The oeuvre of Kimmo Kaivanto

The art of Kimmo Kaivanto (1932–2012) merge romanticism with analyses of society. While primarily a painter and printmaker, Kaivanto was also a sculptor. He was inspired by new materials and structures alongside traditional techniques. This is particularly evident in Kaivanto’s collages, works of sculpture and architectonic installations. His works ranged from the expressive and metaphorical to experimental and conceptual approaches.

Kaivanto’s forms of expression were influenced by various orientations in art. His introverted contemplation in the 1950s was romanticism, as was also empathising with the events of nature and immersing himself in them in the spirit of informalism in the 1960s. These trends came to be accompanied by Pop art, conceptualism and the emphatic social awareness of neorealism towards the end of the decade. Kaivanto’s philosophical and sociological inclinations gained emphasis. In the 1970s, political and artistic sensitivity evolved in Kaivanto’s work into a contemporary ecological critique, an alarming vision of the explosively expanding destruction of nature, which is now more topical than ever before.

Kaivanto was acutely aware of the changes in emotional structures that took place in the 1980s and painted a series of punk faces. He was moved by the expressive youth culture of the period, with its subjectivity that sent shock waves through society. The end of the past century was a baroque period for Kaivanto in which he moved deftly among themes of art history that were dear to him, with inspiration from postmodernism.

Kimmo Sarje, translated by Jüri Kokkonen

6 September 2019

Beauty, Nature, Politics

- The Art of Kimmo Kaivanto

Kimmo Kaivanto’s sometimes romantic, sometimes conceptual or political art has been a creative presence in Finnish culture and society since the 1950s. His first solo exhibition was in Helsinki in 1959. Kaivanto’s paintings did not reflect the optimism and rationalism of post-war reconstruction. On the contrary, the young artist seems to be preoccupied with the meaning of existence. These unhurried, melancholic paintings are dominated by Cubist composition and dark blue and red tones.

A romantic attitude was also the spiritual foundation for Kaivanto’s painting of the 1960s. Moral introspection, nevertheless, gave way to joy in existence. Observations of nature were the starting point for new, more optimistic interpretations of the sense of life, which he expressed in his landscape-like, semi-abstract paintings. Kaivanto’s fondness for ultramarine began to be a stylistic feature of his art. His paintings drew on the international mainstream of Informalism, while introducing new type of Finnish landscape painting and new forms for visual-art depiction of nature. In the 1960s, Kaivanto took his place as one the leading artists of his generation. He represented Finland at the Venice Biennale in 1968, and there was increased international interest in his art.

The tensions of world politics erupted in aggressive and oppressive ways in 1968. The USA waged war in Vietnam and this was opposed with increasing determination. Almost at the same time as Soviet troops were stifling attempts to modernise socialism in Czechoslovakia, students were rioting in Paris. There were disturbances in Venice, too, and some sections of the Biennale were closed.

Kaivanto had not previously been shy of making political statements in his art, but, at the end of the 1960s, his mode of expression became more social and conceptual. In his pictures, sculptures and objects he condemned militarism and totalitarianism. He called into question masculine hierarchies and violent modes of actions. He wanted to defend both individuality and solidarity between people. Many of his silk-screen prints of that period have become our collective intellectual property.

In Finland – and perhaps internationally – Kaivanto was one of the first artists to succeed in using his works to problematise the ideology of western technological civilisation, with its one-sided exploitation of nature and narrow faith in progress. Striking paintings, in which lily pads covered open water as far as the horizon from 1969-1973, were particularly influential. When the Sea Dies II, used in a UNESCO postcard, spread worldwide in a large edition.

The ideas of photographic realism and minimalism added precision and detail to Kaivanto’s romantic art. His technically accomplished painting style of the 1970s can be described as ’metaphorical realism’. Masculinity and femininity, technology and nature, were themes that he unravelled and used in numerous variants in recurring tropes. A glove, a tie, a white shirt, a paper aeroplane, soldiers boots, or marching fingers were combined with a field of grass, a bed, a woman’s body and the heavens. Kaivanto developed his own original imagery, which challenged the art of its day. It was with these works that he represented Finland for the second time, at the Venice Biennale in 1976.

The subjectivism and expressionism of the 1980s also affected him. He tellingly interpreted the uncertainty and swagger of punk youths. Later on, his paintings became more metaphorical and acquired a baroque drama.

Kaivanto is also known for his numerous public commissions. Since the end of the 1960s, he has made more than ten works around Helsinki and Tampere. He has been a keen collaborator with architects. Many of his public monuments are a prominent part of the cityscape. The work of the set designer has also attracted him. The set design for Aulis Sallinen’s opera, the red line, which has toured several European countries and the USA, met with a positive reception from international audiences and experts.

Kaivanto’s travels as a private individual have mainly been to southern Europe or, then, to his beloved wilderness home on Arkkusaari Island in northern Häme, Central Finland. Nevertheless, as an artist Kaivanto is best known in the Nordic countries. The American public had a chance to acquaint itself with his work at a retrospective exhibition at the Center for International Arts in New York in 1992.

Kimmo Sarje, translated by Michael Garner

Text published previously in Kaivanto, Kaivanto Kimmo & Sarje, Kimmo. WSOY, 2001.