The Haavistos of Helsinki
by Carol K. Russell
Mother and daughter have traveled their own
paths from their Finnish forebears' textile traditions to
success in creating textiles-as-art.
|Anna-Riitta Haavisto, Spring Migration of Birds,
1996; black currant branches, silk, stones, metal; 32
by 17 by 17 inches. Photo: Ulla Paakkunainen.
Trekking through a dense forest in central Finland, I came
upon a clearing pierced by the Nordic sun, whose sole purpose
at that moment was to illuminate a lofty sculpture composed
of native tree trunks linked here and there with wrappings
of brightly colored yarns. Deep scars in the wood forged by
powerful antlers and teeth asserted their supremacy in this
wilderness over the incursive marks of the human hand. Unusual?
Yes. Surprising? Not really, considering that my intrepid
Finnish guide was artist Anna-Riitta Haavisto. The sculpture,
viewed rarely in its permanent installation, was Elk's Crown,
presented by the artist to the forest she had loved since
early childhood. So began this adventure of unfolding two
remarkable careers in fine-art textiles: those of Anna-Riitta
and her mother, Riitta-Liisa Haavisto.
In Finland, it is not unusual for a mother and daughter to
practice traditional textile-making techniques. The epic poem
The Kalevala, expressing Finnish national identity in its
oldest and purest form, stipulates that bridegrooms:
Fetch a fit shuttle
a decent batten
a proper breast beam
cut handsome treadles
fetch all weaving tools
put the maiden to the loom
the batten to her grasp
only then will the reed slam
the loom thud, the clanking be
heard in the village
the reed's rattle further off.
Finnish girls are expected to learn and eventually pass on
to their daughters the skills of weaving, embroidery, spinning,
sewing, and knitting. For generations, Haavisto women made
all the requisite samplers, until the 1920s, when Riitta-Liisa's
renegade aunt, Laila Karttunen, strayed into the seductive
realm of fine-art textiles -- and never looked back. By 1952,
Karttunen had developed an international reputation for her
abstract paintings, tapestries, and embroideries, influenced
in succession by the karelian motifs of Finnish folk art,
cubism, the Bauhaus, and eventually the strong lines and colors
of her own mature poetic vision. It was this highly evolved
artist who inspired first her niece, Riitta-Liisa, then her
grandniece, Anna-Riitta, to set free the threads and structures
of handcrafted textiles to assume deeper metaphors and meanings
as fine art. If Karttunen were alive today, she would be pleased
that evidence of her artistic lineage now extends from the
remote forest in Finland to galleries in London, St. Petersburg,
Berlin, Paris, Philadelphia and New York.
Before venturing forth into fine art, Riitta-Liisa Haavisto
enjoyed a long career as an award-winning fashion designer.
She designed clothing for Finnish industry and special garments
for the disabled. Eventually she began teaching, first at Helsinki's
University of Art and Design, then at Häme Polytechnic. In their
own ways, these pursuits were rewarding and allowed a creative
woman to find definition as a Finnish artist. Throughout these
years, however, Riitta-Liisa seemed always to be tucking away
design ideas for the day when she might at leisure execute them
in her uninhibited style of embroidery. By the time she retired
and could make whatever she pleased, there were so many ideas
competing for realization that she typically works on several
|Riitta-Liisa Haavisto, Green, 2001;
silk, cotton; embroidery; 5 by 5 by 1.2 inches. Photo:
Riitta-Liisa's figurative embroideries are inspired by people
-- of whom she makes endless piles of sketches -- and by the
shadowy creatures, hobgoblins, and fairies she, as a child,
imagined inhabiting the Finnish forests. Even backgrounds
and negative spaces, potent elements in all Riitta-Liisa's
compositions, intensify her enigmatic subjects, portrayed
with minimal but convincing facial expression. In the hands
of this virtuoso, layers of fragile, yielding threads suggest
pensive revisions of dreams portrayed in waking terms. Her
geometric and sculptural works are similarly spontaneous yet
assured. Nothing seems willed here. It is as if each form
or color reveals the next logical note in the music of her
personal sphere. Present always though is the unmistakable
equilibrium of a master conductor.
Anna-Riitta intentionally skirted her mother's considerable
reputation in the fashion industry and pursued diplomas in
fabric design from England's Central St. Martins College of
Art and Design and the University of East London. However,
even as a young girl, she experimented with making art in
the textile medium. There were dreamy summer days spent weaving
on her little loom and chatting with Aunt Laila, who would
be sketching or painting designs for tapestries. Her aunt's
cottage, the site of this idyllic era, was painted black.
