Akseli Gallen-Kallela – Finland’s visionary

Finland * 1865-1931


Akseli Gallen-Kallela is born on 26 April 1865 in Pori, Finland, as Axel Waldemar Gallen, but changes his name in 1907 to a more Finnish-sounding name. His family is Swedish-speaking and his father works as a police chief and lawyer.

At age 11, he is sent to Helsinki to study at the local grammar school, but following his father’s death in 1879, he attends drawing classes at the Finnish Art Society as well as studying privately under Adolf von Becker. In 1884 he moves to Paris to study at the Académie Julian and befriends Finnish painter Albert Edelfelt as well as the Norwegian painter Carl Dörnberger.

He is best known for his illustrations of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, and his work helps shape the visual imagery around Finnish national identity. His work on this project starts during his honeymoon following his marriage to Mary Slöör in 1890. He produces illustrations such as the “Aino Myth” as well as several landscapes.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela-Aino Myth

“Aino Myth” by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1891)

In December 1894 he holds a joint exhibition with Edvard Munch in Berlin, Germany, where he also becomes acquainted with Symbolism. But the real turning point in his work comes in March 1895 when he receives a telegram with the sad news that his daughter Impi Marjatta had died from diphtheria. The news heralds a shift in his work from the romantic to a more aggressive style shown in works such as Joukahainen’s Revenge.

Akseli_Gallen-Kallela-Joukahainen's Revenge-1897

“Joukahainen’s revenge” by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1897)

He decides to travel more in Europe, developing his artistic skills. In Germany he studies print-making, a skill further developed in London, while in Italy he applies himself to fresco-painting.

His reputation as a leading Finnish artist is consolidated at the Paris World Exhbition of 1900 when he paints the frescoes for the Finnish Pavillion. The project enables him to voice his desire for an independent Finland, free from Russian influence.

He also spends time at Lake Keitele, which he paints several times between 1904-06, and finds inspiration for several other works, such as “Sky” (1904).

Akseli Gallen-Kallela - Sky - 1904

“Sky” by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1904)

His travels continue and in 1909 he moves to Nairobi, Kenya, where he paints numerous expressionist oil paintings and collects several African artefacts. But his heart belongs to Finland and he returns to his native country in 1911. Between 1911-13 he designs and builds a house and a studio at Tarvaspää, some 10km northwest of Helsinki. Today, the building functions as the Gallen-Kallela Museum, which opened in 1961.

Between December 1923 and May 1926, he spends time in the USA, where he not only exhibits but also visits the Taos art colony in New Mexico to study indigenous American art.

His work on his “Great Kalevala” starts in 1925 but remains unfinished as upon return from a lecture in Copenhagen, Denmark, Akseli Gallen-Kallela falls ill and dies on 7 March 1931 in Stockholm, Sweden.


A vision of Finland

In the early years of the 20th century, Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela painted four nearly identical paintings of Lake Keitele, Finland. The paintings have become a symbol of Finland’s unspoilt natural beauty and are now on display in the National Gallery in London, UK, along with a few of his other works.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela-Lake Keitele-

“Lake Keitele” by Aksei Gallen-Kallela (1904)

While his friend Jean Sibelius represented Finland in the musical world, Akseli Gallen-Kallela played a key role in defining the country’s visual identity following Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917. But more than a decade before independence, his vision of his country of birth was already apparent. Through his paintings of the country’s landscapes such as “Lake Keitele” and “White Roses, Konginkangos” (1906) and earlier through his participation in the illustrations of the Kavala epic, the collection of poems that make up the foundational myth of Finland, he forged his vision of Finland.

