PAULIINA PIETILÄ: The global loneliness

08/27/2018 23:31

I have had the fortune of sharing a great interest in art with my sisters. Like me, they find a great pleasure in visiting exhibitions and look at pictures. When we meet, we often go to galleries and museums together and become enthusiastic about our shared experiences.

A few months ago I found myself together with my oldest sister and her husband at the Malmö museum where I was caught by a painting by Pauliina Pietilä. She had captured a nightly image of an entrance to a tenement house in Malmö, the biggest town in the south of Sweden, lying by the shore of the sound that separates it from Copenhagen. The paining was named after the address  ̶  Lönngatan 1. I recognized the place not only because I knew where Lönngatan 1 was located, but also because I have seen many such entrances during nightly walks through the big cities, especially within the suburbs of Stockholm and in Malmö. I was well acquainted with the sterile emptiness of these abodes.

For a few years, I lived in Alby, one of Stockholm's suburbs with it is typical, huge, anonymous housing blocks and areas with wilting greenery close by a subway station and a large shopping mall. One day, my closest neighbour told me:

A month ago, an elderly relative visited me. Like me he is from Teheran. He who was wondering if he could really go out alone in the evening. When I wondered if something had happened during his walk down to the grocery store, he replied that it had not happened anything at all, everything was empty, no people around and that was exactly what had made him anxious. Since there had not been a living soul around and the store had been closed he feared that there was a curfew and that the military at any time could show up to arrest him.

In Malmö, I have often felt like a stranger. I have never lived there, but on several occasions I have worked at various schools in that city. Over the years I have also had several friends down there and it happened that I during my youth slept over in their apartments, after visiting bars, restaurants and other apartments. I was always a visitor, because I either lived in Hässleholm, Lund, New York or Rome.

Pauliina Pietilä, who was born in the small town of Ilmajoki in Finland in 1982 but now lives in Malmö, has told how she during nightly walks from her studio to her apartment had become fascinated by lights from shop windows and apartments. She was engulfed by a peculiar atmosphere of exclusion and loneliness, linked to the intimacy that might be present in anonymous apartments, or shops that were resting after a day's febrile activities. She tried to capture this mood in her paintings. She considered them to be a depiction of a collective mood, uniting her thoughts with what the light from shops and homes appeared to be telling her. There are no people in her paintings.

Pauliina Pietilä's observations and the entrance on Lönngatan 1 reminded me of the exclusion I had felt in Malmö. I have never understood that town, despite its lush parks, outdoor dining, cafés and pubs, combined with the some kind of rough kindness I have often encountered among Malmö´s inhabitants. Perhaps that is why I still remember a cameo I many years ago came across in William S. Burrough's Naked Lunch. By the way, Burroughs is a writer I have difficulties to appreciate. I cannot stand his superior cynicism and persistent fascination with drugs and extreme violence:

…  what hits you when you get off the Malmö Ferry (no juice tax on the ferry) in Sweden knocks all that cheap, tax free juice right out of you and brings you all the way down: averted eyes and the cemetery in the middle of town (every town in Sweden seems to be built around a cemetery), and nothing to do in the afternoon, not a bar not a movie and I blasted my last stick of Tangier tea and said, ”K.E. let´s get right back on that ferry.”

The mood that Pauliina Pietila's paintings produce is different; more thoughtful and quietly melancholic. However, a feeling of estrangement is present in all of them. I have never been to Finland, except for short stop overs at Helsinki Airport, but through pictures and books, I have created a mental picture of the country, which may not be entirely in accordance with reality, but nevertheless may be applied to Pauliina's childhood experiences in Ilmajoki.

Even as a child, growing up in Ilmajoki in Finland, where the darkness dominated the surroundings most of the year, she was fascinated by the bright spots in the landscape that became especially prominent travelling by car in the darkness among the area’s scattered villages and small communities.

I cannot really explain why, but when I read that description my inner vision conjured how a car is driving through a deep, wintry forest, instead of across the flat plain that apparently surrounds Ilmajoki. Perhaps it was because I tend to associate Finland with my much admired Moomin-books, set as they are in deep forests, among high mountains and on sea shores, all this far from Ilmajoki. Tove Jansson's books are primarily inspired by impressions from the islands of Bildö in the Swedish archipelago and Klovharun in Finland's southern archipelago. However, her books are imbued with depths of threatening mysteries emanating from deep forests, desolate seas and unknown mountain ranges.

