An Ecstasy of Beauty

Exploring the Orient

Berndtson, Parviainen and Harald Gallén

Napoleon’s 1798-1801 Egyptian campaign led to French and British colonial expansion in north Africa, consequently making the region a popular destination for artists. Although Finns were not connected to north Africa by colonial politics, the area fascinated many of them nonetheless.

During the colonial era, Orientalism became a popular trend in the visual arts. The ‘Orient’ was broadly defined geographically: it extended from north Africa to east Asia. Orientalists are usually understood as artists who depicted exotic cultures for European audiences. In the early 20th century, Orientalist artists moved away from painting exotic fantasy scenes to realistically depict everyday people and places.

In the Orient everything is excellent material for an artist’s brush. (…) But no masterpiece done with a brush or even less with a pen can clarify to an European what the Orient is. Only he, who has seen it himself, can create a clear image – for himself.

Otto J. Hjelt, Korsika och Tunis skildrade i bref. Stockholm: Albert Bonniers förlag, 1882

Gunnar Berndtson (1854–1895) was an internationally-minded Finnish artist who is especially known as a so-called peintre de salon – he studied and stayed in Paris at different times, exhibiting his work in the famous Paris Salons.

Berndtson spent the winter of 1882–83 in Cairo as a guest of Baron Alphonse Delort de Gléon, in a studio within his palace. Berndtson settled well in the upper-class international community in Cairo and had the opportunity to meet the Viceroy of Egypt. He spent a productive winter occupied with portrait commissions from members of Cairo and Alexandria society. He also made illustrations on political themes for the magazine Le Monde Illustré as a correspondent.

One of them [almehs, dancers] danced with a bottle on her head inside of which a candle was burning , making difficult moves without the bottle even stirring a bit or being about to fall down. (…) All this had a perfectly Oriental flavour in Delort’s Oriental style decorated salon, and it was of utmost interest for me as an artist.

Gunnar Berndtson’s letter to his mother Augusta Berndtson, Cairo 26 March 1883. Collection of Artists’ Letters, Finnish National Gallery

In Cairo, Berndtson painted Almée – an Egyptian Dancer, which depicts a local dancer performing for Baron Delort de Gléon and their friend Octave Borelli. On the right-hand side there is a black man playing a drum, and the scene takes place within the Baron’s orientalising palace.

The painting depicts Berndtson’s own experiences in a realistic style, but it also corresponds to the later views on Europeans’ relationship to the Orient at that time. It can be read as a stereotypical description of the encounter between the masculine West and the feminine East. For more information on Almée and the circumstances of its creation, see this article in FNG Research web magazine.

On leaving Egypt, Berndtson was awarded a medal of the Order of the Medjidie. He greatly enjoyed his time in Egypt – as we know from his letters to his mother – and he planned to return, but was prevented from doing so by incurable illness.

Oscar Parviainen (1880–1939) was a Finnish painter and graphic artist who, after studying in his homeland, continued his artistic training in Copenhagen and Paris. However, he left his art studies unfinished. Parviainen later studied printmaking as a private student in Stockholm, and he did not hold a major exhibition until 1931.

Parviainen travelled extensively, supported by his personal wealth. His fragile health prospered in favourable climates and he often painted exotic subjects inspired by his journeys. Death is a recurring theme in his work but nonetheless his art has a certain joie de vivre. Parviainen was a close friend of the composer Jean Sibelius, who owned and treasured a small number of works by Parviainen.

Parviainen first got to know North Africa during a trip to Algeria and Tunisia in 1904. He returned there in the 1920s and travelled widely in Algeria. Besides making art, Parviainen was a keen photographer.

Although the style and subjects of Orientalist art changed at the beginning of the 20th century, Parviainen’s art belongs to an earlier Orientalist phase: it is full of dancing girls, ruined cities, Berbers and bazaars.

After returning to study in Stockholm, Parviainen developed prints from drawings and watercolours which he had made during his first trip to Algeria. Figure studies and café scenes are the most vivid examples from this period. Many years later, Parviainen continued to create prints from his Algerian studies.

Returning to Africa in 1927, Parviainen no longer found the Africa he had known – ironically, its transformation had been accelerated by visits from Western travellers.

Africa was not yet then the current tourist country.

Oscar Parviainen, 1927

Like many other European artists, Parviainen depicted people he happened to meet. It was difficult to get women to pose and local men were not often eager, but singers and musicians were willing to pose for a small payment.

Arthur Harald Gallén (1880–1931) was a Finnish painter and graphic artist. After studying art in Finland he moved to Paris to continue his education and he lived there in 1902–19.

Harald Gallén served as diplomatic courier in Paris and Madrid in 1919 and then worked as an attaché to the Finnish Embassy in Spain, from 1919–21. After that he moved permanently to Finland.

He was a cosmopolitan figure for whom travelling was a way of life and he made numerous journeys abroad. Besides Europe, he travelled to Morocco, Algeria, Palestine, Egypt, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India, Singapore, China and Japan. These journeys are depicted in his extensive photographic archive and in his unpublished travelogues.

Harald Gallén was a sociable character who often forged important acquaintances for his career, including royalty and influential patrons.

He has understood the greatness in the loneliness of the Moroccan deserts and the mirage of the mountains rising from the shore of the wilderness.

Pseudonym W–ö. on Harald Gallén’s exhibition in the Finnish newspaper Kaiku, 1 December 1911

Harald Gallén visited Tangier in north Africa for the first time in 1906. While living in Algeria from 1908–11, he worked for the French colonial government and travelled beyond the capital to the southern regions of Algeria, and in Morocco, safeguarded by a French military convoy.

In 1911, Harald Gallén arranged a solo exhibition in Oran, Algeria attended by the Governor General. He is probably the only Finnish artist that the Salon des Peintures des Orientalistes in Paris has ever accepted in one of its exhibitions.

There are few works by Harald Gallén in Finnish public collections and his art is not well known. He often took nature as his primary subject. In the Finnish National Gallery there are four prints, including one with a Maghrebian subject: an etching of a palm tree landscape along the Zousfana river, which flows between Morocco and the Algerian Sahara. This brown-toned print is a rather neutral landscape study to which the palm trees bring a touch of Orientalist exoticism.