The first of the Lake Keitele paintings on display in the National Gallery was painted in 1904 and it reflects the lake as the refuge from an unsettled period for the artist. Following a bout of malaria contracted in Spain, he returned to Finland to recuperate at Konginkangos, on the shores of Lake Keitele. There he painted his vision of Finland through works such as “The Sauna Girl” (1904), “Mary Gallen on the Lakeshore at Lintula” (1904) and “The Den of the Lynx” (1908), reflecting his love for the rural landscapes that made up his country of birth. “Lake Keitele” he painted in 1904, and twice in 1905, and again in 1906, returning to the same motif every time, making subtle changes each time. The tranquillity of the pine forests, the eternity of the snow-capped mountains and the ripples in the lake surface all represent Finland as the land of a thousand lakes and natural beauty.

Edvard Munch – A mind of his own

Norway * 1863-1944


Edvard Munch is born in Norway’s rural Løten in 1863 and named after his paternal grandfather, archdeacon and Court chaplain. His father Christian is an army physician, and married to the tubercular Laura Cathrine, who is 20 years his junior.  At age one, Edvard moves with his parents and his older sister Sofie to Christiania (renamed Oslo in 1925). His aunt Karen Bjølstad moves in with them as his mother is suffering from advanced consumption. The family celebrates Christmas in December 1868 but a few days after, his mother dies and Karen stays to raise the by-now five children and become a supporter to Edvard’s talents. The family moves again, this time to Grünerløkka, on the wrong side of the Akerselva River, which functions as an important class divider at the time. Edvard’s health remains fragile but he recovers from tubercular attacks. His sister Sofie on the other hand dies in November 1877, an event that would have a profound impact on Edvard.

Edvard Munch-The Sick Child-1886-1925

“The Sick Child” – Edvard Munch – (1886/1925)

He decides to become a painter and enrols in the Royal School of Design. In 1882 he is instructed by radical realist Christian Krohg and his earliest paintings of landscapes and portraits show him as a competent realist and naturalist painting. From the mid-1880s a new romantic trend would come to the fore and expression and mood become increasingly important. Munch’s early works show humble young women from the working classes – much like those produced by his teacher. In addition, he is influenced by Max Klinger, who tackles the subjects of love and death.

In the summer of 1885, Munch visits Antwerp and Paris and upon his return paints “The Sick Child”, now considered a pivotal work in his career. The painting shows a young girl dying of tuberculosis and is experimental in that the subject is shown in a hazy and almost dissolved form, exemplifying Munch’s “I paint not what I see but what I saw”. The painting proves to be a new experience for the conservative Norwegian public and Munch becomes the “enfant terrible” of Norwegian painting. He also meets his first love, a married woman referred to as “Mrs Heiberg” and goes from his religious upbringing to Oslo’s anti-bourgeois bohemia. He admires Hans Jæger, the uncompromising leader of the Christiania Bohemia, as well as Edouard Manet and Emile Zola.

Edvard Munch-The Scream-1893

“The Scream” – Edvard Much (1893)

In 1888, he applies for a scholarship to finish his training in Paris and exhibits more than 60 paintings in his first one-man exhibition, which includes “Music on Karl Johan Street”, a complex work, and a more academic version of “The Sick Child”. As a result, he is rewarded the Norwegian state scholarship for artists three years in a row. Following the death of his father, he explores the works of avant-garde painters Toulouse-Lautrec and Edgar Degas and experiments with impressionism, influenced by Claude Monet, producing the highlight of a “Night in St Cloud” in 1890. The psychological treatment of his work is also highlighted in “Melancholy” two years later and in the seminal “The Scream”, of which “Despair”, painted in 1892, is the precursor. The period also heralds Munch’s shift from realism to symbolism.

While Norway is the favourite flavour in Berlin and Munch’s Ibsen-type works generally catch the prevailing mood, Berlin is not ready for him with critics considering the works as “unfinished” and his paintings are taken down five days after the start of the exhibition. But he stays on in Berlin and explores the theme of the femme fatale as well as producing the legendary “The Scream”, a key work of expressionist painting. During this time he also paints important works such as “Starry Night”, “Vampire”, “Death in the Sickroom” and “Madonna”.

