This year, WSOY has published classics of Finnish literature with new cover art. The project challenged key Finnish contemporary artists to create new covers from their own points of view. The 12 Classics project culminated in the Classics exhibition at Helsinki Contemporary, in which the literature and contemporary art appear in conjunction, displaying 11 of the project’s original works. The exhibition ended with a charity auction of the works on Sunday Dec 17.
The contemporary artist and classic book pairs in the project:
Rauha Mäkilä: Tove Jansson, The Summer Book
Susanne Gottberg: Juhani Aho, Rautatie (“Railroad”)
Stiina Saaristo: Arto Paasilinna, The Year of the Hare
Anu Tuominen: Minna Canth, The Worker’s Wife
Saara Ekström: Edith Södergran, Poems
Jani Leinonen: Tuomas Kyrö, Mielensäpahoittaja (“The Grump”)
Miikka Vaskola: Veikko Huovinen, Havukka-ahon ajattelija (“Backwood Philosopher”)
Anna Tuori : Sofi Oksanen, Purge
Heikki Marila: Väinö Linna, The Unknown Soldier
Henry Wuorila-Stenberg: Väinö Linna, Under the North Star 1-3
Karoliina Hellberg: Tove Jansson, Moominpappa at Sea
Kuutti Lavonen: Mika Waltari, The Egyptian
How do words and images collide when contemporary artists interpret a beloved classic book in their own time and from their own point of view, with their own materials and through their own memories? The artists approached the work in recognizably different ways, and in some cases, differently from their usual work. They were inspired by the writer’s life, the story itself or their own memories or experiences of the classic book.
Around Journal interviewed one of the 12 artists of the project, Kuutti Lavonen, who created the image for the new cover of Mika Waltari’s masterpiece The Egyptian. The epic novel, set in ancient Egypt, is a classic, universal and timeless international bestseller. The acclaimed painter and graphic artist Kuutti Lavonen is known for his fine lines and earthy color scale. We discussed the process of creating the image, his sources of inspiration and the significance of these unique assignments for the artist.
What is your relationship to Wika Waltari’s book The Egyptian?
I had a powerful reading experience of The Egyptian at a very early stage; I remember reading it for the very first time at the cusp of young adulthood. Now for this project, I listened to the very good audio series of The Egyptian directed by YLE’s Antti-Einari Halonen. I listened to it extensively, as I outlined my work, and in doing so, it became an important part of this process.
I must also tell you about an early childhood experience. My aunt took me when I was four years old to the old Kisahalli (“Sports Hall”) to listen to an American scientist. The lecture was about finding Tutankhamun’s tomb. For the first time in my life, I saw very large color projection slides. This left a very strong impression on my childhood awareness, mainly from the colors, the yellows, the light on the metallic surfaces, the different shades of blue – I hadn’t seen anything like this before. It was the first visual impression that I had of the culture of Egypt.
The next point of interest was a group tour of Finnish cultural enthusiasts to Egypt in 1977, where we visited Aswan, Luxor, the Valley of the Kings and Cairo, including the archeological museum.
How was cover of The Egyptian created; what was your work process?
My spouse and I left to visit Berlin, where we chose two important destinations: The Natural History Museum and then the Neues Museum, where we visited the Egyptian Museum. In his time, Waltari also visited Berlin to study the Egyptian material. At the Natural History Museum, we also looked for insects, a certain beetle, Scarabaeus sacer, which were not on display at the time. We did find all kinds of other information. At the Neues Museum, we went to the Nefertiti room and saw the material from Akhenaten’s time, an era that Waltari’s The Egyptian harkens back to.
Most special to me were particularly the female figures of the age of Akhenaten, almost finer than Nerfertiti’s head. I also frequently referred to the books by researcher Jean-Francois Champollion on hieroglyphics. In them I found this beetle and others among the symbols. The Neues Museum had scaled pictures of scarabs, which I also drew in my notebook. I also took pictures of the material on my phone to support my work. Thus, the subject of the cover was solidified in Berlin, although I had already decided on it in Finland.
It was important in any case to visit these museums, as beauty begets beauty. Likewise, the the age of Akhenaten’s sculptures of princesses were important to me, not just the discovery of the scarab. Later, the engraved scarab picture I found also supported my drawing. In the process I looked at the reference pictures, but then I filled in the image with my own eidetic memory. I have delved quite deeply into this topic.
Then this second key topic, the solar disk. This relates to the entirety of Egyptian religion. Ra, the god of the sun, was the most important deity before and after Akhenaten. It is the strongest element, which people and organisms must adapt to. It simply burns everything. I have myself spoken of hope and the disk of the sun. The aspect of hope is related to the fact that when the book was published right after the war in 1945, it crystallized the idea of the existential emptiness and disappointment that I call the burned ashes. Everything has been burned away, and the inner state of man is revealed. The sun can be seen as both cruel and as a source of energy, a prerequisite of life. I wanted to draw this free-hand on the cover.
Then the last connection, after the two described above, is the breaking of the scarab’s crown. I can draw it for you… When the insect is undamaged, it has spikes that form a kind of crown. Here it is fragmented, or it has only two spikes. This is a reference to the monument to a king outside of the restaurant Elite, sculpted by Veikko Hirvimäki in memory of Mika Waltari. I’ve always understood this symbolically as the form of a fallen obelisk and two pyramid shapes, which are also collapsed. I think it is a great solution symbolically using the tones which Waltari worked with in his reality. I have often studied Hirvimäki’s sculpture, and in this occasion I liked to borrow this idea.
Image processing also helped to produce the final result. This is the present day, so the image should be manipulated to work in this context. One important issue should be raised here. Everything related to graphic design and drawing falls under the term book art. Book art is the connecting factor, if drawing from tradition. In this project, WSOY’s graphic designer Martti Ruokonen has had an important role in supporting and assembling the different parts into a whole, which is exactly book art.
You’ve been involved in many unique projects in addition to your visual arts work, such as projects for artwork for churches as well as carrying out a range of illustration commissions. How does the design process of a book cover, for example, differ from other artistic work?
We visual artists are given too few practical tasks. In general, a person with talent develops when they are given responsibility and challenges. For example, I have not done the church projects for myself but for the entire congregation. Even for this project, the publisher as the project commissioner is a different matter than working for myself. It would enrich our living environment if artists were given even more different commissions.
The Classics exhibition at Helsinki Contemporary, Dec 9 – 17, 2017
The 12 Classics book series from WSOY