The Musée d'Orsay's exhibition of works by Akseli Gallen-Kallela may seem a bit simplistic to those very familiar with the artist and his work, but makes a good introduction to a fascinating painter for those who don't know him. My own art historical education neglected Finland entirely, and I'm very pleased to have now discovered the works of this turn of the century artist who captured his homeland, and places abroad, beautifully.
It's a bit disappointing to find the exhibition in the galleries at the back of the top floor -unless visiting specifically for the show, may of the Musée d'Orsay's visitors will reach it tired, at the end of their visit, and Gallen-Kallela's work perhaps won't have the impact it otherwise might. It is very good to see the museum, which generally focuses on French artists, giving exposure to an artist from outside central Europe, but wonders why it couldn't have been billed over the more familiar 'Degas and the Nude' exhibition on the ground floor. Nonetheless, those without fondness for the gloomy temporary exhibition galleries on the ground floor may prefer this new space for exhibitions, less cavernous and with windows overlooking the Seine and the Eiffel Tower.
The Gallen-Kallela exhibition takes a more or less chronological approach to the artist, which also has the effect of carrying audiences increasingly away from their Left Bank starting point: first are Gallen-Kallela's paintings from Paris, where he studied, followed by his paintings from Finland, and finally paintings from his trip to Africa in 1909. The last twenty years of the artist's life are something of a mystery, with the exhibition ending somewhat abruptly on the room of paintings from Africa.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela went to Paris to study at the Academy Julien in the 1880s, when he was 19. The paintings in the first room work somewhat as a segue from the Musée d'Orsay's own collection of (primarily) French art. 'Boulevard Parisien,' from 1885, has something of the impressionist about it, but Gallen-Kallela's touch feels lighter and his paint thinner. His thin lines for trees and for the tail and legs of a dog stood out to me; their crisp sinuousness feels fresh and somewhat akin to the stylised lines of later art nouveau artists.
Gallen-Kallela's studio paintings from the same period follow the tradition of Parisian studio paintings, with female models lit by open windows, but go somewhat against expectations in the complexity of their background. Traditional Finnish textiles appear draped over a couch in both 'Académie de Jeune Femme' (1886-7) and 'Démasquée' (1888). The latter painting is also striking for the attitude of the model, naked and yet relaxed, slumped against the couch, it's hard to believe the pose could have been held consciously while the painting was completed.
But Gallen-Kallela is best known for his paintings of Finnish life and advocacy of Finnish cultural identity, and it's on this that the exhibition focuses primarily. The artist was born Axel Waldemar Gallén and changed his name in 1907 as part of his resistance to Russian culture; Akseli Gallen-Kallela was a name of much more obvious Finnish origin. He also contributed interior design and frescoes to the 1900 Finnish pavilion at the Paris Universal Exposition.
One thread that ties Gallen-Kallela's varied subjects together over time and location is his use of light. In a painting of mother and child in Gallen-Kallela's Parisian studio, a lamp shines colour upon a woman's face. In a situation far removed from urban domesticity, orange tones shining from a fire onto a man's face break up the brown tones of the surroundings, a wooden hut in a snowy landscape. This painting, 'Intérieur de Paysans,' becomes more interesting the closer one looks at it: the realism of faces, especially in the background, emerges, as does the beautiful texture of a cat lying beside a fire and the whimsical detail of a tiny sleigh seen through a small window.
Gallen-Kallela's subject choices are the stuff of traditional Finnish rural life, with a focus on the natural environment. There are the coal-blackened feet of the young girl in 'La Première Leçon' (1887-9), scenes of a sauna and bread drying, the elderly woman, rough face and hands, seen in the countryside in 'La Vielle Femme et la Chat'. Most pictures in the exhibition are on loan from Finland; this is a rare opportunity to see them in France.
While Gallen-Kallela's work is often naturalistic, it's the recurrence of stylised details in naturalistic scenes that can be most intriguing. In 'Perdue' (1886), a rag in a girl's hand gleams orange and acid purple, bright and unnatural in the subdued forest environment. 'Grande Berce' (1889) shows a celebrated Finnish waterfall with five straight yellow lines painted down the centre of the canvas, emphasising the vertical movement in the painting and suggesting the musical nature of the cascade.
The artist's Symbolist period is perhaps a little too peculiar for my comprehension, but 'Portrait of Sibelius with Fantasy Countryside' (1894), a sketch for 'Symposium,' which it sits alongside, is really beautiful. The sketch is small, and many seemed only to give it a cursory glance, but the fantasy countryside particularly rewarded closer examination. It's extremely flat, with sinuous, angular branches and round fruit that reminded me of eighteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. Layered across the branches, though, are outlines of small black leaping cats and delicate white snowflakes that look almost like cut-outs placed atop the image.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela's mythological images are more stylised than any that come before; the extravagance of supernatural powers perhaps led the artist away from naturalistic representation. In 'La Mère de Lemminkaïnen' (1897) every pebble is clearly defined, and every strand of Lemminkaïnen's hair outlined. In 'La Forgeage du Sampo,' though, a link with his earlier work can be seen in the way the acid pinks and bright oranges of fire are reflected on the figures' skin.
In 1909, Gallen-Kallela became frustrated with the Finnish political situation and moved with his family to Africa. His paintings from this period are quite different to his earlier work. The colours are brighter and animals are a major subject. 'Hippotames dans la rivière Tana' (1909) first catches the eye as one enters the room, with the pink snouts of the bathing animals balanced by the green leaves above. The colours aren't always naturalistic, as in the orange and blue landscape, with yellow sky, of 'Skiiers Akseli and Jorma' (1909). I was quite enchanted by the last painting in the exhibition, 'Tentes au Clair de Lune' (1910), with the canvas scratched visible through the paint so that tents appear as faint white lines against the dark blues and greens of the sky.
The exhibition doesn't look further into Gallen-Kallela's life, which ended in 1931, but leaves one curious about it. A cursory glance at Wikipedia tells me that his output was reduced in the remaining period of his life, when he fought for Finnish independence, designed flags and uniforms for newly independent Finland and studied indigenous art in New Mexico. It would have been good to see more about this at the Musée d'Orsay. This exhibition's strength lies generally in Gallen-Kallela's paintings, and can be somewhat weak when dealing with other aspects of his output, such as his furniture and interiors both for the 1900 Finnish pavilion and for his own studio. Ultimately, though, I'm glad to have been provided with a pleasant introduction to Akseli Gallen-Kallela's work.