Photo: © Bank of Finland 2016
Skiing towards oppression
Many viewers have made the mistake of thinking that Axel Gallén’s (1865–1931 from 1907 Akseli Gallen-Kallela) painting “February vision” is some kind of mystical premonition of the white clad soldiers making their way through glistening snow drifts during Finland’s Winter War, 1939‒1940 against the Soviet Union. This misapprehension has even given wings to a story, according to which the artist saw the subject of this painting as a vision in his sleep.
The painting certainly depicts a turning point in Finnish history, but actually refers to the February Manifesto issued by Tsar Nikolai II in 1899. The purpose of the Manifesto was to tie the Grand Duchy of Finland more closely to Russian rule and abolish the amplified cultural and administrative autonomy granted to Finland by Tsar Alexander I in 1869, that had made Finland a Grand Duchy in the first place.
The Finns reacted swiftly to the issue of the Manifesto. The people of Helsinki festooned the statue of ‘Tsar-Liberator’ Alexander II, with garlands of flowers. Women dressed in mourning and many businesses placed funereal drapery in their windows. Undergraduates and student club members went around the country collecting signatures on a grand petition drawn up by Senator Leo Mechelin. Over only 11 days and from a population of 2.5 citizens, they collected 522,931 names of people opposed to Russia’s intentions. In a sparsely populated country, with a very thinly spread transport infrastructure, many of the students had collected the names by travelling from place to place by skiing.
Gallén also reacted swiftly. He painted a relatively large painting of snow-suited skiers (53 x 65 cm) in tempera in 1899. He then presented it to the head of the White Army, C. G. E. Mannerheim. The work now hangs in the Mannerheim Museum collection.
Gallén painted a new version of the snow suited skiers in oil in 1905. The year is significant in that it was the year the Manifesto was declared null and void on November 4th, with the issue of the ‘November manifesto’. Russification measures were repealed and the former Grand Duchy administration approach was reinstated. Finland was given the right to its own House of Parliament (Eduskunta) and universal suffrage was established – under which women were granted the right to vote, as well.
In earlier days, skiing was a normal winter form of travel and at the end of the 1800s it became seen as a sport. Finland’s first ski competitions were held in 1879 in Tyrnävä and 1902 saw races in the increasingly popular Norwegian style of cross country skiing. But where did the white snow outfits come from? The first time they were used in a military context was during the Finnish Civil War, January – May 1918, when the White Army emerged victorious over the Socialist Red Army. Parka and anorak-style protective gear is part of many peoples’ traditional dress and in Finland the nearest equivalent was in the white outfits used by seal hunters.
Perhaps the colour of the suit was significant to Gallén’s painting, too. It was both a reflection of the snow itself and possibly also an expression of the clarity and purity of the skiers’ intent. In a photograph taken of Gallén in 1906, he is pictured standing on skis in the countryside of Konginkangas, with the only white in his outfit being the collar showing from beneath his jumper. Thus, in a painting he did of his son and himself in 1909 (“Skiers, Akseli and Jorma”) the competing skiers are both wearing black, and the artist’s pained expression is reminiscent of some kind of devilish grin.