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Myth and landscape

At the end of a road in the middle of a Finnish forest, the visitor suddenly comes across a bronze-coloured man falling, frozen in the air. There is another one crouching on the ground in front of a television set. Behind the window of a house more slightly futuristic figures larger than natural size are lurking. Jewellery designer and sculptor Björn Weckström’s studio and home are a unique combination of a Finnish seashore setting in its natural state and a sculpture gallery. The landscape is an ever-present background for his timeless, mythical sculptures.

Björn Weckström knew from an early age that he wanted to become an artist and a sculptor. His parents were opposed to the idea – a career in the arts was too uncertain. By way of compromise, Weckström enrolled at the Helsinki Goldsmiths’ School, where things did not, however, begin easily. The young man’s abilities were noticed and recognized, but motivation was questioned. After a talk with the principal of the school, Weckström was given an extended probationary period – and then he began to find his own path. His journeyman’s piece from 1956 already aroused interest.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the winds of modernism were blowing in the field of jewellery just as in other areas of design. Tradition and ornamentality were replaced by form underlining the specific nature of the material, asymmetry, constructivism and minimalism. An exhibition in 1958 at Artek in Helsinki by four young jewellery designers, Bertel Gardberg, Eelis Kauppi, Börje Rajalin and Eero Rislakki, is regarded as a turning point.

Björn Weckström was well aware of the new trends – Gardberg was his childhood friend. He established his own jewellery gallery in the same year and gradually his work began to be displayed in exhibitions and museums. The pieces of jewellery were different, sculptural and massive. “At first, I worked in a highly Scandinavian style, but then I thought I would only be one in that long line,” says Weckström. He had to find his own distinctive style – and it was found. He achieved a reputation for open-minded experimentation. “The language of form was dramatically different at the time… The early 1960s were to such a degree an optimistic period that this could be done,” he recalls. Weckström’s work, however, was regarded as highly avant-garde and difficult to sell.

At first, the material was silver, which was cool and elegant and thus well suited to a modern idiom of form. Björn Weckström initially found gold to be less close to him as a raw material.  After a trip to Lapland, he soon started to work extensively in gold. In Lapland, he came to know nuggets and gold dust panned from the rivers of the north. Raw gold led him to discover its expressiveness, differences in the sheen of rough and smooth surfaces, and the world of cast forms.

Other things began to happen as well. Silversmith Pekka Anttila, the owner of the Lapponia Jewelry company, hired Björn Weckström. The beginning was not easy, but then Weckström’s gold necklace Flowering Wall won the Grand Prix in a design competition held in honour of the 400th anniversary of the city of Rio de Janeiro in 1965. “The competition was mentioned in all the trade magazines; it was so important,” notes Weckström. The competition drew some two thousand entries from all over the world. The prize jury, however, consisted of South American museum professionals. “I thought that I might have a chance. So I did, and that’s how it started; it changed Lapponia, overnight in fact. It was dramatic, receiving so much attention… I was immediately asked if we had some kind of collection. Of course we didn’t, so we found ourselves in a hurry to make one!”

Björn Weckström’s gold jewellery of the 1960s, including the renowned Lapland Gold series, was made by casting, like pieces of sculpture. They were in fact like miniature sculptures: with plasticity, of pronounced form, rough and even primitive. Many of the pieces could have been shaped by forces of nature or worn by ice or water, or they could have been bark. Semi-precious stones and pearls were placed as if randomly on the surface of the gold, also in forms that were as natural as possible.

Björn Weckström returned to silver in the mid-1960s. These were restless years marked by student riots, space flights and the Vietnam War. Weckström mentions how Expo 67, the Montreal World’s Fair, with its futuristic structures and new forms of visual art, such as installations, introduced completely new concepts into jewellery design. “I used to think that a piece of jewellery is a sculpture, a small sculpture. But it could be a miniature landscape as well; it could ultimately be anything! And this became clear to me through these installations, “ Weckström recalls.

