Gunnar Berndtson, Almée, an Egyptian Dancer, 1883, oil on panel, 45 x 37.5cm Antell Collections. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

Layers of Fantasy – Gunnar Berndtson’s Almée

Elina Heikka, MA, Director, The Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki

I first came across the painting Almée, an Egyptian Dancer, by Gunnar Berndtson (1854–1895) in 1989, when I was looking through the picture archives of the Ateneum Art Museum as part of my research for a series of short television programmes about music that I was co-producing. I found a black-and-white photograph of the work on cardboard backing. At the time, the actual painting hung in the office of then Director General of the National Board of Customs in Kaleva House, a neo-Renaissance building on Erottaja in Helsinki. Designed by Theodor Höijer, the neo-Renaissance palace with its decorative interiors seemed to echo the spirit of the fantastical interior in Almée (1883), and the exoticism of the painting established a thematic connection with the international profile of the Customs Board. These factors may well have contributed to the decision regarding where to place the work, which belonged to the collection of the Ateneum Art Museum. At the time, the painting had not been displayed in the Ateneum except as a photographic reproduction in Berndtson’s 1896 memorial exhibition,[1] which also explained why it was relatively unknown.

The painting of an almée (almeh, meaning an Oriental dancer) with a drummer, was perfect for illustrating the musical theme of our programme. The black drum player, however, is an indistinct presence on the right-hand side of the painting, while the dancer dominates in the foreground with her curving, bare back and hips. Also in the picture are two apparently European gentlemen, one of whom is reclining on a sofa in a window recess, leaning on his elbow and holding a water pipe in his hand. The other spectator is closer to the viewer, sitting in the Western manner. The postures of the two men indicate that they are watching the performance with great concentration; however, they are not displaying their acclaim but rather acting with cultivated restraint befitting of the civilised upper classes of the time. The topic of the work is suspect as regards its propriety – the garment on the floor would seem to imply a striptease performance – but the artist manages quite well to avoid any hint of indecency. The viewer’s attention is drawn instead to the sumptuous interior: the archway that divides the space and the stained-glass windows, the multi-coloured light on the wall reminiscent of the glitter of jewels, of mythic, abundant treasures of the Orient.

[1] Katalog öfver arbeten af Gunnar Berndtson utställda i Ateneum. Februari 1896. Helsinki.

Featured image: Gunnar Berndtson, Almée, an Egyptian Dancer, 1883, oil on panel, 45 x 37.5cm. Antell Collections, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

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