Self-Portrait and Self-Image: Martti Aiha’s Drawings
The Finnish word for ‘self-portrait’ is omakuva, which literally means ‘own image’ or ‘self-image’. There is also a more recently created word for self-image as a psychological term, minäkuva (‘I-image’). Yet for Finnish-speakers the resonance of ‘self-image’ always seems to be there within ‘self-portrait’.
Is such contextual information relevant for looking at and understanding Martti Aiha’s drawings? Not necessarily, because they were not primarily made to be looked at and understood, and even less to be described and analysed. His drawings from the late 1970s until today, of which several hundred have been preserved on loose sheets and in sketchbooks, are a cache of images rather than a body of work. They are notes to self rather than sketches for sculptures or paintings.
Yet while these drawings least of all attempt to create a visual identity or a recognisable, localisable style, they are also not disembodied mind-to-paper exercises. They are enveloped in a culture and perhaps also an expression of it. Aiha (the name is a recent invention and not a meaningful word in Finnish) is a descendant of Karelian singers who contributed much of the material for the Kalevala epic almost two hundred years ago. Kieleväinen, the original family name, overflows with meaning, because kieli means ‘language’, ‘speech’, ‘tongue’, ‘string’, ‘chord’. The significance of this was never lost on Aiha. On the contrary, he is very conscious of what is expected from ‘Finnish art’ – so conscious that he prefers to frustrate any such expectations hurled at him.
It is true – almost a truism – that drawing offers artists limitless opportunities to articulate and visualise thoughts, to launch far-reaching experiments and court the unknown in multiple ways – at high speed and at low cost. Yet I cannot fully align myself with those who say and write that drawing is Aiha’s thinking. Not only does that fail to notice the other fields in which he is an accomplished thinker (notably those of constructing and manufacturing three-dimensional artworks and of making events and other things happen by bringing people together), it also implies that drawing somehow brings thought into existence, that thinking is somehow dependent on a specific medium to become visible and tangible.
I believe the relationship between thinking and drawing – or speaking, for that matter – is more complex. Any mode of articulating shapes the ‘content’ it channels, otherwise it wouldn’t make sense to speak of articulation. There is also thinking before language, before communication – which, by the way, is only a part of what language does, and only a small part of what makes art interesting and important. There is pre-articulated, infra-intellectual, as yet unformed thinking, the kind of thinking you can observe in children who haven’t yet acquired speech. The Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev, in his Prolegomena to a Theory of Language, wanted us to imagine that both sides of the sign, its ‘content’ and its ‘expression’, must first be converted from ‘matter’ into ‘form’ before they can come together in the act of signification.
Like all images, drawings are complex entities, and no one has, as yet, found a reasonably efficient and meaningful way to define images as ‘iconic signs’ without ignoring important aspects of what they actually achieve. To an even greater extent than spoken or written words, drawings sprawl and digress, withhold or over-share information, delight and disappoint viewers, confuse and corrupt them. One way of approaching drawings is to regard them neither as indications of thinking nor as symptoms of its absence, but simply as building blocks with which we, the viewers, can make our own sense. Mirroring the always-already ongoing process that constitutes human culture, we use the results of someone else’s informed articulation (in this case Aiha’s drawings) as material for our own creative efforts.
So that is what I will do here. I will select twelve drawings by Aiha (all of them untitled, most of them undated but usually attributable to a decade) and use them to build a story about his drawing practice as a continuously formatted self-image, even a self-portrait. I will look at images, sometimes details of images, and gratefully accept them as evidence that what I’m trying to do is credible. That is the prerogative of every active viewer, and one viewer’s understanding may help others to form theirs.
Let us call him Burning Man. This figure occurs a few times – here we see a version in dramatic black and purple with yellow flames – in Aiha’s drawings from the late 1970s, when he was taking his first steps away from the rather classical figurative sculpture for which he first became known. Without giving it too much thought, we assume that the hulking figure is a young man, moving with a certain determination in a certain direction, showing himself and others the way. We almost unthinkingly classify this drawing as a self-portrait. Why do we have the impression that Burning Man has set himself on fire? And why aren’t we terrified by this image, why doesn’t it make us imagine his flesh consumed by the firestorm that these various small flames will surely provoke? Aiha’s use of the flame motif is metaphorical. He has turned something objectively dangerous into an element of a subjective visual poetics.
