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The Mysticism of Sámi Art

By Linda Curfs (Hanna)

In the time before settlers changed the face of the country, the Sámi had a relationship to the land that might never be recreated. For thousands of years they lived in close contact with the earth. Their art was inspired by nature; their lives were lived in accordance with nature. Between people and nature there was no clear distinction, for each was part of the other, and all parts were sacred. What the Sámi heard were some of life’s most basic lessons: all motions are circular; no action is free of consequence; all life begins from the ground beneath their feet; and for human beings, solace comes from alignment with natural forces, not from the attempt to conquer, overcome, or bend those forces to one’s will.

Life close to nature was not always idyllic. People experienced hunger and discomfort; work was hard; enemies attacked. Like a stern but loving parent, the earth provided not only pleasurable things, but hard lessons, tests of courage, strength, endurance and patience.

Life was a mystical adventure, a continuous ceremony lived in a landscape that itself had spirit. The Sámi valued nature. Death was seen as an intrinsic part of life, as was the taking of plants and animals. The killing of an animal such as a reindeer or a bear for the purpose of survival was never done without care. From that caring came gratitude and a firm sense of one’s place in the great, mysterious circle of life. The Sámi understood that from the earth comes life, and that all life sustains all other life, because all beings are threads in the same great fabric.

To the Sámi, religion, art and daily life are all the same thing. In fact, art is not a strictly accurate term, since, according to Harald Gaski in “Sami Culture in a New Era,” art for the Sámi is more abstract and not for practical purposes (10). Art is life. The two are inseparable. “A life lived in balance is a work of art, and any object made by a balanced person is an object of art. Or to put it another way, an artfully crafted object reflects the true path of life being walked by its creator” (Hall, 184).

Sámi art is regarded as part of a greater whole and not viable in its own right to be defined as “fine art.” The greater whole in this case is the culture, the lifestyle and the history. Some believe that Sámi art maintains a cultural context from which it cannot be separated. Some believe that the art cannot be disconnected from the life of the people who made it; that no individual Sámi art can stand on its own merits in a museum of art, but would fit effectively in a museum of culture. Therefore, if it is exhibited in a museum, there must be a label to explain what is depicted, and/or what it was used for, and what the hidden meaning is behind it (Varnedoe 23).

Furthermore, art has a voice. It is created with the imagination and is just as much a part of human make-up as are the tongue, the mouth, larynx and lungs with which we speak. Art heightens our awareness of the world around us; it can say something about what society is doing, what it has done and is capable of doing. A free society is kept in check by critics and visionaries, some of whom are artists.

Sámi art is about society; it is about life; it is about culture, and it is also about change. It is a spiritual aspect that is better understood by the artist than by any other, because of the continuity with centuries-old traditions. Living cultures do not stagnate. They change and develop, but those which are long lasting also maintain tradition. Through art the traditions of the Sámi will endure. In order to understand this one would have to arrive at a better understanding of what “tradition” means. “The Anglo world insists on viewing tradition as an entity, as a body of information that is almost tactile, a sort of collection “handed down,” as the dictionary says” (Coe 46). The Sámi view is that tradition, like time, cannot be measured. It exists within everything, a sort of wholeness that man touches at every point, but particularly when he is in a ritualistic state. Tradition is more than custom, belief, or myth. It is something the Sámi step into in order to be themselves.

The fundamental way in which an art tradition is manifested, through its forms and designs, is a singular development. Sámi artists may talk about technique, methods, quality, but they most likely will not mention style. Only one entity is sufficiently vast and permanent to relate to the unstated concept of Sámi tradition: nature. “This is not nature limited to its physical forms and environmental cycles, but natured viewed as a force that cannot be transgressed if man is to survive” (Stewart 179). So in their daily lives, in their yoiks, and the shamanistic rituals, the Sámi sought harmony with the land, the sun, the cycles of growth, decay, and renewal of which they are part. They established an exquisite harmony between their own existence and nature’s round. While the westerner seeks to dominate nature, the Sámi seeks to live with nature. The Sámi artist, mindful of tradition, seeks to “center himself” in the balance of nature which extends outward in ever-widening circles to where the sky takes over and to the stars beyond. The artist seeks congruity with these circles of power and sacredness, which are boundless.

