Thesleff, Colliander’s technique was also rather singular. She only used a single knife, hence the expressive cut lines in her works. In addition, she printed multi-colour works from a single block, like Thesleff. Colliander first made her works in black and white, but began to favour colours in the 1950s. Thanks to her achievements in graphic art, woodblock printmaking in particular, Colliander was chosen to represent Finland in the Biennial of Venice in 1960; this also contributed to the esteem of the art in Finland.

Woodblock printmakers who had started their career before the Second World War were inspired by Munch and German expressionists. German influences were particularly clear as both Colliander and Tanttu were educated there. During the post-war years Finnish art was in a turmoil as contacts to the cultural centres of Europe were renewed. Each young artist had to make a choice between traditionally Finnish art and European Modernism. Lars-Gunnar Nordström serves as a good example: his short study trip to Paris was pivotal. He soon replaced stylised Cubism by pure non-figurativeness, but during his short period in figurative art he also made a series of woodcuts.

The 1950’s were a golden period for graphic art, with many groups aiming at increasing the appreciation of printmaking. The woodcut and the lithograph were the techniques mostly applied by these artists, who for the most part considered themselves as painters. Yet many post-war artists chose to focus solely on printmaking. Erkki Hervo (1924-1994) was one of them, becoming a monumental figure in the development of Finnish woodcuts. He described himself as a ”woodcut painter”, but unlike Thesleff and Colliander, Hervo was a versatile master of the technique. He was fascinated and inspired by the tradition and craft of the woodcut, and found the combination of old technique and contemporary expression as a challenge. Since the late 1940’s, he developed an interest in the Japanese technique, which he had to learn on his own. During the 1940’s, he moved from stylised figurativeness to pure abstraction. Hervo’s works are based on familiar geometrical forms, with the oval as a typical example. He was a master of Japanese bokashi gradation technique, both when applying oil-based inks and watercolours.

Until 1972, the teaching of woodblock printmaking in Finland relied on private tuition and short courses. In that year Erkki Hervo became the teacher of the woodcut in the University of Art and Design in Helsinki, today known as Aalto University, School of Arts, Design and Architecture, and many woodblock printmakers in Finland are his former students.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Flower of Death, 1895

Hugo Simberg, Autumn I, 1896

Ellen Thesleff, Firenze, 1925

Kalle Carlstedt, Isle of Bliss (Lintukoto), 1933-36

Aukusti Tuhka, Woodcut Artist, 1940

Erkki Tanttu, Skier, 1945

Ina Colliander, Angel Blue, 1959

Vilho Askola, Haasiaseipäitä, 1962

Taisto Toivonen, Homage to the Clearer, 1976

Matti Petäjä, Landscape 10/77, 1977

Erkki Hervo, Composition 6-82, 1982