Lars-Gunnar Nordström, Blue Moment, 1948–49, colour woodcut, 26.5cm x 40cm Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Jenni Nurminen

Editorial: Fresh Insights from a New Look at our National Collections

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


3 April, 2023


As I write this Editorial, the Ateneum Art Museum is about to reopen. Following a year of renovation work the museum will look different; in addition to replacing the entire air-conditioning system, we have renovated the public spaces in the basement with a new-look museum shop and other services in the court area, a new toilet area and newly organised tickethall. The grand staircase has been repainted and cleaned; the Ateneum auditorium has a new technical equipment and the workshop a new interior design.

This renovation period also gave us the opportunity to rework the collection display and we reopen the museum with our new collection exhibition ‘A Question of Time’. This thematic display aims to challenge the way in which the collection of the Finnish National Gallery has traditionally been viewed. Instead of the usual chronological approach, ‘A Question of Time’ presents the collection through four themes – The Age of Nature, Images of a People, Modern Life and Art and Power – that range across different eras and draw on today’s burning issues. There are questions hovering in the background. How has the Ateneum collection been built up over the years? How can it be a collection for everyone? In this edition of FNG Research we present the collection display through the lens of an interview with Anne-Maria Pennonen and Mariia Niskavaara, the two curators of the theme The Age of Nature which we have chosen as the most urgent issue of our time to be foregrounded in ‘A Question of Time’.

A new biography in English about the art and life of Helene Schjerfbeck also challenges the traditional view of one of Finland’s most beloved artists. Art historian Marja Lahelma’s online book Helene Schjerfbeck: An Artist’s Life is published alongside this edition of FNG Research.

Our spring edition highlights two exhibition projects, namely the upcoming Albert Edelfelt exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum and the current exhibition and research project on Alexander Lauréus, held at the Sinebrychoff Art Museum. Two articles are dedicated to Edelfelt. First, in ‘A Discovered Painting: Albert Edelfelts Study for Woman from Arles, the art historian Laura Gutman spotlights a painting that was not known before and had not been mentioned in Bertel Hintze’s authoritative catalogue raisonné. In her complementary article, ‘How Albert Edelfelt’s Portrait of Mme Dani Turned into Study for Woman from Arles, Tuulikki Kilpinen analyses the same painting from the conservator’s viewpoint.

Turning to the Sinebrychoff Art Museum’s programme, Gill Crabbe sheds light on a project that led to the current exhibition of Alexander Lauréus, in an interview with the curators Ira Westergård and Lotta Nylund, whose doctoral thesis on Lauréus has been the research base for the show.

The philosophical questions behind conservation and restoration form the subject of Ari Tanhuanpää’s article ‘On the Will of Preservation’, also in this issue. The concerns he contemplates are especially pertinent today, not least when the cultural heritage of Ukraine is being destroyed in the wake of hideous war.

While Ari Tanhuanpää’s article differs in subject from Tuulikki Kilpinen’s, both underline different aspects of the importance of conservation. Kilpinen’s case study shows how essential it can be to collaborate with art historians in the process of authenticating an artwork. Together with Laura Gutman’s research we can now prove that the painting sold in 2019 at an auction in Paris is an authentic work by Albert Edelfelt. In addition, the painting, which was earlier considered to be a portrait of Mme Dani, is in fact a study (1891–93) for Edelfelt’s painting Woman from Arles (1893).

Tanhuanpää’s philosophical and deep pondering upon the meaning and premises of conservation is an important statement for the preservation of culture in general. In introducing the ideas of Cesare Brandi, who bases his thinking on semiotics and phenomenology, Tanhuanpää points to the importance of considering an artwork as more than its materials and how it should thus be safeguarded. The art object remains self-identical across time, even if damaged by time. And it is just there that conservation is needed, to maintain the authenticity and originality of the object’s ontological essence. It means preserving an artwork’s pure form. This, according to Tanhuanpää, is a paradox as artworks are mostly materials and a conservator is dealing mainly with materials. But while taking care of its materials, a conservator succeeds at the same time in maintaining the essence of the piece. From there comes the imperative to maintain the materials for as long as possible. Tanhuanpää discusses whether the Kantian categorical imperative from which Brandi derives his thinking can be applied to conservation.

