Art History with Anne

Lectures for November

Finlandia: Jugendstil to Modernism in the far North

Like many visitors my first glimpse of Helsinki was from the sea, sailing into the port while enjoying a Baltic cruise. Standing out on the horizon are the white silhouette of the Lutheran Cathedral, built as a tribute to the Grand Duke of FinlandTsar Nicholas I of Russia, and the green dome of the Eastern Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral inaugurated in 1868. Both remind us that Finland was a grand duchy of the Russian Empire until December 1917. Once landed, tourists usually head for the market in search of souvenirs or Senate Square to admire a unified ensemble of early 19th century Neoclassical buildings created by Carl Ludvig Engel: Helsinki Cathedral, the Government Palace, the University of Helsinki, and the National Library of Finland. The centre of Senate Square is dominated by a statue to Alexander II who envisioned a stylish modern capital along the lines of St. Petersburg.

However, as a dedicated seeker of Jugendstil architecture, the German term for Art Nouveau also used in northern climes, I headed for the city centre in search of the Central Railway Station designed by Eliel Saarinen in 1904 and finally inaugurated in 1919. Initially conceived in a National Romantic style, Saarinen modified his plans in 1909, after a European study tour.  The famous Ernst Ludwig Haus, at the centre of Darmstadt’s Jugendstil colony (1901), certainly influenced the final conception dominated by Emil Wikström’s iconic Lantern Carriers.   

However, as I soon discovered, the Central Station represents the tip of an iceberg as Helsinki boasts some 500 National Romantic/ Jugendstil buildings. My favourite remains the fantastic Pohjola Insurance Building, on Aleksanterinkatu, dating to 1901, designed by Herman Gesellius, Armas Lindgren, and Saarinen. Resembling a gigantic castle, the building is amusingly covered with dangerous beasts- wolves, bears and trolls- that it would be wise to insure against! In the famous Finnish epic, the Kalevala, Pohjola is the evil land of the North. It was Kalevala and Karelianism that shaped the art of Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Finland’s great symbolist painter.

Over a series of three lectures, I will explore the fantastic art and architecture of Helsinki encompassing not only the city’s Jugendstil buildings but also the paintings of Akseli Gallen-Kallela and the furniture and glass designs of Alvar and Anio Aalto.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Karelianism

Finland’s remarkable Jugendstil pavilion took centre stage at the 1900 Paris World Fair. Created by Herman Gesellius, Armas Lindgren, and Eliel Saarinen the pavilion was an expression of Finnish nationalism in the face of Russification.

A committed patriot, who changed his name from Swedish to Finnish, Gallen-Kallela decorated the central dome with scenes from the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic published in 1835. Compiled from Finnish and Karelian folk lore, the Kalevala was central to Karelianism. This romantic nationalistic movement saw Karelia, an area which straddles Finland and Russia, as a refuge for ‘Finnishness’, where the true spirit of the people had maintained its authencity across centuries. Many artists, writers and musicians supported Karelianism; Gallen-Kallela was joined by Louis Sparre, sculptor Emil Wikström and Jean Sibelius.  Gallen-Kallela drew on the Kalevala for his themes as seen in the Aino Myth, Triptych (1891), Lemminkäinen’s Mother (1897) and Joukahainen’s Revenge (1897). From 1926-8 Gallen-Kallela recreated his Kalevala frescoes, originally painted for the 1900 Finnish Pavilion, for the entrance of National Museum, Finland, as a telling statement of Finnish identity: The Forging of the Sampo, The Defense of the Sampo, Ilmarinen Plowing the Field of Vipers, and Killing the Great Pike.

Clearly the Kalevala held a deeply personal meaning for the artist, his vision becoming darker after the death of his young daughter Impi Marjatta. Yet alongside these ideologically complex works, Gallen-Kallela also perfectly captures the beauty of the wild Finnish landscape- his evocative images of snow laden trees, as seen in The Lair of the Lynx (1906) are beyond compare.

