From Contradiction to Compassion

Kari Immonen, Pessi Rautio, Henry Wuorila-Stenberg

The Yellow Yard and the Blue Heaven

Henry Wuorila-Stenberg was born in Helsinki on 6th February 1949. His father, Harry Stenberg was a veterinary surgeon, and his mother Hillevi Stenberg was a hospital nurse. The men who lived in the flats at the Stenberg’s address – Mannerheimintie 71 – were, like Harry Stenberg, war invalids. The traumas of war drove many of them to end their days by their own hand. The young Henry was fond of the “sacred trees and rocks” of the nearby Central Park (Keskuspuisto). In winter the children would build three-storied snow castles and play in the attic or the cellar. Their home was full of music; no art books were to be found on the bookshelves. “I had a big sister who always defended me, and a little brother whom all the girls loved.”

Henry Wuorila-Stenberg 1963

A happy childhood was cut short when Wuorila-Stenberg became ill with cerebral meningitis in 1954. The serious illness moulded the young child’s vision of the world, and its effects extended far into the future with a continuous headache and regular visits to the doctor. He had to stay in bed and did not move around for more than two months in the Aurora hospital. Visitors were forbidden, for fear of infection. The patient passed his time looking out of the window at the clouds and the blue heaven. The lonely days and nights were filled with fear and insecurity. According to Wuorila-Stenberg this “lonely boy” has followed him through his life. “The injured feelings of this little fellow have always been the basis of my art.”

After his recovery, Wuorila-Stenberg was taken into day-care with his grandmother Alice Stünkel. She was close to the artist, and in her youth had studied painting at the Academy of Art in Munich, and the little boy’s days were passed making drawings. Wuorila-Stenberg’s emergent “class consciousness” was evident in a drawing of a crowd scene, which he made on 6th March 1956. The picture depicts the violent clash at the Mannerheimintie Esso-fuel station, between the police and participants in the General Strike. Wuorila-Stenberg had observed the incident as he was returning from kindergarten. In the drawing, mounted police beat demonstrators with batons, and the atmosphere is tense with violence.

In addition to events on Earth, the young boy was interested of outer Space. In 1957 the Soviet Union launched into the skies the first orbiting satellite Sputnik I. In the same year Sputnik II took the dog Laika out into space. Like many of his contemporaries, Wuorila-Stenberg was interested in astronomy, and devoured the literature concerning it. Hurricanes, and especially tornadoes stimulated the small boy’s imagination. He decided to become an artist. Wuorila-Stenberg told his mother that he wanted to become an artist in order to gradually understand why he existed. “I have a clear memory from that time. I stood in the yard looking up at the stars in the sky, and was certain that one day I would understand what I was here for.”

Wuorila-Stenberg commenced studies at the Manerheimintie mixed secondary school. The drawing teacher Maikki Hirvonen started an art club at the school, in which the young Henry was an active participant. In addition to painting he began to play the classical guitar under the tuition of Ivan Putilini, and yoga under the direction of Tuure Ara. Wuorila-Stenberg also commenced studying the French horn, taught by Holger Fransman. A trumpet however soon replaced the horn. Pjotr Tšaikovski’s piano concerto no. 1 “brought about my love of piano music”. As well as classical music Wuorila-Stenberg listened to rock music, and was crazy about Elvis Presley. “I always had trousers which were too short for me, my hair stuck out, not even curving when I used Brylcream. I was skinny and bad at sports. I read poems, philosophy, astronomy, and I was in the Ruskeasuon Kontiot (Brown Marsh Bears) scouts troop. I enjoyed forest expeditions.” Wuorila-Stenberg got to know the theatre set-designer Aarre Koivisto in 1963. Koivisto guided him in his practice of painting, and they had intense discussions about painting. As a 14-year old, his favourite artists were Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Amedeo Modigliani. Wuorila-Stenberg became acquainted with the work of Akseli Gallen-Kallela on visits to Tarvaspää.

As a teenager, Wuorila-Stenberg began to feel a deep antipathy to school. At home all talk of leaving school was met with disbelief, and he decided to begin a strike against attendance. Wuorila-Stenberg did not take exams, didn’t do his homework and was repeatedly absent from school. When he was there he mainly did drawings, and won the school’s “culture competition” in 1966, with a painting depicting hills covered with crucifixes and barbed wire, and surrounded by huge and fearsome “Eyes of God”. As a prize for his religious vision he received a copy of Die Modernen by the art critic and scholar Gaston Diehl. The book was his first general introduction to modern painting. More willingly than school attendance, he began to be interested in art, girls, cigarettes and alcohol, and he had to repeat two of his school years. At the same time an accident to his knee prevented him continuing with yoga.

In the spring of 1966 Wuorila-Stenberg had a nervous breakdown due to conflicts between school and home. In a psychiatric report by the National Public Health Institute, it was stated that for the time-being school attendance should be suspended. The same spring he started work at the Helsinki Radiotherapy Clinic, shifting patients into the bath and under radiotherapy, and the deceased into the morgue and the pathological department. Wuorila-Stenberg wanted to confront sickness and death in order to understand them. “The work was repulsive, I was in shock. For several years I was afraid I would get cancer and die, as I had seen happen so many others in the hospital.

An Untalented Painter and a Useless Soldier

Painting in Ämmänsaari 1974

In 1967 Wuorila-Stenberg applied for entry to the School of Industrial Design’s Department of Graphic Design (later University of Art and Design) However he broke off the entry examinations half way through, as he wanted to apply instead to the School of the Finnish Academy of Art (later Academy of Fine Arts), but here he failed to gain entry. He did however gain a place as a private pupil in the trial class of Erkki Heikkilä. Wuorila-Stenberg’s Pantheon consisted of the painters Vilho Lampi, Åke Mattas, Yrjö Saarinen, Tyko Sallinen, Jalmari Ruokokoski, Juho Rissanen, Marcus Collin and Mauno Markkula. That the life of the artist-genius should be marked by alcoholism, poverty and mental health problems, with fame coming only after death, seemed to Wuorila-Stenberg to be an expected part of being an artist. Understanding this was liberating.

