The English
texts with the illustrations are from W.F. Kirby's translation of the Kalevala (1907)


  The artist Hannu Väisänen, who has illustrated a new edition   of the Kalevala, describes his approach to the epic

The Kalevala is above all a book of songs. Even collected between two covers, it is a reminder of tradition passed on through singing. Memory grows vigilant when it receives the support of melody and rhyme. Even when a long poem is sung to a short tune, the poem seems only to be enriched. The poetic image is constantly submerged in its own reflection, bringing the Kalevala its typical crossings over, recurrent mirror images and symmetries. It underlines the core of the Kalevala, its unique poetic metre. The tetrametric trochee functions to strengthen both memory and musicality.
     How to describe the rhythm of rune-singing without simply drawing a picture of someone opening their mouth? The transposition of music into image can really only be suggestive. The place of a image in time and space is, after all, quite different from that of music. And one of the characteristics of the image is silence.

I have taken the Kalevala's metre as the basis of my own illustrations and made my compositions in search of its metrical rules. I have included in my pictures objects, abstract and figurative forms in a way that does not recall any event, but mimics rhythm and musical tensions. These compositional tools have been both objects designed by myself and found objects. A form cut out of cardboard or some object in my possession has functioned as a template for my search for the screen of metre in the picture-space. My own hand, too, with its syllable-counting fingers, has sometimes acted as a template in this way.
     I have deliberately left the doings, love-adventures and wild-goose chases of the Kalevala's heroes unillustrated. The descriptions of the making of soap, charms for diseases, feasts celebrating the killing of a bear, the dance of the smith's tongs, the movement of the shuttle and of the loom - activity in general - are every bit as important in the search for the mythic level of the Kalevala.
     I have not drawn imagined faces for the heroes. That would have seemed like cropping the imaginations of both the hero and the reader. Because drawing up an allegory for national sentiment is not among my tasks, I have not consciously sought to include 'Karelian' material in my work. Quite the contrary: I have deliberately sought links between the Kalevala and other great epics and cultures. These links are well-known, and develop the universal, everywhere adaptable map of the Kalevala.
     Without borrowing directly from the any known imagery, I have tried to gather together those visual experiences that different cultures have awoken in me. I have placed time, place and plot behind my syllabic images. In shaping the story itself, the reader must go back to the text. And to song. The more one reads the Kalevala, the more one realises that song is not only power or an embellishment of life or a value. It is a necessity.
     Why a necessity?
     Where a book appears to call a halt to the passing on of the oral tradition by recording it, rune-singing - with its constantly changing rules - keeps its image of the world in a syncretic state, and in motion.
     Rather than being merely a reading experience, the Kalevala should awaken the need to tell in song. I dare say this, even though I have been working on illustrations to the Kalevala for almost two years. It is true that we have now been living for almost three generations without rune-singing. Our mental image of the Kalevala has shrunk to the characters created by the artists of the turn of the century and to the compulsory Kalevala we read at school.
     The Kalevala tries to clothe itself in a plot. But the plot is tattered. The Kalevala we know was put together from such disparate material that it is reasonable to question its plot. The songs of the Kalevala were sung in different situations and the rune-singer selected his song according to the nature of the situation. Lönnrot himself admitted that he never, on his poem-gathering expeditions, heard a single entire Kalevala plot, only fragments. For this reason it is understandable that the Kalevala heroes are really torsos, compositions without any real psychological shape. Only the anti-hero Kullervo is in some sense whole.
     But why search for unnecessary wholeness where the richness of fragmentation is most rewarding? Understandings of stories and heroes vary from village to village. So do the needs that dictate who and what are to be sung about. It is precisely this which underlines the central role of the singer as a conveyer of traditions.
     An illustrator cannot retrieve the tradition of rune-singing. Even though I begin my working day by singing aloud the passage from the Kalevala which I have selected as my task, as I listen to its rhythm I am forced to note how the materiality of the image distances the immateriality of the song. Of course, this can also generate a challenge to make an image which might work like a real incantation.
 

A new special edition of Kalevala, illustrated by Hannu Väisänen, was published by Otava in 1999


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