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Full disclosure: I'd never heard of Akseli Gallen-Kallela, or even seen what is apparently one of the most popular works in the National Gallery in London 'Lake Keitele', and who, according to Anne Robbins (the Associate Curator of Post-1800 Paintings at the National Gallery and curator of the exhibition) is arguably Finland's most famous artist.

Visually, I found myself coming back to the National Gallery press release time and time again; something was different, or saying something that, when compared to the hundreds of others which we get in a month, made it a follow up release. 

And so it goes.....

The press opening on 15 November was well attended by a number of professional arts journalists, and was hosted by Ms. Robbins and her team, with an elequent introduction by The National Gallery Director Mr. Gabriele Finaldi, outlining the reason and timing for this exhibition, which, according to Mr. Finaldi, celebrates the 100th anniversary of Finland's autonomy from Russian political rule.

In the same way as the initial press release caught this writers eye, the exhibition itself - which is absolutely stunning - seemed to be doing something more than just playing with, or cosying up to ones retinas. In fact, in order to fully appreciate the whole presentation, three visits to the National Gallery were required to firm up thinking on this gathering of works by Gallen-Kallela. The exhibition consists of 12 pieces and includes works created during a 30 year period in the artists' career. 

In so far as the works on view, I was left with the feeling that not only is this 'A Vision of Finland' as the exhibition title suggests, but this artist is trying to show us what Finland sounds like, or at least he is in the areas which he has painted and which are included in this exhibition. If you think about The Scream by Edvard Munch (whom Gallen-Kallela exhibited with in Berlin in 1895), that work is as much about a visual language as it does invite you to imagine a sound, and in that context, as an artist, Kallela to some degree, was painting ‘sound’ in every work which is on display, and that is a very difficult result indeed to achieve.

The zig-zag striations of light on the four versions of the paintings of Lake Keitele in the exhibition, to my mind, are there additionally as visual vibrations that imagine a very gentle hum coming from the lake.

Lake KeiteleGallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele - Image courtesy National Gallery, London

The reflective abstract forms between bathers in a work entitled Oceanides dated 1909, are again Kallela’s interpretation of the sound of fun and splashing with the very specific use of shapes and colours, somehow and again a representation of the sound the bathers are making. Matisse's playful cut outs came to mind when viewing this work. The almost tiger-stripe abstract forms gently interfere whilst viewing, just as the sound of splashing and playful behaviour would as you watch a group of people playing around in the sea on a vacation. 

OceanidesOceanides, painted 1909 by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Boats on the Shore, 1884 which, quite obviously is a painting of two boats on the shore, with pretty rough looking waves painted and are most prominent in the work. This painting is entirely structured around the sound of waves hitting the shore, the sound is the first thing you see, and is central to this piece, with everything else in the painting falling in behind the sound of the waves.

boatsonshoreAkseli Gallen-Kallela, Boats on the Shore, 1884 © Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Pirje Mykkänen Included in the exhibition is a somewhat unusual vertical painting titled Lake View, painted in 1901, whereby elements of forestry in the fore ground show us that there is very little noise at that particular time of day, and at that particular spot on the lake. The trees in Lake View are straight and up-standing with virtually no movement on them, or created around them. I found it interesting that the forestry was painted with such crafted precision, against a backdrop of stylistically impressionist painting. He couldn’t have painted the forestry in any other way, and if anything, the trees are slightly out of scale, and play a less significant roll in the painting than the Island, the sky, and the lake, with its side-to-side line of light / vibration.

Kallela doesn't want you to look at the trees, he wants you to listen to the trees, and uses them as an indicator of the sound on a dusk evening on Lake Keitele; very quiet, very still, and with very little wind blowing. There are two styles of painting on this piece, giving us two separate parts of a painterly equation; sight and sound.

LK531 Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lake View, 1901

As silly as this might sound, the reason why Lake Keitele is one of The National Gallery in London's most popular works, is because people not only go to see the painting, they go to listen to the painting. 

If you get the chance, it's an absolutley gorgeous exhibition that runs through to 4 February at the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, and is well worth experiencing, but don't listen to me, listen to Finland's Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865–1931), and he's not here for long.

Full details on the National Gallery website:

Screen Shot 2017 12 12 at 22.26.27


Press Release:

This winter, visitors to the National Gallery can discover a selection of paintings by the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865–1931) in the first exhibition in the UK devoted to this artist. 

