“The only good Finnish painter!”

“Lars-Gunnar Nordström is the only good Finnish painter!” This sharp characterisation was heard on a New York street at a spontaneous artist encounter in the 1970s. And the flattery was not uttered by just anyone: it was Max Bill, the Swiss artist. He was travelling in the United States to present his work and lecture on the history and theory of non-representational art. Bill was trained as a designer and architect at the famous Bauhaus school, where painting was taught by Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, both pioneers of abstract art. 

Lars-Gunnar ‘Nubben’ Nordström was Max Bill’s kindred spirit, a modern multi-talented artist and a pioneer of a new concept of art in Finland. Nordström dreamed of becoming an architect and studied furniture and interior design before becoming an artist. He became a respected figure in like-minded artistic circles in Europe and the United States, circles in which the modern world and era were interpreted through abstract imagery. 

New Images for a New Era

The ordeals of the Second World War were fresh in the minds of Nordström and other young and budding artists who had travelled to Paris in the late 1940s. Hoping for a better world, they turned their gaze towards the future and wanted to free themselves of the rules of the past and the conventions of society. In post-war Finland, Nordström’s non-mainstream and internationally oriented art was not always received with enthusiasm, and during his active years as an artist, he considered moving permanently to Sweden for better working opportunities. In fact, the country became practically a home away from home for him. Later on, however, Nordström’s life’s work received the recognition it deserves. His significance as a Finnish pioneer of abstract art is undisputed in the history of modernism. 

Music for the Eye

Essential to Nordström’s dynamic compositions are the basic elements of an image: surface, space, line, tension, direction and movement. In his non-representational work, he sought pure abstraction: for him, the image was neither a symbol nor a reduced figure of an object outside of itself. Nordström supported the concretist concept of art, according to which creating an image begins with an idea. In a work of art, the idea receives concrete form. A characteristic feature of the concretist aesthetic is that the unadorned appearance of the work is achieved through a mechanic technique that obscures the artist’s hand. Nordström has also described his art as constructivist, to emphasise the structural qualities of the image. Nubben’s abstract imagery was closely related to his other lifelong passion, jazz. He felt that visual art and music were similar in terms of experience. Just as a person can be carried away by a rhythmic chord progression, they can also become absorbed by visual compositions constructed through colour, form and repetition. Nordström composed for the eye.

Permanent Patterns

Nordström was almost religious about the non-representational language of form he developed, which remained recognisably the same from decade to decade. As a more mature artist, he was not well-disposed to the experiments of young colleagues excited by new artistic trends. Nordström was fascinated by the endless variations of colour, line and shape. For him, abstract painting, printmaking and sculpture were ways to accelerate the transformation of the modern world. In 1974, Nordström wrote the following in the Taide art magazine:

“Constructivist art is a leitmotif that influences the development of art throughout our era and although it has been declared dead many times, it is the only one that not only is not a temporary visitor in art, but truly alive – and will continue to be alive.”

A Lover of Freedom

For Nordström, the most important value in life was freedom. It enabled him to devote himself completely to art. Nubben never married or had a family, although he did have close relationships over the years. He would immerse himself in work for hours, and money was sometimes scarce. With his small income, he would rather buy art supplies and travel the world to discover art than be a bourgeois consumer.

Nubben’s childlike, playful enthusiasm for visual arts and jazz was admired by the public. He is remembered for his endearing charm and instant good humour. Moss green was Nordström’s favourite colour. This preference was reflected in his art, the interior of his home and his clothes. The artist also had a beard that followed his chin, which distinguished him from the smooth-chinned masses. Nordström made himself into an artist who embraced modernity, a lover of the modern world and freedom.

Oscar Ortiz-Nieminen, PhD, MTh

The article is based on the biography published in Nubben – Lars-Gunnar Nordström and the artist’s introduction in the EMMA magazine in 2015.