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.