Icons of Society and the Individual

Pirjo Hämäläinen

The clear sky is like a void, an infinite aperture above us. From his childhood, Henry Wuorila-Stenberg remembers a yellow ground and a blue sky. Confined to a hospital bed for a long time, all he could see from the window was the sky. In fact, the window was like a large blue painting. Later on, the sky became a background for men and women dressed in black, with black hair, and red or a little yellow flashing here and there. There is only a single person or several, an entire group of them, against the sky. When people are detached from reality and cast into empty space, misfortune, misery and violence are accentuated and receive a more general meaning.

“You must imagine all that which happens around us, all these battles, scenes, just like you think about historical events.”

Belief in a just world and the betterment of humankind was strong in the early 1970s; the 1968 student uprising in Paris and the Prague Spring were fresh in peoples memories, the antiwar movement was getting bigger and bigger, Salvador Allende’s rise to Chile’s presidency promised victory for democracy even in places where people knew only cruelty. In 1971–74, Wuorila-Stenberg studied art in West Berlin at the Staatliche Hochschule. At the time, Berlin was a restless city. Demonstrators crowded around the Amerika Haus near the Hochschule where they sought shelter from the police who beat them and their teachers – the school’s walls were stained with blood for a long time. The police also attacked the commune where Wuorila-Stenberg lived. With raised submachine guns they forced the commune’s members to lie naked on the floor. A member of the Bader-Meinhof group had escaped from prison, and the police were frantic to find him.

Wuorila-Stenberg wanted to make a historical iconostasis of his experiences. He intended to give it three levels: modernity, history and archetypes. After a lot of timber and time, he finally produced a large painting, which was the first of a many works portraying groups of people. Or was the beginning to everything in his childhood instead, in the surge of emotion caused by witnessing demonstrations during the general strike in the 1950s, of which Wuorila-Stenberg made a drawing as soon as he got home? This, too, is possible because in Wuorila-Stenberg’s art the past and the present are continually blended. Images rise from earlier images and are influenced in an exceptionally powerful way by what the artist has seen and experienced. His childhood always shines through in his works, sometimes brightly, sometimes more dimly.

“See how they speak and walk, the rulers who hold your destinies in their pale, ruthless hands. You must learn to know them.”

Court session? is one of the most important paintings of the Berlin period. The name alone suggests suspicion: who dispenses justice and who receives it? Instead of jurisprudence, however, the work deals with a social situation and with class struggle. On one side of the fence there is an encampment of judges, police and people with their bellies full, while on the other side there is a mass of ordinary folk. The message of the painting is focused on two fingers: the index finger of a puffy male judge pointing humiliatingly downward, and the accusing finger of an upright, bellicose woman pointing at the bench. The setting reappears in many of Wuorila-Stenberg’s Berlin paintings. Demonstrators carry banderols, the well-to-do observe with cold detachment the actions of helmeted police; the poor demonstrate, the rich stand back. The two faces of Berlin, the expressions of the winners and of the defeated, were familiar already to the artists of the Die Brücke group, of whom especially Emil Nolde became a very important influence to Wuorila-Stenberg. “At the time, I used aggression as a driving force,” Wuorila-Stenberg says. He further recharged his mind, insulted by the class conflict, by walking to school and back, a distance of many kilometres, and consciously seeking the company of Berlin’s oppressed and marginalised people. Wuorila-Stenberg identified with the shabby, downtrodden people of the city and saw hope and unity brought about by a common fate.

“Let your first school be you job, your home, your quarter, its streets, shops and underground lines. You must observe everyone there.”

Strange music he heard at night in Görlitserstrasse led Wuorila-Stenberg to an old shopkeeper and the two became friends. After the death of his wife, the shopkeeper had started to play in the darkness, seeking comfort. This inspired Wuorila-Stenberg to paint Accordion player portraying an old man who is almost obscured by his large accordion. While in some of his paintings the background is partly blue and partly black, Wuorila-Stenberg used an entirely black background in Zwiebelfisch, which is based on a shabby bar, a meeting place of young men from Yugoslavia and older German women. Germany needed immigrant labourers but treated them as second-class citizens. No proper Berliner mother would have wanted one of them for a son-in-law. The bar is bristling with the impossible love familiar from the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, but even in a group, the people seem alone. Wuorila-Stenberg stresses in his works the separateness and independence of people: they look in different directions, someone approaches near, another one moves away. The edges of the picture crop the cheeks, tops of heads and shoulders. The events continue – film-like – outside the canvas.

