Accessible guide to the exhibition Magnus Enckell

This is the same information as wall texts in the exhibition Magnus Enckell. The exhibition is open at the Ateneum Art Museum from 23 October 2020 to 14 February 2021.

The painter Magnus Enckell (1870–1925) is known especially as a representative of Finnish symbolism. The exhibition offers a comprehensive overview of the work of one of the most significant names of the golden age of Finnish art, and presents him as a multifaceted cultural influencer.

In the end of this document you can find a timeline of the artist. The same information can be found in gallery 31 of the exhibition.

Wall texts in the exhibition Magnus Enckell

Gallery 31

Magnus Enckell

Magnus Enckell is a central figure in Finnish art history. He is particularly known as a leader of Finnish symbolism in the 1890s. Later he changed his style of expression, becoming a trailblazer in Neo-Impressionism, bathed in colour and light.

In this exhibition, we have sought to present Enckell as broadly as possible and from many perspectives. His wideranging output includes portraits, landscapes, fantasies, religious themes, still lifes and human studies. He created many monumental paintings for public spaces. Enckell also created an extensive output of drawings. The exhibition features works from five decades from early student works to the mythological motifs of the 1920s.

Enckell was a reformer while at the same time upholding European classical traditions. He was an influential figure in the Finnish art scene, serving as an exhibition commissioner and as chair of the Artists’ Association of Finland. Music, theatre and literature were all important to this broadly cultivated artist.

The artist’s personality has fascinated his contemporaries and art connoisseurs throughout the decades. He was a sociable man of the world who moved in international cultural circles. On the other hand, he was a dreamer who enjoyed solitude and domesticity. As a friend, he could be enigmatic and distant yet still reliable. Photos from Enckell’s personal archive show him surrounded by family and friends.

The works on display are from public and private collections around Finland. A richly illustrated exhibition catalogue featuring articles by experts is also available.

We thank the Swedish Cultural Foundation in Finland and the Sigurd Frosterus Foundation for their support.

Curators of the exhibition:

Dr Riitta Ojanperä
Collections management director
Finnish National Gallery

Dr Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff
Chief Curator
Ateneum Art Museum

Dr Marja Sakari
Ateneum Art Museum

From Porvoo to Paris

Enckell’s high school drawing teacher, Johan Knutson, urged him to show his illustrations to Albert Edelfelt. Edelfelt in turn encouraged him to apply after his matriculation examinations to the Art Society Drawing School in Helsinki. From there he soon switched to studies at Gunnar Berndtson’s studio.

Enckell made his long-awaited first trip to Paris in 1891. The city’s invigorating art world and his studies at the Académie Julian shaped Enckell’s vision of art toward the simplicity favoured by symbolism. His Self-Portrait and Woman from Brittany aroused astonishment at the Finnish artists’ exhibition where Enckell’s works were first shown.

Gallery 30

Mental worlds

Magnus Enckell’s growing interest in creating loftier art that was detached from the material world pushed him ever further from the academic rules of art. In his mixed-technique and paper-based works, Enckell experimented with the boundaries of painting. He pushed his ascetic palette toward completely monochromatic paintings, using only one shade, black. The problematic of puberty, ethereal portraits, mythological and religious themes and enigmatic images of boys aroused horror and admiration while raising Enckell’s status as one of the leading names of Finnish art.

Gallery 29

The return of light and colour

After his travelling years, Enckell discovered new themes and maritime landscapes. His first trip to Suursaari Island in 1901 also changed the essence of his art – light and colour returned to his works. Enckell maintained his interest in portraits, creating images of his mentor Albert Edelfelt, the scientist Edvard Westermarck and his dear mother. The timelessness of still life themes also began to interest him. In the early 1900s, his subject matter expanded and became more multi-faceted.

Gallery 28

Resurrection and other public works

Enckell created many works for churches and other public spaces. His earliest altarpiece, Gethsemane, was completed in 1902 at Savitaipale Church but destroyed in a fire in 1918.

