Art 2012

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Boys’ Games

Text by Altti Kuusamo


Jarmo Mäkilä was born in 1952 and spent the best part of his childhood in Rauma on the West coast. His work in recent years has been devoted to discovering interesting paths back into his boyhood years. So diverse has been his approach that his paintings actually compose a multi-generational panorama of the psycho-history of Finnish boys in the 1950s. The cavalcade of his paintings and scale models leads us into the vast backyard of postwar boyhood. Mäkilä deliberately views the past through the veil of present fantasy, which could already have been present “back then”.

What was it like growing up in the 1950s? What was it like before Benjamin Spock? What was it like when children were neither seen nor spoken to? Dr. Spock’s epochal book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care from 1946 was not translated into Finnish until 1957. Much had happened before then. It was a world where adults ruled and very few children where treated as human beings.

Shoals of children inhabited the postwar years, more than ever before. There was no need to listen to them; they were ignored, at the very least reprimanded. The direction of communication was clear: it was imperative to show how inferior these creatures were who roamed the backyards. Children were pests. Parents didn’t even need to try to be parents with the result that children developed a language of their own. Righteous religiosity as the language of parental authority was declining and had not yet been replaced by anything better – other than war stories. Everybody knew how to use a knife and fork, and how to behave, but the “civilising process” had largely remained unfi nished – and not just because of the war. Although war had interrupted the process, it had also swept the table clean of Judgement Day stories. The journey to Hell and back had been made during the war.

In the forest, boys could somehow feel closer to their fathers whose mumbled tales of war fi lled their heads with the suffocating notions of heroism and honour. And school had taught them to think rigidly. Boys became obstinate blockheads who behaved awkwardly in public, stifl ed by their own inhibitions. Something was fundamentally wrong. To counter- balance all this dishonour boys needed a powerful unoffi cial world. When in the Fifties, thanks to faster cars and improved roads, the world diminished in size, the map of boyhood expanded – the backyards opened and boys opened up in the backyards. The backyard continued into the thickets and spinneys beyond that could easily be imagined as jungles. The escape route back soon closed behind them and the way forward stretched without limit. A little seemed a lot, big enough to get lost in. Nobody cared how far you ran. Nobody was watched. The main thing was that the boys were out of the way.

Boys lived in a single-gender world, mixing only mixed with boys. It was the latency phase, the time before sexuality, before the discovery of poetry, before art, before metasensitisation, before the voluntary purgation of the past. The onus of heroism and honour weighed heavily: at school they sang songs that carried them into the midst of battles. The words of the Song of the Athenians (1933) inspired: “How beautiful to die bravely in front of the troop / battling for my homeland, my people. / With burning passion I defend the land of my birth, / Gloriously sacrifi cing myself for my children!” Thus was the cult of death taught (”It’s sweet and fi tting to die for one’s country”…). The paths of honour were also the paths of escape and the way to endogenous independence. The holy pneuma of patriotism hovered above them, breeding images of falling in the fi eld of honour – just for the fun of it. Another tendency was boyish resistance, but it was undifferentiated and could only occur in forests and did not crystallise until decades later.

The children of the Fifties tried desperately “to understand and process what their parents had been through” (Soili Hautamäki, see Tuominen 1991, p. 75). Mothers were housewives; the children of these so-called nuclear families were cared for but perhaps more for appearances sake, what mattered most was that you had wore a clean shirt in public. The Boy Scouts and Sunday school dispense whatever moral lessons their parents might have neglected but the spirit of the message was the same. Traditions were continued that the war had interrupted. All talk about “reconstruction” was anachronistic. Finland had already been built! All that was needed were new houses for veterans.’

The men returning from the war were silent and the pictures on the nursery walls were sentimental, expressing the “wrong sensitivity”. Every second veteran had a gaping wound that open and close all the time. “Father was rather frightening”, distant, diffi cult to approach. War had taught him never to let the enemy get too close. Fathers had become blinkered in their thinking as though their feelings were fenced in by barbed wire. Jouko Ikäheimo wrote about it in Suomen Kuvalehti magazine in 1969: “Anyway, fathers saw everything in terms of squares and rectangles and the like (…). All we needed was a bit of interest, a bit of affection. But instead of showing empathy they forced us to relive their war.” (Ikäheimo, see Tuominen 1991, pp. 75-76).

