The Finnish American Reporter
From Filonov to Fomin: illustrating Kalevala
James N. Kurtti
Finland, the country, for which the Kalevala epic became a symbol of national and cultural revival, had long ago acknowledged the uniqueness of Vladimir Fomin’s series of paintings based on the epic.
The importance of the creative achievement of Elias Lennrot, who out of ancient myths, folk legends, and songs not only constructed a monument glorifying Finland, but enriched with it the world culture, can be compared to the creation of such universally recognized treasures as the Scandinavian Elder Edda, the ancient Greek Iliad and Odyssey, and the Indian Mahabharata and Ramayana.
The accomplishments of the Finnish classic painter Akseli Gallen-Kalela, whose Kalevala-inspired canvasses are today among the greatest masterpieces of the Finnish National Museum of Art, inspired hundreds of artists from Europe, Asia, and Africa.
But the world recognition of the great Finnish folk epic was advanced even further by the Russian artist Vladimir Fomin. Museums in Scandinavia marked the 150th anniversary of the full edition of the epic with Fomin’s personal exhibitions, and in 1999 one Finnish museum purchased thirty-three of Fomin’s graphic works based on Kalevala. Some of the fifty-five paintings from the artist’s Kalevala series are included in exhibits even today. During the unprecedented exhibition tour through the museums of Finland, Sweden, and Norway in 1999 and later, the Kalevala series was seen by more than 50,000 viewers.
Fomin’s paintings devoted to Kalevala were never exhibited in Karelia, a place which for Elias Lenrot became a poetic Mecca, and which he called a “living museum of ancient-Finnish reality.” However, despite coming to Karelia from Siberia in 1992, living in Petrozavodsk for 14 years, and creating several series of paintings devoted to this region, Vladimir Fomin is still better known abroad than in the place where he lives.
The edition of Kalevala printed by the publishing house Scandinavia gives the Karelian art-lovers the first real chance to become acquainted with the images created by the artist. Not by chance the book is illustrated with Fomin’s paintings previously published in Europe and the United States. His Vainamoinen (the main hero of the epic) has graced the covers and pages of popular foreign newspapers and magazines; he also adorns a page in an encyclopedia of world mythology, published in London in 2004. Today, many scholars of the epic associate its visual imagery with examples created either by Gallen-Kalela or by Fomin.
Fortunately, according to the artist himself, to create the series devoted to Kalevala he did not have to win competitions, as Gallen-Kalela did or surrender to the pressures of the Soviet censorship, as Pavel Filonov. The illustrations for the Russian edition of Kalevala published in1933 were created by thirteen members of the Filonov School under the close personal supervision of the school’s founder. The political attache of the Soviet Union in Finland, I. M. Maiskii, who instigated the publication and was the author of the introduction to the book, understood his role as no less important and involved. He intervened so often in the work of the illustrators that, in the opinion of the great master Pavel Filonov, he turned out to be an impossible-to-please critic. Even though between 1931 and 1933 Filonov himself devoted to the work on Kalevala several hours a day, in Maiskii’s introduction the illustrations created by Filonov’s group were not even mentioned.
Fomin believes that all previous illustrated Russian editions of Kalevala belong to low-cost popular undertakings. Perhaps the new book will become a treasure for the true lovers of the epic, which continues to affect people regardless of temporal and territorial restrictions. If one recalls the sacred essence of the ancient myths which have survived until today, one notices that all of them include a prophecy. Whoever embraces the magic of the word turns into a spiritual leader of the society. This is the path of all creators. Fomin believes, like Lenrot, that he has as much right to be creative as the rune-singers had.
“Throughout his entire creative process Vladimir Fomin asserts his right to intellectual and spiritual art” -- stressed the American specialists and the press in 2006, responding with admiration to the artist’s personal exhibit at the Albin Polasek Museum in Winter Park, Florida (USA), listed in the National Register of Historic Places. During the exhibit, Professor Alexander Boguslawski from Rollins College presented several lectures devoted to Fomin’s works, including the Kalevala series. It should come as no surprise that the Museum is planning another exhibition of the Russian painter in 2008. Florida’s newspapers, The Orlando Sentinel and Winter Park Observer wrote that the exhibiton of the canvasses of the “rising star” of the “Russian art world is completely mesmerizing” and astonishes the viewers with the “decorative details, precise and mosaic-like execution, harmonious colors, clarity and grace of design,” which “characterize his unique style” (the avant-garde lubok) – “an artistic synthesis of the traditional and popular tendencies in art.”
Kalevala, published in Finnish and Russian with 40 illustrations and ornaments designed by Fomin, appears on the eve of the closing of the artist’s exhibition at the Russian Trade Commission in Helsinki, visited in 2005-2006 by Presidents, ministers, and businessmen from many countries.