Biographical Narratives of Artists as Empirical Material: Juho Rissanen. A Representation of Recycled Art and Life Story

The purpose of this article is to reflect on a certain kind of narratives as basic empirical material for my PhD thesis in progress, Eliminating the Other. Gender, Class and the Construct the Finnish Art in 1910’s and 1920’s. Here, I’m focusing on the recycled structure of the narrative, especially on two narratives concerning the art and the life of one of the cases in the study, the painter Juho Rissanen (1872–1950) who had his breakthrough around the turn of the century, in 1900. My point is that studying the biographical narratives of artists as empirical material is to analyze the construction of the discursive form of the history of art history; by means of letters, reviews and other archive material it is to deconstruct the myth of the artist (and possibly the myth of the artist as a genius) and of the evaluation process of his (her) art. It is examining the art historical canon and the narrator of the story, art historian or art critic, as the agent who produces value judgments through narratives.

Framing biographical narratives of the history of art history the study concentrates on a certain discursive form of western art history in use through centenaries, ever since the Florentine artist and writer Giorgio Vasari wrote his book Le Vite De’Più Eccellenti Architetti, Pittori et Scultori Italiani, first published in 1550, followed by an enlarged version in 1568.[1] There are links between the book of the Renaissance period and the evolutionary theory of the art. Although Vasari’s book has been the most influential compilation of artists and art history, it was not the first exposition of the history of Western European art. Vasari used many classical sources, for instance Pliny the Elder and Plutarch. For my research the challenging topic in the book is that of the shepherd connected with the 14th century painter Giotto, who, according to the narrative could ascend to the status of the big artist although he was a shepherd, uneducated but talented by nature.[2] However, it has been proved that the structure of the narrative is like a fairy-tale. In reality Giotto came from a Florentine family and never worked as a shepherd.[3] In the 1970’s, Hayden White examined historical narratives claiming that although narratives in biographies consist of neutral facts thought to match with reality, they are representations written by somebody. The structure of historical narratives is the same as that of fiction, even adding elements of comedy, tragedy, romance or satire.[4] Catherine M. Soussloff emphasizes that in the artist biographies there are anecdotes with multidimensional illusions.[5] Anecdotes tell about incidents connected with moral statements, as are the representations connected with political and ideological agendas.[6]

Vasari’s book is considered to function as a structure for the recycled narratives in concern. American art historian Nanette Salomon wrote in 1991that “[…] it in its incessant repetition produced and perpetuated the dominance of a particular gender, class and race as the purveyors of art and culture.”[7]

What interests me is to examine the artist within the art historical discourse. According to Salomon, in Vasari’s book we can identify the moment when the myth of the modern artist as a construction is born as well as the idea about what is worth knowing about a work of art, explained through the knowledge of a certain artist’s life. She has even noticed that it is possible to identify when Vasari invents or produces art critic or art history. Salomon writes:

He does so by giving individual works particular validity through his assertion of value judgments bearing the weight of his authority.[8]

Highly evaluated works of art are treated as the product of the life of a genius. The artist that Vasari describes is mostly an upper-class male, an individual empowered by his social position. Salomon’s argument is, that thus has been constructed the art historical canon: women are omitted.[9]

The genealogy of art and life -stories

Juho Rissanen got a central place in the Finnish art scene of the early 20th century. During the first decades of the century he worked in Finland, mostly in Helsinki or in the north-eastern countryside, outside the Western European centers, but he also spent much time in Paris and elsewhere in France. In this article I consider the narrative about him as a representation connected with an ideological agenda.

In the history of art history Vasari’s structure has had a canonical status repeated and recycled for centuries. In the narratives artist’s work and life are linked together according to rhetoric and narrative models.[10] My research is framing national and nationalistic motives as well as the discursive form of evolutionary narratives that construct biographical stories of the art and life of artists. There is also a connection with the concept of the modern and the breakthrough of modern life in Finland. The interest is i.e. in the selection, in the mythology of great works and artists that were constructing the official art historical canon of the period in Finland. Catherine M. Soussloff has examined the cultural conditions pertaining to the artists in art history or literature; the approach is genealogical. The artist is central to the practice of an art history that has been driven by concerns and delineation of individual and period-related styles. These concerns entail the artist, art and art history with the art market.[11] The references are challenging; concentrating on the genre of artist biographies in art history writing, she recalls genealogy, the Lives of Saints -type biographies are the predecessors of the genre Lives of Artists.[12] Yet Vasari, as I mentioned above, had his predecessors also in Greek antiquity.

