Alfred William Finch, Rainy Weather at Hampton Court, 1907, oil on canvas, 63cm x 79cm, Antell Collections, Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

‘New relations, unsuspected harmonies’: Modern British Art in Finland, 1906–1964

Inga Fraser, Assistant Curator of Modern British Art, Tate, London

The above quotation[1] is taken from a description penned by Roger Fry of a painting by Paul Cézanne, Les Maisons Jaunes, (1879–82), now known as The Viaduct at L’Estaque, which was shown at the exhibition, ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, at the Grafton Galleries in London from 8 November, 1910 to 11 January, 1911. This work was acquired for the collection of the Finnish Art Society at the Art Museum of the Ateneum in Helsinki,[2] following discussion involving the London-based Finnish art historian Tancred Borenius and the Finnish professor of aesthetics and literature Yrjö Hirn. Copies of the letters between Borenius and Hirn held in the archive collections of the Finnish National Gallery show the extent to which Fry influenced this particular acquisition. Borenius refers to Fry’s direct involvement in the selection of acquisitions, recommends Fry to Hirn as one of Europe’s foremost connoisseurs and, finally, mentions the fact that Fry promised to publish a written appraisal of the acquisition in The Burlington Magazine, thus validating the quality and value of the painting in the eyes of the public. With increasing infrastructure and affluence in the first half of the 20th century, travel and international communications became more viable for artists, critics, scholars and collectors alike in Europe. Consequently, the period 1905–65 was witness to the rapid expansion of the art market. National museums in a number of European capitals outside the established art market centres of London, Paris, Vienna, Moscow and St. Petersburg, began to collect contemporary and international art; and the frequency with which temporary exhibitions were staged increased. The legacy of decisions made concerning acquisitions, exhibitions and institutional strategy during this period continue to affect the activity and structure of arts organisations to the present day and, yet, the details of the international networks that emerged and underwrote these decisions remain under-researched.

As theoretical, stylistic and technical developments in modern art spread across Europe, each country developed its own national variants that most often have been the object of study for home-grown art historians within the country of origin. By taking a view of the activity of British artists from without, focusing on the instances when artists and artworks travelled beyond national borders, I will begin to build up a picture of British art and Britishness as a foreign entity. This will, I hope, throw new light on a familiar field, and reveal something of the social, political and economic significance of art in Britain during this transitional period. Indicatively, a recent selective catalogue of the international collection of the Ateneum Art Museum, part of the Finnish National Gallery, lists works by country, covering France, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Russia, Belgium, Holland, Hungary, Estonia, Poland, the United States, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Japan, China – but not Britain, though the collection includes over 300 objects made by British or part-British artists.[3] Narrowing this number to those works made during the modern period (for the purposes of this study defined as 1890–1965), I am chiefly concerned with the 73 acquisitions that occurred within this timeframe – bracketed by the first purchases in 1906 and, in 1964, the last acquisition – which, I argue, should be seen less as a result of discreet networks and more as a product of a general programme of international acquisitions and displays.[4] Using as the backbone of my research the acquisitions made by the successive governing committees of what is now constituted as the Ateneum Art Museum, this essay attempts to map chronologically some of the exchanges between Britain and Finland – between artists, collectors, art schools, exhibition venues, commercial galleries, national galleries, scholars, critics and other organisations – to which Fry’s description of ‘new relations, unsuspected harmonies’ may fruitfully be applied.

[1] Roger Fry, ‘Acquisition by the National Gallery at Helsingfors’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 18, no. 95, February 1911, p. 293.
[2] Maurice Denis’s Calypso, now known as Ulysses with Calypso (1905), was also acquired by the Ateneum. For details of works shown, see Anna Gruetzner Robins, ‘“Manet and the Post-Impressionists”: a checklist of exhibits’, The Burlington Magazine, December 2010, no. CLII, pp. 782–793.
[3] Ateneum Art Museum: A Selection from the International Collection (Helsinki: National Gallery of Finland, 2000). A search conducted on 17 September, 2015 of the Finnish National Gallery database listed 422 works as by British or part-British artists in the collection of the Ateneum, out of a total of 22,841 works – roughly 1.8%.
[4] In total, the database lists 4,999 works dated 1890–1965 that were acquired during the same period. Of this number, 3,803 are recorded as being by Finnish or part-Finnish artists, leaving 1,196 items in the collection made by artists from abroad or unclassified. The database lists 406 works by Swedish or part-Swedish artists, 355 works by French or part-French artists and 57 works by Russian or part-Russian artists made and acquired between 1890 and 1965.

