Hugo Simberg’s dream world (1873–1917)

Hugo Simberg’s work is an enhancement of the senses. He has created a dream world which requires symbolic means to interpret it. He composes metaphors with coherence and continuity. Subtle colours enter a mental landscape where movements are on the border of sleep and consciousness.
Hugo Simberg’s work is an enhancement of the senses. He has created a dream world which requires symbolic means to interpret it. He composes metaphors with coherence and continuity. Subtle colours enter a mental landscape where movements are on the border of sleep and consciousness.

Hugo Simberg enters early modernism and symbolism. His every painting is a problem and a riddle, a new message and code. His symbolistic works are characterized by ascetism and concentration of colours. The theme of existential choice is present through transcendence and mystery beyond comprehension, a phenomenon outside the key experience for which no rational information can be obtained. The innermost reality, the essence of things, is manifested in their external form. The artist’s task is to see the inner essence of things and to convey it. For Hugo Simberg, there is a natural need to dismantle the inexhaustible source of inner imagery. Simberg does not settle outside of what he represents, he lives within it. Primitiveness for him is unintentional and simply the most natural form of expression.


World of ideas

I’m sitting on something big and shapeless; I don’t know what it is, it takes me somewhere, I don’t know where… The journey gets brighter and brighter, and I wake up more and more. Eventually I am fully awake, and I see something big and shimmering that will soon disappear. You know, that’s exactly what I feel when I watch the clouds pass over the moon on a moonlit night. If you experience something like this when you get to see my picture, I have succeeded. — Hugo Simberg in a letter to his brother

For Hugo Simberg, a work of art should speak to the viewer of another world, in order to show the unity of nature and man in all its shimmering colours. The symbol is a state of timelessness and infinity, symbolism a form of sleep or memory. Macrocosm represents the reality of ideas, microcosm its parallels. Everything on earth has its equivalence in the world of ideas and therefore nothing can be meaningless. The transcendental experience distills from the worldly experience its supernatural perfume. The completed process of a mystery creates a symbol, which includes the essence of its core idea.

In Fantasy, the dream-heavy but lightly outlined figure has abandoned the outside world and is focused on the world inside. Only the dreamer’s fantasy offers her everything she understands to dream. Simberg’s goal as painter was in his own words to paint everything that makes a person cry deep in their heart. He processed with the unconscious which was the focus of psychoanalysis in the late 19th century.

The intense atmosphere of the work is broken by a monogram resembling a skull painted by Simberg in the upper right corner, which the artist employs to gently hint at the delusion of fantasy: death rudely sets precise and absolute boundaries for the dreamer. The legend of the monogram tells that Hugo Simberg stared at the wall of the barn which was in front of his chamber in the place of Ruovesi. The cow put constantly her nose in the tail hatch to smell the outside air, which amused Simberg so that he stylized the initials for himself. Simberg most often associated his monograms with works that were particularly relevant to him.


Symbol and continuum

Syntheticism is a painting technique with wide uniform surfaces, alignments and contrasts, using colours to create an atmosphere rather than an impression of reality. Symbolism enters reduced shapes, intense colours and a lack of depth. Simberg’s colours are green, red, orange and yellow in their various shades. The colours initially differ according to principles of lightness and warmth, or darkness and coldness. Warm colours head outwards from the center and flood the borders closer to the viewer; the cold retreats away and inwards, closing in on itself. Yellow is the warmest of colours, blue the coldest. White increases the warmth of yellow, its movement out and towards the viewer, black emphasizes the retraction of blue, movement inwards. If more blue is added to yellow, the movement outward from its center and closer to the viewer is reduced; blue constrains it. The mixture of blue and yellow, green, is motionless, restful. According to Kandinsky, it’s the colour of summer when nature rests on the storms of winter and the tremendous growth of spring.

