Photo: © Bank of Finland
TRAGEDY OF TRAGEDIES
Axel Gallén’s (1865–1931, from 1907 Akseli Gallen-Kallela) first version of his Aino triptych, painted in Paris, came into the Bank of Finland’s possession by a circuitous route.
Professor Edvard Neovius bought the massive work when it was first exhibited in Finland. Neovius, however, then moved to Copenhagen, taking the triptych with him. The next time it came onto the market was when his daughter put Neovius’s estate up for auction in 1950.
Tauno Angervo, the then-managing director of Pohjola, wanted the triptych to hang in his company’s offices and therefore requested permission from the Bank of Finland to finance the acquisition using a foreign currency account. In the years immediately following World War II, currency control was strictly enforced.
The import licence was granted, but the Gallén painting also interested the Governor of the Bank of Finland, Sakari Tuomioja. He suggested that the Governors’ dining hall at the central bank would provide a more appropriate home for the Aino triptych. The suggestion sounds somewhat far-fetched, until you realise that the Governors’ dining room at the Bank of Finland, used by the small group that formed the Board of the central bank, was a more public and grander space than the facilities on offer at Pohjola.
Tauno Angervo conceded to Tuomioja’s proposal but, probably diplomatically, not for reasons of where it was to be hung. The Bank purchased the work, and today it is hung in the Bank’s ’Copper Standard’ room together with Dora Jung’s textile installation that gives the room its name.
The Aino triptych represents the broad spectrum of sources of inspiration developed by the artist. From an early age, Axel Gallén became familiar with the tales of the Kalevala ‒ the national saga ‒ and apparently eagerly participated in the Kalevala illustration competition announced in 1883. Success was, however, not immediately forthcoming.
It is hard today to imagine how challenging it was for artists of the 1800s to visualise the stories of the Kalevala. The heroes of the Kalevala were described as sitting one minute like some hero of antiquity, the next like a Viking warrior. Put simply, vital descriptive information was missing.
Quoting Gallen-Kallela, from a chapter in the artist’s unpublished autobiography that touches on this quandary, Janne Gallen-Kallela-Sirén writes: “Whenever my imagination raced along beside the verses, I yearned for the exact pointers as to which objects and pieces of rubble or debris were remnants of ancient times.”.
According to the theories of realism and naturalism, art was an interpretation of nature and culture rather than a fictitious representation of reality. That same year, 1888, when Gallén began painting his first epic work, he became a pupil at Fernand Cormon’s (1845–1924) atelier. Cormon was an academic artist and became known for his portrayal of prehistoric peoples and times.
The study of prehistory was in its infancy, but much of the basics of prehistoric creativity were already known. For instance, in 1875 Edouard Lartet and Henry Christy published their ‘contributions to archaeology and palaeontology’, based on the art they had discovered in caves in the Dordogne, under a title guaranteed to excite north Europeans “L´âge du renne”, the age of the reindeer.
There is no direct connection between the painting and Gallén’s designs for Aino. But in Cormon’s academic surroundings, it was now easier for Gallén to develop his vision of ancient Finnish life.
Cormon’s best-known work is the seven-meter-long painting “Cain” (1880), which portrays Cain and his tribe, condemned to wander through the wilderness for eternity, for killing his brother, Abel. The group, punished by Jehovah, roam the earth barefoot and in animal skin tatters.
Regardless, there were plenty of obstacles in the artist’s way. Gallén worried that the reception accorded his great work would fall as flat as a pancake. Still, he stated “I shall work on, scrape the paint off and paint again.”
Expensive Parisian artist’s models didn’t look very much like the Finnish “Aino” and the Finnish setting was at the mercy of Gallén’s memory and a few sketches. Dried perch skins became a naturalist link to his homeland. After all, Gallén had brought them with him when he had moved to Paris.
Gallén painted the story of Aino in three scenes. However, they are not presented chronologically. In the left-hand panel Aino wrenches the string of pearls from around her neck and rejects Väinämöinen’s proposal. In the central panel, Väinämöinen brings up a strange catch when he goes fishing, which he initially recognises as Aino. She mocks Väinämöinen and leaps into the water. In the right-hand panel Aino meets the frolicking water nymphs, the maids of the water goddess Vellamo. In the next stage of the saga, Aino swims to a rock from where she sinks with it into oblivion beneath the waves, but this is not depicted.
The tragic tale of Aino was largely created by Elias Lönnrot, collector and writer of the stories behind the Kalevala saga, along with the name. Myths are a reflection of the society from which they spring, in this case where parents and family decide the marital fate of a girl. The Aino triptych is still very capable of arousing discussions and emotions.
There are those who criticise the work for being chauvinistic, to say nothing of the cries of national socialism, because of the swastika-style ornamentation on the massive frame. This latter is complete bunkum as the swastika is a very old symbol of the sun used by a number of cultures, world-wide. Besides which, at the time Gallén painted his triptych, Nazis did not even exist.
Gallén based his work on the Kalevala, and its text didn’t hold back on criticising men, including Väinämöinen. The story of Aino is one of the great tragedies. The girl’s mother bitterly regrets her attempts at marrying off her daughter, against the girl’s wishes. Väinämöinen, on the other hand, “cries evening long, cries morning long, at night he cries still more…”
Aino gets her revenge. She mocks Väinämöinen, who imagined her “wiping his little kitchen, cleaning his floors” and jeers that the “feeble-minded” old man, doesn’t even recognise “Vellamo’s watery maid, the only child of Aho”. This is what Gallén chose as the central discussion point behind his triptych.