Boyhood topics of conversation were limited, especially in adult company. This was the result of men’s conversation being limited to cars, the weather and war. Adult talk did not concern children. And if it did, it was mainly demands or something else negative. Children faced expectations that would have been unthinkable to an adult. Adults had survived the war, but children had been trampled on during the process. “Children were saddled with the burden of their parents’ disappointments and suffering,” (Tuominen 1991, p. 75). You had to say “Thank you” after a good thrashing. “We have worked hard for you.” Even though boyhood in the Fifties had its own unique history, certain features of it were repeated from one generation to the next. As Boris Pasternak wrote: “and everybody knows how unbounded are the years of boyhood” (1959, p. 137).

Boys played at cops and robbers, sheriff’s offi ce, the Foreign Legion. They were the “road maps”, minefi elds of childhood. Far fl ung places became familiar from the glossy, colourful little maps printed by the Union Bank of Finland with their capitals, mountains and deserts. The backyard extended into the cosmos. The backwoods went on forever, the epochs overlapped. You could move imaginarily from one era to another. Comic books offered the fi rst contact to the world of action heroes. The Pecos Bill comic strip revealed that the hero had been suckled by a prairie wolf (see Riikonen 1992, p. 137). The backyard was indispensable, without clear boundaries, but an incomparable indicator of action: a jungle at hand – for hands and feet. Simulated jungle vines hung between the trees whose crowns became lookouts. Self-built dens were cramped, the weapons deadly: spears, cudgels, swords, bows; arsenals, weapon dumps. Still nobody lost their life.

The subsiding shockwaves of the cult of self-sacrifi ce pushed boys in another direction from that of their parents’ childhood in the 1930s. Anglo-Saxon cracks appeared in the patriotic, god-fearing culture. Radio plays opened up a new level of meaning, a new Faustian depth of experience. Above all Pekka Lipponen’s adventures, but also “African Queen” and “Hello, My Name is Cox”. Further “education” came from comics: Flash Gordon, Tex Willer, Classics Illustrated.

The process of civilising children was stymied because adults did not know what it was. There was no time for the cultivation of fi ne manners because Finland was struggling in the midst of post-war scarcity. But it was sympathy that was in short supply. Children were always being held to account for their actions. Adults didn’t have to explain anything; not even their worst behaviour. It was not until the 1960s that a change occurred; children acquired human rights – slowly.

In the 1950s adults and children shared an infantile culture of shame. Religioin has loosened its prescriptive grip; it no longer dictated what constituted “shame”. Children were only partially present in adult society. All communication with them was confi ned to the bare essentials. As Erik Erikson observed: “One is visible and not ready to be visible” (1994, p. 110). Already small and cowering, children shrunk even more under their burden of shame. Shame was inbuilt, something from which you had to fl ee, to hide from in the backwoods. In a child’s mind, the sense of shame was easily transformed into something grotesque, especially when a neighbour could deliver the ultimate verdict with a single glance: “What would the neighbour say about this?”

Children were easily excluded from the fabric of the adult world. Parental authority was the foundation stone of family order. Nothing else mattered. Great effort was devoted to children, but the futility of this work and how it was expressed, paralysed, and brought on a sense of rejection. Still, you had to eat what you were given. Parents fussed when it was unnecessary and failed to fuss when they should have. Children were outcasts who rejected their ostensibly positive negation. It’s amazing how quickly (Erikson’s) “basic trust” turned into mistrust! Childhood as such was not recognised and praise was not given when it could have been.


Mäkilä approaches boyhood from two directions: showing boys either in the middle of wild nature or in a variety of interiors. These two ways of treating the motif produce interesting differences. By using dissimilar ways of painting, light is shed on two entirely different worlds.

In the forest the boys are possessed by wild mythical thinking, perform animal sacrifi ce rites and undergo endurance tests. Oaths are sworn, their potency enhanced by the powerful light fi ltering through the trees. Mäkilä brings the forest to glow in a medley of brown and grey-green hues. The gang of boys and its activities are submerged in the changing colours of the forest: in the dark, mist, smoke and light. As the gang retreats, it fades into an ever deepening grey fog.

The boys act in unison, freed from mundanity by their rituals. The fresh forest is a realm of freedom, without boundaries. Acts of destruction and animal sacrifi ce unburden their young minds. They act as one, as a loyal group in which all are equals. As they wander off to their homes, the strung-up sacrifi ces left behind no longer seem important, mere accidental by-products of their activities. The group is coherent, united by its activities: there’s no classroom dust or school smell in the forest.

