It is quite surprising how few paintings depict boys of an adventurous age, those active scallywags who prefer to take on the world by themselves or with guys of their own age. At that age puberty has still not taken its toll of mind and body, neither do they seem to be particularly interested in the world of “chicks”, in fact quite on the contrary. The portrayal of children and youth is usually linked to educational or metaphorical purposes. A classic example is the graphic genre painting by the Dutch master Jan Steen “As the Old Sing, so Pipe the Young” (circa 1663). Despite its apparent gaiety, it points a finger at the evil of drunkenness and misbehaviour and the power of adult example. Child images from the German Romance period aroused the hope of new more spiritual age. Paraphrasing one of Jesus’s parables, Philipp Otto Runge believed that “We must become children again if we wish to achieve the best.” In his famous “The Hülsenbeck Children” (1805) the kiddies have been clearly idealised but still appear to be playing free of adult supervision.
Classicism, like 19th century historical painting created an image of glorious antiquity. It permitted the portrayal of nudity in a suitable context as can be seen in Edgar Degas’s early work “Young Spartans Exercising” (1860-62). The boys exercise naked but the girls are partly covered. Later on Degas concentrated on scenes from modern life and the world of young dancing girls. In genre painting, realism and naturalism brought to art the themes of childhood and youth. Finnish artists sought their national roots in the harsh life of remote villages in Carelia. Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s paintings of the “Shepherd Boy from Paanajärvi” (1893) offer good examples of this. Another Finnish painter, Eero Järnefelt, did not need to go quite so far to paint his Tolstoyan work “Under the Yoke (Burning the Brushwood)” (1893). The central figure is a sooty-faced girl surrounded by a smoky halo who appeals to the viewers’ feelings by staring straight at them from the canvas.
Puberty and prepuberty held a particular fascination for late 19th and early 20th century symbolists and other modernists. The puberty of girls was often used to symbolise the coming of spring. You only have to think of the two versions of Puvis de Chavannes’s “Hope” (circa 1872) with their suggestion of awakening sexuality. Perhaps the most dramatic portrayal of adolescence in art history was by Edvard Munch. His “Puberty” paintings from 1893 and 1894 are full of agony and anguish. An awkward, naked girl casts a black threatening shadow on the wall. Death penetrates many symbolist works, as in “Boy with Skull” (1893) by the Finnish artist Magnus Enckell. It is basically an adult melancholic meditation whereas in Mäkilä’s “Homecoming” (2014) painting the boys are carelessly playing with a skull; death is part of the game, but emotionally empty.
I’ll look at the book pdf over the weekend and let you know if there are any mistakes.The theme of approaching adolescence
often appears to suggest homoerotic longing as in Magnus Enckell’s “The Awakening” (1893). In its portrayal of the awkwardness of puberty it is remarkably similar to Paul Gauguin’s “Breton Boy” (1889).
The idea for the Russian symbolist painter Kuzma Petrov- Vodkin’s “Boys at Play” (1911) came from Henri Matisse’s “Dancing” (1909-10). The two young asexual figures in “Music” (1910), which comes from the same series, points to another contemporary theme, youthful androgyny, a stage in life in which femininity and masculinity are merged.
Writing about Mary Cassatt’s paintings in the 1880s, the critic and author Joris-Karl Huysmans claimed that only a woman could portray childhood. The idyllic families in Cassatt’s and Berthe
Morisot’s paintings concentrate on children, but where are the young rascals hiding? Not even 20th century surrealists were interested in what they were doing, even though they believed what psychoanalysis taught about the importance of childhood and adolescence to adults.
A TAXI INTO CHILDHOOD
Jarmo Mäkilä’s work in the 2000s fathoms the depths of the middle- aged man’s world by creating a dreamy drama. Early, oppressive memories lay the basis for an adult man’s consciousness, creating a tension between the past and the present: childhood never ends and exacts its toll throughout life.
In his comic strip book “Taxi into van Gogh’s Ear”, a Mäkilä look-alike passes through various states of mind in the form of daydreams. Space fantasies and floating in the air – images of child omnipotence – soon change into nocturnal forests in which a man “must go either forward or backwards, into the future or the past.” Before long he comes to the river of no return and sinks so deeply that his parents’ deeds and absolute prohibitions of his parents resemble the presence of death. Growing up is an unavoidable experience. Meeting up with his deceased father is a cathartic experience and the vision of him rising on wings from the burning home reminds one of Anthony Gormley’s colossal “Angel of the North” statue in Gateshead, England. Finally the taxi draws up outside a wendy-house version of his otherwise intact home. Time stops, it’s year zero, and the beginning of what the book’s name indicates, a new period of creativity. To mark this, penguins swim over his home, commuting between two elements above and below the surface of the world. Birds of the subconscious. Mäkilä dedicated the book to his father.
