Mauri Kunnas

Irmeli Jung





  Seppo Heiskanen introduces the popular illustrator
  Mauri Kunnas, whose lovable canine characters have
  ensured that his work has been translated into
  twenty languages

The wild ones: Mauri Kunnas's interpretation of
Akesis Kivi's classic Seven Brothers

Seitsemän veljestä (Seven Brothers, 1870) became the foundation of Finnish fiction – and remains a steady seller. Aleksis Kivi's novel tells of seven brothers living in the province of Häme, who come into conflict with organised society and its laws. They flee to the midst of the wilderness, but return years later to the village community to read and learn as proper citizens.
     The story of Kivi's brothers alternates comedy and seriousness in an entrancing way. The same boisterous exuberance and seriousness in face of difficulty has been incorporated by the writer and illustrator Mauri Kunnas (born 1950) in his own interpretation: his seven canine brothers are at the same time comical and dignified. They escape the school bench and become embroiled in village fights, but at the same time build a house and cultivate their land. Kunnas has created characterful canine figures out of the novel's main characters: the character types and even external features of the original models are easily recognisable in Seitsemän koiraveljestä ('Seven dog brothers', Otava, 2002).
     Kunnas began his career as a strip-cartoon artist and political caricaturist, and his first book was indeed a compilation of his political work. He has, however, popular through his children's books, above all his canine characters, humanised animal gures. Kunnas's breakthrough came with his Koiramäen talossa ('The Doghill Farm', 1980). The work tells, with the accuracy of a treatise on folklore studies, of life in a country farmhouse at the end of the 19th century.
     The books describing the lives of the inhabitants of Doghill delighted both children and adults; numerous reprints have been made. Kunnas has illustrated and written a total of more than forty books, and his international success has been considerable: there are almost one hundred translations of his books.
     Kunnas has also broached other grand narratives. In Koirien Kalevala (The Canine Kalevala), the mythical heroes of the Finnish national epic take on canine form. Kuningas Artturin ritarit (King Arthur's Tails), on the other hand, are cats; and Arthur's kingdom of Britain has also, in Kunnas's hands, changed into the shape of a cat. The story of Buffalo Bill may also be considered a grand narrative; Kunnas has transformed it into his own dog version, Puhveli-Billin lännensirkus (Buffalo Bill's Wild West Circus). Outside Finland, of course, Kunnas's most popular figure is Father Christmas.
     Kunnas creates both expressive animals and people. He is also an accurate and skilful delineator of different environments and their objects. In Koiramäen talo, the farmyard and interiors are faithfully depicted: the dogs toil away at their everyday tasks, ploughing, sowing, harvesting, threshing or shearing sheep. In the evenings, life at Doghill is filled with craftwork carried out by candlelight. But high days are present too, with singing and dancing, swings and sleigh-rides.
     In Seitsemän koiraveljestä the Finnish pine heath, meadows, ridges and hills form an impressive environment for the brothers' journeys and adventures. Illustrations of the hills of the brothers' refuge, Impivaara, bring vividly to mind the crisp frosts of the Finnish winter. The handsome landscapes form part of the narrative of Kunnas's book.
     The children of Doghill, too, go to the town. In Koiramäen Martta ja tiernapojat ('Doghill Martha and the carol singers'), the town is recognisable as Porvoo on Finland's south coast, whose old quarter has preserved its mediaeval appearance; the houses are wooden, only the church and a couple of administrative buildings are made of stone. Kunnas's landscapes, interiors and objects have demanded a great deal of research. For the Doghill illustrations, he investigated dress, food, building and even re-lighting in the late 19th century. He has studied the forest and wilderness through photography.
     It was the central artist of the golden age of Finnish art, Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865–1931) who gave the Kalevala its visual form: when we think of Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen, Lemminkäinen or the forging and plundering of the sampo, the drowning of Aino or Kullervo's departure for war, Finns think of Gallen-Kallela's Kalevala paintings. For us, those paintings form a natural part of the national epic. In his Koirien Kalevala, Mauri Kunnas has cleverly exploited our deeply rooted images of the characters of the Kalevala, taking a Gallen-Kallela painting as his starting point for many of his own images. The replacement of the mythical heroes of the paintings with canine figures brings them a delicious humour, but at the same time they direct the young reader toward the classics of Finnish painting.
     Kunnas has also used old Finnish paintings in other ways. He says he has found in them information about how old roof structures were built or how a horse was harnessed. Kunnas also says he has borrowed details from old paintings, a heap of stones, a sky or smoke rising from a pipe. The reader can experience the joy of discovery as he uncovers such details.
     Mauri Kunnas has created an original world in his books. He does not really have any Finnish models or predecessors. He is closest, particularly as an illustrator, to the American artist Richard Scarry; like him, Kunnas tells children, through animal figures, stories and truths about people's lives then and now.
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