Tove Janson was, in many ways, a child of the Swedish-speaking coastal areas of Finland, to some extent quite different from Ilmajoki's mostly Finnish-speaking inland, which hundreds of years earlier had become the centre of the legendary Cudgel War (thus called because the revolting peasants´ main weapons were heavy, wooden clubs). This war is still remembered and honoured by Ilmajoki´s inhabitants. Hungry and war-tired peasants did in the winter of 1595-96 rebel against Clas Fleming's, bailiff regime. Inspired by Duke Karl, who intended to conquer the Swedish crown from his nephew Sigismund, the peasants rose against the corrupt authorities, all in vain since Duke Karl did not lift a finger to support them. The revolutionaries were eventually massacred by Fleming's mercenaries. Leader of the rebellion was the war veteran Jacob Bengtson Ilkka, born and raised in Ilmajoki. Bengtson Illka was eventually captured, tortured and executed.

However, despite these differences I find the mysterious mood in Pauliina Pietiläs's art to be comparable to impressions I carry with me from Tove Janson's Moomin-books. Perhaps a contributing factor may be the fact that Tove's life companion was Tuulikki Pietilä, who, although born in the United States, spent her childhood and youth in Åbo/Turku, the coastal town not far from Ilmajoki. Perhaps is Pietilä a common Finnish name?

When I look at Pauliina Pietilä's pictures of attic storages, I associate with the lonely Moomin troll when he has suddenly woken up from his midwinter hibernation and finds that his otherwise so familiar home has turned into new, strange world.

Like the Moomin troll wandering through his winter-changed childhood environment, Pauliina Pietilä makes us revisit Malmö´s tenement houses, their familiar but night-changed and deserted streets. She lets us look up at the illuminated windows of the apartments.

When we had some additional rooms constructed to our house in Bjärnum, our friend, the builder Roland Hansson, installed electrical outlets above the windows. When I asked him why he did that, Roland explained that it was because it allowed us to install lamps to brighten up the flowers and ornaments we placed on the windowsills. Then I realized that in Sweden, unlike for example New York and Rome, home windows serve like some of exhibition areas where flowers and beautiful objects are displayed for the appreciation of onlookers. You do not pull down any blinds or shades, but allow outsiders to enjoy the mild light of your homes and the plants you proudly display. It is somewhat bewildering that Swedish tenants, who generally appear to be quite reserved and reclusive are able to arrange such alluring displays on their window sills. 

The fact that Pauliina Pietilä's vistas has something of a Peeping Tom´s standpoint seems to be confirmed by the fact that her house façades sometimes are surveyed through bushes, or groves.

The estrangement present in Pietilä's visual approach is often conveyed in the art of other realists. Her stairwells and bleak city motifs are found among German artists belonging to the group called Die Neue Sachlickeit, The New Objectivity, active in the 1920s and 1930s.

This realistic style of painting was very influential during the interwar period and similar approaches simultaneously appeared in many different places, for example in Sweden, and not least in the Soviet Union.

In Italy, we find an artist like Mario Sironi, who was an active member of the Fascist party, and depicted desolate urban landscapes of northern Italy. 

Carlo Carrá was another gifted painter, who like many other contemporary, Italian avant-garde artists also had fascist inclinations, also favoured a sparse style, mainly exhibited within a rural context.

The like-minded Pyke Koch portrayed his contemporary Holland with unscrupulous realism.

It is primarily solitude and exclusion which is depicted by these artists, no matter what political affiliation they had. Like the Fascists mentioned above several Communist artist were also inclined to transform reality into magic realism. Perhaps in accordance with Bertolt Brecht's recipe for the theatre. What he called the Verfremdungseffekt, the Effect of Estrangement, meaning that the actually unnatural theatrical world was combined with a specific manner of acting with the intention of inducing spectators in a state of critical attention, rather than, through illusions and tricks that tended to distance them from a contemplation about the real state of affairs.

The politicised theatre primary task was to remind audiences that they in reality witnessed a performance that intended to make them aware of the fact that it was a comment on reality, not reality in itself, thus enabling the onlooker to perceive the world in a new, more attentive manner. For example, making the spectator realize that our Western World is governed and manipulated by Capitalism. Even if the collective is at the central stage, existence is in social realist art nevertheless often experienced and seen through the eyes and mind of an individual. Perhaps this was one reason to why Die Neue Sachlickeit survived for so long in Communist East Germany.