Autumn is not dead but at rest phase of its cycle. Life and death are intertwined. The figure personifies the fall in a state of metamorphosis — intermediate existence between life and death, skeleton and foetus, beginning and end. Edmund Leach’s concept of a third term presents the blind point of consciousness, the form that conveys the opposites, like a bridge between. The landscape becomes a state of mind, the depth of life is revealed before the eyes in an ordinary view, the view becomes a symbol and a continuum.

The wind blows where it wants. You hear it hum, but you don’t know where it comes from and where it’s going. So it is with everyone born with the Spirit. — John 3:8

The ancient Jewish conception considers wind and water to be the only elements that have not been created — they have always existed. Wind has also acted as an impetus for birth in Finnish mythical connections. Finnish folklorist and mythologist Martti Haavio translates the Hebrew word wind, ruah, to spirit and the word God, û aelohîm, to Mighty. The comforting and cleansing power of the wind lies in the promise of deliverance.



What am I, and where have I come from; where will I go, and what will I do? — Pekka Halonen

As a platform for the growth of spiritual life, the world is simple, close to nature and idealized as innocent. In the Platonic worldview, love is one of the elements that leads the human soul toward the real world of ideas and unfurls its wings. The purest and the most precious love is the well-known love for the idea of beauty, which opens the way to higher levels of reality. Spiritual art can be seen as a kind of survival strategy amid an ever-changing, evermoving and modernizing world, as well as a charm to cross borders and asking questions. Where are the boundaries of faith, knowledge and imagination? What is the reality we live in and want to live in?

Wounded angel is a compassionate work for the people – it portrays the reality of the disadvantaged in society. The picture does not reveal what has happened; it shows only the attenuated echoes of the tragedy, lucent reflections of an oppressive event. The angel cannot see, does not fly with its wings, which in Platonic symbolism means a departure from the original home, beauty, and an oblivion of the soul. The body loses its lightness, and becomes heavy, wingless. The subject of the painting awakens sexuality in puberty, pain in proximity, and the closeness of the death. The connection between memories breaks and the soul twists into itself – the real existence seems to be somewhere else. The wings elevate closer to beauty, to a world of ideas. The fragility of life enters symbolism by turning inwards, instead of imitating the external world, depicts visions, dreams and fantasies, based on subjective feelings, thoughts and experiences, with the aim of achieving a universal dimension.

When Simberg first exhibited the work at the Ateneum in 1903, he marked a long line of thought for the name, possibly aiming to let everyone see what they wanted. Interpretation by Helsingforsposten observed a feeling that prevails when something beautiful, something pure within oneself is crushed and Sakari Saarikivi: What was bad has already been left behind. The time for reconciliation and peace has come. The child’s faith and diligent respect to work and life will brighten the future again.


Only gardening is important

Simberg’s language arises from the realisation of the temporality and mortality of human existence. Simberg saw life as a cycle in which death only prepared for a new life. It is like a long hibernation, overwhelmed by the spring sun and awakening nature. When things that scare us are expressed, they become less scary and easier to understand.

In an old tradition dating back to the Middle Ages the dead were imagined sleeping in a garden. In the satirical novel Candide by the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, the conclusion of all scholarship is that only gardening is important. According to Simberg, skeletons are Death’s helpers, and plants and flowers are human souls. The cherished flowers slowly grow into exotic forms, requiring constant care. The plants can afford to be fragile because of the tenderness of death, or they are slightly taken away because they cannot stand the love of death. The death is cold and barren yet it has a touch of warmth and love. The colours are gloomy but gentle. The skeletons reflect the ordinary nature of death and the brutality of life.

The pace is hard, and I can feel the strong airflow hissing in my ears at the speed of the wind. During the journey, it turns white, and I gradually wake up like a dream. Finally, I am completely awake and now I see something big and great that is suddenly disappearing. — Simberg explains in his letter to his brother what he felt as he watched the red coloured moon rising behind the black forest and the passage of clouds over it



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