[Image: Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lake Keitele (1905), oil on canvas, 53 x 66 cm, National Gallery, London. Photo (c) The National Gallery, London.]
The National Gallery has staged a comparative exhibition (15 November 2017-4 February 2018, free entry) included one of its best loved paintings. Lake Keitele (1905) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931), depicts the landscape of the Finnish painter’s homeland. It is a post-glacial terrain of many lakes, extensive and dense fir forests and clear air. The composition – which shows a long view over a large lake, with a wooded islet near the high horizon, tumultuous cloud at the top of the picture – was painted by the artist a number of times. It is these versions which form the centrepiece of this exhibition.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931) has become the Finnish painter par excellence. By biographical good fortune he happened to be the most nationally and internationally renowned Finnish painter working at the time of Finland’s independence from Russia (on 6 December 1917). He was also famous and beloved by compatriots due to his cycle of paintings retelling the Finnish myth of Kalevala. Gallen-Kallela was an unabashed patriot. He changed his name from Axel Waldemar Gallén to distance himself from the socially dominant Swedish culture, which formed the elite of the Russian controlled Grand Duchy of Finland, at a time when the Finnish independence movement reached a peak. One can see similar trends in the history of Norway (and other countries) at the same time.
He travelled to Paris to train at Académie Julian and Académie Cormon, studying the new French naturalism strain of realism pioneered by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884). He also came into contact with the Arts and Crafts Movement in London. As he became more interested in crafts – both European and Finnish – and began to design stained glass, tapestries and other applied art, his art diverged from the naturalism of his training. The skills and knowledge needed to create craft objects anchored the maker to a discipline at once refreshingly direct and yet steeped in refinement borne of generations of workers, mostly anonymous.
The influence of Art Nouveau and Symbolism came through both fine and applied arts and can be seen in non-naturalistic coloration and emphatic arabesques. Travels in southern latitudes (including Africa and New Mexico) also altered Gallen-Kallela’s palette, reducing the grey mid-tones, half-tones and muted light effects in his paintings. His art was taken up by Fauvists, die Brücke and Symbolists. The later work has tendency towards technical crudeness, a lessening of attention to nuance and garishness in colour.
[Image: Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Clouds (1904), oil on canvas, 64 x 64 cm, Didrichsen Art Museum, Helsinki. Photo (c) Didrichsen Art Museum, Helsinki.]
The works on display in London are largely in the earlier period of realism with a few later canvases indicating the later period. Four versions of the iconic image are gathered in London: the National Gallery’s version, two from museums in Finland and one from private collection. The differences in size and approach are small. Only the Art Nouveau/Symbolist style signature square and plainness of the lanes of wind-ruffled water distinguish the Lahti Art Museum version from the others.
Gallen-Kallela’s choice of the Kalevala is both a personal and political choice. His deep feeling for nature led to his best paintings. Lake Keitele was not only an example of quintessential of Finnish nature it was also the site for events in the Kalevala narrative. Thus the choice of the lake as image carries a double symbolic weight. The wooded islet close to the high horizon was a motif that appeared in other paintings in the artist’s work. There are other effective paintings and an attractive pastel of the motif. The figure paintings here are not the artist’s best but are included as examples of his portraits and mythological scenes. The 13 exhibited items act as a cross-section of Gallen-Kallela’s thematic, technical and stylistic range.
[Image: Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lake Landscape (1915), pastel on paper, 101 x 95 cm, private collection. Photo (c) courtesy of the owner.]
This exhibition represents the best of the artist’s work and highly recommended. The catalogue acts as a good primer for readers unfamiliar with Gallen-Kallela’s art and is clear and informative.
Anne Robbins, Lake Keitele: A Vision of Finland, National Gallery, 2017, hardback, 72pp, 35 col. illus., £14.95, ISBN 978 1 857 0 96248