© Kuvasto 2016. Photo: © Bank of Finland
If a name can contain an omen, the architect Gottlieb (‘beloved of God’) Eliel Saarinen (1873–1950) earned his first name of being God’s favourite. Saarinen shaped the architecture and National Romantic-style of Finland in the early 1900s, influencing it more than anyone else. On top of which, he was at the heart of the modern architectural movement of the time, in the United States.
Saarinen was much more than just an architect. He designed the first postage stamps for newly independent Finland, the so-called “model Saarinen” series in 1917. His hand can also be seen in the banknote series issued in 1909 and 1922. The latter series is easy to identify by its groups of naked figures, who appear to be walking through the light towards the future. The naked female figure was, however, not born of the endless images from the art of antiquity, rather she was a flesh and blood artist’s model, Lydia Metsämaa (1893–1981). The Saarinen oil painting in the Bank of Finland’s collection shows her as she was and this is why it gained the title “Banknote girl”. The impressionist painting colourfully depicts the model’s body bathed in strong sunlight. In contrast, the images portrayed on the banknotes are different, drawn in a festive, classical style, although the light plays an important role there, too.
Lydia Metsämaa is one of the most painted or drawn models in Finnish history. She began her work at the Atheneum Art Gallery as early as the 1910s. According to information available she was paid immediately after each modelling session. She was also used as a life model in the Helsinki University drawing classes and the University of Technology. Lydia’s figure appears in countless drawings and paintings. Yrjö Ollila and Juho Rissanen immortalized her in the ceiling frescos in the National Theatre and Topi Vikstedt did likewise in the Theatre Restaurant Apollo. Similarly, Lydia’s body guaranteed the success of many a sculpture. For instance, Viktor Malmberg’s “Water carrier” in the Tove Jansson Park and Johannes Haapasalo’s “Mother earth” in the Hietaniemi cemetery.
In her will, Lydia bequeathed her art to the Finnish Midlands Museum in her hometown of Jyväskylä. The collection is interesting in many way as it is composed of works given to her by the highly valued artists she had worked for.