Wednesday, 25 January 2017

An Artist who loved Virgin Nature



Most visitors to Room 41 of the National Gallery in London come to see the collection of works by well-known Impressionist painters. The room also contains the only painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela in the Gallery: a view of Lake Keitele in Finland, the country where the artist was born and lived for much of his life. In an earlier blog post I compared the atmosphere created by this work and by the 5th Symphony of Sibelius [1], both being strongly Nordic. However, while the music of Sibelius is well known, the art of Gallen-Kallela is less familiar to most of us, as music travels more easily than paintings and frescoes, although modern illustrations make copies available widely. As young men, Sibelius and Gallen-Kallela shared a passion for both Nature and Finnish traditions [2] and were part of Symposium, an influential group of young creative artists who met to discuss Finnish national identity at a time when the country was a Grand Duchy of Russia. Their interest focussed on Karelia (a large part of which was ceded to the Soviet Union after the Second World War) and this region had a profound effect on Gallen-Kallela.

I made my first extended visit to Finland in the winter of 1976 and my hostess, knowing perhaps of my interest in paintings, took me to the Gallen-Kallela Museum at Tarvaspää. After leaving the tram stop, we walked across part of a frozen lake and it was so cold that the snow covering the ice was scattered as we walked, forming a glittery haze. There was something magical in that as I had never seen it before so, on arrival at the museum, I was especially receptive to viewing the works on display. I was not disappointed and followed up this visit by looking at as many pictures by this great artist as I could during my stay in Helsinki. Having spent the summers of 1975 and 1976 in the north of Sweden, I developed a love of Nordic wilderness but I was surprised at the powerful connection that I felt to many of Gallen-Kallela's paintings.


Before becoming a student in Paris, Gallen-Kallela painted a series of pictures of rural life, among the earliest being Boy with a Crow (above, upper), made when the artist was 19 years old. This is one of the paintings that had a big effect on me and it is not difficult to read a story into the simple portrayal of two beings against the ground of an enclosed meadow. There are many other works based on every day life (e.g. above, lower) and Timo Martin and Douglas Sivén wrote in their splendid celebration of Gallen-Kallela [3]:

In the forests, the landscape of the wilds and in the solitude of the great outdoors Akseli Gallen-Kallela always found peace of mind for a while, and most often he portrayed the wild scenery as softly limpid and melancholy. He made his most joyful notes when work had gone well and his mind was at peace, far from the madding crowd. Born a country boy, Gallen-Kallela throve in the country, in the forests and among the innocent people of his childhood memories, even for long time periods – until his complex, restless nature drew him to the turmoil of cities and to the activities of equally ambitious kindred spirits. His devotion to virgin nature sprang from his childhood, remembered with a warmth that as time passed so gilded those memories that he came to expect life and people in other regions to live up to them.

Romantics can identify readily with these sentiments and, in an attempt to satisfy them, Gallen-Kallela designed a wooden house to be his home in an isolated part of Finland, long before Tarvaspää was built. This house was named Kalela (not Kallela) and the interior decorations, and the furniture, were made by Gallen-Kallela himself using Karelian and National Romantic motifs. He lived here with his wife and young family but it was far from idyllic in any practical way as it was always cold during the winter and Finnish winters are often very cold indeed. However, it brought him close to the natural world throughout the year, although his restlessness saw him make many trips to other countries. His mature style changed to be more Symbolist and, in addition to oil painting, he painted in tempera, made wood cuts and etchings and created pieces of stained glass. 

On one of his visits to Italy, he learned about fresco techniques and devoted years to making frescoes in Finland and in the Finnish Pavilion in the 1900 Paris World Exhibition. Very few of these works have survived: they featured subjects connected with Kalevela, the Finnish "national legends" based on Karelian folk tales that were also an important source for many paintings. However, it is the landscapes and informal portraits by Gallen-Kallela that I appreciate most. It's one Romantic is speaking to another, sharing a similar taste for melancholy and Nature.





[2] William L. Coleman (2014) Sibelius, Gallen-Kallela, and the Symposium: Painting in Fin-de-Siècle Finland. Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 13: 1-18.

[3] Timo Martin and Douglas Sivén (1985) Akseli Gallen-Kallela: National Artist of Finland. Helsinki, Watti-Kustannus.

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