Director's Gallery: Ateneum

Situated in the city center of Helsinki, the Ateneum Art Museum, which was opened in 1888 shows extensive exhibitions of Finnish and international art. The collection contains highlights of Finnish art from the Golden age (1880-1910) as well as Scandinavian, European and Russian art.

For my virtual gallery, I have chosen a group of works from our own collections, complemented by art from other Nordic galleries. I hope my selection will convey the special light and colours of the north, the beauty of our bright summer nights, and the characteristic atmosphere of the Nordic winter. -Maija Tanninen-Matttila, Museum Director

The summer time in Finland is a very special time – in the northern parts of the country the sun will be up for 24 hours a day. In the southern parts of the country the sun does not set until very late, and the nights are very light. The Finnish artist Albert Edelfelt lived in Paris, but visited Porvoo, the town he was born in, during the summer months. You can still make a visit to Edelfelt’s summer studio (, where he worked on this painting and also Coveying a Child’s Coffin as well as Boys Playing on the Shore, which you can view on the Ateneum Art Museum Google Gallery pages. The landscape of the Finnish archipelago is breath taking, so if you visit, try to take a boat ride to see some of the islands more closely.
Finland is known for strong and independent women. In fact, Finland was the first country in Europe where women got the right to vote on parliamentary elections in 1906. Fanny Churberg was one of the earliest pioneers who promoted women’s right for self-determination. She also painted as she wanted. Churberg painted her Moonlight, Study, in Paris in 1878. She had earlier studied in Düsseldorf in Germany, where she got to know Romantic painting with its dramatic effects. She, however,  took it much further than her contemporaries. Churberg was also eager to promote patriotism and handicraft traditions in Finland, and was a founder of the Friends of the Finnish Handicraft society in 1879.
A man, with a brush and palette in his hand, has brought a painting canvas to an unusual place. The man is Edvard Munch, and the year 1907. Munch had been suffering from recurring crisis, and in Warnemünde he hoped to recover from his complicated relationship with his former mistress Tulla Larsen. The photograph shows how Munch believed that a healthy life under the sun in a beach resort would bring back his vitality. It was, actually, a common belief and a fashion of time to spend summers naked outdoors in harmony with nature, and even without women’s interruption. The painting in the photo, Munch’s Bathing Men (1907-08), is a manifestation of this kind of belief, and now it belongs to the Ateneum collection. The painting was bought from a Norwegian art exhibition, held at Ateneum in 1911. It was sad, however, that Munch did not get rid of his demons in Warnemünde. This happened only after a nervous breakdown and treatment at Dr. Jacobson’s clinic in Copenhagen in 1908-09.
Imagine painting outdoors in this weather! This was reality for Carl Larsson, whose career seemed to have been stuck for some years before he found the possibilities of outdoor painting in a French village, called Grez-sur-Loing, in 1882. Realism emphasized painting “en plein air”, or in the open air. With oils it was especially difficult before one could use colours in tubes, an invention from 1841. In Nordic winter, it was hard to mix the colours quickly on the palette before they solidified. In Finnish art, one of the most famous painters of winter landscapes is Pekka Halonen, whose family life had also similarities to Larsson’s. Both of them had a big family, an atelier house and loved gardening. There are paintings by Larsson in the Ateneum collection as well. They are watercolours, a technique in which Larsson became a master, too. Carl Larsson’s exhibition was seen in Ateneum in 1913 and again in 2012.
In 2006, the Ateneum Art Museum asked the public what  the most beloved work of art was in its collections. The painting to come into first place was Hugo Simberg’s Wounded Angel. This is a mysterious painting – it is up to the viewer to imagine what has happened to the angel. Have the boys carrying her hurt her, or have they saved her from danger? For many, this painting has given consolation in hard times. It has also inspired other artists, amongst them the film director Antti Jokinen, for whose music video, Amaranth,  the painting served as a source of inspiration.
This painting is perhaps the most impressive of Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s works based on the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland. Kalevala consists of a series of folk poems collected in Carelia, the cultural frontier between Finland and Russia, in the first half of 19th century. The body lying on the ground is Lemminkäinen, a great warrior and womanizer. He died following his attempt to kill the Swan of Tuonela in the realm of the dead. His mother has dragged the black river for the dismembered pieces of her son and put him back together. She is trying to bring him back to life, and a flicker of hope emerges in the form of the sun’s rays penetrating the gloomy darkness of Tuonela. Gallen-Kallela worked on this painting for a year in his wilderness studio at Ruovesi. His friend, the composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), had just before composed the piece The Swan of Tuonela. The Kalevala was a great source of inspiration for those artists who tried to promote national consciousness among Finns.
If you visit Finland in the winter, you will experience how the lakes and even the seacoast freeze so hard that you can take a walk or even drive over the ice! In this “travel advertisement” painted to decorate the Finnish pavilion at the 1900 World Fair in Paris, artist Pekka Halonen depicted a typical task – washing the laundry through a hole in the ice. Today this is very rare, but fishing through a hole in the ice is a popular winter sport. When in Finland, be sure to visit Pekka Halonen’s wonderful home museum in the area of Tuusula Lake where this painting was accomplished (
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This user gallery has been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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