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The two Kaivantos


Opposites and paradoxes dominate the artist's work: urban and rural, lyrical and critical, macho and the soft, feminine urge to preserve that characterises the "new man", history and the present.

Two diametrically opposite persons are rolled into one in Kimmo Kaivanto. One is urban, the other rural. Now living in Helsinki, he was born in another city, Tampere, but developed a strong liking for nature and countryside life quite early on. For more than 35 years, his rural aspect has been able to retreat to his own island in a lake in northern Tavastia. For the artist, that place represents paradise. He can enjoy the magic of the wilderness there, but also the panorama of the world. "From there you can see everything as an onlooker, from a distance and clearly."

His home in an old stone building in the centre of Helsinki is clean-lined, elegant and modern. By contrast, the cabin on his island has a slatted wooden wall that looks like "the breast of a bird". Also on the island is a large rowing boat coated with tar. One of the loves of his life, it is now 25 years old and took him two years to design. "It's my last boat. When I die, it will remain here on the shore."

We sit at a table in the artist's city home. A blue streak has been painted across the wooden surface. It is Kaivanto blue.


Blue has been almost a hallmark of Kimmo Kaivanto's work, especially since the 60s. It is not just any old colour, but a memory of childhood, of his native Tampere.

"It is only a wind direction from my childhood, from the north-east," he says. "It was the direction of hope, because I imagined that fairy-tale, mystical forests lay there. It created a mental image of something good and it has stuck in my mind. It is a certain shade of ultramarine that is ethereal, an infinity of possibilities that is also tender. But it is the colour of grief as well."


Long before the current environmental debate began, concern for the environment showed itself in the form of statements in Kaivanto's work. Those statements were by no means forceful and declarative, but rather lyrical and sensitive. His best-known work in this category is probably "When the Sea Dies" (1969), millions of copies of which have spread around the world on posters and book covers.

"It began as an innocent admiration for nature - a very normal attitude to beauty and aestheticism. Concern for the environment was still an odd theme in the visual arts. I'm still more an artist than a world-improver and I painted those works only to provide a basis for discussion. The longer I spend on my island in the summer, the more clearly also the negative side affects me. The lake seems to be in quite a natural state, you can drink the water straight out of it, but there are also clear signs of eutrophication. There have been sand beaches there for thousands of year, but now they have become covered in reed beds in the space of one human generation."

"Now we are drifting without direction, in chaos. That is reflected in people, who are at a loss to know what to do, there is no open dream. To begin with, nature kept people in check. Then when there was a little surplus, leaders emerged in the herd. We have imposed controls on nature, systems have been experimented with, but we've had no joy out of them. Far from it! Perhaps nature will bring people back under her control."


"Now that I've been doing this for so long, I feel I have this freedom to do what I feel like. With the passage of time, through experience and crises, I've taken the freedom to be driftwood, to let life show me what the pictures are. I'm still linked to my own earlier works, which gives me the freedom to use my own language of images, symbols and codes from twenty years ago if I want. The positive feature of time is that there is a perspective. Freedom - it can't be taught, and I don't know if art can be taught, either. It simply gets easier all the time - a kind of feeling of freedom."


"An artist has responsibility; this is responsible work. But a sense of responsibility can also go too far if one starts becoming rigid. Then it's a kind of spontaneous responsibility. I can easily imagine that a beginner does not assume responsibility in the same way, but that instead it is thrust on the recipient. It's a kind of a test: 'what do you say about this, and about that? Will it get good reviews?' That is an unconscious evasion of responsibility."

"However, I do not place too much emphasis on the content of a picture, whether its a lesson or a report. It is certainly on the aesthetic side, and the aesthetic need not always be beautiful. I like to do a sketch, an outline, so as to be able to use colours and forms."


"Traditional visual art, sculpture and painting, can not suddenly disappear and be replaced by some or other electronic form. We would need new designations nowadays. Performance, for example, owes more to theatre, but yet is counted as part of the visual arts."

"What used to be regarded as marginal art must be taken seriously. I do not suspect its makers' motives at all. But it's not surprising that it confuses people: all kinds of childish things are done, such as someone walking around like a snowball in a school Christmas play. I'd compare it to modern car design, which produces toy-like, soft, round shapes. Adult culture and children's culture have drifted quite close to each other. Many things have made a breakthrough only because they are easy to present in the media."

"In that respect it can be said that pictorial expression is in crisis, because normal ways of doing things are no longer enough. No one dares be anything else but bold."


"All of the pictures I paint are rooted in the low self-esteem, Angst, that has plagued me ever since I was a small boy. It has been a way of coping with myself and my surroundings. What has it brought? This dramatic and analytical way of looking at things, and the associated curiosity."

"A dramaticism of colour was the main feature in the beginning, and it was difficult to find shapes. Then, in the 1960s, I had a flash of insight about the surrounding reality and everyday life and that made me aware of things. I am interested in political history and sociology. The proclamations being made by the Club of Rome tended to wake people up. The post-60s period was something that I had to work out through my pictures. I no longer take that attitude. To put it in pretty terms, what I suppose I'm aiming for now is something that is universally applicable."

"The complication of living is part of an artist's life. It can be devilishly hard. I cannot grasp what it is to be a retired or unemployed artist. There can be artists who are desperately short of money because they cannot sell their works, but never unemployed! I don't intend to retire. You can't retire from living."

Kimmo Kaivanto (born 1932) is one of Finland's most outstanding modern artists. His paintings were exhibited for the first time in 1956 and he held his first solo exhibition in Helsinki in 1959. Exhibitions have followed at regular intervals ever since, in Finland, elsewhere in Europe and in North and South America. He has held several retrospective exhibitions in Finland, Sweden and the USA in recent decades.

In addition to paintings, sculptures, graphics and sketches, he has also done posters, illustrations and stage sets and executed several monumental works in Helsinki and Tampere.

Kimmo Kaivanto was awarded the title of Professor in 1995 and became a member of the Academy of Europe the following year.