Hugo Simberg, Dark Optimist

It is one of those rare cloudy , drizzly days here in the City of Angels; on my “desktop” sits Simberg’s Garden of Death , I felt today may be a good day to explore this Finnish master.

Simberg, best known for his themes of Death, the Devil, and Youth, seems to grapple with notions concerning  mortality, the very  joy of breathing, and the ever present specter of decay. Although I at  times feel uncomfortable with his very young and very nude young boys, they may very simply depict Innocence. I must remember to look at his painting through the prism of his culture.

What is very apparent is the wit in which he depicts themes that in less capable hands would have resorted to mere macabre cliche.

Garden of Death


oil on canvas

Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

Peasant and Death at the Gates of Heaven and Hell


Two watercolors glued on canvas

Finnish National Gallery

Self Portrait


b. 24th of June 1873

d. 12th July 1917

From the following  1896 photo with his sister Blenda (which he snapped himself with a time release camera)  I sense a charming joy that he seems unable to contain. That joy resurfaces time and again with his impish Devils and goofy depictions of somber Death.

Hugo and Blenda Simberg


They really are both too adorable, love her cap.

Devil by the Pot



Finnish National Gallery

In 1904 he receives the commission to decorate the interior of the Evangelical Lutheran Saint John’s Church , the Garden of Death will appear as a fresco, more subtle, but just as delightful and just as haunting.

Garden of Death



Tampere Cathedral, Finland

It is within this sacred space we see Simberg further explore his themes of Death and Youth. His imagery is fresh and new, yet harkens to traditional church decoration. His Garden of Death, not unlike medieval depiction of the Final Judgement, the difference with Simberg’s work is you smile as you shudder.

The Garland of Life frieze stands in sharp contrast to his flower culling skeletons.

Garland of Life



One would assume the boys we see in his frieze decoration are inspired by his early photography of young boys. These are the images that cause me to pause with discomfort.

Guido, Fish Boy


Whatever truth lies behind the images, innocent or tainted, the frieze is indeed spectacular.

The ceiling decoration recalls to this author the great Dragon motif of Brighton Pavilion.

Snake Fresco



For a tour of the interior, please check out the following clip, the quality is quite poor, but gives a good sense of the relationship to the work and the architecture, which is surprisingly conventional. 

Tampere Cathedral /St John’s Church

completed 1907

Simberg is best known for his painting the Wounded Angel, but he created a large body of work that is well worth examining.

Wounded Angel


oil on canvas

Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

Dance on the Quay




Syksy I


Syksy II


I find inspiration in Simberg’s work, I hope to research his life more deeply; my cursory exploration has unearthed scant information.

Until then, I sign off with this final image, one I enjoy immensely, as I have a great fondness for peacock decorated fabric, puppets AND starlings, what more can one ask for?



If I have unintentionally screwed up spelling of titles, location, etc., please pardon my ignorance and indicate where I have erred.

Have a marvelous sunday, the clouds have broken in LA, I will now go out for a quick run.

Take care, 

Babylon Baroque


7 Responses to “Hugo Simberg, Dark Optimist”

  1. How do you find such amazing works?

    • babylonbaroque Says:

      I’m happy you enjoyed the post,I had hoped you would admire the church decoration.
      take care,

  2. Love that 1896 snapshot- informal images from that era are so rare that I think we get a false idea of how seriousness the Victorians were!

  3. babylonbaroque Says:

    I agree, I think perhaps because he was the photographer and had control of the image he captured what he sought. I prefer this candid moment to his art photography for as I mentioned they creep me out, a bit too pedo.
    I do however really love stiff formal portrait studio shots with their extravagant props and painted backdrops, would love a revival of that.
    Take care,

  4. An interesting artist (and a great post!). That self-portrait is just gorgeous…

    • babylonbaroque Says:

      Oh I am pleased, I really love his work. and yes the portrait is marvelous, would be great fun to go about in that garb.
      Take care,

  5. I have loved Simberg’s work since I was a little girl. I am lucky to be living in Tampere, so I can see those paintings whenever I want and I have also been to an art exhibition solely based on Simberg’s work (and several other exhibitions that have featured some of his paintings). My absolute favourite is the Garden of Death.

    We Finns generally have (and always have had) a lot more open relantionship to nudity than Americans. Maybe that has something to do with our sauna-culture: we go to sauna and skinny dipping regularly with our families and even strangers at public saunas and that starts at very young age.

    At the time the fresco was painted, there was quite a bit of controversy regarding the paintings. But I think it is telling, that the biggest controversy regarded the Snake fresco, it was seen as depictment of evil and wholly unsuitable for a church.

    That being said, there were a lot of debates about the naked boys as well, there were demands that the boys should be clothed after the painting was already finished.

    The boys are named after the twelve apostles and are made by using live models. The models were from Tampere as well, regular children from working class families and they were payed 25 pennies per hour. They were carrying a garland that was made from green fabric filled with straw.

    The garland itself is a symbol for life and how some are carrying it with ease, while others carry it with difficulty. There are also roses and thorns on the garland.

    I myself have never seen anything pedo about the paintings and neither have anyone else that I know. There hasn’t been any controversy about it since the initial debate and I hope there never will be.

    (The facts are from the official webpages of Tampere and Tampere university)

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