In the trial class pupils were encouraged to follow in the path of Cezanne, or, at best, Matisse. Surrealism was however of greater interest, and he painted, amongst other things, a work based on a pornographic magazine picture, a “foetus self-portrait” along with a masturbating woman. Wuorila-Stenberg painted his inner world – pictures of the fear, emptiness and horror. In these works his fears take on the form of a tall black figure. In addition to the visual arts he was interested in literature. “At that time every book was a revelation and related to real life.”

Wuorila-Stenberg spent the summer of 1968 with Antti Niinimäki at Kuorevesi and Heinävesi painting landscapes, with which he once again tried to gain entry to The Finnish Academy of Art. The result was that he was rebuffed, just as before. On hearing of his rejection, he marched in, along with the other pupils of the trial class, to ask the members of the selecting committee why he had been rejected. The explanation given was that Wuorila-Stenberg did not have the gift – he had no lack however of good friends. Autumn passed in study under the guidance of Tor Arne and Unto Pusa at the Free Art School. Wuorila-Stenberg enjoyed the atmosphere of “the Free”, which was more permissive than The Finnish Academy of Art.

In 1969 Wuorila-Stenberg commenced his military service at the Upiniemi commando battalion. He succeeded in getting himself a studio within the barracks area, and continued painting. Despite this special dispensation the army’s internal hierarchy seemed unjust to the young corporal. “The dominant ideology of the army was incredible.” He persisted in believing that he could change the system from the inside, did not wish to sleep in the room provided for corporals, and refused to discipline his subordinate conscript privates. Other corporals became angry at Wuorila-Stenberg’s behaviour, and made an official complaint. They nearly beat him up, and he applied hurriedly for a transfer to the garrison at Santahamina. Wuorila-Stenberg deplored the army and could not accept the existence of close links between the Defence Forces and the Church. Immediately after returning to civil life he left the Church. The decision was a serious one and had far-reaching consequences.

Rome – Far from La Dolce Vita

Europe began to interest Wuorila-Stenberg more and more, and he began to save up for a trip abroad. In the autumn of 1970 the journey to Rome began. The passage by ship to Germany was spent in a drunken stupor. He was for the first time abroad.

Accademia di Belle Arti 1971

In Hamburg a prostitute offered him a place to stay for the night, “but despite my drunken state common sense or intuition encouraged me to continue my journey”. Wuorila-Stenberg took the train to Munich, and there found himself in anguish and hungover. “A skin rash appeared all over my body, a fever arose and I felt dizzy. I couldn’t make any contact outside of myself. I went to some exhibitions, but the whole time I was at the point of total confusion. In dismay, I began again to drink, and made contact with people. After a week I departed by train for Rome. I remember the sheer delight and the relief which the Italian landscape and the sunlight from the window awakened in me.” In Rome Wuorila-Stenberg studied in the mornings at the Accademia di Belle Arti, continued later in the day at the Scuola Libera, from where he hurried on in the evening to sculpture classes. At the Academy he hardly received any teaching or guidance. Wuorila-Stenberg met his teacher, professor Montanarini only once. Montanarini praised his pupil, slapping him on the back while saying “Molto bene!”. The sculpture teacher was, on the other hand, of the opinion that Wuorila-Stenberg ought to cease painting and take up sculpture. At the 1971 Venice biennial Wuorila-Stenberg saw Mark Rothko’s retrospective. In addition to contemporary art at the Venice Scuola di san Rocco, the works by Tintoretto had a marked impact, as well as the Antoni Tapies exhibition. At that time Wuorila-Stenberg was keen on Francis Bacon, Francisco Goya and Egon Schiele, as well as Paul Klee. Of the Italian masters the great favourites were Caravaggio and Michelangelo. Wuorila-Stenberg also visited the Uffizi gallery for the first time, and got to know the Pompeian frescos near Naples and the Roman Etruscan museum. In Italy he tried “to paint pictures of humanity in its various forms, like a heap of crawling maggots.” Wuorila-Stenberg also painted works based on poems. One of these, a painting inspired by a poem of the Indian Nobel-prizewinner Rabindranath Tagore was on show at the triennial exhibition of the Finnish Academy of Art in 1971.

In addition to Unto Pusa’s books Plastillinen sommittelu (Plastic composition) and Muoto, väri, tila (Form, colour, space), Wuorila-Stenberg became familiar with writings by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha attained “the status of an Eastern myth”. In Italy Wuorila-Stenberg also read the Bible for the first time from cover to cover. In the nights he got to know the homeless of Rome, drinking wine with them at bonfires on the banks of the river Tiber. Between studying, Wuorila-Stenberg would attend classical music concerts and went to see Italian neorealist films. The Italian art training however did not satisfy Wuorila-Stenberg and he returned to Finland in the summer of 1971.

Berlin – a Losers’ History

Wuorila-Stenberg applied and passed for entrance to study in the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künst in West Berlin. He commenced his studies as a second year student under Dietmar Lemke. In Berlin Wuorila-Stenberg began to study graphics and continued with his series of paintings influenced by Mark Rothko.

Berlin 1973

The school’s extensive collection of graphics and its well-stocked library inspired him to new experiments. The theses of the colour theorist, Johannes Itten encouraged a new confidence, and the abstract style of Rothko, which he had begun in Finland and reinforced in Rome, began to decline. Wuorila-Stenberg often visited the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, becoming well acquainted with the museum’s collections. He absorbed influences just as much from classical painting as from the works of the representatives of contemporary art. All art was once that of “today”. From Honoré Daumier Wuorila-Stenberg picked up his outlining technique, from Theodore Gericault and other Old Masters the answers to problems of composition. The pop artist R.B. Kitaj, on the other hand, sparked off his interest in the surface of the painting and the free use of colour. The figurative style, which was overtly banned in Finland, was the leading tendency in the German art schools. Wuorila-Stenberg was however not enthusiastic about the photorealism which was to the fore, but rather classical art and the German artists Adolph Menzel, Lovis Corinth and Ludvig Meidner affected his adoption of figurative art. In Berlin Wuorila-Stenberg also got to know the German expressionists’ works, amongst others those by Otto Dix, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff and Emil Nolde. The 1970’s were for Wuorila-Stenberg a period dominated above all by a richly coloured figurative style, the period of R.B. Kitaj. Expressionism was to come later.