The empirical examples I chose for this article consist of two biographical narratives on the Rissanen. The study interprets the narratives in concern as the representations of the artist selected into the national canon of art history and the discursive form they structure and perform. My hypothesis is that the art historical discourse of Rissanen as a “Finnish” artist was constructed at the time of his breakthrough. Thus framing the narratives of the period, my study concentrates to interpret the representation of the artist and the values connected with it. However discursive the form of the narratives, there is always someone accentuating his authoritarian importance. Persons with huge cultural and social capital in the art field saw Rissanen as an interesting artist and painter. His paintings were only one of many causes for their interest.  Looking through the concept of social class, on the other hand, it was possible to distinguish that he was one of the rare artists whose background was in the lower social layers and whose native language was Finnish at a time when the majority of the artists were Swedish-speaking, upper class men. The issues of class and gender were important. Art historian J.J. Tikkanen wrote in a newspaper about Rissanen and his art: “He sees ordinary people with their own eyes, not through the glasses of the elite.”[13]

Thus the selected empirical material has functioned in the analysis to interpret the art scene of the period through the narratives.  The examples are art historical stories of the genre “art and life”, i.e. biographical narratives. One was published in a review in the cultural magazine Uusi Kuvalehti in 1900, edited by the author Juhani Aho and his brother, journalist Pekka Aho. Another one appeared in professor Onni Okkonen’s monograph on Rissanen, Juho Rissanen, Elämänkertaa ja taidetta (Juho Rissanen. Biography and Art) published in 1927. Okkonen was an art historian, art critic and at the time the professor of Art history at the University of Helsinki.

According to Catherine M. Soussloff the narrative force of the artist’s biography rests on two things: 1. anecdotes about what the artist has been purported to have done in his historical reality, issues of physical appearance, dress and interaction with other individuals, 2. the descripition of the works of art.[14]

The young painter of the peasants

The article “A Young Artist” is presumably written by Juhani Aho. It tells the story of a young Finnish-speaking artist whose art, by the cultural elite in Helsinki, was considered as simple and popularly “Finnish” as his north-eastern Finnish dialect. According to the narrative, Rissanen’s rough and straightforward images of ordinary people, representing the natives of his own origins in the north-eastern province of Savolax, were as “original” as they were humoristic, just like his odd habits.[15] The magazine came out and was read within the liberal section of the Finnish front, whose nationally important aims were to get Finland independent from Russia, and to emphasize that the country had its own, original Finnish language and culture. The article was published in the magazine just after Rissanen, at the age of 28, had had the possibility to show his early paintings in the Paris exhibition of 1900 where the Finnish pavilion was intended to be a strong national manifestation. In Paris, Rissanens’s paintings had been received well. Several newspapers in Finland quoted the French reviews, for instance, that by one of the authoritarian French art critics who exclaimed: “Mr Juho Rissanen, peasant, painter of the peasants, stay in Kuopio, in the world you  picture with so much seriousness and sensibility, never come here to learn the Parisian way.”[16]

My sources lead me to an interpretation that the representation of the young Rissanen, as a “Finnish artist” has been recycled in different frames, thus reconstructing a certain discursive form. I have found a huge amount of literary material where a number of critics, researchers and even authors retell this first narrative of the “young painter” in many variations, even several decades after it was published. There are reviews, articles and even fictive novels representing Rissanen on the one hand as a “typical Finnish” lower class native with funny manners and an odd way of speaking, an artist who had gained his position through the distinction and the dominant taste of the social and cultural field.[17] On the other hand, he was praised as a good and “suitable” artist, as “a national artist hero”. I know from my sources that also Rissanen himself told stories about his real life[18], though the narrative was sometimes based on literary models.

My point is that the performativity of the stories represents Rissanen as the “other”, a person with racial and ethnic origins in a remote countryside. His roots were seen to be in Nature – the innocent “paradise” where people are naïve and not too civilized.[19] In spite of the fact that he was trained both as an artist and a craftsman, he has often been described as “a self-taught nature born child”. Similar narratives have lived on until our days.[20] An analysis of the (historical) narratives performing the earlier histories reveals that the structure is nearly the same regardless of the situation, only the frame varies and there is the change of the significance. This being so, the representation is the issue that is to be framed.

