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Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931)


Ateljeen hämärää Finnish artist, a cosmopolitan, patriot, and restless traveler, friend of the Bolshevik writer Maxim Gorky and supporter of right-wing nationalist movements. He started as a realist, but then became interested in symbolism and later shifted toward expressionism. From the world of the national epic Kalevala Gallen-Kallela found a constant source of inspiration. In post-independence Finland Gallen-Kallela, the most monumental personality in the pictorial arts, gained the position of an unofficial national artist. However, his "national-romantic" visual style was considered passé by younger, pro-modernist generation.

Ensam är Du, naken
intill midjan gudar lik
med blick i ändlös vidd
hvilande, men draken,
den stora magt som rik
dig gjort, i bojor smidd
under dig är vaken.

(Gallen-Kallela's poem from 1916, in A. Gallen-Kallela: elämä ja taide by Onni Okonen, 1949)

Akseli Gallen-Kallela was born Axél Waldemar Gallén in Pori into a Swedish-speaking family. His father, Peter Gallén, worked as the police chief of Tyrvää and cashier in Pori before starting private practice as a lawyer. Mathilda (Wahlroos) Gallén, the artist's mother, was the daughter of a sea captain; she was interested in spiritualism and encouraged her son in his artistic aspirations. At the age of 11 Gallén was sent to Helsinki where studied at a Swedish language grammar school. From 1878 to 1881 he attended the evening course at the drawing school of the Finnish Art Society, continued then his his studies at the Central School for Applied Arts, and enrolled as a day student at the drawing school. He also studied at Adolf von Becker's private academy, before moving in 1884 to Paris, where he entered the Académie Julian. During the following years he divided his time between Paris and Finland, where he often lived in remote villages and depicted ordinary country people in his drawings and paintings.

From this period dates Old Woman and Cat (1885), in which an ugly, old woman, dressed in rags, gives his open, empty hand to a cat sitting in front of her. In his Paris studio Gallen painted Demasquée (1888), a portrait of a young naked woman sitting on a sofa. On the table near her is a human skull. Naked girls or children Gallén portrayed in a number of other works, among them In the Sauna (1889) and Ad Astra (1907). "The primitive values of beauty he was seeking often revealed themselves to him in the fresh but melancholy features of a young country girl or in the sinewy face of the poor, hard-bitten man of the wilderness. Spirituality and a plastic beauty of line raises many a sketch from the level of a mere study to that of high universal art." (Onni Okkonen in A. Gallen-Kallela: drawings, 1947) For his sketch books Gallén drew caricatures of his Nordic friends in Paris, among them Albert Edelfelt, the Norwegian painter Adam Dörnberger, and the Swedish writer August Strindberg.

In 1890 Gallén married Mary Slöör; they had three children, Impi Marjatta, Kirsti, and Jorma. Gallen-Kallela used his wife as the model in Madonna (1891) and The Aino Myth (1891), a triptych. In the same year Gallén traveled with his wife and the Swedish artist, Count Louis Sparre, in northern Russian Karelia. During this honeymoon journey he collected material for his depictions of the Kalevala. The trip started the cultural trend known as Karelianism, which inspired writers, artists, and composers. Gallen-Kallela's journey to Kuusamo gave birth to Paanajärvi Herder Boy (1892) and The Great Black Woodpecker (1892-94). "The black woodpecker has always been my friend," he later explained. "Whenever I hear its high grating voice, I get the feeling that I am so far from human society that there is no longer any contact  even when I hear it in my own back garden."

Gallen-Kallela used images from the Kalevala in a number of works to express patriotic feelings, or his own disappointments and hopes. Although later his work was seen highly national in character, it developed under the influence of international impulses, especially symbolism and the Jugendstil, or art noveau as it was called in the French and English-speaking countries. In Symposium (1893) he portrayed his friends, Oskar Merikanto, Robert Kajanus, and Jean Sibelius, suddenly glimpsing something profound in the middle of heavy drinking. Another independent and shocking version of the work, The Problem, was made in 1894. In it a flayed woman sat on the table in front of ther men  Gallen-Kallela later cut out the figure and the whole left side of the picture.

In 1895 Gallén held an exhibition together with the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944) in Berlin. The two great artists did not became true friends. One version of Munch's most famous work, The Cry, was seen in the exhibition  Gallen-Kallela never produced a single work which would gain similar fame. In the wilderness of Ruovesi he planned and constructed a house, 'Kalela,' a combination of studio and residence, which became one of the finest examples of national-romantic architecture. During his trip to London he had bought a graphic press, and at Kalela he started to produce graphic works. He also began to use the name Gallen-Kallela  officially he changed his name in 1907. To study fresco painting he traveled in 1897 in Italy.

