Text: Bart Pushaw and Sini Mononen 7.2.2018
Picture: Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Aino Myth, Finnish National Gallery
In the wake of #MeToo, it makes sense that museum goers in Finland increasingly question the prominence of Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s 1891 Aino Myth. After all, the triptych chronicles how Aino’s desperation to escape the unwanted sexual advances of the ragged Väinämöinen becomes so intolerable that she drowns herself. Today, Aino Myth is seen as an example of artistic representations of sexual harassment, assault, rape and stalking.
Susanna Pettersson, the director of Ateneum, recently revealed that visitors ask if the painting has any right at all to be on display given its troubling subject matter. For Pettersson, the answer was clear: “The Aino Myth will stay on the wall,” she wrote in a museum-sanctioned blog post. Her reasoning, however, raises more questions than answers.
For Pettersson, Gallen-Kallela’s painting deserves to retain its prime spot as a permanent fixture hanging on the museum’s walls because “it tells about our art history and the tales in Kalevala”. Only secondarily does she add the point that the image “can also help people to deal with painful phenomena such as (sexual) harassment.” While many scholars share the view of art being a way of working through “cultural traumas”, such as a violent event or traumatic experiences, there is also a debate that questions the uncritical reception of violent representations. The bottom line is: we should be able to look at our own history and consider the ways it is represented. What kind of art and which artists are celebrated and what values do they manifest? The issue goes beyond aesthetics as all art is a reflection of society, and museums are places where these reflections are negotiated.
The issue may reside in the possibility that the director sees #MeToo as intertwined only with our contemporary moment. She is adamant that contemporary issues cannot be applied to historical pieces because they reflect a distinct historical period. But if #MeToo has revealed anything, it is precisely that the enduring pervasiveness of sexual assault is specifically indebted to historical impossibilities. Needless to say, if we were never to see history through our own eyes, feminist critiques would have never surfaced.
Let’s consider for a moment an important fact Pettersson also addressed; the history of art is filled with horrific, nightmarish and violent images. Indeed, the entire institution of the European art museum can be considered violent as it is built upon the brutal history of colonialism. It is difficult to walk through any of the big museums in Europe without being horrified by the magnitude of deprivation, oppression and racism they present. If we were to remove and dismiss all the pieces that deal with dark history of our civilization, there would be little left to display. And since museums function as institutions documenting, preserving, and displaying history, a censored picture of art history would sanitize and whitewash history, becoming equally as problematic as the violent images we see hanging on the walls of the museums today. After all, a society without violence may indeed be utopia — a literal “non-space.”
However, there must be a way museums and art institutions can address changing notions on violence. Indeed, this is what #MeToo is about: a shift in cultural notions on how we understand violence in general. Cultural ideas on violence change according to the cultural and historical situation. Finland has a dark history what it comes to violence against women. For instance, it is a fairly new idea to consider a woman as a legitimate subject when it comes to sexual assaults. According to scholar Johanna Niemi-Kiesiläinen, we can distinguish four different phases in Finnish culture of varying attitudes towards sexual assault that also had an impact on the development of legislation. For example, rape in marriage was not criminalized in Finland until 1994, and stalking was criminalized in Finland only in 2014. However, we need to go a bit further in history to reach the cultural climate of Kalevala or the times of Gallen-Kallela.
According to Niemi-Kiesiläinen, each historical phase reflects the culture’s moral values towards sexuality. In the “archaic phase” raping a woman was an insult against her family, and the law was designed to protect the family unit and the man, who exerted ownership over a woman. Later, in the 16th and 17th centuries, rape was seen as an insult against the marriage institution and female sexuality was controlled severely: in the case of extramarital sex (including rape) women were punished on the basis of fornication. The idea of a woman as a property of a man has affected the moral code through the 19th and 20th centuries in such a way that rape was not considered to be possible in marriage for a long time. The shift in Finnish legislation manifests how the the idea of sexual self-determination of a woman is comparatively new idea. Towards the end of the 20th century, scholars have started to consider sexual assault as a manifestation of power relations maintained in the culture at large. In the light of this history, #MeToo can be understood as a way to renegotiate these power structures. It is an attempt to draw attention to the magnitude and the scope of male power; Kalevala and Aino Myth are historical documents of this very power structure.