Wuorila-Stenberg’s journey towards Kitaj began however with a detour, when in 1972 he began to assemble a large-scale piece made of wooden trelliswork. This installation was composed of structures placed at various heights, into which he inserted dozens of small Kitaj-type paintings. In a diary entry in 1972 Wuorila-Stenberg wrote of his relationship with “documentation, or works based on real life”, as follows: “These documents imitate as exactly as is possible the images from newspapers, television and the movies. These contradictory works lay bare the tedium of the capitalist class and their fear. Colours have to be restrained, black-and-white or grey tones. With these pictures you provoke anger and this is why they have to be painted with precise accuracy. In realism lies their power.”

Later in the same year Wuorila-Stenberg decided to give up his plans to work in black-and-white. Colours attained a symbolic function. Red told of violence and indifference, orange of suffering, blue and violet of sorrow and despair. Wuorila-Stenberg worked with this composition for the whole of his first year of study.


Professor Lemke, however was not impressed with what he saw. He lifted a large empty canvas into Wuorila-Stenberg’s studio, and asked his pupil to do a painting. Wuorila-Stenberg followed his advice and the small paintings within the installation became larger, the individual sufferers together composed group scenes in new paintings.

Wuorila-Stenberg did not make an issue of the relationship between the photograph and the painting, nor of the diversity of the photographs which he used. His own or his friends’ photographs, images from newspapers and found pictures were all of equal value. “Everything which reinforced the romantic artist myth” was to Wuorila-Stenberg more important than conceptual analysis of what was depicted. The Historical Picture was a painting which, in the opinion of this student who cherished the hero-myth, was “at once a picture of a historical situation and at the same time a picture which will acquire a place in history”.

Wuorila-Stenberg had a clear idea of the suffering of his fellows, and of the relationship of this suffering to art: “The world suffers and few get fat at orgies, while the rest sleep. I begin with those in the greatest distress, and finish with those who fare well. In my pictures I want to analyse this situation and reveal these injustices. I am certain that in one picture I can solve the nature of capitalism and raise my consciousness.” He tried to make socially committed works. “My works are, in their forms and colours, simple and easily understood. I create realism through concrete means. The young art student’s faith in the possibility for art to influence society was, despite its unrefined nature, strong: “I think the artist should go deeply into social questions. He should try by all available means to understand the structure of society and consciously develop his self-centred ego.” In the cafés of East Berlin, Wuorila-Stenberg pondered in general the possibilities for art and artists to influence society. In his notes made on the Alexanderplatz, the artist characterised the aims of educational policy under socialism as follows: “Artists ought to become involved with the teaching of the visual arts. They should emphasise the importance of understanding visual communication. The bourgeoisie do their best to obstruct the curriculum, so that they might in the future continue to manipulate people freely. Advertisements loose their impact, when people have the skill of visual analysis.”

Visiting East Berlin had for this poor art student also other than ideological reasons: “I am here with Jussi (Wuorila-Stenberg’s brother), and we are eating well. Here there is space and human warmth, in front the statue of the Worker, and around us the presence of the Soviet Union. Soon heaven will open, we hanker after women, all is well.” Wuorila-Stenberg’s Italianate visions of communes came true in East Germany. “What great possibilities there are for the development of art and science in this country. What a joy it is to be building a socialist country and socialist art. I sit here on the Alexanderplatz looking at the wall mosaics. In which capitalist country would they spend money on anything like this? Art made without regard for utility, unless one includes the consciousness of the proletariat. Architecture here creates large spaces.”

In his studio Wuorila-Stenberg wavered between figurative and symbolic art. He began to make pictures of large crowds, such as he had before only sketched in the pages of his diaries and sketchbooks. The changeover did not however come easily. “I have drawn a figurative protest march. Belief in simple symbols is occasionally shaky. Fuck this painting at school, this disciplined work. Sometimes I would like to paint with arms akimbo and shout: how long must I keep myself reined in? How long before I feel that I command the painted surface well enough? In painting it can’t be much longer, but there is so much else too. Perhaps two or three more years, and there will be nothing to stop me!”

In the background of these paintings one can see and hear the echoes of the political situation in the 1970’s. The old independent socialist workers movement and the anti-war pacifist movement lost their momentum in West Germany at the end of the 1960’s, while the traditional Right gained support. As a channel for the dissatisfaction of young students, there arose the “groupiscules” of the radical left. The Vietnam War and the military coup in Chile raised student demonstrations, at first peaceful, against the USA.

In Berlin, however, these demonstrations were suppressed by violent means, which resulted in an opposition activity lasting a decade. In Germany the guerrilla war against the system of capitalist society was most in evidence with the Baader-Meinhof Group. America House, being right across the street from Wuorila-Stenberg’s Art School, came in for its own share of “manifestations”. One of the demonstrations ended tragically when the police followed the protestors into the School, where both the students and teachers were struck with batons and beaten up. The bloodstains could be seen on the school walls for years after the “event”. In 1973 helmeted police broke into the commune where Wuorila-Stenberg lived. At the point of a submachine gun they forced the communards to lie naked on the floor. Inge Viett of the Baader-Meinhof Group had escaped from Moabit prison, and was sought all over the city. Wuorila-Stenberg’s Historical Painting is based on the experiences of that night. Also, the paintings The Accordion Player, Zwiebelfisch and Contradiction are all based on the events in Berlin, and in Wuorila-Stenberg’s firm belief that the world would change. A short temper was for him a resource: “At that time I made use of my aggression as a source of energy. I often walked several kilometres to school and discharged it. In this way I gained enough space for myself in a classroom.” Wuorila-Stenberg had complete faith that by art the world could be altered. In this belief he returned to Finland after completing his course in 1974.

Helsinki – The Polestar

Kluuvi Gallery opening 1974

In November of 1974 Wuorila-Stenberg had an exhibition of his paintings made in Berlin at the Kluuvi Gallery in Helsinki. The works Historical Picture, Contradiction, The Accordion Player, A Court of Justice? , Leader and Zwiebelfisch were hardly acknowledged by the media; not a single review appeared in the Press. The polarised Finnish art world did not accept the works of a student educated in Berlin, their political message was too realistic and their imagery too expressionist. This tepid reaction was also affected by the city in which Wuorila-Stenberg had chosen to study. In the Finland of the 1970’s Leningrad was considered a more politically correct location than the Nazi tinged West Berlin. Wuorila-Stenberg was taken aback and became depressed: “I couldn’t understand how important it was to obey the unwritten rules and regulations. I needed assistance and information in finding out the proper ways. My choices had evidently been mistaken, and they had also affected how my work was received.” Wuorila-Stenberg offered his works for many exhibitions, but in vain. He became depressed, and all the more unsure of himself. The conformity of the Finnish art world seemed strange, nor did he have any real artist friends. The dark insinuators, the restlessly executed portraits of oppressed human figures which Wuorila-Stenberg painted in the lower floor of a dilapidated house in Jakomäki, spoke of the difficulty of painting. In addition to making art he began to teach painting four evenings a week at an Adult Education Institute – work which he has continued without a break in various educational establishments ever since.

