“Some time back in the early ’90s I said to Pentti Koskinen that the worst mistake a painter could make is to paint a large cross and put it on show,” Henry recalls when showing me the works for his new exhibition. “And with me it’s always so that if I notice and say something like that, I’ll start thinking straight away how to do it.”
“For a very long while a major denial, actually a ban, of religious subject matter and related visual themes has predominated in art. It started, in fact, with art teaching. There was the plane and colour and line and so on; everything had to exist and take place on the plane. The sign of a good painter is that black doesn’t turn into a hole, contrasts of colour have to be so and so. This was taught in Finland, Germany, Italy and no doubt elsewhere when I was studying. The theme didn’t mean anything; you could even paint a woman spreading her legs and the only thing that was noticed was how the colours and shadows worked.”
“You could admire religious art, you could be interested in it, but it was definitely a world apart and its issues belonged within it, they weren’t addressed in any way. In the evolution of art it represented some earlier stage with which there was no direct connection. It was only postmodernism that began to undermine this ossified attitude.”
“I’ve read religious writings and literature on religion since my youth, and since the 1990s in a completely focused manner, so that the themes that emerge from there have followed me, but up to now I, too, have regarded them as a separate area. In my retrospective in 2004-2005 the works touching on religious things and the ones addressing in society in one way or another were in different rooms. Looking at them I got the distinct feeling that these themes should be combined, and that is what this exhibition is about.”
“Religion is actually the cement that binds the different periods and stages of my work, but in reviews of my showings, for example, it has always been bypassed; no one has said anything about it. And when I noticed that this inhibition or admonition had disappeared, when it felt that why shouldn’t I paint a cross and other things related to it, I got the feeling that I’d do it so that others could no longer set them aside.”
“But it’s not just a matter of deciding. I’ve done crosses and crucified figures for many years in my sketch books, I’ve experimented and thought how I could do it in a way that was credible for myself, so that I would stand behind what I painted. I feel I’ve succeeded in doing so in these works.”
Henry shows two paintings with the same title, It Is Night Though It Is Morning. The basic composition is also the same. A crucified figure looms in the blackness dominating the left half the canvas.
In one version there are a few distressed-looking people on the right, and in the other version they are a motley and diverse crowd, a “surge” as Henry puts it.
“Do you see?” he points. “No one is looking at the crucified figure; they’re all looking straight ahead, towards the viewer, even the pope. They have their own world and the crucified man is not important, or they don’t know that he is. It’s there all right. And it took me a long while to come up with this, look.”
Henry points to the lower end of the cross. It ends in blackness.
“I thought for a long while about how to place the cross on the ground on which these people were standing until I realized that it can’t be done. The cross has to be in the air.”
The reverse of the paintings is marked with the dates 2005-2007. I ask what this seemingly long period meant in practice. Were there intermediary or alternative versions of the works, or were the same canvases under preparation for two years?
“The same canvases. I have faster and slower works. When I start there’s some kind of idea of what it’s basically about, but all kinds of things are included as the work progresses. There in the middle - when was it that Lordi won the Eurovision Song Contest, that was included then. These are impulses from external reality that can contain jokes, or hidden messages. Some of the details come from trying to keep the painting work interesting. Those buildings - Henry points to rows of houses and towers bounding the surge of people in a precise and angular fashion - I added when I felt that the overall impression lacked sharpness. I think it works quite well.”
“Particularly with these slower ones I notice that the work is never really completed if it doesn’t reach a crisis. You can go on and on and do it with considerable command using the means that you have, but then it becomes boring. You should always include something that emerges through one’s own resistance. The ego has to be defeated, and that can be difficult, but then you’ll realize in a completely different manner that the work is complete and whole.”
The figures in Morning Has Come can be interpreted in many ways, but the age-old theme of the descent from the cross stands out in the central group. The painting Behold the Man is based on the artist’s experience of Caravaggio’s Flagellation of Christ. As a hidden influence, less obvious yet present in several works, Henry mentions Hieronymus Bosch, whose themes and insights have opened up one thing and another in his mind.
Olavi is a figure kneeling like Job, a bit like Job with his clothes on, as Henry points out. “Look at the hands. Olavi both gives and begs, that’s important. And he’s in a corner.”
The painted surface beneath the kneeling figure forms a slanted triangle, an angle. The tip of the angle tending to olive-green that descends from the upper edge of Morning Has Come accentuates the large figure with a black face.
“That angle follows in many of my works. It signifies an impasse. An impasse is so present in this time. On the other hand, the angle, as a visual element alone, has power and positivity particularly when opening upward. And even suffering does not have to appear to be negative alone. Religious renunciation means placing oneself in an impasse. It’s a bit like Kierkegaard’s despair. If there’s no despair and angst, then at least something is wrong. Despair and angst are signs that you are on the path.”
“When speaking of the relationship between art and religion, it comes to mind that the term ’religious art’ is really a paradox and a contradiction in terms. The starting point for art is that it’s individual. An artist is someone with a name. And if someone thinks he is making religious art, he is elevating himself, which is contrary to the basic tenets of all religions. Icons and other images directly related to the practice of religion are anonymous, they have no makers. That is very important.”
“Individual art is thus always secular, the finger can always be seen in it. That finger may point to something, or the artist may dedicate his work to God, like Bach and Bruckner, but that is something else. There have been all kinds of art based on religious experience, and there may yet be more. I have the feeling that many artists at present may have the need to address themes of this kind, but it is avoided for fear of being labelled. On the other hand it is interesting that at least here in Finland the church is prepared to cross those assumed boundaries and has commissioned altarpieces and other works from modern, mainly abstract, artists. That the church is thus prepared to adopt the modernist heritage.”
The exhibition will have eight large paintings and a smaller one. The power and challenge of the works would fill even a larger venue. Henry lifts Children of the Sun, which we had last looked at, back on the storage shelf, looks over his shoulder and grins.
“Oh, I almost forgot.”
He walks to the other end of the shelves and takes out yet another large canvas. A bearded figure with radiating contours and a blissfully dazed look in the midst of living, well-lit greenery. On the left is a tree and on the right is the mouth of a cave, with an almost iconographic rocky landscape somewhat surprisingly in the background.
“This is Holy Fool. Many people probably think that after this one I could stop work completely, but it was great fun to paint. I even showed it to Janne Räisänen when he came over to visit. I don’t remember what he said, but you should have seen his face.”