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Press release: International exhibition focusing on Symbolist landscape painting opens at Ateneum


Ateneum Art Museum’s year 2012 culminates in an international exhibition devoted to Symbolist landscape painting. The exhibition 52 souls presents a wide selection of poetic, mystical and sensual interpretations of nature, painted between 1880 and 1910, including landscapes by such masters as Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, Claude Monet and James McNeill Whistler. Finnish Symbolist art will be represented by Väinö Blomstedt, Albert Edelfelt, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Hugo Simberg and Ellen Thesleff. In all, the exhibition will show works by 52 artists.

The exhibition has been made possible thanks to Ateneum's close cooperation with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the National Galleries of Scotland. The curators of the exhibition are two internationally renowned art experts, Rodolphe Rapetti and Richard Thomson. Ateneum’s team in charge of the exhibition has been led by Curator Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff. The exhibition architecture is by Osmo Leppälä.

The paintings in the exhibition are being lent by the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, Tate in London, MoMA in New York, the Munch Museum in Norway, and the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, to name but a few. In addition, paintings have been made available by major private collections in New York, Paris and Italy.


Symbolism was one of the most influential trends in European art in the period 1880-1910. It was characterised by the desire to describe feelings and moods, a passionate pursuit of spirituality and a strong interest in mythologies. Symbolism was not a style, but rather an attitude and vision. It was in part a reaction to industrialisation and materialism that made artists focus on the richness within ourselves rather than on external realities. Visual artists, poets and composers inspired each other, and the interaction between the arts flourished.

Landscapes were an ideal subject for symbolists. The pulsating vitality of the sun, the rage of storms and the mystical twilight are familiar and recognisable experiences for everyone. Nature and its elements served as the raw materials that were shaped by the artists to express a certain state of mind.

From the Finnish perspective, 52 Souls – Symbolist Landscape 1880-1910  is a continuation of the exhibition Illusions of Reality, which presented international naturalism at the Ateneum Art Museum in the first half of 2011. 52 Souls also links Finnish art history with international trends.


Symbolist artists were interested in ancient mythologies, but also depicted paradises that they found in the modern world. Many escaped from the materialism of the present into the mystical Arcadia of antiquity, where they found peace and harmony with the nature around. The temple ruins and legendary human characters they portrayed looked back to lost civilizations and express their longing for an age of innocence. The wild and dramatic scenery found in their paintings underlined the smallness of man when faced by the magnificence of nature.


Night-time and dusk were popular subjects among these artists. They portrayed darkness as a kind of frontier zone which turned the day-to-day world into something mysterious and even frightening.  The softness of dusk wraps the world in a soft blanket and generates a sense of mystery. This is expressed equally in a piano Nocturne by Romantic composer Frédéric Chopin, a poem by Finnish poet Eino Leino, and many late 19th century landscapes.  The Midnight Sun of the far north was felt to be particularly magical.


We have all experienced powerful emotions in the face of nature. We tend to link certain emotional states with different kinds of landscape, natural phenomena and times of year. To the Symbolists, landscape offered a wonderful opportunity for the expression of powerful feelings and states of mind. One of their favourite subjects was forest, the magical spell it casts, its primeval wildness or its impenetrable darkness. Many Nordic artists, specifically, painted trackless wilds, mountains and lakes, often to underline their own national identity and personal feeling for nature.


Rapid developments in the sciences at this period had a powerful impact on artists, too. In 1859 Charles Darwin had shaken the scientific world with his Origin of Species, while Louis Pasteur’s experiments with bacteria opened up amazing insights into the world of micro-organisms. This new knowledge about man’s origins and evolution, and that of the universe itself, showed that man was just a tiny part of an enormous cosmos. Artists depicted the world as a process of constant movement and life-flow, a process of endless change and renewal. One crucial element in all this was the sun, which represented cosmic energy, a higher power or the unity of all living things.

Psychology was another challenging science in the 1890s, expanding human knowledge about man’s mind and subconscious. In particular, Sigmund Freud’s theories about the meaning of dreams, sexuality and death inspired many artists. The Symbolists depicted inner visions and dreams, as both nightmare-like horrors and poetic manifestations of the spirit world.


Migration from rural to urban areas accelerated throughout Europe in the late 19th century. Industrialization changed the face of ancient cities, turning them into bold new metropoli of the modern world, buzzing with life. The response of Symbolist authors was to write about abandoned and rejected towns. Artists painted dreamlike, nostalgic, even ghostly, visions of cities such as Bruges and Venice, their misty streets empty of people: here time seemed to have stopped.


Interaction between different spheres of the arts was important to the Symbolists. Works often contained references to music, and compositions underlined harmony between form and colour. In the early 20th century many artists grew interested in theosophy and search for the spiritual, leading partly to more simplified and abstract expression. In his major manifesto Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911) Wassily Kandinsky wrote of the unity of colour, feeling and music: ”Colour is the keyboard. The artist is the hand playing, falling variously on the keys and causing the soul to vibrate.”


52 Souls - Symbolist Landscape 1880-1910

Introductions to the artists: www.ateneum.fi/en/52-souls

Ateneum Art Museum Kaivokatu 2, 00100 Helsinki
Open: Tue & Fri 10–18; Wed & Thu 10–20; Sat & Sun 11–17 (closed on Mondays)
Tickets to the exhibition 52 Souls: €15/13, free admission for visitors under the age of 18
Tickets in advance: Lippupalvelu outlets and online shop, www.lippupalvelu.fi

Further information: Marja Istala Kumpunen, Communications Manager, tel. +358 (0)50 555 3551, mik@ateneum.fi


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