The Emotive Elusiveness and Painterly Directness of the Visible

The visual artist Maaria Märkälä bases her works on observation and on experiences of reality, but the result is invariably paintings in which her passion has taken over, and which look like interpretations of an experience. In this respect she brings to mind the painter Mauno Markkula (1905–1959), a mythical figure in Finnish art history, known for invariably depicting his own mental vistas rather than ordinary reality. This baffled his contemporaries, who were expecting to see northern landscapes on the canvas, but what they did see was swaying palms.

In her art of recent years Märkälä has gone from pure observational painting to more imaginary realms. Nowadays, her works are more strongly associated with the experience induced by perception, and do not depict a view that opens out before our eyes so much as an emotional and experiential impression, one linked with memory. She previously even painted outdoors and on small supports, but nowadays the working process largely takes place in the studio, something that is also reflected in the sizes of her works.

In Inner Experience the French author Georges Bataille (1897–1962) writes: “that which 1 have seen eludes understanding.”The quotation accentuates the phenomenological aspect of seeing and the way that that experience eludes simplifying, explanatory attributions of meaning, which involve giving complex experiences straightforward name tags that represent preferred models of thought and action. Art is against simplification and speaks of direct experiences in a more multifaceted way.

Art is a means of creating situations in which it is possible to live out multiple realities at the same time. When faced with an artwork and focussing on it, you are precisely right there, but also elsewhere, simultaneously in your imaginings of possible future worlds and in memories of past experiences. On the multiplicity of experience Bataille observes: “I call experience a voyage to the end of the possible of man.” According to Bataille: “...the memory evoked by the sound, the contact, was that of pure memory, free of all project. This pure memory, in which our “true self”, ipse different from the “1” of project, is inscribed, liberates no “permanent and usually hidden essence of things”, if not communication, the state into which we are thrown when, pulled from the known, we no longer grasp, in things, anything but the unknown which is usually elusive in them.”

Märkälä’s paintings occupy the boundary between the figurative and the non-figurative. That is why, when faced with her works, we viewers inevitably find ourselves dealing with inner experience. Her way of working produces works that, when we view them, we are at first dazzled, and then we contemplate what we have woken to see. The unknown and the recognizable are mingled in the viewing experi- ence, which is a multisensory one.

Movement in the Background

When we find ourselves faced with Maaria Märkälä’s works, we cannot help noticing their powerful materiality, which speaks of a functional painting process. She paints her works with a brush, palette knife, or even by hand, if it is a workable tool for the painting.

The art historian Stephen Polcari writes how comparing the US choreographer and dancer Martha Graham’s (1894–1991) dance works with contemporaneous painting extends our image of abstract expressionism. For him, both in Graham’s dance pieces and in abstract expressionist works we can detect traces of abstract, organic and rhythmic movement.4 With Märkälä’s paintings, we get a strong sense of how the choreography of the artist’s working process has been immortalized in the layers and surfaces of the work.

Does she paint confessional expressionism or is it something else? Märkälä likes the glorious, brisk rashness of expressionism, but she shuns dealing with the wrenching inner experiences often associated with the ism. She says that her own life has been a colourful one, to the extent that in her own expression she is interested in the beauty and positivity. For her, painting is a positive, empowering experience that can be fascinating and important with neither angst nor problems.

The painted trace, which is powerful in both its materials and colours, is not just a manifestation of inner feeling in visual form, but also a phenomenological action that occurs with the aid of the visual, and in which we are carried towards the visi- ble in all its forms. Märkälä says that perception has been the basis of her painting, but currently the immediate experience associated with perception is the main subject of her paintings. Travel or bicycling between her home and studio, for example, have influenced her choice of subject matter.

The surface of Märkälä’s paintings appears to be in constant motion, because the painted traces seem to be literally mobile and vibrating. Already in her earli- est paintings on the theme of Berlin the surface structure of the works looks like it is in motion, but their speed and vivacity have increased with time. Nowadays, the painting’s surface shows the marks of the working process, while also being stratified so that the viewer recognizes that it arose out of a multi-stage process.