Returning to childhood is not easy, especially when it involves difficult experiences. Perhaps that’s why Mäkilä is the only artist in Finland who actively treats pre-adolescence in boys. They are not shown as individuals or individually but as members of a group. They build their social world and mutual hierarchy independently of adult control. Their games are sometime far from amusing, for they hunt, invent shamanistic transmutations, light raging bonfires, threaten and strengthen group loyalty through oath rituals.
I think the closest parallel to Mäkilä’s works is literary, William Golding’s classic “The Lord of the Flies” (1954). A group of British schoolboys stranded on a tropical island spontaneously create their own miniature society but soon divide into two groups: one that supports civility and reason, the other violence and dictatorship. Once they get the taste for blood and hunting the boys sink to the level of predatory animals. The island threatens to become a killing ground and two of the boys are killed before the arrival of adults puts an end to the process. Things are not quite so wild in Jarmo Mäkilä’s works, but then Golding’s novel was not his source of inspiration. The special threatening atmosphere in his paintings comes from the stiff sameness of the boys. Their expressionlessness is cast from the same mould. They’re dressed in identical shirts and trousers, their shoes are the same. Only size distinguishes them in the group. Size is strength, size is power and authority.
On the other hand you could imagine that the boys are different sides or roles of one and the same persona. It would be easier sometimes to be the tallest and play the biggest drum. It would be easier to order others rather than be ordered. This similarity within the group is illustrative of group dynamism: the pressure of uniformity is great and he who differs from the ‘herd’ will fall into disfavour or even be expelled from the group. Even if the artist has titled one of his paintings “Forest Bandits” this band of boys does not sink into anarchy. The internal norms of children are set by adults but with age and growing independence they also develop their own rules. Even so they are not arbitrary or accidental. The games they play are ritualistic in character and one of their functions is to curb aggression. Perhaps they are also limited by the “mirror neurons”, that special nerve cell discovered by Vittorio Galles. This gives people the ability to feel compassion and interpret the others’ experiences. Socialisation is a biological phenomenon shaped by evolution.
In Jarmo Mäkilä’s latest paintings the forest is mostly a background and the boys’ field of action. It’s also the place where the adult passenger lands up in the taxi story. Superficially the forest appears to be realistic, an overgrown mixed forest of the type found anywhere in Finland. But atmospherically, however, it’s dreamlike. Sunlight penetrates so powerfully that you can’t see through the trees and thickets. This creates a shining, enclosed stage with a baffling perspective where light prevents the space from growing. When the boys arrive in the midst of the forest, they are welcomed by the “Forest Mother”, the opposite of the prohibitive family mother. Normal time stops. Games begin to create an imaginary space and bend time accordingly.
Writing in “Boys’ Games” (2012), art critic Altti Kuusamo offers a poignant psychoanalytical study of Jarmo Mäkilä’s paintings, linking them to the artist’s childhood experiences on the one hand and on the other to the painful post-war recovery of Finnish soci ety in the 1950s, the impenetrable personality of his father and his overly solicitous mother.
However, Jarmo Mäkilä’s paintings and sculptures are not simply autobiographical. Conscious and semi-conscious memories become confused with the world of adult experience, particularly that of art. In the early stages of his career, Mäkilä was known for his skilful compositions. His arranged paintings were characterised by the sharp diagonal compositions inspired by cubism and constructivism.
At no time has modernist composition completely disappeared from Mäkilä’s works. It appears most clearly in his paintings where everything happens inside; in a school, or homes or some unrecognisable building. The artist “hangs” his little boys on a trapeze to create an overall tension in the composition. The three-dimensionality of the paintings is a cubist technique that gives an unreal twist. In addition it looks as though the figures have no psychological connection to each other, whether they’re beating a dead elk or on the floor of the school gym. The mood is enigmatic. It’s destructive, yet apparently motiveless.
It may sound a bit far-fetched to compare Mäkilä’s works to the paintings of the Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux. But these petrified, wax-like figures in their dreamy, often macabre milieus reveal some remarkable similarities. However, the stage for Delvaux’s figures is quite different. It is often based on classical architecture but can also be modern like a railway yard complete with trains. Furthermore, Delvaux’s figures are naked women as seen by men. Their voyeurism and sexuality hark back to another age. Mäkilä’s boys, on the other hand, are in a state of suspended animation. The process of growth, however, has not stopped. In one of Mäkilä’s sculptures the spurned boys break free from cardboard boxes like chicks from eggs. In addition to its allegorical message, the work also has a dramatic background. Someone the artist knew found an abandoned baby in a cardboard box in China and adopted the child who now enjoys a new life in Finland.
The closest comparison to Mäkilä’s art – if not the most direct – is to be found in Germany, in the paintings of the so-called New Leipzig School. This is not uniform movement but artists like Mathias Perlet, Neo Rauch and Tilo Baumgärtel create enigmatic, ambiguous happenings whose interpretative challenge is comparable to Mäkilä’s works. Perhaps the most pertinent are Baumgärtel’s fairytale-like creations, whereas it has been aptly said of Mathias Perlet’s works that he strives for a non-verbal dialogue. The same can be said about Mäkilä’s works.