Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Problem (Symposium), 1894

MARCH 2019

Eric O. W. Ehrström has described the motif of Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s work Probleemi (Problem) in this way: ”Three great souls and sublime spirits have gathered for a feast, to take a trip beyond everydayness, to the endless realms of space and the most secret recesses of the subconscious, where the unknown bottom currents of imagination and art flow, where the source of everything is, the problem of influence and counterinfluence…”

When the work was finished, the reception of it was ambivalent. In other words, its symbolism wasn’t understood, or then it was understood in many different ways. At the table, in front of their punsch bottles, Jean Sibelius, Robert Kajanus and Oskar Merikanto are sitting. They are more or less drunk. The artist himself is standing on the left. On the table, a skinned female figure is sitting. We can only see the outlines of her feet and her hands curved around her knees. With a knife, Gallen-Kallela had cut away one strip of the border of the painting, which had chocked the audience. The woman has been interpreted as representing matter, and in the background, one can see the outline of a spirit’s silhouette against a space landscape. However, there is also a Biblical interpretation of the painting, according to which a Christ figure is towering in the background.

The artists in the painting formed the Symposion group at the beginning of the 1890’s. During their evening sessions, which went on until late, drinks and cigars inspired them to deal with the struggle between spirit and matter. These were moments when the short dream of life encountered boundless eternity.

Gallen-Kallela made another, more finished and polished version of the painting. Wings rising above the group has replaced the female figure in it. For both versions, Symposion as well Problem are familiar as titles.

Gallen-Kallela showed the more finished version for the first time at the Autumn Exhibition of Suomen Taiteilijat (Finnish Artists) in 1894, under the title Probleemi (Problem). The work which is in Gösta Serlachius’ art collection was publicly on show for the first time at the Kalevala Centennial Exhibition in 1935 under the title Symposion.

The Serlachius Museums’ archive contains Olga Ehrström’s statement about how Gallen-Kallela’s Symposion came to the possession of the couple. At the beginning of the 20th century, in the middle of winter, Gallen-Kallela, Eliel Saarinen and Eric O. W. Ehrström travelled to Kalela. Ehrström noticed that the phone at Kalela was wrapped in something that looked like a painting. In order to protect his phone, Gallen-Kallela had wrapped it in the painting Symposion, which was wrinkled and in bad condition. So, Gallen-Kallela gave it to Ehrström.

When they subsequently put the painting in a frame, it turned out that it had not undergone any severe damage. “From then on, the painting was hanging on our wall, until February 1935 when it was brought to the Memorial Exhibition of Gallén. It formed a part of the Kalevala Centennial, at the recently finished Helsinki Fair Centre. From there, the painting was transferred directly to Gösta Serlachius, who now owns it”, Olga Ehrström wrote.

Subsequently, Gösta Serlachius and the Ehrströms made an agreement in 1927. It stated that Serlachius acquired for his collection through part payment important works owned by the Ehrströms. One of these was the above mentioned Symposionby Gallen-Kallela. So by and by, the works were transferred to Serlachius. The last ones arrived after the death of Eric O. W. Ehrström. Above all, the purpose of agreement was to secure the financial situation of the aging Ehrströms.

Helena Hänninen

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Symposion, oil on canvas, 1894. Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation. Photo: Vesa Aaltonen.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Symposion, oil on canvas, 1894. Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation. Photo: Vesa Aaltonen.