He designed the interior decorations for Tampere Cathedral together with Hugo Simberg. Enckell painted the Resurrection altar fresco in 1906–1907. The church and its decorations form one of the crucial modern art entities of early twentiethcentury Finland. In 1924, Enckell won a competition for stained-glass windows in Turku Cathedral, but the work was not realised. The stained-glass windows for Central Pori Church were completed in 1926, after the artist’s death.

Magnus Enckell’s preface

Exhibition catalogue, Salon d’Automne Paris 1908

Finland is a poor, remote country whose entire history has been overshadowed by torments of political troubles, misery and deprivation.

Has Finland nevertheless found the means to develop an intellectual culture? Is there a place for art in its life? In any case, must its art be seen as restricted to the world of ideas of primitive peoples? Would it be too audacious of us to want to be part of the great artistic movement that is shaking the entire world in our day?

We do have this audacity, though. We need it, because if we don’t want to retrace our steps, if we want to move forward, isolation would be disastrous.

We walk on. If our steps are still uncertain, one explanation can be found in the absolute lack of a plastic art tradition and the extreme youth of our art. It is not yet a half-century old, and its first master was Edelfelt. After this great pioneer, we have had a whole flock of fervent, talented artists. Some of them, such as Gallen- Kallela and Rissanen, are strongly imbued with the local character, while Saarinen and others demonstrate a broader understanding.

Nevertheless, they are all united by many common traits. There are qualities characteristic of all these artists; ones that a foreigner may perhaps see more clearly than we ourselves. Let us hope that they stand out clearly enough for one to be able to speak of a uniquely Finnish art.

Finland has already had its own exhibition pavilion at the 1889 and 1900 Expositions. However, this Finnish Exhibition, organised this year by the Salon d’Automne, should be considered a debut, because never before has our art found such a favourable location and choice environment to make itself known in Paris.

How will our art be welcomed by the Parisian public – the world’s most artistic and therefore the most demanding? May they at least appreciate the seriousness of our efforts and the honesty of our feeling.

Paris, September 1908

M. Enckell

Gallery 27

Literature, music and international relations

Besides art, also literature, music and theatre were all close to Enckell’s heart. He enjoyed the company of artists from many fields, both in Finland and abroad. For the Finnish Pavilion at the 1900 Paris Exposition, he painted the works Elementary School and Reading Room. They were part of a project to raise international awareness of Finnish education, led by Albert Edelfelt. Later Enckell inherited his role as cultural ambassador and commissioner of international exhibitions. Under his leadership, a separate exhibition of Finnish art was shown as part of the prestigious Paris Salon d’Automne in 1908.

Gallery 26

Harbour views

Harbours, ships and their related work and activity are recurring themes in Enckell’s watercolour paintings. He found many of these motifs in Helsinki, which was his Finnish hometown ever since he moved there as a teenager to study at the Finnish Art Society’s Drawing School at the Ateneum. Around 1909, harbour themes also offered him an opportunity to seek a new approach to depicting air, light and colours through painting.

Gallery 25

Paris and the triumph of colour

After 1908, new international movements dominated the discussion of art in Finland. The art critic Sigurd Frosterus, a friend and supporter of Enckell’s, wanted to see Finnish painting move toward colour saturation in the Neo-Impressionist spirit. Portraits of the critic’s wife, Emmy Frosterus, painted in 1909 and 1910, show Enckell responding to this challenge. A brighter colour palette appeared particularly in his paintings of the early 1910s. Enckell still visited Paris frequently, painting the city’s streets and entertainment scene on his trips there in 1911 and 1912.

Gallery 24

A sensitive line and the human body

Enckell was a skilful draughtsman. He conceptualised motifs for many of his important paintings by repeatedly drawing them in his sketchbooks. Using paper, pen and watercolours, he sought to capture fleeting moments and intimate moods involving people, nature and urban themes. Strong, young, virile male nudes are a recurring subject of his drawings. Drawings of models suggest the illustrator’s erotically charged gaze. Through the positions and details of the nude form, the models captured in these images also express something more general about being a corporeal human in an everchanging time and space.

