Lilium Candidum

It has been a while since I added to my Toussaints series, so I am pleased to introduce Lilium Candidum, the latest of these mixed media pieces based on/ up-cycled using early 20th century religious prints I have collected from the South of France.

The print of the Madonna and Child I started with was originally manufactured in Florence, as indicated by a small label still attached to the back of the piece.  Not that it came as a huge surprise – this picture with its heavy lacquer, the grandiose gilded frame and how it was mounted on wood, is a text-book example of mass produced Italian souvenirs.  My guess is that it is also not nearly as old as you might first think it is, dating anywhere between early 1960’s to 1980’s.  So not exactly a masterpiece of the Italian arts, but a perfect candidate for repainting.

Before beginning, though, I had to address some issues within the structure of this piece.  The lightweight wooden frame had a coating of plaster that was cracked in places and missing bits of paint.  Now, I would not take this approach with an antique frame, but the most cost effective way for me to stabilise it was to glue in any large chunks of plaster as well as loose paint and fill the voids with bog-standard wood filler.  Having waited for my repairs to dry I gave these spots a light sanding and touched up missing paint with my oil paints.  I had no desire to replace the missing gilding, but as the frame had been purposely distressed by the manufacturer, my repairs done with non-metallic paints were practically invisible anyway.

Lilium Candidum by Tiina Lilja - work in progress

The theme of this piece came straight out of my latest sketchbook:  I have been obsessing over bygone medical illustration for some time and wanted to combine anatomical motifs with vintage style floral patterns – this picture with its dark background felt like the perfect backdrop to explore these ideas using white paint markers.  By dividing the image into three separate fields using two circles drawn on top one another,  I managed to create a sense of structure within a fairly straightforward composition as well as in painting a distinct decorative backdrop for my two main subjects, Madonna and Child and a line drawing of a human heart.

Lilium Candidum by Tiina Lilja - work in progress

With all of these elements completed in white, I used spray varnish to isolate my drawn layer and used thin washes of oil paint to add colour on top of it.  It took me a bit of going back and forth before I was completely happy with the results, but I was able to achieve a good contrast of white and coloured drawn elements by alternating between white paint markers, varnish and oil paint.  Once the drawing was completed, now a mixture of tinted line work and thicker outlines in pure white, I chose to cover all voids in my background with a simple mint green-to-teal gradient.  This made the painting appear more complete and allowed the tinted lines of the lilies merge in with the gilding of the wooden frame.

Lilium Candidum painting by Tiina Lilja 2019

All and all, a happy little repaint job.  What a shame it took me so long to get it finished after months of gathering dust in the studio!

Named after a white lily, also known as the Lily of the Virgin Mary, Lilium Candidum will be the last one of the Toussaints… for now.  Although, I am off to France for a well-earned summer holiday in a week or two and who knows what I find rummaging through the brocantes and depots-vente by the foot of the Montagne Noire!

 À la prochaine!

Tiina x

Double Exposure – drawing new narratives

In these past few weeks I have been continuing my “Double Exposure” project; using white paint markers of varying thicknesses as well as standard black fine-liners in lieu of embroidery.  With this relatively limited palette, I wish to add a second layer on the pages from David Hamilton’s Souvenirs and replicate in drawing what it feels to be distracted by negative information about an author when viewing a piece of art.

The first time I remember being in a situation where learning unsavoury details about an artist stopped me fully enjoying their work was in secondary school.  Like any budding painter, around the age of 13 or 14, I idolised Picasso.  Sure, I thought the Guernica was great, but what I was really obsessed about was his blue period.  Learning about his chauvinism and the questionable treatment of the women in his life, made me both angry and embarrassed.  How his behaviour was tolerated if not fully expected from a successful male painter was beyond me.  I replaced him in my heart with the drinking-with-the-boys Frida Kahlo.  How much did that really change the expectation my teenage-self had about painters is open to interpretation.