The most original geniuses of all

The second example is the narrative in Onni Okkonen’s above-mentioned monograph. Okkonen had got the idea to write a monograph on Rissanen as early as in 1918, during the Finnish Civil war after an interview with the artist. At the time, Rissanen who had lived abroad, mainly in France, for some years already, was about to leave Finland, again. The book was one of the first artist biographies written in Finland. My aim is to show that the purpose of the book was to prove that among all artists in the late 1920’s Finland, Juho Rissanen, now in his fifties and an successful artist, was still “the most original, powerful and national artistic genius of all”[in his time], to quote professor Okkonens conclusion.[21]

In fact, Okkonen had utilized a statement written in Swedish by the distinguished 19th century Finnish painter Albert Edelfelt as a recommendation for Rissanen’s travelling grant application in 1902. Okkonen does not reveal his source. Furthermore, he uses quotation marks although the translated sentence does not fully correspond with Edelfelt’s characterization: “[…] I consider Juho Rissanen to be one of the strongest, the most assiduous and the most original young talents amongst the younger artist generation”[22].

In the recommendation Edelfelt does not use the concept “national” although there is the idea of Rissanen as “the most original” (artist); according to the interpretation the artist was the most “native” of the young artists of his time. My argument about the biographical narratives as performative histories has an extension. Michel Foucault has claimed that having their biographies written has been a priviledge for the heroes, since some individuals have been submitted to others’ scrutiny. Today, however, it is possible to see the observation of people in the publicity as a method of control and subjection.[23] I ponder over whether both of these views can be distinguished in the biographical narratives of Juho Rissanen.

In accordance with the ideology of the 1920’s, it was important for Okkonen to talk about Rissanen as a peasant, ignoring the artist’s modest background. I have noticed that Okkonen did not care much about the comments and the clarifications Rissanen presented in the letter he sent to the author concerning the documented facts in the monograph manuscript.[24]

Conclusion: The most exotic, the most national

With the two empirical examples I have tried to give a brief account of one of the results of my study, namely the recycled “Juho Rissanen – a national artist hero” –narrative has been given various significations. In the 1920’s when the newly independent Finland was creating its cultural scene there were several art critics, art historians and other agents shouldering the role of authority. Many of them wanted to see art and artists in Finland as “Finnish”. The significance was, however, no longer exactly the same as around the turn of the century, when cultural and political domains in Finland were struggling for their own national culture.

Professor Okkonen’s monograph on Rissanen served the newly independent Finland; there was a strong need for national (art) histories and narratives. As I stated earlier, I see the nationalism of the period as a construction operating in connection with the process of modernization but also with the democratization of the new state.

In the early 20th century Juho Rissanen painted in the modernistic manner, but his domestic subjects and harsh mood were still defined “Finnish” in the spirit of the 19th century national authors. At the time Finland was mainly a poor agricultural country with a mainly agrarian population. It was a kind of “otherness” that was hard for the cultivated art professionals to define. Thus also some of the artists who pictured ordinary people were seen both as “Finnish” and as “exotic” phenomena.[25] Within the narrative of his monograph, Juho Rissanen was made a representation of the peasant, at the same time the most exotic and the most national artist.

The narrative of his biography is performing history also in another interesting way. It is possible to distinguish Vasari’s Renaissance-spirited evolution formula in the narrative: from nature to culture and from the self-taught nature-born child to the artistic genius.[26]  Although Rissanen had been given a place among the significant national (male) heroes of the art scene, in the narratives he was still regarded as a funny native apt to misadventure, to be the “other” [27]. The story of Juho Rissanen never got rid of the poor childhood or the representation of a bad luck hero.


Marja-Terttu Kivirinta is PhD candidate in Art history at the University of Helsinki. She is art critic, journalist since 1978. Her PhD thesis in progress is called “Eliminating the Other. Helene Schjerfbeck and Juho Rissanen. Gender, class and constructing the Finnish Art Scene in 1910’s and 20’s” to be completed in 2013. The study is made in the Research project of the Academy of Finland, “Portrait of Art history” in 2009-2011 and with the scholarship of Alfred Kordelin Foundation in 2012.