Even in a Soviet Union controlled by State induced Social Realism, some limited space was allowed for personal, artistic expression. A few years ago, I saw in Rome a comprehensive exhibition of Soviet Social Realism and was surprised to find the skilled craftsmanship of several of the paintings. Lighting and composition were often impressive. One of the most important artists was Isaak Brodsky, who executed hero worshipping depictions of Lenin, Stalin and other potentates, not the least the rude and incompetent Kliment Voroshilov, Stalin's unsuccessful Comrade and Minister of War. Nevertheless, Brodsky´s art was despite its highly dubious motifs, certainly not any mass produced poster art, the dexterity of his work was quite often excellent. For example, the winter landscape behind a somewhat ridiculous presentation of a skiing Voroshilov was very competently reproduced.

Brodsky's Stakhanoviste, Model Workers, are often presented alone and seen from startling viewpoints within boldly depicted industrial landscapes.

Another skilled artist, Viktor Popkov, also portrayed Working Heroes.

However, occasionally he did not hesitate to depict a rather grim Soviet reality, like his representation of a worker who has collapsed with fatigue, on a worn couch under a bare light bulb.

Likewise do not Geliy Korzhev´s stark portraits of widows and soldiers reveal any unsavoury homage to larger than life fighters for socialist freedom.

Alexander Deineka's paintings show a brighter Soviet, with sporting events, sunny vacation days, daily work within brightly lit, clean factory premises, but also rural scenes of idealized kolkhozes. By Deinika we also find, like in the work of Brodsky, Popkov and Korzhev, single individuals, liberated from the collective, in situations we may easily identify with. Like his summer-light depiction of a "young kolkhoz worker" cycling through a landscape. A picture making me remember warm summer days when I alone cycled through the beautiful scenery surrounding my hometown.

However, loneliness is even more prominent among American realists from the same time period. There we are confronted with the perhaps most prominent painter of isolation  ̶  Edward Hopper. Like Pauliina Pietilä, he often excels in presenting desolate urban landscapes, though they are usually not set at dusk or dawn, but presented in strong sunshine. Some of his paintings do depict urban night scenes. However, in them, unlike in Pietilä´s work, we find one and another lone night wanderer, who also occasionally appear in the contemporary, desolate night scenes of the Belgian Léon Spillaert.

Hopper´s and Spillaert's landscapes radiate a remarkable silence and so do the paintings of the Canadian realist Alex Colville. A man is sitting with a dog at his feet listening to his wife's piano playing, though despite its depiction of music listening, the painting exudes a complete silence, being strangely calm and reassuring.

Silence also prevails around Hopper's lone restaurant customers, or other loners in hotel lobbies, offices, work-shops and cinemas. Like Pietilä's art, Hopper´s scenes have a voyeur quality. He depicts silent scenes, almost as if they had been cut out from a film strip. They portray something; maybe are people talking to each other, but we do not hear them. Something is going to happen, but we don´t know what it might be.

As with Pietilä, there may be a glass between the viewer and the observed. As when a waitress places fruits in a restaurant window.

Display windows are actually an invitation to looking.  When I first saw Pietilä's pictures, I immediately came to think of the Swedish artist Ola Billgren. When I was studying in Lund, I often walked past Anders Tornberg Gallery, located right behind the huge cathedral. At one point, I became fascinated by a big canvas by Ola Billgren. I still cannot explain why I was so captivated by this work of art, depicting two luxuriously outfitted mannequins (or were they real people?) placed in a shop window in Paris, sitting on a pair of strange chairs in the form of sheep.

Almost daily I went into the gallery to watch the painting. I even asked about its price, a sum that far exceeding my puny assets. Nevertheless, I wondered if I could not come up with a possibility to purchase the painting. Perhaps I could secure some kind of loan? For sure, it is now worth much more. Billgren´s paintings were for some time, and perhaps still is, Sweden's highest priced art.

Display windows are a favourite motif of Richard Estes, an icon of American super-realistic art. He often makes an effort to catch reflections from several mirrors, windows and other reflective surfaces, combining them in such a manner that they form complex patterns, thus turning his paintings into something that may appear as if they were some kind of abstract artwork. Like many other realists, Estes often depicts individuals´ loneliness within sterile, urban landscapes.

After spending a couple of years in New York, I easily recognize the cold, artificial light of a nightly bus station during one of New York's harsh winters.

Once upon a time, I ended up on the Staten Island Ferry, something I was immediately reminded of when I saw Estes's depiction of the humid atmosphere, how the wind was dragging water across the deck and how you through the windows could discern how passengers, weary from work sat slumped on the seats.

