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Vilho Lampi: The Thinker (Self-portrait), 1929


Vilho Lampi (1898–1936) lived and spent most of his working life in Liminka, northern Ostrobothnia. He studied at the Drawing School of the Finnish Art Association in the early 1920s under teachers who included Alvar Cawén, Markus Collin and Ilmari Aalto. By the mid ‘20s he had works in joint exhibitions in Helsinki. His output at this period is marked by broken colours and sometimes by compositions in the Cubist manner. His approach is reminiscent of the works of Finland’s Exressionist November Group.

Later that decade and in the early ’30s, Lampi produced a series of large, powerful paintings that are among his most distinctive. Their names alone express their dramatic subject matter: The Horse Swindlers (1930), The Executioner (1930), Stringing up the Pig (1930), The Suicide (c. 1930), The Knife Fighter (1930) and The Emperor of the Province (1930). In these the style is strongly Expressionist. The artist’s powerful palette is applied thickly and boldly to the surfacein individual brush strokes. Often, he employed strong outlines to give the paintings an emphatic rhythm. In some works, by contrast, he aimed at a more synthetic approach, employing compositions formed from large, highly stylized areas of colour. Good examples are The Executioner andThe Night at Retuperä (1930). The stylistic influences come from the works of Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch.

Lampi produced several self-portraits during his career. In the 1928–1931 period, especially, he presents himself as a fiery, haughty figure who boldly challenges the viewer with a backward stare over his shoulder. The swagger expressed in these self-portraits irresistibly reminds one of the political situation at the time, which was marked by the radical rightwing Lapua movement, and the prominence given to the Ostrobothnian ‘tough guy’ image.

In many self-portraits colourful brush-strokes radiate round the painter’s head, emphasizing the face framed by the brim of the hat. In The Thinker (1929), though, Lampi diverges partly from this pattern and presents himself as a figure sunk in thought, leaning his head on one arm. This pose reminds one of the old visual tradition of expressing a melancholic temperament. Even so, the subject’s expression is sharp and attentive, looking forward into the future.

The composition is solid and based on certain basic geometrical shapes, as is often the case in Lampi’s work. The right shoulder and hat brim and their background form a right-angled triangle at the top of the picture. This is supplemented by the arm raised at an angle from the right lower corner, thus forming with the hat brim a second triangle to the right. Though there are no actual outlines in the work, the areas of clearly distinguished light and shade effectively mark out the figure from its background.

In The Thinker Lampi has unusually used dot-like pointillist brushwork rather than strong sweeps. However, he does employ a somewhat similar technique in a few other works dating from this period, such as The Mill and the Sun (1929) and Knife Fighter. The thickness of the paint varies greatly in different parts of the picture. The well-lit parts of the face are laid on in thick layers of impasto, while the hat is painted so thinly that the brown plywood shows through between the black strokes.

Towards the end of his career, after a study trip to Paris, Lampi abandoned Expressionism. During his late period he developed a restrained, even intimate, style of landscape painting that is remote from his bold approach earlier. We thus find a clear, sharp line in the works he produced in Liminka in 1933–1935, for instance in the branches of the trees, combined with pointillist surfaces representing the land and sky of the northern plains. In terms of technique The Thinker in a way already foresees this change and the brushwork that marks his late works.

The rough painting on the reverse side of the work on plywood is an earlier sketch depicting the brewing of moonshine.  Its latest possible date must be 1929, when he producedThe Thinker, and may have been started a year earlier. Lampi was to produce a ready painting on this theme in his Moonshining of 1930. This subject was quite daring at a time when prohibition was in force, and in fact it became a lawsuit casein 1930.

The Thinkerwas includedin Vilho Lampi’s only one-man show, in Oulu in 1931. Here it was hung next to an even larger painting, the blue-green The Horse Swindlers. The show was a moderate success, and Lampi sold 23 works, nearly half the total.

Afterwards he continued to paint for a few years, but in March 1936 threw himself into the Merikoski rapids in Oulu.