Lake Keitele (1905) purchased by the National Gallery in 1999, with its cool, silvery elegance and meditative quality, has become one of the Gallery’s best-loved works and remains the only painting by this artist in a British public collection. Lake Keitele has never before been the subject of an in-depth study.

In the exhibition all four versions of Gallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele composition are reunited for the first time in the UK and within the context of the artist’s landscape work. Two Lake Keitele landscapes have been borrowed from private collections, one of which is on long-term loan to the Gallen-Kallela Museum, near Helsinki; the third comes from the Lahti Art Museum/Viipuri Foundation, Finland. 

4picsAll four versions of Gallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele Composition @ The National Gallery, London

Lake Keitele: A Vision of Finland looks closely at the genesis and meaning of this deceptively simple image: a view of a lake bathed in brilliant summer light, celebrating the unspoilt beauty of the Finnish countryside. The four landscapes are shown side by side, in the order in which they are believed to have been painted, allowing visitors to study the gradual shift from a directly observed, naturalistic landscape to a highly stylised and abstracted image.

The exhibition also gives the public a chance to explore the work of Gallen-Kallela, one of Finland’s most prominent artists, whose career was inextricably linked to the history of his country. At a time when Finland was struggling for independence, having been under foreign rule for eight centuries, Gallen-Kallela’s paintings came to embody the country’s cultural nationalism and to symbolise Finland’s struggle for political autonomy. This was finally achieved 100 years ago in December 1917. Lake Keitele: A Vision of Finland is timely as it marks the centenary of Finland’s independence. 

gallela ja keppi gk museo s1800x0 q80 noupscalePortrait of Akseli Gallen-Kallela dated around 1915 - Photo from the Gallen- Kallela Museum

A prolific artist, trained in Helsinki and Paris, Gallen-Kallela painted ambitious works fusing Continental influences such as naturalism and symbolism. Well-travelled and universally successful in the salons and exhibition rooms of Europe, Gallen-Kallela remained attached to his native Finland all his life. He developed his own distinctive visual language, vigorous and archaic, for depicting the ancient legends of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, a compilation of age-old poems glorifying the country’s heroic roots – an aspect of his work for which the artist remains most famous. 

Spanning 30 years of Gallen-Kallela’s career, the exhibition features a dozen works, centred around the four versions of Lake Keitele. A group of his earlier landscape works helps trace the elaboration of the composition, while attesting to his assimilation of Continental trends. A rare, early stained-glass artwork of a lakeshore view by Gallen-Kallela (1896) demonstrates not just the artist’s skills in various media, but also the central significance of Finland’s natural scenery in his oeuvre. Additional paintings of lakeside landscapes executed in the summer of 1904 evoke the fruitful months spent by the artist on the shores of Lake Keitele, painting its glorious setting, while two works on themes from the Kalevala emphasise the mythical dimension of the Lake Keitele landscape. In addition, a recently discovered late pastel stresses the ongoing significance of the subject for Gallen-Kallela. Coming primarily from Finnish collections, public and private, many of these works have rarely been exhibited publicly. 

Anne Robbins, Associate Curator of Post-1800 Paintings at the National Gallery and curator of the exhibition, explains: “With its silvery reflections, drenched in crystalline Nordic light, Lake Keitele is an immediately appealing work, and one which truly captivates the public, holding its own against the Gallery’s famous Monets and Van Goghs. We have long wanted to look further into this work, to decipher its many layers of meaning, and are thrilled to have been able to reunite the four versions in this focused exhibition. I hope it will be a revelation, introducing a highly distinctive artist whose life intersected with the history of Finland, and throwing light on a painting which has not ceased to enthral visitors.”

National Gallery Director, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, said: “Beautiful and rich in symbolic meaning, Gallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele has become one of the National Gallery’s most popular pictures. This is the first exhibition we have devoted to Finnish painting in Trafalgar Square and it marks 100 years of Finland’s independence.”

The exhibition is accompanied by the first National Gallery book dedicated to Gallen-Kallela and this specific work. The catalogue examines Gallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele in the context of the artist’s oeuvre, as well as in the international and historical setting in which this landscape was painted. 

About the Author

Elliot Lee

Elliot Lee

Elliot Lee founded his antique business in 1994. Having bought his first Antique piece at the tender age of eleven, it has since then been his passion for Antiques, Fine Art, and aesthetically beautif...