Finland

01/31/2010

It’s clear from the title of this exhibition that it has large ambitions, stretching from the Renaissance to the present day. As the introductory wall text puts it, ‘Over the centuries, Finnish craftsmen were able to learn their trade and practice it in neighbouring countries. Innovations and impulses were first received from the west, and later from the east. After the Second World War, Finnish jewellery design discovered its own style, which has become recognized around the world.'

The Design Museum in Helsinki is an old building and the upstairs galleries where this exhibition is located haven't been transformed into a typical white-cube gallery space. It is a somewhat odd venue for jewelry, which is generally small and domestic in scale – at least, this is true from 1600 to around 1950, when the contemporary jewelry movement begins and the rules change. Still, the exhibition designers have done a good job, using large-scale photographs of models wearing the jewelry (from the 1960s) and a series of mannequins wearing clothes/jewelry in the foyer, which provide useful context. Inside the galleries that lead off the central foyer space, jewelry is displayed in large vitrines which glow in the darkness.

Interestingly, the exhibition doesn't begin straightforwardly with the oldest jewelry but with two galleries dedicated to period reconstructions. The gallery on the right deals with Otto Roland Mellin and what is termed the 'archaeological style.' As the wall text explains, ‘Mellin's collection reflects the admiration of Antiquity that was characteristic of the late 19th century. Originally expressed in Mediterranean jewellery as copies of items from Greek and Etruscan hoards and treasures, the style gained regional features as it spread northward through Europe. The European archaeological style was transformed in Denmark, Norway and Sweden into the Ancient Nordic Style. Otto Roland Mellin adopted the models for his pieces from Denmark.’

So this is historical reconstruction but something more than faking old treasures, because presumably the jewelry was treasured as important contemporary objects and worn to make contemporary political and cultural statements. We are talking about the 1870s–1890s here, so how did this movement fit into prevailing cultural forms of the time – the National Romantic style, for example, that localized Art Nouveau? The jewelry itself is strange. Made of precious materials such as gold, pearls and diamonds, it is ornate, overworked and kind of primitive at the same time – a fancy Victorian version of ancient objects. Mellin’s jewelry is joined in these cases by a number of other jewelers working in the nineteenth century, demonstrating that the movement that Mellin best represents remained alive for a long period – from the 1840s to the 1890s.

This gallery also brings into play a series of older jewelry from the 1700s and 1800s. Because of the lack of decent information in the wall texts, however, you are left to work out yourself (from label dates) that the display has shifted from the archaeological style to jewelry that is actually old. Along with the jewels, there are a series of portraits in oil on canvas, depicting women wearing jewelry. These also have no introduction, although when you realize that archaeological jewelry – rather than jewelry in the archaeological style – is on display, you begin to understand why the paintings are here. They demonstrate jewelry in action, the context of fashion and the wearing of jewelry in earlier times.

The gallery on the left side of the foyer also deals with another instance of jewelry reconstruction. According to the wall text, ‘The Association of Kalevala Women, founded in 1935 in honour of the centenary of the publication of the Kalevala folk poetry epic, launched a project for a statue of Louhi, a leading female character of the Kalevala. Replicas of archaeological jewellery and ornaments began to be made for sale to fund the project. The artist Germund Paaer was hired to prepare the designs. At first, Paaer drew designs based on forty prehistoric brooches and ornaments in the collection of the National Museum of Finland, but the great demand for the pieces soon led to an addition of thirty-four items to the product range. Paaer later designed his own jewellery in the spirit of the archaeological material. The first models were made by the Hakkarainen fine metalworking firm and in silver by Pertti Helski of Lahti and K. Kaksonen jewellers of Helsinki. The Kalevala Koru (Kalevala jewellery) company was established in 1941.’

This is a very nice contrast with the gallery showing the archaeological style across the foyer. This twentieth century revival is of a different order and must have more of a relationship to modernism, not to mention very different resonances in terms of national identity projects. It seems to me that this is a very smart way to approach the past in this exhibition. Apart from the obvious logistical possibilities – it is easier to get nineteenth and twentieth century 'copies' than the old objects themselves – it really puts into play a series of questions and disruptions in terms of how the past is experienced and reproduced in the present. Through the introduction of these two galleries, we are made aware of how active this process is, how much any contact with the past is a kind of fabrication shaped by the present's particular concerns.

Weirdly, there are very few examples of Paaer's work and instead we encounter a whole group of jewelers who haven't been introduced. Where are the earliest works produced by Paaer and his various manufacturers? What about the jewelry he designed later in the style of archaeological jewelry? What does this look like compared to the earlier copies? How do these other jewelers relate to the Kalevala Company or the Kalevala project? It certainly isn't the case that the objects and sketches on display here are not interesting, important or relevant, just that we aren't given the necessary information to understand why we are looking at it. I am assuming that this display represents a kind of Kalevala movement, to which people like Oskar Pihl (1890-1959) were important. So why not tell us this, instead of leaving the audience to assume?

Still, when you put aside the lack of information what you actually see is instructive. The jewelry made by the Kalevala Koru Company is quite different to that made in the nineteenth century by Mellin and colleagues. My guess is that it is closer to the originals, reproductions rather than interpretations, and this gives the jewelry a greater boldness and simplicity that seems well suited to the twentieth century. Which also raises the point as to whether this jewelry and this Kalevala movement (if there is such a thing) had much of an impact on the Finnish modernism that become internationally renowned in the 1950s and 1960s.