And once again, I was confronted with this strange silence that most super-realistic paintings exude. Even when they portray extremely dramatic events, like those depicted in Alfred Leslie´s Killing Cycle, a series of big paintings depicting how his friend, the poet Frank O'Hara, was killed by a car on the beach of Fire Island, just outside Long Island by New York. Leslie's images of intense scenes are involved in a stunning silence. The drama conveys, in spite of all activity and details, not any sense of reality, on the contrary they radiate a theatrical Verfremdung, estrangement.

I do not know if Peter Doig's paintings can be called super-realistic, they have more of an impressionist/expressionistic character. Like his remarkable Echo Lake, inspired by the final scene of the horror movie Friday the Thirteenth. It depicts how a police has climbed out of his patrol car and is standing by the shore of a lake, which surface mirrors him and the surrounding landscape. He shouts across the water, a cry that cannot be heard, frozen as it is in a painting's timelessness.

As I write, memories of one realistic painting after the other appear in my mind. It seems as if their exists a worldwide approach to depicting the alienating sterility of urban landscapes, which despite their lifelessness seem to be imbued with a kind of independent character, reflecting the human condition.

Realism may depict lonely persons in the streets of Berlin, Moscow, New York or Malmö. A poor child in South Africa.

A tired Chinese worker.

Or an Indian street scene where no one seems to have any contact with the others.

The desolation of Australian Sydney, with a lonely man at Jeffrey Smart's painting, Cahill Expressway. This is far beyond my own experiences, but I can still identify with these forlorn persons, like Popkov's tired worker, or Doig's searching police.

A good friend of mine once told me how he suddenly was hit by a blow of melancholy, as he while watching TV was confronted with a man who in Bejing was leaning on a bike, amidst heavy car traffic and other cyclists swarming around him.

I was an almost shocking experience of identification with that man. That could be me, who in the midst of all that noise and traffic had stopped my bike. Maybe he was waiting for someone? I did not think so. He had simply come to think of something and become overwhelmed by his own thoughts. Something burdened him. His wretched economy, his wife, his children´s future, his loneliness?

The image of a lonely Chinese man was just that. A picture, nothing else. We do not know anything about him. In spite of all the life and noise around him he was alone, an outsider. Like the people in some of Ola Billgren´s paintings.

An urban landscape is utterly human, in its entirety it is created and planned by people. Even if they are not there, their presence lingers. The gallerist Eva-Lotta Holm Flach wrote about Pauliina Pietilä's art:

She describes these places and situations as a kind of portraits of people in different moods. There are no people portrayed in the paintings but there is still a strong human presence through the perspective of the gaze, which is looking and is attracted by both artificial and organic qualities in the environment. [...] the paintings are also about sensuality and mystery. Pauliina Pietilä cleverly uses both these qualities in her paintings to create a dreamy atmosphere full of details. . […] These paintings reveal a strong sense of both melancholy and of romance.

This does probably explain why I am affected by Pietilä´s art. As the quotation from Joseph Conrad I use as a motto for my blog: "We live as we dream  ̶  alone." My friend suggested that even in the solitude there is a kind of community, sharing, and this sometimes becomes apparent to me in the kind of realistic art created by artists like Pauliina Pietilä - a presence in the emptiness.

Her depiction of a construction site, deserted in the quiet of the night. It is not populated by Stalinist Stakhanovists, as in Brodsky's paintings or Communist Swedish workers, as in Albin Amelin's paintings from the same period.

Yet, the site has its own, silent existence, telling us about people's endeavour, their determination, daily work. A hole in the middle of the city that reveals that something has been there before, while something new is currently created. Telling us about human life. How we destroy and create.

As we walk through a nightly city, looking up at the light from flats, or into empty business premises. We might meet another night stalker, someone who quickly hurries by, or walks a dog. We see someone sitting alone by a street food place. Street lamps light up our way, the moon is high above us, up there a plane moves under the Milky Way. We have time to think; about ourselves, about others, about our time on earth. The Swedish poet Erik Lindegren has captured something of this:

Somewhere within us we are always together.
Somewhere within us our love cannot escape.
Oh, somewhere
are all the trains gone, while the clocks have stopped:
somewhere within us are we always here and now,
united with others, almost to confusion and mix-up,
we are wonders of miracle and change,
breaking wave, burning roses and snow.

Burroughs, William S. (2015) Naked Lunch: The Restored Text. London: Penguin Modeen Classics. Holm Falch, Eva-Lotta (2016) Pauliina Pietelä. Realismi socialisti: Grande Pittura Sovietica 1920 - 1970 (2011) Milano: Skira. Schall, Ekkehard (2015) The Craft of the Theatre: Seminars and Discussions in Brechtian Theatre. London: Bloomsbury.




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