Critical Explorations of Nordic Art and Vitalism

Tonje Haugland Sørensen, Post-Doctoral Fellow, University of Bergen,

MaryClaire Pappas, PhD Candidate, Indiana University,

Vitalism, here broadly defined as the widespread embrace of life as a process of becoming in philosophy, art, health reform movements, and the natural sciences in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, emboldened Nordic artists, philosophers, and cultural figures to reject the premises of nineteenth century materialist sciences in favor of new life-affirming philosophies and practices. This panel seeks to explore how and why Nordic artists engaged with vitalist impulses in their artmaking practices at the fin-de-siècle. A time of social, scientific, political, and economic change, many artists in the Nordic region rejected materialism and the positive sciences and instead advocated for a fully embodied mode of experiencing and investigating the world, a feature reflected in their artmaking practices. Artists engaged with vitalist tendencies both as a practice, embracing friluftsliv (open-air life), and as a philosophical, artistic, and scientific phenomenon. This panel attends to how Nordic artists embraced vitalist trends in their technologies of the self or as a philosophical doctrine, inspired by thinkers like William James and Henri Bergson.

Vitalist interests in the Nordic region melded with already prevalent Nordic practices, such as hiking and skiing, and necessitated complex discourse on the Nordic body and body politic. Bringing together papers dealing with vitalist visual culture from a Nordic perspective, the panel will foreground how sensations, images, and art were understood as leading the viewer towards a new understanding of not only art but the self. While Nordic visual and material culture depicting vitalist bathing practices has gained renewed attention from scholars in the last decade, little attention has been paid to artworks less explicit in their embrace of such discourses. This panel will rectify this scholarly gap by bringing together papers analyzing artworks that have not been considered as part of this discourse, but nevertheless, similarly embrace a vital principle of life or an animating life-force driving the natural world.

Speakers & Abstracts

The utopian Arcadia, the origin of humankind and naturalism. Neo-platonic and esoteric perspectives on Tyra Kleen’s and Magnus Enckell’s scenes of interpersonal encounters in nature

Birte Bruchmüller (University of Gothenburg)

This paper explores the display of several naked human bodies of the same or the opposite gender in a natural scenery in both Tyra Kleen’s and Magnus Enckell’s art from the turn of the 20th century.

Works by the Finnish symbolist painter Magnus Enckell (1870-1925) like his Youth (1897) as well as by the Swedish symbolist graphic artist Tyra Kleen (1874-1951) like her Homo Sapiens (1903) place intimate homoerotic or homosexual interpersonal encounters on a shore of a water landscape. 

At the same time that the depicted scenes might refer to ‘the primitive man’ and the utopian Arcadia as origins of humankind, they also are reminiscent of a bathing culture and a new athletic cult within nature that emerged at the turn of the 20th century as symptoms of outdoor vitalism.

By drawing upon Enckell’s and Kleen’s interest in esoterism and the neo-platonic theory of the primitive androgyne – that developed throughout the 1890s – I examine their works in relation to philosophical late 19th-century reflections on the ideal state of man, that were closely linked to the emerging vitalist principle of life.

The union of body and soul as a genderless perfect spiritual state as well as late 19th-century body ideals and physical culture will be, thereby, taken into consideration. By focusing on philosophical takes on human existence in harmony with nature, this paper contributes to broadening the perspectives of the discourse of Nordic vitalist art.

Magnus Enckell, Vitalism, and the Ambivalence of the Modern Arcadia

Dr. Marja Lahelma (University of Helsinki)

At the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the Finnish painter Magnus Enckell (1870–1925), formerly known for ascetic Symbolist works with muted colours, began to make paintings using a free brush technique and a bright palette. The depiction of the naked male body veiled in ancient mythologies runs as a continuum from Enckell’s early production to his colourful paintings of the 1910s, but the fantasy subjects favoured by Symbolism, along with their associated androgynous characters, change in his later work to become images of more athletic male bodies in which mythological references are barely even recognisable. While it is easy to connect these kinds of works with vitalism and its associated cult of masculinity, they also contain an element of ambivalence. Many contemporary critics thought that Enckell’s new stylistic direction lacked a certain poise and contained something suspiciously feminine. Perhaps this is why the connections between Enckell’s colourful works and vitalism have not been immediately clear. However, I will argue in this paper that it is precisely this ambivalence that makes the concept of vitalism a particularly fruitful perspective from which to examine Enckell’s art. Philosophical and aesthetic vitalism was also associated with the disappearance of boundaries with regard to the fusion of spirit and matter and the collapse of solid forms into rhythmic vibrations.

