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Akseli Gallen-Kallela

(Finland, 1865-1931)
Akseli Gallen-Kallela
(Finland, 1865-1931)

AKSELI GALLEN-KALLELA, "RIVER OF THE DEAD".

Sign. 1893. Oil and mixed media on canvas 39x27.5 cm.

Exhibitions

Tampere Art Museum 1989.

More information

River of the Dead is one of the principal works from the “symbolist” period of Akseli Gallen-Kallela. The signature of the work is dated 1893, when the artist was living in Helsinki and at Rapola Manor on his wife’s family estate in Sääksmäki, southern central Finland. Some other symbolist works were also planned at this time, including Trip to the Underworld (1888–1894), Sibelius as Composer of En Saga (1894), Ad Astra (1894–1896), and The Symposium (1894), which was a controversial work at the time.

A strong spiritual movement marked the fin-de-siècle period, with numerous alternative esoteric trends gaining a foothold in human consciousness. Many people sensed that the eras of an ecclesiastical Christianity rooted in blind faith and of vainly materialistic science were both drawing to a close, and that science and religion would smoothly combine to yield a new and more spiritual form of progress. Gallen-Kallela was also one of those who found inspiration in this form of spirituality that came to be called the “new mysticism”, reading theosophical literature and repeatedly participating in earnest spiritualist séances. He was also fascinated by astronomy.

These subjects also inspired Gallen-Kallela’s friends both in Sääksmäki and Helsinki. At the time of painting River of the Dead Gallen-Kallela was regularly meeting many of the leading composers, writers and artists of the age, particularly in the restaurant of the Kämp Hotel in Helsinki. These included the conductor-composer Robert Kajanus (1856–1933), whose facial features characterise the monumental figure in River of the Dead. This time spent with Kajanus, Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) and other friends was taken up in discussing the great questions of life, and also in envisioning a new future for Finland. It was to mark these shared times that Gallen-Kallela painted The Symposium, with its view of a planet rising in the night sky above Kajanus’ head. Preliminary sketches for the work (in the Serlachius Museum collections) also feature a human figure ascending to the heights at this point.

The figure of Kajanus again features in the upper reaches of River of the Dead, surveying the swirling flow of the departed who are represented more accurately as translucent spirits. A human couple in a loving embrace is shown caught up in the stream, instantiating a visual theme that recurs in various forms elsewhere in Gallen-Kallela’s works (such as the illustration for Paul Scheerbart’s poem Das Königslied in an 1895 edition of the German art journal Pan).

In a manner befitting the alternative spirituality of the times, Gallen-Kallela reflects intently on the fate that awaits human beings after death. The connection made with the spirit world at spiritualist séances seemed to provide evidence for the immortality of the soul. The age-old idea of transmigration offered one potential answer concerning the afterlife, and this view has subsequently found credence particularly in esoteric spirituality. Plato’s dialogues and the Gnostic scriptures describe a divine birthplace lying beyond the celestial realm, from which immortal souls originally depart. The cosmos is a stratified arrangement of varying melodic planes through which souls initially descend to the earthly realm before finally ascending and returning to their home that is the primordial source of all things. Over the course of the 19th century the ancient doctrines of transmigration were consolidated into a theory of reincarnation whereby currently ascending human souls were believed to be reborn on other planets following their bodily death.

Fin-de-siècle visual artists and composers were widely acknowledged to serve as special clairvoyants and prophets with the ability to reach beyond sublunary sensations and access higher and more spiritual planes of reality while still living in this world. In River of the Dead Gallen-Kallela depicts Kajanus as a seer possessed of higher senses who bears witness to the cosmic migration of immortal souls. Sibelius as Composer of En Saga completed in the following year in turn casts Jean Sibelius in the role of the clairvoyant. Gallen-Kallela was equally interested in cultivating his own higher senses at the time of creating these works, and he wrote to Kajanus about his exercises in this respect in May 1894. The main aim was to develop the inner eye of the soul that imparted the sixth sense of an artist.

Another version of River of the Dead subsequently created by Gallen-Kallela was published as part of a New Testament illustrated by Nordic artists (1906–1907). The work is used in the book to illustrate an excerpt from the Book of Revelation (1: 9-20) in which John receives a vision of Christ, from whose mouth issued a sharp, two-edged sword. Stressing his immortal and everlasting character, the risen Christ also explains that he holds the keys of Death and Hades. Departing from any ecclesiastical doctrine in interpreting this scripture, Gallen-Kallela portrays Kajanus in the role of an eternal divine being who is conversant with the secrets of the hereafter, with the prostrated figure of John appearing in the bottom right corner of the painting.

Nina Kokkinen
MA (Art & Design)
Junior Researcher, University of Turku

Artist

Akseli Gallen-Kallela is counted among Finland's most famous artists, born in 1865 in Pori. He studied at the Drawing School of the Finnish Art Society in Helsinki and later at the Académie Julian in Paris. He worked across various art forms such as painting, graphics, illustrations, textiles, architecture, and even designed military uniforms. Akseli Gallen-Kallela's first significant work, 'Old Woman with a Cat,' challenged the ideals of its time and paved the way for realism in Finnish painting.

Gallen-Kallela was primarily known for his paintings and illustrations for the Finnish national epic, 'Kalevala.' In 1900, he executed dome paintings with Kalevala motifs for the Finnish pavilion at the World Exhibition in Paris. His visual language is often described as naturalistic, symbolic, and expressionistic

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