Wuorila-Stenberg and Kristiina Rautio got married in 1976. In the same year their son, Kim, was born. The family moved to Myllypuro, into a two-room flat, in which Wuorila-Stenberg also worked. As an artist he felt completely shut out, and the self-confidence gained in his Berlin years disappeared. “I felt unsure of myself because I had not studied at the school of the Finnish Academy of Art. As an outsider, I had to earn my position in my own country.

The Finnish art world was oppressive in the extreme, and this was evident in my work for many years. A dominant and unhealthy opinion was held by common consent, as to how painting should be done and how it should be taught. In teaching this continued into the 1990’s. The situation was worsened by the fact that we had no first-rate museums, where one could be in touch with tradition. From those times, I don’t recall seeing a single exhibition in Finland which actually might quicken the pulse.”

The situation got better when Wuorila-Stenberg began to get to know other Helsinki artists: “When I went for the first time to a meeting of the Helsinki Artists’ Association Perttu Näsänen invited me to his table. So I got to know the leftist artists, such as Jarmo Mäkilä, Jukka Nopsanen, Kari Jylhä, Ukri Merikanto, Kari Tolonen, Reijo Viljanen and Olavi Pajulahti. Through them I got to know other artists who passed their time at such restaurants as Vanhan Kellari and Kosmos. Following the example of his new comrades, Wuorila-Stenberg joined the leftist Cultural Workers’ Union in 1977. He parted with them however in the following year.

Wuorila-Stenberg began to paint realist works, typical of that period. However the manner of using coloured light and space did not come naturally to him, and the content also seemed wrong.

In Finland what was painted was the ideal situation of the workers, when what Wuorila-Stenberg wanted to paint was real life. He only made few paintings depicting construction sites thronged with idealised workers. The works The Bourgeois, Man with Spade and The Unemployed, all seem to be over-worked. Wuorila-Stenberg was not a socialist realist; he was an expressionist who painted experiences not theories. The Edvard Munch retrospective in Stockholm was something out of the ordinary, stirring up deep feelings. “Seeing the works of Munch disorientated me completely. His expressive pictures, full of feeling and intensity, revived my faith in the significance of my own experience.” Wuorila-Stenberg spent a week in Stockholm, visiting the exhibition every day.

Dresden – Portraying Humanity

In order to make pictures of human experience, one must know the basic principles for portraying the human body. With this as his purpose Wuorila-Stenberg travelled in the spring of 1978 to Dresden, and commenced studies at the Hochschule für Bildende Kunst. In the class of Gottfried Bammes Wuorila-Stenberg completed the two-year course in six months. Wuorila-Stenberg wanted to learn to “paint people without a model, and in any position. All the Masters were capable of doing this.” At the beginning of his studies Wuorila-Stenberg was satisfied with what he saw and did not really comprehend the lukewarm attitude of his classmates towards the socialist utopia. “People give contradictory pictures of their country. Generally they are discontented with their socialism. They talk shit about our freedom. People are cordial but constrained. West Berlin is hell compared to Dresden. My studies under Bammes seemed to be demanding and serious, but the development of my painting looks promising. I want to find a realist human form, and learn how to portray the relation between the body parts.”

In East Germany Wuorila-Stenberg’s everyday life was full of all kinds of obstructions – both large and small: “I came home and the heating was off. It was really cold, and I did not know why. The gas for the heating system in the Pension had run out. Fuck this primitiveness – no gas, no artists’ materials, no vegetables, no proper meat. Everyone is discontented. In the morning I went to the Artists’ Supplies Shop. I wanted to buy pencils. There weren’t any. I wanted to buy pen nibs – there weren’t any. I wanted brushes – there weren’t any. I wanted to buy red chalk – there wasn’t any. I bought three drawing pads and a tube of gouache colour. The supplies which I did succeed in buying were of poor quality.”

In addition to practical problems, human relations were a headache. The students of the Art School avoided Wuorila-Stenberg, and after many months he had not even been allocated a studio by the school, nor was it permitted to visit any other student’s studio without official permission. “I have tried to approach the other students, speaking with them politely. No-one has invited me out or to their home. They do not allow me to get close. When I try to speak with them or to suggest something, it seems I am being too intrusive. Perhaps the reason is that I give others so little chance to speak, because I talk all the time. Here people really are inhospitable, although they’re not unkind. The reason must be that they haven’t the time. The system forces them to work hard, and there’s no use in complaining. Everyone is at work or on their way there. People’s opinions are just the same as those which one can read in the right-wing newspapers of the West.” Rejection by his fellow students continued for some months, and Wuorila-Stenberg seriously considered returning to Finland: “I am no longer able to enter this hell hole in a sober state. I am forever an outsider. I even think I am hated. Everyone is so involved in the school world. I have longed for my own studio.” The reasons for his colleagues’ unfriendly behaviour were in the end quite classical: “Now I know why the students avoided me. I was suspected of being in the employment of the Stasi. I had sat at the wrong tables in restaurant Mensa. In addition I had too much money.”

As situation improved Wuorila-Stenberg began to have a busy student life, but week by week his outlook on both socialism and East Germany altered: “I have lived a full life, met a lot of people, and also worked. But the most powerful experiences have occurred elsewhere. I feel more than ever the atmosphere of fear which is all over this country. People are afraid, and I sometimes catch their fear, too. It has become clear that everything is terribly wrong. Despite this many believe in marxism-leninism. The Party is too far from the people, and is completely isolated from ordinary life. I plan doing some counter-propaganda. An ideological soaking was followed by disillusion with socialist realism and art teaching: I am more certain than ever that this classical training is wrong. Art cannot survive here, nor can people. Nobody thinks about peace and wisdom. Life is art, art is life.” Wuorila-Stenberg understood “that ethical responsibility is always up to the individual, not the group. I was relieved to get away from this atmosphere of fear. My time in the DDR was both artistically, and ideologically confusing. From Dresden I sent a letter of resignation to the Union, and at the same time broke off relationships with my communist comrades.” This ideological shipwreck was evident in Wuorila-Stenberg’s paintings. Instead of activist groups he began to paint scenes of the mind. At the same time acrylics were exchanged for oil colours.

