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  • “Bring the artist to the composing room!”:Text and Image in Aaro Hellaakoski’s Concept of Book Arts1
  • Veijo Pulkkinen
    Translated by Sirpa Vehviläinen

When the Finnish poet Aaro Hellaakoski (1893–1952) browsed the newly published issue of the journal Aitta (Granary) in October 1929 to see his own series of poems Lentoposti (Airmail) published, he was shocked to find his text completely surrounded by illustrations (Hellaakoski 1929b, 16–7). The text had been divided on the pages of the spread in compliance with the author’s wishes, so that the more humorous verses were placed on the left-hand page and the more serious ones on the right-hand page. Hellaakoski, however, had not been told anything about the series of poems being illustrated, and the illustrations had not been sent to him for his approval. In a letter written for the following issue of the journal, Hellaakoski does not hide his annoyance:

“Koristelu” sekä kokonaisuudessaan että yksityiskohdiltaan saattaa tekstinkin sellaiseen valoon, että terveellä arvostelukyvyllä varustettu lukija kääntää sille inhoten selkänsä. Viittaan vain esim. kehys-irvistelyn [End Page 332] viimeiseen kuvaan, jossa nähdään hirsipuu, hirtetty nainen arkussaan ynnä muuta sellaista, jota kynäni kieltäytyy mainitsemasta—kaikki kuitenkin asioita, joilla ei ole mitään aihepohjaa tekstissä.

Koristelijan harjoittama tekstin väärintulkinta on jo sinänsä skandaali. Vielä katkerampaa on tekstin tekijän nähdä joutuneensa tahtomattaan osalliseksi mitä törkeimpään naisen ja naisellisuuden solvaukseen.

(Hellaakoski 1929a, 54)

(“The illustration” as a whole and in detail also puts the text in such a light that any reader with a sound judgment will turn from it in disgust. I am just referring to, for example, the last image of the frame grimace, in which we see the gallows, a hanged woman in her coffin, and some other things that my pen refuses to mention—all of them yet things that are not at all based on the text.

The misinterpretation of the text by the illustrator alone is a scandal. It is even more bitter for the author to see that he, unwillingly, is involved in insulting women and femininity in a most outrageous way.)

Illustrating a text without the author’s approval is certainly enough to upset the author, but we can understand Hellaakoski’s aggravated reaction even better if we know that he was particularly strongly opposed to the illustration of literary works. Even though the editorial staff of Aitta was clearly not aware of Hellaakoski’s opinion, it was no secret. Since 1917, Hellaakoski had published polemic commentaries, book reviews, and a couple of general essays, in which he principally discusses the decoration of books with the means of illustration and typography.2 These writings convey an in-depth aesthetic view on the relationship between literary text, illustration, and typography.

These texts on book arts have not previously been considered in depth in the research on Hellaakoski.3 Therefore, Hellaakoski’s [End Page 333] negative attitude toward the illustration of literary works may come as a surprise to contemporary readers as well. Hellaakoski was actually known for his great interest in the visual arts. He wrote art criticism and published several essays on painting and sculpture. He was also an amateur painter himself, even though he did not want to expose his hobby to the public.

Hellaakoski’s writings on book arts are particularly important from the point of view of his modernistic poetry collection Jääpeili (1928; Ice Mirror). The experimental typography and other such avant-gardist devices used in this work make it a pioneer of modernist poetry written in Finnish. Finland had to wait until the 1960s for a corresponding experimental approach. Hellaakoski never explained the experimental typography of Jääpeili in more than a couple of sentences. His writings on book arts are therefore highly significant in illuminating his ideas on typography and the relationship between images and words.

Hellaakoski’s strict view on the relationship between images and words seems, at first, to be contradictory, taking into account the fact that he himself wrote visual poetry. However, after a closer look, this impression proves to be wrong. I will demonstrate in this article that Hellaakoski’s...


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