The Magic North

The Magic North - National Mythologies. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

National Mythologies

Mythical narratives about one’s own people’s heroic past were important in countries that were struggling for independence in the late 1800s. Visual art took on a central role in this effort. Artists in Finland mainly depicted episodes from the national epic poem, The Kalevala, while the Norwegians concentrated on the Viking era. The Kalevala was compiled in the 1830s, based on older folk poetry. However there was a desire to believe that it was a depiction of an original golden age of the Finnish people and of knowledge that had not yet been dulled by the arrival of Christianity from abroad.

In his paintings, Akseli Gallen-Kallela succeeded in imbuing The Kalevala’s supernatural events with a dramatic power. Thus his work paralleled that of Norway’s Gerhard Munthe. In a series of fairytale water colours painted beginning in 1893, he aimed to maintain the folk art tradition by refreshing it. And we know that Gallen-Kallela studied Munthe’s fairytale paintings as early as 1894.

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