Finlandia Frescos, ‘Finland awakens’ and ‘Finland builds’
© Kuvasto 2016. Photo: © Bank of Finland
VICTIMS IN REALITY
Lennart Segestråle’s (1892–1975) massive work, the Finlandia Frescos, comprise two impressive parts that, together with Juho Rissanen’s stained glass work, dominate the main stairway in the Bank of Finland’s head office entrance hall. The frescos were completed in 1943, in the middle of WW II during what the Finns refer to as the ‘Continuation War’ (between the Soviet Union and Finland, 1941‒44), but the first drafts were drawn as early as 1938, as a commission by the then-Governor of the Bank of Finland, Risto Ryti.
In the first of the two frescos Segerstråle presents his vision through the symbolic image of Mother Finland rising “from the hidden depths of a sleeping forest” towards the light. The birth of the nation was not without its victims, and for the work’s central theme the artist chose to paint the nation’s boy, being carried by his grieving mother figure. There was no sign, at the time the fresco was being painted, of the war to come but in retrospect this theme in the fresco hit sadly too close to history, in reality.
When seeking models to use for his works, Segerstråle happened to meet a suitable mother and son. In a book that the artist wrote later in his life, he tells of the fate of his model: “The young man never returned from the war, that followed his last summer”. The subject became not only his own personal pietà (the sacred image of the Virgin Mary, cradling the dead body of Christ), but also for all the peoples’ suffering as well. Segerstråle was faced with the harshness of war when helping the internal refugees arriving in the Newlands district. The artist was appointed to manage the Swedish-speaking evacuees. These experiences gave him new subjects to place into his fresco.
The Oxford-movement’s convictions (an Anglo-Catholic movement), to which Segerstråle was faithful, go some way to explaining the devout, downward beaming shafts of light that fill the Finlandia frescos. The second part of the fresco, “Finland builds”, reminds the viewer of an altarpiece: death controls the right hand side; on the left hand side builders labour beneath a rainbow and in the centre a mother and child look towards the future and the light. The artist has divided the massive surface area of the fresco, 370 x 750 cm, into wedge-like diagonals, allowing for the rhythm of the composition and placing of the groups of figures.
The choice of Segerstråle as creator of the frescos was in no way a matter of chance. He was a multi-talented artist, who was not only proficient in creating paintings and prints, but also had vast experience in making monumental works using classical techniques. He had honed his skills with mosaics and frescos at the Copenhagen Academy of Art in 1929. The Finlandia Frescos were made using the al fresco technique, meaning that the images were painted onto a wet plaster surface. Mistakes, if they happened, had to be corrected by chipping the painted plaster away and starting again. Segerstråle was assisted in his work by two proficient artists, Hilkka Toivola and Aale Hakava.
Segerstråle told that, at the drafting stage of the work he noticed how “although I had been used to losing myself listening to recordings of Sibelius’s Finlandia, performed by the likes of the Stokowski and the Philadelphia orchestra, it increasingly began to affect me in a totally new way”. The artist said that Sibelius’s music’s “mass effect”, its melodies, rhythms and tempo spoke to him.