Saturday, June 20, 2009

Retretti (2): Albert Edelfelt and the Nordic Summer

If a museum or a gallery in Finland wants to have a certain hit, there is no better choice than Albert Edelfelt, but in Retretti, they have not lazily gone for a familiar formula, instead introducing a fresh and critical perspective.

Albert Edelfelt (1854-1905) was one of the first Finnish artists with an international standing. In Paris, he painted the official portrait of Louis Pasteur, and in Russia, Czar Nicolas II modelled for him. In his way of expression, he belonged to the Realist line of painters, his professional skill based on studies in Paris (Ecole des Beaux-Arts), schooled also in Naturalism. Also his affinities with the contemporary Russian artists are evident. Edelfelt was a professional, well-paid artist with great financial responsibilities. This often affected his choice of subject-matter.

In Finland, Edelfelt was a leading figure in the Golden Age of Finnish art during the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century. He was an important part in the awakening of the Finnish culture, in the great cultural project of building the Finnish nation, a foundation of Finnish independence in 1917.

The curator of Retretti's Edelfelt exhibition, Ms. Maria Vainio-Kurtakko, had chosen interesting angles to the selection. I try to summarize below some key points from her catalogue introduction.

She has selected a Nordic viewpoint, Edelfelt's close contacts with his colleagues in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. In Denmark, Georg Brandes formulated key ideas of the era, which became known as the breakthrough of modernity (det moderne genembrud). The Norwegian artist Christian Krohg (1852-1925) stressed social awareness and social conscience.

In the summer 1879 many artists belonging to the Georg Brandes circle visited Skagen in order to depict Danish peasants and the Danish landscape in the French "plein air" style. Edelfelt's friends included the Danes Karl Madsen (1855-1938), Anna Ancher (1859-1935), Michael Ancher (1849-1927), and P.S. Kröyer (1851-1909). Edelfelt's friends included also the Swede Anders Zorn (1860-1920) with his bucolic landscapes and ample female figures. All these artists are on display in Retretti.

During the 1880s the Nordic artist community flourished in Paris. Even before visiting Paris Edelfelt had felt the passion to paint the seaside views of the Haikko Bay, and starting in 1879 he realized several such paintings. Villa Edelfelt in Haikko became a favourite stop for Finnish intelligentsia.

Inspired by the poet J.L. Runeberg, Edelfelt liked to paint the lives of ordinary people, the hard-working fishermen, in a spirit of dignity irrespective of their poverty and harsh living conditions. There is no sign of social criticism in Edelfelt's work.

The concept of the new woman was essential in the breakthrough of modernity. In Edelfelt's work, women have a central place, including in his definitive portraits of central women artists of the age, such as the actress Ida Ahlberg and the opera diva Aino Achté, and the magnificent portraits of his mother, Alexandra Edelfelt.

The summer idyll of children playing in the sunshine is one of the favourite themes in Edelfelt's paintings. Solskenstycken (sunny pictures) was a favourite genre of him; they almost always depict women and children. Ms. Vainio-Kurtakko points out that they are the opposite of social awareness in the age of Henrik Ibsen and The Doll's House. Edelfelt paints the idyllic portrait of the traditional woman, glorifying the mother and the beautiful young girl relaxing in the garden.

One might call Edelfelt a master of the belle époque in Finland. He died in 1905, the year of the first Russian Revolution, the year of the Battleship Potyomkin.

In Retretti, familiar paintings are juxtaposed with little-known ones, and the paintings of the five Nordic contemporary painters illuminate even the standard Edelfelt works in an interesting way.

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