Finnish Artists in Ruovesi
The exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum from 15 November 2019 to 26 January 2020
Accesible guide includes information about the Ateneum Art Museum´s building and its history.
Ruovesi in the province of Pirkanmaa in Western Finland has held an attraction for artists since the 1820s, drawn there by its nature, people, folk traditions and lifestyle. Some artists settled in the area, building a studio home or summer villa, while some visited often, others only once. Ruovesi features in the works of numerous artists, both in genre scenes and as majestic wilderness landscapes. Although no close-knit artist colony ever emerged at Ruovesi, for artists it was an important place that awakened emotional responses rooted in actual experience and observation.
The central theme in the exhibition is the notion of genius loci, the spirit of a place, and its importance to artistic creativity. Through experience and recollection of a particular environment, the artist turns observations into a work of art, an interpretation of an existing locale or a place from the past. Ruovesi was where artists could withdraw to engage in a spiritual quest and find peace. It provided a setting where they could focus on creative work and search for new forms of expression. As a place and a landscape, Ruovesi was a central motif that artists reproduced and revisited again and again in their careers and in different media. As an environment and a site for dwellings, it provided the background for life events, the emotional responses to which artists explored in their work.
The works selected for the show all examine themes intimately connected to place. All featured artists lived and worked in Ruovesi around the time the works were created. The artists are Lauri Anttila, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Gabriel Engberg, Werner Holmberg, Kalle Löytänä, Elga Sesemann, Hugo Simberg, Louis Sparre and Ellen Thesleff. The works on display cover a timespan from the 1850s to the 1980s.
These words were written by the Anu Utriainen, Curator of the exhibition, Senior Researcher at the Ateneum Art Museum
MEMORY OF PLACE
Werner Holmberg (1830–1860) painted his pictures of Ruovesi during the last years of his life. Having studied landscape painting in Düsseldorf, Germany, Holmberg spent the summers of 1857 and 1859 in Finland and made visits to Kuru, Virrat and Toriseva. He painted scenes of rural life, lakeside views and forest interiors. Holmberg made drawings and watercolour studies on site and later freely combined motifs and details in his studio for the final painting. Some of the motifs from Ruovesi also appear in his oil paintings of Norwegian and German landscapes. Holmberg’s pictures are therefore not documentarily or geographically accurate studies of nature but rather collages made up of disparate elements.
A sense of place and its mood, ephemerality, lighting and emotions awakened by weather phenomena were particularly important for Holmberg. A sketch made on site is a document of an immediate encounter with nature and the environment, whereas the finished picture is a visual image of the memory and mood evoked by the experience. Holmberg’s itineraries in Ruovesi and the places he visited can be identified through his drawings and watercolours.
SIMBERG AND RUOVESI
Hugo Simberg (1873–1917) interrupted his studies at the drawing school of the Finnish Art Society in 1895 and travelled to Ruovesi in August of that same year to be instructed by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865–1931). Simberg stayed in Ruovesi for three extended periods in 1895 and 1897, periods that came to significantly shape the young artist and his work. Many of Simberg’s key themes – death, small devils and allegories of nature – can be traced to his sojourns to Ruovesi. Under Gallen-Kallela’s tutelage, Simberg also learned tempera and various printmaking techniques.
In Ruovesi Simberg found silence, peace and the time to study and develop his two-dimensional symbolist and decorative style. He drew subjects for his works from the locale’s distinctive features: the simple and grim life of peasants, the landscapes and the seasonal changes. The figures in his paintings Autumn I and II (1895) and Frost (1895) are mythic creatures that represent the seasons and associated weather phenomena. Following the symbolist way of thinking, the motifs can be seen as depictions of the stages and cycles of human life. The works are pictures of an extrasensory reality that Simberg felt was vital to the essence of art.
AKSELI GALLEN-KALLELA’S KALELA AND WOODCUTS
Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s wilderness studio, Kalela, on the shore of Näsijärvi lake in Ruovesi, was completed in 1895. The artist lived in it with his family on three periods until 1921. During the initial five-year period, Gallen-Kallela’s private life became entwined in many ways with his creative work. In the late 1890s in Kalela, Gallen-Kallela concentrated on printmaking. He created mostly portraits and winter landscapes based on scenes around Kalela but also bookplates.
As Gallen-Kallela’s mode of expression shifted towards symbolism, he also became interested in the spiritualist ideas of the time – theosophy, esotericism and spiritualism. During a trip to Berlin in 1895, he studied tempera painting and printmaking techniques and purchased equipment for his studio in Kalela. He taught himself woodcut technique after returning to Finland.
A great personal tragedy befell the couple when their first-born daughter, Marjatta, died of diphtheria in 1895. Gallen-Kallela processed the loss in his prints, and the grief transformed into a period of intense creativity. Gallen-Kallela created his most famous woodcuts in rapid succession after the daughter’s death, among them Flower of Death, The Defence of the Sampo, Inspiration and Death and the Flower.
The following sentences are a quote by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, in the book Kallela from 1924:
”We sat in sauna every night with the locals, Sparre and myself. The handsome daughters would take turns throwing water on the stones and sitting on the benches, according to the custom still widespread at the time.”