1. The order of names changed in the enlarged version of 1568: Le Vite De’ Più Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori e Architettori.
2. Vasari, Giorgio 1994 [1550–1568]. Taiteilijaelämäkertoja Giottosta Michelangeloon. Foreword written by Altti Kuusamo. Finnish translation by Pia Mänttäri, ed. by Altti Kuusamo and Raija Petäjäinen. Helsinki: Kustannus Oy Taide, 15–16, 56–72.
3. Keynote Lecture by Michael V. Schwarz, Poetry and Truth: The Problems with Giotto’s Life, in the Symposium, The Challenges of Biographical Research and the Present Geschitskultur of Art History. The symposium was organized by the research group of the Academy of Finland, Portrait of Art History, in collaboration with the Ateneum Art Museum and the Society for Art History in Finland, 8.–9.12.2011.
4.  White, Hayden 1973. Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore – London: Johns Hopkins University, IX-XII, 1–42. 194–201.
5. Soussloff, Catherine M. 1997. The Absolute Artist. The Historiography of a Concept. University of Minnesota Press, 4.
6. Klinge, Matti 2004. Poliittinen Runeberg.Translated in Finnish by Marketta Klinge. WSOY. Helsinki, 430; Tagg, John, 1993. The Burden of Representation. Essays on Photographies and Histories. The University of Minnesota Press, 187–188.
7. Salomon, Nanette 1998 (1991). The Art Historical Canon: Sins of Omission. In The
Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Edited by Donald Preziosi. Oxford History of
Art. Oxford University Press, 344.
8. Ibid, 345.
9. Ibid.
10. Soussloff 1997, 138–139, 142–145.
11. Ibid, 4.
12. Ibid, 13.
13. J. J. Tikkanen. Konstnärernas utställning III. Hufvudstadsbladet 7.12.1900. Quote: ”Han ser folket med dess egna ögon, inte genom öfverklassbrillor. . .”
14. Soussloff 1997, 33.
15. Nuori taiteilija. Uusi kuvalehti, 1900, no 15.
16. ”Herr Juho Rissanen, bonde, böndernas målare, stanna i Kuopio, inom den värld som ni skildrar med så mycket allvar ock känslighet, kom aldrig hit för att lära er pariserkonst!” – Den finska konsten i Paris. Gustave Geoffroy i tidningen Journal. Nya Pressen 4.7.1900.
17. Bourdieu, Pierre 1986 (1979). Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice. London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 260–267.
18. Rissanen’s notes about the monograph by Onni Okkonen. Central Art Archives, Finnish National Gallery.
19. Okkonen, Onni 1927. Juho Rissanen. Elämäkertaa ja taidetta. Helsinki: WSOY, 107-108.
20. Valkonen, Olli 1955. Juho Rissasen oppivuodet 1896–1899. Suomen taide vuosikirja 1954-55, Helsinki, 41–42; Reitala, Aimo 1973. Rissasen arvoitus. Gåtan Rissanen. Ateneumin taidemuseo. Museojulkaisu 1-2, 1972. Helsinki: Suomen taideakatemia, 4.
21. Okkonen 1927, 117.
22. Letter of Albert Edelfelt to Juho Rissanen (undated). The Letter Archive of Albert Edelfelt. Central Art Archives, Finnish National Gallery. A.E. quotes the recommendation that he had sent to J.J. Tikkanen for Rissanen’s grant (16.9.1902). “[…] anser jag konstnär Juho Rissanen vara en af de starkaste, ihärdigaste och originellaste förmågorna ibland den yngre konstnärsgenerationen.” – Albert Edelfelt nuorelle taiteilijaystävälleen. (Albert Edelfelt to his young artist friend.) Published in Finnish in Nuori Suomi 1905, Helsinki.
23. Foucault, Michel 2000/ 1980 (1975). Tarkkailla ja rangaista. (Surveiller et punir.) Translated in Finnish by Eevi Nivanka. Proof read by Jukka Kemppinen. Helsinki: Otava, 261.
24. A Letter by Juho Rissanen to Onni Okkonen . The Archive of Onni Okkonen. The Manuscripts for the Biography of Juho Rissanen. The Letters and Comments by Juho Rissanen. Central Art Archives, Finnish National Gallery.
25. Kallio, Rakel 2001. Estetiikkaa ja tunteita. Pinta ja syvyys. Varhainen modernismi Suomessa. Helsinki: Ateneumin taidemuseo, 23.
26. Vasari 1994.
27. Okkonen 1927 tells one variation of the recycled story how and why Rissanen was expelled from the art school, 29–30.


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