A visit with Rafael Wardi who showed at the Finnish National Gallery, the Ateneum, earlier this year.
Living in a land where every year the light veers from one melodramatic extreme to the other has to play havoc with the senses, especially of a painter. The Finnish artist Rafael Wardi expresses an almost greedy desire for light and color in his paintings, making some of them look as if they might glow in the dark. Wardi’s emotional response to light is clearly the real subject of his work, giving it life and strength. He is a painter of people, places and objects that look as if they matter to him — brooding individuals, moody landscapes, personal things scattered on a table — and yet everything seems a flimsy excuse to get his hands on color, the whole spectrum of it, especially yellow. Wardi has said that if he could, he would like to throw yellow into the world, and he lavishes it on his paintings. But instead of his subjects looking as if they were bathed in sunshine they seem, more interestingly, to be suspended in a kind of suffocating miasma.
Encrustations of intense chrome, lemon and lime pervade the work, seeming to coat the canvas in solid heat. Neon yellows and oranges isolate figures, or link them, creating a liquid, mobile environment in which everything seems to float or swim. And at the other side of the spectrum, when Wardi takes a subject like the midwinter sun hovering fleetingly on the horizon, or a figure standing in the gloom, the darkness seems electric and menacing. In a recent series of self-portraits, he shows himself as a vulnerable presence trying to hold its own against blackness that presses down on all sides.
Born in 1928, Wardi is eager, youthful and spontaneous in his creativity as only the best old painters can be. I met him at his gallery in Helsinki, an unrehabilitated old-fashioned space, where his gestural pastel drawings seemed to flicker with their own light in the grey day. He reminded me of a haunted pixie, all eyes and cheekbones, dressed in black, his face alight with enthusiasm as he spoke about the artists he loves. Bonnard, Morandi, Poliakoff, Turner. But the artists whose catalogues he pores over these days are Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, and I recognised a similar scribbling, investigative line in the pastels I was looking at. Strands of color mesh and intertwine in his work like ravelling and unravelling tapestries. And the colors themselves have a gleeful quality that reminded me of being given a bumper box of Crayola as a child. Wardi gives simple, unfussy explanations of his work: this is where he lives, this is what he found.
Nothing could be further from Rafael Wardi’s tentative, quirky, investigative way of working than Marimekko, the famous Finnish fabric company whose clear-cut designs, mostly based on abstracted plants and flowers, are widely familiar. And yet there are connections. The color taken to extremes – you could call it a hectic enjoyment of color — is defiant in the local context. It has a different character, for instance, from the intense colors used easily and naturally in African art and craft. Marimekko was launched in 1951, which is the same time that Wardi emerged as an abstract painter, one of the first in Finland. It was in the aftermath of World War II when there must have been feelings of escapism and bravado, and a need to brighten things up.
In 1961 Wardi was invited to be part of an exhibition of local and international art held in Helsinki, which had the clear aim of introducing modernism to the Finns and bringing them up to date. But by then he had moved on to figurative painting believing it was a better way to capture light. He remains an artist true to his own vision. In the 1990s his wife became ill with Alzheimer’s and was moved into a care home, where Wardi would spend days drawing her and the other patients. This is when he turned to using pastels. Again there is an affiliation with the gaze of Kossoff and Auerbach, and also with Giaccometti, with portraits that seem always to be in a state of approaching the subject while never quite settling the matter; and where a solid personal presence is established while the surface drawing remains alive and searching, as if still in process.
Wardi is famous in Finland and Sweden but still almost unknown to the rest of the world. This year he was honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum, Finland’s national gallery, which spanned 60 years of his painting while focusing on current work. In April he will be showing new work at Konstsalongen Backsbacka, Helsinki, and he has an important exhibition coming up at the Edsvik Konsthall, Stockholm in 2015.
Wardi has great — even loving — support from his community, and every reason to feel settled and secure as an artist. But the fact that he relates to artists in other countries rather than his own shows a certain isolation. He lives and works on an island that is part of Helsinki, connected by a bridge, having returned to the place where he grew up. He is the opposite of smug, with the wondering openness of someone always on the lookout for a new adventure.
Wardi’s exhibition at the Ateneum National Art Museum took place December 12, 2013 to February 3, 2014print