Kaj Stenvall
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Finnish Art Today #2014

The wrongdoer does not care what is permitted – he does as is right in his mind.

Art knows no boundaries. Until you do something forbidden. Kaj Stenvall keeps on crossing the limits of what's allowed in, it seems, total innocence. It's made others question whether his paintings featuring Donald Duck and now Vladimir Putin should even be called art.

If you have a villa, you've probably done alright. Kaj Stenvall has sold hundreds of paintings and plenty of merchandise in his 25 years as a professional artist. He lives with his family in Villa Roma, a gorgeous 19th century house on the island of Ruissalo, near the western Finnish city of Turku. This 3-story building was built in 1851 for a local doctor, and later Finnish surrealist painter Otto Mäkilä lived and worked here. Stenvall does not need to sell a single painting to earn a living. If he wanted, he could simply collect old guitar amplifiers.

Vintage tube amplifiers fill the corner of a room on the second floor of Villa Roma. They are stacked up in piles with several guitars standing in the middle. In the other corner there is an easel, where an unfinished painting waits for brush strokes. Completed works lie here and there. The window offers a view to the parkway and the idyllic scenery of Ruissalo. It is said that here you can find the largest oak forest in the whole country.

I might lose my voice during the interview, the flu-ridden Stenvall apologizes while he offers me a cosy armchair to sit in and chooses a wooden chair for himself. Nevertheless, Stenvall manages to speak for the next hour and a half, perhaps excited by the topic: breaking the unwritten laws of the art world.

Unwritten Art World Law #1
Political art must stick to convention.

His career as a wrongdoer started already in the early 1970s. At the time he was 20 years old, had recently moved to Turku, and in a time characterized by political activism chose the left side. "Young people were under pressure to choose," Stenvall recalls. He painted workers and other leftist subjects, but did it the wrong way.

"Politically conscious people said I took my ideology from the east and style from the west. I was considered an unorthodox painter, and was told this type of synthesis doesn't work." Nonetheless, he was awarded the Finnish state's art prize, when he was just 22.

His swim against the stream continued even as the times changed. In the 1980s, the Finnish economy grew like never before. Stock brokers and other nouveau rich people invested in art and paid ridiculous sums for art even before seeing the final pieces. Later this era became known as "the art bubble of the 1980s". Stenvall followed his own path. "I criticized the trend. As an old leftist painter, I was not really popular, or part of this new scene." When the bubble burst, it was Stenvall's time: he became popular.

Donald Duck became the main character of his paintings in 1989. It took several years for people to notice. In 1993 Stenvall had an exhibition at the Bronda gallery in Helsinki. Finland's largest newspaper Helsingin Sanomat noticed the duck paintings and published a portfolio of them in its monthly magazine Kuukausiliite. "That's when the buzz began," Stenvall notes. And so did the sales.

Unwritten Art World Law #2
Thou shall not commit commercial acts.

Merchandizing by Stenvall has been on a scale unseen before in Finland. He hasn't held back, with paintings printed as postcards, posters, calendars, jigsaws, and on drinking glasses, wine bottles, notebooks, milk cartons, credit cards – you name it. Thousands of Finnish homes and offices have reproductions of his paintings. Selling merchandise has brought Stenvall a fair share of royalties together with the disrespect of the art world. Suddenly the old leftist painter from Turku became the first artist in Finland to have his painting printed on a credit card. "Some people have a hard time understanding it, but I was very blue-eyed and idealistic. It was never about the money, just about trying new things," he explains.

It all goes back to the 1970s art scene and the idea of democratizing art. "We had exhibitions at workplaces, paintings hung in factories. Our aim was to bring ordinary people and art together." He sees the credit card in 2002 as the same thing as the factory exhibition 30 years earlier. It was just a way of placing art in the midst of common people. "I imagined these new methods would become art world standards, and everyone would follow me. But it didn't go like that at all. Quite the opposite."

The unwritten laws of the art world state that an artist never does art for the sake of money. Art must have a deeper motivation. Stenvall has repeatedly been accused of breaking this rule. "I have been stigmatized as being a commercial artist for whom nothing is too minor for making a couple of euros. But I have never thought about money. I have a built-in need to express myself," he says. Another belief is that his art comes off an assembly line, where he paints Donald Ducks all day just for a quick buck – or that he has people painting for him. "I have never had assistants from Thailand or anywhere painting the backgrounds so that I have more time to focus on the facial expressions. The only reason for my success has been that I've been active and painted all the time."

Unwritten Art World Law #3
Repetition is a sin.

1,200 paintings and four days to paint one. Those are more or less the vital stats of Stenvall's career. "I get ideas for paintings all the time," he says. For the last 25 years Stenvall has painted the same subject in the same style. It's easy to say that he has made no progress. The artist disagrees.

"I have never done the same thing twice. There is always something new in the next painting. Only the subject remains the same. A critical viewer might say that the transitions have been too small, but for me they've been big enough. I have always come up with some new content." Stenvall compares himself to the Finnish film director Aki Kaurismäki. "His style has been the same for the last 25 years or more, and no one says he's stuck. The way people see my work disappoints me. They see a duck and miss the whole idea." He points to one of his latest duck paintings called Language of the Image. In Finnish the word for language, "kieli", is the same as the one for tongue. "The duck is showing its tongue. It is a semiotic work with the message built from symbols. My paintings always contain problem-setting and speculation."

Unwritten Art World Law #4
Sell to the right people or sell out.

