The artist Eero Nelimarkka’s (1891–1977) oil painting Rustic Figures from 1917 brings a smile to the lips of many Finnish art lovers. There is something humorous in the work, even though the painting conveys a rather grey and gloomy atmosphere.
When working on the painting, the artist mainly had on his palette grey, brown and black tones. In addition, the stout wife standing in the foreground seems a bit grumpy. Something is annoying her.
Is the woman’s bad temper related in some way to the man standing with his back turned to her? What might be the reason for the woman’s bad mood, and why has the man been depicted at a distance with his back turned?
Although there is physical distance between the couple, the artist has arranged things so that they are close together. It is as if the woman and the man belong together. In the painting, there is a widening strip of grey sky between them, the edge of a forest on the horizon, an area of wintry field and a picket fence – as well as a bottle protruding from the man’s pocket.
The bottle of spirits may be the key to interpreting the work, because to those who know Finland’s alcohol culture it goes without saying that it is precisely this bottle that is the reason for the discord between the man and the woman.
Eero Nelimarkka painted the work in 1917, the year of Finland’s independence. In the same year, the artist also painted another work Announcement, Declaration of Finland’s Independence 1917, which belongs to a private collection. It depicts rural inhabitants who have gathered to read a notice fixed to a red-earth building, telling them about the creation of the independent Finnish state and nation. The painting features the same female figure and man with the spirits bottle seen in the Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation’s work Rustic Figures.
In Finland’s history, the nationalist struggle and alcohol are linked. From the late 1800s, the temperance movement, and also later, from the early 1900s, the call for prohibition were a key part of the struggle for independence. When Finland became independent in 1917 and the young republic began to decide things for itself, the country’s parliament voted a Prohibition Act into force.
The Prohibition Act was in force in Finland from 1919 to 1932. The purpose of the act was to impose sobriety on all Finns. Abstinence and prohibition was strongly supported by women in particular. For all men, however, staying sober was evidently not a self-evident state of affairs.