Featured image: Alfred William Finch, Rainy Weather at Hampton Court, 1907, oil on canvas, 63cm x 79cm, Antell Collections, Ateneum Art Museum, Finnish National Gallery. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

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Conferences: Alice Neel and Portraits in Art

24 September 2016

This conference organised by the Ateneum Art Museum / Finnish National Gallery focuses specifically on paintings by Alice Neel, a masterful portrayer of people, while also discussing portraits and self-portraits in art in general. The venue of the conference will be the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki, Finland.

To view the programme of the upcoming conference, please visit

Picture This!

Conferences: Picture This!

24–25 November 2016

This upcoming two-day international conference organised by the Finnish Museums Association, the Finnish National Gallery, and the Finnish Museum of Photography discusses the position and challenges of museums in the world of growing and changing streams of images.  The venues of the conference will be the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma and the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki, Finland.

To view the programme of the conference, please visit

Nikolai Astrup, June, Night in the Garden, undated, colour woodcut with handcolouring, 31.2cm x 41.3cm, from the collections of the Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo. Photo: The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo / Børre Høstland

Inspired by the Land of the Rising Sun

Gill Crabbe, FNG Research

The ‘Japanomania’ exhibition in Helsinki is the culmination of an innovative inquiry into Nordic Japonisme that began in 2011. Gill Crabbe meets the show’s Chief Curator, Professor Gabriel Weisberg, a leading authority on Japonisme, and Riitta Ojanperä, Director of Collections Management at the Finnish National Gallery, and reports on the highlights of the exhibition’s accompanying conference

Gabriel Weisberg, Professor of Art History at the University of Minnesota, is a world expert on Japonisme, a term that was first used in 1872 by the French art critic and collector Philippe Burty to describe the influence of Japanese art on Western art and design that began around 1870 and flowered through to the end of the First World War. Prof. Weisberg was recently in Helsinki, as Chief Curator of ‘Japanomania in the Nordic Countries 1875–1918’, which opened at the Ateneum Art Museum, and which travels to the National Museum, Oslo, this summer, and to the Statens Art Museum, Copenhagen, in 2017. The project was started at the Finnish National Gallery in Helsinki in 2011 as the museum wished to establish a deepened research collaboration with Prof. Weisberg. The curatorial team consisted in the beginning of Prof. Weisberg and the Finnish National Gallery’s Chief Curator Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff and was later increased with art historians from other Nordic countries.

I met Prof. Weisberg, along with Riitta Ojanperä, Editor in Chief of the FNG Research web magazine, to discuss key themes in the exhibition and in art-historical research relating to Japonisme in Finland and other Nordic countries. The meeting took place ahead of a day-long international conference on the topic, with distinguished art historians and experts on Japonisme taking part, including Director of the Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, Akiko Mabuchi.
Prof. Weisberg’s interest in Japonisme began in the 1960s when, as a student, he wrote his doctoral thesis on Philippe Burty, who had put his finger on the start of a phenomenon that was to sweep across Europe and America. For Weisberg too his research was the start of an enduring passion that has lasted almost 50 years – one that he shares with his wife Yvonne – and perhaps following the footsteps of Burty, Weisberg himself has now coined the term ‘Japanomania’ in giving the title to this groundbreaking exhibition.

