The Kalevala: Akseli Gallen-Kallela & National Romanticism

Most of my research at the moment is concerned with exhibitions, and rather than writing another post on exhibitions at this point, I thought I would take a different route, and bring you a brief insight into National Romanticism in the art of Finland towards the end of the 19th century…

“The runes of Kalevala are truly so sacred to me that, for instance, while singing them feels like leaning one’s tired head to some solid, unbreakable support.”

– Akseli Gallen-Kallela (Diary, 1899)

The concern with the national consciousness had been apparent in Finnish and Norwegian art throughout; it was the reason why the visual arts flourished. There was a rising nationalist temperament that motivated artists to create works representative of their own culture. In contrast to their neighbours, Denmark and Sweden, the adoption of nationalism was borne out of a longing for drastic, immeasurable change. Art and literature were the tools with which this change was to be implemented. 

By the River of Tuonela (1903) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Image: Ateneum, Helsinki

In Finland it was the region of Karelia, and the folklore of the Kalevala, which were the primary sources of inspiration for Finnish art towards the end of the 19th century. Finland, much like Norway, was still under the control of a foreign power. Having previously been part of the Swedish Empire, and a contentious part in numerous Russo-Swedish wars, Finland was conceded to Russia in 1809 (and remained such until 1917). The importance of Karelia becomes apparent when viewed in its socio-political context. It was located on the border with Russia and in “a politically contested area containing intermarried populations of Finns (Lutherans) and Russians (Orthodox Christians).” Furthermore, much like Norway, industrialisation had stagnated, thriving only with a boom in the lumber industry in the 1860s, and much of the country was impoverished, therefore “the only grandeur it could claim was its wilderness and the epic heroism of the Kalevala.” This epic poem became “their book of independence, their passport into the family of civilised nations” and a historic model “on which to build the society of contemporary Finland.”

First published by the folklore specialist, Elias Rönnrot in 1835, and again in 1849, the Kalevala had been part of the oral tradition of the Karelia region for centuries. It chronicles the creation of Earth, which includes the birth of Väinämöinen, about whom much of the Kalevala concerns, by the goddess Ilmatar. In it Väinämöinen’s rise to power is chronicled, through tales of lust, jealousy, revenge and destruction; and similarly his ultimate demise. These fables were later most notably immortalised in the paintings of the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela. 

Lemminkäinen’s Mother (1897) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Image: Ateneum, Helsinki

For Gallen-Kallela, one of the foremost pioneers of Finnish Symbolism, these mythical tales became the inspiration behind much of his work, and was used to further the cause of Finnish nationalism. He has often been regarded as the illustrator of the Kalevala. Among his paintings, are Väinämöinen’s Voyage (Väinämöinen venematka, 1909) and Lake Keitele (1905), both of which depict the boat journey the mythic folk hero took, in its literal and symbolic form respectively. Gallen-Kallela fully embraced his native land, he “fostered a sense of collective identity by formulating a distinctive Finnish style, living an authentically Finnish life, and building a home and studio in the Finnish Wilderness.” 

Lake Keitele (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Image: National Gallery, London

Although arguably, Gallen-Kallela’s style was not merely an isolated representation of his home country, it also came to typify something emblematic of Scandinavia as a whole. The importance of embracing one’s own surroundings, of the national landscape, was for many Scandinavian artists not only their inspiration but their home (Prince Eugen and his home Waldemarsudde and the Norwegian Nikolai Astrup and his home district of Jølster). Furthermore, National Romantics believed “that an individual’s character was formed by his habitat.” And in the case of Finland, Gallen-Kallela was a prime example, where the “inspiration from Kalevala themes sustained him artistically for the rest of his life.”

Further Suggested Reading: 

Elias Lönnrot. The Kalevala. (Oxford University Press, 2008).

Tuija Wahlroos (Museum Director, Gallen-Kallela Museum), Devoted to Kalevala: Perspectives on Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Kalevala Art .

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