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Johan Nilsson Bastubacka, One of Finland's Foremost Church Artists


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The transition to the 1700's brought major changes in the country's visual arts. The scarcity of native artists was great, and the nobility who suffered from this lack turned to artists from Sweden. The Renaissance, the period of transition from medieval to modern times, influenced art and interior decorating far into the 1600's and was in advance of the baroque style which lasted into the latter 1700's.

The church and the merchants understood to a greater degree than the nobility the native fine art which had a good foothold, especially in Österbotten. But Stora Ofreden created a grave interruption in the cultural activities, and many cities where artists lived and worked were devastated by the war.

At the beginning of the 1720's the ecclesiastical fine art was greatly regarded, and the Ostrobothnian churches began to be furnished with altar paintings and murals. This work continued during the entire century. A richer interior art for furnishings and wall decorations together with painted pictures gained ground in private homes at the close of the 1700's.

One who stood foremost in the production of sacred art in the 1720's was Finland's first known artist, Margareta Capsia, born 1690 and died 1759. Her most well-known work is the altar painting she executed for Pedersöre church in 1723.

courtesy GSF
Another church artist was Johan Nilsson Backman from Bastbacka in Nedervetil parish. He was born 1706 and died probably in 1765. Backman who worked principally from 1750-1760 was one of the oldest known church artists in Österbotten. His murals and altar compositions in Nedervetil and Kronoby church, as well as Capsia's altar painting, received their inspiration from Bible and book illustrations of the 1500- and 1600's.

Who was Johan Nilsson Backman? In the beginning of the 1600's there were two small new buildings at Bastbacka in Nedervetil. Matts Henriks-son Backe appeared in 1630 as owner and during that time he increased his acreage and also owned seven cows. During the Thirty Year War his older son Hans was lost in the war and the younger son Henrik Mattsson Bastubacka took over the homestead. He in turn was blessed with three sons: Henrik, Lars and Olof. The family branches descended from the latter two (Lars and Olof).

Lars and his wife Malin Nilsdotter had a son Nils who had three sons: Johan, born 1706, Lars, born 1710, and Matts, born 1724. They all continued to live at Bastbacka, but the descendants of some moved as sons-in-law to Kaitfors and Pelo. Son Johan took the surname Backman.

The time between 1700-1721 Sweden was at war with Russia on Finland's territory. Österbotten wasn't affected by the war to any great extent. But gradually the Russian troops came up along the coast and burned and plundered everything along the way. The assets of the churches in Österbotten, especially, became a sought-after prey by the Russian soldiers.

Johan Backman grew up during these unfortunate times. But in an early period of his life he disappeared from accessible documents. Much was said that he sought his luck out in the big world. According to tradition, he went to Italy to learn painting. That is false. Nedervetil art critic Lisa Nyberg, Lund, does not agree. According to the Karleby parish Communion Book, Backman left Nedervetil at the earliest in 1730. There's no information as to where he traveled, but it is said he went to Sweden. He probably worked in the Stockholm area where he received his tapestry competency. He returned to Finland in 1741 with a tapestry master certificate awarded by tapestry manufacturer Jacob Schönfeldt of Västerås (Sweden).

On 28 April of the same year the Kammar College in Stockholm gave him permission to design a tapestry in Gamlakarleby. But Backman did not go to Gamlakarleby when he returned from Sweden. Instead he went to his brother's place at Bastbacka in Nedervetil. In the Communion Book he is noted for the first time on 28 December 1741. Of his work from that time only an oil painting on canvas has been preserved.

In 1745 he moved to Gamlakarleby and married a woman 17 years younger, Maria Tomasdotter Laiberg, daughter of parish writer Tomas Laiberg who was a hostage of the Russians and imprisoned for seven years in Russia. Six children were born in Gamlakarleby and four died at a young age. From 1747-1749 Backman was occupied with painting altar pictures and renovating the pulpit in Karleby church.

In connection with King Adolph Fredriks Eriksgatan in 1752, Backman was chosen to paint a pyramid that remained in the city square in honor of the king. He also made a crown for the top of the pyramid.

When a new church was built in Nedervetil, Backman returned to Bastbacka. Three more children were born, but two died as babies. In 1763 his son Johan Niklas died at the age of 10.

The years 1754-1765 were an intensively active period in Johan Backman's life. Next to his father's home at Bastbacka, he had his own cottage with the necessary outbuildings and some tillable land. He worked in his parish church and marbelized the pulpit, a masterpiece of work for which the parish gave him some acreage. Those who visit Nedervetil church can see three paintings by Backman; also the baptismal font.

The retable (shelf at the back of the altar) in Karleby church that fills nearly the entire crosswalk, and the pulpit panels are Backman's work. He was occupied with decorative work between 1755-1761 in Kronoby church. The crosswalk and the altar pictures distinguished Backman, and he built the pulpit with the assistance of carpenter Moses Lybeck. The paintings are done in blue and red paint. The motif "The Flood" bears the year 1756.

In addition to the work in the Karleby church, Backman carved and painted the pulpit in Lochteå church. It is designated by art experts as one of his finest works. A two-part altar picture in Vetil church and a 3-part altar picture in Toholampi church bear Backman's signature. His fame as a skillful church artist spread like ripples in water. The churches in Saarijärvi, Alavus, Jalasjärvi, Keuru and Tavast are also the work of this church artist from Nedervetil. As helpers, he had Erik Westzynthius and Per Pehrsson as well as Moses Lybeck.

If Johan Backman's first years of life were veiled in obscurity, one can say the same of his last years of life. After 1765 he did not have Holy Communion in the church. Probably he died that year. His wife died on 9 March 1767 and the death records show her as an artist's widow.

The couple left two daughters, 17-year old Christina and 2-year old Catharina. At their father's brother's home they were cared for during their lifetime and their guardians were Pastor Anders Chydenius and Johan Kort.

Johan Backman collected no worldly treasures. According to the estate inventory, his library consisted of five religious books and seven other editions. It was probably from these books that he received the inspiration for his interpretation of the Holy Communion. Modest in character, he did not receive attention during his life and did not achieve fame in higher circles.

In the 1960's people began to be aware of the Ostrobothnian church artist who had a central role when it came to decorating newly built churches and restoring churches devasted during periods of calamity. Finland's first sculptor, Erik Cainberg, also a Nedervetil resident, shares with Johan Backman a central place in Finland's art history. His memorial is found in the Österbottniska churches, but people who visit are seldom aware of the artist behind the painting and decorating. It is reasonable to erect a memorial to the man who, in the mid 1700's from meager circumstances, absorbed learning abroad and put it into practice in his home country.

Excerpts from "ÅGLIIDE 3" by Ole Granholm June Pelo

(I have seen Backman's pulpit in Nedervetil church each time I've been in Finland - truly a masterpiece. And I'm proud that it is in the church of my ancestors.JP)

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