The National Museum of Finland

We visited the National Museum of Finland on the first full day of our recent stay in Helsinki – on the Sunday afternoon after we’d been to the Didrichsen Art Museum. It tells the story of Finland and its people, going right back to the pre-historic times and is definitely worth a visit to get an understanding of this relatively young nation.

The museum is in a distinctive Finnish National Romantic style building, designed by architects Herman Gesellius, Armas Lindgren, and Eliel Saarinen, directly opposite the Finlandia Hall, close to the city centre. The exterior is rather austere and influenced by medieval architecture but with some Art Nouveau / Jugendstil touches.

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Inside includes murals and other Finnish style Jugendstil features, particularly in the central hall and main staircase. It’s hard to do justice to the ceiling mural in the central entrance hall which depicts scenes from the Kalevala, the Finnish national myth.

There were some beautiful stained glass windows on the main staircase

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The first half of the museum concentrates on the history of Finland from the Middle Ages to the foundation of the independent Finnish State in 1917 (after the Russian Revolution). It’s what I would call a traditional type of museum with lots of artefacts presented in a relatively static way with limited interaction. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t interesting and we learned quite a bit about the history of Finland when it was a colony of Sweden and then, later, a Russian Grand Duchy.

The Medieval room

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A recreated room from the 18th Century when Finland was a Swedish colony – the large white “cabinet” is a ceramic heater – needed in the depths of the Finnish winter!

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The throne used by the Tsar during his visit to Finland when it was under Russian Imperial influence

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The second half of the museum, covering the modern era from the beginning of the 20th Century to the present day was very modern in style with lots of interactive and hands-on displays including this interactive panorama of Helsinki at the end of the Russian era

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and a “book” where the content was projected on to blank pages.

Nationalist feeling was growing in Finland at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century – which is reflected in the Jugenstil and National Romantic architecture so prevalent in Helsinki. After the fall of the Tsar, taking opportunity of the Bolshevik policy of  National Determination, Finland declared independence on 6 December 1917. A Civil War followed between “Reds” and conservative “Whites”, the latter eventually being victorious.

At the beginning of WWII Finland was attacked by Soviet Russia leading to a bitter “Winter War” where the much smaller country defeated the Red Army, yet the Moscow Peace treaty ceded territory to Russia. There was a period of peace before war resumed in autumn 1941 when Russia was preoccupied with defending itself from the German invasion.  Power relations had changed and The USSR were now allied with Great Britain, which resulted in the latter declaring war on Finland on 6 December., and Finland was supported by, if not allied with, the Nazis. I felt that although much was made of the hardship and heroics of the Winter War (quite rightly), this aspect was rather glossed over.

After WWII Finland was in a difficult position with a long border with the USSR and and had to balance carefully between the big powers maintaining a neutral stance. Like the other Nordic countries it developed a strong welfare state which largely remains today despite some economic difficulties and the rise of the Nationalist right who are now in Government.

Last year was the Centenary of the founding of the Finnish state and the final exhibit in this part of the Museum was a film show with an image of a Finn from each year from 1917 until 2017 projected on a large screen. Visitors could control both the direction of the film (past to present or vice versa) and the speed.

As we were about to leave the museum we realised we’d missed a whole section devoted to prehistoric Finland, so we went to have a look. Again, it was an interesting exhibition, well presented in a modern way.

Given it’s position in the frozen north, early population was sparse and life would have been hard so no major civilisations developed like in more temperate environments. However there was some migration after the last Ice Age and a number of artefacts were displayed, such as weapons and jewellery.

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as well as displays and models about the environment and how people lived.

We enjoyed our visit to the Museum. There was more  to see and we could have spent longer there, but we were starting to feel tired so it was time to head back to our hotel for a rest and to get ready to go out for something to eat.

 

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Folk Wisdom – Grayson Perry at Kiasma

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For my last morning in Helsinki I decided to visit Kiasma, the city’s Modern Art Museum. I particularly wanted to see the exhibition of works by Grayson Perry that had recently opened.

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The building was designed by the American architect, Steve Holl. Construction started in 1996 and it opened two years later in May 1998. It’s located in the city centre and with the Music Centre and Finlandia Hall forms a cultural axis leading towards Töölönlahti.

The Grayson Perry exhibition occupied the top floor, so on arriving I made my way up the stairs to the top of the building. The exhibition is a good survey of the artist’s work and includes examples of his tapestries, pottery, cast iron sculptures, sketches and other items – including a motorbike!

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Perry is a very astute observer of society and this is reflected in many of his works which are commentaries on various aspects of contemporary British life and society.