Wuorila-Stenberg has painted flat, smooth surfaces, creating almost a poster-like feel. Yet there is space in the paintings and great depth of perspective. Wuorila-Stenberg also talks about space in another sense: he needed space around him to work and breathe, and the paintings were his private world – to the extent that sometimes he cast himself in a supporting role, adding his own features among those of others.

“Exactly what those others hate.”

Wuorila-Stenberg has spent a total of five years away from Finland, first in Italy, then in Germany. In the Finnish art world he had few friends and defenders, and critics certainly were not enthused by the paintings he made in Berlin. For example, not a single line was written on an exhibition of his at Kluuvi gallery. The reason became gradually clear: West Berlin was the wrong environment, the wrong place to study. Leningrad was in and Soviet-style realism was the style of the day. The German Federal Republic was considered to carry on the legacy of the Nazis, and art was under the thumb of a Marxist-Leninist union of culture workers. Victorious marches, strikes, factories and heroic workers were the acceptable images, subjectivity was a dirty word and excessive identification with the misery of the streets a mistake. Art, the tool of the revolution, was to be meticulously pure and correct. The emotionalism of German expressionism was not missed in this battle.

Despite the opposition, Wuorila-Stenberg continued to paint dark, restless pictures of groups of poor and marginalised people. He did not have to go far for the right atmosphere because right next door to his home in the Helsinki district of Jakomäki was a hut whose inhabitants sold black-market spirits and broke into pharmacies. They even paid their rent in booze. The artist, who had grown up in the more affluent district of Töölö had drifted to the bottom of society, both mentally and physically.

“But no one can see or understand man unless he knows that the destiny of man is in his own hands.”

In 1978 Wuorila-Stenberg took heed of the spirit of the times and travelled to Dresden in East Germany to study anatomy to be able to paint people and their postures without using models. Real socialism was a bitter disappointment, however, and Wuorila-Stenberg soon joined the dissidents associated with Wolf Biermann. What followed was counterpropaganda, speeches in bars and desperate lecturing to tram passengers. Finnish leftists felt increasingly foreign. Wuorila-Stenberg finally lost faith in the masses and turned to the individual and his private ethical responsibility.

In his new home, a small one-room apartment in Helsinki, his life went on grotesquely. His neighbours were drug dealers and drunks, and one of them had supposedly killed his own mother for money and alcohol. One of his neighbours emptied his attic and threw away a good part of his youthful works. He was very nearly smothered by social ills, but in his art Wuorila-Stenberg was already turning inward. He had for a long time studied the effect of light on colour, distantly inspired by Veikko Vionoja. “I had become entangled in coloured spatial illusion as a painter and lost hold of the surface of paintings. I tried to regain that hold,” Wuorila-Stenberg says. He wanted to paint without the structure a brush brings, using coloured surfaces to attain greater abstractness, and Edvard Munch’s intensive treatment of space fascinated him. He discarded oils and took up acrylics.

The idea of making iconostases rose again at the turn of the 1980. But whereas the backgrounds of icons are golden and immaterial, shimmering heavenly light, Wuorila-Stenberg’s backgrounds were black, like black holes into which his figures were about to tumble. The backgrounds continued to play an important role – they were like ready mades or preconfigured elements, which were an unavoidable point of departure. Wuorila-Stenberg concentrated on his only theme, himself, repeating his own icon over and over again in order to reach deeper and deeper.

The precursors of his self-figures were mediaeval paintings and the Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna and of course Alberto Giacometti’s rake-thin sculptures. As the process progressed, the male-figure slowly began to lose his dimensions, becoming narrower and simpler until there was nothing but a vertical line left, an incision in the black background. The angst in Wuorila-Stenberg grew and for an entire year he produced nothing. He had come to a dead-end and did not know where to turn.

“How to portray the way to weave the net of destiny and cast it? And how to show it is people who weave it and cast it?”

The road to healing is long. Wuorila-Stenberg had to start painting from the beginning, from child-like crayon drawings. He sought help from the religions of the West and the East. Mediation opened to him new visions and the clear colours of Buddhist temples were like a revelation to him. He encountered the same purity in toys and picture books. The black colour of darkness and despair that had so long dominated his paintings gave way.

Marginalised people have made their way back into Wuorila-Stenberg’s works in the past few years, but the victims are no longer just the penniless, infirm and weak: an entire era had fallen of its tracks. Deformed human figures, in many cases loose heads, scream their futility and destruction against a nocturnal blackness.

He had come full circle, returning to the beginning. The social empathy of his Berlin paintings had proven itself a sustainable driving force. Wuorila-Stenberg had again chosen his side.

Quotations from a speech given by Bertolt Brecht in Denmark