Hugo Simberg’s dream world (1873–1917)

Hugo Simberg’s work is an enhancement of the senses. Simberg created a dream world for himself which required symbolic means to interpret it. Simberg composes metaphors with coherence and continuity of subtle colors entering a mental landscape which movements are on the border of sleep and consciousness.
Hugo Simberg’s work is an enhancement of the senses. Simberg created a dream world for himself which required symbolic means to interpret it. Simberg composes metaphors with coherence and continuity of subtle colors entering a mental landscape which 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. The theme of existential choice is present through transcendence and mystery beyond comprehension, a phenomena outside the key experience for which no rational information can be obtained. The innermost reality, the essence of things and phenomena, 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, imagination. Simberg does not settle outside of what he represents, he lives with it. Primitiveness is unintentional for him, 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, show the unity of nature and man in all their shimmering colors. The symbol is a state of timelessness and infinity, symbolism a form of sleep or memory. Macrocosm represents the reality of ideas, microcosm its equivalences. 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 inner core idea.

In Fantasy, the dream-heavy but lightly outlined figure has abandoned the outside world and is focused on her own inner world. Only the dreamer’s own fantasy offers her everything she understands to dream. Simberg’s goal as painter was with his own words to paint everything that makes a person cry deep in their heart. He processed with the unconscious which was in 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 allows the artist to gently hint at the delusion of fantasy: death sets rudely precise and absolute boundaries for the dreamer. The legend of the monogram tells that Hugo Simberg stared at the wall of the barn of the only cow, which was constantly in front of his chamber in the place of Ruovesi. The cow put 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 color surfaces, their alignment and contrasts, using colors to create an atmosphere rather than an impression of reality. Symbolism enters reduced shapes, intense colors and lack of depth. Simberg’s colors are green, red, orange and yellow in their various shades. The colors initially differ according to principles of lightness and warmth, or darkness and coldness. Warm colors head outward 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 colors, blue the coldest. White increases the warmth of yellow, its movement out and towards, 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 stops it. The mixture of blue and yellow, green, is motionless, restful. According to Kandinsky, it’s the color 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 state of metamorphosis. Intermediate, existence between life and death, skeleton and fetus, 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 the ordinary view, the view becomes a symbol and continuum, internal and external.

The wind blows where it wants. You hear that hum, but you don’t know where it comes from and where it’s going. So it is with everyone born of 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 from the Hebrew word wind, ruah, to spirit and 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 grows its wings. The purest and 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, moving and modernizing world, as well as a charm to crossing borders, asking questions and questioning. 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 compassion for the people, reality of the disadvantaged in society. The picture does not reveal what has happened; it shows only the attenuated echoes of the tragedy, light reflections of a heavy event. The angel cannot see, does not fly with his wings, which in Platonic symbolism means a departure from the original home, beauty, and oblivion of the soul. The body loses its lightness, becomes heavy, wingless. Awakening 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 make the heavy light and elevate it closer to beauty, the 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, Simberg 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 also prepared for a new life. It was like a long hibernation, overwhelmed by the spring sun and waking nature alive again. When scary things get their say, they became less scary and easier to understand.

In an old tradition dating back to the Middle Ages the dead were imagined sleeping in a flower 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 grow into exotic forms, slowly, requiring constant care. The plants perhaps 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 with a certain kind of warmth and love. The colors 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-colored moon rising behind the black forest and the passage of clouds over it


Huttunen, Samuli, Hugo Simberg etsi totuutta ja halusi lähestyä jumalaa maallisen rakkauden kautta – mutta voiko totuutta löytää?, Kulttuuritoimitus, 29.8.2019

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Kämäräinen, Eija, Merenpoika Hugo Simberg, WSOY, 1996

Lahelma, Marja, Hugo Simberg – Ateneumin taiteilijat, Ateneum Kansallisgalleria, 2017

Levanto, Marjatta, Hugo Simberg ja Haavoittunut enkeli, Valtion taidemuseo, 1993

Levanto, Marjatta, Halme, Heikki, Olavinen, Anja, Paloposki, Hanna-Leena, Stewen, Riikka, Vihanta, Ulla, Hugo Simberg – Aapinen, Ateneumin julkaisut nro 24, 2000

Stewen, Riikka, Hugo Simberg – Unien maalari, Otava, 1989

Saarikivi, Sakari, Hugo Simberg – elämä ja tuotanto, WSOY, 1948

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