The Fine Art of Nordic Brood


If you worried that Ingmar Bergman’s death had brought an end to the Nordic angst-filled view of life, you should hurry over to Scandinavia House, where—hurrah!—you’ll find plenty of vigorous brooding. In the building’s quiet gallery, tucked away on the third floor, 40 works by last year’s four finalists for Finland’s prestigious Ars Fennica prize present the region’s most famous cultural exports: repressed desires, mystical urges, hidden demons, fleeting pleasure, and those beautifully bleak landscapes.

Things get off to a bracing start with the drawings and paintings of Elina Merenmies, darkest in both theme and palette of the four artists. Anguish, it seems, drives every brushstroke. In several smaller works, trees finely inked in black sinuously grow outward to express a kind of desperate yearning, the branches dividing into increasingly delicate filaments and spreading across the paper like neurons. The effect is jangling—nature viewed through an anxiety attack.

Her portraits, also in black ink, carry that instability to the human face. One, simply titled Eat, shows a man with a large cylindrical object stuffed in his mouth, apparently being force-fed. The simplicity of the drawing, mostly in outlines, makes the witnessed act all the more disturbing. Likewise, in another portrait, Exploded, Merenmies’s jittery hashmarks on the neck and head contrast sharply with the central blood-like blots, highlighting the strange violence—the man’s jaw has been mangled, and a bone or object protrudes grotesquely from one cheek.

Merenmies reserves the most nightmarish visions for her paintings. The large canvas of The Trees Are Trees depicts a forest nervously spreading its branches across a foggy, muddy-green landscape speckled in gold. As you stare, what appears to be a lighter-colored path (a wonderful use of the semi-opaque tempura) begins to emerge instead as a whitish ghostly figure who spreads her arms and lifts a head of wavy hair, the strands cleverly formed from overlapping branches. But harsher demons are close by. On the opposite wall, in the dense and dark Burning Mother, Merenmies’s bifurcating filaments have now become pure neurons, painted black and deep red, and running helter-skelter behind horizontal ribbons of greenish mist. On top of all that, two skulls—one with spiky flaming hair (mother) and another upside-down at the bottom of the canvas (child?)—scream in tandem and complete the terror. Like a mythological take on Francis Bacon’s screaming popes, the painting’s a stunner.

Around the corner, the visions soften with the work of Anna Tuori, a painter of bright outdoor scenes that, at first glance, look like leftovers from the ’50s—light-hearted sketches that you might expect to find at a beach house. But as if vaguely recalling a dream, you begin to notice certain oddities. Painted in storybook pastels, with a flitting brush that withholds details and scatters abstractions, the landscapes are desolate—lots of bare empty ground, with spindly trees clinging to a few leaves: the unsettling Beckettian nowhere. In the midst of this stand small sketched figures who are encountering something amiss. In Never Happened, a couple in the distance seems to have veered off course from a cheery children’s tale. They’ve stopped their horse-drawn sleigh to stare at a foreboding figure in the foreground—possibly hanging from a tree branch and possibly touched with blood. Or maybe it’s nothing of the kind. Like Merenmies, Tuori upsets the familiar, keeping you unbalanced and guessing.

When you reach the back wall, the dreams and demons give way to the emotional restraint of Elina Brotherus’s photographs. Their moods are somber, introspective, unyielding. In a self-portrait, the artist stands before a gorgeous vista of mountain peaks, but keeps her back to the camera and her arms limp at her sides. Nearby, a series of horizons reduces the dark land or water to little more than a sliver at the bottom of the frame; gradations of cold sky dominate. The photographs are like reticent, depressed Rothkos.

In an adjacent room, behind black curtains, the guardedness eases up somewhat. On three walls, a silent video triptych shows a group of young men and women, all of them nude, swimming in a lake or river. The pleasure is evident, but they move deliberately, with little communication; you can sense Brotherus’s directions to hold back. Drained of color and edited with subtle fades, the sequences could be outtakes from Bergman’s melancholy Wild Strawberries.

Finally, there’s Markus Kåhre, winner of the Ars Fennica prize, who creates beguiling devices of Scandinavian magic, all of them, appropriately enough, without titles or labels. On the floor, there’s an inconspicuous wooden box that contains, on close examination, a spinning vertical disc, which itself contains sand. Ingeniously, against the disc’s black background, the falling white sand forms half the yin-yang symbol. Nearby, Khåre has set up an easel that holds a painting of an open cottage window; above it, a mirror and a lens capture your approaching presence and project it as a miniaturized shadow inside the window’s frame. The art has briefly absorbed your spirit.

Kåhre achieves a similar but more startling effect in a third work, a small dim room with simple furnishings from an earlier time: a table, lamp, chair, bench, and, most prominently, a mirror. Glance into it and—surprise!—your identity vanishes. In a moment of cinematic trickery, you feel both mystified and mystical—one of many Bergmanesque moments in this thoroughly engrossing show.