Mari Tossavainen – ”Sculptor´s Work. Emil Wikström and the Infrastructure of Sculpture, 1890-1920”. Lectio praecursoria 30.11.2012

Mari Tossavaisen väitöskirja ”Kuvanveistotyö. Emil Wikström ja kuvanveiston rakenne 1890-1920”  (Sculptor´s Work. Emil Wikström and the Infrastructure of Sculpture, 1890-1920) tarkastettiin 30.11.2012 Helsingin yliopistossa. Vastaväittäjänä toimi dosentti Tutta Palin (Turun yliopisto) ja kustoksena professori Ville Lukkarinen. Väitöstiivistelmä on luettavissa osoitteessa

“It is only now that I understand where my true fortune lies: when one has made a small piece of good work that satisfies oneself as well as others, it is more than all the pieces of ordinary fortune together.”

The citation is from a letter the Finnish sculptor Emil Wikström (1864-1942) wrote to Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931) in 1896, where he told about his struggling with his first significant work, the tympanum group of the House of the Estates (1903). Wikström had countless thoughts and aphorisms on sculptor´s work, similar to the above quote, which are saved in his letters and also as published by the press. His aphorisms and philosophies of life depicted hard work and high work morale; in the sculptor’s studio, the work would go on from early morning till late night. The goals were crystal clear: “I want to do good work.” The outcome of the following day had to be better than that of the previous day.

The subject of my doctoral dissertation is sculptor´s work at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. In this context, Emil Wikström is positioned as a central figure in the infrastructures of the world of art and competition in the field. I examine a sculptor´s work in relation to the formation of art infrastructures, collaborations, and the practice and profession of sculpture.

The point of departure for this study was my Master´s thesis, which dealt with the monument of Johan Vilhelm Snellman (1923) planned by Emil Wikström and Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950). It gave rise to a question, namely, how is it possible that a single sculptor, Emil Wikström, had managed to have two of his works – the tympanum of the House of the Estates and the monument of J. V. Snellman – located in such a central place in Helsinki, on opposite sides of the same downtown street? In my research, I have aspired to find answers to the questions related to sculptor´s position, professional aims, the site and the placing of sculpture. It meant archival research and exploration into written and unwritten rules, professional principles, and negotiations concerning works commissioned from a sculptor. The concept of art infrastructures proved to be fruitful in describing the structures supporting the sculptor´s work.

The period to be examined starts from the 1890´s, when Wikström entered the profession of sculpture which, at that time in Finland, signified a difficult, undervalued and poorly paid form of art. The study period ends in the years after Finland gained independence in 1917, that is, the turn of the 1910´s and 1920´s. During this period, Wikström’s position as a sculptor was at its strongest.

The time span is long enough for examining the shaping of Wikström´s career and position the changes that took place in the field of sculpture. During this particular period, Wikström’s own ideas and attitudes also developed and changed, which gives another argument for selecting this period for investigation.

Furthermore, the central national institutions and infrastructures supporting the production, reception, and publicity of sculpture took shape during these decades. Within Finnish sculpture, the late 19th and early 20th centuries were a period of time when the production of monuments and the number of sculptors increased significantly. The enthusiasm for erecting public monuments to the honor of great men, known as the ’memorial epidemic’ ’statuomania’, prevailed also in Finland in the early 1900’s. Also, the variety of genres within sculpture increased, and the public support, especially that of the towns and cities, was considered more and more important. The establishment of artists’ exhibitions and professional organizations was   characteristic to this time. For my dissertation, I examined the national aspiration to organize the legislation and rules for art, the actual production of sculptures, as well as the exhibition and association activities. The foundations of the Finnish sculpture institution were laid in the years between 1890 and 1920, and sculptors’ professional identity and pursuits began to emerge in many ways.  Their work was being transformed by new professional practices and infrastructures, for instance, contracts, art education, art foundries, associations and publicity.

