The tradition of illustrating books is long and complex. When reading matter is presented and demonstrated to a child, someone who is still illiterate or learning to read, the function of images seems obvious and they often come about alongside the text. But to visually interpret or enliven a narrative or poem conceived only in words or relying on them is different, less restricted and more difficult. The visual artist enters such a text like an uninvited guest at a party. He must take control of the situation and without treading unduly on his hosts’ toes show that without him something would have been missing at the party.
In 1999, the anniversary year of the ‘Kalevala’, Hannu Väisänen illustrated this national epic of the Finns. Without him, the celebration would truly have been bleaker, and his pictures have been worth a look even after the festivities.
Two years ago, Väisänen took on a new challenge, which was a gamble in various ways. He wanted to write a literary work, a hard task for anyone and all the more so for a person established and known as an artist in a completely different genre. And he wanted to write about his own secret garden, his childhood on a military base in the town of Oulu in Northern Finland, a stage of his life that entailed many of his most important experiences. An obvious yet perilous theme; when things of private importance are shared with others, something is easily spoiled.
In the late winter of 2004 Väisänen’s book ’Vanikan palat’ (Pieces of crispbread1) came out. Those who have read it know that Hannu Väisänen won the gamble.
Väisänen did not want to make a single picture for the book. He let his friend Anna Lehtonen make the crispbread pictures for the cover and the beginning of each chapter. Väisänen’s pictures are here now.
Looking at the exhibition Drawn on Crispbread, an open-minded viewer, i.e. someone who has not read the book, will notice that new and specific items have appeared among Väisänen’s familiar lightly floating and flourishing visual elements making their way from one thematic to another. A specific and purposeful image is created by the predominance of grey in the drawings, the order created by the grey. The water-hued net of the Kalevala themes with its immaterial folds has formed ordered surfaces, which, despite their more severe appearance, invite the viewer’s eye to pass along them, in places sprouting visual themes that break out into colour.
The works have personal titles in a new way: Father Drunk, Father Reciting, Mother’s Lipsticks and others.
Anyone who has read Väisänen’s book will have a singular experience, like being in a dream that already seen but now viewed with someone else’s eyes. So that was Hjördis Tykky… and these then are mother’s magical lipsticks. Do gas masks really look so fine in Oulu? Like a knight’s helmet.
Recalling the feel of the narrative in 'Vanikan palat' and how it influenced the reader, one understands why the text and the pictures were not embedded with each other, why the experiences have to be taken separately.
Väisänen’s book devotes a whole chapter, or episode, to the narrator Antero telling of how he found his late mother’s lipsticks in his father’s stash, a chest of drawers that the children of the family were not allowed to touch. The stages of this voyage of discovery, launched by chance, the excitement of the illicit, the wondrous strangeness of the finds – the narrative outlines the emerging experiences with means specific to verbal presentation. The result, five different cartridges containing different hues of red are a source of amazement for a child making discoveries, but as a visual theme they are something different, best left unexplained. The viewer can perceive the familiarity of the forms and the interaction of the hues with his or her own means. Amidst a verbal presentation, a picture of lipsticks would be a disturbing shortcut, or a billboard cutting off a path meandering through a landscape.
If we were to see the figure of Hjördis Tykky on the pages of ‘Vanikan palat’, we would wonder how the budding artist could even have imagined daring to show his creations to this monstrous woman. Printed along with the text, we view as a portrait something that is in fact a recollection, a trace in the memory of what happened with the coming of Hjördis.
In Väisänen’s, book the narrative not only seems to pass on the gradual emergence of a recollection but also expresses how one memory leads to another, the alteration of wonderment and insight, the movement of the mind in all ways..
An image may have depth and layers; it can reveal its content gradually, from one viewing situation to another, but ultimately the image is a flash that condenses and crystallizes, and above all halts the viewer.
Having set out to capture by drawing and painting themes that he has invited to glimmer at the dim boundary of memory and imagination through his writing, Hannu Väisänen has faced problems similar, for instance, to creating ideograms. A gas mask may represent a gas mask, and lipstick can be depicted as lipstick. But how to crystallize into an image Stepmothers, women wandering one after another with their bags and baggage into the grey world of the army base, soon to disappear without leaving a trace? The ring-dance of floating crispbread-coloured bras may not evoke the image of a convoy of stepmothers in all viewers, but since this was the case for the artist, it is easy to identify with it.
Father Drunk is more endearing as an image than in text. Father Reciting brings forth at a stroke a number of images of the foolishness that a striving for beauty may bring about, as honest as it is unfettered. Interestingly, details that are seemingly pathetic merge to form a spacious and balanced whole.
"I’ve asked and asked for a black mourning band for myself, too. But a grieving child, so we have been told, must not bear any outward signs of grief… Of course it would have been fine to run to Tatar Hamidulla’s drapery and say: ‘I’d like to have ten metres of your wider mourning braid’."
Children’s Own Mourning Band is a drawing in which the tension arising between the outright dramatic beauty of the overall composition and the cuddly-toy figures decorating the band is an example of the dimensions to which a fragment of memory can grow, reaching beyond its original context.
"Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word "honour"? What is that "honour"? Air. A trim reckoning!" pondered Sir John Falstaff. It usually does not do to go one better on Shakespeare, but when accommodating Falstaff to Verdi, Arrigo Boito gave the knight one more concrete question: "Can honour fill your belly?"
This is what a maker of ideograms has to consider when confronted with his challenges. How to represent Charisma, for example? Or how to cram into a single image, Peoples and Nations of the World, or to depict Future?
Future is executed with a rubbing tracing technique and in places it seems to come through the surface of the image to the present day, as the future sometimes tends to do. The same technique is also applied in Sea of Dangers, alluding to a closer past and perhaps auguring things to come, with a relief by Kain Tapper as its latent image.
1 Hard crispbread is traditional army fare in Finland.