Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931): A Finnish Passion

Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, 1 June-9 September 2012 (Previously at Helsinki Art Museum and Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

One might say that Akseli Gallen-Kallela did for Finland what William Morris accomplished for English culture in the nineteenth century. The Finnish artist never actually met the English polymath in the flesh, despite the fact that he visited London for six weeks in the spring and summer of 1895, the year before Morris died. However, Gallen-Kallela had the opportunity to observe Victorian art at the Victoria and Albert and the South Kensington museums. He also visited and later established contact with the Arts and Crafts Liberty department store in Regent Street. Gallen was to import some of Morris’s designs to commercialise them in Finland through his connection with one of Morris’s close associates, the textile manufacturer, Charles Holme.

Gallen began his career by painting in the naturalist style that was then in vogue, pursuing a socialist agenda much as Morris did. This did not ultimately mean creating art available for the poor, even if the Pre- Raphaelite artists and their Finnish counterpart did provide intermittent employment as models to beggars and prostitutes. Morris’s tapestries went at exorbitantly high prices and his notion of art in the home of every Englishman never truly materialised. The ryijy tapestries executed by Gallen were less densely decorative than Morris’s, sticking to simple stylised motifs derived from folklore, but they too were purchased only by the well-to-do.

Although his painting entitled Unmasked was composed in 1888 during one of Gallen’s numerous stays in Paris, it bears an unmistakable Finnish touch that might go unnoticed at first glance. The surrounding decor of the artist’s Parisian flat featuring in this and other paintings looks as if it were lifted out of a portrait by Edouard Manet. The orientalist touch provided by the fans above the prostitute’s head almost make the carpet on which she is sitting pass for a japoniste design: the very eclecticism of the picture was Gallen’s way of riding the Oriental fashion wave whilst positioning the products of Finnish folklore on the Parisian art scene.

The painting might also be said to bear the mark of August Strindberg, one of Gallen’s Nordic compatriots also present in Paris at the time. The misogynistic linking of the woman with the death’s head on the table, not to mention the association of femininity with deception implied in the title and the mask the woman is holding in her right hand, is, however, attenuated by a degree of humour. The prostitute’s entire body is literally ‘unmasked’ in a rather provocative manner, revealing the naked truth of the beautiful human body (something that never happened with such boldness in Victorian or Finnish art of the same period). The warm- coloured carpet on which the model is sitting also lends the potentially censorious picture a homely, friendly atmosphere which works against the grain of Strindbergian misogyny. In the end, the picture seems divided between mirthful warm colours and cooler cautionary whites. It seems to translate the artist’s mixed feelings of attraction and fear for the pleasures and dangers of the flesh in fin-de-siècle Paris. Gallen’s female figures are otherwise generally placed in positively connoted contexts.

Much like the Pre-Raphaelites had done a few decades earlier, Gallen moved in and out of naturalism in the 1890s, mostly orienting his themes towards the depiction of home-grown myths, thus inscribing Finnish art in a general European nationalist trend. Following the example of Morris and Edward Burne-Jones’s exploration of Arthurian legend, Gallen decided to illustrate the Finnish epic known as the Kalevala, a collection of orally- transmitted myths creatively collated by the ethnologist-cum-poet, Elias Lönnrot, in 1835.

One of the essays in the lavishly illustrated catalogue produced by the Musée d’Orsay for their Gallen-Kallela exhibition mounted earlier this year points out that Gallen’s French idol, the painter Jules Bastien-Lepage, had been upbraided by critics for using a naturalist style while illustrating myth in his painting of Joan of Arc. The same criticism was levelled by

Unmasked [Démasquée]
Unmasked, Démasquée 1888, Oil on canvas, 65.5 x 54.5cm Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki
The Defence of the Sampo, Sammon puolustus, 1896 Tempera on canvas, 125 x 122cm Turku Art Museum, Turku, Finland

©Turku Art Museum/Photo Kari Lehtinen

French critics at Gallen’s early mythological rendering of Väinämöinen’s love for Aino.

Always responsive to constructive (if somewhat generically normative) criticism, Gallen went on to produce The Defence of the Sampo. This is as far as the Finnish artist wished to push stylisation at that point (before his exploration of Fauvism during his later stay in British Kenya), employing almost comic-strip figures for the occasion. The Gauguinesque palette, patterned waves and visible outlines are all borrowed from the mythologically-oriented Nabis artists.

