Sunday, 19 September 2010

Finnish Venus: Aino Myth by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865 - 1931)

Aino Myth (1891) by Aksel Gallen-Kallela

This time we look at an alternative rendition of the figure of Aino, from Finnish mythology, which is also in Helsinki's Ateneum Museum. The artist, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, was undoutedly Finland's greatest painter and, Agent Triple P woould suggest, is probably one of the best painters to come out of the Baltic region; moving through an impressive range of styles, media and approaches whilst largely keeping focussed on his Finnish inspiration. His work was also an important influence on Finnish nationalism at a time when the country was under Russian rule and, in many ways, helped define the Finns modern sense of themselves.

Omakuva maalaustelineen äärellä (Self portrait with easel)

In fact, he was born in 1865 in the Swedish speaking part of Finland as Axél Waldemar Gallén. His father was police chief of Pori, his birthplace, and opposed Axél's early-expressed desire to be a painter. It was his mother who encouraged his artistic expression. It was only after his father's death, when Axél was 14, that he was able to attend drawing classes at the Finnish Art Society (where Takanen - see previous entry- had also studied) after school.

Poika ja varis (Boy and Crow) (1884)

His early works were marked by a striking. almost brutal, realism. In 1884 he took a holiday back to the lands of his childhood where he painted his early masterpiece Boy and Crow. It depicts a young boy, dressed in worn and patched clothes, taken from a high viewpoint so that the only background is scrubby grass. A crow pecks at the ground to the far right of the picture. It is a bold composition and there is nothing of the then current idealised view of Finnish country life as epitomised by the likes of Aukusti Uotila's Shepherdess and Sheep (1879), which owes more to the Fontainebleu school in Paris where Uotila studied than any innate Finnishness.

Démasquée (1888)

In 1884 Gallén himself went to study in Paris at the Académie Julianwhere he documented the bohemeian lives of his artist and writer friends (including Strindberg). From this period we have this rare nude; Démasquée (1888), painted in his studio. Again, it is a very realistic work, the depiction of pubic hair still being most unusual in European art, and although the model is French (and looks it) she sits on a traditional Finnish ryijy weave.

Female model (1885)

Although he continued to study in Paris he spent his summers in Finland, resulting in two very distinctive approaches to his painting. In Paris he painted pictures of street scenes, academic studies and aspects of his student life.

Nuori Fauni (young faun) (1888)

But he was homesick for much of the time and when he returned to Finland his pictures of the Finnish landscape displayed a developing clear, graphic style he would use for his later Kalevala paintings and which would eventually take him into printmaking. Gallen was not a great appreciator of the landscapes of other places in Europe he had visited (apart from the Riviera) and found that they did not inspire him to paint them in the way that the Finnish landscape did. He would row himself across the lakes and in winter would cross country ski up to 35 miles a day exploring it.

Mary mustassa silkkipuvussa (Mary in Black Silk) (1887)

During his time in Paris, Gallén, started to become increasingly fascinated with the Finnish national poem the Kalevala. He returned to Finland in 1889 and married Mary Slöör who was the daughter of the Finnish cultural nationalist Kaarle Slöör with whom he had been spending a great deal of time. They honeymooned in Eastern Finland and Karelia in 1891 and it was here that he started to make sketches and gather material and ideas for the paintings he would produce illustrating stories from the Kalevala.

The Great Black Woodpecker (1894)

From this period would come the painting The Great Black Woodpecker (a creature of the forests that Gallen strongly identified with) a paean to the great, wild woods and lakes of Finland (whilst showing some influence from Japonism). Gallen himself, for most of his life, managed to stand astride two worlds with equal ease; the backwoods of Finland, which he did so much to epitomise at a time when Finnish nationalism was beginning to assert itself, and the sophisticated, cosmopolitan world in which he travelled widely.

Askeli Gallen-Kallela

The Aino Myth (1891) was the first of these Kalevala stories which Gallén painted. He decided that rather than illustrate just one part of the story he would try to encapsulate the whole tale in a tryptych.

When Elias Lönnrot started to collect Finnish folk poems and songs for his Kalevala in the nineteenth century the character that would become Aino had no name in the source material. In fact the part of the Kalevala devoted to her story is more Lönnrot than myth but he crafts a deeper and more enigmatic story than the original tales provide.

Väinämöisen venematka ('Väinämöinen's Boat Trip) 1909

In Finnish mythology Väinämöinen, is the son of the water-mother who escapes to earth. Lönnrot downplayed his god-like origins and suggested that he was based on a historical dark ages warlord. Nevertheless, he is presented as a somewhat mysterious shaman and singer who can charm animals and create objects with his voice alone. JRR Tolkein was fascinated by the Kalevala and it has been suggested that, consciously or otherwise, elements of his character Gandalf (and indeed Saruman) were based on aspects of Väinämöinen. Certainly Gallen-Kallela depicts him with his traditional long, white beard. Later, Gallen-Kallela would continue to portray him this way in other works. A notable later painting features Väinämöinen with a boatload of nubile Finnish maidens. This painting was produced in Paris and shows how much his style had changed in the less than two decades since the Aino painting.