Vitalism can thus be seen as an attempt to avoid accusations of decadence, in terms of both style and subject matter. A vitalist context could provide space for homoerotically charged imagery, while through vitalist philosophy, the dissolution of form and the use of colour schemes that were labelled ‘feminine’ could yield associations of a healthy sense of life, rather than decay. For instance, in the painting Awakening Faun (1914) the naked male body follows classical proportions, but its languid sensuality hints at decadence. The use of intense colours and broad brushstrokes creates an energetic tension, suggesting a vitalist idea of a life-force that runs through nature. The almost abstract setting may be paradisiacal, but it is not static. The figure, who could just as well be a contemporary young man as the mythical creature indicated by the title, reminds us that the paradisiacal state is also possible here and now. The Golden Age of antiquity – a favourite subject for the Symbolists and one that Enckell too had explored in his earlier work – received a host of new interpretations through the lens of vitalism, which blurred the boundary between the lost paradise of the past and a happy, vitalist utopia of the future. The associations created through mythological references to the ancient world and the Golden Age makes Awakening Faun a kind of representation of modern Arcadia. But Eve has now left this paradise for good.

Where There’s Life: The Paintings at Ellen Key’s Strand from a Vitalist Perspective

Elina Nahlinder (University of Warwick)

In its narrowest sense, vitalist artworks depict motifs relating to sun-worship, health, and strength, often using a bright colour palette. Offering a far broader understanding of vitalist art is the Swedish National Romantic painter Richard Bergh, who, in 1891, concluded that ‘art is a natural expression of all of our need to live as intensely as possible, to feel ourselves live’.

Bergh’s assertion that ‘art is life’ is intimately related to his close friend Ellen Key, who, also in the 1890s, was beginning to formulate a socio-aesthetic ideology that drew on both conventional vitalist philosophies and – in the same vein as Bergh – a view of art itself as a life force. Unlike Bergh, however, who spoke from an artist’s point of view, Key took the position of a spectator and considered the life-affirming quality of art by addressing how artworks are engaged with daily. For her, art was, beyond the artist’s expression of life, an intermediary between not just man and nature, but between man and man, able to increase the feeling for life for all human beings. 

While essays like ‘Beauty in the Home’ have ensured Key’s presence in design-historical discourses on vitalism, recognising her call for light and airy interiors as the equivalent of vitalist sun-worshipping, her influence on Swedish visual art has been largely omitted. By looking at artworks that Key displayed in her own home, this paper endeavours to remedy this oversight, while concurrently widening the scope of what is typically understood as vitalist art. 

Einar Jönsson, Theosophy and Vitality in Nordic Sculpture

Dr. Charlotte Ashby (Birbeck, University of London)

This paper explores the work of Icelandic sculptor Einar Jónsson as an example of the intersection of new thinking about the mind and the body in the early 20th century. His figural sculptures place the body at the heart of an artistic practice that sought to express a new way of understanding the world and the cosmos. Working in Copenhagen, Einar Jónsson’s work straddles an engagement with the modern breakthrough, with the Danish classical tradition and with the transnational Theosophical movement.

Through his participation in the Free Exhibitions and The Free Sculptors, he was engaged with the latest debates regarding new understanding of art. As a member of the Theosophical Society, Einar Jónsson’s influences ranged beyond the boundaries of Europe and the boundaries of the rational. I will explore how he used representation of the powerful body to explore the transcendent spirit, in which the beauty and vitality of the body functioned as a mirror the pure soul. The nude body was represented as a universal vessel, which allowed Einar Jónsson to express his understanding (in line with Theosophical teachings) of a common human spirit across time and space.

This spiritual dimension was an important facet of the vital list movement, which in many cases went beyond health to consider the metaphysical vitality of the human race and its potential for perfectibility. Vital energies, expressed through rays of Basalt crystals emanating from the figures, allowed Einar Jónsson to synthesise earth, humanity and spirit.



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