A land of myth and mountains

Caroline O’Leary visited Northern Stars and Southern Lights: The Golden Age of Finnish Art at the National Gallery of Ireland

Caroline O’Leary visited Northern Stars and Southern Lights: The Golden Age of Finnish Art at the National Gallery of Ireland

For many people, the word “Finland” evokes images of rolling Nordic landscapes and snow topped mountains.
Finnish art may seem like an unusual choice for the newest exhibition in the National Gallery of Ireland “Northern
Stars and Southern Lights: The Golden Age of Finnish Art 1870-1920”. Unlike last year’s Polish art exhibition, Finland has few cultural or population based connections to Ireland and the country itself did not fully come into its own until it achieved independence
from the Grand Duchy of Russia in 1917. However, like Ireland’s own history, Finland’s late independence caused them to strive for a national identity of their own, combining their people, landscape and mythology
within art to create an image and style that is unique to their country.

The exhibition focuses on the various sections that evolved within Finnish art between
1870 and 1920 – the Finnish “Golden Age”. Much of the work that emerged was influenced and inspired by the Paris art movement of the time, where the Realism movement had inspired artists to venture outside the studios into the natural world and paint en plein air, which quickly led to the development of the Impressionist movement. The influence of these various styles can particularly be seen in the Naturalism
room, the first room of the exhibition.

In keeping with the idea of en plein air production, most of the works focus on the Finnish countryside and the large peasant class that inhabited it. The room is laid out beginning with the Realism-based works, which are a striking depiction of the harshness
of peasant life at the time, as the unflatteringly
honest depiction of both figures and the surroundings strike a cord with the viewer. Particularly moving is the painting Orphan by Albert Gebhard, a desolate portrait
of an abandoned child in a dark room who peers out through the gloom at the viewer with her striking yet unfathomably deep blue eyes, and Eero Jarnefelt’s Under the Yoke which depicts soot and ash covered peasants burning scrubland for farming. This haunting painting combines naturalism
and realism in its depiction of the foreground
figures but suggests Impressionist influence in the coloured background as the scorched earth fades to reds, blues and purples.

The exhibition as a whole rests heavily on the works of two of Finland’s most renowned
artists: Albert Edelfelt and Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Both artists came from different
backgrounds and focused on different
themes in their painting, yet both were instrumental in establishing Finnish art in their own country and abroad, especially in Paris. Edelfelt came from an aristocratic background and spent much of his career in Paris. He painted in the style of Realism and was acclaimed in the Paris salons, winning numerous awards. Edelfelt was a prolific portrait painter and nearly the entire second room of this exhibition is dedicated to his renditions of French and Finnish high society
figures. Particularly striking is the portrait
Virginie, a Parisian actress rumoured to have been Edelfelt’s mistress and mother to his two children, who seems to glow with happiness as she languishes over the back of a chair. The whole scene is one of relaxation and contentment, from the opulent materials
and furnishing in the room behind to the figure’s large liquid brown eyes that gaze serenely out from the canvas. Critics have suggested that due to Edelfelt’s aristocratic background he was never able to truly identify
with the peasant figures in his naturalist work, yet in his portraits and also his landscape
work he is very much at home and the true beauty of the figures and landscapes shines out.

In contrast in Edelfelt, Gallen-Kallela came from a peasant background and remained
proud of his roots, presenting a less idealised version of peasant life than many of his contemporaries. Though his paintings included naturalistic and landscape work, Gallen-Kallela’s most famous works are large-scale paintings depicting the Kalevala, an epic poetic work of Finnish mythology, and the paintings featured are the first real insight into Finnish cultural history. The most famous work on show is Aino, a huge triptych that illustrates scenes from the story
of Aino, a young girl who drowns herself rather than marry an old man. Most of these realism-based paintings are beautifully rendered in shining oil paints but the most interesting works in the room are several scenes painted in tempura paint – mineral based earth paints that add a flatness and illustrative character to the work. These are a stark contrast to realistic oil works that surround them, and offer a totally different perspective on both the mythology and the viewer’s perception of it.

The final room in the exhibition represents
modernist Finnish painting to 1920 and is a disappointment after the previously viewed works. The information provided on Verner Thome’s In the Borely Park comments
that the first modernist works were created in reaction to an unfavourable review
of a Paris salon show, accusing Finnish painting as being stale and unprogressive. This rather uninspired beginning seems to be evident in the works which rely a little too much the influence of Cézanne and the Fauvist movement. It’s a disappointment that given the obvious talent of the Finnish artists, they could not branch out develop more of their own style than continuing to follow popular Parisian trends.

Surprisingly it seems that the most interesting
part of the exhibition could be easily missed, located in the hallway across from the mythological room. This is a collection
of etchings by Gallen-Kallela and watercolour paintings by his protégé Hugo Simberg, who was inspired by his master’s mythological works to create his own fantastical
images of Finnish life. His works combine peasant life with devils or images of death, but instead of images of fear and dread his paintings are whimsical scenes of bright colours. They vary from humorous
scenes of The Farmer’s Wife and the Poor Devil where a devil down on his luck appeals for help, to more moving scenes like Death Listens where the spectral image of death stands listening to a young boy play the violin
as an old woman lies in the background, possibly waiting for the end of the song and her life. These images are unique and imaginative,
combining Finnish mythology with unique illustrative techniques to create work that is truly original and provides Finland
with a style that is all their own.

This exhibition has plenty to admire, and showcases the talents of Finnish artists of the time. Finland itself is beautifully represented
by landscapes and the poignancy of its people. The Finnish artists were undoubtedly
accomplished and created some wonderful and striking works. However so dominant is the Parisian influence on the work that, except for the works by Gallen-Kallela and Simberg, we see nothing of a unique Finnish style. The ultimate goal of the “Golden Era” never seems to materialise,
a shame considering the tantalising
suggestion of real innovation peers out from the work, just out of reach.