Another drawing, less elaborate, also from the late 1970s, conjures up an emblematic tableau from almost nothing. We think we see a bonfire flanked by two trees and supervised by a celestial body. The moon? Or the sun on a late evening in June? The symmetry of the composition isn’t rigid, but it establishes a relation between the four elements that it is tempting to call mytho-poetic. When you draw two trees and one fire, it is much less likely that you are referring to the Tree of Life (also known as the axis mundi, the Axis of the World). At the same time, two trees can stand in for a grove, a holy place, a pre-Christian sanctuary in Scandinavia as well as in the Baltic or Finno-Ugric cultural spheres further east and north. Did Aiha think in those terms, or was he just letting the ink form a small collection of archetypes that might be used to tell any story?
Look, here he has taken the elements from the previous drawing and developed them into what looks like a symbolic visual system. Flames and foliage, separate yet united, ‘to be acknowledged in two natures, unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.’ (This is the carefully worded statement on the contentious issue of how Christ’s divine and human natures should relate to each other, produced by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD). Flames lick the tree, but the tree doesn’t burn. Or we don’t see it burn, because Aiha, again, makes metaphorical and emblematic use of the constituent parts in his own visual grammar. Yet the drawing is not a rebus or a riddle to be read and resolved. Instead this becomes yet another self-image, branching out towards the personal, because what other self could or would have come up with the same juxtaposition?
A few more years into the 1980s, Aiha is already an established artist with an idiosyncratic ‘visual handwriting’, a sought-after purveyor of sculptural decoration for built spaces, both public and corporate. His flaming foliage, composed of interacting but separated elements, has been synthesised into a fluid but unfailingly attributable system of drawn, painted or sculpted flourishes that owe some of their plasticity and poise to his close reading of calligraphic manuals from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Is it only I who see a griffon-like creature here, leaping forward but at the same time turning back on himself to take pleasure in his own splendid, flamboyant features? Animal and vegetal styles from imaginary archaeological sources reinforce each other in him. It isn’t only the blackness of the ink that echoes the Orient, although Aiha didn’t have the possibility to acquaint himself with it first-hand until later in life.
Another self-portrait. Not literally – this isn’t really Aiha’s profile – but that would have been beside the point anyway. It is the visual handwriting that has become the self-image, as the calligraphic flourishes were gradually detached from their origin in observation. In the late 1980s they are already a surface-covering pattern, a signature achievement that Aiha’s viewers are expecting from him. What does it do to the ‘content’ of this pattern when it is used to fill up space within a predetermined outline? Isn’t it a bit weakened by this exercise in optical figuration? Doesn’t it almost become a caricature of itself? But it was worth trying, of course. Curiosity is a powerful stimulus for thinking – experimenting with materials, techniques, clichés even.
Among the drawings from the 1990s I found this curious, uncharacteristically over-determined figure, a Sisyphus of sorts, who appears to be burdened by his own hollow speech-bubble, which might also be piece of rock from the moon. Is his body, with its outsized hands and feet, made of lava stone, so young and porous that it is still letting off steam? Or is he bleeding from exhaustion, unable to escape the banishment he brought onto himself many lifetimes ago? And why is he walking on cannon balls? As the ’90s progress, we see more such stylistic incongruence in Aiha’s drawings. They no longer reconfirm his status as an artist who always keeps his act together and delivers the goods: mandala-like structures embellished with flourishes, volutes, curlicues. A new restlessness rises to the surface, an irrepressible desire to delight and disappoint, confuse and corrupt, to be unpredictable and – why not, once in a while? – unsatisfactory.
Another drawing from the ’90s, another topic, another style – although neither topic nor style are important concerns for Aiha, who is always looking for something at once more profound and as shallow as possible. Organic matter and form had always been part of his drawing practice, which is where he exercises his privilege of staying on the surface of things as long as that makes him observant and productive. But he no longer synthesises them into a coherent visual system. From now on the organic is ambiguous rather than affirmative, and quite often a threatening presence, a dream that can go wrong any moment. Are we looking at a preparation of cell tissue under the microscope? A slice cut from the partly hollow stem of some invasive roadside weed? In either case, how come some of the building blocks seem to have self-organised into anxious or aggressive faces, staring at us from beyond the diagrammatic organisation of the image?
