Rooms of Light

Rooms of Light, design: Peeter Talvistu

Rooms of Light exhibition was accompanied by an Estonian and English publication with a text by Director of the Ateneum Art Museum Dr. Marja Sakari.

>> Rooms of Light publication pdf

Rooms of Light

The dark season, the so-called kaamos, has just given way to light in Finland when I am writing this article about the four women artists, Johanna Ilvessalo, Saija Koponen, Anne Tompuri and Sofia Wilkman,who are showing their works in the exhibition called Rooms of Light inTarto Kunstimaja. I cannot prevent me to think about another room when reflecting on this exhibition, namely the Room of one’s own,the novel by Virginia Woolf published for the first time in 1929,. Virginia Woolf’s thesis in the novelisthat “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” (Virginia Woolf, Room of one’s own,1929, Hogarth Press, England; Harcourt Brace & Co, United States). This “writing fiction” can be expanded to mean all kind of artistic work that needs concentration and persistence. There is almost hundred years since the novel was written but still many women artists are struggling to maintain their position on the art scene.

In this perspective, it is justifiable to ask: Why do these four artists want to show together? How have they been able to provide their own spaces in the world of art? What is the situation of women artists in today’s Finland – or Estonia? These questions seem to be still accurate. In December 2019, an exhibition Creating the Self: Emancipating Woman in Estonian and Finnish Art about Finnish and Estonian women artists from 1850 to 1950 will be opened in Kumu art museum. This exhibition, which is a collaboration with the Ateneum art museum in Helsinki, will reveal for the first time in Estonian art history, the legacy of women artists. The works by Estonian women artists will be juxtaposed with Finnish equivalents.

In Finland researchers have studied the art of women since 1980ies. The position of women artists is still a topic in contemporary art world. There are continuously many women artists who have not been valued due to the masculine canon of art and art history. In the past, women artists were often obliged to work together, as the convention did not allow them to for example travel alone. Today there is no more these kinds of constraints, but the necessity to join colleagues is often caused by outer factors. There are still not enough opportunities for women artists to show their works.

The exhibition Rooms of Light connects four artists and friends to one group exhibition. They are all making art in very different ways, but one thing that connects them is light. Johanna Ilvessalo works with photography and installation. Saija Koponen, the youngest of the three artists, is painting colorful cosmic landscapes. Anne Tompuri’s large canvases in different tones of black gray and white are landscapes depicting some mystical and hidden reality. Sofia Wilkman is also painting landscape-like paintings in monochromatic tones. All these art works carry us to some unknown and strange worlds where reality gives way to mental images.

In 2003 I wrote to an exhibition catalogue about Sofia Wilkman’s paintings as follows: “The paintings by Sofia Wilkman also seem to linger on the borderline between the understandable and the inexplicable. In her most recent works, the play of light and shade, the complexity of events and the spatiality raise questions about the nature of reality. What is the relationship of a real image and its shadow?” (Marja Sakari, “Fullness in Emptiness – Buddhism in Finnish Art”, Gates to Mysticism, Tampere art museum 2003, Tampere Art Museum Publications, 127.). 

Something mystical and ineffable is at stake in all the four artists’ works.

Anne Tompuri (b. 1958) is painting large black and white entities, which might on a first glance look like abstract compositions. When looking at them more intensely they reveal spaces. Light is shining behind the dark traits forming forest like landscapes. The works also enter to the spectator’s space; they pull you to their own world of graphic verticals and horizontals. The strong traits remind of tree branches. Tompuri’s paintings have a kinship to Asian calligraphy. The paintings could be interpreted as some kind of meditative pictures of one’s inner world. Despite of the dark and motionless majesty, these paintings give hope. For Finnish people forest has always been a place of comfort and consolation. The names of the works refer to forest and landscape as well. By using only few nuances of black and white, the works underline light. 

