The Ateneum, part of the Finnish National Gallery, has been a brilliant showcase of Finland’s greatest artists, male and female, since opening in 1888. Unlike other Western nations, Finland has supported men and women alike through art education and grants since the national art collection was established in the nineteenth century. So it’s no surprise that Finland was the first European country to give women the vote in 1906. Thanks to the investment by the Finnish Art Society in artists of both sexes, women artists are known nationally. The Finnish Art Society acquired its first artwork by a woman in 1859 and from 1861 on it acquired women’s works almost annually. A new exhibition, The Modern Woman, aims to boost the profiles of 12 female artists internationally.
The Ateneum’s permanent collection includes more than 20,000 national treasures from Finnish artists like Albert Edelfelt, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Helene Schjerfbeck and Ellen Thesleff, as well as international masterpieces from Paul Cézanne, Marc Chagall, Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh. The museum is generous in their loans to museums outside of Finland including works by Helene Schjerfbeck on show for the first time in the UK at London’s Royal Academy in 2019.
Nicely timed for International Women’s Day, 8 March 2022, The Modern Woman exhibition at the Ateneum celebrates the contribution of twelve pioneering Finnish women artists to 20th-century modernism: Helene Schjerfbeck, Sigrid Schauman, Ellen Thesleff, Elga Sesemann, Hilda Flodin, Sigrid af Forselles, Gunvor Grönvik, Eila Hiltunen, Lea Ignatius, Helmi Kuusi, Laila Pullinen and Essi Renvall. The exhibition of approximately 150 works includes paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints from the Ateneum collection. Their significant body of work deserves much wider exposure outside of Finland and this show has contributed to that. Designed as an international touring show, the exhibition opened at Scandinavia House in New York in 2017, travelled to the Millesgården art museum in Stockholm in 2018, The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo in 2019 and GL Strand, Copenhagen in 2021. It is on show at Ateneum until 27 March 2022.
This thoughtfully organised exhibition sets these twelve women’s works amidst the social, political and cultural changes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Access to grants and international travel enabled Finnish female artists to develop thriving careers as artists. Travel to artistic centres such as Paris and Florence expanded their horizons, as they developed their own networks and were introduced to a variety of new influences.
Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1946) is perhaps the only artist in The Modern Woman show known outside of Finland. She travelled widely and studied and worked in Paris in the 1880s and collaborated with artists in Pont Aven, Brittany and St. Ives, Cornwall. Her paintings, particularly her self-portraits showing the process of ageing, are astonishingly good and deserve a wider audience.
Ukrainian born Sigrid Schauman (1877-1979) went to art school in Helsinki where her teachers included Helene Schjerfbeck and her work was shown for the first time at Ateneum in 1901. Her travels to Italy, Paris and Egypt and her meeting with the artist couple Sonia and Robert Delaunay influenced her work. All this and exposure to French-influenced modernism, impressionism and post-impressionism inspired brighter colors and light-drenched landscapes. Her minimalistic female nudes, such as Model, 1958 also deserve a wider audience.
Elga Sesemann (1922- 2007) was a bold colorist influenced by German expressionism, surrealism and metaphysical art. Her painted portraits, cityscapes and solitary figures have a melancholy feel, likely because her career started during the second world war. She made pastels and gouache works but her fierce painting technique can be best seen in the thick layers of oil paint applied with a palette knife.
Sculptor Essi Renvall (1911-1979), best known for her busts of women and children, was one of the first female sculptors in Finland to get commissioned public works and make a living from this. The striking bronze sculpture Old Man Thinking, 1900 is by Hilda Flodin (1877 –1958), who studied in Italy and in Paris where she assisted Auguste Rodin. It was here she also enjoyed a ménage à trois with Rodin and his model and lover, Welsh painter Gwen John. Flodin was the definition of the “modern New Woman, in control of her own body and life and socially independent” according to the show’s curator Anu Utriainen.
Also on show this month at Ateneum is a superb contemporary exhibition, Dialogue: Elina Brotherus and Hannele Rantala, featuring works by two female Finnish photographers who, alongside their independent practices, have been making work in dialogue together for over two decades. Typical of the duo’s working method, the works in the exhibition have been made in response to themes, quotes and assignments that the artists have set each other. Some assignments are based on quotes from Yoko Ono and One-Minute Sculptures from Erwin Wurm. The artists responded to tasks like “turn off the lights in the room and see what remains. Build a labyrinth and see what you find in its centre” and “find the water’s edge and listen to its sound.”
Complementing the Modern Woman exhibition is the instruction “choose works by forgotten female photographers and make a parallel work.” With this suggestion, the duo take inspiration from a variety of unknown or forgotten women creatives across literature and the arts, from Nordic poet Edith Södergran to photographers such as Hilja Ravinemi and Emmi Fock.
Following these two exhibitions, the Ateneum museum will close for refurbishment for nine months and museum director Marja Sakari will oversee a rehang of the permanent collection. In the meantime, art lovers will be able to enjoy art at the Finnish National Gallery’s contemporary museum, Kiasma, when it reopens after a year of major renovations on 8 April 2022, with ARS22, the latest installment of one of the world’s oldest recurring exhibitions of contemporary art.