In Ruovesi Gallen-Kallela created some his famous Kalevala paintings, The Defense of the Sampo (1895), The Revenge of Joukahainen (1897), Fratricide (1897), Lemminkäinen's Mother (1897), and Kullervo's Curse (1899). These works belong to best achievements of the Golden Age of Finnish art. During this patriotic era a number of artists, writers, and composers created their visions of Finnishness.

Gallen-Kallela's major work in 1900 was the Finland Pavilion frescos for the Paris World's Fair. The Pavilion became an aesthetic manifestation of national identity. At that time Finland was part of the Russian Empire, but had enjoyed in many ways privileged position. However, the strengthening of the Finnish-language culture and economic growth increased differences between Finland and Russia. The national awakening was answered with censorship and Russification policies. Ilmarinen Ploughing a Filed of Vipers, one of Gallen-Kallela's frescoes, was a thinly veiled political statement. Gallen-Kallela used the colors of red, white and blue of Russia in the decorative snakes, which are following the task of the strong hero. In the poem Ilmarinen successfully performs the impossible task, and also two others, to get the daughter of Pohjola.

With the help of his son Jorma and other assistants Gallen-Kallela painted the frescoes anew in 1928 in the cupola of the National Museum entrance hall, but this time the work did not bring any joy to him  he felt he only repeated what he had done earlier. However, the art historian and critic Onni Okkonen considered him "one of the greatest fresco painters of our time, possessed of a style capable of rising to the heights of the Renaissance masters." In 1901 Gallen-Kallela painted Kullervo's Departure for War for the music auditorium of the Old Students's Union in Helsinki. Kullervo is portrayed as an archaic prince, riding on a white horse and blowing his horn, challenging the whole world. After the Civil War (1917-18) Gallen-Kallela made a watercolor painting, in which Kullervo appears as a broken man, who is contemplating suicide. The most important Kalevala character for the artist was Väinämöinen, the central character of the epic. The Aino Myth deals with the theme of an old man and an young girl. In the triptych the naked Aino chooses death by drowning rather than the embrace of Väinämöinen's arms. Later Gallen-Kallela depicted Väinämöinen in a more heroic light, as the leader of his tribe, not far from a Nietzschean Übermensch.

From 1901 to 1903 Gallen-Kallela worked on the Sigrid Jusélius Mausoleum in Pori, perhaps his most ambitious work. The frescoes started soon to deteriorate and were destroyed by a fire in 1931. Later the frescoes were repainted by his son on the basis of his sketches. When the Russian writer Maxim Gorky hid in Finland in 1906, Gallen-Kallela helped him to escape from Russian authorities. In 1907 he was awarded a gold medal by the Hungarian state. On his return from Hungary he painted in Vienna the portrait of the composer Gustav Mahler. Gallen-Kallela's illustrations for Aleksis Kivi's novel Seitsemän veljestä (Seven Brothers) came out in 1908.

"Niillä mailla ja niissä kohtaloissa oli helppo tuntea itsensä kuin irtireväistyksi kaikista tottumuksista ja velvollisuuksista. Ei ollut taloudellista huolta entisten velkojen takia, ei vekselien lankeamisen kammoisaa odotusta, ei ystävä- ja tuttavapiirin vaatimusten täyttämistä, ei poliittisten olojen suremista, ei itse ottamien isänmaallisten kantamusten painoa, ei turhien satunnaisten tapahtumien pelkoa. Kaukana työni häpäisijäin ulottuvilta, ei lorusanaisten korukiitosten vastaanottamista, ei jokapäiväisen, painoistavan porvarillisuuden raskasta taakkaa. Eurooppa, kuluneena ja uponneena taitojensa ja tietojensa hometuneeseen, kuolleeseen mereen pienten turhamaisten velvollisuuksien pakkokuolaimiin kinnitettynä, rakas, vanha ja kodikas Eurooppa häämötteli edessäni kuin unohdettu hauta, johon valju kylmä aurinko luo haaleata valoansa." (from Afrikka-kirja, 1931)

