The Photographs of Hugo Simberg

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In June 2014, the Finnish National Gallery released digitisations of almost a thousand photographs taken by the Finnish painter Hugo Simberg (1873-1917), offering a fascinating insight into the artist’s working practices and an intimate glimpse into daily life with family and friends.

A key figure of the symbolist movement, Simberg was known for his unique paintings blending realistic portraiture, landscape, and fantasy, with odd figures often featuring. Devils and trolls are often depicted, as is Death who takes the form of a skeleton wearing a black robe, most famously in The Garden of Death, a theme that Simberg worked on in various forms between 1896-1906.

After beginning his art studies in Vyborg, Simberg later became a pupil of Akseli Gallen-Kallela, one of the biggest names in Finnish art. Although the public found Simberg’s symbolistic and naïve depictions of supernatural beings odd, they gradually warmed up to him, and he was commissioned to decorate St John’s Church in Tampere, now Tampere Cathedral. One of the frescoes found in the church is a reproduction of The Garden of Death (1896) while a continuous fresco, The Garland Bearers (1906), depicts twelve young boys carrying a garland of roses, representing the disciples of Christ carrying the vine of life. Simberg also painted a red-winged serpent of Paradise on the ceiling, sparking off considerable protest, and as late as 1946, the bishop of Tampere Diocese proposed that it be removed.

The collection from which the photographs below have been selected, all taken between 1891 and 1917, are part of the Hugo Simberg archive belonging to The Finnish National Gallery’s Archive Collections. In many of the photographs we see the models from which his famous works – such as The Wounded Angel and The Garland Bearers – are based, as well as Simberg at work on his controversial snake fresco. The collection also offers a unique insight into the personal life of the painter, showing him at play with his family and friends, in addition to revealing him to be a talented photographer in his own right. The photographs are available as a mass download in zip format through the Finnish National Gallery website, or in browseable form over at Flickr The Commons.

The Wounded Angel

Model in the studio for The Wounded Angel (1903) – Source.

An early draft of the painting, from 1902. Note the bandage is not over the angel’s eyes, as it is in the final paintingSource.

The Garden of Death

A sketch for the The Garden of Death (1896) – Source.

Simberg and assistant in front of the fresco version of the painting at Tampere. Oddly it looks as though they are actually painting over the fresco, perhaps in order to start over again – Source.

The Garland Bearers

Left: Model for the The Garland Bearers (1906) – Source. Right: Painting on a board used as a template for the final fresco – Source.

Left: Model for the The Garland Bearers (1906) – Source. Right: Painting on a board used as a template for the final fresco – Source.

Left: Model for the The Garland Bearers (1906) – Source. Right: the section as it appears in the finished fresco (a modern photograph, not from Simberg’s archive) – Source.

Simberg and assistants at work on the fresco, using a painted board as a template – Source.

The Ceiling Fresco at Tampere

Simberg at work on the ceiling fresco at Tampere – Source: left, middle, and right.

A view of the controversial centrepiece, the snake of Paradise with a ginormous apple in its mouth – Source.

View of the fresco from below – Source.

Family and Friends









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