With age and a bit of experience I have learned to accept that idolising as well as detesting a stereotype of a person is not productive.  By ignoring the whole production of Picasso, for the sake of argument, because he was a royal self-obsessed arse, would not do you any favours.  On the flip side, sweeping any problem under a rug hardly makes it disappear.  Perhaps we ought to be more mindful about past prejudices and negative attitudes embedded in creative work, have it be visual art, music, drama or literature… and strive to do better in the future?  Besides, by choosing to appreciate artwork only from the “Greatest Hits” shelf of art history leaves you missing out on not just great art, but great stories of artists less know than Picasso or Kahlo.

To return to “Double Exposure”, pretending the sexual abuse allegations against David Hamilton do not affect the way his work is perceived would be an understatement.  This is partly explained by the subject matter itself – what was seen acceptable in the 1970’s is more widely condemned and disapproved today, even when suggestively posed pre-pubescent children are not involved.  What intrigues me is how difficult it is to separate the art from the person who created it.  Like a window that gets dirtier and harder to peer through with the passage of time, it is difficult observe Hamilton’s photography in earnest without the cloud of accusations obstructing the view.  Following this line of reasoning, I begun to draw with a view of obscuring, but not entirely covering the pages of Souvenirs – to physically replicate this effect on paper.

These drawing attached in today’s blog are just a few examples of my progress so far.  With over a hundred photographs to choose from, my biggest challenge will be selecting the most successful pieces and curating them into a coherent work of art.

Until then,

Tiina x

Corpus Christi – thoughts on early medical illustration, dissection and visual art

We all have hobbies, right?  Little bit of arts and crafts perhaps, going to the gym, cookery, those sort of things.  I personally enjoy long walks with my Alsatian Rusty, running… and reading about the many ways the human body has been mutilated in the name of science.  Strictly historically speaking.

Trust me, I am an artist.

All I can say in my defence is that it started with anatomy.  As a painter occupied with the obsolete and the ostentatious, I was preordained to find illustrated atlases of the human body fascinating.  The hyper detailed drawings of internal organs next to skeletons posed like marble statues of ancient Rome; what a delightful combination of the macabre and the medical!  I tried to envisage what it must have been like, in the early days of scientific surgery and the golden age of dissection, to depict a body like this – to maintain a clinical gaze in the most intimate of situations.

The history of dissecting cadavers is a murky one, entangled in the stories of the resurrection men, unscrupulous surgeons, stolen bodies and desecrated graves.  Having lived in Edinburgh, I could not avoid the ghoulish tale of William Burke and William Hare, a pair of friends turned murderers, who found a way to cash in on the lucrative body trade.  They were caught and punished, Burke ending up at the business end of a long rope with a sudden stop.  To add insult to injury, he was then publically dissected and his articulated skeleton was put on displayed at the Anatomy Museum at the University of Edinburgh where it remains to this day, alongside leather wallets made from his skin.  Interestingly, but not entirely surprisingly, Dr. Robert Knox who had paid for the victims suspiciously fresh corpses was vilified, but otherwise free to move on with his life.

Dr. Knox’s involvement in the corpse trade was by no means unusual: for him and his contemporaries, stolen remains were an unsavoury, but a necessary part of studying the human anatomy.  Before the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832, bodies available to dissection were scarce, limited to those of executed criminals.  However, through a bizarre loophole in the law, stealing bodies was not illegal as long as the resurrectionist would not take the deceased’s clothing or grave goods.  Being poor highly increased your changes at ending up on the surgeons slab, but the wealthy did not entirely escape this gruesome faith either.  The fear of dissection was so great that graves were topped with heavy stone slabs, anti-robbing “cages” made of thick iron or simply guarded for a fortnight or so following a burial.  Alas, through sheer perseverance and widespread bribing of the officials responsible of safeguarding the sanctity of burials, the practice of bodysnatching continued until the 1832 Anatomy Act.  The new law allowed the unclaimed bodies of the poor or those who had died in public institutions such as poorhouses, asylums or hospitals to be dissected by medical students; a model adopted from France where the staff at the public teaching hospitals were free to study anyone who had perished under their care.

The anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures
From the anatomy of the human gravid uterus exhibited in figures, by William Hunter.

If like me, you enjoy browsing through books on Georgian and early-Victorian era medical illustration, take a minute to contemplate on the contributions of those anonymous dead who are immortalised in these beautifully morbid images.  A corpse of a small child stands next to no chance to have been acquired through any other than unscrupulous means as were the bodies of pregnant women, the simple reason being that visibly pregnant women were not hanged for the sake of public decency.  The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus Exhibited in Figures by the famous anatomist William Hunter is a truly exquisite collaboration between a scientist and an artist, aided by the craftsmen who produced it in print, but there is little doubt that the women cut up and featured as anatomical specimen were anything but stolen from their graves.

As a painter, this is a legacy that I too must acknowledge if I choose to make work inspired by early anatomical illustration.  Choosing to talk about the underside of this age of medical history does not mean I am opposed to dissection of cadavers in any way.   I am simply presenting this argument as it directly inspired me to create the latest piece in my “Toussaints” series called “Corpus Christi”; a small mixed media piece, mere 19×27.5cm in size, consisting of a 1930’s lithograph of Jesus Christ layered with drawn anatomical motives in white ink and varnish.  “Corpus Christi”, literally the body of Christ, felt like the only name to give to a piece combining vintage style medical illustration and religious iconography.

Corpus Christi by Tiina Lilja 2019, mixed media on paper

While working on this piece I came across a quote from Richard Barnet’s delightful Sick Rose (or Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration), describing the body disenchanted through the advances in modern medicine, surgery in particular:

“No timeless mysteries, only temporary ignorance, no vital force or soul, only an endless dance of enzymes and substrates.”

(Thames and Hudson, 2014, pg. 22)

As I have previously explained in relation to my usage of Christian imagery, disenchantment is indeed a good word to use when it comes to my personal relationship with God.  I am not a believer and although raised attending church I have no faith.  I hypothesise that once my life comes to an end there are no pearly gates for me; no salvation nor hell.  Simply, nothingness.  Denying the prospect of an afterlife does make me fear death – on the contrary.  Naturally, this world view influences my work.  By choosing to juxtapose the spiritual with the corporal in “Corpus Christi”, I aim to evoke the “vanitas” paintings of the past and the long tradition of “Memento Mori” imagery.  Dust to dust, and so forth.  For me, remembering death is a part of accepting death and making peace with it – seeing death as natural as life itself.


Beyond “Corpus Christi”, I have been drawing a lot lately, continuing my “Double Exposure” project.  (More about that in a bit.)  If you fancy reading more about the history of medical illustration or surgery, I warmly recommend the writings of aforementioned Richard Barnet.  Or check out the “Iconic Corpse”-series by Caitlin Daugherty on youtube if you are simply feeling a bit morbid – the one about Hayden’s head is particularly… well, funny.

Until next time.

Tiina x

P.S.  I could not fit this in anywhere on this blog, but check this out.  I would take anything coming out of Diego Rivera with a pinch of salt, but WOW.

Dude.

No.

Silence is Golden

Bonne année à tous!

This piece I am about to introduce was finished in late-2018 and it is the latest artwork in my La Toussaints-series.  Named “Silence is Golden” as a nod towards the images origin, this mixed media piece is an adaptation of a lithograph bought from my local brocante– where these types of pictures come a dime a dozen.

