Stig Baumgartner : Marginal notes on Key Figures, 2020

The dream

Two years ago, in summer 2017, I had a dream about a young boy. The boy discovers a locked basement door that nobody has ever opened. The key is somewhere in the basement, but to get to the key, he must first figure out how to get inside. The boy solves the paradox effortlessly, and the dream concludes with him unlocking the door.

The dream immediately stirred my curiosity. I was then in the middle of preparing my forthcoming exhibition at Helsinki's Galerie Forsblom, Combinations, Variations and Little Creatures (2018), and I knew the dream was somehow related to the paintings I was working on. Two of the paintings in the exhibition were called Key Figure - a conscious reference to the boy and the events in my dream. Now, a few years later, I have painted another series of works, again titled Key Figures. (see images on p. xx).

The link between my dream and the Key Figures paintings relates to a methodological principle that I apply in my work. My compositions always consist of an identical number of interconnected horizontal and vertical blocks. For me, this principle symbolizes the human figure. The vertical and horizontal axes evoke the classical contrapposto scheme, which portrays an asymmetrically poised human figure with its weight resting on one leg to give the appearance of balanced, dynamic movement. The title also addresses the universal paradox of abstract art, namely how non-representational elements easily tend to be perceived as a recognizable visual subject. In my paintings, then, abstract form reveals itself to be a human figure distinct from its background, occasionally even standing upon a pedestal.

In my earliest works in this series, I interpreted the contrapposto principle by foregrounding rectangular blocks that are embedded as "keys" standing out in different colors. (see image p. xx) The visual code hidden in the maze of blocks is the key that unlocks the underlying structure of the painting, permitting the viewer to enter its spatial reality. My keyhole dream additionally weaves together three overlapping thematic strands in my work: the human figure, architecture, and process-driven narrativity.

Locked, 2020, oil on canvas, 145 x 200 cm, Kiasma collection

An outline of my processAfter working on the Key Figures series for some time, I noted down some thoughts that seem salient to my process.

1. My compositions consist of orderly geometrical elements, and this itself intrigues me. The vertical-horizontal axes allude to the classical contrapposto pose. The composition itself is the subject of the painting, just as a face, a figure or a building might be. A composition as such does not usually signify or denote anything. It is a mundane visual manifestation, like a breakfast table or a blank color field in an Indian tantric painting. The empty structures I draw are mere receptacles for the oncoming labors of my paintbrush.

2. My paintings combine precise, rational geometry with free, organic brushwork. Painterly gestures foreground the geometrical composition as the subject of the painting.

3. The choices I make during my process must be visible in the painting. Each painting has a traceable history; it exposes how the process has unfolded. The visible choices made by my painter-ego do not directly symbolize anything. The painting is like a coloring book in which I propose certain ideas and color schemes. Precise geometry and free form are inseparably intertwined in each painting - they inhale and exhale in perfect unison. The subject of the finished painting is both the geometrical composition and how the brushwork brings it to life.

4. The visual motifs evoke familiar, everyday associations: bodily shapes, buildings, diagrams, weather conditions or emotions. They induce a state that I call the "wonder of painting". This coinage describes the reaction that occurs when something relatively nondescript or peripheral awakens the viewer's curiosity and lures them into the world of the painting. It may manifest itself as wonderment at certain painterly qualities or as the simple question: "Why can't I fathom why this painting fascinates me?" As the painter, I am naturally the first audience. If even I fail to comprehend the painting's source of fascination, then all I can do is trust it to speak for itself, have faith in its voice, the mood its radiates, and the history that is painted forth in each brushstroke.

Brother, 2020, oil on canvas, 130 x 130 cm, private collection

On the narrativity of abstraction

The first point in the above outline of my process - the compositional fusion of anonymous elements - connects my painting to the legacy of artistic convention. One common way to categorize contemporary painting is to make a distinction between whether a work is figurative or abstract. If I try to define my work, this binary division immediately trips me up. I variably describe my paintings either as abstract or figurative, or both. The title Key Figures contains the word 'figure', which implies a foregrounded identifiable presence, although my paintings unmistakably owe a debt to abstract geometrical art.

