Akseli Gallen-Kallela – Class tourism or human encounters?


What does a Finn look like? An answer to this question was eagerly pursued at the end of the 19th century. At that time, art was harnessed to build the Finnish national identity. From amongst a heterogeneous people, there was a desire to find a model of an authentic, original Finn. The peasant population of inner Finland, whose life and environment the artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865–1931) travelled to explore, was one such candidate. 

Gallen-Kallela (at that time, still Axel Gallén) wanted to portray people in their authentic setting and sought a suitable wilderness farm in Keuruu in December 1886. He found one on the shore of Lake Huhkojärvi, in the form of Ekola Farm, where the artist stayed and worked during the winter. Ekola was home to a family of eight, each of whom took turns to be Gallen-Kallela’s model.

In the painting Rustic Life (1887), which depicts the Ekola cabin, the master of the house Eerikki greases his boots in the glow of the red light of the fireplace. The cold light of winter filters through the window on to the face of a girl, who is spinning yarn beside it. A young man stands in the room, measuring the girl with his gaze. The girl’s father is sitting with his back to them, oblivious to the interaction going on behind him. Gallen-Kallela himself describes the painting bluntly in a letter to an artist girlfriend: “further back stands a man, looking rather lustful”.

In the spring of 1888, Rustic Life was exhibited at the prestigious Salon de Paris, where it attracted attention and was well placed in the hanging. The Finnish people and identity were therefore represented in the metropolis of Paris by the inhabitants of the farm in Keuruu.

But how could two parties with quite opposing views of life get along, a nationalistic young artist belonging to civilised society and a farmer and his family living on the shore of a forest lake in Keuruu?

Today, such an artistic project could be criticised as cultural appropriation or class tourism. Contemporary artists have also completed projects in which they set out to study a social class or community with which they are unfamiliar. Critical voices have been heard regarding the fairness of the situation when, after the project, the artist sells the works in a gallery. On the other hand, one cannot really talk about exploitation; artists, despite their high level of education, are one of the lowest paid professional groups, and they often highlight social grievances in their work.

It is true that, for Gallen-Kallela, the inhabitants of Ekola Farm were much desired material for his paintings. In the letters he wrote at Ekola, the artist tells about his life on the forest farm and delights in the fine people and characters he found there to portray. He does not, however, mention the inhabitants of Ekola by name; he calls them peasants. In their reality he was a visitor, and now and then he might even make visits to Mänttä, as a guest of paper baron G. A. Serlachius.

Gallen-Kallela respected the customs of the farm, however. It is said that he easily made friends with the residents of Ekola Farm and other Keuruu residents. During his visit, the artist wished to live like everyone else: every night he bathed in a mixed sauna, walked barefoot and naked through the snow to his room, and ate the same, in the young man’s words, “simple, coarse” food.

On the other hand, Gallen-Kallela related in his memoirs that it was by no means easy for a “gentleman-born” artist to make real contact with “common people”. The artist’s profession was not understood, and Gallen-Kallela was, in his own words, generally considered a madman as he moved among the people.

For the residents of a farm, on the other hand, it would have been a very special experience to open their home to an artist belonging to the intelligentsia and let him immortalise their everyday life. The visit of several months was not the only one, however. Two years later, after studying in Paris, Gallen-Kallela worked and lived again at Ekola Farm.

Unlike Gallen-Kallela, contemporary artists are not driven by a national project. However, there is a common element in the way both the young Gallen-Kallela and contemporary artists place themselves in a life situation that is alien to them. I would like to believe that while an identity for Finland was being created at the Keuruu farm, people from very different backgrounds also met each other in a genuine way. Contemporary art projects also succeed best when they increase understanding and bring to light phenomena that are, in a way, known to everyone, yet hidden.

Laura Kuurne
Head of Collections and Exhibitions

Sources and further information:
Aivi Gallen-Kallela. ”Koko elämä on siveltimessäni!”Akseli Gallen-Kallelan neljä matkaa Keuruulle. Laatupaino KLP, Keuruu 2005. 
Akseli Gallen-Kallelan muistelmat: Kallela-kirjaIltapuhdejutelmia, 1955.
Kirsti Gallen-Kallela. Isäni Akseli Gallen-Kallela. WSOY, Porvoo 1964.
Akseli Gallen-Kallelan ja Carl Dørnbergerin taiteilijaystävyys ja kirjeenvaihto. www.lahteilla.fi.
Kulttuuriykkönen: Taiteilijat luokkaturisteina ja ammatteihin soluttautujina – narsismia vai tiukkaa yhteiskuntakritiikkiä. Osoitteessa: https://areena.yle.fi/podcastit/1-65913095
Laura Kuurne (Toim.) Malli ja hullu kuvailija12 monologia suomalaisesta taiteesta, Lahti 2015.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Talonpoikaiselämää, 1887, öljyväri kankaalle, Gösta Serlachiuksen taidesäätiö. Kuva: Teemu Källi
Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Rustic Life, 1887, oil on canvas, Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation. Photo: Teemu Källi