Edvard Munch-The Madonna-1894

“Madonna” – Edvard Munch (1894)

In 1895 he returns to Paris and focusses on printmaking and perfects his skills in mezzotint, lithography, intaglio and woodcuts. In the spring 1897 he exhibits at the Salon des Indépendants, who until then had paid little attention to Munch. The exhibition would be the precursor to “The Frieze of Life”, presented as a series some five years later.

In 1898 he meets the attractive and rich Tulla Larsen.  With her he travels to Paris, Berlin and Florence and starts a fateful affair, which ends in the summer of 1900. Munch’s work suffers but by winter, he produces some of his finest landscapes and one year later he paints “The Girls on the Bridge”, a much-cherished work.

In 1902 he is invited to participate at the Berlin Secession and would present his “Frieze of Life” for the first time in full. The 22 paintings are presented in four themes: Seeds of love, Love’s blossom and decay, Life’s anxiety and Death. While success becomes part of his life, so did tragedy as Tulla Larsen continues to haunt his mind. Moreover, alcoholism unravels him and sees him escape to Copenhagen for treatment. He returns to Norway and painting in 1909, providing the decoration for the new festival hall at The Royal Frederik University in Christiania. He completes the monumental works in 1916 after seven years. Meanwhile in 1912 the Sonderbund exhibition in Cologne, Germany, is a milestone in art history and considered the first comprehensive presentation of expressionism. Munch, with a room of his own, is recognised on a par with Van Gogh, Cézanne and Gauguin.

In 1916 he settles in Ekely, on the outskirts of Christiania. In the last decade of his life, self-portraits provides a key theme and while in 1927 important exhibitions in Germany’s and Norway’s national galleries would confirm his status. However, in 1938 some 80 of his works are removed by the Nazi regime. In 1940 Norway is occupied by German troops and he fears for the safety of his works. A few days after his birthday, he develops pneumonia and as a result, he dies on 23 January 1944.


Barbara Hepworth – Abstract notions

UK * 1903-1975


Barbara Hepworth was born 10 January 1903 in Wakefield, Yorkshire, UK, as the eldest child of Herbert and Gertrude Hepworth. In 1920 she starts at the Leeds School of Art, where Henry Moore is a fellow student. One year later she moves to London to study sculpture at the Royal College of Art and in 1923 she is awarded the diploma.

The following year she travels to Florence, Italy, to study Romanesque and early Renaissance art and architecture and pays a short visit to Rome. In 1925 she spends two months in Siena before marrying sculptor John Skeaping in the Palazza Vecchio, Florence, and remain in the city for three months before moving to Rome. There she learns to carve marble from master carver Giovanni Ardini and visits Carrara.

Barbara Hepworth-Pelagos-1946.jpg

“Pelagos” – Barbara Hepworth (1946)

Due to her husband’s ill-health they return to the UK and after a brief stay in St John’s Wood, they move to the studio at The Mall, Hampstead, where she would stay until 1939. A series of exhibitions with John Skeaping would follow until their separation in 1931 (they would divorce in 1933).  

The year 1932 marks the next stage in her career as she carves her first holedsculpture, Pierced Form (Abstraction), but the piece is destroyed during the Second World War. The painter Ben Nicholson moves in with her and together they visit France, where she meets Picasso and Braque. By 1936 her work gains increasingly worldwide recognition and the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquires her work “Discs in Echelon” (1935).

Barbara Hepworth-bronze-oval form Trezion-1961-63

Pelagos – Barbara Hepworth (1961-63)

They spend time in St Ives and Carbis Bay during the war and in November 1940, works left in the Mall studio are destroyed by bombs. However, the ensuing decades would prove to be productive for the sculptor.  In 1956 she starts to work in sheet metal and bronze international acclaim would develop further and would see her exhibit in Brazil, where she is awarded the major prize, and the USA. At the 7th Tokyo Biennale (1963) she wins the Foreign Minister’s Award.

She continues to exhibit worldwide , including the US (1966) and Japan (1970). Her last exhibition is in March-April 1974 at the Marlborough Gallery, New York.

Barbara Hepworth dies on 20 May 1975 in an accidental fire at Trewyn Studio.