When I try to define the word abstract, I often quote the painter Peter Halley (b. 1953). He defines a painting as 'abstract' if the relations between individual details are more significant than their symbolic identity. Formalist geometrical painting proclaims its allegiance to abstraction using 'basic' shapes: squares, circles, and triangles. Halley, whose own work combines minimalism with the devices of Pop Art, wished to disassociate his work and thinking from the legacy of modernism. For him, abstract art amounted to nothing more than the realism of the abstract world.[1]

When artists study the principles of visual composition, they often do so through the use of the basic shapes appearing in abstract art, without assigning any symbolic significance to the relations between them.[2] As a point of comparison, consider the compositions of the Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca (1416-1492), which are also based on basic geometrical shapes, yet the relations between those shapes hold symbolic significance. The geometry is not obvious on the surface but constitutes the hidden structure concealed behind the figurative surface. This invisible structure is discernible to anyone who knows anything about the rules of composition. For instance, if one happens to know how the illusion of perspective is created using a vanishing point, this geometrical point is easy to locate even after the composition is fleshed out with figurative detail. When looking at a painting by della Francesca, the viewer can switch between two roles, either by focusing on the figurative event portrayed in the painting, or then by deciphering its subliminal order, which carries its own symbolic significance.

The painter Sean Scully (b. 1945) has said that his abstract paintings mark an attempt to unify the objective and the subjective, the rational and the emotional. The art critic Lorand Hegyi (b. 1954) describes the dualistic nature of Scully's paintings using the term hidden narrative, in which the emotional (the private) converges with the rational order (the universal).[3] While Scully's paintings have a 'hidden narrative', Francesca's work can be described as having a 'hidden structure'. Scully's paintings - usually consisting of no more than interconnected squares of color - are pure geometrical shapes without any concealed structure akin to Piero della Francesca's compositions. Scully's work simply lays itself bare, exposing how it has been painted and composed. Befitting the self-reflexive bent of contemporary painting, Scully does not attempt to conceal how the work came into being. He drops clues pointing to how the paint was applied, layer upon layer, or how the composition was modified along the way. What the painting does not reveal, however, is why a certain color has changed or why the composition has been modified. The one fact that cannot be denied is that the painting has been executed with a clear purpose or motive. This unnamed process is what Hegyi calls the hidden narrative, or what I call the wonder of painting, which, in my dream, manifests itself as a key or secret basement.

Brother, 2020, oil on canvas, 130 x 130 cm, private collection


Through my paintings, I have given a great deal of thought to the relationship between the geometrical figure and the ground. In my latest works, the background is enlivened by clearly perceptible brushstrokes that echo and accentuate the contours of the composition. The dilemma of the background is familiar to all portraitists. The challenge lies in figuring out how to connect the figure with the ground without drawing special attention to the latter. In a painting, the background consists of light, which to a painter essentially means color, and the same goes for the skin of the sitter. The consummate union of skin, light and color is exemplified by the self-portraits of Finnish artists Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) and Ellen Thesleff (1869-1954), in which the sitter is anchored to the background yet clearly hovers separate from it. In these early expressionistic paintings, the interface between skin and external reality is visualized as clearly discernible brushstrokes on the surface of the canvas. This expressive style of brushwork has later become a standard device in the painter's basic repertoire for enlivening the surface and conceptually invoking the manual painting process and underscoring the materials, tools, and corporeal presence of the artist.

Visible brushstrokes on an otherwise empty background have the added effect of softening outlines. Outlines are what separate and elevate the figure off the ground. When we draw an outline, we define our position in relation to the space. Because there are no outlines in nature, the artist must invent where those outlines are to go. By drawing a line, the artist articulates the space and designates one thing as separate from another. The same line also marks the boundary designating the artist as a separate being, and in the act of drawing it, the artist leaves a visible trace of their presence on the page. While drawing, the artist is constantly aware of leaving these traces of presence. Yet, to draw fluidly and confidently, the artist must remain blind to those very same traces. The expressive gestures of painting are essentially like drawing with paint. The traces of the brush manifest a constant wavering between convergence and divergence.[4]

The natural order

The background and the figure/subject engage in a constant dialogue in my paintings. The rectangular blocks are reminiscent of an architectural floor plan. The meaning of the composition remains open-ended, but neither is it entirely random. The free, gestural brushwork records traces of the artist's manual labors, mirroring the proportions of the human physique. The brushstrokes anthropomorphize the dimensions of the rectangular blocks, as if adding a layer of human skin.