The drawings aren’t always easily datable, especially those that weren’t found in sketchbooks or envelopes with other sheets articulating similar interests. This one appears to have been made in the 2000s. It stands out, among its peers discussed here, as a demonstration of how a finished drawing can illustrate a permutation, a shape-shifting visual thought, and still be more than a record of a thinking process. The drawing establishes its own structures and values. Forms probe matter to see how far ideas can be followed through, but the layered result isn’t tentative. In contemporary art writing interpretation has almost become taboo, for some reason, but I read this as a pair of lungs, going about their functions on either side of an absent windpipe or spine, inhaling and exhaling. It’s almost as if the breathing is happening in the collisions of contours, where straight and curved indicators of form and movement complement and contradict each other.
Did I mention surrealism? We have been heading in that direction with the last three or four drawings without spelling it out. Drawing does many things for Aiha, and one of its tasks is to keep the channels to the subconscious, the unconscious, open and navigable. Like his figuration and his abstraction, his esotericism isn’t programmatic. It can appear in any guise and perform any function. The delicate pencil portrait of a lump of matter, whose surface consists of nothing but folds, is interrupted by a flat void, which may or may not be part of the imagined object ‘standing’ in front of the artist. (We would all agree that it stands, without quite being able to explain why.) It is tempting to see it as hair, or a wig, or a sculpture of either of these motifs. And then the void becomes the absence of a face and neck or, if we continue our game of interpretation, the blacking-out of a soul. (Because we know that the soul is in someone’s eyes, or in the combined effect of her facial features, or in her breathing.)
The usual way to string individual images together as a picture-book story is to find one thing that leads to another, whether they are originally related or not. Here is another use of black, of an implied void, that I find particularly intriguing. Why do I see this as a pitcher captured in the middle of a particularly active act of pouring? And why don’t I see darkness pouring out, although there is darkness both on the ‘inside’ and on the ‘outside’ of the shape precariously suspended at the upper edge of the otherwise blank sheet? Is it because the white ridge separating exterior and interior is made to symbolise light, even celestial light? This could very well be one in a series of many drawings for an animated film – but Aiha skips the technical hassle of animation and offers us movement right away, as an inherent aspect of formalised pictorial stillness.
But we were talking about self-portraits and self-images. In a series of drawings and paintings from the mid-to-late-2010s, Aiha keeps returning to the modest house in Pudasjärvi, province of Northern Ostrobothnia, where he lived with his family until they moved to Halmstad in south-western Sweden when he was twelve. Generations of Finns made this journey to seek employment with their former overlords, and many headed back home as soon as they could. Aiha pays homage to his younger self, and not least to his parents’ efforts and survival skills in an inhospitable post-war economy, by twisting his childhood home inside out, squeezing it into colour fields, fitting it into cosmopolitan styles of viewing modelled on Cubism and Surrealism. Here, he has added a portrait of the plot of land to that of the house. Finland isn’t seismic territory, but he sends a shockwave through his family’s property that quickens its disarticulation.
Aiha is a proud craftsman and hard worker; that is part of his self-understanding and self-image. I have already insisted that his technical and organisational skills must be taken into consideration in any discussion about his qualities as a thinking artist, and that any drawing by him might be seen as a self-portrait, almost regardless of how it looks. He sometimes feels the urge to renounce the achievements that have accrued during more than 45 years of training and practice. Of course, such deliberate attempts at unlearning and deskilling also have a place within the history of modernist art, in the most inclusive sense of the term: Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, Tristan Tzara’s newspaper poems, André Breton’s cadavres exquis (exquisite corpses), Robert Filliou’s dessins sans voir, desseins sans savoir (drawings without seeing, designs without knowing). For a recent series of drawings in red ink, Martti Aiha reconnected to the tradition of blindfolded drawing, and here, concluding our ‘curated’ preview of his works on paper, is a self-portrait drawn with his eyes closed.
This essay was first published in the monograph Martti Aiha: Piirustuksia/Drawings. Helsinki: Parus Verus, 2018 (ISBN 978-952-7245-06-4).