After suffering a long illness, Finnish artist Hugo Simberg exhibited the compelling, yet tragic painting The Wounded Angel (1903, Ateneum, Helsinki). The subject matter is unclear and the releasing of this sort of contextual biographical information into the public domain can irrevocably alter the reception of any art work. Simberg himself was aware of this and was very keen for his art to be received individually, without direction from the artist. The painting in question was exhibited with no title, dissuading the viewer from limiting their engagement or understanding, for example reading the angel in purely theological terms. The potentialities of any work grows with the removal of narrative direction or the voice of the artist, and we are called upon to make a personally informed judgement on the work. This may or may not be final and such a view encourages the viewer to continually revise and return to the work, each reading may well be different. Readings may be emotional, intellectual or even reinterpretations. Cultural responses to images change across towns and continents, and are part of the richness of art’s reception. Reception and engagement are limitless, fluid, intangible and eternal. Each generation approaches art in a different manner, and recognition of culturally embedded subtleties may easily be lost whether through time or intellectual frameworks of nation or gender etc.
Simberg’s The Wounded Angel was voted Finland’s ‘National Painting’ in 2006 and as such, has resonance and meaning to the Finnish population in a manner which us Brit’s would not recognise on sight of the picture alone. Evidence of Finland’s cultural relationship with this painting can be found in the interpretative offering by Finnish band, Nightwish. Please watch the below to see how the image has been interpreted
The narrative is an invention by the band. Personally, I find the imagery and the unfolding story rather plausible. It is certainly a well produced narrative video which has clearly been carefully designed and draws directly from the painting. The angel is blindfolded, as he is within the painting, and the two figures who carry the angel are dressed in the same type of costume Simberg portrayed. However beyond this form of mere visual homage, the painting takes on the role of creative catalyst, welcoming further engagement. This places the painting in a position of authority and leadership, whilst also demonstrating how a painting can be consumed and made subservient, the painting provokes a journey but does not provide a destination. The space which the painting and the video collide is perhaps more of a meeting place than a starting line (which would suggest there is an ending or finite understanding to be arrived at).
The lyrics of Amaranth can be read in a non secular but spiritual manner or they can be seen as drawing upon Christian theologies about engagement and interaction with a greater being. To my very Victorian eye, there is little I can grasp about modern Finland from the lyrics: those hints and explorations are more apparent through the dialogue and exchange between the painting, the video, the song, and the music. A melting pot of cultural reference, respect and creative interpretation – one which must be all the richer to the Finnish population.
The interaction and dialogue between the video and the painting results in a harmonious affirmation of each other’s reputation. By hanging their song and music off a painting proclaimed as having national importance, the band are heightening the paintings reputation and affirming the need for its presence within the modern world, whilst also raising their own status through the process of alignment and interpretation. This is a mutually beneficial relationship, and presumably a calculated one by Nightwish for the song was released in 2007, only one year after the poll. Not only is this a positive form of reception but one which I welcome. I think the utilisation of reference and re-engagement with past art pieces ensures our present today’s global culture will not disappear into a narcissistic dead end. Such re-interpretations create longevity and layer meaning upon meaning, creating richer deeper understandings of how and why art is important to humanity.
Ateneum art museum link as referenced above http://www.ateneum.fi/en/room-22