Can I withhold pay if my studio assistant refuses to social-distance himself?
Greetings from the atelier floor – I’ve got something to show to you and I swear it is more than just adorable photos of my dog. The rainbow-hued mixed media piece that cropped up on this blog last week is finally finished. Now named “Pumpuli Enkeli”, it started out as a simple test in blending, on a slightly defective canvas panel. It is quite rare that I have time to experiment beyond doodling on the pages of my sketchbook, so this has been a real treat.
Work in progress Rainbow painting
work in progress
Work in progress rainbow painting
work in progress by Tiina Lilja
“Pumpuli Enkeli” by Tiina Lilja
Long story short: I wanted to see if it would be possible to use acrylic paint markers on top of an oil painting. Usually you’d expect some rejection, but it has turned out much better than first predicted. I used spray-on picture varnish as a blocker between the oil-painted basecoat before adding the line work using acrylic paint markers. A few days later, further two coats of picture varnish were added to protect the finished surface and give this artwork an even sheen.
Only time will tell how it will age, but so far so good.
I have been drawing a lot of floral patterns lately, inspired by one of my favourite books: Owen Jones’ the Grammar of Ornament as well as his the Grammar of Chinese Ornament. Yet it wasn’t Mr. Jones who turned me into a connoisseur of printed cottons. I grew up in a historic textile town of Forssa, in the South West of Finland, so you could say the love of pattern is in my blood. The name Pumpuli Enkeli translates as the Cotton Angel – a nickname of the factory girls of Forssa who worked in the Finlayson textile mills. This is the official version anyway, sanitised by the passage of time. Some old beards who worked down at the mill as lads in the beginning of the 20th century, however, recalled a cruder alternative in a documentary I saw years ago: Cotton C*nts.
Angels or not, this painting is my tribute to those largely nameless girls and women who shaped Forssa into The City of Colourful Cloth.
The history of my hometown has inspired me to a great extent and I cannot deny the influence Finnish design has had on my work. There are many artists and designers I feel indebted to, with special thanks given to Aini Vaari, who drew patterns for Finlayson in the 1950’s and 60’s. My painting “1958”, featuring her Coronna-design as a background motif, continues to be one of my own favourites.
At the time I was obsessed about mid-century Americana in Scandinavian graphic design, such as the Boston cigarettes pack featured in my painting. It is modelled on a real pack of fags given to me by my builder dad, who had found it under a floor on one of his job sites. Either left behind by accident in the late 50’s or placed there to amuse renovators of the future, the dinky cigarette case was all crinkled up, but as vibrant in colour as on the day it was printed.
Oddly enough, the other paintings I am currently working on, too, remind me of home. Most of these pocket sized portraits feature my immediate family back in Finland. Although I have lived overseas for ten years and a bit, it is this pandemic that makes me feel light years away from them. Tracing the likeness of my dad or my wee sister makes me feel that little bit closer to them when the world seems to be going down the toilet.
Work in progress Portrait of my sister as a kid by Tiina Lilja
Juha – work in progress
But enough of that negativity already. I should be back at my 9-5 in a few weeks’ time, fingers crossed, and in the meantime I have a studio full of paintings to finish.
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.
medical illustration sketches – teeth
image from the Sick Rose
Medical illustration sketches – upper and lower jaw
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.
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.
Corpus Christi by Tiina Lilja – work in progress, detail of the human heart
Corpus Christi by Tiina Lilja – work in progress, jaw bones
Corpus Christi by Tiina Lilja – work in progress
Corpus Christi by Tiina Lilja – work in progress, bones of the foot
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 thebody of Christ, felt like the only name to give to a piece combining vintage style medical illustration and religious iconography.
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.
Corpus Christi by Tiina Lilja 2019, mixed media on paper – detail
Corpus Christi by Tiina Lilja 2019, mixed media on paper
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.
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.