Picturing the Immaterial
Ascetic Palette, Tonalist Musicality and Formal Indistinctness in Ellen Thesleff’s Early and Late Works
The article explores a significant trait in Ellen Thesleff’s art. Her artistic practices were deeply embedded in the development of European artistic circles at the end of the nineteenth century with a shift towards colour and meaning – when ‘material’ colour became part of the content – which was one of the main manifestations of Early Modernism in Finnish art. Her paintings from the 1890s reflect the ideals of correspondence, musicality and atmospheric tonality, a technique which she used in many of her early works. However, I will also propose that Thesleff’s take on the strict achromatic colour scheme, as well as the specific ascetic and tonalist technique which she used during the 1890s until the early-1900s, gave her subdued paintings and drawings new meaning and possibilities beyond the symbolist credo. The article discusses the interconnectedness between music and art using the nineteenth-century concepts of musicality and indistinctness. The difficult goal of using tangible form to reference intangible ideas was accomplished through careful manipulation of both style and subject. Such heavy manipulation, characterises the symbolist artist’s work, a form of non-compliance with traditional rules of representational art. By introducing extreme manipulation of form, colour, and technique, Thesleff announces to the viewer that her art is not an illusion of reality but rather a jumping-off image into the realm of ideas. However, these highly valued aspects of symbolist painting continued to be explored by artists also during the twentieth century. The method of tonality – one unifying colour to tone the whole painting – is something to which Thesleff surprisingly returns in the 1920s and 1930s.