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Three paintings with ordinary Finnish scenery.
Three paintings with ordinary Finnish scenery.
Original photo by Diana Salim

Modern Women Take the Center Stage in Ateneum

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Helsinki chapter.

In the world of Finnish painting, illustration, and sculpting, women take the center stage in Ateneum as the museum is displaying a splendid exhibit dedicated to the Finnish female artists of the modernist era. The impressive collection highlights the experimental nature of these artists who show how they have contributed to modernist styles and particularly to the expressive and individualistic nature of making art in the 20th century. The everyday scenery of nature and urban areas gain their beauty in depiction; portraits of people as well as the artists themselves emphasize the person, the creator, and the creative conception at work; and sculptures complement the spaces as remarkable demonstrations of skill, precision, and abstract experimentation.

The works of these twelve women display a variety in style and technique, offering much to explore while examining the details; however, most of the paintings and illustrations are connected by an interest in the women’s own local environment, showing how the 20th century female artist saw and depicted her native Finland as well as other areas where she might have travelled to develop her craft. More importantly, most of these artists created exquisite self-portraits that pay homage to the “new woman” ideal, emphasizing not only womanhood but also their positions as independent and educated artists who represent Finnish art. They are beautifully combining personal depiction with a universal subject. This and the intriguing sculptures, varying between traditional busts and abstract symbols, vividly connect these Finnish artists to the wider world of modern art that universally started to encourage individual expression.

A portrait painting of the artist herself. A young woman with white hat.
Original photo by Diana Salim
A collection of modernist paintings with portraits of female characters.
Original photo by Diana Salim

I went to this exhibition two weeks ago because I was incredibly intrigued to witness how the 20th century modernist artist experimented with form and color and what these women saw worth portraying. I wondered at the sculptures, particularly at Laila Pullinen’s Mata Hari which seemed abstractly modern and ancient at the same time. I felt some sadness when seeing illustrations made during the second world war and which showed an individual in a gloomy atmosphere. I liked the portrayals of local areas and portraits of anonymous figures – laying emphasis on everyday scenery and the person. I also adored the usage of colors, especially by Ellen Thesleff who was inspired by both the Finnish and Italian environment. I honestly thought the portraits made by Helene Schjerfbeck were the most peculiar compositions, making me sometimes annoyed to look at them, but this very reason made me go back to them. Did I not like those women in those paintings? I wish I knew—I might have to visit the exhibition again.

While many of these women had been influenced by other European artists and their techniques, they nevertheless seem to have experimented enough to display subtle originality which then becomes more apparent as you focus on the works. Especially the paintings make you wonder at the color schemes for a while which are sometimes vivid and other times a bit drearier; and they also make you wonder at the styles of composition that form the work into the whole. I started to think that there seems to be a certain Finnish quality rooted in these works – an overall indication that suggests the modern independent person who is also a solitary person; this is either the character(s) in the painting or the implied creator of it. She values her environment, sees beauty in it and happily presents herself as part of it, but she might also feel lonely in it.

Strangely, I noticed I had to quickly walk back to Thesleff’s more vivid paintings to just take in again her more colorful depictions. For some reason I wanted to leave with seeing the girl in Finland’s Spring (1942) as the last work.

Colorful abstract painting of a girl during Finnish spring time.
Original photo by Diana Salim

The Modern Woman exhibition is on display until March 27. If you are interested in devoting your time to the works of these trailblazing women, I highly recommend visiting as soon as you can. Ateneum overall is a magnificent museum to visit for an afternoon, but the art museum will also be closing for the rest of the year after this exhibit due to renovation.

An English major in University of Helsinki who adores culture's most valuable and beautiful subjects like literature and art.