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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Kalervo Palsa

Kalervo Palsa, one hot, sweaty summer day in 1987 at his home in Kittilä.                 
Roughly two weeks ago now (March 24, 2015), a German airline co-pilot flew an airliner into a mountain in the French Alps killing himself, five members of the crew, and 144 passengers, turning the aircraft into a weapon of mass destruction. Later investigation has turned up evidence of his mental illness. In recent weeks, months, and years, others have utilized the ready availability of firearms as a means of acting out their mental afflictions. Where guns are not so easily obtained, knives and bombs seem to work just as well. In short, when mental illness is ignored, undiagnosed, or untreated, people die. Those doing the killing are as much a victim of the disease as those they kill. When an artist becomes mentally ill, their disease is also likely to be ignored, or undiagnosed, or untreated. Evidence of their illness is often readily apparent in their work. Usually though, the only one who dies is the artist. Everyone knows the story of Vincent van Gogh. Most people are probably not aware of that involving the Finnish painter, Hugo Kalervo Palsa (above).
Kalervo Palsa Museum, Getsemane, the artist's studio,
considerably rehabilitated from when he lived in it.
Kalervo Palsa Self-portrait, 1968
Kalervo Palsa was born in 1947, his birthplace the wintery area of northern Finland known as Lapland. He died in 1987. He was forty years old. After his death, rumors spread in the local community that he'd collapsed into a snowbank in a drunken stupor, or that he'd hung himself. The truth was much simpler, and in fact, much worse. He died of pneumonia in his bed in his unheated studio cottage (above), his body not discovered for quite some time after his death. Virtually everyone who knew him saw him as an insane pervert. He had no more than two friends. No one else cared at all whether he lived or died.
The death scene in the 2000 movie made of Palsa's life, Kalervo Palsa: the Unruly Hand.

The Friend, 1981, Kalervo Palsa
There was much to suggest Kalervo Palsa had killed himself. His paintings are rife with hangman's nooses, skulls, grim reapers, and many other symbols of death. Equally apparent are indications of sexual perversion, masturbation, rape, exaggerated male and female genitalia, and depictions of virtually every sexual behavior known to man. In choosing paintings to display here, literally half or more of his surviving works contain graphic images which are too obscene--not at all erotic--but pornographically obscene for consideration. Palsa's had a few friends but few admirers among other Finnish painters. The only psychological support of any kind which he received, was from his mother and his psychiatrist, Maj-Lis Pitkänen, who was probably of little help to him in that she shared Palsa's morbid view of the world.

I could find no title for this example of Palsa's work, (maybe it never had one) but it seems typical of the element of death permeating so much of his art.
Death in a Meeting, 1972, Kalervo Palsa
It would not be inaccurate or unkind to say that none of Palsa's work is beautiful. More to the point, virtually all of it is downright ugly. About the best that could be said in describing Palsa's painting would be that it is "disturbing" as in mentally disturbed (above). Little is known about the man's childhood or training, except that he lived in New York for a time and took a fling at Abstract Expressionism, which he eventually rejected. No biography mentions any art training of any kind and only the influences of Hieronymous Bosch (which is quite obvious) and Frida Kahlo (which is less so). In terms of style and technique, Palsa is all over the place, about as inconsistent as any artist could be. Critics (and there are a lot of them) have most kindly termed his style, Fantasy Realism, with references to Magritte, van Gogh, Jean-Paul Sartre, Strindberg and Jean Genet, all of whom are dead and buried, and thus unable to defend themselves.

Movie poser from Kalervo Palsa: the Unruly Hand, 2000

Kalervo Palsa's gravestone.
Of course, Kalervo Palsa is dead and buried as well, but his work has seen something of a resurrection in more recent years. He left behind over one-hundred self-portraits alone. When Palsa died, there were those who objected to "the pervert" being allowed burial in the local Christian cemetery, and especially adverse to the erection of a monument marking the grave (right). In more recent years, following two retrospective shows, a book, and a movie based upon his life, local residents have started exhibiting a certain pride in the local artist whose work has put their little town on the "art map." I was going to close with one or two notable quotes from the artist, but all I came upon were, like most of his paintings, too obscene to be used.


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