Finnish Jugendstil: National Romanticism blends with Arts and Crafts

There is no doubt that the campaigns of Russification, instigated from1899–1905 and again from 1908–1917, swelled the desire to create a national Finnish architecture. Onni Tarjanne’s Finnish National Theatre (1902), with its rough granite façade and twin towers, exemplifies the National Romanticism of the era. However, its Romanesque arcade betrays an influence from far beyond Europe, so-called ‘Richardsonian Romanesque’. Architect Henry Hobson Richardson freely blended 11th and 12th century French, Spanish, and Italian Romanesque characteristics to create an American style! In addition to round-headed Romanesque arches, often springing from short squat columns, the style incorporated cylindrical towers with conical caps embedded in the walling and rich rustication. Lars Sonck’s Headquarters of the Helsinki Telephone Association (1903-07) echoes these features.

By 1904 Sonck had fully embraced Jugendstil, as seen in his remarkable Jugend Hall (1904), originally a banking hall which now functions as a café.

Coinciding with a massive expansion of the city’s population, large fortress-like apartment blocks sprang up coming to dominate entire streets: Korkeavuorenkatu, Huvilakatu and Kauppiaankatu, the latterfound in a new neighbourhood just east of the city centre, Katajanokka.  Although they can appear quite brutal, they are softened by decoration notably around the doors, windows and under the eaves. Alongside apartments by the famous architectural triumvirate of Herman Gesellius, Armas Lindgren, and Eliel Saarinen, other buildings stand out:

Torilinna building Fabianinkatu 13, 1906 by master builder Gustaf Wilhelm Nyberg and Edv. Löppönen

Sirius building Fabianinkatu 4, 1905, by Knut Wasastjerna and Gustaf Lindberg

Kastén building, Korkeavuorenkatu 31, 1907 by Emil Svensson and Emil Holm.

Now a hotel, Vanha Poli, the former Polytechnic Students’ Union byKarl Lindahl and Valter Thome dating to 1903, makes your stay in Helsinki unique and memorable!

From Jugendstil to Modernism: Saarinen and Aalto

Although Saarinen is best known for the Central Railway Station, many go in search of his rural retreat Hvitträsk, on lake Vitträsk, Kirkkonummi, a few miles outside Helsinki. Originally built as a residence for the three architectural partners and their families, Armas Lindgren soon returned to Helsinki. With the premature death of Herman Gesellius in 1916, Saarinen became sole owner.  Although Saarinen moved to America in 1923, he regularly returned to Hvitträsk during the summer months. Although changes were made to Hvitträsk, the central house retains its original Jugendstil spirit. 

When the property was sold, just before Saarinen’s death in 1950, Hvitträsk was an anomaly. By this time the leading Finnish architect was Alvar Aalto. He was initially influenced by Bauhaus Modernism, as exemplified by his Tuberculosis Sanatorium Paimio, (1928-1933).

Moving away from strictly functional modernist forms, by the 1950s Aalto had developed a personal style based on natural curving lines. The Hall of Culture in Helsinki (1955-58), designed for Finnish Communist cultural organizations, best expresses this phase of his career.

In 1959 work began on a grand new monumental centre for Helsinki around the Töölö Bay area. Aalto’s Finlandia Hall (1962-71) and its Congress wing (1970-75) were the only parts of the plan to be completed. The concert hall’s monolithic tower-like section was intended to create a high empty space that would provide better acoustics. However, cladding the surface in Carrara marble has proved problematic in the harsh Finnish winters.  While Aalto claimed he wanted to bring Mediterranean culture to the north, this great white edifice standing on the edge of the lake resembles an iceberg!

Despite these architectural achievements, beyond Finland Aalto is best remembered for founding the design company Artek with his wife and collaborator Aino Maria Marsio-Aalto. As Artek’s first artistic director, Aino’s creative output spanned textiles, lamps, glassware, and interior design. Rather than following a modernist ideology, Aino favoured comfort and homeliness, her ideas perfectly expressed in the Aalto’s own home at Munkkiniemi.

You can pay by PayPal for a link to these lectures on my YouTube site

Anne Anderson Art and Design History Channel

Lecture 1

Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Karelianism


Lecture 2

Finnish Jugendstil: National Romanticism blends with Arts and Crafts


Lecture 3

From Jugendstil to Modernism: Saarinen and Aalto


Three lectures

Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Karelianism Finnish Jugendstil: National Romanticism blends with Arts and Crafts From Jugendstil to Modernism: Saarinen and Aalto


Please join me to discover the unique character of Finnish Jugendstil.

Please check out my AMAZON page for my book on Art Nouveau Architecture, published by Crowood.

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