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Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Kalevala



Europeexperienced major upheavals in the opening decades of the 19th century. The Napoleonic wars led to a wave of nationalism that spread across Europe and reached even the shores of Finland. A group of keen young men at the Royal Academy of Turku weighed the importance of language on the development on national culture. Inspired by the spirit of the times, a young medical student by the name of Elias Lönnrot (1802−1884) also became interested in the Finnish language and folklore.

Lönnrot travelled to eastern Finland to gather ‘folkloric material’. These travels resulted in the compilation of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, comprising folk poems from different periods that were recited by singing. The poems were primarily gathered from the Savo and Viena Karelia regions. The Kalevala is nevertheless a work composed by Lönnrot, who completed the first manuscript in 1835 and an extended version in 1849.

Karelia in particular was considered a treasure trove of folkloric poetry, and many artists too became interested in both Karelia and the Kalevala. This romantic movement is referred to as ‘Karelianism’ and peaked in the 1890s.

When the Kalevala was published, Finland was an autonomous grand duchy within the Russian Empire, and before 1809 it was an integrated part of the Kingdom of Sweden. As a result, the position of the Finnish language within the country was still weak. Only the common people spoke Finnish, whereas the language of the educated classes and the administration was Swedish. However, the Kalevala became a landmark for Finnish culture and strengthened the position of the Finnish language. The publication also helped create international recognition for Finland. The Kalevala has been translated into 60 languages, making it the most translated Finnish publication.

The Kalevala opens with a tale describing the creation of the world from a duck’s egg. It also describes the wars between the two peoples of the North, Kalevala and Pohjola, a marriage proposition, revenge, the forging of the magical Sampo and its theft. The central characters in the epic are Väinämöinen, a rune singer and shaman, Ilmarinen, the smith who forges the Sampo, Joukahainen, Väinämöinen’s rival, Aino, Joukahainen’s sister whom Väinämöinen wants for his wife, Kullervo, an orphan boy, and Lemminkäinen, who is saved from the river of Tuonela by his mother.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865−1931)

Aino triptych (1891)

Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s three-part painting, or triptych, depicts the tragic fate of Aino. In the left panel, Väinämöinen encounters for the first time Aino, who is dressed in a national costume and whose brother Joukahainen has promised her to Väinämöinen in marriage in return for his own life. In the central panel, the naked Aino frolics in the water and evades Väinämöinen in his boat. In the right panel, Aino has undressed and sits on a rock beside the lake. Melancholically she observes the maidens of Vellamo swimming in the water, deciding to join them and drown rather than marry the old Väinämöinen. The artist has depicted the events in the triptych in scenery that he recalled from his own honeymoon in Kainuu and Karelia. 

Akseli Gallen-Kallela (who used his original Swedish name Axel Gallén until 1907) painted two versions of the Aino myth. The first he painted in Paris and completed in 1889; it is now in the Bank of Finland’s collections. The version at the Ateneum was painted in Finland based on sketches that he worked on during his honeymoon in Kainuu and Viena Karelia in 1890. In this version he modelled the character of Väinämöinen on Uljaska, a farmer whom Gallen-Kallela had met in the Karelian village of Lentiira, while Aino is modelled on his wife Mary Slöör. The artist also crafted the frame for the triptych, which includes excerpts from the Kalevala.

Lemminkäinen’s Mother (1897)

In the Kalevala, Lemminkäinen is an adventurer and ladies’ man who pursues the beautiful maidens of Pohjola. Louhi, the Mistress of the North, does not relinquish her maids for free, instead setting tasks for Lemminkäinen similar to the labours set for Heracles. Lemminkäinen’s final task is to shoot the swan of Tuonela, but he fails and is cast into the black waters of the river of death, Tuonela. Lemminkäinen’s mother then arrives to save her son from the river.

Gallen-Kallela’s painting depicts a scene in which Lemminkäinen’s mother sits by his body on the rocky shore, staring up at rays of light. In front of the rays flies a small bee, which the mother believes will bring heavenly honey to revive her son. Flowers of death grow among the bones and skulls that lie on the shore. The boulders are covered in blood red moss, and the swan of Tuonela swims in the dark waters in the background.

The scene is depicted in the pietà style, which in Christian art depicts the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus. At the same time, Lemminkäinen’s fate echoes the ancient myth of Osiris. The painting is also said to depict a mother’s love, which transcends death. Indeed, Gallen-Kallela modelled Lemminkäinen’s mother on his own mother, Matilda Gallén, and commented that the painting was an ode to her.

Kullervo Cursing (1899)

The myth of Kullervo tells of jealousy, brotherly hate and revenge. In this painting the mistreated orphan Kullervo raises his fist in anger and swears revenge. He has been sold into slavery and sent into the forest as a shepherd. The wife of Ilmarinen torments the boy, baking a stone into the bread she has given to him. When he cuts into the bread, he stone breaks his knife, the only reminder he has of his family and home. Kullervo is enraged and magically conjures up a cow out of a wolf, bear and lynx that devours the evil mistress. His life remains tragic, however, and the spiral of revenge ends up destroying both his real family and himself.