While a most unusual color for the clapboards of a summer
home in Finland, black audaciously set off the red roof, green
trim, and white roses growing all around. Later, in design
school, Anna-Riitta would study the formal hue systems and
quickly reject them as too predictable. Inevitably, she would
embrace the vivid, sophisticated contrasts of her childhood.
As in her mother's, one senses in Anna-Riitta's art the aesthetic
influences of the cubists and the Bauhaus; however, both Haavistos
clearly depart from the emotional neutrality of those movements.
Seeking inspiration in culture, religion, or her generation's
political and environmental tempests, Anna-Riitta -- today an
established artist, though still with an experimental inclination
-- transforms vast, interconnected human dilemmas into taut,
focused fiber sculptures. Her approach, less descriptive than
either her mother's or her aunt's, reflects a rare inner consonance
with an unpredictable and often discordant universe. In a manner
not unlike Mondrian's, she vents personal or societal realities
through an orderly visual language.
|Laila Karttunen, Three, 1953; linen tapestry,
Over the years, the Haavistos have shown in solo or group
exhibitions throughout Europe, Scandinavia, and Russia. Then
in 1998, at the urging of an appreciative art critic, London's
Coningsby Gallery offered them their first shared exhibition,
"Two Generations-Two Visions." Their captivating embroideries
and sculptures led viewers through the gallery's sleek, elegant
spaces with a rationale and poise seldom pulled off in mixed-technique
fiber shows. Here, perhaps for the first time, a lucid succession
of works from both Haavistos made it possible to appreciate
fully their complex creative impulses. Anna-Riitta's fusions
of brilliant yarns with natural materials such as rocks, twigs,
and water describe compelling entanglements of interior and
exterior landscapes. Characteristically, her sculptures draw
additional pictures in the overlapping shadows of their provocative
elements. With impossibly fine threads, Riitta-Liisa suspends
viewers in an elusive vista somewhere between recognition
and sensation. Critic Matt Potter wrote of the pieces in the
show, "They are often marvelous, in their composition and
craft as much as in their conception. But the whole creative
endeavor is unified to the point where one ceases to stand
apart and regard such things as craft or materials."
For the most part, the Haavistos create independent of each
other's company, while collaborating on the practical matters
of making their exhibitions run smoothly.
In 2001, they will have exhibited in Vienna, Austria; Newport,
Wales; Madrid, Spain; and Logan, Utah. Recently they were
given a grant to live in New York for three months and further
expand their sensibilities with the art and culture of that
great city. Traveling nearly halfway around the world by airplane,
train, jeep, and finally the New York City subway system,
I chased after the Haavistos. They agreed to sit still for
one last interview, the final leg of my fascinating, if a
bit circuitous, journey through three generations of their
talented Finnish family.
Work by one or both Haavistos will be on view at the Ex Church
of San Francesco, Como, Italy, from September 22 to October
27 and at the Finnish Cultural Institute in Berlin, Germany,
from November 15 to December 21. Anna-Riitta Haavisto will speak
in a panel discussion at SOFA Chicago on October 6.
|Anna-Riitta and Riitta-Liisa Haavisto. Photo: Anna
Carol K. Russell of Morristown, New Jersey, is a teacher,
writer, and curator.
Additional images available only on FiberartsMagazine.com:
|Anna-Riita Haavisto, Colorful Reflections, 2000;
steel, wool, cotton; 11 x 10.6 x 0.275 inches. Photo:
|Anna-Riita Haavisto, Colorful Reflections (detail),
2000; steel, wool, cotton; 11 x 10.6 x 0.275 inches. Photo:
|Riita-Liisa Haavisto, Family Gathering, 2000;
linen, cotton, silk; 12 x 12 x 0.8 inches. Photo: Johnny
|Riita-Liisa Haavisto, Fountain, 1998; linen;
5.75 x 4.75 x 4.75 inches. Photo: Matti Huuhka.
|Riita-Liisa Haavisto, Orbit I, 1999; metal, linen;
3.2 inches in diameter. Photo: Johnny Korkman.
Riita-Liisa Haavisto, Harvest, 2000; silk, cotton,
embroidery; 5.75 x 5.75 inches. Photo: Matti Huuhka.