Akseli Gallen-Kallela is one of Finland’s most famous artists from the last century. He specialised in romanticism, painting from local folklore and mythology.
His golden period happened far away from home, in Kenya — where he lived with his family during colonial times.
As part of their centenary independence celebrations on December 6, the Finnish embassy, together with the Gallen-Kallela Museum, decided to tell his story in Kenya.
An exhibition titled Gallen-Kallela in Kenya will be on at the Nairobi National Museum until December 15.
Gallen-Kallela was born in 1865 to a Swedish-speaking family in western Finland. At the age of 16, he left school to pursue art studies at the Finnish Art Society and afterwards trained in Paris for five years.
After finishing his training, Gallen-Kallela’s works were exhibited at some of Europe’s top events, and he travelled extensively. In his early 40s, he wanted to reinvent his techniques away from European circles.
By this time, he had changed his name from Axel to Akseli.
Tuija Wahlroos, director of the Gallen-Kallela Museum, explains: “He was interested in promoting Finnish culture. A number of people changed their names around 1905-1907.” Kallela was the name of his first log house and studio, which he added to his surname.
Gallen-Kallela was considering travelling to the Far East, South America or Madagascar when, in 1906, he met an artist from Reunion Island who told him about Africa.
By June 1909, the Gallen-Kallela family were on a ship headed for British East Africa. From diaries written by Gallen-Kallela’s wife, Mary, and their daughter Kirsti, historians have pieced together their life in Kenya.
The family lived on the outskirts of Nairobi in what is present-day Mathare, and, like Europeans of the time, kept a large staff of local workers. But Gallen-Kallela kept his distance from the British settlers.
“In their writing, they say they did not like how British people were treating the locals, and wanted to live their own life,” said Ms Wahlroos. They learned to speak Kiswahili and the children went to a local school, but they struggled with the English language and eventually were home-schooled by their mother.
Meantime, despite frequent bouts of malaria, Gallen-Kallela’s creativity blossomed and he transitioned into a modern style of art.
Comparing his previous and later works with the paintings done in Kenya, the differences are remarkable. His landscapes and portraits of ethnic people in Kenya are filled with light, bright colours, bold strokes and an impressionist feel.
“He was painting freely, but also showed how skilful he was,” said Anne Pelin, the exhibitions manager at the Gallen-Kallela Museum.
He also collected many cultural and ethnographic objects.
For the Christmas holidays in 1909, the family went on a four-month safari along the Tana River and eastern Kenya, and climbed Mt Kenya.
In October 1910, they had to leave Kenya due to financial constraints and because of the political situation as Finland rose up against Russian rule.
While in Kenya, Gallen-Kallela painted 150 oil paintings, and took about 300 photographs. These, along with other pieces, were exhibited around Europe and the US.
However, the Finnish did not appreciate his new techniques even though “he had wanted to show that he could also renew himself and not only paint the old-fashioned way,” Ms Pelin said. There was also competition from a younger generation who preferred modernist art.
Subsequently, Gallen-Kallela went back to his old style with the Kalevala illustrations, and built a new studio and home. The white house with a thatched roof and tower is now home to the Gallen-Kallela Museum.
Gallen-Kallela showed his Kenya art internationally, including at the 1914 Venice Biennale. However, it was not until 1972, that his works received their due recognition in Finland.
“People were amazed by what he had seen and collected and how they lived,” said Ms Wahlroos.
Artworks and photographs by Gallen-Kallela will be on display at the Nairobi exhibition, and there will be an interactive digital programme mapping the artist’s journey by ship to Kenya. “Visitors can also add their comments if they know more about the objects,” said Ms Pelin.