Revisiting Magnus Enckell

The Dying Adonis

Courtesy of the Signe and Ane Gyllenberg Foundation, Matias Uusikylä
The Dying Adonis
Master of Finnish Modernism and Gender Pioneer

Master of Finnish Modernism and Gender Pioneer

Courtesy of the Finnish National Gallery, Hannu Pakarinen

Resurrection, study for the right side of the Tampere Cathedral altarpiece

“When you look at those wonderful, beautiful Adonis-like people, you understand that he really loved them, and it was a pleasure to paint them.”

Marja Sakari

Magnus Enckell’s body of work is strikingly difficult to categorize. Ranging from the sparse to the utterly fantastical, Enckell’s oeuvre does not fall neatly within one aesthetic movement, but instead, offers themes, revisited in new styles. Among his creations, which are now on view in the Magnus Enckell retrospective at Ateneum, one finds a sepia-toned self-portrait; death marching across an austere landscape; and a luminous theatre, painted as if the viewer were deep in the audience, peering over hats and overcoats to catch a glimpse of the stage.

“When we talk about artists, we think that their career is teleological, about going towards something and doing things better and finding yourself,” comments Dr. Marja Sakari, Director of Ateneum, the Finnish National Gallery, and a curator of Magnus Enckell. “But, many artists, they are experimenting, they are doing many things at the same time. It's not a clear continuation.” This is precisely what makes Enckell’s work so interesting.

Little known outside of his home country, Magnus Enckell (1870-1925) is celebrated in Finland for his radical experimentation and influence on Finnish art. During his own time, he had a highly regarded and widely appreciated career and, even after his death, his work was shown in numerous exhibitions in cities like Moscow, Rome, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Antwerp. He was a reformer and a traditionalist, a curator and a leader—and, as his current retrospective at Ateneum demonstrates, a diversely talented artist. The retrospective, the first of its scale since Enckell’s self-curated exhibition in 1925, seeks to bring his work back to light on an international stage.

Enckell was born in the coastal town of Hamina, in southeastern Finland, to an upper class family in 1870. His artistic career began relatively early. When he was at school in Porvoo, a teacher encouraged Enckell to reach out to Finland’s most prominent living artist, Albert Edelfelt, due to his precocious talents. Edelfelt took Enckell under his tutelage and, by the age of 19, he was pursuing further study, first at the Finnish Art Society. Finding the environment “so extremely, so incredibly miserable,” Enckell—alongside several students—began taking private lessons with Gunnar Berndtson, who taught them in the French style. After his time with Berndtson, Enckell traveled to Paris to study at the Académie Julian. There, he established what would be a life-long engagement with the latest developments in French painting.

At the Spring
Courtesy of the Finnish National Gallery, Jenni Nurminen

At the Spring

 Banks of the Seine
esy of the Finnish National Gallery, Hannu Pakarinen

 Banks of the Seine

Boy with Skull
Courtesy of the Finnish National Gallery, Yehia Eweis

Boy with Skull

Boys on the Shore
Courtesy of Amos Rex, Stella Ojala

Boys on the Shore

Diana and Endymion I
Courtesy of the Finnish National Gallery, Jenni Nurminen

Diana and Endymion I

The Variety Theatre in Paris
Courtesy of the Finnish National Gallery, Hannu Pakarinen

The Variety Theatre in Paris

Exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum
Courtesy of the Finnish National Gallery, Jenni Nurminen

Exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum.

Enckell went from Paris to Brittany, where he began experimenting with a religiously infused, ascetic style. The austere, limited palette was incredibly bold, especially for the Finnish contingent. Sakari notes, “it was so radical to give up color when you are a painter, you are going to the very basics of what colors are, coming to the very minimal way of using this grayish, brownish, black color to make visible different tones and different aspects of light.”

As Chief Curator, Anna-Maria Von Bonsdorff writes in the catalogue, the emphasis on black allowed Enckell to prioritize a spiritual harmony of thought and matter, as it failed to energize the senses. When he returned home, Enckell continued in this extreme reduction—and set off his habit of being the first, the foremost in Finnish art. Sakari notes, “he was always the first one to bring, for example, Impressionism back to Finland.”

Courtesy of the Finnish National Gallery, Hannu Pakarinen

Self-Portrait

“Magnus Enckell,” curated by Marja Sakari, Riitta Ojanperä, and Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, is on view at Ateneum, the Finnish National Gallery, in Helsinki, Finland until February 14, 2021.

 

When you look at these works—and the rest—the first thing you will notice is “what a talented artist he was,” says Sakari. “The symbolist works, as they are almost monochromatic, are so very excellently painted. There are different nuances, but in a way, there are no colors besides the black and the canvas.” Despite being so limited in their palette, these works are deeply dynamic, expressing magnificence and enchantment, soulfulness and rumination.

In the years following, Enckell continued to explore different movements and mediums, venturing towards a pared back, nostalgic style, and—later on—fantastically bold color schemes. Sakari calls the colorful period immersive and moving: “It's really invigorating in a way. You just feel that there are good vibrations.” These works are plainly idyllic, incorporating the visual lexicons of the likes of Paul Cézanne, Odilon Redon, Berthe Morisot, and Maurice Denis. There are blithely painted thinkers, oak trees in the moonlight, beaches, and porches dappled with wildlife.

As joyful as they may initially seem, many of these works are tinged with sorrow, particularly in his tender, expressive portrayals of men. As a queer artist, Enckell balanced both his role in the art world, where he had an official position, and being, as Sakari notes, “a little bit in the margins.” During this period of strict homosexual criminalization, Enckell disguised his most sensual portraits with mythological scenes. Sakari sees these paintings as arguments for “free love.” In a way, “Magnus Enckell was always searching for love and for some kind of harmony in the world.”

In these works, Enckell created a new vision of masculinity. “He was really showing a sensitive, fragile, sensual man, and that was quite new in his age,” shares Sakari. Enckell believed that all people had at least two genders, that there was no separation of worldly and heavenly love. His beliefs led to a very different kind of gaze—for both men and women—that can be erotic, but not leering, that is curious and soulful. Mostly, they seem to yearn for an alternate reality. “When you look at those wonderful, beautiful Adonis-like people, you understand that he really loved them, and it was a pleasure to paint them… I feel that in those paintings that, though he didn’t show it, he didn't hide it either.”

What Sakari refers to as “the pathos of manliness” can be found in his Chaos series, which he produced during the Civil War and where he combines detachment with a kind of political angst. These works, painted in a variety of color schemes, seem to synthesize his symbolist and mythological vocabulary for an entirely new, turbulent context. “It is fascinating how he was able to make alive his ideas within the paintings,” adds Sakari, “and how very deeply he can communicate them.”

But it may have been Independence that dulled Enckell’s star. After Independence, there was an underlying insistence that Finnish art had to be “very, very serious,” shares Sakari. “You had to show the deep feelings of the Finnish people and Finnishness, which is dark and not so joyful.” While Enckell’s artist group, Septem, was promoting color and expressionism, the November group was emphasizing, as the name suggests, something more solemn. So although scholars continued to research Enckell, he was forgotten by the major institutions—until now.

As Enckell comes back into the mainstream, and more people become exposed to his multifaceted work, Sakari says that there is one element she hopes rises above the rest. “I think,” she pauses, “I would like him to be remembered as a renewal.”

About the Author

Sarah Bochicchio

Sarah Bochicchio is a New York-based writer and researcher. She focuses on history, fashion, art, and gender—and where all of those things intersect.

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