She creates painterly equivalents of experiences. In the Starry Night series spend- ing the night in the desert under a starry sky has been given its own painterly coun- terpart, in which an experience anchored in a certain place, space and atmosphere has been rendered in the language and mode of expression of painting. Märkälä also emphasizes the significance of applying paint itself, saying it is an enjoyable activity that can enable the creation of new worlds.

The Seductive Power of Colour

For many people colour is self-evidently a strong, direct experience, so it is perplexing to think that, before Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749–1832), theories of colour were couched mostly in terms of optics. Only with the German author was the cul- tural and symbolic significance of colours recognized. Goethe writes: “It has been circumstantially shown above, that every colour produces a distinct impression on the mind, and thus addresses at once the eye and feelings. Hence it follows that colour may be employed for certain moral and æsthetic ends.”

He continues to delineate the different meanings of colours as follows: “That, lastly, colour may have a mystical allusion, may be readily surmised, for since every diagram in which the variety of colours may be represented points to those primordial relations which belong both to nature and the organ of vision, there can be no doubt that these may be made use of as a language, in cases where it is proposed to express similar primordial relations which do not present themselves to the senses in so powerful and varied a manner.”

Like the mystics, artists, too, reach out to the deeper nature of things. Märkälä reveals new aspects and shades of the visible world, which would otherwise remain out of reach. New pieces of visual evidence emerge from her paintings, helping to diversify our understanding of the world and its nature.

Maaria Märkälä is also a good example of a contemporary artist who, time after time, creates her own world of colour, or if we stick to traditional terms – her colour theory. Occasionally a colour has to be rediscovered, as happens with pink. The Berliner-doughnut-frosting colour that she already used in her Dreaming about Berlin series in 2002 was absent for years until, following her exhibition on the theme of the end of the world in the 2016, pink made its return. Now, her works bring out the mul- tiple meanings of pinkness, with her pink oscillating between wondrous splendour and carnal materiality. Märkälä bears witness in practice to the way that, in the right hands, the pink that is spurned by many and seen as overly cute is the most magnificent, multifaceted of shades. On this occasion, too, she allows her own capacity for enchantment to be seen and signals that she is following this colour into wondrous new visions.

Märkälä’s paintings speak clearly of her ability to be enchanted again after again by the issues raised by her working process. At the same time, she creates new visual realities in which her expression and the way she thinks are visible. This comes about through the painting process. Could Märkälä’s way of painting be described as an embodiment of perception, so that a visual experience is conveyed by the artist’s body onto the ground of the painting in a new, haptic, material form.

Conclusion – Märkälä’s World of Experience and Material

Maaria Märkälä has often talked about how everything that we should be able to enjoy goes through painting. She herself sums up her artistic ideas with the aid of a couple of aphorisms that she heard on the radio. According to the first, art is existence and metabolism. The second saying that she considers apt has been the idea cited by the author and theatre director Juha Hurme, that at the start of a project he thinks he is doing something new and splendid, but in the end he notices that the result is the same merry-go-round as before.

That merry-go-round can also be called an emotional-experiential expression, which the artist uses to create something seemingly new that reveals something quite fundamental and profound about the world and about being in it. Perhaps something ecstatic and relevant to our existence.

Of ecstasy Bataille writes: “I am open, yawning gap, to the unintelligible sky and everything in me rushes forth, is reconciled in a final irreconciliation. Rupture of all “possible”, violent kiss, abduction, loss in the entire absence of all “possible”, in opaque and dead night which is nonetheless light–no less unknowable, no less blinding than the depth of the heart.”

In her paintings Maaria Märkälä opens up the far reaches of her heart and the core of her life. This is the fundamental ability of an artistic work and of art in general to produce something real and important in the world. In The Judgment of Paris the French art historian Hubert Damisch (1928-2017) writes of the capacity of artworks to act as translations of their original models.8 As I see it, a kind of translation pro- cess occurs when Märkälä renders being in the world and perception into her paint- erly language, and irrefutably bears witness to its significance, time after time. The world, the individual and art intertwine and diverge, only to meet again.


1 Bataille 2020, 18.

2 Bataille 2020, 22.

3 Bataille 2020, 214.

4 Polcari 2005, 498.

5 Goethe 2019, 276.

6 Goethe 2019, 276.

7 Bataille 2020, 97.

8 Damisch 1996, 85.