The result was a collection of silver jewellery called Space Silver. In many of these pieces there are small human figures providing scale in a strange, glimmering silver landscape. The forms of the surface were like snow or sand driven by the wind. “Space Silver also aroused a great deal of interest,” says Weckström. “I wanted to shock and stretch the conception of jewellery, and acrylic in particular was then included.” A typical material of the 1960s, acrylic was new in jewellery art and audiences were outraged by the combination of a non-precious material with precious metal. As a reformer of jewellery design, Weckström attracted attention in other ways as well, and in 1968 he was awarded the esteemed Lunning Design Prize.

In the late 1970s, one of Weckström’s pieces suddenly achieved world fame. The film director George Lucas, still unknown at the time, was working on a science fiction film and a futuristic piece of jewellery was needed for the leading lady in the final scene. Someone had heard of Space Silver, and Weckström received a telephone call.  The order of course came in a hurry and there was no longer time to carry it out. A necklace named Planetoid Valleys was chosen from Lapponia Jewelry’s existing product range – and Princess Leia wore it around her neck in Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope.

An organic language of form inspired by nature has been present in Björn Weckström’s work from the outset. “Winter landscapes came into the picture when I became a silversmith, ” he says. The reflections of light on the undulating surfaces of the silver also remind the viewer of water. “I was able to include water as an element in some forms. And also through acrylic,” says Weckström. He has sailed since his boyhood, and he is familiar with water and its reflections and light. With eye of a sailor, he has also created a series of paintings on old sails which he displayed in an exhibition in 2004. Their hues and atmosphere bring to mind fog in the morning at sea, while the use of sailcloth as the painting canvas is a worthy end for old sails.

Weckström’s acrylic sculptures from the early 1970s were another way of depicting the properties of water, with their strange forms and objects floating inside the acrylic cubes likes creatures of the deep. Light brings forth all the details of the sculptures and the silence that is part of them. Weckström himself says that he made these meditative pieces as a protest against the noisy kinetic art of the decade with its demand for attention.

The same solidified silence is also evident in Weckström’s work in glass, a material to which he has occasionally returned when working in sculpture has begun to feel lonely. As a raw material, glass is just as plastic and pliable as silver or bronze, but work in a hothouse is fast-paced teamwork with top-level professionals and not solitary effort.  

Throughout his career, Björn Weckström has worked in sculpture alongside jewellery. At first these works were of marble – intense and introverted minimalist heads and torsos focusing on a single theme. In the early 1980s he changed scale radically and began to make large sculptures in bronze. The impulse for these works came from the so-called Riace bronzes, two Early Greek statues found by chance on the seabed off the coast of South Italy. After undergoing conservation, they were on show in an exhibition in Florence, where Weckström saw them. The experience was breath-taking and it marked a turning point.

 “I had looked down on realism because it turns into mannerism,” says Weckström. And now he was impressed by the expressive power of realism. “There is so much you can tell if a work of art is made well! These statues are of two warriors in a duel. They’ve noted that they’re of the same man, at the age of twenty and forty. The younger one is blustering and self-confident, while the older one is heavier and a bit more tired. It’s an extremely interesting symbolic scene that is depicted between the two…”

Weckström’s language of form became more realistic. His sculptures are human figures of larger than natural size absorbed in themselves and what they are doing. One of the first ones was Icarus, the winged flier of fable, whose wax wings melted when he flew too close to the sun – an archetypal metaphor of the dangers of hubris. It was followed by Helios, Daedalus, Nike, Minotaur, Prometheus… the great stories of mythology were given their figures by Björn Weckström.  

In the Mediterranean countries the history of Antiquity is part of general education and children learn to know the heroes of mythology in school. Björn Weckström has had a studio in Italy for many years and the local culture has had an inevitable effect. “I’ve always been interested in the history of Antiquity,” he points out, “And these myths. In some ways man has not changed much… In Italy man dominates so much that nature has been set aside. There is such a strong focus on man that when you work and live there, man will necessarily emerge.”

