In the autumn, Turku Art Museum treats the public to the fabulous work of designer and ceramicist Birger Kaipiainen 1915–1988), one of the most prestigious and internationally successful ceramic artists in Finland. The extensive exhibition comprising some 70 works offers a comprehensive view of the development of his art, from the 1940s to the final years of his career. Most of the reliefs, sculptures, decorative plates and dishes on view belong to the collection of Kyösti Kakkonen.
Birger Kaipiainen enrolled in art school to study scenography in 1933 but eventually graduated as ceramicist and decorative artist in 1937. After graduation he was invited to join the Arabia art department. Except for a few years spent abroad, Kaipiainen worked for Arabia all his life. The art department was a haven of fine art within the factory, playing a key role in the international success of Finnish applied art in the 1950s and 1960s. Kaipiainen also won international acclaim: he received an honorary Diplôme d’Honneur in 1951 and the Grand Prix at the 1960 Milan Triennale, as well as the Grand Prix at the 1967 Montreal Expo. Back home the “prince of ceramics” was awarded the Pro Finlandia medal in 1963 and the title of professor in 1977.
Although Kaipiainen worked under the aegis of an industrial enterprise, he saw himself primarily as an artist, and from the very start his personal style set him apart from his contemporaries. Childhood summers in Sortavala, Karelia – the lushness of nature, the visual exuberance of Russian Orthodox culture and the nearby Valamo monastery – had a profound effect on his art, with natural motifs, exuberance and decorativeness finding their way into his ceramic work later in life. In the modernist period, which emphasised practicality and asceticism, Kaipiainen turned beauty and decorativeness into a virtue. Setting himself at odds with mainstream art, Kaipiainen filled his imagery with romanticism and endowed his luscious works with the shimmer of a fairy-tale world.
His exploration of stylistic devices also included a more graphic period in the 1950s, after which flowers, fruit, bells and birds came to dominate his imagery – themes for which Kaipiainen is best known to this day. A new facet in this work was multisensoriness, which invites the viewer not only to look but also to touch, taste and smell. Art was Kaipiainen’s passion, and he continued to work almost daily, even in retirement. In the 1980s the motif of a stage-like hall appeared in Kaipiainen’s art, echoing the Bökars manor of his good friend Armi Ratia. The final act of the ageless artist is like an invitation to one last party.
The exhibition includes a series of special tours, and its research is based in part on the second printing of Harri Kalha’s best-selling book Birger Kaipiainen (2013, 2019). The lavishly illustrated volume is the first extensive analysis of Birger Kaipiainen’s art.