Hugo Simberg

(There will eventually be reproductions of religious artwork incorporating images of naked boys, genitals and all — the boys represent the disciples of Christ, and the artwork is a giant fresco in a (Lutheran) cathedral. Ok, the images are from Scandinavia, where attitudes about such things tend to be much more relaxed than they are in Anglo-American settings, and the artist almost surely chose prepubescent boys to represent the twelve apostles because he viewed such boys as innocents, free from sin. (In my experience, this is not even remotely an accurate view of the emotional and imaginative world of prepubescent boys, but I think we have to grant the artist a right to his idealizations.) I’ve chosen not to relegate these images to AZBlogX, in the hope that on WordPress they fall under the Fine Art Exemption for genital nudity, while understanding that they would almost surely be unacceptable on Facebook. In any case, if such images distress you, read on about Hugo Simberg’s gloomy artworks and then bail out when I get to The Garland Bearers.)

Thanks to Bernadette Lambotte and Joelle Stepien Bailard on Facebook, I was made aware of the Finnish artist Hugo Simberg and one of his most famous works, the deeply enigmatic The Wounded Angel (1903):

(#1)

From the website The Other World of Hugo Simberg:

Two sullen boys carry a stretcher, bearing an angel dressed in white. The angel’s wing has been wounded and her eyes are covered with a bandage. The painting does not tell us what has happened. One of the most beloved works in Finnish art speaks to us in many ways – there are as many interpretations as there are viewers. Perhaps this is how Hugo Simberg meant it to be. When he first displayed the work in the annual exhibition of the Finnish Art Society, there was simply a dash where there should have been a title. This was the artist’s way of saying that no single, correct interpretation exists. Each viewer creates the meaning of the work for him/herself, interpreting it in a personal way.

Hugo Simberg spent many years preparing The Wounded Angel. His sketches and photographs tell us about its progress – in the early stages, the angel was pushed in a wagon by small devils. The central figure throughout the process was a wounded angel, however, and the setting a real place, Eläintarha Park in Helsinki. The pathway along Töölönlahti Bay remains there to this day.

On the artist, from Wikipedia:

Hugo Gerhard Simberg (24 June 1873 – 12 July 1917) was a Finnish symbolist painter and graphic artist.

… Simberg’s paintings emphasize mainly macabre and supernatural topics. A good example is Kuolema kuuntelee (Death Listens), which depicts Death, personified as a skeleton wearing a black coat, listening with a bowed head as a young man plays the violin. In the background is an old woman lying on a bed, pale and apparently sickly. There is a suggestion that Death is there for the old woman, but that he is pausing so the young man, possibly the dying woman’s son, can have time to finish his violin playing.

Simberg’s famous painting The Wounded Angel, too, is somewhat gloomy, its titular character appearing in the shape of a winged angel with a bandaged head, borne on a stretcher by two somberly dressed boys, one of whom looks toward the viewer with a serious expression. The painting is the best known of the artist’s works and is especially famous in Finland. The Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish released on 11 August 2007 a music video based on this painting, “Amaranth”.

Another theme in Simberg’s work is prepubescent boys. Naked boys carrying wreaths are a motif of his frescoes in the Tampere Cathedral, and one of his early photographs, named Guido, Fish Boy, shows a boy sitting on a rock, looking out to sea.

The music video “Amaranth”:

(#2) Wikipedia on the music video:

The video alternates between the band playing underground and scenes of a story of two boys who find a fallen angel. It begins with the boys playing by a stream, having a good time, but when one of them looks up from his toy boat, he sees an angel lying on the other side, unconscious and bleeding from her eyes. The boy points out the angel to his brother, and they run to her aid. Subsequently, they are seen carrying the now blindfolded angel on a makeshift stretcher. They travel to a nearby village in order to treat her. Residents of the village are confused and some look upon her with contempt, possibly seeing her not as an angel, but as an object of evil. This may be a reference to Satan, who fell from Heaven during the great battle. Because of Lucifer’s treachery, a fallen angel is often viewed as evil.