In the Aino myth, The Lapland youth Joukahainen believes he can sing better songs than Väinämöinen. He tells his family, despite their warnings, that he will defeat Väinämöinen in a battle of knowledge and song. Joukahainen sets out and literally runs into Väinämöinen who is not impressed with the youth. After taunting the older man and challenging him to a swordfight Väinämöinen loses his temper and, using his charmed voice, turns Joukahainen's possessions into parts of the landscape and burys the youth up to his shoulders in the earth. In panic, having offered all his possessions to Väinämöinen, to the older man's disinterest, Joukahainen offers his sister Aino as Väinämöinen wife. He accepts and releases Joukahainen from his song-spell and the earth.

Aino, when she learns of the deal is far from happy although her parents tell her to get on with it and get ready for married life.

Aino is shocked by the kindly old man's suggestion...

The first part of the tryptych illustrates the next part of the story where a distraught Aino, out gathering wood in the forest, comes across the elderly Väinämöinen. She rebuffs him and runs away. Aino mopes about, crying for days until, finally, she dresses up in her finest clothes and goes down to the waterside where she sees some girls on a rock. Carefully stripping off her clothes and jewels she swims to the rock only for it to sink down into the water taking her with it. The third part of the painting depicts this scene.

Väinämöinen, upset at the news of Aino's death, sets out onto the lake where he catches a unique fish who turns out to be Aino, as depicted in the main part of the painting. She tells him that she will never be his and escapes into the water.

Gallen had painted an earlier version of the tryptych in Paris but was keen to re-do it and his visit to Karelia provided the inspiration and a commission from the Finnish senate provided the finance. He designed and made the frame himself, which included excerpts from the Kalevala. The style and many of the designs on the frame were based on houses and woodwork he saw on his honeymoon in Karelia. Because of its size (1.5metres x 3metres) and luminescent quality the trptych does not reproduce well but looking at the original the sheer physical presence of Aino in the central panel is overwhelming. Aino was modelled by Gallen's new wife Mary, then 23 years old, who also embroidered the dress she is wearing in the left hand panel. The bracelet she wears in the right hand panel was a wedding present to her from the artist.

Lönnrot's version of the Aino legend is steeped in sex and water imagery (as is the Kalevala). Aino (a name he invented, it simply means "only" in Finnish) rejects Väinämöinenhas because she has become a woman and wants a satisfactory sexual partner not an old man who basically will just use her to sweep the floors. Her disappearing into the water is not just a suicide but an immersion into a female element which in the Kalevala often represents female consciousness. Her transformation into the Aino-fish is more about her rebirth as a woman and her taunting of the old man is about him not recognising her as a sexual woman in the first place. Essentially, surrounded by her wet, female environment she is more sexually satisfied than she would have been with the old man.

Portrait of Sibelius by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Despite trawling the water for days Väinämöinenhas never catches the Aino-fish again. Eventually he heads north to find a bride in the north (Pohjola) where he comes across an enchanted beauty, the Daughter of the North, who he also fails to win as his wife. It is this latter story that form's the basis of Sibelius' tone poem, Pohjola's Daughter. Sibelius was a friend of Gallen-Kallela, who painted his portrait several times.

Agent Triple P has been writing this entry whilst listening to Sibelius' Kullervo, in the world premier recording by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Paavo Berglund. The cover contains one of Gallen-Kallela's later Kalevala inspired paintings Kullervo's departure for War. This demonstrates the simplified painting style which he adopted for his later Kalevala paintings.

Kullervo's Departure for War (1901)

Although Gallen was not a follower of conventional religion he certainly took inspiration from it and was a spiritual person. Some of his paintings express this side of him and hint at a mysticism which, eventually, he realised could be satisfied by the old myths of Finland.

Ad Astra (1894)

From 1895 we have the Maiden of Tapiola which is interesting in that the sketch for the main figure is actually mode detailed and realistically rendered than that in the finished painting.

Tapiolen nieto (The Maiden from tapiola) 1895 study

Our final look at Akseli Gallen-Kallela's (he changed his name officially to the more Finnish sounding name in 1907 when he had to renew his passport) Venuses is a picture that was painted in 1909, five years before Sibelius wrote his tone poem of the same title, The Oceanides. These were, in Greek mythology, the sea nymphs. The Finnish translation, Aallottaret, means, more literally "spirits of the waves" and Sibelius' piece (opus 73 and written in 1914 (from sketches for an earlier version from the year before) immediately before the fifth symphony) unfolds in distinct waves itself.

Aallottaret (spirits of the waves) 1909

Gallen-Kallela whilst embracing expressionism increasingly found the direction painting was taking in Paris uninspiring. He travelled in British East Africa and lived there for a year and a half from 1909-1911. He fought in the war in 1918 and with Finnish independence was appointed adjutant to General Mannerheim, the Regent of Finland. During this time he also designed flags and medals for the Finnish army. In the early twenties he lived in the US, in Chicago and Taos, New Mexico. He died of pneumonia in 1931, in Stockholm on his way back home from a visit to Copenhagen.

Gallen-Kallela's nudes ara a small part of his overall output but we celebrate him here for the sheer sexual energy he imbued in his painting of his young wife in the central part of his Aino tryptych.

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