The Doors of Life

The roots of Elena Schuvaloff-Maijala´s very existence lay in art and beauty and why not pleasure, too.

Elena Schuvaloff-Maijala´s grandfather Alexander was a wealthy Russian chocolate confectioner from St Petersburg. The Schuvaloff chocolate factory was one of the oldest and best-known in all Russia.

Elena´s grandmother Antonina Antonova was passionate about art. Elena´s mother Marina Akutin was a painter. One of the Schuvaloff family´s neighbours among the dachas in Kuokkala was the great painter Ilya Repin. Over the years, the great friendship between the two families turned into a kind of patronage by the Schuvaloffs. The chocolate manufacturer supported Repin financially, buying his works, acting as his agent and selling them. Alexander Schuvaloff´s son and Elena´s father Nikolai continued the tradition after his father´s death in 1929.

Nikolai became a businessman, an art salesman who also bought gold, silver, jewellery and antiques. It fell to Nikolai to support Repin. When the time came, Nikolai arranged Repin´s funeral and assisted Repin´s children, Yuri and Vera.

The walls of Elena´s childhood home displayed the most important works by Ilya Repin, the priceless treasures of Russian pictorial art.

The secure, gilt-edged lives of the Schuvaloff family in the summer idylls of St Petersburg and Terijoki were cast into turmoil by the catastrophic Russian revolution in 1917. The family fled from St Petersburg to Finland, first to their dacha in Terijoki and then in 1918 to Helsinki. Jewellery and gems were hidden in the seams of their clothing and inside candies from the chocolate factory, now lost to the family. The great Alexander Schuvaloff found work at a sweet factory in Vyborg and later, in Helsinki, as the master chocolate confectioner for Fazer. Repin´s oil paintings and drawings accompanied the family to Helsinki.

Elena was born into an odd combination of grim insecurity and grand elegance. In Elena´s world, little girls were made of silver, gold and diamonds and grandfather Alexander´s chocolate treats.

Nikolai Schuvaloff and painter Marina Akutin married in Helsinki in 1942. They had two children, Peter in 1946 and Elena in 1951.

To celebrate Elena´s birth, mother Marina was presented with gold and diamonds. Little Elena was christened at home with icons which glittered with gold and silver. After being weened, she was fed her morning porridge with a silver spoon.

Young Elena´s life was gold, diamonds, chocolate, music and art. Her mother painted at home with the music of Russian romantics, opera and operetta playing and with great works of Russian art beaming their silent beauty from the walls. Happiness for the young girl was marred only by the prevalent anti-Russian sentiments on the streets of Helsinki. But her perfect Finnish provided some cover. The Orthodox church also brought security to everyday life. When Elena got a new coat or shoes, she would run along to the cathedral to pray for God´s blessing on them.

Elena was introduced to the world of art by her mother, who supported the family with her own paintings after the death of her father. "Mother taught me to paint and Father taught me to draw," Elena explains.

Elena decided early on that she would become a painter when she grew up.

The doors of life

Elena Schuvaloff-Maijala´s life has been like a succession of doors opening. Behind every door awaits a new beginning or experience and the chance to develop.

The door to the life of a real painter remained closed for many years. Although Elena´s mother Marina had herself been a painter, she insisted that her daughter acquire a secure, bourgeois profession. Her mother believed that a person should enjoy a monthly salary. Elena respected her mother´s wishes and studied at secretarial college. But prior to that, Elena had opened some of the fascinating doors to culture. She spoke seven languages - Russian, Finnish, Swedish, English, French, German and Spanish. Such bountiful language skills led to good employment first as a trainee at Perusyhtymä and soon as an interpreter and head of marketing for the Department of Soviet Trade.

In 1985 Elena Schuvaloff-Maijala finally stepped into the world of painting. She was expertly tutored and encouraged by the important Finnish painter Eila Ekman-Björkman. Intensive and rigorous schooling continued for years. Elena´s colourways and language of form have been strongly influenced by her teacher. As the years passed, their working relationship turned into a creative friendship between the two artists which has lasted a quarter of a century.

The colourist, the oracle and the demon

Four strong cultures tug at Schuvaloff-Maijala´s soul. Finnish, Russian, Swedish and French emotions rage in her heart. This mental storm could lead to catastrophe or to some kind of cultural synthesis, a flash of creative inspiration.

Steeped in these cultures, Elena has developed into a wonderful colourist in whose art can be seen Russian colours, gold, romance and fairytale magic or Finnish workaday honesty and unadorned self-inspection or the traditional Swedish anarchy looming unexpectedly from otherwise serious paintings or the cool, analytical French view of the world and life´s emotions.

Schuvaloff-Maijala herself says that she replays her life through her paintings, rediscovering it through colour like some kind of colourist´s psychoanalysis. "I have stopped wondering about myself," she says.

Elena Schuvaloff-Maijala´s art emphasises her bottomless thirst for life and curiosity. Her works are always doors to be opened, seeking new beginnings and collecting the clues to existence. Sometimes there are few to be found and sometimes a door opens into new dimensions providing deep artistic satisfaction.

Elena uses her colours fearlessly, loading her canvas with heavy layers of paint, gold splashes with wasteful abandon as from a brush wielded by a Russian princess but the final work conjures up delicacy, quietitude and fragility.

Her paintings embody magic, too. Here a demon is set free and the human beast reveals the depths of its soul. There an oracle speaks from the canvas, proclaiming future turmoil but always the final work speaks of beauty, reconciliation and hope through the interplay of colour.


Pertti Mustonen

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