Jean Sibelius and Akseli Gallen-Kallela: Forging a Finnish Identity

MARJA SAKARI and VESA RUOTONEN explain the importance of Finland’s cultural icons in shaking off Russian rule…

Xander Brett

The art of Akseli Gallen-Kallela and the music of Jean Sibelius are inescapable in Helsinki. Like Italy and Norway, culture proved an invaluable piece in the struggle for Finland’s independence, beating off Russian rule in 1917. It unified individualistic countrymen, rallying them behind their common lust for nature and cleanliness.

“Gallen-Kallela started his career as a realistic painter,” explains Marja Sakari, director of Helsinki’s Ateneum Museum. “His first painting about Finnish identity is the Aino Triptych, which is in our collection. It is based on a story from the Kaleva, a late nineteenth-century book of epic poems compiled by Elias Lönnrot.”


Pori, 1865 – Stockholm, 1931 

The Aino Triptych / Aino-taru

Ateneum, Helsinki

For the Paris World Fair, Gallen-Kallela made a series of paintings based on the Kaleva, reflecting the landscape of Karelia (in eastern Finland) by using techniques he learnt abroad. This cemented his position in the Finnish Golden Age, with fellow painters including Helene Schjerfbeck and Albert Edelfelt. These artists agreed upon a unified use of landscape painting as a way of promoting Finnish purity in the face of Russian industrialisation. It put art at the forefront of the Finnish independence movement. But, Sakari tells me, in Finland today, though art is still an important part of national life, it has been partly eclipsed by Finland’s musical heritage. Jean Sibelius, like Gallen-Kallela, used reflections of Finnish nature to forge a national way forward.

“Sibelius’ music will go on for centuries,” says producer and Sibelius expert Vesa Ruotonen. “The reason is, of course, because it describes nature here in the north. Darkness, water and forests – all that is included in his music… his music is a scenery. But, more importantly, Sibelius describes human nature. That’s why it speaks to international audiences. Sibelius had a wonderful ability to see inside the human mind.”

Finns, unlike their Nordic neighbours, have a reputation for being individualistic. By getting inside all their minds, Sibelius and Gallen-Kallela were able to unify their desire for a single national movement. It’s a movement that, Ruotonen says, has led to Finland becoming “one of the best countries – in all measures – in the world.”

VESA RUOTONEN is a music producer and Sibelius expert.

MARJA SAKARI is the director of Helsinki’s Ateneum Museum, one section of the Finnish National Gallery.

This article is a Fika Online exclusive.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s