The aim of my research was to understand larger phenomena of Finnish sculpture through an individual, with Emil Wikström as the major exemplary case. Why then Emil Wikström? Wikström was a sculptor by profession and he was full-time engaged in the field of sculpture. He became a professional ideal, the master whose apprenticeship was sought, almost fought for, no matter what the conditions were. Thus, Wikström was able to control who was given access to the profession of sculpture. He was the gatekeeper and expert, the key figure in the field of sculpture in terms of art education, exhibitions, commissions and contracts.

In addition to Wikström, I examined sculptor’s work in general and at many levels in order to gain understanding of the variety of the phenomenon and to position Wikström in the context of the cooperative networks of the art world in his time. Also, I found it important to bring out women’s participation in the male-dominated world of sculpture, as in the field the majority of the actors were men.

To understand the professional practices and infrastructures of the era, the research is based on relevant sources, such as sculptor´s professional correspondence, the documents of the monument committees and the material for publicity. As usual in archival research, the overall picture has formed piece by piece, little by little. “Sculptor´s professional correspondence” refers here to the correspondence that is written and read principally in the professional context. Wikström considered writing as an important part of the sculptor’s work, it was nearly as important as sculpting itself and the writing of letters took much of his time. Wikström wrote large numbers of letters addressed, for example, to the monument commissions.

My dissertation brings to light many new, previously unexplored source materials, and it shows that the Finnish sculpture of the period under study and the related source materials are not yet exhaustively surveyed. In fact, the Finnish sculpture of the late 19th century and early 20th centuries is an area that has been scarcely researched in doctoral dissertations and other academic theses in art history. Up to date, no monograph on Wikström has been published.  In Finland, as well as in other countries, the sculpture of the time has been in the margin within art historical research. In my research, I aimed to bind the new information to the earlier knowledge about sculpture in Finland.

The art sociological approach of my doctoral dissertation is justified, because, at the end of the 1800´s, the breaking down of the class society based on the four estates led to the emphasis of professions. The artist’s profession got new buoyancy in the wake of the Paris World´s Fair of 1900, where the solo exhibition of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was of great significance in terms of the status and revival of sculpture. Rodin´s solo exhibition was something unprecedented, because sculptors had rarely held solo exhibitions and, usually, they were in the shadow of the painters. The Finnish sculpture culture of the time cannot be understood in isolation from the international frame of reference, including Rodin, who was an important professional model among the sculptors. Some of the Finnish sculptors also had direct or indirect connections with Rodin.

During the first part of the 1900´s and the end of the 1800´s, there were questions rising in the sculpture field, which are still topical, for example, the copyright issues. Emil Wikström was an early advocate of copyright legislation in the late 19th century, when the artists’ copyright was generally undervalued. His example and activity contributed to the increased use of written contracts for commissions as a professional practice. The copyright was an economic issue for the artist. Sociologist Howard S. Becker’s idea of art worlds makes it possible, for instance, to examine copyright and the state’s role in research. Although usually reduced to concern only co-operation and division of labor, Becker’s art worlds are not merely a matter of private networks and human relations.

Similar to copyright, another still topical professional issue is the question of, who can practice public sculpture and who has the right to be a sculptor. In recent years, the statues made by “laymen”, non-artists or amateurs have provoked discussion, and according to the statements of the Association of Finnish Sculptors, the practice of sculpture would better be left to professional artists. The arts have not been considered as professions, as opposed to the profession of a doctor or a lawyer. However, the recent study of professions has expanded to cover periods and art forms that were not previously regarded as professions. Earlier, the study of profession has been limited to the study of macro-level phenomena, but today it also covers immediate work community and micro-level phenomena, such as sculpture workshops or the practices of training.

In my study, an important aspect concerns the effort to institutionalize the profession and the working conditions during the period under study. In the field of arts, artists got organized, demanded their rights and emphasized the rhetoric of work, that is, art as work and labor.  At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, sculptors had no monopoly to practice sculpture. During the early decades of the 20th century, however, sculptors were already worried about their monopoly to execute public sculpture. The most important rivaling professional group and co-operative party were architects. The architects also served as an example to sculptors, providing them with ideas through their organization activities and competition arrangements. Traditionally, sculptors were hierarchically subordinated in relation to architects: they simply executed the decorative sculpture planned by the architects for the buildings.

