Europe’s Edges


Rinnekangas Captures Portrait of Old Continent in All Its’Hues’

Rax Rinnekangas, a Finnish filmmaker, writer and photographer, compares artists to monks and nuns in their chapels, likening artistic creations to “prayers that make it through.”

In a show of devotion to that theme, Rinnekangas created “Art in Artists,” his life-size portraits of the artists he reputedly traveled “a million miles all across Europe” to meet and photograph. Those travels also produced the smaller, multi-visual “Európia” series, a portrait of the Old Continent and its utopias.

Both “Európia” and “Art in Artists” are currently on display at the Embassy of Finland as part of the “Hues of Europe” exhibition—and there could be few more appropriate settings for Rinnekangas’s European reflections. Built in 1994 and designed by Finnish architects, the embassy, which is one of Washington’s most visited, seems to arise magically from its wooded surroundings on Massachusetts Avenue along Observatory Circle.

Standing on the open lower level’s blond-wood floors with sunlight gushing in through the glass walls, one has the feeling of being outside while inside. And so Rinnekangas’s monks and nuns find themselves in a chapel dedicated to nature—totally in keeping with this photographer’s love of the more rural Europe that one must “leave the traffic” to uncover.

Rinnekangas was born in Lapland, Finland, but now lives in a small town in Germany. In 1984 he moved to San Sebastián, Spain, for four years and became interested in Basque politics and culture—a move he calls life changing.

In an interview at the exhibition opening, Rinnekangas passionately talked about his fascination with European countries that he describes as “being on the edge of Europe,” as well as his particular interest in “Mother Russia,” which is reflected in the exhibition’s multimedia installation “Európia.”

This multi-talented artist is delightfully humorous—describing Germany and France as stuck in a “historic marriage that would never end,” with Germany as the husband and France the wife. But Rinnekangas is clearly not interested in the beaten European track because for him, there is another, more intriguing Europe outside of Paris and Berlin. Going so far as to call the European Union a “trick” for smaller nations, he was straightforward in expressing his concerns that his “Old Continent” was in danger of losing its character as the bloc’s influence grows.

Rinnekangas was particularly drawn to the eclectic subjects he photographed for the “Art in Artists” show, noting that some were born before World War II and the effects of that war and the Holocaust could clearly be seen on some of their faces. All of the artists worked in a variety of media, from painting and sculpture to graphic design and textiles, and came from all walks of life—Russia, Spain, Hungary, Finland, Italy, Kosovo, Slovakia, Iceland and France—with some widely known and others strictly local. Despite the range in backgrounds, Rinnekangas described all of the artists as being “of the same blood”—that is to say, devoted to their craft.

There is one marvellous photograph of a nude male Finnish performance artist sitting in an open China cabinet. In Rinnekangas’s view, “sometimes un-success is a big success” and that sentiment permeates these photographs, which capture hard-working artists outside rural studios and in non-elegant settings, but always surrounded by their work. There is accompanying text for each photograph with Rinnekangas’s take on the artist and his or her work, adding a storytelling aspect to the show.

In Rinnekangas’s opinion, for many Americans, “Europe is a cliché that includes 10 places.” He hopes “Art in Artists” will give some Americans a broader view of Europe and the opportunity to “make contact with their grandfathers’ land.”

Although “Art in Artists” is the dominant part of the exhibition, the multimedia “Európia” is well worth catching. Presented in a small side room off the main exhibition floor, the audiovisual display of 97 color images features designed conceptual sound reality and musical elements. Subtitled “An Intimate Look at Another Europe,” the show includes both horrific scenes of Nazi concentration camps, as well as wonderful photographs of everyday contemporary European life.

In one scene, a decked-out bride in her white dress waits in front of a taxi on a rural road. In another, people stand in their various homes—not luxurious dwellings but hardscrabble lodgings. But the most compelling images are found in “The Other Russia” and “Nordic” sections. Here, a smiling blond man happily plays his accordion in a goldenly lit field, looking like he might break into dance at any moment. Peasant women with scarved heads stare curiously at the camera. Two rows of birch trees beckon one to walk the path between them, and a pair of abandoned boots on ice-packed ground suggests what a Nordic winter might be like to the uninitiated traveler.

This exhibition isn’t about a Europe of fine wines, tourist traps, hotels and restaurants. Rather, as Rinnekangas framed it, the exhibit is “a little bit smelling blood, sweat and tears.” It’s the “Europe behind the headlines”—the Europe from which many Americans came.

Hues of Europe through April 16 Embassy of Finland 3301 Massachusetts Ave., NW For more information, please call (202) 298-5822 or visit

About the Author

Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.