Seppo Heiskanen introduces
the popular illustrator
Mauri Kunnas, whose lovable canine characters have
ensured that his work has been translated into
The wild ones: Mauri Kunnas's interpretation
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',
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
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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