Ordinary people have been the main audience of Stenvall's paintings, not serious collectors. "The collectors focus on modern painting and never got excited about me." The contrast between the subject matter and the execution makes professional art buyers uncertain, according to Stenvall. He is different – and that's the way he wants to be.

"I avoid doing art that that looks like art. It is so easy to do. I could visit exhibitions and art schools and see what other people are doing and then copy it. Instead I've always thought it's better to do art that looks original."

Not that he wouldn't like to see his works in the same galleries as the rising names of contemporary art. "Oh yes. My paintings would work in that context and it would be a good thing for me. But these galleries have their own things. I was too old for them already at the time of my breakthrough in 1993, when I was 42 and no longer young enough to be an emerging artist."

Unwritten Art World Law #5
Your gallery is not for your art.

His reputation got worse fast, when he set up a gallery in the centre of Helsinki. For seven years in the early 2000s he focused on his own paintings in the gallery. "To me it was an interesting experiment. Twice a year I put up a new exhibition with 12 new paintings each time." It was never considered a professional gallery, more like Stenvall's personal art store, where he sold mass-produced paintings to anyone willing to pay the price.

"By then I had been an artist for 40 years and knew exactly how galleries operate. I took everything into account. I had openings, I printed invitations. But I wasn't taken seriously." Art critics never wrote anything about the exhibitions, and finally Stenvall closed the gallery. "It worked financially, but the lack of attention made the gallery feel pointless. I got tired of banging my head against the wall."

He's always found a way to get his art out to the public. Stenvall was one of the first artists to have a website for his art, launching kajstenvall.com in 1994. Now the site features nearly 850 paintings. Lately Stenvall has been posting pictures on Twitter before the paint has even had time to dry properly. "When the painting is finished, I'm as excited as a little kid who wants to show the world what he did." The online presence of artists has been debated in recent times. Many formidable artists have lousy, outdated and un-updated sites, or even no online presence at all. Some argue that if their work is on the web, they can't control how the work spreads and it might disappear among the mass of online amateurs. Once again Stenvall is in the opposition on this topic.

"If you want to stand out, you need to do paintings that don't mix with the work of amateurs. I have nothing against my paintings spreading out. It's nice that as many people as possible see them. That's why I'm on Twitter. I can't imagine the harm in that."

Unwritten Art World Law #6
Weirdness must be explicable.

Vladimir Putin replaced Donald Duck in the spring of 2014. As the Russian president became Stenvall's main subject, his paintings started circulating online more than ever. The change was sudden and surprised everyone. Stenvall says he had an urge to react to what was going on in the world. "The Ukrainian crisis shook me." People simply took the appearance of Putin as a sign that the artist had tired of ducks and just moved on to an attention-grabbing new subject. Stenvall rejects the thought. "It was not about getting rid of the duck. And it doesn't necessarily mean I'm through painting ducks." But why Putin? Why now? There have been several crises during the last quarter of a century. "I have been working with Disney's strictly controlled trademark for 25 years. I have lived with the fear that their lawyers decide to strike. It is a long time to live with that knowledge. Eventually I got used to that feeling, which allowed me to start working on an even riskier subject. We are now talking about a big authority and the wealthiest man on earth. I can get into all kinds of trouble because of these paintings."

Could Putin be angered by Stenvall's new work? Hard to imagine it, because there is no obvious political message. The paintings show the Russian president in different situations: walking along a river without a shirt, speaking on television, swimming in a lake, talking on the telephone... Newspapers publish similar photos of Putin every day. "A guy who has painted Donald Duck for 25 years starts to paint Putin. Isn't that already a message? The fact that I'm using Putin as a subject is a statement in itself." Stenvall again refers to semiotics. "Putin is the subject of my paintings, but there are other things to think about. Like in this painting, The Gifts of Nature." The artist points to a painting where Putin is shirtless on an empty beach, holding two fishes. The sky is cloudy and two fishing boats are anchored at sea. "The name of the work refers to Putin. Yes, he has fish in his hands, but he also has something else from the nature." Stenvall laughs mysteriously. Is he referring to Putin's muscles or Russia's huge natural gas resources? It is hard to say.

Putin is Stenvall's subject for now. He is not planning on selling any of his Putins. "There have been many enquiries, but I am keeping the series together. I don't have a financial need to sell anything. I am economically privileged and have to thank the people of Finland for that. I am now taking advantage of this situation." At some point he will exhibit the Putin series. He knows the perfect place: Kumu, the museum of contemporary art in Tallinn, Estonia. "I like the space. And the message grows there."

How much will it grow? We'll have to wait and see. Tallinn has experience of art controversies. In 2007 local authorities decided to move the Bronze Soldier statue from the city centre to a graveyard a couple of kilometres away. It was originally dedicated to Russian soldiers who fought against Germany in the Second World War. The plans caused uproar among Estonia's large Russian population. Riots ensued, killing one person died and injuring hundreds. Maybe the message of the Putin paintings will grow when shipped across the Gulf of Finland to Estonia. Time will tell.

Will the wrongdoer label be stuck on Stenvall once again, in Tallinn this time. Or will he be thanked for doing the right thing this time? Whatever the response, Stenvall isn't bothered. "Thanks to my long career, I'm quite relaxed. I have nothing to lose."


Born in 1951, Stenvall became a household name in Finland by painting Donald Duck into classic paintings. Never caring whether the art world approved, he made his art available to everyone through posters and postcards. Now he's ditched Donald Duck (for now) and paints Vladimir Putin publishing the work fresh on Twitter. It's just not right, screams the art world, but Stenvall soldiers on from success to more success.