At the turn of the 20th century, artists were preoccupied by great philosophical questions and the mysteries of the human condition. They turned their attention to the human psyche and pivotal moments in human life, such as birth, death and maturation into adulthood. Symbolists were fascinated by dreams and the imagination, and they often depicted these themes of the invisible world in their art.
Symbolists often found their inspiration in literature and music. The most famous literary source was Charles Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil, 1857). Symbolists admired Neoplatonism and considered the material world to be merely a reflection of the real world of ideas. For them, works of art build bridges between worlds.
Beda Stjernschantz: Everywhere a Voice Invites Us…, 1895
Many symbolists considered music to be the highest art. In this picture you can almost hear one girl singing and the other playing. Having studied art in Helsinki and Paris, Stjernschantz was a key symbolist in the 1890s. This painting, which takes its title from the lyrics of the patriotic Song of Finland, is Stjernschantz’s main work. Painted in Estonia on the island of Vorms, the picture has a dreamlike atmosphere and is both decorative and stark at the same time. Shown in a nearly empty and shadowless space rendered in a narrow palette, the children symbolise timeless innocence and vulnerable beauty. The symbolists did not seek to imitate nature; the external motif was for them always subservient to spiritual truth and emotional expression.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela: By the River of Tuonela, study for the Jusélius Mausoleum frescos, 1903
Industrialist Fritz Arthur Juselius commissioned a mausoleum to commemorate his daughter, Sigrid, who had died at the young age of 11. Built in Pori between 1898 and 1903, the monument was designed by architect Josef Stenbäck, and the frescoes in the interior were ordered from Akseli Gallen-Kallela, who a few years prior had studied Early Renaissance frescoes in Italy.
The three tempera studies are segments of a story about the cycle of human life, the mystery of life and death, and the human condition. By the River of Tuonela shows death taking people on their last journey. The swan gliding on the water is a red version of the symbolic bird in Lemminkäinen’s Mother. Gallen-Kallela has painted himself into the right-hand side of the picture, wearing an apron and with a trowel in his hand. Building depicts a pioneer family in harsh circumstances: we are told the mother has just lost her baby, so her milk goes to the older child. Death reminds the family of its presence by boring a hole in the log frame of the house as the father struggles to finish the building. Spring is a pure pastoral landscape where children and adolescents, and perhaps the awakening nature as well, all have a future.
The original frescoes were destroyed in a fire in 1931, but the artist’s son Jorma Gallen-Kallela painted replicas based on his father’s studies.
Magnus Enckell: The Awakening, 1894
Enckell’s palette in this picture is limited to only a few tones. With its sharply contrasting areas of light and dark, the almost monochromatic painting is a pure example of 1890s symbolist colour asceticism. The picture was painted in Paris, where Enckell returned in autumn 1893. He had studied there before, when the trend of the day, symbolism, had already become a focus of interest among artists. The boy in this picture is shown in an arrested, almost petrified pose, his attention fixed firmly on his inner reality. The narrow palette also serves to draw the viewer’s attention to the essential.
Magnus Enckell: The Concert, 1898
The setting of Enckell’s scene of musical appreciation is the Great Hall at the University of Helsinki. The figures in the picture can be identified: artist Väinö Blomstedt is shown sitting at bottom right, the central figure is composer Selim Palmgren, and the man in profile at left is psychologist Albert Lilius. Magnus Enckell is one of the key figures of the golden age of Finnish art at the turn of the 20th century. After the turn of the century, Enckell’s symbolist style of the 1890s, with its often reduced palette and graphic appearance, began to develop in a more painterly direction towards post-impressionism and its profusion of colour and light.
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.