In 1909 Gallen-Kallela took his family to British East Africa (present-day Kenya) where he spent two years and painted some 150 expressionistic pictures in bright colors. Before leaving Finland he made Väinämöinen's Departure (1906) and The Boat's Lament (1906-07), both reflecting his yearning to sail "away to loftier regions, to the land beneath the heavens." Gallen-Kallela lived in the vicinity of Nairobi like a British Lord, hunted eagerly, met Theodore Roosevelt, the former President of the United States, and made safaris to Mount Kenya and River Tana. This period, one the happiest in his life, he described in Afrikka-kirja (1931). Nevertheless, he did not accept the colonial system, and expressed his disgust when his German friend had one of the servants lashed. Gallen-Kallela returned to Finland in February 1911 and started to plan and built the Tarvaspää studio-villa, which was completed in 1913. After successful participation at the Venice Biennale in 1914, the Italian minister of education commissioned Gallen-Kallela's self-portrait for the Uffizi Gallery, which he finished in 1916

In 1918 Gallen-Kallela designed flags, decorations, and uniforms at the headquarters of the White army. He then served as first adjutant of C.G.E. Mannerheim, who was briefly Regent of Finland after the war. In 1919 Gallen-Kallela received an honorary professorship, he was deputy chairman of the Kalevala Society, he participated in the founding of the first 'Finnish Academy of the Arts,' and served chairman of its special council, the Finnish Art Society, which was established within the Fine Arts Association by a group of veteran artists opposing modernism.

Gallen-Kallela's idealistic view of national unity was shattered by the bloody and traumatic Civil War. He had portrayed admiringly but without sentimentality ordinary country people "untouched by civilization." For urban working-class types  and Socialism  he had no sympathy. One charcoal drawing from 1905, named 'Forces of disruption,' presents a group of rioting revolutionaries, whom one would not like to have next-door neighbors. Ironically, Gallen-Kallela portrayed himself as a member of the group. In Kallela-kirja (The Kallela-Book), published in 1924, he tells that "märkähatut" (Wet Hats) haunted him in his dreams during the civil war as corrupters of the people. The expression comes from the Kalevala poem, which tells about an ugly cow herder, Wet-Hat, who kills cowardly Lemminkäinen, the hero.

Gallen-Kallela's friends considered him a real Renaissance character, full of ideas, but in the 1920s the artist himself felt that his creative energy was dying down. In his son Jorma he saw a successor, who would continue his work. The negative attitude of the rising generation of artists toward Gallen-Kallela had surfaced in 1912 at the Finnish Artists' Guild's meeting. There Tyko Sallinen (1879-1955), the leading expressionist painter, had called him 'a bastard.' On the other hand Gallen-Kallela, with his quick tempered reactions toward new phenomena, from cubism to jazz, did not smoothen disputes. Secretly he had experimented with cubist forms, and his great illustration work from 1921, the Jewel-Kalevala, in fact combined with consideration influences from cubism with expressionitic form language.

In 1923 Gallen-Kallela left Finland for the United States. His successful exhibition at the Chicago Art Institute led to other exhibitions. In 1924 he settled with his family in Taos, New Mexico. There he painted among others a portrait of the Indian chief Clear Water, the Idian Siu Ohutaa, and sevaral mystic fantasy works. While in Taos, he met the writer D.H. Lawrence, who was his neighbour. They discussed late into the night. In Chicago, where he celebrated his 60-year anniversary, he produced several illustrations for the Great-Kalevala. He also wrote a poem of the God of Perm. Gallen-Kallela had recorded decades his thoughts and impressions in his sketch books and diaries, and sometimes tried his hand as a poet.

Gallen-Kallela returned to Finland in 1926. Tarvaspää needed repairing and then came the work with the frescoes at the National Museum. In 1930 he made a contact with the Kansallispankki Bank for a large fresco depicting the Häme Fair. He produced a number of sketches and studies for the work but never finished it. Gallen-Kallela died in Stockholm on March 7, 1931, after contracting pneumonia.

Gallen-Kallela was also highly innovative in the applied arts. He combined influences from the international arts and crafts movement with national motifs. He designed furniture, textiles, metal objects, stained glass, etc., which are now seen in Tarvaspää, the home to the Gallen-Kallela Museum, and in Kalela. Supported by the Kalevala Society he spend in the 1920s much time in preparing his illustrated version of the Kalevala. Koru-Kalevala (The Jewel Kalevala) was a preliminary version of the major project, Suur-Kalevala (Great-Kalevala). After the death of his father, Jorma Gallen-Kallela started to edit Amerikka-kirja (the America-Book), based on his father's experiences in the Unites States. However, he died in 1939 during the Winter War, and the work was not finished. Also much other material, Gallen-Kallela's notebooks, diaries, and sketch books have not been published, mainly due to a long family conflict.

