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Myth, magic and music at the museum

By Sara Nyberg, June 2009

Photo: Ateneum
In video art featuring his young son, Santeri Tuori comments on the spirit of storytelling associated with the Kalevala.

The Ateneum Art Museum is receiving record numbers of visitors as it presents the Kalevala in classic paintings, new commissions and even musical compositions.

The Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, celebrates its 160th anniversary this year. To recognise the occasion, Helsinki's Ateneum Art Museum is presenting Kalevala-related art in an extensive exhibition, the likes of which has not been seen in decades.

Author Elias Lönnrot (1802–1884) travelled around Finland writing down ancient stories and poems that had survived in the oral tradition. The final revision of the Kalevala was released in 1849 and holds a special place in the Finnish identity.

Happiness, sorrow and inspiration

Photo: Tampere Art Museum
Click to enlarge the picture
Lemminkäinen and the great snake, by Joseph Alanen, 1919-20

The second floor of the museum gathers art spanning from the 1850s to the late 20th century, including well-known paintings by Akseli Gallen-Kallela and other famous artists, but also works that are not so widely known. "Ateneum is known for classic art," says chief curator Riitta Ojanperä, "so it's great that we're also showing contemporary pieces."

On the first floor, contemporary artists have created works inspired by the epic. The Kalevala Society commissioned ten visual artists and ten composers to express their views of how the Kalevala looks and sounds in 2009.

"The language of the Kalevala is set for singing," says Ulla Piela of the Kalevala Society. She explains why the epic continues to attract readers in the 21st century:

"The book is written in lyric poems that combine rituals and magic. There are stories of happiness and of sorrow, and the characters include heroes as well as mythological individuals. And it is good to remember and cherish those 'rune singers' who devoted attention to our culture and language."

Mind pictures

Photo: Hannu Pakarinen/CAA
Click to enlarge the picture
Ilmarinen, by Marjatta Tapiola, 2008: “When I read the rhymes, I saw the pictures in my mind right away,” says the artist.

Each visual artist was paired with a composer, and each pair was asked to create works based on certain Kalevala verses. Museum visitors can don earphones and hear music that deals with the same theme as the artwork they are seeing.

"When I read the rhymes given to me, I saw the pictures in my mind right away", says Marjatta Tapiola, a renowned artist involved in the exhibition. "The sorrow of Ilmarinen was the first thing that inspired me, but so did all his women, the way he handled them."

She shows off a large painting where Ilmarinen’s first wife is in shreds, bloody bits of her everywhere. Then there is the second wife, all golden. A third woman is seen flying away as a seagull.

India as a Kalevala catalyst

Photo: Hannu Pakarinen/CAA
Click to enlarge the picture
Louhi, by Marjatta Tapiola, 2008: Strong lines fill the space, just as the corresponding music does.

"We had a good starting point for the work, because we have been good friends since we were children," says composer Kimmo Hakola, Tapiola’s partner for the project. "While working, we communicated mostly by email, but we also talked on the phone and met a few times.

"For me, it was not as easy a task as for Marjatta. The Kalevala has formed the basis of so many musical compositions, and I wanted to do something different. I'm also from a generation that was made to memorise Kalevala in school. So I totally had to empty my mind and reset my memory in order for something new to happen. This created comical reactions in me. I really didn't know how to proceed."

The solution appeared when Hakola spent time in India. "India is full of myths, rich in stories, pictures and music. Being there made me look at this commission with a fresh touch.

"I would've never believed that I'd become a great admirer of the Kalevala during this project," he laughs, and insists that that is indeed what happened.

Rushing horses

Visual and audio art interact. Hakola’s music starts like a whip, then comes a strong rhythm and finally the bright sound of a flute. The feeling of rushing horses comes to mind.

All this forms the perfect accompaniment to two large paintings by Tapiola, named Ilmarinen and Louhi after characters in the Kalevala. The strong lines of Tapiola's paintings seem to fill the space, just as the music does.

Adjoining the museum's main entrance in the very first room of the exhibition, the combination of Tapiola and Hakola offers the perfect spot to begin a new exploration of the Kalevala.

Kalevala at the Ateneum Art Museum until August 9, 2009.

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