Alfred William Finch, Rainy Weather at Hampton Court, 1907, oil on canvas, 63cm x 79cm, Antell Collections, Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

Article: ‘New relations, unsuspected harmonies’: Modern British Art in Finland, 1906–1964

Inga Fraser, Assistant Curator of Modern British Art, Tate, London

 

The above quotation[1] is taken from a description penned by Roger Fry of a painting by Paul Cézanne, Les Maisons Jaunes, (1879–82), now known as The Viaduct at L’Estaque, which was shown at the exhibition, ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, at the Grafton Galleries in London from 8 November, 1910 to 11 January, 1911. This work was acquired for the collection of the Finnish Art Society at the Art Museum of the Ateneum in Helsinki,[2] following discussion involving the London-based Finnish art historian Tancred Borenius and the Finnish professor of aesthetics and literature Yrjö Hirn. Copies of the letters between Borenius and Hirn held in the archive collections of the Finnish National Gallery show the extent to which Fry influenced this particular acquisition. Borenius refers to Fry’s direct involvement in the selection of acquisitions, recommends Fry to Hirn as one of Europe’s foremost connoisseurs and, finally, mentions the fact that Fry promised to publish a written appraisal of the acquisition in The Burlington Magazine, thus validating the quality and value of the painting in the eyes of the public. With increasing infrastructure and affluence in the first half of the 20th century, travel and international communications became more viable for artists, critics, scholars and collectors alike in Europe. Consequently, the period 1905–65 was witness to the rapid expansion of the art market. National museums in a number of European capitals outside the established art market centres of London, Paris, Vienna, Moscow and St. Petersburg, began to collect contemporary and international art; and the frequency with which temporary exhibitions were staged increased. The legacy of decisions made concerning acquisitions, exhibitions and institutional strategy during this period continue to affect the activity and structure of arts organisations to the present day and, yet, the details of the international networks that emerged and underwrote these decisions remain under-researched.

As theoretical, stylistic and technical developments in modern art spread across Europe, each country developed its own national variants that most often have been the object of study for home-grown art historians within the country of origin. By taking a view of the activity of British artists from without, focusing on the instances when artists and artworks travelled beyond national borders, I will begin to build up a picture of British art and Britishness as a foreign entity. This will, I hope, throw new light on a familiar field, and reveal something of the social, political and economic significance of art in Britain during this transitional period. Indicatively, a recent selective catalogue of the international collection of the Ateneum Art Museum, part of the Finnish National Gallery, lists works by country, covering France, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Russia, Belgium, Holland, Hungary, Estonia, Poland, the United States, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Japan, China – but not Britain, though the collection includes over 300 objects made by British or part-British artists.[3] Narrowing this number to those works made during the modern period (for the purposes of this study defined as 1890–1965), I am chiefly concerned with the 73 acquisitions that occurred within this timeframe – bracketed by the first purchases in 1906 and, in 1964, the last acquisition – which, I argue, should be seen less as a result of discreet networks and more as a product of a general programme of international acquisitions and displays.[4] Using as the backbone of my research the acquisitions made by the successive governing committees of what is now constituted as the Ateneum Art Museum, this essay attempts to map chronologically some of the exchanges between Britain and Finland – between artists, collectors, art schools, exhibition venues, commercial galleries, national galleries, scholars, critics and other organisations – to which Fry’s description of ‘new relations, unsuspected harmonies’ may fruitfully be applied.

[1] Roger Fry, ‘Acquisition by the National Gallery at Helsingfors’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 18, no. 95, February 1911, p. 293.
[2] Maurice Denis’s Calypso, now known as Ulysses with Calypso (1905), was also acquired by the Ateneum. For details of works shown, see Anna Gruetzner Robins, ‘“Manet and the Post-Impressionists”: a checklist of exhibits’, The Burlington Magazine, December 2010, no. CLII, pp. 782–793.
[3] Ateneum Art Museum: A Selection from the International Collection (Helsinki: National Gallery of Finland, 2000). A search conducted on 17 September, 2015 of the Finnish National Gallery database listed 422 works as by British or part-British artists in the collection of the Ateneum, out of a total of 22,841 works – roughly 1.8%.
[4] In total, the database lists 4,999 works dated 1890–1965 that were acquired during the same period. Of this number, 3,803 are recorded as being by Finnish or part-Finnish artists, leaving 1,196 items in the collection made by artists from abroad or unclassified. The database lists 406 works by Swedish or part-Swedish artists, 355 works by French or part-French artists and 57 works by Russian or part-Russian artists made and acquired between 1890 and 1965.

Featured image: Alfred William Finch, Rainy Weather at Hampton Court, 1907, oil on canvas, 63cm x 79cm, Antell Collections, Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

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