Geometrical proportions tend to depict the world as a perfect structure: mathematics can never be wrong. The geometrical world of my paintings is conjured forth with the aid of painting materials. In his book What Painting Is, the art historian James Elkins (s. 1955) observes that painting is like alchemy, transforming water and sand into gold.[5] But, as always with alchemy, the elusive desired object is never attained - at best the process might yield something totally different as a serendipitous by-product. A painting that adheres to geometrical principles is not a manifestation of absolutes or a picture of the ideal. Such a painting merely shows us how we perceive the abstract, how we experience it, and what it awakens in us.

The geometrical compositions of Key Figures are well-nigh symmetrical, but certain deviations inevitably emanate from the compositional principle that I apply. As a result, the abstraction of my paintings always comes across as slightly twisted or off-axis. Symmetry is natural - it is something we immediately perceive as being 'right'. Humans, however, are clumsy denizens in the abode of geometry, for our anatomy is nearly but not perfectly symmetrical. Just as the contrapposto of my paintings alludes to the asymmetrical harmony of the human form, it is also the key to experiencing my art on a spatial, corporeal, and emotional level.

Skully, 2020, oil on canvas, 100 x 100 cm, private collection

Drawn with paint

Alongside Key Figures, I have been working on another series of paintings titled Color. These paintings consist of colored linear drawings contained within a tight geometrical structure. In these works, I have treated the painted lines and colors as pure matter transformed into patterns and surfaces by means of drawing. All the paintings in the series are simply titled Color. This alludes to how we name colors - but can painters really name colors? I mix all my paints myself, and even if I used nothing but pure pigment, I would never see myself as painting with 'cobalt blue' or 'lemon yellow'. When you name a color, you pigeonhole it, harness it. That is essentially what we do incessantly: we constantly categorize everything we see. Obviously, I have chosen specific hues for my Color series, chiefly shades of red. But my Color paintings do not represent colors purely as colors; in these paintings, colors represent something akin to what might be called the 'subject' of the painting: naming them is not as important as how they behave.

Color, 2019, oil on canvas, 80 x 60 cm, private collection


Baumgartner, Stig 2015: Virhe abstraktissa maalauksessa. Tekijän paikka maalauksen rakenteessa. Academy of Fine Arts, Uniarts Helsinki, Helsinki.

Elkins, James 1999: What Painting Is. Taylor & Francis, New York.

Halley, Peter 1988: Collected Essays 1980-1987. Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich.

Halley, Peter 1997: Recent Essays 1990-1996. Edgewise, New York.

Hegyi, Lorand 2007: The Possibility of Emotional Painting: Sean Scully's Hidden Narrative. In Sean Scully: A Retrospective. Ed. Danilo Eccher. Thames & Hudson, London.

Baumgartner, Stig 2014: Viivan painovoima. In Viivan filosofia. Taideteoreettisia kirjoituksia Kuvataideakatemiasta. Eds. Martta Heikkilä and Hanna Johansson. Academy of Fine Arts, Uniarts Helsinki.

Pusa, Unto 1979: Plastillinen sommittelu. Otakustantamo, Espoo.

[1] Halley 1997, 28-32. For Halley, abstract art was not a means of invoking the spiritual, the psychological, or the magical, as postulated in prewar European theory on abstract art. To Halley the square represents invisible power relations, both on the canvas and in society. (Halley 1988, 129)

[2] Unto Pusa's Plastic Composition offers a good example. In my doctoral thesis, I take a closer look at theories such as Pusa's and consider how his philosophy of form might lend itself more fruitfully to the analysis of pre-modernist art than to later work, including Pusa's own. (Pusa 1979; Baumgartner 2015.)

[3] Hegyi 2007, 19.

[4] I have addressed this topic in my earlier essay Viivan painovoima ('The Gravity of Lines', Baumgartner 2014).

[5] Elkins 1999.