HELENA HEINRIHSONE and MARKO MÄETAMM “How Marko Mäetamm met Helena Heinrihsone”

Maksla XO gallery, 29.08.-07.10.2019

One of Estonia's most prominent contemporary artists Marko Mäetamm and one of the brightest Latvian painters Helēna Heinrihsone met for the first time in 1998 at the artist residency Litografiska Academia in Tidaholm, Sweden.
The idea about a joint exhibition emerged, when the artists met again after 20 years – at the contemporary art fair ART VILNIUS 2018.
The exhibition is about the wish to “connect the incompatible” or to highlight each other, or to compose a portrait story about the artist and his/her art.

Thoughts about the friendship with the known Estonian artist led me to a reflection on the evolution of humanity through the centuries. The development of the body, the changes of the skull shape – from a boulder to a polished diamond.
The paintings are perceived as the alphabet of development with a lightness of watercolour and a touch of fun – Latvians, a thieving nation living in trees, and Estonians – early inhabitants of peat bogs” -
Helena Heinrihsone, 2019.

I met Helena three times. First it was I think… 1998. I happened to take part of one lithography workshop in Tidaholm, Sweden. They had invited one artist from each Baltic country and from Latvia they had invited Helena. I didn’t know much about Latvian art scene and I didn’t know Helena and her work. And I am sure she didn’t know me and my work either.
Second time I met Helena in Vilnius Art Fair in 2018. Although we hadn’t seen each other for almost 20 years it felt like we were good old friends. And comparing to Tidaholm it was much more fun there. We were sitting in Art Fair VIP Lounge and drinking fancy glowing cocktails surrounded by blue light and cool people dressed in black.
Third time I met Helena half a year later in Riga. Helena’s gallerist Ilze had come out with the plan of making our joint exhibition and I went to see Helena’s studio.
To see Helena’s studio I first had to go and stay in Helena’s apartment. Helena’s apartment was mind blowing. And Helena’s hospitality was mind blowing. A lot of red wine, delicious food, interesting conversations about art, airplane crashes and life on Mars. All through the night. In the morning when I climbed up to Helena’s studio upstairs she was already working. Large paintings everywhere. Some finished, some she had only started. I didn’t want to disturb her so I was just looking around to see if I can find some ideas for my works in our joint exhibition. On one table I found a book, a golden book “1000 NUDES Uwe Scheid Collection”. I started to look at it and sucked me in so I completely forgot where I was and why. And who I was. And of course I forgot about time so I missed my bus back to Tallinn and had to stay in Riga for another night. When I eventually got back to Tallinn I was so disappointed getting myself attracted by this book and not looking enough Helena’s works to get some ideas.
Some months later I started my series about nudes and women. I didn’t see any particular reason why I wanted to do this but I wanted. And I was really enjoying it. Then suddenly I realized - this was all because of this book I saw in Helena’s studio! And these are all these works I want to show together with her!”
Marko Mäetamm, 2019.


Helena Heinrihsone. 2007. Maksla XO Gallery

The Mystery of Life and Death of Helena Heinrihsone’s Paintings

By Ilze Zeivate

In the Latvian pictorial art the name of Helena Heinrihsone is associated with things distinctive only to her: being too open, too colorful, and too expressive. But her challenge has never been self aimed or empty. Someone had named it area painting (during the 1990’s) but Helena has always emphasized the essence of content through purity of color and form. She has been named “the Rose Painter” (by Anita Vanaga) or Helena the Rose (by Vilnis Vejs). I would like to say – “Inconsistent World” – it characterizes everything painted by Helena Heinrihsone. It reveals things just like the House of Mystery in Pompeii. The sensations are the same – all your life passing right by your eyes. Portraits and figural compositions – lovers, swimmers, lonely amber seekers, a woman – dancing and crying, sexual and flirtatious, fragile like porcelain, strong like a crucifix; still lives too, Baroque themes and landscapes – wild and beautiful, filled with sunsets, sea and water reflections, old baileys and cemeteries, city streets, house facades, running dogs, skulls and roses. The painter possesses the necessary strength and knowledge to return to her source – her origin. Similar to the romanticism in esthetics, Helena Heinrihsone puts revelation of feelings in the foundation of her artistic insight and deeds not mind, considering sensuality and spirituality as being the most important. To Helena nature and the surrounding environment appears as a mirror of human emotions, however, the person in her works also gets to keep its independence, being a part of the nature and an entity existing outside of it at the same time.