The way Tompuri is using gouache and pigment makes the paintings very physical. The materiality gives them an almost tactile sensation; they come close to us. The spectator almost merges into the pictural space. It is as if Tompuri would like to remind us about the intertwined duality of the jinn and the yang. Without darkness, you cannot see light, without death there is no life. Even if she does not show people in her works, they become allegories of the impermanence of human life or life in general. For Tompuri nature is the foundation, the beginning and the end.

While Tompuri’s paintings can be identified as forest, are Sofia Wilkman’s (b. 1956) paintings more ephemeral and more difficult to interpret as physical landscapes. Her paintings refer to eastern influences as well. The paintings are usually abstract impressions with graphic element on the color field. The artist is in dialogue with the tradition of abstract painting. The different layers of paint cover the whole surface of the canvas. Also for Wilkman landscape is a metaphor. It is nevertheless difficult to define her works; they seem to hover between figurative and non-figurative but always escaping from definitions. In her earlier works, she used an organic language; amoeba-like forms were floating and intermingling on the canvas. In her more recent works, geometrical lines have a specific role to make the surface three-dimensional. The black lines are definitely on a surface, which has its own colorful life under the lines. The monochromatic greens, violets or purples act as affective layers on which the spectator can project his or her feelings.   

The third painter in the group exhibition is Saija Koponen (b. 1980). She is basing her painting on strong colors. She is also looking for light in the darkness. Koponen has been interested in the sci-fi and the internet world. Somehow the game-like atmosphere is felt in her paintings. The canvases show a monolith figure on an almost monochrome surface. Nevertheless, the central figure is dynamic and full of condensed energy like whirlpool; the central figure looks like some forces would have compelled the elements to gather. 

The energy is somehow trying to free itself in the paintings of Koponen. However, the restriction of the canvas does not give the opportunity for the figure to expand. The figure explodes inside of itself giving rise to light and lighter tones of color. The works are disturbing and disquieting.  I interpret some of her paintings as symbolical auto portraits. The figure in the middle of the paintings can be seen almost as a living being. 

While the two other painters use the canvas to paint all over so that there is not a possibility to differentiate with a figure and the background, Koponen’s paintings are clearly figures on a surface. The surface is usually painted in some dark color, like dark blue, which alludes to space. Koponen has herself said that her inspiration came from sci-fi cartoons of the eighties. The figures resemble some meteorites or planets floating in space. To paint these “meteorites”, Koponen uses color freely so that the figurative element becomes three-dimensional giving the illusion that one could travel inside of the figure to some foreign galaxies full of energy but also on the edge of exploding.

Johanna Ilvessalo (b. 1964) is using photos, light, shadows and sound in her installations. She investigates human life and the fragility of it. In her works human bodies and faces are hidden or they have faded out. We only have some memories of the loved ones who have surrounded us in the past. 

The fraglility, and randomness of life are the themes of many of Ilvessalo’s works.The materials, that the artist uses, are steel, glass and running water. Everything is in constant change, what is hard like steel can break when the circumstances change like glass. But there is also consolation in the change. Also bad things will change, they are not constantly repeating themselves.

If light is something that brings these artists together, the other word is consolation. There is hope in their works. Even if the works might deal with heavy things, they still contain the possibility of change.

If the paintings are lacking human presence, in Johanna Ilvessalo’s installations human figure has a role. But this figure is ephemeral, fading and evasive. As if she would try to say that it is impossible to capture the essence in human being or the life itself. There is another artist, who comes to my mind in looking at her works, namely Christian Boltanski. His works are often commemorating the victims of the holocaust but they also become memorials to all that have suffered. By this analogue Ilvessalo’s installations can also be interpreted as tributes to the already passed away, to those who have suffered during their lifetime.

In the beginning of this text, I was referring the title of the exhibition to another title, namely the one by Virginia Woolf’s remarkable novel. It is evident that a woman artist needs a room, studio, atelier, of her own. However, there is also another thing that is often needed. Women need each other to be stronger and to show the impact they have in the art world. 

Dr. Marja Sakari

Director of the Ateneum Art Museum