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East Asian and Nordic design

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The increasingly delicate question of cultural appreciation versus cultural appropriation offers few easy answers, but sometimes examples of fair exchange do occur. ‘Silent Beauty: Nordic and East-Asian Interaction’ at the Ateneum art museum in Helsinki aims to advocate for such an encounter.

Picking up where ‘Japanomania in the Nordic Countries 1875-1918’ (at the Ateneum in 2016) left off, the current exhibition features work from Finland, Sweden and East Asia from the 1920s to nowadays, with an emphasis on the art of the 1950s and 1960s. Paintings, woodcuts, ceramics, glass, textiles and architecture illustrate two ideas: first, that there are inherent similarities in taste between regions and, second, that an important artistic exchange took place during this period. While the West’s borrowings from East Asia have been explored in depth, the curators of the exhibition claim that this is the first exhibition on “the two-way interaction between cultures”.

Marsh bird (1961), Jaakko Sievänen. Photo: © National Gallery of Finland / Jouko Könönen

Grouped into sections with titles such as “Still Lives”, “Sky and Water”, etc., the exhibition is, as the name suggests, visually guided. And, to a point, this curatorial approach works very well. The aesthetic experience is calming: the commonalities highlighted here are a taste for simplicity, a nuanced approach to color, and an appreciation for natural materials. These thematic sections can seem repetitive at times – as in the variations on pine forests in “Forest and Trees”, which sometimes fall into kitsch – but the overall effect is pleasantly meditative. Some of the most compelling works here are the quietest. Gunnar pohjola Arctic landscape (1964) is an example: a discreet arrangement of impastos of paint and fragments of fabric expressing the cold majesty of Lapland.

Bol (1956), Soji Hamada.

Bowl (1956), Shoji Hamada. Japan Folk Crafts Museum, Tokyo

The ceramics are also discreetly amazing. Large stoneware pots – plates, bowls and vessels – by Japanese masters Shoji Hamada and Kanjiro Kawai are accompanied by earlier Korean and Japanese pieces by unknown craftsmen. Next to these are pieces by Finnish potters, including Kyllikki Salmenhaara, who lived in Taiwan in the 1960s and founded an influential ceramics school there. His sculptural vases are often tossed with a grogged clay, speckled with impurities: a decision reminiscent of the Japanese aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi, expressed by Salmenhaara in a distinctly mid-century form. Their roughly-hewn texture finds an echo in the large abstract paintings by Finnish painter Ahti Lavonen on display nearby, especially the earth-like surface of his Untitled (1961).

Untitled (1961), Ahti Lavonen.

Untitled (1961), Ahti Lavonen. Photo: © National Gallery of Finland / Yehia Eweis

That ceramics are one of its flagship pieces does honor to the exhibition, which breaks down the hierarchy between the so-called fine arts and the applied arts by presenting them on an equal footing. This approach has an elegant connection to the history of the Ateneum, which once housed both the Finnish Art Society’s Drawing School and the School of Applied Arts, and where ceramics was taught by Alfred William Finch, an Englishman of Belgian origin whose works (exhibited) were influenced by Japanese pottery – an influence he brought to his teaching.

Of the 270 works, a third come from the permanent collection of the Ateneum; the biggest lender is the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo. And here a stumbling block arises: the proportion of works by Finnish artists inspired by East Asia far exceeds that of East Asian artists inspired by the Nordic countries. (In 2020 the exhibition will travel to Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde in Stockholm, where more works will be Swedish).

Bowl (late 18th century - 19th century), Takeo Karatsu ware, Japan.

Bowl (vs. late 18th century-19th century), Takeo Karatsu ware, Japan. Japan Folk Crafts Museum, Tokyo

The displays also suffer from a certain woolly appearance, which could have been avoided had there been more specific information on who was influenced by what and how (although the accompanying catalog is somewhat of a fix. ). For example, while visitors learn that Soetsu Yanagi, Japanese philosopher and founder of the Mingei folk craft movement, visited both Stockholm and Helsinki, there is no attempt to explain how this experience affected Yanagi or movement in the broad sense. Yet this work in which the Nordic influence on East Asian manufacturers is clearly demonstrated is convincing.

Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s Water Church (1988) in Hokkaido closely resembles Finnish duo Kaija and Heikki Siren’s Otaniemi Chapel (1957) in the forests near Espoo, pictured here in a silent film. Both feature a glass altar wall in which an unadorned cross highlights an open space, providing an environment for contemplation of the material world as well as the immaterial. The emphasis in both buildings on natural materials – wood, metal, water – further testifies to this shared sensibility. The bold, hand-printed patterns of Samiro Yunoki’s cotton fabrics from the 1960s bear more than a fleeting resemblance to textiles from Marimekko, the Finnish design company whose fashion was in fashion during that decade. To assert its point more forcefully, the show could do with more examples like these.

Interpreting the back and forth of influence across a century and across countries can be a complex affair. An oil painting by Japanese artist Kotaro Migishi titled Garden with snow (1928) is described by Tsutomu Mizusawa in the catalog as an example of “Japonism by the Japanese people, for the Japanese people”: a European view of Japan reflected through Japanese eyes. Another hybrid is an undated terracotta bowl by Takeuchi Seijiro. With an unglazed exterior and a flickering rim expressive of Japanese folk craftsmanship, it also wears feathered slipware decoration – as delicious as the cherry on a millefeuille – belonging to the English vernacular tradition rekindled by Bernard Leach. Slipware gained popularity in Japan due to Yanagi’s admiration for these wares and Leach and Hamada’s involvement in the Mingei movement. It is through this exchange that the visitor is offered important wall texts on Leach pottery in St Ives, Cornwall, and examples of Leach’s work. But against the backdrop of an exhibition purportedly on Nordic influence, the presence of the English potter seems confusing. If on the question of a shared aesthetic “Silent Beauty” is clear, its more ambitious argument is rather opaque.

‘Silent Beauty: Nordic and East Asian Interaction’ is at the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, until October 6.

Extract from the October 2019 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.


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