Keeping the irony and the grotesque inherent to her artistic language, the painter has created a peculiarly romanticized grasp of the world in her later works, starting with the painting “In the sea and the forest” in 2001. Working especially at the paintings of the new exhibition for the Latvian National Museum of Art in July 2007, Heinrihsone has already distinctively crossed the borders, customary called landscapes, thereby confirming her unpredictable view and bidding to talk about the courage, characteristic to her, of being different and changing to the yet unknown.

In times when the decorative function of art prevails over spirituality, and the conflict between feelings and mind in society is ever actual, a growing interest emerges in Helena’s works about a more artistic nature – more real like. Searching for solution, the painter with the help of wild nature (backwoods, swamps, animal skulls) brings us into the centre of the emotional life of a person, thereby going against the decorative dryness, impassiveness, coldness, and the façade emptiness or, vice versa, overacted sensuality dominating in today’s art.

Helena Heinrihsone’s new exhibition is like a volcanic eruption. There are large canvases, a real whirligig of colors instead of the conditional decorative color spaces, and, most importantly, her ever so famous 1990’s laconism in painting compositions has been replaced with real themes of wild nature. Promoting the most important – the Nature itself. If we look at the painter’s earlier works, then we can see that Helena has already been like this during the 1970’s. Only then nature and human, as a part of it, were still unconscious, fragile, and searching; now they are self-conscious and confident. The themes of Heinrihsone’s paintings have completed a loop and returned once more. Only now nature is no longer like a decorative plane background for the human expression, but like a main messenger of the painting’s content. (“Battle with the roots”, “Fight in the swamp”, “Hey, Mole!”, diptych “Narcissus” and “The Garden”).

Even the character of the Helena’s rose has been hypertrophied, greatly exceeding the human height. Rose is no longer a symbol of just beauty, rather – of beautiful passing, death, just like in romanticism. The painter has created a real mystery of life and death, where one can not exist without the other. She combines reality and dream, death and existence, death and love. Even the later year passion for glazing (“Rembrandt is my path”) helps the painter to reveal the tens of shades of bright red, orange, violet, black or yellow – the most inherent to her, as well as the depth of the rose character and the temporality of life (“The yellow rose”, “Leaves”, “Two roses”, “The scarlet rose” etc.).

I have one criterion after which I judge the works of others and also create my paintings – the necessity and ability to accumulate so much information and emotions, that it can be shared with the world. The most important part of the work is its content. Nature serves me as an inspiration for it.

Helena Heinrihsone lives in the world of painting like in a mindless passion, and not a day goes by, when she would not be painting.


Picturesque greetings to a mole

Dace Lamberga. 2007 / Nr.4 / STUDIJA

Helēna Heinrihsone
- an elegant woman of indiscernible age always dressed in black; a young-in-spirit, free-thinking personality; one of the stars of contemporary Latvian painting. 

Helēna Heinrihsone. Greetings, Mole"!. 2007
Her name, valued so highly by professionals, has been written into art history letter-by-letter for over thirty years.

I think I noticed Heinrihsone's laconic, colourful and stylistically convincing work for the first time in 1978 in a young artists' painting exhibition in St Peter's Church. I knew that up until then the creative path of the emerging artist had been strewn with thorns rather than roses: for a number of years in a row, her characteristically individualist contributions to exhibitions were rejected again and again. This was not due to unprofessionalism, but because of the unexplainable fear of purposeful innovation held by the officials of the stagnation era.

Heinrihsone managed to keep her chin up and did not begin to desperately clutch at straws - at popularly commissioned themes, such as seamstresses, builders or the communist youth, commonly varied by her contemporaries. During that depressing situation, encouragement was provided by the attention of painter and theoretician Ojārs Ābols, which was followed by her first commission from the Art Foundation. Nevertheless, when preparing the exhibition "Echoes of Fauvism. Latvian Painting: 1910-1980", I discovered with true amazement, that the Latvian National Museum of Art did not possess any of Heinrihsone's works from the 1970s. The absence was quickly corrected with the acquisition of the much-published composition, "The Conversation" (1978); but the reminder nevertheless remains, that the avantgarde approach of Helēna Heinrihsone, which had already claimed a lasting place in Latvian painting, was routinely ignored by the acquisitions committee of the Ministry of Culture of the time. What this attitude meant at that time to the emerging artist is known only by herself and those close to her, but luckily the long-term official silence did not influence her creative spirit. 

