Stories of Finnish Art - Ateneum's collection display. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Pakarinen
Stories of Finnish Art – Ateneum’s collection display. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Pakarinen

Beloved classics tour

From Landscape to modern

Werner Holmberg: Maantie Hämeessä (Helteinen kesäpäivä), 1860. Kansallisgalleria / Ateneumin taidemuseo, kok. Helsingin yliopisto. Kuva: Kansallisgalleria / Hannu Aaltonen

Werner Holmberg: Road in Häme (A Hot Summer Day), 1860 

As you look at this painting, you can experience a journey from 150 years ago. Is the horse-drawn carriage shaking and bouncing? The sun feels warm and the sand is whirling. Is there still a long journey ahead? In the painting, the emphasis is on the natural forest, which makes the human and the road he has cleared look quite small. 

The painting is a coherent whole, portraying a fleeting moment. As was the custom, Werner Holmberg made detailed sketches while wandering through nature. After his trips, he went back to his atelier to combine the sketches and visions into a final work of art. 

Holmberg was the first Finnish artist to gain international recognition. In Holmberg’s time, Düsseldorf, Germany, was the centre of the art world. Holmberg studied and worked there during his short career. He died from pulmonary tuberculosis at the early age of 29. 

teoskuva: Albert Edelfelt: Kuningatar Blanka (1877)

Albert Edelfelt: Queen Bianca, 1877 (Gallery 17) 

In a fairy tale by Zacharias Topelius, Queen Bianca sings to her son about his future bride, Princess Margareta of Denmark. In this painting based on the tale, the silk is shining, the jewels are sparkling and everything is photographic in detail. Even without knowing the story, viewers can understand the essential message: a mother’s love for her son. 

In the 1800s, artists were expected to make historical paintings. The talented Albert Edelfelt was hoped to become the portrayer of the Finnish past. The artist, only 22 years old, was successful with his detailed painting Queen Bianca, which was featured at the important Paris Salon exhibition.

Edelfelt became a distinguished artist in Finland and abroad, and the Finnish culture received international attention because of him. Displaying his work in the Finnish Pavilion at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair is another example of Edelfelt’s accomplishments. 

Akseli Gallen-Kallela: Kullervon kirous, 1899. Kansallisgalleria / Ateneumin taidemuseo, kok. Antell. Kuva: Kansallisgalleria / Jouko Könönen

Akseli Gallen-Kallela: Kullervo Cursing, 1899 (Gallery 16) 

Observe the many elements of this painting. Admire its autumnal nature, the blood-red glow of the rowanberries and the cloud formations rising behind the hills. Do you see cows grazing in the background and a dog sniffing at the sandwich fallen on the ground? 

The painting’s main character is Kullervo, the tragic hero of the Kalevala, who grew up as a mistreated orphan. The painting depicts the moment when Kullervo realises he has been made the object of a cruel joke. Ilmarinen’s wife has given him a loaf of bread with a stone baked into it, and the stone breaks Kullervo’s knife, his only memento of his father. What kind of feelings are depicted in Kullervo’s posture and expression? 

Kullervo, Kalervon poika,/katselevi veitsyttänsä,/itse päätyi itkemähän./Sanan virkkoi, noin nimesi:/”Yks’ oli veitsi veikkoutta,/yksi rauta rakkautta,/isän saamoa eloa,/vanhemman varustamata;/senki katkaisin kivehen,/karahutin kalliohon,/leipähän pahan emännän,/pahan vaimon paistamahan! (Kalevala, Runo 33, säkeet 87–98) 

Hugo Simberg: Haavoittunut enkeli, 1903. Kansallisgalleria / Ateneumin taidemuseo, kok. Ahlström. Kuva: Kansallisgalleria / Hannu Aaltonen

Hugo Simberg: The Wounded Angel, 1903 (Gallery 13, the main gallery) 

The Wounded Angel has kept its secret for over 100 years. The artist did not want to explain the painting’s content, but many interpretations have been made since then. Perhaps the secret is that the painting appeals to viewers’ emotions and encourages every one of us to make our own interpretation. 

The work of art has aroused admiration since it was first displayed in the Ateneum’s autumn exhibition in 1903. In a letter to his sister Blenda, Hugo Simberg described the painting’s rapturous reception as follows: “Even Edelfelt said nice things to me.” In 2006, The Wounded Angel was voted the Ateneum’s most beloved painting and Finland’s “national painting”. 

Yrjö Ollila: Shepherdess, 1915 (Gallery 12) 

Look at the Shepherdess and other works of art around it. They are all blazing with colour. People, animals and nature are portrayed as equally important elements. In many paintings, it seems like all colours of the rainbow have been used. 

In art, the beginning of the century was an era of new expression and the liberation of colour and form. The bright colours and loose painting style are familiar from Parisian colour and light paintings. Like many other artists, Yrjö Ollila became familiar with new art movements on his study trips to France. 

Greta Hällfors-Sipilä: Johanneksen kirkko, n. 1918. Kansallisgalleria / Ateneumin taidemuseo. Kuva: Kansallisgalleria / Hannu Aaltonen

Greta Hällfors-Sipilä: St. John’s Church, 1918 (Gallery 10) 

In this painting, everything seems to be moving and crooked. The bright green birches with yellow dots bend in the wind. The church towers also tilt joyfully. Greta Hällfors-Sipilä was a friend of music and everything new. Do you hear the rhythms of jazz as you look at the painting? 

The urban landscape and modern life were familiar and dear to Hällfors-Sipilä. She lived in Viiskulma in Helsinki, and the surrounding streets, views from her windows and house parties are recurrent themes in her works. Hällfors-Sipilä was also modern in her art. The artist was inspired by the Russian avant-gardism she became familiar with in Helsinki during the 1916 exhibition of Russian art at Strindberg.