The Prophet of Kallio

A strong personal crisis and divorce followed the ruptures in his artistic vision and worldview. Wuorila-Stenberg moved into a small flat in Alppikatu (in an old quarter of Helsinki, well known for its low-life), where he also worked. Like his neighbours he drank “with persistence”, and listened at night to classical music, almost getting evicted from his dwelling. A headline in the tabloid paper Iltalehti, was pertinent: “Henry, in his box, exchanges anguish for a grant.” Wuorila-Stenberg’s life gained impetus. At the end of the 1970’s he got to know the artist Pentti Otto Koskinen, whom he met in the Oogee restaurant in Kallio. The duo spent their time discussing existence and art, in the Alppimaa restaurant, amongst other places. Wuorila-Stenberg got to know Annukka Forstadius in 1981, and she was to become an important partner, both in discussions and in his life. Their relationship lasted for the next twelve years.

At Alppikatu Wuorila-Stenberg tried again to get a hold on the painting’s surface which had already once been lost. He began to paint human existence, using angular figures, in his paintings in the series Evenings at Home, from which he worked up the paintings in the series called Self. The starting point for the works he painted in his studio at Suvilahdenkatu was in the art of the Middle Ages, mosaics from Ravenna, Giacometti’s sculptures and the art of Munch. “I thought I could for ever repeat those figures in paintings, as if they were a mantra by which I could understand myself.” Wuorila-Stenberg was content with his work, and confidence returned after a long break: “I knew I was headed in the right direction, I was after all painting myself. The paintings in the Self series were a breakthrough. Hesari (properly Helsingin Sanomat, the dominant national and Helsinki regional newspaper) wrote favourably about these works, and the public liked them.

Just as important was the acceptance which he achieved amongst colleagues. “In, the TV programme Katso Ihmistä (Look at The Human), directed by Hannu Eerikäinen, Wuorila-Stenberg told the story of the birth of the Self paintings and of his relationship with art. According to him art must not be classed as normal work, because it was something more.

Self 1981, 200 x 170 cm, acrylic

It essentially included a worldview, beliefs and the whole of life. The artist, according to Wuorila-Stenberg was a prophet with a powerful message. “People either grasp it or they don’t. Whether everybody understands my works or not, is of no importance. If a few get something out of them, I am satisfied. I paint exactly as I like. I paint that which is inside me, I make it visible. My art is a confession to the world and a confession to myself. The most important thing is to be honest and to work without compromise.” Painting, for Wuorila-Stenberg was “a mechanism for expanding the consciousness”. It was, according to him, “a self-centred activity, because painting was, above all, a place where one could find oneself, and where one could, perhaps while making the last painting, find enlightenment.” The Self paintings, according to him, differ from the Berlin period works in their automatism and their ease. They were “self-evident and absolutely honest”. The Self paintings were at the same time paintings of the human being and of society, and pictures of his own (spiritual) state. They were “meditative mirrors into the human”. The works which began as self-portraits became, in time, “general pictures of human beings. They told of the loneliness and isolation of humanity, the concentration camp society, and the control ruling everywhere. Humanity has thrown in the towel, and given up on the opposition. The human being perhaps believes himself to be free. We are however bounded by fences, just as much inside ourselves as in the world outside. The festive figures, later dissolving into lines, appearing in my paintings, were a tribute to humanity. The abstract nature of the Self paintings was emphasised and refined into the geometric colour field paintings titled Extensions. In addition to their being abstract, these works became three-dimensional and spread out onto the floor. “ I had small Extensions paintings tightly placed beside each other in my studio, and they formed a space. I wanted to achieve the same effect in my installations. I often discussed the potential of installations with my friend the painter Raili Tang, and we planned co-operation along these lines.”

In his sketchbook Wuorila-Stenberg tried out different compositions, and displayed his installations at the Helsinki Kunsthalle and at the Lahti Art Museum. The Extensions paintings were on display for the last time at the Ateneum’s Akt 83 exhibition. Time had however passed them over, and to Wuorila-Stenberg they were a failure. To make this absolutely clear to the public at the exhibition opening, he pounded the paintings with his fist. After the exhibition the artist took most of the works to the rubbish tip. He had moved too close towards constructivism, and this for him was a “totally wrong” place to be in. “My own expressionist side was no longer fulfilled. I had allowed the internal logic of form to govern my work. This following of various chains of association led me to a dead end. Then I realised that style had no meaning. It can be changed; one shouldn’t get bogged down by it. The form should be brought to a crisis now and then. Style is a part of ego building, and should now and then be broken. The clarity of the content must not be lost; one should be faithful to the source. One should trust in that which is present at the opening.” After this event Wuorila-Stenberg did not paint for a year.

Hand painted

Instead of painting Wuorila-Stenberg concentrated his energies on self-understanding. In 1983 he started meditation and psychotherapy, continuing with psychoanalysis under the guidance of Pirkko Siltala. “If I hadn’t started therapy I would have surely found religion.”


Wuorila-Stenberg tried breaking out of a certain kind of convention, after he saw the Rainer Werner Fassbinder film Querelle. “After the film I went for a beer, got drunk and decided to try the same kind of male ritual as was shown in the film. At a sausage kiosk I met a Frenchman, and we went off to a hotel together. However, at the last minute I got cold feet, women were my thing – not this. The colour world of Querelle and the experiences of meditation formed the starting point for the Sakura works which I then embarked upon.” Wuorila-Stenberg made one Sakura colour pencil drawing a day. Altogether more than a hundred were completed.

