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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Ferdinand von Wright, Pigs and Magpies, 1875, oil on canvas, 63cm x 83cm Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

A Question of Time

Gill Crabbe, FNG Research

As the Ateneum Art Museum reopens to present its new-look display of its permanent collection, Gill Crabbe discusses its core theme with the curator Anne-Maria Pennonen and doctoral candidate Mariia Niskavaara and asks how they set about their radical approach in viewing its artworks through the lens of today’s urgent world issues 

This spring, if you walk into the Central Hall of the Ateneum Art Museum, the architectural heart of this elegant neoclassical building which houses the Finnish National Gallery’s Ateneum Art Museum collections, you will no longer encounter the grand Golden Age paintings that have long resided there as lauded foundation works in the canon of Finnish art. Gone are the classic monumental canvases of Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Pekka Halonen, and Albert Edelfelt, some to be dispersed across other rooms in the new reworking of the collections display. Instead, in this cream of the Gallery’s exhibition spaces one finds a dynamic mix of works old and new, famous and less well-known, large-scale and small, some iconic in a new way, some charming and some frankly confronting. And their common ground? All are reflecting one of the most urgent issues on today’s world agenda – Nature.

For the age of nature is the age which it is said we are now entering; having traversed at ever-increasing speed the anthropocene, we are now beginning to face a world that places humans and non-humans on a more equal footing, as we start to realise the impact of humans on the non-human world. Thus for the Ateneum Art Museum’s new collections display the theme of The Age of Nature has emerged, following discussions, consultations and copious research, as the central topic alongside three others: Art and Power, Images of a People, and Modern Life. These four themes together provide a lens through which we can view afresh the Gallery’s collections under the umbrella title of the exhibition ‘A Question of Time’.

Since 2016, when the previous reworking of the collections display opened to mark the centenary of Finnish Independence with the theme ‘Stories from Finnish Art’, the world has changed more than we could possibly have imagined, with Covid-19, war in Ukraine, widespread economic recession, the energy crisis and of course climate change. These urgent issues seek expression through an art that not only reflects these changes but more importantly can respond to them, to educate the art-going public, and ultimately to change people’s lives. The Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture’s policy programme for 2030 exhorts museums to do just that: as the Museum’s Director Marja Sakari writes introducing the new collection display in her foreword to the catalogue of the exhibition, ‘(t)he values it sets for museums are community and interactivity, reliability and continuity, pluralism and democracy, courage and open-mindedness […] thereby creating opportunities for creativity, education, identity-building and understanding change’. And one important way to embrace those values is to present the canon of art history through concerns that are pivotal today, because to understand the past is to understand how we reached this point of the present, and to contemplate how we might take our next steps into the future.

So how did the Ateneum Art Museum go about exploring these pressing issues of our time in curating this new display; and more specifically how did the curators of the Central Hall’s theme of The Age of Nature create a display that goes beyond a specific narrative to invite viewers to join a conversation that can have a real impact on their lives and on the world today?

‘Our express purpose in the process has been to critically discuss the canon of Finnish art and radicalise the ways in which our collection is customarily viewed,’ Sakari writes. ‘From the outset, an important factor in the planning of the new collection display was making the curatorial process transparent and opening it to discussion.’ Aligned to this was a need for larger curatorial teams and a fresh look at involving external actors. Accordingly, over the winter of 2021–22, the Museum organised a discussion series, together with the Bildung+ project of the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra (an independent organisation which fosters research and co-operation in building sustainable futures) under the theme of ‘Perspectives on Time and Power’. The purpose was to consider how the Finnish National Gallery’s art collections can be viewed from the perspectives of climate crisis, identity and equality.

Featured image: Ferdinand von Wright, Pigs and Magpies, 1875, oil on canvas, 63cm x 83cm
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.

Read more — Download ‘A Question of Time’, by Gill Crabbe, as a PDF

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