“Tyger Tyger, burning bright, in the forests of the night, what immortal hand or eye, could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies, burnt the fire of thine eyes? On what wings dare he aspire? What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, and what art, could twist the sinews of thy heart? And when thy heart began to beat, what dread hand? And what dread feet? […]”
The poem The Tiger by William Blake seems to come from the same dreamlike world as Scandinavian artist Bo Haglund’s art. The forest of Fontainebleau or that of Mazzano Romano in Italy has inspired his creative process during his residencies in various countries. An array of characters make up his cosmological universe.
For Bo Haglund, drawing and painting have always been a way to reveal things from his subconscious: “My art is often associated with storytelling, which is related to cartoons and theatre. The hand that draws can sometimes reveal what the brain doesn’t understand. When drawing, I forget myself. There are moments when I don’t even know if it’s art that I’m making. A typical feature in my works is the amount of details”.
Born in 1963 in Helsinki, Finland, Bo Haglund grew up in Klemetsby in Ilola, a region near Porvoo. He is a polyglot and can speak five languages: Swedish, Finnish, German, English and French. Currently in Paris, he takes us on a journey to explore his universe and immerse ourselves in his poetic thoughts. He started in the 80s and 90s as a stage designer for theatre and cinema, and slowly switched to painting and the visual arts.
The Scandinavian artist regards Otto Dix (1891 – 1969) and Edvard Munch (1863 – 1944) as his role models. He was also influenced by the special effects in the film Blade Runner by Ridley Scott (1982). Haglund started his career as a scenographer. During his studies in Aalto University’s department of Design, he met costume designer and scenographer Pekka Ojamaa as well as Kaarina Hieta, who worked as a scenographer for the Helsinki municipal theatre in the 80s and 90s. Haglund has a profound admiration for Hélène Cixous’ play L’Histoire terrible mais inachevée de Norodom Sihanouk, roi du Cambodge, performed at La Cartoucherie in Paris. He is also passionate about the world’s greatest painters.
The exhibition Listening to the Forest that Grows – season II, at Institut finlandais, invites us to step into the forest and wander in a surreal poetic tale. According to Bo Haglund, “the forest has been considered as a symbol of the Finnish landscape of the soul”. His father spent all his winters working in the forest, cultivating the land the rest of the year. For his father, “forest was a source of income. His work kept pace with the changing seasons. In my childhood, the forest was a haven, a magical place, a magical place for new thoughts and new dreams. Growing up in a heteronormative and patriarchal environment, my perception of the countryside, that I saw as archaic and changeless, was heavily influenced by the values of my parents’ generation. This contradicts the discussions and studies on rural depopulation, deterioration of the environment, the fall of the welfare society…” he explains.
It’s important to bear in mind that at the end of the 90’s Bo Haglund created Bertil Gata, a stylish asexual comic character with strange social behaviors, for whom a monographic exhibition was held in 1995 and whose story was turned into a book a year later. This marked the start of an adventure for Bertil Gata, an emblematic figure in Haglund’s career. Then came Kantopää (Stumphead), another recurring character in Haglund’s creative work. This time, the artist works on a different scale compared to the stage. The gallery becomes the new setting where his thoughts freeze for the duration of the exhibition, only to resume their course and continue their journey. From 2003 onwards, he didn’t collaborate with the theatre anymore.
Nowadays, as a visual artist, he continues to create characters that he puts in settings where reality and fantasy merge together. His various residences in Italy and Switzerland offer us a glimpse of his creative spirit in terms of the colours and his mastery of the forest and trees. The works of Bo Haglund bring narrative and fantastical elements into blank gallery spaces.
It is understandable that Bo Haglund goes through different phases to leave the theatre scene to join the “white cube” of the art galleries while having the same thirst about the world. For the Finnish artist, the creases of leaves, the transparency of glass objects and the vibrant colours of trees create an harmonious ensemble that has the pictorial features present in the artist’s DNA. Haglund’s works invite the viewer to step into a dreamlike world where everything is lush, leafy and simply a little wild.
Throughout the artist’s work, the viewer can experience a variety of different reflections and thoughts. In Haglund’s paintings, characters with cartoonish traits are sort of hybrids where remote eras and the modern world blur together, all while existing in a world filled with vegetation and forests inspired by Finnish landscapes. The artist often paints various trees, such as oaks, fir trees, Siberian larches, maple trees, beechwoods and other plants such as water lilies.
We bear witness to the artist’s observation of the world. Everything, be it the story, the stars, the trees, the people or the family, is represented through his unique colour palette, from the most vivid shades to the most dull ones. Nowadays his paintings are complex and packed with details which has become even more apparent by having been able to work all over the world in artists’ residencies; his creative process has become more diverse. The result is a refined taste that has inherited a lot of elements from the world of comics. When looking at Haglund’s works, the viewer has to confront the present moment as well as give space for memories and the past to be able to decrypt the different layers of meaning in his pieces.
To go through life is to merge the past and the present and leave a trace of what has been behind. Bo Haglund captures these traces with a vigorous gesture – a dynamic impulse that shows his acceptance of the intimate, personal and public world. The artist’s universe is in motion. He is part of this motion and takes us along with it.
Nicola Ross, author and curator