The boys reach their house and set the angel down on a bed. One of them touches the angel’s wings, and she regains consciousness. The boy tilts her chin up, and a drop of blood falls from her eyes into his open hand, which closes. A mob of men, made up of some of the villagers who saw the boys bring in the angel, barge into the house and drag the boys out, away from the angel, who has begun to thrash helplessly. A man outside sets the house on fire with a torch. The mob outside rejoice as the house burns down, but the angel escapes back to Heaven.

OED2 on the noun amarant(h):

[etymology < French < Latin < Greek μάραντ-ος, used as name of a flower, but properly adj. ‘everlasting,’ <   not + *-μαραντ-ος fading, corruptible] 1. An imaginary flower reputed never to fade; a fadeless flower (as a poetic conception). [1st cite 1623] 2. A genus of ornamental plants (Amarantus, family Amarantaceæ) with coloured foliage, of which the Prince’s Feather and Love-lies-bleeding are species. [1st cite 1551] 3. A purple colour, being that of the foliage of Amarantus. [1st cite 1690]

The sense relevant to the music video is presumably 1, the ‘fadeless flower’ sense.

On to Simberg’s prepubescent boys, especially in the fresco The Garland Bearers (1905-06). From the Curiator site on the work:

Sometimes titled “Garland of Life.” “… a continuous fresco, The Garland Bearers, depicts 12 young boys carrying a garland of roses, representing the disciples of Christ carrying the vine of life. Simberg also painted a red-winged serpent of Paradise on the ceiling, sparking off considerable protest, and as late as 1946, the bishop of Tampere Diocese proposed that it be removed.” (https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/the-photographs-of-hugo-simberg/)

Note that the objection was to the over-vivid serpent, not to the naked boys.

Each of the Garland Bearers panels started out as a photograph. Here, for example, is the last of the panels, and the photo it was based on:

(#3)

(#4)

Some earlier panels:

(#5)

(#6)

(#7)

(#8)

It seems clear to me that Simberg identified strongly with these (rather awkward but unself-conscious) boys, and probably found their bodies aesthetically pleasing. And, possibly, viewed them with homoerotic pleasure (while treating his models with circumspection and respect) — much as the English painter and photographer Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929) did. Tuke, best known for his paintings of nude boys and young men, as here:


(#9) Tuke’s August Blue (1893-4)

was homosexual (but of course closeted), and treated his young models with avuncular regard throughout their lives. From his work, I would have pegged Simberg as a similarly closeted homosexual (also respectful towards his models), but I’ve found no evidence in the matter.

On artistic focus on the bodies of boys and young men, see my 7/13/16 posting “Bodily alignment”, with its section on painters: Tuke especially, but also Georges Paul Le Roux and Thomas Eakins. (John Singer Sargent belongs here tool, but isn’t treated in that posting; instead, see my 3/12/18 posting “Shirtlessness and more: Bouguereau and Sargent”.)

On photographers, see my 3/6/12 posting “The twinkmeister”:

In the world of male photography, there have been several specialists in young (especially boyish-looking) males, viewed homoerotically: Mel Roberts (here) and Bob Mizer [section on Mizer in this posting], with posed but artless-seeming shots, and most especially Howard Roffman, who’s still flourishing at his craft. I think of Roffman as the twinkmeister, for his focus on the type of young man known in gay slang as twinks.

An artists’s homoerotic gaze is not, of course, incompatible with other responses to the male body: identification with it, aesthetic appreciation of its form, celebration of its power and its beauty in action, and so on.

Meanwhile, not all homo-inclined artists have distanced themselves physically from their models, the way Tuke seems to have done. Straight male artists sometimes get involved sexually with certain of their female models, or with a great many of them; and gay artists sometimes act similarly. Roberts and Mizer, in particular, seem to have engaged sexually with many of the young men who modeled for them.

One Response to “Hugo Simberg”

  1. [BLOG] Some Friday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky looks at the art of Finnish painter Hugo […]

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