This is particularly true of Comfort Blanket,  a large patchwork quilt of “things we love, and love to hate”. Lots of the visitors seemed fascinated by this work.

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In his tapestry Death of a Working Hero which portrays a miner and a fighter, with a young boy caught between them, and the pot Shadow Boxing, Perry is commenting on contemporary masculinity, how the younger generations are encouraged to emulate the masculine stereotypes. However, unemployment and the social situation in many traditional working class areas make it difficult for them to live up to these expectations leading to a high rate of mental illness and suicides amongst men who are unable to talk about their feelings.

 

Two cast iron sculptures – Our Father and Our Mother – are also comments on the roles of the sexes

Our Father is a “monumental utility man”, like the men of his father’s generation who worked in industry and had manual skills. The man carries a medley of items from religious artefacts and books to digital devices.

“Our Mother is all of us on our journey through life, but she is also a universal refugee. She carries a great load of religious, cultural, domestic and parental baggage,”

The exhibition included the six-part tapestry cycle The Vanity of Small Differences (2012) which we’d seen in Manchester in January 2014. The cycle updates William Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress (1733) with the story of the rise and fall of Tom Rakewell, a computer software millionaire.

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Matching Pair are two pots about the Brexit referendum. One representing the views and values of pro-Brexit voters, and the other those of anti-Brexit voters.

 

The Kiasma website tells us that

Perry travelled to meet people in the regions of Britain that were most adamantly for or against Britain leaving the EU. He also asked for contributions on Facebook and Twitter.

“I asked for self-portrait photographs, pictures of things people loved about Britain, their preferred colour, favourite brands and who represented their values.”

factions. “The two pots have come out looking remarkably similar, which is a good result, for we all have much more in common than that which separates us,” says Perry.

Grayson Perry is well known for his transvestism and there was a selection of his dresses on show

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There were also examples of his sketchbooks which illustrate how his ideas evolve

All in all a good retrospective of his work.

An afternoon on Suomenlinna

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The course I was running in Helsinki finished at midday on the Friday after the delegates had sat their exam. My flight home wasn’t until Saturday afternoon so I had another day to spend looking around the city.  I decided to take the ferry over to Suomenlinna the island fortress a short distance from the mainland. I’d visited before, during my first trip to Helsinki, but that was some time ago.

Suomenlinna was fortified when the Swedish were in control of Finland, beginning in 1748. It’s a natural location for a defensive fortress being in a dominant position in the sea lanes approaching the city. At that time it was known as Sveaborg or Viapori in Finnish.

The fortress was actually never quite completed as planned, even though the original aim was to complete the construction in only four years. The Pomeranian war (1756–1763) put the construction on hold, although the battles did not extend to Viapori in the 1700s. The sea fortress had merits as a naval base in the Russo-Swedish War of 1788–1790 (‘Gustav III’s War’), but it was not involved in actual battles. (Suomenlinna website)

After the defeat of the Swedes in the war, Finland became an “autonomous Grand Duchy” of the Russian Emprire and the fortress was taken over by the Russians. It went into decline but after the Crimean War, when it was attacked in August 1855 by a Franco-British fleet, the fortifications were repaired. Finland gained independence in 1917, although the fortress remained in Russian hands until the Spring of 1918. Once in Finnish hands, the fortress was renamed Suomenlinna (‘Castle of Finland’)

Today it’s a major tourist attraction and the ferry over to the island was full of tourists of various nationalities even though it was out of the main tourist season.  Most of the attractions on the island were closed, but I spent a good few hours exploring the extensive fortifications that were accessible.

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Suomenlinna is actually built on a small cluster of five islands joined together by bridges, with the main sights on the main two islands. The ferry quay is by the Jetty Barracks, built during the Russian era, at the north end of the fortress. Arriving at the jetty the view is dominated by the church, which was originally built as a Russian Orthodox garrison church with onion domes in 1854. It was converted to a Lutheran church when the Finns took over the fortress. It’s also a lighthouse with the light located in the central dome.

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Reminding us of the island’s military function, the church is surrounded by a large chain supported by cannons.

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There are substantial remnants of the fortifications from the different eras, much of which can be accessed, and I spent most of the time walking around them. Here’s a few of the many photos I took

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 The Great Courtyard, built in the 1760s, served as the main square and administrative centre of the fortress. The houses surrounding the courtyard included the fortress commandant’s house and the main guard house. In the centre of the courtyard there’s the tomb of Augustin Ehrensvärd, the architect of the square.