The shift between different historical phases illustrates how we perceive and understand violence in different times. It should also illustrate how we can frame artworks depicting violence differently according to shifting socio-cultural notions on violence. In her blog, Pettersson argues how we have celebrated even murderous artists before (such as Caravaggio) and how art should be seen as art, and not as part of an artist’s character. However, in the light of history, it is obvious that this privilege has been mostly granted to celebrated male artists. What feminism and postcolonialism have taught us is that art can never be fully separated from the artist and the politics that his or her social status represent. It is indeed a problematic assumption that white male artists could be freed from the significance of male performance, whereas female and other-than-white/queer male artists are never free from the burden of their gender or ethnicity.
Earlier this year, a writer in Helsingin Sanomat blatantly declared that “to Finns nowadays, Gallen-Kallela would appear to be a racist, chauvinistic, sexist, and colonialist character, but as man of his own time, he acted quite normally.” By addressing these issues at the outset, the author seems to want to elide so-called “call out culture”. Emphasizing the aesthetic beauty of the artist’s paintings of present-day Kenya, the article ignores the impact of its sensationalist headline, that he enjoyed a culture of “free sex” in comparison to “civilized Finland” — a horrific statement we were shocked to read. If the artist enjoyed this culture of “free sex,” did he do so with the Kikuyu women he painted? Was there even possibility for these women to express their consent? We never read about the opinions of the Maasai or Kikuyu people Gallen-Kallela painted, let alone their experiences, sexual or otherwise, with him. Equally absent in this narrative are the recollections of his wife, Mary. Perhaps, then, #MeToo is not just a movement, but even a framework to recuperate the oppressed and marginalized voices and experiences of the past. Such perspective also reveals that Gallen-Kallela’s activities were not necessarily considered “normal” in his time anyways. Already in 1910, a male Finnish critic saw the paintings and immediately declared them to be “a vulgar pursuit of notoriety” and an “exploitation of exotic names” as well as people.
We must be vigilant that the feminist underpinnings of #MeToo remain decisively intersectional regarding race and a spectrum of gender identities, since gendered violence disproportionately affects women of color, indigenous women, trans people, queer identifying folk. These racialized and gendered power structures clearly manifest themselves in Gallen-Kallela’s paintings.
Removing a painting from display or, at the very least, reconsidering its status as an icon of an entire collection is not censorship. Since permanent displays are meant to demonstrate broad, wide-ranging themes, it is not difficult to replace images when an artwork is loaned for travelling exhibitions, but expected. Recently, the Manchester Art Gallery decided to remove John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs (1869) from the exhibition because of the gender trouble the painting represents, and is considering returning the painting to display later after a thorough re-examination of its presentation and context. So why must discussions about removing or reframing Gallen-Kallela’s painting become so sensationalized? The argument that Gallen-Kallela’s “Aino Triptych” is art historically significant because it depicts the Kalevala seems especially moot given the plethora of other works by the artist on this theme which do not prioritize such blatant exploitation. Instead, what we should do is question why the Aino theme has retained such prevalence throughout Finnish cultural history, and think critically about what that says about our own values.
Lampinen, Hannele and Anne Pelin, 2004. “Ikuinen Fata Morgana – Afrikassa”. In Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Espoo: Gallen-Kallelan Museo, 151–168.
Lehmusvesi, Jussi. “Afrikka tarkoitti Akseli Gallen-Kallelalle sivistyneen Suomen estoista vapaata seksiä ja hurjien petojen metsästämistä – taiteilija menetti maanosalle sydämensä eikä palannut enää ennalleen”. Helsingin Sanomat. 1.1.2018.
Niemi-Kiesiläinen, Johanna 2000. “Mitä seksuaalirikoslailla halutaan suojella?”. In Lähentelystä raiskauksiin. Tyttöjen kokemuksia häirinnästä ja seksuaalisesta väkivallasta. Edited by Päivi Honkatukia, Johanna Niemi-Kiesiläinen & Sari Näre. Helsinki: Nuorisotutkimusverkosto, 137–168.
Pettersson, Susanna. “Aino-taru pysyy seinällä”. Ateneum blog. 5.2.2018.
Rea, Naomi. “British Art Museum Banishes a Famed Pre-Raphaelite Fantasy Over Its Depiction of “Femme Fatale” Nymphs”. Artnet. 1.2.2018.
Bart Pushaw is an art historian. His research focuses on the intersections of race, colonialism, and gender in Nordic art.
Sini Mononen is an art critic and musicologist. Currently she is researching the representations of stalking in film.