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Joel Pettersson (1892-1937)


"Van Gogh of the Åland Islands" one of the most original artists and Finnish authors writing in Swedish. Pettersson depicted the people and life in a small Åland village in a humorous or sublime light. During his lifetime, Pettersson had no wider literary reputation. His first books appeared in his native language in the 1970s.

"Ah, how I feel lonely. There is nothing but me and my weep and the spring night... And I weep... How much I weep." (from Måndagsmorgon, 1920-21)

Joel Pettersson was born in Norrby, Lemland, the son of poor peasant parents. At the Grelsby asylum, where Pettersson died 44 years later, they were described in the medical records as "feeble-minded". Pettersson's father, Daniel, earned extra income by working as a driver and a self-taught vet. While at school, Pettersson began to write and draw, and although his early paintings were amateurish, his artistic aspirations were noted in the community.

"And then she caresses me. All mothers know that their children must be the first, not only at the confirmation, but in everything, everything, everything - in the whole life and death, too." (from Måndagsmorgon)

In 1913 Pettersson entered the drawing school in Turku to become an artist. The director of the school was Victor Westerholm (1860-1919), the founder of the Önningsby artists' colony on Lemland. Westerholm had troubles understanding his unsophisticated student, who detested the old master, calling him a "cow painter". (One of Westerholm's most famous paintings from 1885 portrayed cows in an autumn landscape.)

During this period, Pettersson developed significantly as a writer and artist, although he felt uncomfortable in the city. He wrote stories for native regional festivals and his prose piece 'Att jag icke får det jag vill' showed that he had read Nietzsche. In 1915 Pettersson dropped out of school and returned to Lemland. Because his parents were relatively old his father was over 70 he had to help them at the farm. Moreover, his half-brother had moved to America, and his younger brother died by drowning at sea.

Pettersson's plans to marry and have a family were ruined when the girl with whom he was engaged left Åland for a new life this blow was recorded in a lament entitled 'The Earth is Freezing'. He fell also in love with her brother, who broke up the relationship, which was doomed from the beginning.

Most of his literary works Pettersson produced between the years 1915 and 1921. Active in many fields, and driven by his desire to make a breakthrough as a writer and an artist, Petterson wrote newspaper articles, poems, prose pieces, and plays or dialogues for the amateur theater of Lemland's Youth Organization. He also painted sets for his own plays and for other theatrical performances as well. In 1918 Mikko Carlstedt and Ilmari Vuori arrived in Lemland to paint, and met Pettersson in Norrby. "People consider him crazy, but we like him a lot," summarized Carlstedt in letter. Later Pettersson went to see Carlstedt in Sääksmäki; they kept contact throughout the years.

In 1924 Pettersson entered into a correspondence with Birger Bondestam, who studied medicine in Helsinki and had contributed reviews to the newspaper Åland. However, in the 1920s Petterson did not have much spare time to literature, everyday work on the farm in harsh conditions took its toll. His parents died in 1928. For a period, Pettersson supported himself as a beef farmer, but was then forced to sell the animals and a huge part of the land to cope with the debts. After a disastrous fire, he build a two-storey henhouse.

Following a gruesome experiment in chicken farming, concerns about his mental condition were raised Pettersson managed to kill all his poultry through a radical treatment for lice. Economical problems and difficulties in gaining acceptance as an artist led finally to Pettersson's breakdown. After recovering from a suicide attempt, Petterson started to paint feverishly in the empty henhouse, which he had turned into an atelier. While visiting Mariehamn, he collapsed physically and mentally. In 1936 some of his works were displayed in an Åland exhibition, and he was hailed as a "born painter." At that time he was already seriously ill. Pettersson was taken to the Grelsby hospital, where he died on January 5, 1937.

A renewed interest in Pettersson's work arose in the 1970s, 35 years after his death. In 1972 there appeared Jag har ju sett, a prose selection edited by Valdemar Nyman. It was followed by Eldtände (1973), Frifågel (1974), and Hallonskogen (1975). These works, written mostly in the third person, described Pettersson's strained relationship to his parents, and his artistic aspirations. Maanantaiaamu, his first work translated into Finnish, is a collection of semi-autobiographical texts, which deal with the writer's childhood. The short story 'Jalomielinen kreivi' Pettersson tells of a count, who is thrown into prison, because he wants to fight against ignorance and spiritual backwardness. When he is offered a chance to return amongst people, he chooses imprisonment and continues his dreaming and writing poetry. Pettersson's style, characterized as "naive expressionism", was a mixture of realism, folktales, archaisms, and vernacular language. His painting have similarities with the work of Tyko Sallinen and Jalmari Ruokokoski.

An opera based on Pettersson's life and writings, composed by Nikolo Kotzev, premiered in July 2009. The libretto was made by the Finland-Swedish writer Lars Huldén.

For further reading: Joel Pettersson. Människan och konstnären by I. Mattson (Pro gradu avhandling i konsthistoria, Åbo akademi, 1984); Joel Pettersson. Outsider i orostider by B. Wilén (Stockholms universitet, institutionen för teater och filmvetenskap, 1984); Joels Gud by Nils G. Holm, in Meddelanden från Ålands kulturstiftelse, 2 (1987); Katalog över Joel Petterssons manuskriptsamling i Ålands landskapsarkiv, ed. by R. Svenblad, in Meddelanden från Ålands kulturstiftelse, 1 (1987); Joels brev till Werner Eker, ed. by V. Nyman, in Meddelanden från Ålands kulturstiftelse, 4 (1990); A History of Finland's Literature, ed. by George C. Schoolfield (1998) - Other writer from Åland Islands:  Sally Salminen (1906-1976), Aili Nordgren (1908-1995); Runar Salminen (1912-1988), Anni Blomqvist (1909-1990), Ulla-Lena Lundberg (b. 1947) 

Selected works:

  • Jag har ju sett, 1972 (ed. by Valdemar Nyman)
  • Eldtände, 1973 (ed. by Valdemar Nyman)
  • Frifågel, 1974 (ed. by Valdemar Nyman)
  • Hallonskogen, 1975 (ed. by Valdemar Nyman)
  • Pojken som fantasin skenade bort med, 1992 (ed. by Ralf Svenblad)
  • Knollan, 2001 (ed. by Ralf Svenblad, illustrated by Jonas Wilén)
  • Till alla, alla, alla, 2002 (ed. by Ralf Svenblad)
  • Måndagasmorgon, 2004 (ed. by Ralf Svenblad, written in the beginning of the 1920s) - Maanantaiaamu (translated by Antero Tiusanen, 1997)
  • Poika joka muuttui karbidilampuksi, 2005 (ed. by Ralf Svenblad, translated by Antero Tiusanen)

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