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Back towards the main jetty there’s a number of old wooden buildings which were originally the houses and shops used by traders during the Russian era.

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Time was getting on, so it was time to catch the ferry back to the mainland.  I reckon it would be possible to spend most of the day on the island when the attractions which were closed during my visit – various museums and a submarine! – are open. But I’d I had seen most of what I’d wanted to see and although I lucky that the sun was shining, I was starting to feel a little cold.

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A walk along the Helsinki shore

 

Thursday evening after work during my stay in Finland I decided to take a walk along the sea shore. I headed down towards Eira, a wealthy district  which, according to Wikipedia “has some of the most expensive and sought-after old apartments in Helsinki”, many of them built in the Jugendstil style.

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This building with the tall tower and metal spire, is the Mikael Agricola Church, which was designed by Lars Sonck, well known for his Jugenstil buildings, including the Kallio church I’d been to look at a couple of days before.

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I felt that it had a very modern look, despite being designed in the early 1930’s. If I’d have guessed I’d have said it was probably built considerably later towards the end of the 20th Century. Its relatively plain appearance (at least from the outside) is very different from Sonck’s Kallio church.

Reaching the sea I followed the shore, passing a number of islands just off-shore.

 

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Further along, I could see the fortress island of Suomenlinna, which I planned to visit the next day

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I passed this statue

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The Statue of Peace by Essi Renvall. According to the artist

the statue’s female figure is the spirit of peace returning after a war with a new, peaceful heart.

Up on the Observatory hill, overlooking the bay, was this sculpture, The Shipwrecked by Robert Stigell,

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which

depicts a shipwrecked family. The father, the central figure in the group, holds a small child in his arms and is calling for help. He is waving a scarf and looking towards their rescuers. Another child, a small boy, is stuck in what remains of the ship. The mother has collapsed and is lying on the raft. The work does not depict a particular shipwreck nor is it historical; Stigell was merely interested in exploring the sculptural dynamics of the subject.

Carrying on along the quay side, I soon reached Esplanade and I was able to take a look at one of Helsinki’s most famous public monuments, Havis Amanda by Ville Vallgren

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A naked female figure in the centre of a fountain – according to the artist

the central female figure, who has risen from the sea, symbolises Helsinki and the birth of the City. Upon her unveiling the Swedish language newspapers in Helsinki and the sculptor himself started to call the sculpture ‘Havis Amanda’.

There are several other sculptures in the Esplanade gardens, including two by Viktor Jansson , the father of Tove Jansson, the author of the Moomin books

Tove Jansson modelled for her father for the mermaid.

Diverting off Esplanade I spotted this modern sculpture I in Kasarmitori, a rectangular square where the Finnish Defence Ministry is located in a former Neo-Classical Barracks designed by Carl Ludwig Engel.

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The modern sculpture by Pekka Kauhanen stands in front of the ministry and is The National Memorial to the Winter War  and was only installed in November 2016.

I made my way back to Esplanade park. This sculpture is  located at the end of the park, close to the Swedish Theatre

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Fact and Fable, memorial to Topelius by Gunnar Finne

consists of two allegorical female figures: ‘Fact’ with the flame of truth on her palm, and ‘Fable’ with the crown-headed bird of fable resting on her fingers. The figures face opposite directions: ‘Fact’ looks down the Esplanadi park while ‘Fable’s’ gaze is turned to the sidewalk off Pohjoisesplanadi’.

Reaching the end of Esplanade it was only a short walk back to my hotel. I’d walked a fair distance and it was time to find a café for a drink and a bite to eat.

HAM

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The Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) is responsible for the upkeep of over 9,000 works of art which are owned by the city of Helsinki – almost half of which are on display in parks, streets, and other public spaces around the city. They also hold exhibitions of modern and contemporary art in their Gallery which is located in the  Tennis Palace, just around the corner from where I was staying so I thought I’d go and have a look at what was on show.

The Tennis Palace was built in 1938 for the 1940 Summer Olympics which were due to be held in Helsinki. They were postponed, for obvious reasons, and were rescheduled for 1952 when the Tennis Palace was used for the basketball tournament. The building was originally intended to service cars during the planned 1940 Games.In 1938 a third floor with large, vaulted rooms occupied by four Olympic tennis courts was added. Today it’s occupied by HAM, a large multiplex cinema and retail units.

There were 3 exhibitions being shown during my visit.

The first I saw featured frescoes painted by Tove Jansson, the author of the Moomin stories who had trained as an artist.

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There were two large frescoes Party in the City and Party in the Country created in 1947  for the Kaupunginkellari restaurant, located in the Helsinki City Hall. They were recued when the restaurant was relocated in 1965.