The tense internal struggle for the acknowledgement of her achievement perhaps created even more obstinacy and determination, of which the result was Helēna Heinrihsone's first personal exhibition in December 1990 at the State Museum of Art. This was not even a simple solo exhibition; artistic life changed as a result of political change, and Heinrihsone was the first of her generation and the youngest overall - not to mention lacking titles such as "Artist of the People" or even "Richly Rewarded" - to be exhibited in the prestigious White Hall. At that time she gave an emotional answer to my question of what it meant to her to have an exhibition in the museum: that a painter can only dream of having access to the kind of light and cultural milieu which makes each work more noble.

The time was overflowing with big and seemingly utopian hopes; the Berlin wall had fallen, and Latvian art had begun, although fearfully, but step by step to ‘conquer' Western Europe and America. However, this was also full of unknown changes, political economic clashes and commotion. The first articles about Heinrihsone's exhibition had already appeared in the papers when the dramatic events of the January barricades occurred and these were followed by a press blockade. Helēna Heinrihsone's first solo exhibition challenged the viewers, immersed in their own routine, with its unusual improvisations: from the abundant mannered images of Meissen porcelain to a woman-Christ covered in scars, which in her mind symbolised the terrible situation for women in the state at that time.  Explaining her painting to a foreigner, Heinrihsone described it in English as having ‘dangerous beauty'. Her contemporary style, which spoke ironically of the danger of outer beauty, was fascinating with its sharp world view, laconic language of forms and use of colour.

Viewing Heinrihsone's triptych altarpiece, "The Hands of St Peter", "The Crucified" and "The New City" (1993) at the architecturally unpretentious, freshly restored Evangelical Lutheran Church at Kolka, gave me a totally opposite, unexpected emotional surprise. The dominant fields of local colours - in red, blue, yellow and white - and the gold accents important to sacral painting since Byzantine times, gave a quiet, harmonious impression. The neat ascetic interpretation of a religious theme and optimism of the light colour scheme allowed, without any kind of iconographic attributes, to feel the message about the expected miracle of resurrection.

The solo exhibition "Greetings, Mole!" (13 July-12 August 2007) at the Latvian National Museum of Art reveals a well-known, but at the same time totally different insight into the painting of Helēna Heinrihsone, in which the logical and realistic world view has been recreated into the conditionality of unusual form and a more expressively saturated colourfulness than earlier. The title of the exhibition has been derived from a composition of the same title which reveals a figure, closely crouching pressed against the earth, even merging into it, and a mole in its dark depths. A sense of tiredness and sorrow is expressed toward the human image, while the unpredictable digger, the mole, associates with commotion and activity. Similarly in all of Heinrihsone's painting, the dramatic nature of experience competes with the active vitality of her personality as the dominant feature. This has been inspired both by the themes of carnival from the canvases of Goya and Bosch at the Madrid Prado and the temperamental layers of Mexican culture, as well as our own Latvian nature: dried, tonally rich tree leaves and vibrating reflections in water.

Helēna Heinrihsone. Brawl in the Swamp. 2007
Heinrihsone tells of the inspirational swamp which divides her house at Saunags from the sea, and she demonstrates the source of inspiration - photographs with aestheticized beautiful fragments of real nature, with naked trees and roots ripped out by the wind in a flooded marsh. As distinct from the noble and powerful forest, the swamp has always possessed something mysteriously enticing, frightening and mystical in the consciousness of humans; in Heinrihsone's paintings from 2007 ("Battle with Roots"; "Brawl in the Swamp") these real ‘earthy' feelings have been transformed into expressive conditionality. Purple, green, yellow and pink fields of colour with pictorially soft transitions are arranged in unusually saturated density. The concentration of colours and feelings calls to memory such outstanding examples of painting as Edgars Iltners' dramatic landscapes of the Kurzeme coastline and the stimulating form of expression of the neoexpressionist Rainer Fetting of the German Neue Wilde group.

In turn, the laconically stylised group of skulls, "The Blue One", "The Orange One", "The Green One", "The Red One" and "The Purple One" in the first instance creates associations with Andy Warhol's eternally circulated, colourful Marilyn series, although the comparison ends there. Warhol, no matter how brilliant, reproduced one and the same image, while Heinrihsone's compositions of colour fascinate one precisely with their rich pictorial depth. Skulls arouse dislike in people - they are associated with death, although their form is just as ideally proportional as everything created in nature. The classic vanitas theme about the futility of life in the face of eternity has been painted by so many classic painters, but Heinrihsone's skulls and bones prosaically associate with her memories of childhood - her mother studied medicine and she and her sister used to play with the educational aids. When her early experience was layered with fascinating experience in the Mexican Anthropology Museum, these mystical, ghostly skulls were created.

