Paris 1894. Finnish Artists in the Circle of Gauguin and Strindberg
Ester Kumlin is barely 19 years old when she decides to devote herself to painting. She has no idea that her registration at the Finnish Art Society Drawing School in Helsinki in the autumn of 1892 is the beginning of a wonderful adventure that will take her all the way to Paris. She does not know that she is going to fall in love with the whimsical August Strindberg. That Frithjof Tikanoja will purchase her collections of woodcuts by Paul Gauguin. She knows nothing at all about any of this, but only that she wants to learn to paint.
Upon his return from Tahiti in 1893, Paul Gauguin paints relatively little. He wants to sell the paintings he brought back from his trip and exhibits them at the Durand-Ruel Gallery. This doesn’t end up being a successful endeavour. He thus launches into ceramics and woodcuts, hoping to find new outlets. The story says that Gauguin had offered the Noa-Noa works to the young artists that surrounded him. Ester Kumlin brings back nine Noa-Noa woodcuts to Finland. In the 1920s, she relinquishes eight to the merchant Gösta Stenman, who finds a buyer in the form of Frithjof Tikanoja. The Noa-Noa woodcuts, owned by Wilho Sjöström, would have disappeared, and those belonging to Fanny Låstbom, are now at the Art Institute in Chicago.
At the time Ester Kumlin made the acquaintance of August Strindberg in Paris, through her friend Fanny Låstbom, the Swedish author was dealing with his Inferno crises. Kumlin recounts the story under which shocking circumstances she makes the discovery of his strange painting, in the room that the writer occupies in the boarding-house where she also resides, and where there are traces of binge drinking. She also indicates that she would have led Strindberg to William and Ida Molard, where he meets Paul Gauguin. The two men hit it off immediately. Gauguin is making preparations for an auction of his works in order to finance his return to Tahiti, and asks Strindberg to preface his catalogue. « I cannot grasp your art and I cannot love it », Strindberg objected – a refusal that Gauguin decided to publish to offer himself a garish advertisement.
Paul Gauguin’s charisma amazes young artists and writers, who praise his talent in the small reviews of the time. A poet at the Mercure de France, Julien Leclercq, unfurls to promote Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and Auguste Rodin. In 1895, Julien Leclercq settled in the apartment that Gauguin had just left when leaving for Tahiti. Soon after that, he married the Finnish pianist Fanny Flodin. Leclercq is passionate about palmistry and publishes a book illustrated by the photographs of the hands of the geniuses he was able to meet: those of Paul Gauguin and August Strindberg included.
Around Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin, who enjoys impressing young artists, teaches for a few months in an atelier in Paris – Pekka Halonen and Väinö Blomstedt are his students, just as Paul Sérusier had been in Pont-Aven, Brittany. Others, like Jan Verkade, receive Gauguin’s inheritance through Sérusier. Gauguin possesses a still life of Paul Cézanne and some etchings by Edgar Degas, which he considers models to follow. In the city, artists focus on still life, leaving Paris to paint landscapes and figures in Brittany. The discovery of Theosophy in Gauguin’s entourage, orients Finnish artists to a mystical and symbolic inspiration. They adopt an ascetic palette, expressing a melancholy and an inner thinking.
In Ester Kumlin’s Eyes
In Paris and in Brittany, Ester Kumlin finds herself with Finnish and Swedish comrades and a few French artists. The intense sense of freedom facilitates discoveries, and new experiences. Painting is a central part of her life and gives her excuses to leave Finland, where the young girl from a good family was destined for marriage.
Some students have the gift of being noticed, and Wilho Sjöström is one of those. His clashes with the teachers are legendary. Meaning, that the naturalism of Fredrick Ahlstedt or even worse, the classicism of Carl Jahn, seem completely outdated to him. Sjöström wiped the streets with them. And then one day, the final straw, Sjöström is fired. It’s like a signal: all his comrades get up and leave the Drawing School. In this year, 1893, they ask Akseli Gallen-Kallela to correct their work in a atelier they shared in Helsinki.
Expelled from School
Ester Kumlin is not the only girl in the group, but certainly the one with the most temperament. Ali Munsterhjelm enjoys making her portrait with her crazy little locks that surround her face like a halo of light. There is also Bruno Aspelin, who livens up their gatherings by playing the guitar, and Werner von Hausen. Akseli Gallen-Kallela leaves Helsinki, however, and only Sjöström follows him to Sääksmäki. The others listen to his advice: go to Paris! Sjöström joins them later and his studio in Montmartre becomes a friendly center for bohemian artists.
After Vincent Van Gogh
In Paris, Ester Kumlin makes the acquaintance of a Swedish painter, Fanny Låstbom. She is the one who takes her to the Colarossi Academy and presents her to her friend, Ida Ericsson-Molard, a Swedish sculptor married to a half Norwegian musician, William Molard. All together, the Nordic artists find themselves in a joyous atmosphere. Fanny Låstbom takes up a studio in the courtyard, and Ida Molard brought in Paul Gauguin, who lives upstairs. He painted his walls yellow and surrounded himself with strange, exotic objects. Paul Gauguin has great admiration for the self-portrait by his friend, Vincent van Gogh. Fanny Låstbom and Ida’s daughter, Judith Arlberg, are fascinated by this portrait and copy it to assimilate Van Gogh’s strange way of painting.
Meeting Emile Bernard
Since his arrival in Paris, Werner von Hausen has made new friends, the Swedish painters Olof Sager-Nelson and Ivan Aguéli, two mystics and Aguéli, an anarchist also. Released after six months in prison, Aguéli prefers to go and join his mentor, Emile Bernard, in Egypt. Von Hausen soon joins them and befriends Bernard, who is in full rediscovery of the old masters’ art.
Art and Decoration
At the turn of the 19th Century, the separation between painting and decorative arts became blurry. Paul Gauguin does not hesitate to take the step towards realizing ceramics and sculpted and painted wood decorations. Returning to Finland, Väinö Blomstedt takes this to heart and takes an active role in the Finnish Friends of Handicrafts. The generation of artists from the 1890s, aspires to create a Total Work of Art (Gesammstkunstwerk), believing in the power of art to transform life. Werner von Hausen is one of the pioneers of the Grankulla artists’ colony, living in an avant-garde studio-house, while continuing his travels around the world. The small portable table he offers Ester Kumlin (von Weissenberg), underlines the existence of a community of artists sharing the same ideal.
Madame Charlotte’s Creamery
Madame Charlotte’s Creamery is located in the Montparnasse quarter, opposite the Colarossi Academy where many students take painting classes. This jovial Alsatian serves an « artistic purée » to destitute artists. The walls are covered with paintings, often left in payment. Paul Gauguin made it his canteen and reinvents the world with his friends, painters and poets. For several years, Madame Charlotte housed the Czech painter, Alphonse Mucha, who was penniless. In gratitude, he painted the Art Nouveau style storefront with his Polish friend, Wladislaw Slewinski. August Strindberg has his table, and has failed to set fire to the kitchen through his alchemy experiments. Madame Charlotte has a weakness for the Swedish author, who portrayed her as Madame Catherine in his play, There are crimes and crimes. The Swedish sculptor, Carl Miles, claims that it was at the announcement of Strindberg’s remarriage that she decided to close her creamery and leave for the countryside.
Let’s toast Madame Charlotte, mother of artists!