Kalevala - limitless source of inspiration for artists
By Anu Uimonen
The Kalevala poets lived hundreds - maybe even thousands - of years ago and their poems were passed down in the oral tradition from generation to generation far away from European high culture.
Finnish folklorist, physician and literary scholar Elias Lönnrot compiled the Finnish national epic Kalevala from Finnish and Karelian folklore in 1849.
Right from the beginning, Kalevala started to inspire visual artists.
To celebrate the 160th anniversary of the Finnish national epic, the Finnish Ateneum Art Museum has opened an extensive exhibition of Kalevala art covering the period from the 19th century until today. The display features more than 200 works from almost sixty artists, all inspired by the national epic.
Many Finns still believe that the Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s view of Kalevala characters from the 1890s is the only correct one, and will accept no substitute, which is why Gallen-Kallela is also playing the leading role in the Ateneum exhibition.
In addition to Gallen-Kallela’s iconic paintings, some other works of art depicting various Kalevala themes are also featured.
Some of them are reinventions, while some represent earlier interpretations of these ancient myths.
Particularly some earlier works of art, which were not too highly praised in the past, are now being put on display. Such works include R.W. Ekman’s paintings and C.E. Sjöstrand’s sculptures.
Ekman’s Väinämöinen’s Song is a scene depicting Väinämöinen, the principal figure in the narrative, playing his kantele, the zither-like national instrument of Kalevala, the land of Kaleva. This large painting has been brought to the Ateneum from the Old Student House and placed in the most central place in the main hall.
The Ateneum’s Chief Curator Riitta Ojanperä has built the exhibition around different themes with rooms displaying the artists’ views of Väinämöinen, Kullervo, Lemminkäinen, and Aino, among others, while at the same time highlighting human myths and destinies that have a strong appeal to all nationalities.
The themes include The River of Tuonela, The Origin of Earth, and The Forging of the Sampo, a magical machine created by the smith Ilmarinen that brought good fortune to its holder.
Different interpretations of the same theme from epoch to epoch meet each other in the exhibition halls. Kalervo Palsa’s Kullervo has been placed next to Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Kullervo’s Curse, while Gallen-Kallela’s famous work The Aino Triptych rubs shoulders with Sirpa Alalääkkölä’s punk version of Aino.
In addition to Gallen-Kallela’s Lemminkäinen’s Mother, even R.W. Ekman’s and Nina Terno’s versions of the same theme are on display.
The overall theme of the exhibition is Ei ole yhtä Ainoa (”There is more than one Aino”), which implies that each epoch and every artist have the right to create their own interpretations of the same theme.
Kalevala has always inspired visual artists to a great extent, while the most popular tales have been Väinämöinen’s Song , the Aino Story, Lemminkäinen’s Mother, and Kullervo’s Curse.
The Finnish national epic has also inspired artists in other fields, including composers. The number of compositions with a Kalevala theme has been estimated to amount to more than 500.
The most famous music inspired by Kalevala is probably that of the classical composer Jean Sibelius. Twelve of his best-known works are based upon and influenced by Kalevala, including his Kullervo Symphony and the Four Legends, which deals with the doings of the lover-hero Lemminkäinen.
When it comes to Finnish artists, perhaps the most affecting Kalevala story has been the tale of Kullervo.
It is a tragic story of an ill-fated young man who grew up homeless and enslaved, encountering failures and eventually getting into a vicious circle of revenge and violence.
The story has been used for a number of dramas, operas, and symphonies.
The historical part of the exhibition on the second floor shows many interesting reinterpretations of Kalevala from various epochs side by side with old icons. The elegant exhibition architecture has been created by Maara Kinnermä.
The Kalevala Society commissioned ten visual artists and ten contemporary composers to express their views of how Kalevala looks and sounds in 2009.
These new works of art and compositions make up a separate part of the exhibition on the first floor of the Ateneum Art Museum.
In the hall exhibiting these newest and most refreshing works of art, visitors can listen to the compositions through earphones, while looking at visual art depicting the same themes.
The visual artists featured in the Artists’ Kalevala 2009 project are Martti Aiha, Juhana Blomstedt, Ulla Jokisalo, Kuutti Lavonen, Stiina Saaristo, Risto Suomi, Nanna Susi, Marjatta Tapiola, Katja Tukiainen, and Santeri Tuori.
The composers include Kimmo Hakola, Pekka Jalkanen, Olli Kortekangas, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Herman Rechberger, Aulis Sallinen, Jukka Tiensuu, Riikka Talvitie, Jovanka Trbojevic, and Lotta Wennäkoski.
In the past, the artists’ Kalevala used to be unbelievably male-dominated, which is why the appearance of female artists in the new collection is a delightful phenomenon.
The female artists have reinterpreted particularly the image of women presented in Kalevala.
”I immediately recalled the smith Ilmarinen’s women: his beloved wife - once the Maid of Beauty -left mutilated, and the Golden Maiden - a gold image of his late wife”, says painter Marjatta Tapiola, to whom the theme Ilmarinen had been assigned.
”The Kalevala women are either malicious bitches or victims like Aino, which is why I am happy that my task was to depict Marjatta, whose tale I regard as a major survival story”, photographer Ulla Jokisalo describes her series of photos.
”When it comes to the status of women in Kalevala, under the surface there was violence - just like today - but at that time it was linked with causality. Today one cannot say what causes violence”, reports painter Nanna Susi, whose theme was The Wedding at Pohjola.
”Kalevala does not depict sentimental love - people just want to make use of each other”, Susi adds.
Kalevala Exhibition from February 27th through August 9th in the Ateneum Art Museum.
Address: Kaivokatu 2, Helsinki. Open to the public on Tuesdays to Fridays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For the Special Programme, see http://www.ateneum.fi/default.asp?docId=11987
Books on Kalevala:
Kalevala in images. Editor Riitta Ojanperä. The Finnish National Gallery. 272 pages, EUR 45.
The Artists’ Kalevala. Editor Ulla Piela. The Finnish Literature Society, 816 pages, EUR 128.
Kalevala illustrated by artists of the Filonov School 1931-1933. Editor Iliana Mejias-Ojajärvi. The Central Art Archives (CAA), 80 pages.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 27.2.2009
Previously in HS International Edition:
Jade Warrior Brings Kalevala to China (10.10.2006)
Kalevala - Land of Heroes... or should that be Mummy´s Boys? (13.5.2000)
A Bluffer´s Guide to Kalevala in 12 paragraphs (12.11.1999)
Lemminkäinen (Wikipedia, contains image of Lemminkäinen´s Mother)
Ateneum Art Museum: Kalevala
Akseli Gallen-Kallela (Wikipedia)
Central Art Archives (CAA)
Finnish National Gallery
Finnish Literature Society
ANU UIMONEN / Helsingin Sanomat