When I read the interview with Mariia Niskavaara and Anne-Maria Pennonen alongside Ari Tanhuanpää’s article, somehow they seem to be connected. Both address the meaning of safeguarding art, to make us remember and but also to make us witnesses in time. The points both these articles make are basically the same. While conserving artworks we, as humans, have the chance to prevent something spiritually and intellectually invaluable from disappearing, in the same way that with the theme of The Age of Nature, the museum attempts to contribute to activities that could slow down climate change and ultimately avert catastrophe.

Finally, we are delighted to announce the results of the selection process of our two research interns for 2023. We look forward to publishing the outcomings of their research next year.

Featured image: Lars-Gunnar Nordström, Blue Moment, 1948–49, colour woodcut, 26.5cm x 40cm.  Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Jenni Nurminen

Read more — Download FNG Research No. 1/2023 as a PDF

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Alexander Lauréus, A Monk in a Ruin, which has been made into a Wine Cellar, 1823, oil on canvas, 65cm x 50cm. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Pakarinen

Alexander Lauréus – Journey to Success

Gill Crabbe, FNG Research

The exhibition ‘Alexander Lauréus – To Rome’ involved careful research and curation in reassessing the artist’s oeuvre, as well as in attracting international audiences who might be less familiar with this foundational artist in Finland’s national art collection. Gill Crabbe meets the show’s two curators, Ira Westergård and Lotta Nylund, to discuss their collaboration

Planning a bicentennial exhibition of an artist offers a golden opportunity to reassess their significance, not only in terms of their place within the canon of art history but also their relevance to today’s culture. So when the Sinebrychoff Art Museum was approached in 2020 by Lotta Nylund, Chief Curator of Villa Gyllenberg Art Museum, with a proposal to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Alexander Lauréus (1783–1823), whose oeuvre is the subject of her doctoral thesis, they did not need much persuading. Yet while this might in some ways seem strange for an artist whose fortunes had long been in the doldrums, and who had not been the subject of an exhibition in over 40 years, the museum’s chief curator Ira Westergård could see the potential in spotlighting this Turku-born painter who in his day had enjoyed considerable success as a pioneer of a new kind of genre painting in the early Romantic period. For this kind of exhibition project can not only revive interest in an artist, marking a pivotal point of ‘rediscovery’ but also, in spreading the net to a wider international audience, it can even mark a moment of discovery for the very first time.

From the Finnish National Gallery’s standpoint there was ample reason to stage a Lauréus exhibition now at the Sinebrychoff Art Museum. First and foremost, Lauréus has excellent credentials. ‘Lauréus comes at the starting point of the Finnish canon of art,’ Westergård points out. ‘When the Finnish Art Society was established in 1846, Lauréus was among the very first whose works they collected. A group of nine oil paintings had already been acquired in 1849, and the FNG Collection now includes a total of 31 oil paintings, making it the biggest collection of his paintings in Finland. Although his career really started when he enrolled at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, Lauréus was born in Turku, so the Finnish Art Society more or less co-opted his art into the Finnish context as part of its aspirations in creating a Finnish national identity.’  Lauréus was also a technically excellent painter, executing fine copies from the 17th-century Dutch masters and painting innovatory genre subjects from ordinary life. He was also renowned as a master of chiaroscuro. His works in the collection would therefore have offered opportunities for students at the Art Society’s Drawing School to learn directly from his oeuvre.

Featured image: Alexander Lauréus, A Monk in a Ruin, which has been made into a Wine Cellar, 1823, oil on canvas, 65cm x 50cm
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 ‘Alexander Lauréus – Journey to Success’, by Gill Crabbe, as a PDF

Download the interview as a PDF >>