Finnish artists first encountered the new genre of naturalist depictions of common people in Paris in the 1880s. The idea was to depict reality without any embellishment. Ideas of the rural way of life – the elemental strength of the people and untamed nature – all inspired artists to return to Finland to paint. Gallen-Kallela, who grew up in Tyrvää in Western Finland, made his first visits to Central Finland in 1886. A couple of years later, he succeeded in getting fellow artist Louis Sparre to join him. They were both enchanted by the pristine nature of Ruovesi and Keuruu, the locals and their communities. The two friends stayed at the Ekola croft, where in addition to painting they also went hunting and fishing and participated in croft activities. The trip resulted in many paintings and drawings depicting the occupants and buildings at Ekola, including In the Sauna, First Lesson and Wound Fever (Mute Suffering). The setting and lifestyle of people living in the backcountry made a lasting impression on Gallen-Kallela and provided the initial impulse for the figures in his future works on Kalevala themes.
SKETCHES FOR THE KALEVALA FRESCOES
Akseli Gallen-Kallela travelled in 1898 to Italy to study fresco painting. A year later in Ruovesi, he painted studies for the Kalevala-themed frescoes The Forging of the Sampo, Ilmarinen Ploughing the Viper-Field, The Defence of the Sampo and Heathendom and Christendom. The international public could view the finished frescoes on the cupola of the Finnish Pavilion at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair. Staying in Ruovesi around the mid-1890s, Gallen-Kallela had studied new ways to depict the mythic world of the national epic. He abandoned the naturalist style in favour of a synthetist idiom with symbolist overtones. Just as in the frescoes, the key scenes from the national epic are depicted in the decorative studies as dynamic compositions with distinct outlines and uniform colour surfaces. The Kalevala frescoes had a second coming in 1928 when Gallen-Kallela, working with his son Jorma, recreated them on the cupola in the entrance hall of the Finnish National Museum.
ELLEN THESLEFF IN MUROLE
Ellen Thesleff (1869–1954) spent most of her summers in Ruovesi. After initially living on the Murolekoski farm, the family later stayed in a former canal guard’s house, which in 1899 was extended into a studio house designed by Thesleff.
Whenever she was in Finland, Thesleff preferred to stay in Murole, where she went on long walks, drew and painted outdoors on the banks of the rapids and on nearby Kissasaari island. The view from the window of her studio in Casa Bianca is a subject that Thesleff painted again and again throughout her career. The works illustrate the entire arc of Thesleff’s creative output, capturing the changes and shifts in her style and technique. In Murole Thesleff was able to focus exclusively on her work without any obligation to participate in the family’s lively social life or household chores.
In 1928 Thesleff created wall paintings and painted decorations for the tiled stove in the Pekkala manor in Ruovesi. As their titles suggest, the paintings Morning, Day, Evening and Night depict the different times of the day.
The lakes and backwoods of Ruovesi are typical Finnish inland landscapes. Although there are no views designated as national landscapes in the central regions of Finland, the lakes, rivers and backwoods, seen close-up or from a high vantage point, are typical in paintings depicting scenery from this region. Nature in Ruovesi was powerful for artists to behold, and their landscape paintings can be seen not only as depictions of actual nature but also as recollections, metaphors and mindscapes evoked by the real experience.
Landscapes can also carry political meanings. The natural world, forests in particular, is an important source of livelihood and income in Finland. One might also wonder if the idealisation and depiction of the country’s inland landscapes was not a commentary on the region’s booming forest industry.
ELGA SESEMANN’S WILDERNESS STUDIO ELKALA
Elga Sesemann (1922–2007) built a studio house in Pääskyniemi at Ruovesi in the early 1950s with her husband Seppo Näätänen (1920–1964), also an artist. The couple lived in Ruovesi until the husband’s death. The move from Helsinki to the remote countryside was a radical change that had a profound impact on Sesemann’s creative work. In the 1940s, she had gained a name for herself as a strong and personal expressionist. Her output during the period in Ruovesi is distinguished by experiments of all kind, inspired not only by nature but also by philosophy and literature.by nature but also by philosophy and literature.
At the third floor there is another exhibition, Through My Travels I Found Myself – Helene Schjerfbeck.
Open the accessible guide to the exhibition
ATENEUM ART MUSEUM
The heart of the collection of Ateneum Art Museum consists of works donated by the Finnish Art Society (founded in 1846). From 1888 onwards, the collection was housed in a dedicated building, the Ateneum, which was designed as an exhibition and educational site for the Finnish Art Society and The Finnish Society of Crafts and Design. The building had both fine art as well as applied art under its roof. The two schools were among the most modern in Europe, admitting both male and female students right from the start. Many prominent Finnish artists and designers studied at the Ateneum up until the 1980s.
Since 1991 Ateneum has operated exclusively as an art museum, its other operations having been moved elsewhere. Today, the school of the Finnish Art Society is the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts, a division of the University of the Arts. The Museum of Art and Design is now known as the Design Museum, and higher education in art and design is provided by Aalto ARTS.
Nowadays, Ateneum is an internationally renowned art museum whose collections and exhibitions attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, both from Finland and abroad. It is part of the Finnish National Gallery, whose art collection is shared national property. In addition to Ateneum, the Finnish National Gallery also manages the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma and the Sinebrychoff Art Museum.