Midsummer Bonfires (2012) is about scorched earth policy. Smoke covers the ground. A huge pig grubs among the skulls. Fire both destroys and cleanses. When memories burn they also return. Grand Illusion (2009) tells of deeds of bravery at the wheel of a car. The field fills with aimless action without any specifi c goal or function. Mäkilä: “You were always on the go. The darker the place, the more inquisitive you became.” Anything discarded became sacred to the gang.

Mäkilä’s portrayal of what the boys are doing in the forest is pretty straightforward whereas his interiors are full of ambiguities and strange, acrimonious fi gures. In the forest, Mäkilä places the gang distant from the viewer, whereas in his interiors the boys are nearer to the illusory foreground of the picture. In School Gang (2009) the boys are in detention, under sentence. Above the row of lads is a row of portraits of Finnish presidents. The boys are in the natural history room where it is always dark. Dusty taxidermic animals stare out from vitrines. Outside is perpetual spring, inside perpetual shame. The lads look alike, the same age, the “same straight mugs” sharing their vacuity like pocket-money. However, the spirit of rebellion smoulders inside them.

External and internal realities do not match each other. The 1950s turned boys into duplicated clones, tubby sentinels in school, but agile guerrillas in the forest depths. For some unknown reason you had to wear a white shirt, but everyone knew it got dirty straight away. Detention was normal because in any case you were always on trial. Mäkilä sets the boys’ ominous, obstinate resistance contra jour the summery light. What was it the writer Hannu Salama said: “We are all children of soldiers!”

The key work in the exhibition, Jytky – Devil’s Dance (2012), takes the measure of Tyko Sallinen’s Expressionist Jytkyt (The Barn Dance) painting from 1918. The tempo of the dance, however, is somewhat different. The boys vary in dimension. One heavy-set boy dances on top of an over-sized skull. The child drummers in men’s clothes are still children. Larger than life heads stare in from the high windows, eyes goggling in curiosity. Mäkilä comments: “You were always sneaking a look”. You had to get in, poke your nose in everywhere, go to the fair. The funfair was over in the wink of an eye, “closed down” when Mäkilä’s best friend got run over by a car. This is shown in Circus Boy (2012).

In Boys’ Game (2011) drums accompany an unnatural scrap. The boys are intensely inscrutable. This is “genre painting” par excellence: it portrays how not to live and how life is lived anyway; life is a fi ght for the sake of fi ghting. The door of the rusty room hangs open, on the horizon the burned outline of a house. Mäkilä’s home appears in several pictures as a secondary theme. Dr Freud enters the room. The familiar and cosy suddenly become something foreign, almost uncanny: the “long familiar” inexplicitly becomes uncomfortable (Freud 2005, p. 31). We have entered the world of das Unheimliche. Also, according to Freud, multiplication or doubling is an essential characteristic of the familiar yet uncanny: vacuous and characterless little drummers fi ll the dilapidated yet familiar classrooms and halls.

The illusory space of Mäkilä’s paintings present the world of tomorrow’s men from which girls, women and mothers are totally excluded. There is only the trampling generation and gender of boys. In the 1950s, girls belonged to another culture about which little was known. In the boys’ world dialogue was substituted by alikeness and like-mindedness.

In the paintings, dogs and boys rush around in the same space but never meet. These two species are analogous, but occupy different worlds. Moreover, each boy is alone in the group, neither communicating nor looking at each other. Each is in his own closed system – in the same room, beside the same fire. This concerns the drummers most of all. They play everywhere and in all conditions. They are like signs of reckless reproduction: conceived from nowhere and filling half-empty rooms. They are indistinguishable from each other. Dressed in white shirts – nothing stops them doing their business in the corner. The drummers are like tiny mechanical animals, clonking Meccanoites. These anal-retentive drummer boys are repeating surrogates: drumable multiplications à la Freud and Oedipus. The repressive experience is duplicated.

Mäkilä has also sculpted his ageless boys in clay. They step out from the illusory world of the canvas and fill the real exhibition space: the viewer is surrounded by a hundred little men. A Boy Called Daisy – Päivi (2011) portrays a hulking rascal in even bigger women’s shoes: a day as a woman. In times of protracted war, soldiers relieved their boredom by putting on revues in which they impersonated women. When the boys are everywhere like cobblestones, one always has to be sacrifi ced. Women’s shoes have always been the signposts of all memories feminine. You simply have to step into them.

