Finding myself now in Helsinki ahead of my one-month artist's residency at Haihatus Art Centre in Southern Finland's Lakeland region (oh the anticipation!), I have been very impressed by my visit to the Ateneum, Finland's main 'classical' painting museum, built in 1887 to house the growing collection of the Finnish Art Society and eventually placed under government administration (as part of the Finnish National Gallery) in 1990. This is an institution which may not have the physical dimensions or the number of paintings on display of other national museums, but, in exchange, the quality of the pieces on show is, on average, extremely high (not necessarily the case in other first-rate European institutions with larger collections on display), which makes the visit an absolute joy and every room a small gem by itself. Chronologically, the Ateneum's display starts with the so-called Finnish 'golden age' of painting in the second half of the 1800s, when social realism and a renewed interest in depicting the everyday lives of the peoples of Europe in a truthful fashion brought about a break with conventional academic art. This was the time when a painting like Eero Järnefelt's Under the Yoke (Burning the Brushwood), in which a young Finnish peasant child stares out of the canvas while engaged in the back-breaking labour of burning the forest to fertilise the land, could by itself spark a fierce debate on social reform (in that sense, it is worth reflecting on the way realist painting at the time was fulfilling the role claimed later, and to the present day, by documentary photography and film). In this first room we discover already the work of exceptional painters like Albert Edelfelt (1854-1905) or the well-known Finnish master Akseli Gallén-Kallela (1865-1931), as well as first-rate pieces by Russian portraitist Ilya Repin (1844-1930) who lived in Finnish Karelia for the last 30 years of his life. The display moves adroitly through Symbolism (a Europe-wide movement now largely forgotten but which, with its revolutionary emphasis on the inner truth of human feelings and the mystery of the human journey through life, provided the basis for the work of masters like Gustav Klimt), Romantic painting inspired by the Finnish Kalevala folk tale cycle, portraiture -with breathtaking work by the likes of Edelfelt, Maria Wiik (1853-1946), Magnus Enckell (1870-1925) or Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946)- and landscape painting.
The visit proceeds with the penetration of successive avant-garde currents into Finland in the initial decades of the 20th century, again with work of exceptional quality (I have often thought that many of these modernist artists, unknown outside their respective European nations, produced work of equal or superior quality to other creators more internationally recognised, but I guess that's largely down to luck and the vagaries of each artist's biography and these injustices, unfortunately, will always be with us).
Most of the top floor of the Ateneum is currently devoted to the temporary display Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life (10/06-02/10/2016). Neel (1900-1984) was a (mostly) New York-based figurative painter whose playful, penetrating eye tirelessly portrayed relatives, friends and acquaintances mainly from the multirracial, multicultural communities and the artistic milieu where she made her home. The same floor is also home to a small but beautiful collection of sculpture by female Finnish artists and prints and drawings by Italian creators such as Emilio Greco (1913-1995), Afro Basaldella (1912-1976) and Alberto Magnelli (1888-1971).
Whenever you're next in Helsinki make sure you don't miss the Ateneum (not to mention that the city, with its relaxed atmosphere and beautiful Art Deco architecture, and surrounded on three sides by the Baltic sea, is a pleasure to walk around).