The next gallery is called 'The heirs of St Petersburg,' and the wall text notes that ‘From 1809 onwards, when Finland became a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, it became natural for large numbers of Finnish apprentices and journeymen to seek opportunities and sources of inspiration in St. Petersburg, the growing and dynamic capital of Russia. The imperial city, where the arts of goldsmithing and jewellery-making thrived, offered excellent career opportunities to Finnish craftsmen, who were in demand because of their careful work and reliability. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, hundreds of Finnish craftsmen returned to their homeland. One such returnee who had great influence on arts and crafts in Finland was Oskar Pihl, the nephew of master craftsman Albert Holmstrom of the Faberge jewellery firm. Pihl had been taught jewellery design by his circle and had been apprenticed to the family firm. In Finland he came to work for Alexander Tillander, who had also fled the revolution and had established a company in Helsinki. This meant that the tradition and high-standard of work at St. Petersburg continued well into the 20th century in Finland, although most of the world was unaware of it.’

What we get in this gallery is an introduction to the fine tradition of Finnish jewelry, in a series of objects made in Russia as well as in Helsinki. Pihl is the star of the show and the jewelry is quite lovely, glittering with diamonds, but also demonstrating a kind of artistic restraint.

In most cases you can understand what is going on here, as the wall text spells out the dynamic that links Russia and Finland. The display does a good job of introducing us to both contexts, to the kind of seamless transition between each country. But at the end of the gallery there is a display of six objects (five necklaces and a tiara) made by Raimo Nieminen, Torbjorn Tillander and Raija Kiviluoto. All of Nieminen's jewelry is from 2007 and 2008, while the other two are from 1961 and 1981. Why have these objects from the second half of the twentieth century been included? If this jewelry is intended to show us the ongoing relevance of the St Petersburg tradition in Finnish jewelry – as a valid alternative to contemporary jewelry – then why not tell us that? It is interesting to see these works, because they show how conventional jewelry using precious materials can be inflected by contemporary jewelry and turned into something quite intriguing. It is a reminder that precious materials need not be boring and conventional, even though they so often are.

The largest gallery in the exhibition has no introductory wall text at all, even though it is clearly the heart of the show. Instead, we are given biographies of the various jewelers whose work is on display. The birth (and sometimes death dates) of these jewelers indicate that this must be the Finnish modernist section of the exhibition. Again, without any explanation the very first displays are of jewelry from the early twentieth century, which appears to share some folk or primitive references with the Kalevala display in an earlier gallery. But if this is the intention, we are kept in the dark about it. (And how do the earlier movements relate to this central part of the show? Or, to ask that another way, where does Finnish modernism come from?)

It is really nice to see so much work in the same style together in one place. It allows you to develop a rich sense of what Finnish modernism was actually like as a movement and to consider individual differences within it, the accents of personal style. It is fascinating how precious stones, or indeed non-precious stones, can inflect Finnish modernism in quite different ways, or how individuals can create a sense of complexity or an impression of the ornate that strains the limits of the movement, all the time using the same vocabulary of geometric units, unadorned surfaces, bold sculptural forms. And how interesting that this movement produced good work for such a long period of time, spanning the late 1940s until the late 1970s.

This looks effortless, but I would say a huge amount of critical and visual intelligence resides behind this display, both in terms of how individuals are represented (the selection of objects) and how the jewelry has been displayed (the rhythm of the exhibition, and where objects fit in the sequence). Everything is displayed against gently sloping boards of grey fabric, with some pieces sitting on small shelves and others hanging like mobiles. It really suits the work, allowing us to get a sense of common qualities, yet the large-scale photographs and the centrality or common recurrence of neckpieces doesn't allow us to forget that this is jewelry and meant to be worn.

The exhibition finishes with two galleries of contemporary jewelry. On the right is a display from the collection of Helena and Lars Pahlman. The wall text notes that ‘Helena and Lars Pahlman began to collect art and jewellery in the 1970s. Their jewellery collection has now grown to more than 1000 items. For the Finnish Jewellery exhibition, they selected from their collection 100 pieces dating from the 1970s to the present day. Representing in their selection are designers from Finland, Scandinavia, the Baltic countries, and the rest of Europe, Israel, Australia and the United States. A distinct group consists of jewellery by Finnish visual artists and designers from outside the jewellery design sector.’

On the left is a selection of other contemporary jewelry, but there is nothing to tell us what this represents, or whether it is part of the Pahlman collection. (A quick count of objects suggests that it can't be.) Both of these galleries are very interesting and filled with excellent examples of contemporary jewelry, but to my mind it is not okay to ignore the huge differences between this work and the Finnish modernism that precedes it – or indeed contemporary jewelry and jewelry from earlier periods. Why do the curators refuse to provide the same kind of analysis that accompanied earlier displays and at a point where much of the audience will require information to make sense of what they are seeing? (We all understand precious materials and historical forms, but not all of us understand contemporary art and culture.)

I could have done with some guidance myself, to understand how this selection is presenting contemporary Finnish jewelry. Recurring materials and a certain aesthetic sensibility, a connection to nature, suggest that Finnish jewelry is operating in a very interesting tension with the rest of the international jewelry community. Obviously a shared framework is guiding production – after all, I recognize it as contemporary jewelry – but issues and influences specific to Finland are shaping production too. Given the surprising and rich cultural entanglements that the rest of the exhibition has served up, it would be good to find out if such stories continue to be factors in the evolution of contemporary Finnish jewelry.

But this absence of information is too often a feature of Finnish Jewellery 1600-2009. Ultimately this exhibition refuses its audience the opportunity to see clearly the way these objects constitute a local chapter in an international story. Considering the intelligence with which the show has been constructed, that would be a narrative worth hearing.