Sibelius, Saarinen, Schjerfbeck – building a nation through arts and culture

Building Finland into a modern nation was a project of the Finnish intelligentsia aimed at the Finnish people on the one hand and the international public on the other. Creating nationally important works of architecture, visual arts and music helped increase Finland’s international visibility.

Finland did not have a glorious history as a nation. Arts and culture were therefore seen as important tools for building the nation and increasing its international visibility.

In terms of national culture, it was crucial that Finnish – the language of the majority of the population – should become the language of the arts and sciences in Finland. At the time when the country became independent, Finnish native speakers accounted for 88 per cent of the population. The development of the Finnish language had begun in the mid-16th century, when Mikael Agricola translated the New Testament. The Bible was printed in Finnish in 1642.

For the written Finnish language it was important that the Swedish legislation was published in Finnish in 1734. However, in the early 19th century the vocabulary was still limited. In the development of the language, one of the main aims was to find Finnish equivalents for international words and phrases instead of just borrowing words from other languages. This thorough and consistent work has added to the difficulty of studying Finnish.

Literature in two languages

One of the nation-builders’ goals was to create a body of national literature. Finnish literature created at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries was inspired by European works, but it did not gain much international attention.

Aleksis Kivi’s book Seitsemän veljestä (“Seven Brothers”, 1870) is regarded as the first novel in Finnish. It tells the story of seven young men’s struggle with the requirements of civilised society. Elias Lönnrot, in turn, created the national epic Kalevala based on Finnish and Karelian folklore. The first version of the epic poem was published in 1835 and the second in 1849.

The literary career of F. E. Sillanpää, the Finnish Nobel Laureate for literature, started during the First World War. In his novels, Sillanpää depicted Finnish rural life based on the psychological knowledge of the era.

Apart from the Finnish culture there was also the Swedish culture, endorsed particularly by the elite in the country. Some of the Swedish-speaking elite voluntarily changed their language to Finnish, some vigorously defended their mother tongue, regarding it as a language of higher education, unlike the agrarian Finnish. In any case, the number of books and newspapers published in Swedish increased towards the end of the 19th century.

When Finland became independent in 1917, the country had a vibrant literary culture in both Finnish and Swedish. Translations were also published in abundance. The Helsinki-based Social Democratic Työmies was the largest of the newspapers published in the country. Other major newspapers included Helsingin Sanomat and Uusi Suometar which were published in Finnish, and Hufvudstadsbladet, which was published in Swedish.

Artists looking for inspiration

At the end of the 19th century, Finnish artists sought influences especially from Paris. Among those studying painting in France were Albert Edelfelt, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Eero Järnefelt and Pekka Halonen. This period during which artists depicted national themes with international influences has been called the golden age of Finnish art.

Järnefelt’s realistic painting from 1893, Raatajat rahanalaiset (“Burning the brushwood”), is one of Finland’s most famous paintings. The motif represents national romanticism, as the cultivation method depicted in the painting was only marginally used in Finland in the 1890s.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Kalevala-themed paintings also became part of the national iconography. Gallen-Kallela’s paintings were influenced by his 1890 honeymoon to Viena-Karelia. He painted Kalevala-themed frescoes on the ceiling of the Finnish pavilion, which aroused a lot of attention at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. After Finland became independent, Gallen-Kallela designed medals and uniforms.

Helene Schjerfbeck was one of the Finnish artists who studied painting in Paris. Women artists remained in the shadow of men in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was not until the late 20th century that Schjerfbeck’s works began to gain real appreciation. Her painting Dancing Shoes (1882) fetched €3.9 million at a 2008 Sotheby’s London sale, which is the highest price ever paid for a Finnish painting. Schjerfbeck’s birthday on 10 July is commemorated as the Day of Finnish Art.

Finnish interpretation of Art Nouveau

Helsinki became the capital of Finland in 1812 by decision of Emperor Alexander I. Monumental public buildings designed by Carl Ludvig Engel rose in the centre of the new capital between the 1820s and 1850s. The Senate Square and its surroundings bear a resemblance to St. Petersburg.

Helsinki began to grow at the end of the 19th century. The Ateneum Art Museum was completed in 1887 and the House of the Estates in 1891. The latter served as the meeting place for the common estates of the Diet.

Art Nouveau dominated both public and private construction in the early 1900s. One of the young talents in architecture was Eliel Saarinen, who co-designed the National Museum, completed in Helsinki in 1906. The Helsinki Railway Station designed by Saarinen was completed in 1919. He also designed banknotes and the new postage stamps of 1917.

Helsinki was not the only place in Finland to gain new Art Nouveau buildings. In the early 1900s, numerous new Art Nouveau style residential houses, banks, churches and other buildings were completed around the country.

Sibelius was the most notable name in Finnish music

Jean Sibelius was inspired by Finnish folk music and in particular The Kalevala. There was no-one on a par with Sibelius in Finland but, starting from the end of the 19th century, the country had several notable composers and conductors.

Aino Akcté, the soprano, was the biggest name in Finnish opera. She was attached to the Paris Opera from 1897 to 1903. She made one of the first Finnish recordings in Paris in 1901. In 1912, she founded the Savonlinna Opera Festival. She directed the festival in 1913–1914, 1916 and 1930.

The Finnish music scene was strongly influenced by a phenomenon called song festivals.  Inspired by the Estonian example, the Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation began to organise song festivals every three years, starting in 1884. As Russification measures in Finland increased in 1899, the song festivals became a platform for national resistance.

Before Finnish independence, there also existed a vibrant Russian arts scene in Finland, especially in Helsinki and Vyborg. Star performers from the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg were regularly seen at the Alexander Theatre in Helsinki. These contacts were cut off after the October Revolution.

Photo: Eero Järnefelt, Raatajat rahanalaiset (1893).



Frans Eemil Sillanpää