Hugo Simberg, Fantasy, 1896, watercolour and gold on paper, 16cm x 15cm, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

European Revivals in 2020 and beyond

Gill Crabbe, FNG Research

Following the recent concluding conference of the Finnish National Gallery’s European Revivals research project, Gill Crabbe asks its keynote speakers, art historians Professor Murdo Macdonald and Professor Patricia Berman, to assess the impact of the ten-year initiative as they look to the future

In 2009, when the Finnish National Gallery initiated its European Revivals research project the main aim was to examine the phenomena surrounding European national revivals from a more wide-scale international perspective. This included looking for parallel processes and similarities in the cultural constructions of nationhood within the European region, at a time when national art-historical discourses had emphasised a specific local uniqueness of each cultural revivalist narrative. As one of the prime movers in the Project, Director of Collections Management at the FNG Riitta Ojanperä, pointed out: ‘We didn’t want to name the project “National Revivals” but rather “European Revivals” to emphasise the transnational aspect.’ The FNG thus set out to generate a series of international conferences organised by both themselves and by institutions in other countries, that would bring together both museum and academic scholarship, fostering and broadening international networks, stimulating and publishing new research, inspiring affiliated exhibitions, and encouraging a reassessment of existing art-historical narratives.

Ten years on, and six international conferences, scores of published papers and a number of exhibitions later, the scope of European revivals has evolved substantially, as could be seen in the wide-ranging presentations at the concluding conference organised by the Finnish National Gallery in January 2020 at the Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki. During this period, the cultural revivalist discourse in art and art history has been re-examined and recontextualised, so that even the concept of a Golden Age in the long 19th century has come under scrutiny. As Patricia Berman, Theodora L. and Stanley H. Feldberg Professor of Art, Wellesley College, Massachussetts, noted in her keynote speech at the conference: ‘The idea of a Golden Age is always equivocal. When pictured in paint, it’s a perfect past in the midst of a tense present. That perfect past, in European Golden Ages was almost always an ethnic discourse, erasing or marginalising certain populations. What we increasingly and collectively see is how profoundly shaped by stereotypes our discipline has been and how to shape the tools to defuse and move beyond them.’

Indeed, in the collection of peer-reviewed papers by those who had contributed over the years which was published by the FNG to coincide with the 2020 conference, Riitta Ojanperä and Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, Chief Curator at the Ateneum Art Museum, who were both initiators of the project, wrote: ‘The issue of cultural revivals, whether national, universal or local, is far more wide-reaching, multidimensional and complex than we could possibly have imagined at the beginning of this journey.’ It is a journey that has centred around a series of conferences that has taken those involved on a round trip from Helsinki to Oslo, Krakow, Edinburgh and back to Helsinki, with institutions from these cities hosting them in an impressive example of international collaboration. Themes ranged from ‘Myths, Legends and Dreams of a Nation’ (2009) to ‘Artists’ Colonies and Nature’ (2015), ‘Aesthetic Values in the National Context’ (2014), ‘Modern Identities’ (2012) and ‘Cultural Mythologies around 1900’ (2017).

Featured image: Hugo Simberg, Fantasy, 1896, watercolour and gold on paper, 16cm x 15cm, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen
Public domain. This image of a work of art is released under a CC0 licence, and can be freely used because the copyright (70 full calendar years after the death of the artist) has expired.

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