At the same time, a neighbour in the Alppikatu building emptied the attic storage cupboard in which Wuorila-Stenberg had left the paintings done in his childhood and youth. These works went to the rubbish, but Wuorila-Stenberg dared not complain, lest he be evicted. His self-confidence was at zero. However he began to make a painting which was four metres wide, in which a process begun with the Sakura drawings peaked: “Painting was the centre point of my life, my point of healing. Healing was also the subject of the work. I consciously portrayed the process of becoming whole; I no longer tried to achieve wholeness through painting. In the painting, in the making of paintings, I was at one with the world – even if the surrounding world seemed full of chaos and confusion.” Wuorila-Stenberg painted his work by hand, with no brush. Painting free of all technical equipment seemed like a good option. He trusted in touch, the senses and intuition alone: “I had left behind me all that stuff concerning materials, colour, composition and all the other dogma, because all that shit had muddled up my painting ever since the mid-1970’s.” The work was completed in 1985 and was shown in an exhibition at Galerie Artek.

The critics saw Wuorila-Stenberg as the Finnish representative of a new European painting. Marja-Terttu Kivirinta characterised the works enthusiastically in Helsingin Sanomat: “…the exhibition is the splendid and quite dumbfounding result of intensive and uncompromising clinging to contemporary art and its possibilities to open up our perceptions of space and time… Wuorila-Stenberg’s painting is Sturm und Drang, a little serious in the German manner …Angst is released through the layers of colour. The subconscious is freed towards unchained childhood.”

Studio 1986

Along with Leena Luostarinen Wuorila-Stenberg on a trip to Cologne, Wuorila-Stenberg saw continental contemporary art at the Westkunst exhibition, curated by Kasper König. Of the exhibition’s artists Enzo Gucchi especially inspired Wuorila-Stenberg . Of the Finns Wuorila-Stenberg was interested in Teemu Saukkonen, Ilkka-Juhani Takalo-Eskola, Kalervo Palsa and Hannu Rönkkönen. “I also liked Marika Mäkelä’s sensual relationship with oil colours. It was perhaps even too close to me.” Wuorila-Stenberg followed the development of German painting in the 1980’s, saw all Documentas of the decade, and read the periodical Kunstforum. Post-1960’s American painting did not interest him. At a summer school where he taught he became friends with Robert Lucander, whose experiences of the Finnish art world closely paralleled his own. Lucander also painted “incorrectly” un-Finnish figurative works, and had completed his art education in Berlin, where he still works to this day.

The Myth Crumbles

Despite his activeness Wuorila-Stenberg’s faith in his art was however shaken by the lukewarm reception he received from the critics, and the small amount of attention he gained. “I broke down. At first I was in despair, then I was furious. Suddenly something devastating happened. I had previously always reacted to problem situations with an “I’ll bloody well show them” kind of attitude. This time I stood still. I understood that I shouldn’t move, but I had to be strong and face up to the fact that I was nothing, nor would anything remain about me except a few written lines. None of my deeds had any significance, and I fell into a dreadful void. I didn’t know who I was, but I felt a great peace and the presence of holiness. At this moment I lost my faith in the modern romantic artist-hero. I had cherished this myth ever since my childhood.” The crumbling of this myth was also affected by a trip along with Pentti Otto Koskinen to the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Previously meaningful works in the permanent collection of the museum now seemed trivial and empty. The feeling was gone. We were certain that both our era and ourselves had changed. In the same year the works of Cimabue and Duccio in the Uffizi Gallery “impressed me like a revelation. They were a rumbling silence. How, after seeing these works, can anyone go on painting? I understood that I could not continue making large colourful forms. I had used them as the building materials of my own ego, and now this ego had collapsed. I grasped that only the right attitude and state of mind can be the starting point for actions.”

Wuorila-Stenberg described his relationship with painting in his article What kind of activity is painting compared to other activities? “For me painting is separate from all other less precise moments and activities in daily life. I don’t say that it is more important, just that it is more precise. Work is preceded by attitude. To me it means respect for life and being true to myself. From this, and only this, do ethics flow. The attitude becomes more concentrated, concentration is like walking over difficult and unknown terrain. The colours which I use, the touch and forms – I feel them in my own existence. I don’t know any more, this is all I can do. They are like I am now.”

Filled with Emptiness

The change of attitude was visible in the new works. Whilst making the small black-and-white paintings Wuorila-Stenberg listened to the music of Arvo Pärt and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. He was interested in Christian mysticism and always prayed before starting to work. For him painting was above all a way to achieve peace of mind. The colours he used were Ivory black, white, Payne’s grey, Capuut Mortuum red, Indian yellow and in his later white paintings Carmine red. All other colours seemed impossible. The significance of attitude and personal touch was materialised in the paintings which were small, rough on the surface, and undemanding. Wuorila-Stenberg primed his canvases with a thick coat of white oil paint. Over this he painted slowly and earnestly. “I painted with a loving attitude, lightly brushing the colour into the surface. Oil colour to me was like a living organism, a plant or a person. I used the brush and the palette knife, and sometimes I poured the paint over the surface. I wanted to be rid of all the old, and what I had done before. Everything relating to my old ego was rejected. Instead of large works I made small paintings. Bright colours became muddy ones. A slow and meditative process replaced rapid painting mode. I did several works at the same time. In a way, I tended the flowers in my garden and conversed with my works. These works were in a way virginal. I had lost my energy and wanted to paint without preconceptions. In these works there was no expressive feeling present, nor could there be. All these aspects are now familiar from the canons of modernism. However, I didn’t do consciously modernist works. I didn’t yet know the discussion about it. For me these works were born out of an existential crisis – they had nothing to do with the self-referential nature of art and painting. Questions about figurative and abstract art were to me equally irrelevant. It came as a slight jolt to me when the works were linked to purely modernist concepts.” Just as misguided were the attempts to harness his black-and-white paintings in the yoke of postmodernist theory. The works were seen as accentuating anonymity and the death of their maker, as well as a laconic irony.

Wuorila-Stenberg was certain that his own attitudes would be conveyed to the onlooker and would make the experience of peace of mind possible. His own situation was however contradictory. The “good” Wuorila-Stenberg painted, whilst the “bad” drank. “When I was sober, I painted, meditated and was disciplined. At other times I drank and spent my time being with friends. I travelled frequently with Pentti Otto Koskinen to St. Petersburg and other places. We didn’t go to many museums, we met artists and had fun. On many of these trips I was close to death.”

