100 Years of Art in Finland

As an European student, I mostly spend my holidays back at home – which to me is Helsinki, the capital of Finland – and as a History of Art student I naturally visit quite a few exhibitions in my free time when I’m not working or seeing friends. Art has always had a significant spot in my home country, from showcasing nationalist romantic architecture and art at the World Fair held in Paris in 1900, when Finland was still only an autonomous part of the Russian Empire, to having a traveling Tove Jansson (the creator of Moomins) exhibition which is currently being exhibited at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.

Finland was still a part of Russia during the World Fair in 1900 and it only gained independence on the 6th of December 1917 – which makes this year Finland’s 100th year of being a country of its own! Even though Finnish art is not widely known or discussed, some parts of it are familiar to people overseas. While Tove Jansson is mainly known for her Moomin comic strips, she was also a practicing artist who painted modernist landscapes. The National Gallery in London also owns a painting by one of our artists from the Golden Age of Arts – Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele (1905).

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Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Keitele (Lake Keitele, 1905)

Finnish artists, like many artists from all over the world, both participated in and were inspired by prominent artistic genres of the time. Take artists Paul Osipow and Sam Vanni, who represent some of the few key artists that practiced modernist art in Finland. Unfortunately, these narratives are not being taught in schools. Everyone is aware of the big names in design and architecture such as Alvar Aalto, Eero Saarinen, and of brands like Marimekko, Arabia and Iittala; all of whom were important influencers of mid-century design. However, Finnish visual artists continue to get left behind in schools’ study programmes. Considering this, the commitment that institutions like Ateneum have made to showcase Finnish art throughout the ages becomes even more important.

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Tove Jansson and Niilo Suikho painting the fresco Juhlat Maalla (Party in the Country, 1947)

I am pleased to say that the exhibitions for foreign artists have also gotten better throughout the years. In the last year we have had retrospectives for Amadeo Modigliani (Ateneum), Yayoi Kusama (HAM), Mona Hatoum (Kiasma), and Francesca Woodman (The Finnish Museum of Photography). Despite the government cutting the budget for arts, Finnish art museums are not doing too badly. In 2016, the three museums that make up the Finnish National Gallery (Ateneum, museum of contemporary art Kiasma and the Sinebrychoff Art Museum) had 764,866 visitors combined, a record breaking amount of visitors since 2012.

Admittedly, my view point on the arts in Finland may be slightly biased. After all, I am only familiar with the art scene within Helsinki, and I am not well acquainted with the curriculum for Art History at the University there. This being said, the cultural scene in Finland is, without doubt, much bigger than what I have written about in this post. For this reason, I hope that those reading this have been inspired to explore the wide-ranging and culturally significant body of Finnish art for themselves.

Words by Katja Stella Vääränen

Image in header: Sam Vanni, Contrapunctus (1959-60)

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