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Torsten Wasastjerna: Falling Leaves (Dance of the Falling Leaves), 1897

 

Like many other artists in the 1890s, Torsten Wasastjerna switched from landscapes and portraits to more literary and Symbolist themes in his art. The most significant examples include Fairytale Princess, Falling Leaves and, slightly later, Saint Michael Triumphing Over the Dragon (1905–1906). All of these are painted on a large scale.

In Falling Leaves, time is in motion. It depicts the advance of autumn, with the yellow leaves of early autumn along the top and falling leaves as you view downwards. The leaves die and decompose in the snow along the bottom as winter approaches. The fairies dancing in the autumn sky and maidens lying on the ground and disappearing within the earth are allegorical figures for the leaves. This is supported by the alternative name for the artwork, Dance of the Falling Leaves.

Some of the Symbolist paintings created by Wasastjerna were inspired by the concept of synesthesia, i.e. correspondences between the visual arts and music (and other art forms). In addition to being a painter, Wasastjerna was also a writer and poet with an interest in music.

In 1906 Wasastjerna held a solo exhibition at Ateneum that included Falling Leaves. In the exhibition catalogue he explained his thoughts regarding his “decorativist” paintings: “I see the colour spectrum created by the aforementioned four decorativist images as representing somehow the following keys in music: The Spirit of Joy E major – The Spirit of Sorrow C-sharp minor – Falling Leaves E minor – Saint Michael D-flat major. The art of painting is often compared to music, and the phrase “a symphony of colours” often appears in literature. Although an exact comparison is not possible, there is no doubt that eternal laws also apply to the art of painting. I therefore leave it to the musically educated viewer to determine to which degree the colour spectrum of these images corresponds to the aforementioned keys in music.”

Wasastjerna was referring to the concept favoured by some Symbolists of autonomous art whose contents are created by its forms and colours, i.e. “the eternal laws of the art of painting”. At the same time, however, he also depicted literary tales in his paintings by combining the Modernist concept of synesthesia with traditional allegorical painting.

Later the young Finnish composer Selim Palmgren, inspired by Falling Leaves, composed Dance of the Falling Leaves – albeit in C minor – as the third part of his series Pictures from Finland (Op. 24) depicting the seasons. And many years later, Maggie Gripenberg was so inspired by Palmgren’s composition that she wrote the choreography for a ballet of the same name, although she had not seen the painting.