My lithograph was a copy of an engraving “The Silence” (ca. 1675-1693) by Nicolas de Poilly, who in turn was paraphrasing “The Sleep of the Child” by Charles Le Brun.  It is a cosy domestic scene featuring the holy family: Joseph, Mary and a plump baby Jesus, with John the Baptist.  Mary, who is seated at the centre of the composition, is holding her sleeping child while gently scolding the young John the Baptist for attempting to wake the Christ up from his slumber.  The inscription at the bottom of the print reads “Sileat omnis terra a facie eius”, (loosely following Habakkuk 2:20) and can be translated as “Be silent, O all the earth tremble before him.” (Image and Incarnation: The Early Modern Doctrine of the Pictorial Image, edited by Walter Melion & Lee Palmer Wandel, 2015)  My copy of the print likely dates to the turn of the 20th century if not a little earlier.  Despite of past restoration attempts in or around the 1930’s, it was in poor condition: damaged by the sun and insufficient framing.

My fascination of Catholic art goes hand in hand with my art education.  Like any keen student of art history, I quickly became familiar with the lore and symbolism of different saints, due to the nature of historic art that survives in Europe.  I was brought up in the fold of the Church of Finland, as an evangelic Lutheran, but I have no personal faith.  As a young atheist and a budding painter, I could not relate to religious art, but I admired the grandiosity of it.  I can appreciate the likes of Morgan Beatus (a stupendously illuminated manuscript of the Book of Revelations, circa 940-45), in awe of human imagination stemming from Christian piety and not feel the slightest sense of guilt or doubt about my own religious identity.  In that light, collecting fiercely Catholic lithographs and incorporating them in my own visual art feels only natural.

My style of creating new art out of the old is all about layering; adding elements with a distinctly different hand from the original artist and creating interest through contrast.  I am a lover of the decorative arts and these mixed media pieces allow me to explore the more maximalist side of my practise.  In “Silence is Golden” I chose to simplify the design of the original composition by removing the background altogether and replacing it with a straightforward pattern mirroring the colours of the print.  A separate geometric element inlayed with a selection of coloured washes in oil paint serves a decorative purpose as well as a vehicle to highlight the relationships between the prints subjects, beginning from the line of sight of the Virgin Mary.  Where my painted additions are substantial to the way this print will be viewed in the future, I don’t see myself as the sole author of this piece, rather than a curator of it.

Changing fashions have left these previously beloved images of devotion crumbling in their mouldy frames, sold for the price of live-love-laugh stickers.  Worn by the passage of time, unloved or simply forgotten, they remind me of my grandmother with her framed embroidery of a guardian angel, perhaps this is why I find them so irresistible.  By adding my own mark into a copy of a print or a painting I stand alongside the artists that created these images, on a direct line from the likes of de Poilly and Le Brun.  It is a very comforting thought.

Silence is golden by Tiina Lilja 2018, mixed media on paper

All the while I am actually recycling art.

For that, I feel downright saintly.

Tiina x

Double Exposure – transfers and embroidery

Double Exposure is research project looking into the depiction of vulnerable women and girls in visual art.

Start from the beginning  here.


So far my research into the imagery of “Souvenirs” has taken me two ways.  I began this project by applying simple embroidery straight onto the severed pages of the book, over and around the models in these images, obscuring some parts of the photographs and highlighting others.  Having worked in this repetitive manner, getting to know my subject matter, I was ready to start manipulating the imagery in other ways.  To allow more complicated embroidery, I needed to transfer my chosen images, by now cropped and circular for visual uniformity, onto fabric.  This was a fairly straight forward process aided by iron-on transfers.  I sew, hardly for work, but to a decent standard.  A good knowledge in manipulating different textiles certainly helped when planning this move.

I am a painter first, and an artist second.  This did not cement as my only professional identity until my time in the Edinburgh College of Art, however.  I do not feel I was outright discouraged from exploring other methods of expression, but presenting a coherent body of work was a key part of our academic criteria and something you were encouraged to work towards.  It took time and more confidence than I would have ever expected to allow myself to lower my brushes for this one.  Hence why “Double Exposure” is such a personal project for me.  The re-introduction of textile based art for the first time since my teenage years has been an exciting re-discovery.

