Photo: © Bank of Finland
PIETÀ OF THE FOREST
Pekka Halonen’s (1865–1933) painting of a pine snag is simple in its subject matter and a reflection of the natural cycle of the forest. But that is where the simplicity of the depiction ends. The work’s restrained fresco-like colours create a beautiful, devotional and melancholic atmosphere. The strong outlines define the twists and turns of the trunk and its branches that at are at once decorative and monumentally impressive, as if we were gazing on some petrified giant that fell eons ago.
The painting’s devout atmosphere is not there by chance. Art, to Pekka Halonen, meant a distinguishable, higher calling, beyond the everyday world, something that was “to be kept sacred”, as he wrote in a letter to Akseli Gallen-Kallela. When studying in Paris at the end of the 1800s, under the tuition of the likes of Paul Gauguin, Halonen became familiar with French symbolism in art and thinking. In researching symbolism in detail, from esoteric texts, Halonen found himself battling with his own convictions. However, he kept to the bounds of Christianity.
The art historian Ville Lukkarinen has paid attention to a letter found in Halonen’s estate from Maurice Denis, who was known for his strong use of Catholic symbolism in his paintings. In his letter Denis writes of thoughts that appear to have been piercing Halonen’s life. Denis considered decorative, simplified forms to be important as, in his opinion, the lines and colours of a piece of art should be self-explanatory. Their significance is in their beauty and, through that, in their divinity.
In Halonen’s work, Finnish nature receives a national sanctification, but his painting of a pine snag could perhaps easily be interpreted as a classic representation of the pietà (developed in Germany in the 1300s, known there as the Vesperbild, depicting the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus): the fir tree’s “arms” reaching out towards the body of the fallen pine. A tree as a symbol of Christ is a powerful subject, linking in with the multifaceted symbol of the tree of life.