The Kalevala is a collection of ancient Finnish folk poems. The poems were originally sung, and they were passed down through the generations as an oral tradition. The first version of the Kalevala was published in 1835, and the final, extended edition in 1849. In the years after its publication it came to be considered the national epic of Finland.
From the start artists found inspiration in the mythic characters and stories in the Kalevala. The greatest interpretations of the epic in visual art were created at the turn of the 20th century. In this period the national-romantic veneration of Karelia (known as Karelianism) led artists to search for visual motifs in Karjala, the region from which most of the Kalevala‘s poems were originally collected. Most notably among these artists was Akseli Gallen-Kallela.
Robert Wilhelm Ekman: Ilmatar, 1860
The figure of Ilmatar in the Kalevala appears in the story of creation. Ilmatar was a virgin spirit of the air who descended into the primal sea and was impregnated by the wind. A duck flying over the waters laid its eggs on Ilmatar’s knee. From the eggs came the earth, the sky, the sun, the moon and the stars. Ilmatar also created the shores and fishing waters and later the great sage of the Kalevala, Väinämöinen. Robert Wilhelm Ekman was the first teacher at the Turku School of Drawing and was also a royal court and history painter in Stockholm. He painted many pictures on themes from the Kalevala in which an exalted classicistic style and romantic influences united the world of the Kalevala with the culture of antiquity.
Heikki W. Virolainen: Marjatta, 1965
In the last poem of the Kalevala, Marjatta is impregnated by a lingonberry and gives birth to a male child, who becomes the new ruler following Väinämöinen. The story symbolises the arrival of Christianity, which superseded the world of ancient Finnish beliefs. The sculpture shows Marjatta about to eat the berry, the significance of which is suggested by the royal crown. Between 1964 and 1970 Virolainen made several highly original and stylised wooden sculptures that were painted in strong colours, the content of which arose from his own ideas, Kalevala-related mythology and theosophy in particular.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela: Aino Myth, 1891
In the story depicted in this set of three panels, or triptych, we see the sage Väinämöinen wooing a young maiden named Aino. She does not want to marry the old man but rather drowns herself. The first scene of the story is shown on the left, the second on the right and the final scene – in which Väinämöinen still seeks to capture Aino, who has turned into a water sprite – in the centre. The artist made two versions of this, his first large Kalevala-themed painting. The model for Aino in this work was the artist’s newly-wed wife, Mary. The frame, designed by Gallen-Kallela himself, features quotes from the fourth and fifth poem of the Kalevala that the painting is based on.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela: Lemminkäinen’s Mother, 1897
After completing Aino Myth, Gallen-Kallela developed a new style for his Kalevala-themed works. The model in this emotionally highly charged picture, with its reductive stylisation and large areas of flat colour, was the artist’s own mother. In the story, warrior and womaniser Lemminkäinen dies because he has tried to kill the swan of Tuonela. His mother rakes the pieces of his son’s body from the river and puts them back together. In this picture she tries to revive him and receives a glimmer of hope in the form of the rays of sunlight that penetrate the gloom of Tuonela. A bee brings the balm of life from the abode of the gods, and a miracle happens: Lemminkäinen opens his eyes and is once again alive.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela: Kullervo Cursing, 1899
The fable of Kullervo is a dismal story. During a life of hardship, Kullervo is visited by violence and also commits horrible deeds himself. The painting depicts one turning point in the story. Kullervo, an orphan with supernatural strength, is sold as a slave and sent to the forest to shepherd cattle. His mean-spirited mistress has baked a stone inside the loaf of bread Kullervo has for his meal. When Kullervo cuts the bread, he breaks his knife, the only keepsake he has from his father. Enraged, Kullervo drives the cattle into a bog and gathers a new herd of wolves, bears and lynx. The story becomes a spiral of revenge. This painting casts the story into a setting of a landscape glowing with the colours of autumn.
NOTE! Its status as a national gallery requires the Ateneum Art Museum to lend its works to other museums in Finland and abroad, and this is one of the reasons why the selection of works on display in Ateneum varies to some extent.
More information on the works and artists from the Finnish National Gallery Collections web service.