There is a struggle between humanism and technology in Weckström’s sculptures, with man having already turned partly into a machine: mechanical parts replace the hands, feet or internal organs. Weckström wanted to provoke and arouse discussion with these works. Instead of looking into a spring, Narcissus is engrossed in staring at a small television monitor. A blindfolded runner is dashing over news written in neon lights. The centaur is no longer a hybrid of a man and a horse, but of a man and motorcycle. The finish of the pieces of sculpture, their flawless shiny surface, creates a contrast with the grotesque figures, which are by no means heroes alone. Something has been destroyed.

Björn Weckström feels that he interprets myths in a manner suited to the present day. He has been a forerunner in many things, for instance man’s relationship with machines. “Things like genetic manipulation were still in their infancy forty years ago, when I made these sculptures. It was mainly science fiction at the time, and now it’s present-day reality. This whole symbiosis of man and machine…,” he observes.  ”First we make machines and then they influence us in turn. And also our way of thinking and acting, it’s becoming increasingly logical.” 

The internal struggle of Weckström’s sculpted figures is subtly reflected by their external form. Tensions and tenseness are depicted by arresting movement: falling, effort, pain, reaching out with the hand. “Henry Moore once said that a piece of sculpture has to be like a time bomb, ticking but never exploding, “ says Björn Weckström, “A work of art must radiate energy.”

Weckström is interested in studying arrested movement. Does the movement also come from classic Greek sculpture? “Yes it does,” he says with a laugh, “precisely from it.” Even the reclining figures, such as Fallen Icarus, are in a state of tension, not at rest. The sculpture depicts a moment of change or process, a stage in a narrative. Metamorphosis is at its best in the actual event. The same tensed quality is also evident in smaller scale in the jewellery pieces.

The manner in which Weckström works is closely associated with dynamics. He first draws, but not too precisely, no drawings for realizing the works. He says that a drawing that is too precise will lock the process. He does not just want to realize a plan. “I think with my hands. Line is extremely important for me and I can only create it using the eye and the hand. A sculpture has to be such that if the lines don’t function, the energy will flow out of it… The cooperation of hand and eye is important for that. Even the best ideas will die if you don’t have that.”

Then he goes on to work on the shape, usually in plaster. This is easy in jewellery, and new 3D modelling methods make it possible to make the prototype quickly and even by changing scale. In the sculptures, Weckström starts with a metal frame which he welds – hard and physically demanding work. Layers of plaster are added to the frame. Using the finished plaster model, professional metal casters then make the final version, still working in a centuries-old technique. A highly polished shiny surface provides the finishing touch.

Björn Weckström’s works, whether in silver, gold, marble or bronze, withstand the test of time in physical terms. With regard to their content, they are just as timeless in their study of nature or the human condition, although he regards many of his works as documents of issues of the late 20th century. He is averse to things that are disposable or of short duration, whether in art or other material culture. But with their narrative quality, many of his works stood out from their period. He took up realism at a time when abstract sculpture and constructivism were the mainstream. “Curators said that these things are not done now,” he notes with a laugh.   

In the history of Finnish design, Björn Weckström has followed his own path. Jewellery art has rarely received the attention that it deserves, and Weckström regards the present state of the whole jewellery industry as difficult: people use jewellery, but hardly any more traditional pieces in precious metals that last for many years. The long and distinguished traditions of Finnish silver and goldsmithing are being lost.  

Björn Weckström has followed a long and prolific career. Hundreds of pieces of jewellery designed by him have been manufactured – Weckström stopped making unique, one-off pieces at an early stage. Glassware designed by him has also been produced in series. The one-off works include sculptures in bronze, marble, glass and acrylic. Two of his sculptures, the Fazer Rooster and the Whistling Helsinki Man are enjoyed by the public in pedestrian streets in the centre of Helsinki. Weckström received the Pro Finlandia medal already 1971, and he was awarded the honorary title of professor in 1986.

Weckström has a markedly classic identity as an artist. It is based on a deep knowledge of culture, craftsmanship, an artist’s vision and ethical standpoints. On the other hand, he has explicitly sought to provoke audiences and pose questions, and has been attuned to the present in an uncompromising and astute way. These principles are evident in both large and small forms, from jewellery to sculpture and from myths to landscapes.

© Anne Veinola