THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON, 15th November, 2017 to 4th February, 2018


By Anne Robbins

The National Gallery. 72 pages. £14.95. ISBN 978-1-85709-624-8

Reviewed by Jim Burns

There is in the National Gallery a painting called Lake Keitele by the Finnish artists, Akseli Gallen-Kallele (1865-1931). It’s said to be “one of the best-loved and most familiar paintings” in the Gallery, but it is also pointed out that it’s the only “Finnish work of art in the collection and the artist is not familiar to the British public”. I suspect that may be something of an understatement, and it’s highly unlikely that Gallen-Kallele’s work can be found anywhere else in Britain. He did have some currency in Europe in the late-nineteenth century and exhibited in Berlin and other major cities, but though he visited London he doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression here. By contrast, Paris was a city that was open to his work and he regularly exhibited at the Salon.

The small exhibition at the National Gallery features four paintings entitled Lake Keitele, dating from 1904 to 1906, and at first sight all seemingly very similar, an effect created by them portraying the scene from the same point of view. The excellent catalogue notes on the paintings by Anne Robbins refer to “reiterations of the same composition with only minor formal stylistic variations”. Close inspection will show that there are subtle differences in the effects of light on the water and on the island in the top right-hand corner of each canvas. Most noticeable, perhaps, are the “steel-grey bands criss-crossing the surface of the lake”, and which are said to be “caused by winds combined with currents below the water”. But they may also be a reference to “the old, wise bard and central character of the Kalavala, who has just rowed past, leaving a silvery wake”.

The Kalavala “is a collection of Finnish and Karelian folk-poems or runes, some of them millennia-old”, and a “defining element of Finland’s cultural identity”. It needs to be noted that Gallen-Kallela was active at a time when there was a rise in nationalist feeling in Finland, which had been an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire throughout the nineteenth-century. Independence was only gained after 1917 when an attempted communist coup, encouraged by Lenin, was defeated by patriotic Finns under General Mannerheim.

Other paintings in the exhibition include a strong self-portrait, scenes around the lake, landscapes, and one work called Oceanides which was painted in Paris in 1909 and would appear to show some influences from then-current movements in the French capital. There is a suggestion that he may have been influenced by the Fauves, but also a reference to the “decorative works” of Maurice Denis. It certainly seems to stand apart, to a degree, from the other paintings on display. But it could be that a larger show of Gallen-Kallela’s paintings would incline us to view him somewhat differently. He travelled quite widely, and allied himself with other modern artists so can’t simply be identified with a purely-Finnish approach to art, even if he did identify closely with Finland. 

This limited (in the number of works) exhibition should help to open our eyes to a painter who, while alert to what was happening in the world of art generally, always had strong roots in his native country. As to how important he was outside Finland might be better established once we can know more about his work. In the meantime the National Gallery deserves praise for putting on this interesting and provocative show of Gallen-Kallela’s paintings.