Akseli Gallen-Kallela Finnish 1865-1931
- Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Jäiden Lähtö Ruovesi (Ice Breaking-up on Lake Ruovesi)
- signed and dated AXEL / GALLEN / KALLELA / 1917 l.r.
- oil on canvas
Sale: Bukowski's, Helsinki, 11 December 1999, lot 72
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner
International interest in the work of Akseli Gallen-Kallela has been gaining ground in recent years. In 1999 the National Gallery in London purchased Keitele, one of Gallen-Kallela's most sublime landscapes, and an iconic image of Finland. During this year and last the artist has been the subject of a major retrospective in Tampere (Akseli and Young Finland, Akseli Gallen-Kallela as a Nation Builder) and in Groninger, Holland (Akseli Gallen-Kallela: The Spirit of Finland). His work formed a key component of the major exhibition A Mirror of Nature, Nordic Landscape Painting 1840-1910, which toured throughout Scandinavia and to Minneapolis in 2006. In March this year the artist was the subject of a major article in Art in America by Joe Martin Hill. Lots 365-369 have been sent for sale from different national and international collections.
Painted in May 1917, the present work shows ice breaking up and melting on lake Ruovesi, a dramatic event that marked the end of the long hard Finnish winter and heralded the beginning of summer. Although the record of a natural occurence, the sweeping vista of the frozen lake, the distant island and the grandeur of the trees reverberate with historical and political meaning, both past and present.
For centuries Finland had been under Swedish rule, and then during the Napoleonic Wars in 1809 had become an autonomous Grand Duchy of Czarist Russia. Yet for Gallen-Kallela, like the vast majority of the Finnish people, patriotism and the quest to define their national identity remained a vital force within them. It was in the face of increasing tensions with their Imperialist neighbour at the end of the nineteenth century that Gallen-Kallela helped so incisively to give form to Finnish culture, painting the Finnish legends, building his wilderness studio Kalela and transcribing the Finnish landscape into what Janne Gallen-Sirén has aptly described as a 'codex for national identity'.
Like Burnt Forest (lot 365), the bare and broken branches of the trees in the present work hint at the burden of being enthralled to Russia. Painted a year before Finland gained its independence, however, just as Gallen-Kallela used the steel grey bars of light criss-crossing lake Keitele to evoke the wake signal of the mythical Finnish rowing hero Väinämöinen, so the fissures in the ice in the present work anticipate Finland's imminent political and economic freedom from Russia. As Gallen-Kallela recounted: 'in 1913 it started to become clear to me and perhaps to some others also that soon Finland would gain its independence...'
Gallen-Kallela painted the present work from the vantage point of the roof of his wilderness studio Kalela, a place that held a special significance for him. He had constructed it in 1894-95 on a rocky promontory overlooking the lake. Inspired by the massive farm houses of Archangel Karelia that he had visited on his honeymoon, he incorporated into its design many of the ancient motifs that he had found on his travels through Karelia, in particular the epic sagas of the Kalevala. It was in Kalela that his wife gave birth to their children Kirsti (1896) and Jorma (1898). And it was there that he worked on some of his most important projects. He produced his first wood-cuts and his first large scale frescoes there, and it was there too that he completed his major oils inspired by the Kalevala: Defending the Sampo, Joukahainen's Revenge, Lemminkaïnen's Mother and Kullervo Cursing.