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A fresco created for the canteen of the electromechanical company Oy Strömberg Ab in 1945 was also on display as well as her sketches of murals for the Aurora Children’s Hospital.

The second exhibition, Air de Paris, featured works inspired by the French capital by Finnish artists, collected by Leonard Bäcksbacka a Finnish art dealer who had lived in Paris and was a big fan of French art.

The artists were all unknown to me and the standard of the work was variable, but there were a number that I liked.

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The main exhibition Graffiti,  occupied the whole of the top floor filling two large domed galleries. HAM’s website tells us

Graffiti, explores the historical roots of graffiti and its present manifestations, with particular focus on the links between Helsinki graffiti culture and the international field.

I have to say that although I like much “street art” that you see around many cities these days, I’m not a fan of traditional Graffiti such as “tags” which are mainly the creator’s name, defacing subway trains, buildings and the like. I guess they can be considered as abstract works but to me they are more about ego rather than as works of art created to please and/or make the viewer think. So the exhibition largely left me cold, although there were a few works that provoked some interest.

The Sibelius Monument

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The Wednesday evening while I was in Helsinki was generally sunny. I’d planned a visit to HAM, the Helsinki Art Museum which was just round the corner from my hotel. When I’d finished looking around the exhibitions it was still sunny so I decided to take a walk over to the Sibelius Monument.

Designed by Eila Hiltunen, who was the winner of a competition organised by the Sibelius Society. The monument is sited in Sibelius Park, close to the sea, in  the Töölö district.

It’s made up of approximately 600 hand-textured acid-proof stainless steel tubes of various diameters, welded together in a wave like pattern. The abstract form resulted in some controversy when it was first installed on September 7, 1967.

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Personally, glittering in the sunshine, I rather liked it.

Close by the Monument there’s a sculpture of the face of Sibelius, added by the artist in response to some of the ctiticisms

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It’s a “must see” for visitors to Helsinki, so during the daytime is likely to be surrounded with swarms of tourists arriving by coach. However, on a sunny evening I had it almost to myself.

A walk to Kallio

On the Tuesday during my stay in Helsinki my wife had flown back home so I had the rest of the week on my own. I was working during the day but the course I was running finished at 5 I had the evening to occupy myself. I’m not one for sitting in hotel rooms just working and as it was light until late, I took the opportunity to explore the city.

A prominent landmark in Helsinki is the tower of a church up on a hill in the Kallio district. It can be seen from all over the city. I knew that it had been designed by the Finnish architect Lars Sonck, who is well known for his Jugendstil style buildings, so I decided to wander over to take a look. I could have caught the tram but decided that it was within walking distance and I needed some exercise!

I walked past the front of the railway station and then cut across past the Finnish National Theatre to the Kaisanemi park. The trees were still bare of leaves, Spring not having quite arrived in Helsinki. Heading diagonally across the park, I passed this statue, Convolvulus, by Viktor Jansson, the father of Tove Jansson, the artist and author of the Moomin books, who modelled for the sculpture. The pose made me think that she was practicing karate or Tai Chi!

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After crossing the bridge over the Pitkäsilta bridge I turned left, walking along the waterside. A little way along on my right I could see the Paasitorni, also known as the Helsinki Workers’ House, a Jugendstil building designed by Karl Lindahl, built from granite, which opened in 1908 as conference and leisure premises for the working class. It’s very characteristic of the Finnish National Romanticism Jugendstil style.

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On the square in front of the main entrance to the building I spotted this statue of two boxers by Johannes Haapasalo.

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Cutting back round to Siltasaarenkatu, I walked up the hill towards the church. It’s an imposing granite structure standing on top of the hill and, like the Paasitorni, built in the Finnish National Romanticism Jugendstil style.

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It’s an impressive building; solid and imposing but with some delicate decorative touches.

I had a look inside, but it looked as if a service was about to start to I snapped a few photos but felt it would be inappropriate to look around.

I spent a lttle time wandering round the nearby streets. Kallio, although originally a workers’ district has become gentrified and has something of a bohemian reputation.  I was also surprised by the number of “massage parlours” close to the church so Kallio clearly has a “red light district”, but not as blatant as Amsterdam.

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Heading back towards the city centre, near Paasitorni, I turned right and walked along the shore of Eläintarhanlahti

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and then over the railway bridge to Töölönlahti. These are both seawater lakes connected to each other and the sea by narrow straights. I walked south along the eastern shore from where there were views across to the Opera and Finlandia Hall.

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It was only a short distance back to my hotel.