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Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Akseli Gallen-Kallela is famed for his illustrations of the 19th century Finnish national epic poem ‘Kalevala’. Throughout his career, Gallen-Kallela produced hundreds of emotional paintings of Finland’s countryside and its dwellers, always incorporating a mixture of artistic styles of the time.

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8 Notable 20th-Century Finnish Artists

8 Notable 20th-Century Finnish Artists

TheCollector · 21 Sep, 2022 @ 07:12

Visual art embraced the Finnish form of epic poetry known as Kalevala, Finnish landscapes, and the life of its people as its main inspiration.

 

About the Artist

Akseli Gallen-Kallela is famed for his illustrations of the 19th century Finnish national epic poem ‘Kalevala’. Throughout his career, Gallen-Kallela produced hundreds of emotional paintings of Finland’s countryside and its dwellers, always incorporating a mixture of artistic styles of the time.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela is famous primarily for his illustrations of the 19th century Finnish national epic poem ‘Kalevala’. This composition assembles collective oral traditions and recounts the ancient Finnish creation myth of the earth, plants and animals through a set of old ballads, lyrical songs and incantations. Throughout his career Gallen-Kallela produced hundreds of emotional paintings of Finland’s countryside and its dwellers, always incorporating a mixture of artistic styles of the time.

Born in the small village of Pori, Finland in 1865, Gallen-Kallela was a keen artist since his early years. He began drawing classes at the Finnish Art Society in 1881 and started an apprenticeship under the well-established Finnish painter Adolf von Becker the following year. Inspired by French Realism and eager to experience a more cosmopolitan life, in 1884 he moved to Paris to study at the Académie Julian.

Gallen-Kallela's artistic and political concerns, however, brought him back to his homeland. In 1888 he painted a triptych based on a scene from the ‘Kalevala’ poem, the Aino myth of creation. The first of many paintings on this subject, the work immediately brought him fame and prompted the Finnish government to commission a second version. Over the years, Gallen-Kallela's ‘Kalevala’ paintings helped turn the poem into a manifesto of Finnish identity and a plea for independence, which acquired a particular political importance as the country’s relationship with Russia declined.

These works employ a deliberately archaic, medievalist style, combining mystical depictions of nature with the emotional narratives of Finnish folk tales. Forms and colours assume symbolic meanings and convey a sense of a broad cultural communality which viewers read through an explicitly political lens. On one level, the painting ‘Lake Keitele’ (1905), which resides in the National Gallery in London, is a study of reflections on the surface of a lake. This naturalism is disrupted by the dramatic zigzag patterns across the lake, which, the artist said, trace the path of Väinämöinen (the Finnish god of poetry and magic) moving across the water. The high viewpoint immerses the spectator in this primordial nature, infused with the spirit world.

Despite his love for Finland, Gallen-Kallela travelled extensively throughout Europe and beyond. In 1894 he moved to Berlin, later visiting London and Italy before moving to Nairobi with his family in 1909. There, he collected African artefacts and painted more than a hundred Expressionist oil paintings, such as ‘Mount Kenya’ (1909). The artworks of this period depict still lifes, landscapes and vivid scenes of typical colonial life, with bold colours and thick impasto bordering on abstraction. In 1918 Gallen-Kallela and his son Jorma returned to Finland to join the frontlines of the Finnish Civil War, travelling through the United States and South America after its finish.

Gallen-Kallela died in 1931 before he could finish his illustrations for the book ‘Great Kalevala’. Throughout his career, he experimented with different artistic styles, moving fluidly between Realism, Symbolism and Expressionism. His transformative style is echoed in his itinerant life, spent across various continents but only ever painting the landscapes of Finland and Africa. In these places, he discovered cultures with a deep reverence for nature and magnified this ideal existence in his mystical landscapes.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela
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