Interview by Gill Crabbe, FNG Research
As a new book on Akseli Gallen-Kallela is published, its author Dr. Marja Lahelma, describes the challenges of finding fresh interpretations of an artist who earned his reputation as a national hero in his home country
When Marja Lahelma’s book on Hugo Simberg was published last year as part of the Artists of the Ateneum series, it enjoyed such a positive reception that she was asked by the then Director of Ateneum Art Museum Susanna Petterson to write another book – this time on the great national hero of Finland’s Golden Age painters, Akseli Gallen-Kallela. This series of books initiated by the Finnish National Gallery aims to shed new light on the classics of Finnish art. For Lahelma, researching this second book presented different kinds of challenges to the one she wrote on Simberg.
The first challenge was a practical one: whereas with Simberg she had been able to comb through almost all of the material available relating to him during her research period, with Gallen-Kallela there was an overwhelming wealth of source material, and she had just eight months to produce her manuscript. This time frame meant that Lahelma would need to be selective with the materials she used and that selection process would need to be driven by a strong thematic approach.
The second challenge – and by far the greater of the two – was for Lahelma to find a way to look beyond the prevailing views and interpretations of an artist who, in terms of Finnish culture, achieved an iconic status, not only within Finnish art history but within Finnish society as a whole. Here was a man, credited as a national hero, whose art was a touchstone of Finland’s quest for its independent nationhood through the depiction of a national landscape and through an exploration of the mythic dimension of Finnishness in his narrative paintings of the epic poem The Kalevala. A man whose funeral in 1931 was attended by the great and the good of the country, and where ‘vast crowds lined the streets of Helsinki to pay their respects to an artist whose work had become the shared heritage of the entire Finnish nation’.
 Susanna Pettersson, ‘Vision, Curiosity, and Thirst for Adventure (Introduction).’ In Artists of the Ateneum: Akseli Gallen-Kallela, by Marja Lahelma. Ateneum Publications Vol. 110. Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum, 2018, 6.
Featured image: Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lemminkäinen’s Mother, 1897, tempera on canvas, 85.5cm x 108.5 cm. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen
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