Painting 1990, 60 x 40 cm, oil

Wuorila-Stenberg’s small works were paintings about painting. The themes of removal and addition or emptiness and fullness were much in evidence in these works. The meditative nature of the works was emphasised by their small size – they were quiet and intimate devotional exercises. The empty mind however paradoxically brought about works full of colour. Through his paintings Wuorila-Stenberg poured his mind out onto canvas – a mind which he had already emptied during meditation and prayer. The works were pictures of pure empty space and at the same time conveyed the difficulty of achieving pure mind. The elements contained in these works told of the difficulty of reaching the peace of mind through painting.

As well as the black paintings Wuorila-Stenberg made white works full of Christian symbolism. Churches, crosses and red squares symbolised the wounds of Jesus, and paralleled the black paintings’ swirling tactile surface forms. Wuorila-Stenberg continued, on his numerous trips to Italy, his investigations into the world of Christian pictures and art. Olavi Martikainen’s exhibition at the Nordic Arts Centre on Suomenlinna was also an important artistic experience. “Seeing Martikainen’s work was almost a religious experience. He was a saint. Finland’s Francis of Assisi.”

As well as old art, Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevits began to be of interest. The Mondrian retrospective in Holland in 1988 changed Wuorila-Stenberg’s concept of the artist: “Mondrian switched to being a purely spiritual artist. At the Free Art School he had been regarded from a formal point of view. At the same time I got to see a superb collection of work by Malevits. They were both important models.”

Pictures of a Pure Land

In 1989 Wuorila-Stenberg broke off psychoanalysis, meditation became ever more important, and he began to do meditation drawings. Before beginning to draw he meditated for a couple of hours with white paper and a pencil in front of him. When the meditation had ended, he would begin to draw with his left hand and with eyes closed. He made such meditation drawings for two years. From 1990 he shared a studio with Olli Hämäläinen (Nagasila) at Sorvaajankatu in Herttoniemi, and began, alongside the paintings filled with Christian symbolism, works pointing towards the Buddhist tradition. The first painting depicting a meditating Buddha was completed in 1990.

His altered religious views could be seen in the ever more common presence in his works of organic forms and in the free use of ornament. “My minimal painterly expression changed, forms and colours became richer.” Buddhism was of more and more interest, and he made a trip to Nepal, Thailand and Indonesia in 1991. The colour world of the Buddhist Temples made a big impact upon Wuorila-Stenberg. “Everywhere I could see blue, red and yellow and green colours.” In Nepal his relationship to Western culture changed: “It wasn’t any longer the only possible way to think and be. Everything could be done and thought in another way. Something happened inside me, from which there was no going back. The Siddhartha of my youth was alive. I fell in love with the East.”

The fruit of this journey were the appearance of new elements – decorative figures and subjects. The Buddha statues of the National Museum and the paintings in the Royal Palace in Bangkok inspired the artist to execute new works containing previously unseen colours and forms. In these works he depicted the Buddhist concepts of the energy flows. The halos of earlier works – similar to those in icon-painting – were exchanged for golden circles, and the colour scale employed in these paintings – despite its limited nature – became purer. The white paintings were transformed into Himalayan snow peaks full of Indian yellow and Cobolt blue.

In addition to Buddhism Wuorila-Stenberg read the theory and history of the Surrealists. “The Surrealists aimed at a totality, and the means towards achieving it. I shared this aim. No organised surrealist movement was ever formed in Finland. This was a serious defect in both art education and from the point of view of understanding art. Wuorila-Stenberg showed his black-and-white and grey toned paintings in his exhibitions, but was dissatisfied with them. “As a result of meditation the content and form seemed insufficient. An unavoidable virtue became a barrier. There was no longer any genuinely positive feeling in my paintings. This time however Wuorila-Stenberg had not painted himself into a corner. Every new element, colour and change occurring in the work was a “positive revelation and a possibility. As well as seeking new paths in painting Wuorila-Stenberg sought new spiritual paths. The Russian Orthodox Jesus’ Prayer was exchanged at Christmas 1992 on his trip to India for Sangharakshita’s The Eightfold Path of the Buddha. On this trip Wuorila-Stenberg decided to join the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO). In Delhi he saw the paintings of Nicholas Roerich and understood “how a synthesis of East and West could be possible.”

After his trip to India Wuorila-Stenberg began to employ the brighter of the available colours. He meditated three hours a day, painted and began his Buddhist studies, whilst becoming conversant with the traditions and history of Tanka painting. According to Wuorila-Stenberg “Asian and Buddhist art brought a new richness and freedom to painting. Western art sees the forms and parts of Nature as mere elements for use in pictures. In Asian art the stones, the clouds and for example the flowers are full of energy and of value in themselves. Wuorila-Stenberg painted the Himalaya series with speed. In these works he tries to portray and to convey the states he achieved through meditation. The first series of eight paintings in the Himalaya series were connected with Wuorila-Stenberg’s spiritual studies in a Buddhist community. They referred to The Eightfold Path of the Buddha consisting of the following: the complete vision, complete feeling, complete speech, complete action, complete livelihood, complete effort, complete awareness and complete Samadhi or concentration. In the video newsletter of the FWBO Wuorila-Stenberg related how he understood on encountering Buddhism, that to make an absolute painting was impossible. Meditation rode over the painting.

Wuorila-Stenberg’s relation to art altered, meditation and ethics became more important than painting. Also the public gained a new role: “At least one of the paintings in the series ought to be easily grasped by the general public. The painting Leaving Home contained elements which helped understanding: easy symbols and the name of the work were a concession to the viewer. As well as Buddhist Tanka painting, the colour world of children’s books and toyshops is visible in the colours of these works. “I spent time in the children’s book departments in shops, and took colour baths. I experienced an odd kinship with the art of Särestöniemi.”

The Himalaya series was on show in the Applikaatio exhibition, the first triennial of Finnish art, in Helsinki. In the same year Wuorila-Stenberg was selected to represent Finland at the XXII São Paulo Biennial in Brazil. “ The theme of the exhibition was installation, but I didn’t hear that until I was there, and the place allocated to me in the pavilion building was wretched. 24 hours before the exhibition was due to be opened, the wall on which I was supposed to mount my works was not yet ready. Twelve hours before the opening the wall was still unpainted. At this point a sober period which had lasted six years, ended. I cracked open a bottle of brandy, went into the pavilion building and began, in my suit, to paint the wall. This aroused some sympathy in other people who, along with Kimmo Sarje came to my assistance. The mounting was ready by four in the morning, and the opening ceremonies began at midday. At the party organised for the artists I got to know some Chinese painters who later achieved considerable fame. We liked each others’ works and we drank together. That just about saved the day.”