During my research project, I encountered with the prevailing conceptions concerning Wikström and the sculpture at the turn of the century. Wikström is best known for the national monuments situated in Helsinki, the capital of Finland. The starting point for my research is Wikström’s idea that sculpture is connected with place. Wikström has, for a long time, been considered as a representative of the Finnish nationalist movement, who created the monuments of the key figures of the movement, Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884) and J. V. Snellman (1806-1881), and who was supported by the Finnish-minded circles. The capital-centered approach to monuments – the division of sculpture into the national monuments and the monuments located in the rest of the country – ignores sculptors and co-operative projects in the country as a whole. In addition to the national identity, it is important to take into account the local and regional levels.

What can the sources of the history of sculpture, such as the sculptor’s professional correspondence, the records of the associations and the monument committees, the contracts and other contemporary texts, tell us about the Finnish sculpture institution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? In my material, one question is repeated, namely, if it is right and just that the field of monuments is dominated by one person only at a time. When preparing the monument of Lönnrot in 1899, Wikström stated that other sculptors can then make the monuments for J. V. Snellman, Zacharias Topelius (1818-1898) and other great men. However, as it happened, he got many commissions either directly or as competition victories, especially after the monument of Lönnrot (1902), and since 1904, his sculpture workshop was in full swing in Finland. Undoubtedly, his reputation as a renowned master was one reason for the piling up of commissions. Sculptor Ville Vallgren (1855-1940), one of his chief rivals, stated that Wikström succeeded Walter Runeberg (1838-1920) as the master. In the 1920´s, Wikström pointed out himself that there can only be one star in the sculptural firmament at a time, and then it was Wäinö Aaltonen’s (1894-1966) turn. Competition between the sculptors brought about juridical and ethical discussion.

Sculptor’s reputation is a social construct that is intertwined into the position as “the dominant master” and the monuments. Wikström often emphasized that, for him, working was more important than the public reputation. He needed writers and promoters to speak for his work because, as he often stated, “writing is not my favorite business” or “writing usually feels like an overwhelming task and especially, when it is a question of writing for publicity”. In addition to the known supporter to Wikström, Eliel Aspelin-Haapkylä (1847-1917), research brings up also other writers and journalists, with whom Wikström co-operated, such as Helmi Krohn (1871-1967) and Hugo Samzelius (1867-1918). Until the turn of the 1910´s and 1920´s, Wikström had no need of the same kind of marketing for his work as other sculptors had, and he disliked the new way of marketing, the emerging role of publicity in the sculptor’s work. My study shows that Wikström was not ignorant of his public image, quite the contrary, he was very particular about the exhibition of his works and the presentation of his new works in the press, and he kept in contact with the press and expressed his disapproval of any oblivion. While Wikström was involved in establishing the exhibition institution in Finland, including the Artists’ Association exhibition and the Association of Finnish Sculptors as the organization for sculpture exhibitions, he considered exhibitions as superficial attempts to gain temporary reputation. “I am no Rodin”, he stated, referring to the Paris World´s Fair of 1900. However, the new pictorial magazines of the time opened up possibilities for presenting sculpture, studios and artist homes.

Emil Wikström had a profound impact on the ideals and ideas of the sculptor’s profession and success. His home and studio, Visavuori, was seen as a sign of the artist´s position and professionalism. Wikström was privileged, many other sculptors suffered from a shortage of workshops and studios. At Visavuori, the large artist´s studio, the first art foundry and the artist home, designed by the artist himself, were manifestations of his success and served as an example for the whole nation, of what can be achieved by hard work. Wikström´s studio, the temple of work, became an archetypal symbol of a sculptor.


Tossavainen, Mari: Kuvanveistotyö. Emil Wikström ja kuvanveiston rakenne 1890-1920. Bidrag till kännedom av Finlands natur och folk 190. Societas Scientiarum Fennica: Helsinki 2012.

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