Gallen-Kallela in Africa
Here should all the artists of the world be.
I walk in a mere ecstasy of beauty.
Gallen-Kallela in 'Axel Gallen-Kallela i Afrika.’ Hufvudstadsbladet, 29 October 1909
Akseli Gallen-Kallela (until 1907 Axel Gallén, 1865–1931) was one of Finland’s most prominent artists who made the Finnish national epos Kalevala as one of his central subjects. He played a central role in the Finnish art world.
The highlight of Gallen-Kallela’s international career were his important contribution to the Finnish pavilion at the Paris World Fair in 1900 – a series of Kalevala-themed ceiling frescos – and his exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1914.
Gallen-Kallela studied in and visited Paris many times and travelled in Italy, Germany, Africa, America and Eastern Carelia.
Gallen-Kallela lived with his family in British East Africa (modern Kenya) from May 1909 till December 1910. They arrived there from Paris, where the artist had participated in the Salon exhibition.
Gallen-Kallela was the first Finnish artist to travel south of the Sahara, having already pondered it as a young artist in 1888. His decision to make the journey over twenty years later has been seen as the escape of a successful middle-aged artist from his own milieu and anxieties about developments in modern art which were not to his liking.
The Gallen-Kallelas – the artist, his wife Mary, son Jorma and daughter Kirsti – lived outside Nairobi and explored the territory of the Kikuyu and other tribes. The children went to an English school. Their photographs, altogether about 300, depict the typical colonial life of the time: big game hunting features in many of the images. However, Gallen-Kallela’s trip had another side: he amassed important ethnographic, zoological and botanical collections.
Hunting gave Gallen-Kallela some memorable experiences and he went on safari twice. Although he had come to Africa specifically to paint, he wrote at length in his travelogues (published in the Finnish newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet) about the pleasures of hunting.
Gallen-Kallela‘s time in Africa was very productive: he made 170 small-scale paintings which form a discrete series within his career. These works differ from his earlier output, moving closer to contemporary European modernism (which he had criticised before the journey) in the bold handling of colour, for example.
It is beautiful for a humble painter’s eye and ear when the moon is in zenith, the air is tepid and shadows are very black.
Gallen-Kallela in ‘Upplefverser i Afrika. Några anteckningar för Hufvudstadsbladet Af Akseli Gallen-Kallela. IV.’ Hufvudstadsbladet, 17 April 1910, no. 102
Africa provided a new framework in which Gallen-Kallela could renew his art. This can be seen most clearly in his vivid, almost abstract, African landscapes, such as Coral Tree in Blossom, 1909–10, seen here on the left.
In Africa, Gallen-Kallela’s nationalist outlook and his obligations in Finnish society were replaced by glowing light, sand, voices, and challenges from everyday life.
Gallen-Kallela studied African life and reality in a multifaceted way. When painting human beings he prioritised painterly aims over ethnographic accuracy.