Akseli Gallen-Kallela did with his paintings what Jean Sibelius accomplished with his music: He put Finland on the map.
Finland is a young country. From the Middle Ages it was a part of Sweden, then was annexed by Russia in 1809. Only after the demise of the Czars and their empire, in 1917, did it become independent.
Before political independence was achieved, a literary and artistic movement sought to create a national identity. Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931) was a key player in that drive.
Although he is virtually unknown outside Finland, the show at the Musee d’Orsay, the first ever in Paris devoted to his work, is worth seeing. It opens our eyes to a world of picturesque lakes, infinite forests and eerie folk tales.
Gallen -- he added the second part of his name only in 1907 to make it sound more Finnish -- studied in Paris where he acquired a solid technique. Early paintings, such as “Unmasked,” a nude with an enigmatic smile, demonstrate that he learned more from the realists in the Courbet tradition than from contemporary trends.
The Impressionists left him indifferent.
In the 1890s, he had a change of heart. He decided that competing with the French, who dominated the art market, was pointless and immersed himself in his own country’s folklore.
Half a century earlier, Elias Lonnrot, a country doctor, had collected old Finnish ballads, songs and incantations memorized and handed down by word of mouth for generations. The result of his research, published in 1835 and again, in an enlarged edition, in 1849, was greeted with enthusiasm: “Kalevala” became Finland’s national epic.
Like the German “Nibelungenlied,” which inspired Richard Wagner, “Kalevala” turned out to be an inexhaustible source for Gallen-Kallela’s imagination.
We already know many of the characters and locations from Sibelius’s tone poems -- Pohjola, the land in the north; Kullervo, the tragic serial killer; Lemminkainen, the carefree adventurer whom his mother brings back from Tuonela, the island of the dead.
Gallen-Kallela and Sibelius were friends. “Symposium,” a canvas in the exhibition, shows them drinking at a Helsinki watering hole with the conductor Robert Kajanus while a fourth boozer is already fast asleep.
For his mythological paintings, Gallen-Kallela developed a new style. It became flatter and simpler with vivid colors and strong outlines not unlike Diego Rivera’s murals.
They impressed the members of Die Bruecke in Dresden sufficiently to invite him to join their group of artists.
The show also includes furniture, textiles and carpets that Gallen-Kallela designed for his home in central Finland. The influence of William Morris and the U.K. Arts and Crafts Movement is obvious although the Finn’s work is more rustic.
The show ends abruptly in 1910 with his trip to what is now Kenya, where he stayed for 16 months. Of his later work, which often rehashes his old themes, we see nothing.
Although he was already in his 50s, he volunteered to fight in the war of independence against Russia. After the conflict was over, he was charged with designing the flag, currency, stamps and uniforms of the new country.
In the end, you may prefer his landscapes. Looking at them, it’s hard not to think of Sibelius’s hymns to the mystery and majesty of Finland’s lakes and woods.
“Akseli Gallen-Kallela: Une Passion Finlandaise,” which is supported by Fortum Oyj, is at the Musee d’Orsay, Paris, through May 6. From June 1 to Sept. 2, it will be at the Museum Kunstpalast in Dusseldorf. Information: http://www.musee-orsay.fr.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)