Ernst Mether-Borgström: The brave pioneer of abstraction | EMMA - Espoo Museum of Modern Art

EMMA - Espoo Museum of Modern Art

EMMA - Espoo Museum of Modern Art is one of the biggest museums in Finland.

Ernst Mether-Borgström: The brave pioneer of abstraction


Modernism slowly paved its way into Finnish visual arts, and Ernst Mether-Borgström (1917-1996) hesitated for long before opting for a fully abstract imagery. Although cautious and deliberate by nature, he was openly curious about new influences and intently followed that which was taking place in the international field: His Swedish skills enabled him to monitor Nordic newspapers, the bookstores often sold international art books, and countless field trips into, France, Italy and the US, among others, played an important role in how his style developed.

At first, Mether-Borgström was sceptical of the theoretical nature dictated by abstract periods. He did not consider himself a theoretician, and instead wanted to base what he did on intuition and emotional expression. He was afraid that excessive method would break the connection with intuition. Mether-Borgström is, however, considered a natural pioneer of Finnish abstract art, with his first abstract works dating back to the 1940s.

Ernst Mether-Borgström, Circus pony, 1948. Ernst Mether-Borgström Foundation Collection. Photo: Yehia Eweis / EMMA


Mether-Borgström actively participated in exhibitions, both in his home country and abroad, during six different decades. He was first known primarily as a graphic artist, although he painted during his entire career. He never abandoned graphics, which played an important part in many turning points of his career, supporting him in developing his expression.

Colour played an increasingly important role in Mether-Borgström’s production, making up the single most important component of his works in the last decades. In his artworks, he explored how different colours impact each other, how they are intuitively experienced, and surrender to them. Shedding light on this notion and conveying it to the audience has been a major precept in displaying this exhibition’s works and planning its architecture.

The works in this EMMA exhibition have been hung in mainly chronological order. The exhibition presents the artist’s long and versatile career as well as the space allows. The artist’s personal archive material, sketches and plans from the advertisement graphic artist period have also been included. The character documentary Puhun koiralleni-koirani vastaa (I speak to my dog – my dog answers), produced by EMMA for the exhibition, is a reflection of the artist’s personality.


Examining the first works of the exhibition reveals that Mether-Borgström slowly moved away from representational subjects through a slow abstraction of subjects. A figurative implementation gave way to geometric basic elements, which also increased the sizes of the paintings and made the use of colours more diverse. In the late 1960s he gave up landscape painting, something he had regarded as important until then, and focused on improving an abstract design language. At the same time, he also did his first experiments with sculptures. He secured an income with the help of portrait orders and partly public works all the way until the 1980s.

In the 1970s and 80s, he established his own style, when he reached a clarity of expression and started the use of strong, fresh colours. Gouaches, which Mether-Borgström painted at his beloved summer place in Korppiholma, were of particular importance to him. They most clearly conveyed the essence of his art: a spontaneous treatment of colour and shape. Some gouaches in the exhibition have acted as sketches for larger paintings, while others stand as works on their own.

One can identify several key notions that combine the artist’s versatile production. One of them is the black line, most likely dating back to his years of working as a graphic artist in the first decades of his career. The line is repeated on the surfaces of his paintings during each decade, always with a slightly new feel and look.

“My paintings should not be regarded as a play with colour and shape, but as a powerful emotional reaction, an expression of what I am, feel, live” (Ernst Mether-Borgström wrote in his journal in 1976)

Exhibition Curator, Hanna Mamia-Walther

Photos: Ernst Mether-Borgström Foundation Collection. Photography: Yehia Eweis / EMMA