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Kaj Stenvall´s Duck - alive and well in a melancholic setting
The Magazine of Finland Convention Bureau 1/2002

Finland’s best known contemporary artist Kaj The name of Kaj Stenvall rose to fame in the world of Finnish art about ten years ago when he began to paint a very familiar-looking duck in a variety of different settings. There was nothing in his subjects that hinted at a flavour of something Finnish except, a trace of melancholic in the landscape.

What really is at question here? How is it possible that a Finnish artist can begin to employ a duck whose adventures would really only belong in the realm of a certain world-renowned comic book series?

"I have structured a character who stands with one foot firmly planted on very carefully guarded territory but who is, however, also a part of my very own reality," explains Kaj Stenvall. He goes on to explain that this character has been developed by himself, even though the similarity to the most famous duck in the world cannot be denied.

The scenes depicted in his pictures are from the world at large and his duck often appears in absurd and universal settings. There really is nothing in his paintings that you could put your finger on to connect them to any particular corner of the world, especially not to Finland.

"I do not want to limit myself by riding on the exotic aspects of Finland. If I linked some sense of Finnishness in these works it wouldn´t really add anything essential but would only serve to restrict and limit the degree of expression. The element of something Finnish is, at most, a sense of the melancholic," Kaj Stenvall comments. He tells that he is just starting work on painting with a snowy landscape background, which is probably his first concession to his own Finnishness.

Between the comical and the tragic

Kaj Stenvall goes on to tell about his wish to open up a process with the public who come to view his pictures. In this respect he has succeeded for his duck paintings have awoken a wide range of feelings from his audience - feelings that have ranged from hilarity, through the scale, to anguish. "I am an interpreter of human emotions," he says. He is consciously working in the region between the tragic and the comical. He is fascinated by the division - the dividing line - of where the comical becomes the tragic - and the tragic becomes the comical.

"I already had at an early stage a need to disassociate myself from the 'sanctity' and 'nobility' of art. I wanted to create work that could be open to whole range of interpretation," he continues.

Many people would like to think of the duck character as a portrait of the artist himself.

"The pieces do not have any relation of connection with my own life. The duck is more of a symbol; the material of an intermediary; and a symbol of Man. The character illustrates the dilemma of being human. The duck, as such, doesn´t symbolise anything to me personally. It is used as a catalyst in the process of how it will be interpreted in the eye of the beholder."

The element of humour is an essential feature in Kaj Stenvall´s method. Humour gives licence to the viewer to distance himself from the work and then frees him from 'responsibility'. It then becomes easier for the individual to face his own emotions. The humour in his work is, above all, absurd and sarcastic.

Stenvall confesses that his pieces are open to each person to freely draw their own conclusions and build their own links to what associations can be formed from those conclusions. Each person can identify with his work according to their own individual range of experience.

A working diary on the web

"It´s emotionally easy for me to create new works because I have always had a very positive feedback from my audience. The best thing is when I find a subject, a comparison, or contrast," Stenvall adds: "When the thought opens up!"

Stenvall doesn´t really suffer from the usual anguish of creation experienced by so many artists. He doesn´t wait for some kind of inspiration to arrive, but simply gets down to work after he has got an idea of what to create and then enjoys the process of painting. An important feature and often the enjoyable part of the process is inventing a name for the piece. This often presents an extra perception, like dotting the 'i's on a piece of written text.

It has to be said that Stenvall as an artist is not only industrious but very productive, too. He can create two to three new paintings a month. He arranges fouf to five exhibitions a year in Finland and generally has at least one exhibition abroad annually.

His paintings are in great demand in art museums for both permanent exhibitions as well as travelling art shows. In addition to the exhibition of his works in Finland, his art has been on show in Holland, Denmark and Luxembourg. His paintings have been bought in Sweden, England, Spain and the USA.

But anyone, anywhere in the world can get familiar with the range of his work through his own website on the Internet, which features virtually his complete production to date. The artist has put together almost the whole duck series of paintings from 1989 on, which covers 372 works.

The site includes an open diary of work together with recently completed paintings. In his latest series he has taken a stand as an artist on topical events such as the September 11th catastrophe in New York. In two pieces the duck, as a symbol of Man, is shown lost and drowning in the devastated ruins.

Kaj Stenvall is often asked whether he is becoming a little tired of the duck character and when he intends to substitute another character in its place? The answer to this enquiry is that he sees no reason to look for a substitute. There is, after all, a lot to be said for the Duck!

Text Liisa Joensuu
Photos Kari Lehtinen and Kaj Stenvall

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