Gallery 23

Sea, nature and the life force

Enckell enjoyed spending summers by the sea with artist friends and family: on Suursaari in the eastern Gulf of Finland, Kuorsalo near Hamina and Pitkäpaasi, as well as on the Porkkala and Hanko peninsulas. Sailing trips were also part of his summer life. In the early 1900s there was a growing faith in the health-giving effects of fresh air and sun. In his 1910 painting Boys on the Shore, the Neo-Impressionist colour scheme expresses the connection between people and nature. In the murals commissioned by Nylands Nation in the early 1910s, this contemporary nature theme is combined with the classically timeless idea of a golden age of humanity.

Gallery 22

Fauns and bacchants – images of sensual pleasure

Various kinds of fauns, satyrs, bacchants and Pan gods in exotic natural landscapes have been perennial themes of art through the ages. Enckell’s earliest faun painting dates back to 1895, during his symbolist period. Depicting mythical creatures gave Enckell an opportunity to portray sensuality, closeness to nature and sexual pleasure. These images of languid, mythological figures enjoying the pleasures of life are also clearly homoerotic. Awakening Faun (1914) is a work from Enckell’s colour period. It was inspired by Sergei Diaghilev’s 1912 Ballets Russes performance based on Claude Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun in Paris, starring Vatslav Nijinsky.

Gallery 21

Mythological themes

Mythological themes were essential content for the nineteenth-century Symbolists as they pondered life’s deep mysteries. Beginning in his youth, Enckell was inspired by tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Artists of the fin de siècle had ambiguity, layering, allusion and enigma in mind as they took on ancient myths. For Enckell, interest in the legends of antiquity was not just a passing phase of the symbolist period, but rather something to which he returned during various stages of his career. Through myths it was possible to reflect on oneself, the subconscious and psyche while at the same time grappling with the broader issues of the modern self.

Gallery 20

Chaos and domestic peace

During his last decade, Enckell’s gaze turned to the past. He adapted mythological themes, turned inward toward his home environment and nostalgic park landscapes, or sought a lost paradise in his paintings. His style also varied from the soft colours and forms typical of the Les Nabis group to a Cézanne-like constructivism. Enckell also still painted commissioned portraits in a realist style. Moods of longing and wistfulness recur in many paintings. One central group of works relates to the 1918 Civil War. Despite their political subject matter, the Chaos works return to Enckell’s pondering of individualist humanity.


1870 Knut Magnus Enckell is born on 9 November 1870 in Hamina. Parents: Alexandra Fredrika Vendla Helena (née Appelberg) (1832–1914) and Carl Wilhelm Enckell (1818–1883), docent and vicar of Vehkalahti Church.

1881 Begins studies at Porvoo Lyseo. Drawing teacher Johan Knutson (1816–1899).

1883 Enckell’s father dies.

1885–1887 Participates as an illustrator in cataloguing historical monuments in Virolahti, Säkkijärvi and on Suursaari island, all near Hamina.

1887 Meets Albert Edelfelt in Porvoo.

1889–1890 Graduates from high school and moves to Helsinki to study at the Finnish Art Society’s Drawing School. Soon breaks off his studies and becomes a private student of artist Gunnar Berndtson (1854–1895). Models as the Christ figure for Edelfelt’s Christ and Mary Magdalene.

1891 First trip to Paris in February. Studies at the Académie Julian, also works in Brittany. Takes part in a joint exhibition of Finnish artists.

1892 Completes Reclining Boy and Two Boys.

1893 Second stay in Paris, on a grant from Nylands Nation. Military conscription in Taavetti, Eastern Finland.

1894–1895 Returns to Finland from Paris in the spring of 1894. Travels to Italy in autumn, studies Renaissance art and becomes interested in monumental art. Returns to Finland the following spring. Wins second prize in the Finnish Art Society’s Ducat competition for Boy with Skull. Increasing interest in mythological subjects.

1896 Accepted as a member of the Artists’ Association of Finland. Spends time in St Petersburg, paints copies of works in the Hermitage.

1897 Participates in an artists’ congress in Stockholm; meets Sergei Diaghilev, Axel Gallén and Hugo Simberg.

1898 Participates in a Mir iskusstva exhibition in St Petersburg, arranged by Diaghilev. Returns to Italy; paints copies in Florence.

