Lake under Sunshine (1918)
Lake under Sunshine (1918)

Living in a city like Paris and enthusiastically visiting all the museums and exhibitions that take place month after month, can give one a conviction of knowing all the great painters and sculptors of the world. But this could prove to be a delightful illusion when you discover someone like Akseli Gallen-Kallela, an unusually captivating painter whose more than 70 works are currently being shown at the Jacquemart André Museum, only a short walk away from the Arc of Triumph.

While the sunny, green landscapes of the south have always attracted painters, particularly those living in grey, snow-covered countries close to the North Pole, it is a surprise to watch the fascination of Gallen-Kallela with the frozen lakes and icy topographies of his own home country, Finland.

Born in the mid-nineteenth century in what was part of the Russian empire at that time, Gallen-Kallela grew up as a prolific artist, never stopping to travel around Europe during his youth. While still in his early twenties, he would visit Paris most enthusiastically a number of times to learn the latest painting techniques, and to meet well-known artists from the world over. But the mythical folklores and glacial surroundings of his own country would always, inevitably, draw him back home.

Eventually, while in his mid-thirties, he would build a house with his own hands next to a lake north of Helsinki, which would also be his workshop throughout his life and where he would stay active, restlessly creating his works, not only paintings but also literary essays, until his death at age 66 in 1931.

An exhibition in Paris of works by Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela showcases his passion for wintry topographies

The lake facing his house is always present in most of Gallen-Kallela’s works; shining white and frozen during winter time, but also blue and agile, reflecting a low and distant sun in the typical North Pole images and its tiny but ever-present reflections over an arctic surface. Grey clouds mirrored on chilly waters, or trees bending down on smooth blue surfaces are, in addition, immensely lyrical and captivating to watch.

House in Winter (1910)
House in Winter (1910)

Jean Lauvergeat, a well-known French art critic, fairly elegantly describes Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s technique: “Turning his back on the modernism of big cities during his lifetime, he planted his genius in the wild nature of his home surrounded by a majestic beauty. He followed seasons in their typical variations and invariably took for his theme the dense forests and the glorious lakes of Finland. His paintings are like musical symphonies, representing landscapes that are forcefully vibrant, with Finland’s mythological and sacred legends always present in his works as a psychological background.”

While watching his paintings one also learns with astonishment Gallen-Kallela’s attachment to unspoiled nature and his fear of industrial disasters as, already by the beginning of the 20th century, the timber and paper businesses had grown to a frightening degree in Finland, with logging companies taking over forests, rivers and lakes. He proved to be a passionate ecologist long before the concept came to light many decades later, and continued writing against industrialisation and the plundering of natural resources.

“Nature is a dynamic process…,” he wrote in one of his essays, “…in which the human being is nothing else but one of the many elements. So, don’t kill nature in order to make money!”

‘Myths & Nature’ is being exhibited at the Jacquemart-André Museum, Paris, until July 25, 2022

The writer is an art critic based in Paris.

He may be reached at zafmasud@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 24th, 2022

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