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Profile God is Beauty

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Profile God is Beauty
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Yearning for Titans

by Katrin Bettina Müller

Four men are sitting around a table, exhausted from talking and drinking. Behind them Jupiter stands in the blank sky, but in front of them, holding their gaze like a vision of the future, big, feathered wings like those of an eagle or even a god swoosh by.

The Finish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela portrayed himself in this company at the table in 1894, along with the composers Jean Sibelius, Robert Kajanus and his friend Oskar Merikanto. Together they were in search of a Finish renaissance, a new national culture that could lead the country still governed as a Russian princedom to independence. They were supported by a new mysticism and enthusiasm for the myths of Kalevala, who Akseli Gallen-Kallela would later dedicate many of his paintings to. One of the mental vanishing points was Finland's countryside, another was occultism.

It may seem strange to start contemplating a contemporary Finish play written by the stage director, theatre author and creator Kristian Smeds who is in his early forties, by describing a picture from the late 19th century. But in "God is beauty" pictures that accompanied the search of a national identity not only in Finland from the 19th to early 20th century, spook around like mighty ghosts. The search for a perspective on dignity, a romantic thrill and artistic-religious emotion is just as present when Smeds' artist Vilho Lampi calls upon nature.

The genius as hangman
The Finish painter Vilho Lampi, who Smeds' artist character owes his name to, belonged to a slightly later period; he lived from 1898 to 1936. The pictures of the real Vilho – still lives, portraits of farmers and children, stables, village scenes, winter and summer landscapes – already show features of the New Objectivity and restrained expressionism. However, they aren't as lofty as one would expect, judging by Smeds' raging and thrashing language.

There is for example the artist as a leader and prophet, who takes on an important role in search of empowerment from the people. It's an option that Smeds' peculiar hero comes across in the fifth scene in the play ("The Hangman"). "Humans can only gain their full potential by being leaders" argues Lampi, who is accompanied by the text throughout all the changing situations of his self-discovery. At this point Smeds inserts a song from Kaarlo Kramsu (1855 – 1895), a hymnic challenge to fertilise Finland's fields with the blood of the next generation. He also works with direct reference to the time of fascism, when Finland, whose own dreams of greatness had been stopped by a civil war and then by the Soviets' occupation, joined the German National Socialists. This concept of the artist as a great creator and titan is dangerously close to nationalistic and racist ideologies. The chapter isn't named "Hangman" for nothing.

The genius as a clodhopper
Another motive of early modernism is the insane genius, who suffers from his fellow people's lack of belief. This lack could concern the belief in God as well as the belief in art and is present in the sixth scene ("Paris"). In this scene Lampi meets van Gogh and reflects in his story: "I'm a farmer boy, and I have been doing work that stinks all my life. I'm not interested in museum art. I'm a clodhopper, I just want to live and paint like a farm worker." Lampi staggers through town like a country bumpkin, trying to hide the feeling of inferiority under aggressiveness.

The artist as the chosen one who has to suffer for others. He is avoided and stigmatised by them. "God is beauty" is abound with these thoughts, in which there is a big gap between the artist and the rest of mankind. An image that never appears is that of the artist as a businessman; the poses of pop culture or the concepts that involve the connection of art and reality since Dada and Fluxus.