The painting recounts the legend of the Sampo, a protean magic talisman which provides the backbone of the entire Kalevala. In some versions of the story, the Sampo was depicted as a magic mill of abundance – a Holy Grail of sorts – that conferred both well-being and prosperity. The Sampo adopted a variety of shapes according to various oral versions of the story, making it all the more mysterious. In his pictorial rendering, Gallen retains all the elusive mystery vested in the talisman by complicating its form and placing it synecdochically in the bottom right-hand corner.

The painting captures a critical moment in which the evil sorceress, Louhi, has turned herself into a crone-like eagle, loading an army of hellish warriors on her back. Väinämöinen, the Kalevala’s counterpart figure of goodness (an ancient Finnish Adam gifted with magical powers), is about to ward off Louhi’s attack. During the battle, the Sampo is broken and lost, but parts of it are finally recovered, insuring some vestigial prosperity remains from the Golden Age of the Sampo.

The enigmatic object just above the waves in the bottom left-hand corner is the prototype of the kantele, a stringed instrument supposed to have been created by Väinämöinen out of a giant pike’s jaw and the hair of a maiden. It also foundered during Louhi’s assault. The function of the kantele is similar to the function of the Orphean harp in that it allowed the performer to subdue his enemies. There are many references to the instrument in the Kalevala as the stories were originally sung to a kantele accompaniment.

Gallen’s most successful rendering of the Kalevala myths was completed the following year, in 1897. The symbolist precisionist style he employed on this occasion provides a bridge between Gallen’s naturalism and his more cartoonish mythological depictions. Although the scene is represented in hyperrealist terms, it departs from realism and gains an otherworldly pictorial quality. This comes in part from the darkly drawn outlines of both the figures and the objects.

The painting, entitled The Mother of Lemminkäinen, relates another dramatic scene from the Kalevala. It captures the moment when the warrior hero, Lemminkäinen, has failed in his quest to kill the Swan of Tuonela (which is the title of a musical composition by Gallen’s contemporary, Jean Sibelius). Lemminkäinen’s desire to marry one of Louhi’s daughters was foiled by the sorceress when she gave him three virtually impossible tasks to fulfil. Killing the Swan of Tuonela was the same as attempting to slay Cerberus on the banks of the Styx. When Lemminkäinen is dismembered and thrown into the river of the Finnish Underworld, his mother is able to salvage his remains and reassemble her son, a feat which recalls Isis’s resurrection of Osiris. To bring him back to life she has to call on a heavenly bee which delivers a drop of the honey of life.

Standing in front of the painting and its perfectly adapted gnarled and spiralled wooden frame is a moving experience, especially when one is aware that Gallen had recently lost his daughter to disease. Its iconography is powerful. It brings together both the pagan story and the Christian motif of the pietà in a perfectly seamless manner. The reddish rocks evoke the murder of the mother’s son in a way that makes them seem more otherworldly than bloody, thereby adding to the overall magical atmosphere.

The exhibition is housed at the Museum Kunstpalast in Dūsseldorf until 9 September 2012, having toured the Helsinki Art Museum and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It is a genuinely successful curatorial enterprise, largely thanks to the variety of Gallen’s stylistic shifts through the years, but also because he was so adept at rendering the blissfully appeasing golden, silvery beauties of Scandinavian landscapes. The scholarly apparatus deployed for the event was considerable. The sober design of the installation was crowned in the middle by a stylised rendering of the Juselius Mausoleum, containing two of the most moving elegiac paintings I have ever seen. The weighty wooden furniture that rounds off the exhibition is a sight for bored eyes. One of Gallen’s hand-carved, self-assembled cabinets looks like an elegant polar insect. Another depicts Eve’s hand passing the apple to Adam. It has the density of a miniature planet.

The Mother of Lemminkäinen, Lemminkäisen äiti, 1897 Tempera on canvas, 85.5 x 108.5cm Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki

© Finnish National Gallery/Central Art Archives/Photo Jouko Könönen

Kalela in Spring, Kevät Kalelassa, c.1900 Oil on canvas, 133 x 80cm Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna

Kalela in Spring [Kevät Kalelassa], c.1900 Oil on canvas, 133 x 80cm Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna

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