Albert Edelfelt, From St. Cloud Park, Paris, 1905, oil on canvas, 65cm x 81.5cm Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Pakarinen

Editorial: Merging Past and Present

Marja Sakari, PhD, Museum Director, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum


22 November 2022


One of the best-known ‘old masters’ in Finnish art history is undoubtedly the painter Albert Edelfelt. One might think one knows his art through and through, but still there have been new books and much new research published lately. These are shedding light, for example, on everything from the artist’s republican political ideas, to his married life. One aspect of recent research has focused on his career as a cultural ambassador for Finnish art at the end of the 19th century. Times change and accordingly so do the perspectives; new archival materials can be found or new truths revealed when one reads already-existing materials from different angles.

The current edition of FNG Research is mostly dedicated to articles concerning Albert Edelfelt. As I write this Editorial, the exhibition ‘Albert Edelfelt: Modern artist life in fin-de-siècle Europe’ is open at the Gothenburg Museum of Art (22 October 2022 – 12 March 2023). The exhibition arrived in Gothenburg from the Petit Palais in Paris, where it had reached almost 140,000 visitors. It seems that Nordic art is now inspiring the international public in the same way that it had done when the artists were still living at the end of 19th century.

For many years at the Ateneum we have been working to promote our classics internationally and to collaborate with museums in Europe. The aim of this kind of co-operation is not only to increase the international impact of our museum or to boost the visibility of our brand abroad, but also to learn and exchange knowledge on many levels.

The exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris was on display in Spring of this year (10 March – 10 July 2022). It was the result of extensive international negotiations, meetings and knowledge-sharing workshops. The most hectic planning occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic, as it was not possible to meet face to face. Nevertheless, the process showed that it was possible to develop the concept of an exhibition through online contact. The Chief Curator of the Petit Palais, Anne-Charlotte Cathelineau, met virtually with our curators Hanne Selkokari and Anne-Maria Pennonen via Teams. As it turned out, their first face-to-face meeting took place only at the opening of the exhibition in March 2022.

As the result of this exchange, we are publishing several articles in this issue of FNG Research. Without this collaboration, we would not have benefitted from the research into, for example, the French Press reviews from Edelfelt’s time. Anne-Charlotte Cathelineau writes about the reception of Edelfelt’s art, starting from his first success at the Salon in Paris in 1877. Her article introduces many earlier, previously unresearched writings in the Parisian Press. We can discover just how important a place Edelfelt was able to occupy in the Parisian art scene during his long stay in the French capital. As Cathelineau states, reading the Press notices from the 1880s and 1890s, it is clear that critics were becoming more aware of a specific Nordic school and its main representatives. From various articles published from that time, she is able to conclude that the praise for foreign artists played into an attempt to revitalise the French school, which many critics of the day saw was in need of renewal.

Two more articles on Edelfelt in this issue consider different aspects of his career. Anne-Maria Pennonen focuses on the cosmopolitan side of the artist, while Hanne Selkokari highlights Edelfelt’s artworks in the Ateneum Art Museum’s collection and his role as an art expert and intermediary on the Finnish art-scene.

This edition is also introducing a much younger and less well-known artist, namely Elga Sesemann. Her art has been exhibited lately in some of our thematic shows, such as ‘Urban Encounters’, in 2018, and ‘Modern Woman’, in the Spring of this year. In her article ‘Hauntings: Taking a Look at Elga Sesemann’s Landscapes’, Emmi Halmesvirta introduces the Derridian term hauntology, a way of bringing to the present mental ghosts that haunt the present, in her analysis of some of Sesemann’s works. This term fits her art perfectly, as Sesemann’s family was forced to flee their home when Finland lost large parts of Karelia and the city of Vyborg during the Second World War. The artist’s traumatic experiences are a ‘haunting’, appearing in the melancholic atmosphere in many of her paintings. As Halmesvirta writes: ‘It is interesting to consider these [Sesemann’s] landscapes of the city from the viewpoint of haunting, because of the spectral quality of the figures in some of them.’ Hauntology has opened for her a new way of looking at the connection between the past and the present in Sesemann’s art.

The third topic in this issue of FNG Research is the conservation of contemporary art works and how the profession has changed over recent decades. Siukku Nurminen has enjoyed a long career as senior conservator of contemporary art for the Finnish National Gallery. In an interview in this edition, she describes her involvement in Sheela Gowda’s installation, Collateral, shown at the recent ARS22 exhibition. The work included materials that are used to make incense in India which were burnt in Kiasma in situ on metal grids, the ephemeral ashes reminding us of the impermanence of life. From the conservators’ point of view this work presented a challenge; first how to burn anything safely in a museum and secondly what to do with the remaining ashes on deinstallation. As the exhibition has now ended, the ashes are being donated for use in the making of ceramics. It is another transformation that will return the materials to the continuum of life. In this case, it is the materiality and the memory of the former artwork that will be haunting us, as new ceramic objects emerge.

Finally, I would like to draw your attention to our annual call for research interns for 2023. Applications will be taken until 31 December 2022, and two interns selected by 20 January 2023. Details of how to apply are in this issue.

Featured image: Albert Edelfelt, From St Cloud Park, Paris, 1905, oil on canvas, 65cm x 81.5cm. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Pakarinen
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.

Read more — Download FNG Research No. 3/2022 as a PDF

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