Sámi have long relied on symbolisms and signs for guidance and instructions of various capacities of everyday life, and to document important events, including celestial and natural phenomena, various rites of passage, the creation stories and the history of the people. Regarding their surroundings with the greatest attention to the smallest details, they coaxed life out of the often hostile conditions of the Arctic region. Reading cloud formations and change in wind patterns, they anticipated changes in weather and tracked the movement of the reindeer and the wild animals. “There is an order to the rhythms of nature: there is water, ever changing but changeless; the sky, forever fixed by an agent of change; the sun and the moon – all the inexorable rhythms, always returning, always remaining” (Dewey 159). Tradition, Sámi tradition, is the symbiosis between man and nature. It ignores time in favor of continuity. It is not intellect, but heart.

As the basic survival of the Sámi depended heavily upon their ability to negotiate the environment and interpret the information contained therein, learning to read signs and symbols was a fundamental part of the Sámi experience. It was part of their history, thereby encouraging the development of their cosmology and ensuring the continuum of culture. Of course, reading signs and symbols only went so far. One had to interpret them carefully and act accordingly. Today, many artists use traditional symbols in a diverse array of non-traditional contemporary genres.

No matter what the Sámi artist does – painting, sculpting, woodcuts – there almost always seems to be a deep-seated identification with land and forest, clouds, sun and energy, life and growth, all symbolized in his or her art. In much of Sámi art in the early twentieth century to the present time, the past seems to be reconstructed as justification of the present. This is probably one reason why innovation inevitably joins the “tradition” matrix—as long as the basic culture is strong enough to absorb the impact of new materials. The Sámi artists are aware that an art form, like a developing personality, can extend beyond one generation; in fact, it can take an indefinite time to be fulfilled. As the artists mentioned next, with mind and spirit, they continue to keep their age-old covenant with their ways and the land. They manage to bring forth vividly the past into the present.

John Savio (1902-1938), considered to be one of the leading Sámi artists in the Arctic, was born in Bugøyfjord in northern Norway, a small picturesque fishing village bounded by fjords and valleys. Orphaned at two, he was raised by his grandfather, one of the wealthiest reindeer herders in the district. He enrolled in the National Art School in Oslo, but his delicate health forced him to return north to Kirkenes before graduating. During the 30s he painted in Paris, earning critical praise. But burdened by poverty and ill health he returned to Oslo where he sold his woodcuts on the streets for whatever they would bring. His last years were marked by poverty and melancholy. He died of tuberculosis when he was only 36.

According to John Gustavsen, John Savio’s early art “expressed a vivid imagination that was clearly evident in his drawings, that often had their ideas taken from newspaper items, current events, and persons appearing in the newspaper.” In his later art, John Savio’s circle of motifs was slowly evolving and becoming his artistic signature: the reindeer, the lonely man in cooperation with nature, the threatening forces—death and the wolf. Like Sámi art in general, Savio’s art mysticism breaks down into something not apparent and the truth or belief is something that is hidden. It is so indistinguishably intertwined with the supernatural experience and the past that the mysticism of his art can easily be translated as an experience outside of oneself.

Savio’s art weaves its spell. His artistic mysticism is shaped by the characteristics of his personal experience and nature. Evident in his art are the various periods of his life because the art changes with his mindset. His woodcuts depict everything he saw, felt, heard or touched – understanding them to be the “art in earthly existence.” He set about to create art that expressed his perception of the continuation of nature within the inner self as well as the life of the Sámi. Like the yoik, Savio’s work employs a deliberately hidden and coded symbolism, which can usually be understood on the simplest level as an elaboration of a folk belief—especially to “outsiders.” On the other hand, they allegorically express some universal human experience or dilemma. The inner principle is universal; the art is purely Sámi.

Sami Couple
Sami Couple

Per Fokstad said that Savio was hunting for the original Sámi feature, and he was close to finding it. In my opinion, Savio found it. The original Sámi feature is not just one single element, but many elements combined. Fokstad mentions that Savio drew the reindeer with the “mark of death in their eyes” which symbolized the anxiety the Sámi were feeling in terms of the intrusion of the “outsiders” and the assimilation they were experiencing. However, Savio also represented in his art (e.g. “Sámi Couple”) warmth and love albeit with a prevailing mood of subtle melancholy. His illustration of the life and strength of the Sámi women prevails in his “Madonna” – the females which appear in his artwork.

John Savio’s woodcuts can be considered primitive and not fine art, as defined by collectors and curators. Yet, they emphasize man’s vulnerability. Furthermore, a form of nature mysticism runs throughout his woodcuts. Nature is seen as the expression of the life-force and as the repository of essential values, in contrast to the shallowness and artificiality of “urban civilization.” At times, the meaning of the art is enriched by comparatively explicit symbols, such as the reindeer and the wolf illustrated in his woodcut entitled “Wolf, Sámi, Reindeer.”