São Paulo 1994

This contact with the international art world was a bitter disappointment to Wuorila-Stenberg, and he was unable to paint for nine months thereafter. He attended art history lectures at the University of Helsinki and began to make colour pencil drawings. While drawing these, Wuorila-Stenberg pondered the relationship between representation and painting and the possibilities which painting might contain. He also made a series of large-scale oil pastel drawings of his friends, based upon self-portraits made by themselves. These self-portraits then materialised later as human heads in Wuorila-Stenberg’s richly coloured paintings.

Whilst making the last works of the Himalaya series, Wuorila-Stenberg began to paint pictures with “hovering” human heads. “The details, emotion and space were ready. The work began nowhere nor ended anywhere. I improvised freely on the canvas. All was open to view.” Wuorila-Stenberg was still certain that the western concept of the ego was incomplete. The orange-red and black paintings depicted the process of ego building and the many sides of human personality. The diverse elements in these works, and the change which occurred, were opposed to the concept of a static ego. Painting was once more a facilitator of self-understanding.

Wuorila-Stenberg conceived, in the following words, of the relationship between spiritual wholeness and painting in a speech given at the Valamo Monastery, before the centenary commemorations of the Finnish Mental Health Association in 1997: “In everything which I have trusted since childhood, painting has been involved. My desires, my worldview, my aims – also those hidden from myself – have been present in it, and carried it forward. The road towards wholeness in painting has been tragic, and aroused contradictions. Only for a moment it has made possible some release from Self. It makes whole only superficially, and from it comes compulsion, and a condemnation to travel onwards, which carries me deep into subconscious worlds. Painting leads to contradictory sources of power, and towards energies that I am unable to control. If painting unites selfish ends – the passion for power and glory – with greed or anger and blocked desires or anger, it can go deep and make up brilliant paintings. But these activated powers at the same time destroy the person. Luckily people do not always achieve what they want. There are also failures, loss and suffering. They make possible moments of clear vision. They allow the space to stand still and act creatively. It has begun to slowly dawn on me, that painting, being my central preoccupation, requires an opening from which one can look deeper into the unknown. In this opening there is a spiritual ideal, and from this opening flow the practices of ethics and spiritual exercise. Through this unknown I hope to become whole. I want in my paintings to practice this spiritual wholeness. Actually, this implies painting, in which I face up to my own contradictory sides. Painting has to construct wholeness positively. From it comes the way to individuality.”

Despite the “programmatic” nature of this path towards wholeness, Wuorila-Stenberg’s works portray above all the painterly act. A freely improvised act became more important than a clearly identifiable subject. These colour improvisations altered over time and became as light as air. Cy Twombly’s and George Baselitz’s art gave support to this change. Wuorila-Stenberg combined writing and decorative rhizomes with areas of colour and figurative elements. All this was done against an opaque background.

Through the Mill

Painting 1999 70 x 50 cm, oil

The catalysts for the changes, which occurred in Wuorila-Stenberg’s paintings in recent years, have more and more been his students. In 1996 Wuorila-Stenberg moved from the School of Industrial Design to be a teacher at the Academy of Fine Art. Wuorila-Stenberg, who had not succeeded in getting in to the Academy, had students like Jukka Korkeila, Janne Räisänen, Janne Kaitala and Mari Sunna (from The Free Art School). “I was delighted to find like-minded souls. For the first time I met people in Finland who knew German painting. We spoke the same language, and it seemed as though I was at last being understood.”

Around the turn of the Millennium Wuorila-Stenberg’s paintings were dense with elements reminiscent of the German neo-expressionism and the tradition of Finnish Tyko Sallinen. Besides these influences, the paintings were based in his own experiences. Wuorila-Stenberg depicted the feelings stirred up by both his own and his son’s illnesses. In 1999 he began, while disabled by psoriasis, to make a series of self-portraits. “I made them because I was certain that I was bound for the wheelchair and death – and on my way to the male image of my childhood. Probably it was an ordinary mid-life crisis. I began to read excessively – philosophy, Catholic mystics and Russian Orthodox literature. I wanted to return into Western culture.” In the summer of 2000 Wuorila-Stenberg read Nietzsche’s Antichrist, works by Camus, Gianni Vattimo, Martin Heidegger and Luther.

Besides self-portraits, Wuorila-Stenberg started to depict his fellow artists and people from his neighbourhood in his works. The paintings became much like the ones he does today. In these paintings marginalised people meet stock market speculators, and the deep polarisation in Finnish society gets the attention it deserves. They depict the Finnish post-recession reality, but there is none of the confrontational tone of the works done in Berlin. The stockbrokers call for, and get, as much sympathy as the tramps. Everybody is caught up in the global economy and its values. “I felt empathy towards the people in my paintings – and chose my side. The works tell about our own era, about all the people and individuals who have been rejected. The change in the world, the end of a particular era, they shook me up. In their own way, the Berlin paintings and these black pictures of social polarisation speak about the same thing. The circle had closed, but has anything changed?”

The elements and contents of Wuorila-Stenberg’s recent paintings are the summary of a forty-year journey into painting. They tell of faith and suspicion, and in them, hope and pessimism alternate. The commitment apparent in Wuorila-Stenberg’s works has seldom been ideologically dogmatic. The “injured little fellow” is still present in his works, with or without the black hole. Wuorila-Stenberg has not depicted the world with cool tranquillity, but has – even when denying his own ego – been a vehicle of feelings and desires. His paintings – at the same time both deep and thin – mix references and styles, subjects and influences. They convey solidarity and empathy, the search for the self and love for others. At the same time they are however also stories about painting, its limits and its possibilities. Looking at Wuorila-Stenberg’s works, all talk of the death of painting or its redundant nature seems in vain. Paintings can still reveal to us viewpoints on the world surrounding us and our own life, both new and already well tried. They can tell us, perhaps even more importantly, stories about painting.

Based on texts by Henry Wuorila-Stenberg. Written and edited by Kari Immonen and Pessi Rautio 2004