Lake Keitele by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (National Gallery)

    The painting that inspired Finnish independence

    17 November 2017

    In London’s National Gallery there’s a painting of a lake I’ve never been to by an artist I’d never heard of, and ever since the gallery bought it, in 1999, it’s been one of my favourite pictures in the collection. I thought I was the only one who felt this way, but it turns out I’m not alone. Lake Keitele by Akseli Gallen-Kallela is one the most popular paintings in the National Gallery, and it’s now become the centrepiece of a delightful little exhibition.

    Lake Keitele – A Vision of Finland is built around the only Finnish painting in the National Gallery, and this compact show coincides with the centenary of Finnish independence, in December 1917. A hundred years ago, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Finland finally became an independent country. This display feels like the perfect way to mark this important anniversary – for this painting actually helped to inspire Finnish independence.

    Boats on the Shore by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (Finnish National Gallery, Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, Antell Collections, Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Pirje Mykkänen)

    Akseli Gallen-Kallela was born in 1865, in Pori, a small town on the west coast of Finland. He studied art in Helsinki, showing great promise from an early age. He went on to Paris, where he met August Strindberg, and exhibited in Berlin alongside Edvard Munch. Yet by 1904, when he painted Lake Keitele, he’d reached a watershed. His 11-year-old daughter Impi had died of diphtheria and his early realistic style of painting had dried up. He toured the Mediterranean in search of sunshine and inspiration, and came home with malaria. To recuperate, he rented a house on the shores of Lake Keitele, in the heart of Finland’s vast lakeland. It was here, as he turned 40, that he painted the greatest pictures of his life.

    Gallen-Kallela painted four similar studies of Lake Keitele, and they’re all here in this exhibition – two on loan from Finnish galleries, one from a private collection, and the one the National Gallery bought in 1999. I’ve seen them together only once before, in Paris a few years ago, and it’s an unforgettable experience – like listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for the first time.

    When Gallen-Kallela painted these four pictures, Finland had yet to become a nation, but national consciousness was growing, and these iconic landscapes encapsulated what patriotic Finns felt was unique about their homeland. A dozen years later, Finland won its independence, and though it’s had to fight hard to retain its freedom, it remains proudly independent today.

    Oceanides by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (Finnish National Gallery, Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, Wäinö Walli Collection, Photo: Finnish National Gallery/Janne Mäkinen)

    These four studies of Lake Keitele are the centrepiece of this stunning show, but there are a dozen other paintings which compliment this quartet – some fine examples of Gallen-Kallela’s early work, and some of the other lake and forest pictures he painted thereafter (the woods and waters of his native land were his lifelong fascination). It’s all contained in a single room. Admission is free. Even if you’ve only got a few minutes to spare, do drop in and take a look – it’s a wonderful respite from the workaday world outside.

    ‘With its silvery reflections, drenched in crystalline Nordic light, Lake Keitele is an immediately appealing work, and one which truly captivates the public, holding its own against the Gallery’s famous Monets and Van Goghs,’ says the show’s curator, Anne Robbins. ‘We wanted to look further into this work, to decipher its many layers of meaning, and we are thrilled to have been able to reunite the four versions in this focused exhibition.’ I couldn’t have put it better myself. In these paintings, Gallen-Kallela created an image of Finland which all Finns could recognise as their own – and in doing so, he helped his countrymen shake off the Russian yoke, and found a nation.

    Lake Keitele – A Vision of Finland runs at the National Gallery until February 4, 2018