‘Japanomania wasn’t a term that was used in the 19th century,’ Prof. Weisberg explains. ‘It’s a word we have come up with to deal with what was previously called Japonisme, and I now call Japanomania because it was a phenomenon that touched every aspect of life.’ While Japonisme can be seen as an influence on Western art and design, Japanomania implies a much bigger impact, one that caused a frenzy of interest from artists, collectors and fashionable society. ‘It overtook everything,’ says Yvonne Weisberg. ‘Japanomania was huge in America, for example. It was chic. People had their houses redecorated with Japanese objects. The son of the American poet Henry Wadsworth-Longfellow even went to Japan and came back with his body tattooed.’

As Prof. Weisberg points out in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition: ‘The impact of Japanese art throughout the Nordic countries would not have been possible had Japonisme not become more than a mere curiosity.’

Featured image: Nikolai Astrup, June, Night in the Garden, undated, colour woodcut with handcolouring, 31.2cm x 41.3cm, from the collections of the Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo. Photo: The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo / Børre Høstland

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See the video of a presentation in the recent Ateneum Art Museum conference on Japonisme in Nordic Art by Dr. Akiko Mabuchi:

See the Call for Papers for an international symposium Interaction, Influence, and Entanglement. 100 years of Finnish–Japanese Relations and Beyond organised at the University of Oulu, Finland in September, 2016:

Download the CFP of the ‘Interaction Influence and Entanglement’ Symposium >>

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Wild Angelica, 1889, oil on canvas, 103 cm x 56 cm, August and Lydia Keirkner Fine Arts Collection, Ateneum Art Museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

Conferences: Changes in Visual Culture – Japanomania in the Nordic Countries 1875–1918

19 February 2016

In connection with the exhibition ‘Japanomania in the Nordic Countries 1875-1918’ (18 Feb-15 May), the Ateneum Art Museum organised an international conference on 19 February, 2016.

Featured image: Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Wild Angelica, 1889, oil on canvas, 103cm x 56cm, August and Lydia Keirkner Fine Arts Collection, Ateneum Art Museum.
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

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The Ateneum, which opened to the public in 1888, was the first official building in Finland dedicated to the arts. Photograph by Daniel Nyblin, 1890 / Finnish National Gallery.

Peer Reviewed Article: The Art Museum as Author of Art History – The Formation of a National Art Collection in Finland and the Case of Copies

Susanna Pettersson, PhD, Museum Director, Ateneum Art Museum

First published in ‘Mind and Matter. Selected Papers of Nordik 2009 Conference for Art Historians’. Edited by Johanna Vakkari. Taidehistoriallisia tutkimuksia / Studies in Art History 41. Helsinki: Taidehistorian seura – Society of Art History, 216–227.

People have always been keen to hear, tell and build complete stories. The reasons have to do with the encyclopaedic need to understand the world and its mechanisms and to govern the universe by relevant explanations. The more one knows the more power one has, as demonstrated in the early cabinets of curiosities of the Renaissance period.[1] The driving force behind every collection is a dream of completeness, and creating something that remains even after the collector’s death.[2] Collecting is also a statement of what’s considered valuable and worth seeing. In this sense a collector is a creator, a storyteller.

Public museums are not that different. They are committed to the formation of art history by collecting, displaying and interpreting works of art at an institutional level. Museums have become the official narrators of art history – but not without the individual decision-makers and gatekeepers who have used the institutional power. The formation of collections has depended on their personal value judgement, understanding and taste.

It’s also vital to understand the role of the museums as non-neutral, political tools. They have been used to build and to illustrate a nation, as authors such as Benedict Anderson[3] have suggested. Museums create an institutional aura for the master narratives, and help nations to visualise the past and the present by displaying collections according to the greater consensus.[4] This is particularly interesting in the case of 19th-century representations since that was typically an era of ‘one’ story, art history forming a good example of this.

This article looks into one of the early Finnish cases, the formation of the art collection of the Finnish Art Society[5], and describes the high expectations and controversies that emerged in late 19th-century Finland when the collection was permanently displayed at the Ateneum building, opened to the public in the autumn of 1888 in Helsinki city centre.

[1] See Mauries, Patrick, Cabinets of Curiosities. Thames and Hudson, 2002.