Wolf, Sami, Reindeer

Savio's portraits reflect strong personal feelings, because they were of people he knew and loved, such as his friends and neighbors, Sámi, the reindeer herders and hunters. Like many other Sámi artists, John Savio was a nomad and this notion of mobility was transferred to his artwork. As mentioned by Gustavsen, Savio “unstoppingly hunted for the understanding of connections and reasons.”

Andreas Alariesto (b. 1900 Sodankylä, d. 1989, Sodankylä) was a very gifted person. His lifetime work consists of paintings, drawings, photographs, songs and sculptures. The exoticism that we see in his paintings is partly formed by the subjective experiences and the stories he was told. In Alariesto’s “folk art” we can trace experiences from his childhood and from the surrounding nature of the past. Many of his paintings were accompanied by explanations of their contents. For Andreas Alariesto the preservation of Sámi culture was an ultimate task.

Sami preparing reindeer sled

In Alariesto’s own terms, his beautiful colorful paintings “set out to chronicle a world that had already passed, one that would fade into oblivion with his death.” Through his expressive form, embodied in art, the spiritual interests which we have in the world are stimulated and satisfied. The decorative quality of his paintings increases their mystical effect in that it enables us to perceive readily and fully, and thus encourages a harmony between ourselves and what is before us. We have “art mysticism” at its height when the harmony between the self and the world is taken as the key to all experience.

According to Thomas Dubois, Alariesto invested his time “depicting a Lapland that is being destroyed by modern development and social change, a way of life threatened by advancing modernity.” The artistic images expressed in Alariesto’s paintings underscore the tragedy of what has been lost since the early years. However, despite all the melancholia surrounding the “vanishing Sámi,” persistence through artwork such as those by Andreas Alariesto has generated renewed response to the traditional values of life. Alariesto’s paintings are reinforced by his unique style. We get the impression that they are a decoration and not a painting in the traditional sense. When first viewed, they remind the viewer of the illustrations that accompanied a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale book. The outlines are emphasized; the composition is dense. Furthermore, the colors are decorative in an unreal manner. The paintings are given an almost mythological-like air to them.

Men on Reindeer sled

Yet, in some of his other more somber paintings such as the one that represents a Sámi herder and non-Sámi prospectors, the internalized pain is brought out. Unlike the fairytale-like paintings, the feeling is more reserved and in its silent immobility, it is more intense. The work’s ethonographic details are correct, but they do not “steal” from the overall mood of melancholy.

It is obvious that Alariesto shows the world the various expressions of the Sámi: their shyness, their gentleness, their justice and their infinite relationship with nature. Through his artwork Alariesto “uses his images of a disappearing past to call attention to Sámi needs in the present. He also portrays this past as an anchor that grounds Sámi identify in the present and ensures its continuity over time despite the challenges dealt it by Nordic states” (Dubois).

No art can be fully understood when it is isolated from its cultural environment; and no art can be intelligently comprehended when considered merely as a group of objects in an ascending historical series. Rather, before such historical patterns can become important, the complete milieu of an art object must be considered in what amounts to a horizontal cross-cut of a culture at a given moment. When regarded in this manner, the true vitality and vigor of tradition and meaning implicit in an art is revealed (Szabo 121).


Coe, Ralph T. Lost and Found Traditions . New York : The American Federation of Arts, 1986.

Dubois, Thomas A. “With an end in sight: sympathetic portrayals of “vanishing” Sami life in the works of Karl Nickul and Andreas Alariesto.” Scandinavian Stu dies. 22 Jun 2003.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience . New York : Minton, Balch, 1934.

Fokstad, Per. “Dere veit ikke hvor gode de er.” Lecture in NRK . 31 Jan 63.

Gaski, Harald, ed. Sami Culture in a New Era . Finland : Ykkös-Offset Oy, Vaasa , 1997.

Gustavsen, John. John Savio: An International Artis from Sør-Varanger . Tromsø, 1994.

Hall, Edward T. The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time . New York : Doubleday Anchor Press, 1984.

Stewart, George R. Man, An Autobiography . New York : Random House, 1946.

Szabo, Joyce M. Painters, Patrons and Identity . Alburquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.

Varnedoe, Kirk. Northern Light: Nordic Art at the Turn of the Century . New Haven : Yale University Press, 1988.