Small boys and drummers in men’s clothes beetle around the derelict and dilapidated hall. Two time levels coincide: the past reconquers the present from decay. Patina is the medium through which Mäkilä portrays the Fifties. Patina weathers the present into a past. It’s impossible to return to what was, which is why the old should be turned into something even older, a ruin. The little fellows romp around in the present, in a time-patinated space. Mäkilä applies the patina to the canvas in loose lumps of oil paint, thus bringing the form and content of the picture together.

In the Armoured Room (2012), ageless scamps with heads dwarfed by men’s clothes take the measure of each other. There’s something degenerate, sleazy about them. Sweat weathers the walls of the gym, bringing forth the victorious march of grey: youth is already far distant and greying. Mäkilä handles the interior perspective brilliantly: it is sharpest nearest the illusory

foreground. So much so, that the nearest boys are more vertical and this enhances the threedimensionality of the canvas.

When we look at Mäkilä’s paintings, we’re not “there” in the past, but here where lost time comes back doubled in fi ctional language. We’re looking at meta-images of boyhood. The Fifties are not “documented”, but metaphors are allowed to speak and time levels rattle. Nothing, yet everything, is straightforward.

The fascination with bodily fl uids does not cease with childhood but continues on into boyhood. Magic Circle (2012) portrays boys’ fascination with their bodily discharges – snot, shit and fart. From time to time, we live in a fl atulent paradise. The painting illustrates the moment when an abject leaves the object, explosively changing into a tongue of fl ame. The glimmering fi re casts shadows on the wall tinged with grotesque nuances.

Boys are like little men that multiply nightmarishly, without psyches, drumming monotonously. They peer in from every window and enter from every cranny. They have no means of spoken communication. Boys are young oldies, ageless already in boyhood. The cosy becomes alien, repetition rules.

The mood in All My Father’s Birds II (2012) is dreamy. Father sits in an armchair, his face behind a plaster mask. Small children and drummers fi ll the room. Some of them fl oat to the ceiling, one’s in a vitrine. Beside the armchair is a wolf. The psychical mood of the painting is very close to No 20 of Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichos series of aquatints depicting plucked birdmen: “If they have already been plucked, get them out; there will be others coming along.” The little drummer boys propagate suggestively: pure Unheimlich multiplication.

The mood is stiffl y magical, concentrated and fervent; no-one’s being bullied. The movements are slow and dreamy – each boy in his own world, except the father. He’s wide awake, but behind a mask: “Everything’s under control”. He has two little men on his lap, but not too close. The boys fl oating in the air symbolise the resurrection.

Mäkilä’s scale models of his family home are spectral. The “uncanny” experience fuses with the Brechtian effect of alienation: there is my homy home, but it’s shrouded in a horrid spider’s web, or frozen, or too high and spinning with withdrawal symptoms. His home lives an independent, timeless and spaceless existence of its own. It can be viewed as a marginal reference within the painting or simply as a huge frozen home standing on clay feet under a frozen roof.

All in all, das Unheimliche is realised at two levels: the model of the home acquires almost unrecognisable layers or it is shown burned; furthermore, the multiplication of the drummers causes another unpleasant, uncosy mechanical effect. The wolf, on the other hand, appears to have made itself at home beside father’s armchair.

Mäkilä is an archaeologist of Fifties’ emotions. The categories become clear once the dust has settled. Freud: we see the manifest content of a dream but the dream thoughts remain hidden and demand interpretation. That which is deserted is conquered, but it disintegrates again. Lost time acquires a new mischievous layer.

Mäkilä’s paintings nail boyhood memories to the present day through the thick interpretative layer of the present. History is “over there” and we cannot reach it except by shaping our own interpretation of it in the present. Mäkilä’s double lighting gives the paintings a supra-historical, fi ctive, sparkling meta-level, like the joyful drumming of a doleful clown. Jarmo Mäkilä elegantly frees himself from the realities of his own boyhood in the direction of fantasy, yet well captures the grotesque nature of that time when intelligence and discretion never met. Boyhood is a time of exaggeration, even extreme exaggeration.

In actual fact, the sense of the grotesque and time of boyhood are synonymous with hardly a border between them. Memories have no boundaries, only countless layers. Recollection twists and turns the object of experience. Grotesque is the state of distorted paradox and the turning of everything upside-down. Signs change completely and dimensions differ, and the minus beside the main motif of the painting becomes a plus. The hidden superego is illuminated by surplus; boys are the surplus of their own childhood. A great drummer emerges and he drums memories fl at and smooth. Mäkilä’s paintings impart the idea that boyhood is like an aimless drum march that lasts a lifetime.