Birger Carlstedt was a pioneer of Modern Art in Finland. The young Carlstedt was an experimenter, an odd bird in the parochial cultural climate that prevailed in Finland between the two World Wars. In the early 1950s, after various phases and stylistic periods Carlstedt turned to a non-figurative, abstract expression, which he resolutely developed from then on.
In 1926-28, Birger Carlstedt attended both the School of the Fine Arts Association of Finland and the Central School of Applied Arts in Helsinki. Early on in his career, Carlstedt took an interest in the European Avant-Garde movement. Born into wealth, Carlstedt had more opportunities to travel abroad than his colleagues. In 1923, he took the first of many subsequent trips to Paris. Carlstedt adopted an experimental approach at an early stage, maintaining an open mind throughout his career. Through trips abroad, and various international art and design magazines, Carlstedt became familiar with the “Total of work of art”, an aesthetic ideal propounded by the Bauhaus school of architecture and the De Stijl group. A total work of art was to entail all aspects of art, fine art, applied art and architecture. In 1929, Carlstedt meticulously designed the interior of his mother’s café, Chat Doré, in Helsinki in a Functionalist style. The café was short-lived, existing a mere three years. Apart from interiors, Carlstedt worked on developing his style of painting. In 1930-32, he painted a series of works, which in terms of style varied from Expressionism and Surrealism to Cubism. He even painted a completely non-figurative constructivist composition, Circle and Triangles (1932).
In 1932, Carlstedt exhibited his entire oeuvre to date in a solo exhibition at Helsinki Art Hall. The exhibits included interior designs, textiles and furniture as well as paintings and drawings. His work received virtually no appreciation from the critics or the public. The sharpest criticism branded his work a decadent and perverse imitation of European art. Cubistic Composition (1930) in particular, vexed the public with its orange lips – “erotic orchids” – resembling the female genitalia. Despite its name the work does not represent Cubism proper, its basic shapes, which form the structure of the painting, point more to abstract geometric art. However, certain features and elements of the painting, e.g. the circle in the top right-hand corner, the sharp-ended ovals and the clear separation of the shapes from the background, make it figurative in the final analysis. What emerges is an equivocal and surrealist moonlit landscape. Stylistically, it is related to the purist works of Le Corbusier (Jeanneret), whom Carlstedt admired. Disheartened by the contemptuous reception of his works and unsure of his own style, Carlstedt abandoned these radical experiments and reverted to a more traditional idiom. In the late 1930s and the following decade Carlstedt’s painting acquired a powerfully concise and expressive style, while retaining their figurative form. He travelled extensively in Europe and North Africa, and wrote art reviews and reports for Swedish-language dailies in Helsinki.
At the end of World War II, Carlstedt’s art reached a new surrealist stage. Several nightmarish paintings from this period depict the terrors of World War II and the feeling of emptiness that Europeans subsequently experienced. Some works, however, are more reflective and serene. In Distant Melody (1946), Carlstedt combined two genres: composition and landscape painting. Elements in the work allude to both Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical landscapes with their arcades and long, severe shadows, and to the logical somersaults of René Magritte. The work is brimming with paradoxes and impossibilities. The view from the window shows the vast infinity beyond the horizon, which can also be perceived as a stringed instrument lying on the picture plane. The sound hole can be seen as a black sun shining above the landscape. The shadows of the room are unaffected by the light falling through the window. The shadows cast by the tailor’s dummy and the pentahedron standing on its sharp end live their own lives pointing towards the window. According to art historian Markku Valkonen, Distant Melody tries to attain the invisible and unspoken. The swirl of the smoke, the mysterious melody, which pierces the picture space and disappears into the depths, does indeed become visible but not even art can capture the music of the spheres in a three-dimensional space.
These surrealist paintings, with their scarcity of elements and emphasis on the structure of the composition, provided a good starting point for the artist’s future efforts towards the abstract. The large painting Le Cathédrale engloutie (1949) marks the end of Carlstedt’s figurative period. He named the work after the French composer Claude Debussy’s piano composition of the same name. His wife, the French pianist France Ellegaard, introduced Carlstedt to Debussy’s music. Themes derived from music and references to musical and pictorial analogies had been significant to him before, but now they became key to the development of his theories. Le Cathédrale engloutie has an immaterial and dream-like quality. The work also displays the artist’s interest in mysticism and the exotic. The post-cubist composition, based on the combination of wide diagonal arches and vertical lines, creates a mental association with Gothic church steeples. Changes in light values create an illusion of the reflection of light in the water rendering the painting both depth and a three-dimensional quality.
After the war Finnish artists turned once again to Europe for inspiration. In general, attitudes towards new trends were becoming more favourable. Carlstedt revisited Paris and made a final decision in 1950 to employ the non-figurative as an instrument for his vision. The approach he adopted was closely linked with international abstract geometric art and with concrete art in particular, which was based on a rigid use of such formal elements as colour and form. The taut arches of the work Mouvement tournant (1954) rotate dynamically in relation to one another. The forms are grouped around the central point of the work in a near-explosive, centrifugal rotary motion. Carlstedt’s palette is abundant and has a wealth of nuances. Pure, unblended colours seldom feature in his work, instead the artist looks for new, unusual subdued and mixed tones. As a result of his studies into the relationship of colours, Carlstedt developed what he called a “colour piano”, consisting of strips of paper painted in numerous shades. With the strips he could compare and study the interaction of the colours before painting the work. By mixing tempera into oils, Carlstedt created a surface for his paintings that recalled the velvety-soft matt surface of old frescoes. Carlstedt always aimed at balance and internal order. His compositions, often based on the golden section, are mathematically accurate and clear. His art combines the classical tradition with a 20th century search for the new abstract expression. One of the premises of his art, according to Carlstedt himself, was a compositional formulae based on the mathematics and geometry of medieval and Renaissance art.
Amos Anderson Art Museum owns a substantial Birger Carlstedt collection. In his will, the artist bequeathed his entire collection to the museum. Upon his death in 1975, the works were transferred to the museum. The collection includes dozens of key works, hundreds of drawings and sketches from various periods as well as archive material.