Art & The Modern Form

The exhibition Alvar Aalto – Art and the Modern Form at Ateneum Museum explores new perspectives into the life and work of Finland’s most internationally famous architect and designer, through a wealth of iconic objects, furniture, architectural drawings and scale models. Aalto’s multi-disciplinary approach, which encompassed architecture, urban planning, design, and art, is articulated through archive materials, artworks, photography, short films, and new photographs of Aalto’s architecture by German photographer Armin Linke.

Ateneum not only hosts the original exhibition produced by the Vitra Design Museum, but complements it with a perspective more focused on the arts, and on the connections Aalto cultivated with other influential artists of his time, by displaying works by the German-French Hans Arp, the American Alexander Calder, the French Fernand Léger, and the Hungarian László Moholy-Nagy. Most of the works were originally introduced to Finland via art exhibitions organized through the years by Artek, and have left a permanent imprint on the Finnish art world and on the Ateneum Art Museum’s collection.

Here’s an informal talk with Sointu Fritze, Chief Curator of Ateneum Museum:

I’m blown away by the exhibition, Sointu.

Then I’m happy! (laughs) That’s what we aim for.

How do you present such a monumental figure like Alvar Aalto?

It is a challenge. It’s easy to think we know everything there is to know about him already—think of the amount of research, publications—but there’s always something new to find! There was also Aino Aalto’s shared authorship to consider, and Elissa’s (his second wife) enormous contribution. She was a great manager, who took charge of many big international projects that were completed after his death. Their turn for individual exhibitions will come!

Aalto’s multi-disciplinary credo is well articulated in the exhibition, but whose idea was it to juxtapose artwork and influence by other contemporaries?

The exhibition was assembled by Jochen Eisenbrandhas, chief curator of the Vitra Design Museum, and it’s been touring since 2014 (it’s been in Germany, Spain, and Denmark). It originally had a section called Art & Life, exploring multiple influences from Aalto’s contemporary fellow artists, and included some paintings—some Léger and Calder were lent. But Susanna Pettersson (the Museum Director) and I wanted to do it bigger. As hosts of the exhibition at Ateneum we wanted more emphasis on the dialogue with art, and on the local connections. Consider that all the artworks by the famous international masters and avant-garde artists come from Finnish collections, and they would not be here in this exhibition if Aalto himself hadn’t made the acquaintance with László Moholy-Nagy in 1929 at the CIAM International Congress of Modern Architecture! Same thing in Athens in ’33, where he met Fernand Léger. So you see, it’s all about networking! (laughs) And of course the other founders of Artek (Maire Gullichsen, Nils-Gustav Hahl, and Aino Aalto) created a vast network that has enabled our museum to purchase artworks that can be enjoyed here as a very important part of our international collection.

Hans Arp's "Hurlou" (1951) and Fernand Léger's "Multicolored Star" (1952)

What legacy! He was so candid in his relationships that they continue to operate today.

And it works both ways! Art was really important for him, but he was also important to our art scene. It’s all so relevant, really. I think this aspect of his activities and their legacy has been, if not disregarded, at least not emphasized to this extent before.

Alexander Calder's "Mobile" (1930s)

Of course Aalto must have been influenced by many artists, but Hans Arp, Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger and László Moholy-Nagy were truly his friends, not only acquaintances. It’s so interesting to read today the correspondence between them! Calder invites the Aaltos to come over to America in ’45 (imagine, the end of WWII) to spend Christmas with his family. He offers a place to stay and says “it’s crowded, but you can sleep in the sofa!” Whenever Calder wrote to the Aaltos he would either start or end his letters with “Helurrei!” which means something like “cheerio!” in Finnish. They would met in Paris, Berlin, or New York. Or in Finland, which was the periphery at the time!

The Aaltos were hardcore cosmopolites.

Very much. But the local art scene, in contrast, was very conservative, very nationalistic and insular at the time. For many art history professors and art critics, especially Finnish-speaking ones (in the Swedish-speaking circles views on art were more international) anything coming from Paris was seen as decadent. And this lasted up to the fifties, when abstract art finally made a breakthrough in Finnish art!

Why was this, you think?

Considering that Finland was founded in 1917, the tendency—the need—to build a national character (a “Finnish-ness”) and establish a Finnish culture was strong in those times.

To define an identity.

Yeah. I think Sweden kept up better with international trends in art, but we were lagging. The wartime was tough for Finland, and the connections with the european avant-garde were severed for a while. Of course local artists were experimenting, oriented toward the international, but it was just a few people, and not a real movement. This is why the art activities by Artek after the mid-30s were so crucial. They were paving the way for the acceptance of the modernist movement. While design and architecture were much more up-to-date with international trends, the gap in the visual arts was wide. If we speak about Finnish modernism in art (from the ’20s up the ’50s, start of the sixties) it was always moderate, nothing really radical, and evolving in very small steps. So it was here at Ateneum in ’61, that the international ARS series began, introducing in Finland Informalism or Art Informel (in parallel with American Abstract Expressionism). It was the time when abstract art really exploded, with artists coming from Spain, Italy, France… It was the newest contemporary art!

A prelude to pop art.

Almost there, but not quite. Expressionist, intuitive, it was like a flood! In one second everybody switched to that style, and it was a very big fad that changed the art scene in a very short time. After that, our local artists have been much more international because of it. We can’t speak about a gap anymore, we are not “behind”. Also, with the advent of fast communication and information, it obviously became so much easier to be up to date. Now we went away from the Aalto exhibition, but it’s part of the story too!

Aalto spoke German, French, and Italian, right?

Yes, and none of them well. (laughs) But you know what’s important? He didn’t mind the mistakes. It’s one key aspect of creating networks and really becoming international. If you’re afraid of mistakes, if you don’t dare, you’ll stay in your hole. Something I love from him is his playfulness, this unprejudiced touch with the world and culture. He really was experimenting, when he was young, not only with architecture and design, but also with films, photography, theater, scenography… He was one of the founders—I think chairman—of Projektio, the first film club in Finland ever. It was operating between ’34 and ’36, showing films that were forbidden.

I heard about that. Like Eisenstein’s “Potemkin”?

Yes, and Marlene Dietrich’s The Blue Angel, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of The Will and Leger’s Ballet Mécanique, all very avant-garde. The Secret Police had a guy present in each screening, trying to figure what were these people up to! It was a place that united all disciplines, where authors, musicians, painters, designers, and architects, the young intelligentsia, were creating a new world.

Alvar and Aino were both so social in their designs.

Always focusing on social aspects. They were not doing things for an elite, they thought about real people inhabiting the spaces, breathing the air, and needing light. It was a revolution of sorts.

What does Aalto mean, for Finns?

Showing this exhibition in Finland acquires a totally different context than showing it in Barcelona, or in Japan, where it goes after Helsinki. We live and breathe Aalto all the time. We drink from Aino’s glasses, and get the Savoy vase when we turn 50 or get married. We go through his doors at the Opera or any of his buildings…

We tend to take him for granted?

We do, and of course it’s less exotic for us. We Finns carry the Aalto experience in our DNA! (laughs) But there will always be a lot to learn about the man.

This outstanding exhibition can be enjoyed at Ateneum Museum until September 24th, 2017. Photograph showing Aino Marsio‐Aalto and Alvar Aalto in New York © 1940 Herbert Matter (Aalto Family Collection).