Leo Svemps once expressed the idea that he who can paint roses is a real painter. No wonder amateurs are those who have most often tried to immortalize this queen of the flowers, because they do not fear to transform this seductive beauty into a benchmark of kitsch. Helēna Heinrihsone is one of the rare contemporary painters who paints roses. She also photographs them, which was demonstrated in the attractive exhibition "Nature's Photographers" (2003). This summer a whole wall in a Rundāle Castle exhibition "A Rose... What is a Rose?" has been dedicated to Heinrihsone's work. Painted ‘portraits' of roses, a series of photographs and an installation with skulls and wilted flowers are exhibited in Imants Lancmanis' popular, crowded ‘castle style' arrangement. Her solo exhibition includes large format canvases with roses, which the artist believes are an "indiscernible boundary between beauty and exaggeration". 

Heinrihsone paints wilted roses, the symbol of romanticism and eternity; in actual fact in these images of flowers it is precisely the diversity of nature which has given her the inspiration for the fine composition of colours, brush strokes and spatial unity. "Two" (2007) - slender, long stems with wilted flowers - calls forth associations with completely humane, strangely sorrowful feelings. Although the first example is realistic - the rose ‘models' are still able to be seen in the artist's studio, the composition has been reduced  to be harshly minimal, sometimes even nearing abstraction. However, the spiritual and physical energy invested into the painting process tries to break out, subjecting the viewer to unexpected emotions. Roses and skulls are two extremes in the consciousness of people - noble beauty and frightening death - although Heinrihsone's paintings turn this cliched assumption on its head. Innovative art has always provocatively crossed the most widely accepted assumptions:  the roses with broken, bent heads express a feeling of a minor key, while the skulls are fascinating with their stimulating colour saturation.

In her solo exhibition in 1990 Heinrihsone's canvases were dominated by playful flirtation with the pretentious manners of Meissen porcelain, which were challenging with their puckish self-assuredness. Now this figurative fragility and external beauty, although also dangerous, no longer engage the artist, and she chooses diametrically opposite shapes for her compositions - massive, robust men's bodies. These torsos have corners, often without heads, and embody primal strength and brutality: their heads are needed neither as spiritual values, nor for shape. Horizontal canvases placed one above the other as a diptych "Narcissus" and "Garden" (both from 2007) with red linear reclining figures and an exceptionally large arrangement of roses, seem to reflect masculine strength, but at the same time communicate passive self satisfaction, and the feminine wish to be the first and the most beautiful.

Fauvism is long gone, but its call for a heightened attitude to colour remains. In the 1970s Heinrihsone supplemented the power of local fields with white contrasts, creating an optimistic feel; in time her colour relationships gained a more emotional diversity. In recent years, the colourfulness of her painting has gained an unusually rich depth. The artist's brush works on the surface of the canvas protractedly, layering at least ten, but often more glazing layers of colour, in a style similar to the old masters. Glazing has turned out to be a truly intensive process, but luckily, a binding agent has been invented which allows the colour to dry more quickly, so that the next layer can be applied the following morning. Some works are painted over a series of months, because Heinrihsone enjoys the process of creation itself. 

Painting is not just a moment of all-encompassing inspiration and spiritual baggage which has been collected from reproductions and museums around the world, but also a completely everyday thing like technology. Helēna uses only oil paint, under no circumstances does she use acrylic, with which you must work quickly. Oil paint, on the other hand, allows you to scrape off parts and re-paint sections. Although the paintings have been created through a long process, you do not sense the amount of work invested - this should not be allowed to be sensed by any means. Jānis Liepiņš, for example, admitted that no matter how long a canvas has been worked on, you have to feel the freshness of the first sketch. This idea is supported by the concentration of Heinrihsone's impressions of a trip to Paris "A Picnic in the Boulogne Forest" (2007). The artist's elusively constructed compositions cannot be perceived as telling a tale, however there is a real experience at the basis of each of the works. 

This scene has been inspired by a picnic organised in the Boulogne forest, similar to a picnic of the French Impressionists in the late 19th century: dusk has begun to fall, neon signs are beginning to shine and the fascinating magic of the night face of a romantic city are revealed. I would like to single out the canvas "A Picnic in the Boulogne Forest" as a symbol, which illustrates the time between Helēna Heinrihsone's first and second solo exhibitions, full of turns and radical changes. This is not only some seventeen unbroken years of creative work, but it also represents opportunities which have been gained as the "iron curtain" fell, so important and invaluable for a creative personality: opportunities to look at and study the world, people, museums and discoveries of her contemporaries.

Helēna Heinrihsone. Battle with Roots. 2007