1900 Participates in the Paris Exposition with three panneau paintings. Also takes part in a Finnish art exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, winning a silver medal for his paintings. Travels to Spain via Venice.

1901 First summer on Suursaari Island. Begins plans for Helsinki University Library paintings.

1902 Summer on Porkkala peninsula. First monumental painting, Gethsemane altarpiece for Savitaipale Church (destroyed by fire in 1918). First private exhibition at the Nylands Nation building. Wins first prize in state figure painting competition.

1903 Participates in an exhibition in Berlin with other Finnish artists. Brief relationship with Anna Emilia Holmlund, their son Jorgen is born. Enckell and Simberg commissioned to decorate the interior of Tampere’s St John’s Church (now Tampere Cathedral).

1904 A.W. Finch and Enckell arrange exhibition of French Belgian art in Helsinki. Completes The Golden Age for the university library.

1905 Travels to Naples via Venice and Rome, visits Pompeii and Capri.

1906–1907 Begins painting the Resurrection fresco for Tampere Cathedral. The work, 10 m wide and 4 m high, is Enckell’s only fresco. Shows his graphic works for the first time in spring 1907. Joint exhibition with Hugo Simberg at the House of Nobility in Helsinki and the Turku Art Museum.

1908 Fourth Paris Salon d’Automne (Autumn Salon) features an extensive section of Finnish art, curated by Enckell. Nylands Nation commissions Enckell to paint a posthumous portraitof Albert Edelfelt.

1910 Part of the committee organizing Albert Edelfelt’s memorial exhibition. Private exhibition at the House of Nobility. Selected as a member of the Finnish Art Society’s prize and acquisitions board.

1911 Negotiates on a joint exhibition in St Petersburg at the initiative of Russian artists.

1912 An exhibition of the artists who were invited to St Petersburg is held at the Ateneum and Septem artists’ group is born. Besides Enckell, it includes Verner Thomé, Ellen Thesleff, Mikko Oinonen, Juho Rissanen, Yrjö Ollila and A.W. Finch. Torsten Stjernschantz serves as commissioner. Again in Paris.

1913 Septem’s second exhibition at the Ateneum, featuring invited artists such as Pierre Bonnard and Charles Guérin.

1914 Third Septem exhibition at the Ateneum, MarchApril.

The name Septem becomes established. First World War begins. Enckell’s mother dies in December. 1915 Selected as chair of the Artists’ Association of Finland (1915−1918). Septem’s fourth exhibition. Paints during two summers in Saarijärvi, Central Finland.

1916 Septem exhibition at the Ateneum in spring. New Chief Curator Torsten Stjernschantz revises the manner of presentation of the Finnish Art Society collection. Many of Enckell’s works are on display.

1917–1920 Last trip to St Petersburg, 1917. Private and group exhibitions. Septem’s sixth exhibition at the Ateneum in 1917; seventh and eighth in 1919 and 1920 at Galerie Hörhammer. Trip to Portofino, Italy, in 1920. Buys a villa designed by Eliel Saarinen in Kilo, Espoo, from Ellan Edelfelt. Spends Christmas 1920 in his new home.

1921 Autumn exhibition at Stenman’s art salon. The move to Kilo inspires still lifes and interiors. Trip to Koli, eastern Finland.

1924 Exhibition at Galerie Hörhammer. Participates in the Artists’ Association’s Jubilee exhibition at the Ateneum. Commissioned to create stainedglass windows for the Pori Church. Buys a flat in a building designed by his architect friend Sigurd Frosterus on Urheilukatu in Helsinki. Awarded a French Legion of Honour medal.

1925 Travels to Paris to oversee the preparation of the Pori Church stainedglass windows. The Ateneum presents a retrospective exhibition featuring 192 works. While transferring it to Stockholm, Enckell falls ill with pneumonia and dies there on 26 November, aged 55. Memorial events in Stockholm and Helsinki, burial in Hamina.

1926 Stainedglass windows unveiled at Pori Church.

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