Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Probleemi (Symposion), 1894, Gösta Serlachiuksen taidesäätiö.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Problem (Symposium), 1894, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation. Photo: Vesa Aaltonen.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Problem (Symposium)

The artist couple Olga and Eric O. W. Ehrström had an impressive art collection, which filled their Helsinki apartment from floor to ceiling. One of the works was Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s The Problem, also known as The Symposium. How did it enter the Serlachius Collection?

The painting Problem is remembered as a description of the alcoholic-clouded artists’ life of Helsinki at the end of the 19th century, although Gallen-Kallela regarded the work as primarily symbolic. According to Eric O.W. Ehrström, in the work “…three great souls and sublime spirits have come together for a symposium, to travel beyond everyday matters into infinite space and the most secret caverns of the subconscious, where the unknown undercurrents of imagination and art move, where the root of all things, the problem of effect and countereffect, lies…”

The Problem ended up with the Ehrströms as the result of an interesting adventure. In the early 1900s, the architect Eliel Saarinen and Eric Ehrström travelled in the middle of winter to Kalela at Ruovesi, to the wilderness studio of the artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Ehrström noticed that the telephone was wrapped in something that looked like a painting. In order to protect the telephone, Gallen-Kallela had packed with The Symposium painting. It was crumpled and in bad shape.Gallen-Kallela threw it to Ehrström, who gladly took it home. When the painting was tightened into a frame, it was seen to have suffered no significant damage.

Later, art works owned by the Ehrströms, including The Problem, were transferred by special agreement to Gösta Serlachius’s ownership. To secure their livelihood in old age, the couple drew up an agreement with their friend and patron Gösta Serlachius by which a dozen or so art works owned by the couple were to be transferred to their buyer after Eric Ehrström’s death. For the works, the final sum of 150,000 Finnish markka was agreed, which converted to present-day money would have been equivalent to just under 50,000 euros. It was agreed that this would be paid in instalments. A steady flow of income therefore continued until Eric’s and later Olga’s death.

The arrangement was interesting, because it was not certain that Gösta Serlachius would live longer than the artist – although it did seem likely. The agreement was made after Eric O. W. Ehrström lost his right hand in an accident. The newspapers reported how the artist had been hit by a train. Ehrström had tried to board a departing train that was already moving, but after losing his grip he was mutilated by the running board of the carriage. The other arm broke at the shoulder and he also sustained a head wound. During his two months in hospital, Ehrström began to learn to live and to produce art with only his left hand.

This patron agreement was not altruism on Gösta Serlachius’s part. In this way, he managed to supplement his collection with significant art works, whose prices, moreover, he managed to haggle lower than the experts valued them. But Serlachius also acquired the paintings with the future museum and collection in mind.