For further reading: Axel Gallen by Wentzel Hagelstam (1904); Akseli Gallen-Kallela by Ludwig Wennervirta (1914); Akseli Gallen-Kallelan kalevalataidetta, ed. by Onni Okkonen (1935); A.Gallen-Kallela: piiristuksia=teckningar=drawings, ed. by Onni Okkonen (1947); A. Gallen-Kallela: elämä ja taide by Onni Okkonen (1949); Isäni Akseli Gallen-Kallela, vol. I, by Kirsti Gallen-Kallela (1964); Isäni Akseli Gallen-Kallela, vol. II, by Kirsti Gallen-Kallela (1965); Akseli Gallen-Kallelan Väinämöiset by Seppo Knuuttila (1978); Juhla-Kalevala ja Akseli Gallen-Kallelan Kalevalataide, ed. by Aivi Gallen-Kallela (1981); Muistelmia nuoruusvuosiltani 1896-1931 by Kirsti Gallen-Kallela (1982); Akseli Gallen-Kallela: elämäkerrallinen rapsodia by Timo Martin & Douglas Sivén (1984); Akseli Gallen-Kallela: 1865-1931 by Timo Martin (1985); Taitelu Akseli Gallen-Kallelan taiteesta, ed. by Kaari Raivio (1988); Kalela: Gallen-Kallelan erämaa-ateljee by Aivi Gallen-Kallela (1991); Isäni Akseli-Gallen-Kallela by Kirsti Gallen-Kallela (1992); Erämaan kutsu by Aivi Gallen-Kallela (1992); Päivänkukka by Arto Seppälä (1992); "Koko elämäni on siveltimessäni!" by Aivi Gallen-Kallela (1993); Akseli Gallen-Kallela: Artist and Visionary by Eija Kämäräinen (1994); Akseli Gallen-Kallela by Marjatta Levanto (1996); Akseli Gallen-Kallela's Bookplate Designs by Heikki Malme (1996); Suuren isän varjossa, ed. by Kaari Raivio (1997); Sanan ja tunteen voimalla: Akseli Gallen-Kallelan kirjeitä by Juha Ilvas (1996); Akseli Gallen-Kallela, ed. by Juha Ilvas (1996); 'Akseli Gallen-Kallela' by Aimo Reitala in 100 Faces from Finland, ed. by Ulpu Marjomaa (2000); Minä palaan jalanjäljilleni: Akseli Gallen-Kallelan elämä ja taide by Janne Gallen-Kallela-Sirén (2001); Axél Gallén and the Constructed Nation by Janne Gallen-Kallela-Sirén (2001); Akseli Amerikassa by Kaari Raivio (2005); Akseli Gallen-Kallela: The Spirit of Finland, edited by David Jackson, Patty Wageman (2006); Fill Your Soul!: Paths of Research into the Art of Akseli Gallen-Kallela, edited by The Gallen-Kallela Museum (2011)   

Selected books:

  • Fosterländsk hustafla: ord till ung och gammal att i hjärtat gömmas / J. H. Erkko, 1900 (illustrator)
  • Seitsemän veljestä / Aleksis Kivi, 1908 (illustrator)
    - Seven Brothers: A Novel / Aleksis Kivi (translated by Alex. Matson; illustrated by Akseli Galle´n-Kallela, 1952)
  • Akseli Gallén-Kallela: teckningar, akvareller, etsningar, 1909 
  • 40 valosyövytystä, 1912
  • Kalevala / Elias Lönnrot, 1922 (Koru-Kalevala; illustrator)
    - Kalevala (översatt av Björn Collinder; med illustrationer av Axel Gallen-Kallela, 1948)
    - The Magic Songs of the Finns: Sung Since the Time Immemorial / compiled and edited by Elias Lönnrot in 1880 (translated into English by John Abercromby in 1898, illustrated by Akseli Gallen-Kallela in 1922, 2011)
  • Kallela-kirja 1: Iltapuhde-jutelmia, 1924 (edited by Martti Raitio)
  • Afrikka-kirja: Kallela-kirja II, 1931 (edited by Jorma Gallen-Kallela)
  • Kalevala / Elias Lönnrot, 1986 (illuminations and paintings by Akseli Gallen-Kallela; transl. by W. F. Kirby; ed. and designed by Aivi Gallen-Kallela)
  • Seiniä, seiniä! Antakaa hänelle seiniä!: Jusélius-mausoleumin freskojen esitöitä ja luonnoksia = Walls, Walls! Give Him Walls!: Sketches and Preliminary Works for the Frescoes in the Jusélius Mausoleum, 1991 (catalogue editors: Erja Pusa, Kirsi Kaisla) 
  • Sanan ja tunteen voimalla: Akseli Gallen-Kallelan kirjeitä = A Self-Portrait in Words: The Letters of Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1996 (compiled by Juha Ilvas; translation: Silja Kudel)
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