The Finnish National Epic “Kalevala” was written in the early years of the 19th century by Elias Lönnrot. The Kalevala is a compilation of important Finnish ballads, songs, and cultural traditions. Akseli Gallen-Kallela has made an attempt to portray an integral excerpt from that Kalevala in his 1897 piece titled “Lemminkäinen’s Mother”.
About Akseli Gallen-kallela
Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s father was a respectable police chief and lawyer. Naturally, he did not support his son’s aspirations to become a painter. After his father’s death, Gallen-Kallela attended drawing classes at the Finnish Art Society at the age of 14 years. Before this, he used to study at a grammar school. Gallén-Kallela got the opportunity of studying under the famous Finnish artist Adolf von Becker. At the age of 17, the artist moved to Paris but continued to visit Finland regularly. In Paris, the artist got the opportunity to study at the prestigious Académie Julian.
During a vacation in East Karelia, Gallén became deeply interested in the Kalevala. During the later years of the 19th century, he portrayed several important scenes from the epic in highly romantic and symbolic styles. The Finnish painter has now become an indistinguishable part of Finland’s national identity.
Later in his career, the artist moved to Berlin in the December of 1894 where he came in contact with Edvard Munch. All this travel greatly affected Gallen-kallela’s oeuvre which became continually more diverse in its stylization. After his daughter’s, death, Kallela began to paint highly violent paintings. One of his most iconic works was created in 1897, titled “lemminkäisen äiti”.
The Story of Lemminkäinen
Who was he?
The tale of Lemminkäinen is an excerpt from a poem of the Finnish myth titled “Kalevala”. Lemminkäinen may be described as a brave warrior on the field and an eloquent womanizer in his personal life. The silver-tongued persuader demanded the hand of the daughter of Louhi, the mistress of the land of Pohjola. The wicked Queen Louhi agreed to grant his wish – only if he could kill the swan of Tounela.
The swan of Tounela belonged to the realm of the dead, in the “Eternal waters of Manala”. These waters were a part of the river of Tounela. Lemminkäinen made dire attempts to accomplish this task, for which he had to overstep the bounds of humankind.
His mother sensed that her son was in grave danger. Upon hearing the task that had been assigned to her son, she rushed to Manala. When she arrived, Lemminkäinen had already passed away, his body disintegrated in the mysterious waters. The mother carefully raked parts of his body from the river and tried to put him back in place on the ground.
The Moment in the Painting
The hero Lemminkäinen has died. His mother has dredged the pieces of her son’s lifeless body from the River of Tounela and sewed his limbs seamlessly to his body. Even though the body now looked like Lemminkäinen, it was still unresponsive. His mother makes a desperate attempt to revive her. She first tries to heal him with various potions, herbs, and ointments to no avail.
In her final attempt, she sends a bee to the gardens of heaven who would bring the balm of life. She looks up to see rays of hope coming through the dark clouds. A single bee emerges through these rays, bringing back the magical honey from the halls of the God Ukko.
To her relief, the balm soon brings his son back to life. Lemminkäinen however was not fazed by his death. He returned to his old ways immediately after being resurrected.
Analysis and Meaning of the Painting
The Color Palette
Akseli Gallen-Kallela spent almost a year putting his imagination on the canvas. He set his studio in a way that light could only enter from the roof in the pitch-black room. The artist’s own mother modeled for the lady in the painting while the artist tried to imagine himself as Lemminkäinen.
The artist chose an intense yet simple color palette for the painting. He repeatedly changed the different details of the painting. However, the primary subjects remained the same and were only refined with time. Gallen-Kallela used real gold for the highlight, mostly visible in Lemminkäinen’s beard and luscious hair.
The dark river of Tuonela has been painted in the darkest shade of black, through which a glimmer of the white swan and its reflection are barely visible. The dark background creates the appeal of a chiaroscuro painting. The boulders along the banks of the river pop with an intense red, representing the blood of those who tried to enter the realm of the dead.
While the central subjects of the painting are flat, the background provides the scene with much-needed depth. Unlike most artists of the time who used oil on canvas for their artwork, Gallen-Kallela used matted tempera that was much more pigmented and heightened the work’s emotional impact.
The Emotional Palette
This romantic nationalist painting by Finnish painter Gallen-Kallela depicts a scene that reveals the love of a mother for his son. While Lemminkäinen is referred to as the hero of the story, it’s his mother’s devotion and agony that touches the audience.
Lemminkäinen’s reckless machismo nearly kills him. However, the love of a mother transcends the rules of existence as she moves heaven and earth to bring her son to life. Above all, the painting is an image of maternal love. The painting is an offering of gratitude to a mother, who crosses the boundaries of life and death to give her son another chance.
The Meaning behind its symbols
The mother and his son may be likened to Mary and Jesus in Michelangelo’s Pietà. The duo creates a compelling symbol of compassion, helplessness, and love. Just like Mary, Gallen-kallela painted the image of a mother who is struck with terrible pain while her expressionless face reflects a silent prayer.
Kallela was quite close with all of his three children – Impi Marjatta, Kirsti, and Jorma. Just two years before the artist created this piece, his daughter Impi Marjatta passed away at a very young age. Kallela was deeply hurt by the event, and it is possible that this 1897 painting is a reflection of a father’s love and helplessness.
In the lower-left corner of the canvas, we may see a few skulls and bones scattered on the ground. The skulls are an important Vanitas symbol that reminds us of the transience of life.
Gallen-Kallela had expanded his mythological visual language from romanticism towards Synthetism, which stresses two-dimensional flat patterns, a few years before this piece was completed. One may also notice that Akseli Gallen-kallela’s “Lemminkäisen äiti” has a strong naturalistic bent, particularly in the representation of the mother. In other ways, the piece’s basic visual style is a metaphor for the simplicity of life.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where is the “Lemminkäinen’s Mother” painting today?
Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s 1897 romantic nationalist painting “Lemminkäisen äiti” is currently at Ateneum Art Museum, in Helsinki, Finland. This work is part of the Antell Collections. The Ateneum Art Museum is part of the Finnish National Gallery which is the largest art institute in Finland.
What is “Lemminkäinen’s Mother” based on?
Lemminkäinen’s mother by Akseli Gallen-kallela is based on a poem from the Finnish National Epic – “Kalevala”.
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