I have already touched on how embroidery continues to be viewed as a feminine medium.  Textile art altogether has often been dismissed as a hobbyist’s technique, more at home in the WI Fayre than a reputable Art Gallery.  I have only two words for those of such narrow minds: Louise Bourgeois.  Especially due to the weight of its historic reputation, embroidery and textiles can be weaponised to the artists’ means.  I needed to counteract the upsetting subject matter of Double Exposure with something calming and sensory.  To fight crude with quaint, if you will.  Thread and a needle are the perfect tool for this job.

I find the soothing tactile-ness of this work almost therapeutic.  I feel every piece is taking shape almost on muscle memory alone, stitch after stitch.  Building this body of work feels both important and inspiring – this is a good place to be, mentally as well as professionally.

Happy holidays – see you all after Christmas.

Tiina x

Double Exposure

Almost two years ago now I was given a book of photography from the 70’s called Souvenirs.

My dad of all people had found it in the loft where he grew up, clearing away his dead mothers things alongside his siblings.  The mood was sombre and not very much was kept, but he did save this book for me.  Not as a reminder of my beloved mummu, but as something a visual artist could surely use.  “It is one of those artist things, you know… ehem… artistic stuff.” he said.  I thanked him and took this book, curious of its contents.  Upon first inspection it seemed to have a few female nudes, some overly sentimental images of the countryside, birds flying high in the sky and sandy beaches somewhere warm… the usual stuff.

Souvenirs book

I must confess, dear reader, that I was underwhelmed.

On the closer look, the book stand out from your standard kitsch and sentimental garbage.  The women in these images seemed unfeasibly young; lean and barely pubescent, depicted in various sexually suggestive poses and scenarios.  Some compositions were mimicking classical art (the reason my dad thought the book might be useful for a painter) where as others had a snap shot like feel to them, appearing sinister and almost voyeuristic.

I was not aware of it at the time but the esteemed photographer whose work I was studying with growing distain had just taken his own life following accusations of sexual abuse and rape from women he photographed, some as young as 13 when the abuse was alleged to have happened.  What I saw was enough for me to bury this book at the bottom of my wardrobe in disgust.  It took me some time to put a name in the face, but once I was aware who had taken these seedy snaps, I was further convinced this was not something I would like to look up to for inspiration regarding aesthetics, photography or anything.

The name of this photographic artist is of no importance, although I am sure many of you know who I am talking about.  We spend way too much time focussed on (alleged) perpetrators in our society and not nearly enough time emphasising with the victims.  Following the #metoo campaign and other high profile sexual misconduct cases recently, an idea was brewing.  I was just getting back to work after a long medical leave following a stint of working with other projects and  I needed something to sink my teeth into.

And this is how I found myself reaching for the book that had been sitting at the bottom of my wardrobe for nearly two years.

To put it simply, I felt like engaging, politically.  To hang my colours to the mast, if you will.  My usual studio work is not overtly politically motivated – I see myself as a collector or a curator of visual information more than anything else, but Souvenirs and the way this book made me feel, had just made tipped me in the realm of feminist art.

I chose the medium of embroidery as it seemed suitably quaint and harmless – like some of the imagery found in the book; a bevy of swans or a sleepy village.  Not a context one would expect to find a vagina of a child.  Referring to a wider use of female nudity in visual art, historically a woman’s body on canvas is an invitation to look and a testament of the painters skill; an object.  It remains so in my work – I paint portrait of objects and this includes a large collection of auto portraits and portraits of other women, subjected to the same clinical gaze as a vase of flowers might.  Double Exposure is different.  I want it to invite you in and encourage you, dear reader, to question the motives of the artist, my motives, in creating this work.

My journey crafting this body of work is only beginning, but I know I must take care with it.  I need to get this one right.

The time is up.