[2] About the psychology of collecting see Muensterberger, Werner, Collecting: An Unruly Passion. Psychological Perspectives. San Diego, New York, London: A Harvest Book, 1994.

[3] Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.

[4] This can be demonstrated by looking into the history of displays where different trends apply: the 19th-century collection display emphasised the traditional story of art told with the help of different Schools and this remained the dominating way to address the issue until the last decades of 20th century when museums started to present multiple stories at the same time, mixing and blending the major narrative with minor narratives, representing the local and global together and travelling in time, thus demonstrating the links from the contemporary to the past. For influential examples see the documentation of the 1998 collection display at Moderna Museet, Stockholm and the 2000 collection display at Tate Modern, London.

[5] For an extensive study of the formation of the collection of the Finnish Art Society see Pettersson, Susanna, Suomen Taideyhdistyksestä Ateneumiin. Fredrik Cygnaeus, Carl Gustaf Estlander ja taidekokoelman roolit. Suomalaisen kirjallisuuden seura: Helsinki, 2008.

Featured image: The Ateneum, which opened to the public in 1888, was the first official building in Finland dedicated to the arts. Photograph by Daniel Nyblin, 1890 / Finnish National Gallery

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Peer Reviewed Article: Crossing between Textual, Positioned and Biographic

Riitta Ojanperä, PhD, Director, Collections Management, Finnish National Gallery

First published in The Challenges of Biographical Research in Art History Today. Taidehistoriallisia tutkimuksia 46 – Konsthistoriska studier 46 (Studies in Art History). Edited by Renja Suominen-Kokkonen. Helsinki 2013: The Society of Art History in Finland, 151–159

The purpose of this paper is to reflect, from a researcher’s subjective standpoint, on some key points of the narrative of my doctoral thesis, which I defended in December 2010. The thesis discussed the writing and cultural positioning of Einari J. Vehmas (1902–1980), an influential Finnish art critic and art museum curator, over a period of 30 years from the 1930s to the 1960s.[1] Decisions taken in the course of the research and writing process reflect changing methodological stances, which ultimately ended up in a set of ambivalences, especially in relation to the question of biographic research. It is obvious that the theoretical challenges that arose during the research process and that also tended to lead to contradictory argumentations, reflect in a general way the multidisciplinary character of practising art history. With this retrospective and (self) critical meta-narrative I therefore wish to portray a fundamental fluidity and openness in our discipline’s premises over the past decades, both in Finland and internationally.

When my thesis finally saw the light of day in written form, its theoretical and methodological settings were somewhat inconsistent and it had proved a challenge not to let all the paths of survey lead to a fatal dissonance with the pragmatic aim of the work. Ultimately I had decided to take a risk in not introducing a clearly argued theoretical framework to support the discussion. In the formal academic procedure my opponent in her critical response posed one mainly coercive question, a question that outlines the problematic kernel at stake also in this paper. She wished to know whether the thesis was about researching texts or a person. [2] I was stunned by the question. Had I missed a point or had she missed mine, had my intellectual ambiguities blurred my sight, was it really mandatory to choose? I was unprepared and unwilling to take a stance, but shortly afterwards I was stimulated by the controversy which, in fact, should not have been so unexpected.

[1] Riitta Ojanperä, Kriitikko Einari J. Vehmas ja moderni taide, Valtion taidemuseo / Kuvataiteen keskusarkisto 20, Helsinki 2010.

[2] Some key points of PhD Tutta Palin’s statements were published in her critique on the published thesis: Tutta Palin, ‘Taidekirjoittajan muotokuva’, TAHITI Taidehistoria tieteenä. Konsthistoria som vetenskap, 1/2011. (8.7.2015.)

Featured image: The 1958 retrospective exhibition of the Finnish painter Tyko Sallinen at the Ateneum Art Museum. Director Aune Lindström (far left) and the show’s curator Deputy Director Einari J. Vehmas (far right) welcome the Finnish President Urho Kekkonen and his wife. Photo: Archive Collections, Finnish National Gallery. Photographer unknown

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