If you have spent your childhood in Helsinki like me, you have certainly visited the Finnish National Gallery (alias Ateneum) several times. And even if you haven't lived in Helsinki, chances are that you have been there already. Since my childhood and regular school trips, I had popped in for a visit a couple of times to see a touring exhibition, but for some reason – despite being an avid fan of well-established art – I never felt the need to tour the installation of Finnish art again. Last month, finally, I took a step inside the trusty old building, the handy Museum Card in my pocket, and with the intention of re-familiarizing myself with the work I had seen so many times in the past. And I did not regret it.
Here are a couple of good reasons to visit Ateneum and the Stories of Finnish Art exhibition – it is worth while, whether you are born in Finland or currently live here and want to orient yourself to the world of Finnish art. Included are a couple of tips on how to make the most out of your visit!
Why Stories of Finnish Art?
In 2016, the exhibition of established Finnish art was arranged anew, so if it has been a long time since your last visit, you’d be surprised to see that Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Aino triptych is not where it used to be. The works have been arranged according to different themes, so there is one room for landscape painting, one for Kalevala and so on. The rooms are in a rough chronological order, so that the halls reserved for modern movements come last. Scattered between the Finnish masterpieces, there are art works by famous international painters.
All in all, visiting an exhibition of historical painting is a great chance to learn and an opportunity to take a break from your everyday life. Stare into the eyes of that capercaillie long enough and you start to forget about your worries. One of my favourite things about art galleries is that you can spend way too long in front of a painting and instead of thinking that you have gone bonkers, people will imagine you are a connoisseur of art!
What to look for?
Everyone has their own personal ways of enjoying art. If immersing yourself in art often feels difficult for you, it may be that you have yet to discover your own way. Here are some ideas I thought up while promenading through the halls.
Look for continuities
Does that beautiful landscape painting from the 19th century look exactly like the path to your family’s summer cottage? Does that one portrait clearly display one of your uncles or your partner’s cousin? This is always fun and at its best leads you to realize that you are just a cog in a bigger whole and whatever you are currently having problems with, isn’t such a huge deal after all.
As a student of historical sciences, I am not an advocate of placing anachronistic judgements on old artwork. What I mean by feminist look here is to find out the works of brilliant Finnish artists who didn’t let their sex stand on the way of their artistic careers. Fanny Churberg, Ida Silfverberg, Alexandra Frosterus-Såltin, Helene Schjerfbeck, Elin Danielson-Gambogi, Maria Wiik and Beda Stjernschantz – to name a few – are represented in the exhibition. Finland truly is a country of many interesting female painters. Is there something especially addressing in their work? I leave it up to you to find out!
How have the works changed?
Art lives and grows with us. If the last time you stopped to look at a particular painting was at the age of twelve, you would be surprised at how different it looks as an adult. I am certain many of us have even been slightly traumatized by a painting or two as a small kid, and it is always healthy to face your fears after all.
I remember thinking a lot about Gallen-Kallela’s tempera painting The Fracticide and how its scary topic left me with many questions. When I look at it now, it is surprisingly small and dim, almost difficult to spot from among the bigger and more spectacular Kalevala themed paintings. It’s funny how randomly selective a child’s mind is! The girl from Eero Järnefelt’s Under the Yoke also stared very intrusively straight into my soul – and if you are also one of “the victims” of this painting, it might be fun to go and try whether it still has the same power today.
If you are into drawing or coloring yourself, art museums are always great places to draw inspiration from – see what coloring techniques you can learn from the masters of the brush! If you are interested in creative writing, history, clothing (the shoes in the paintings are so interesting!) or simply reading books, masterful art can give you ideas on those fields too.
After all, these are artefacts of a time that will never come back – something my dad said to me way back when I seemed uninterested in watching a black-and-white document in a museum and something that still calls to my mind whenever I go to see a historical exhibition of sorts.
Of course, if you are more into modern or post-modern art, there is also an exhibition of Finnish modern art downstairs and international modern upstairs.
Be considerate of others and bring your mask with you on your visit!
[bf_image id="qf7a5h-440zd4-2fwatl"] Photos: Siiri Sinko