The Wonders of Helsinki's Art World
Updated: Jul 30, 2019
On her first day in Helsinki, Wanderous Affair's editor-in-chief Emily Fata goes on an art search around the culture-rich city. By meandering through three different galleries, she discovers countless Finnish creatives and their beautiful contributions to the artistic world.
As to be expected when trekking through the picturesque fluffy snowfall of Finland's capital, Helsinki has a plethora of indoor ventures to partake in when the temperatures become a bit too chilly to endure long hours outside. On our first full day in the city, we decided to explore the city's art museums in combination with wandering the Helsinki's streets between each gallery and stopping for meals along the way.
Below are three highlights from our day, all of which are conveniently located within walking distance of one another and can be enjoyed comfortably in a single morning and afternoon:
Ateneum Art Museum
My favourite museum of the day, Ateneum Art Museum was the perfect way to start off our adventures in the visual arts. This is one of three museums which form the Finnish National Gallery, and is conveniently located in the centre of Helsinki on the south side of Rautatientori Square (close to Helsinki Central Railway Station, near where our hotel was located). It has the biggest collections of classical art in Finland, something that blissfully shot me right into art heaven.
Before one can even begin appreciating the breath-taking pieces housed within Ateneum, they must first come to terms with the beauty of the building itself. The building celebrated its inauguration in November of 1887, with this new art forum proving to be a momentous achievement for the Finnish cultural establishment. What was even more impressive about this, was that the country had yet to gain its independence from Russia (it didn't achieve that until twenty years later, in December of 1917). Simultaneously, the building served as the home for two art schools and the art museum until the 1970s, at which point the School of Applied Art (currently referred to as the University of Art and Design) and the Drawing School of the Finnish Art Society (now called the Fine Arts Academy) were relocated to their own individual locations. To this day however, many of the students who were once taught within Ateneum's walls have their incredible work hanging within it to this day.
That being said, spending a few hours within Ateneum is time well spent. Not only does it offer patrons a chance to admire the country’s oldest and largest art collection, it does so by exhibiting both the well-loved classics alongside less frequently exhibited works of art. Both the combination and contrast of these two can draw parallels, while also serving to show the difference and development of Finnish art over time.
What's more, there are also feature exhibitions for visitors to enjoy during their visit to the gallery; taking a look at both current exhibitions and upcoming exhibitions can really help in planning your trip, so that you maximize your time here.
Some of my favourite pieces that I would highly recommend checking out while visiting:
The Wounded Angel by Hugo Simberg, 1903 (one of my all-time favourite pieces of art, pictured above)
Queen Bianca by Albert Edelfelt, 1877
Towards the Evening by Hugo Simberg, 1913
Démasquée by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1888
Sunset by Väinö Blomstedt, 1898 (it reminded me a lot of Canada's Group of Seven paintings)
(As a side note: after you've worked up an appetite from visiting the museum, you can pop into Ateneum Bistro, adjacent to the gallery's gift shop, for a delicious lunch!)
The Helsinki Art Museum
I wanted to visit the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) once I heard that some of Tove Jansson's (hello, Moomins!) best artwork is permanently housed here. Her frescos Party in the City and Party in the Country, originally created for the Kaupunginkellari restaurant in Helsinki, are among them. What's more, this exhibition room also contains the original chandeliers from the restaurant, designed by Paavo Tynell, featured alongside the frescos. Though it's obvious that I'm in love with her round little troll creations, her Impressionism-era artwork, with its soft contours and light-filled landscapes, are truly her most visually captivating creations.
In addition to the must-see Jansson exhibit, one can also find other art within the HAM. During our trip, the "Gilbert & George: THE MAJOR EXHIBITION" of UK origin was on; these larger-than-life creations were not my artistic cup of tea, so to speak (I'm into a more classic realism style, overall), but they were nonetheless appealing in their vibrant colours and strong messages. The predominance of shocking reds and blues, stark whites, and wide eyes reminiscent of Doctor TJ Eckleburg all served as a guide to lead you through the exhibit from one massive room to the next.
It was after the completion of this exhibit that we wandered through the remainder of the museum, enjoying several rooms of lovely modern art before heading to the next gallery on our list.
With this in mind, if Tove Jansson and/or modern art are right up your alley, the Helsinki Art Museum would be most enjoyable for you.
Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art
The second member of an aforementioned three museums which form the Finnish National Gallery, Kiasma Museum is home to a great deal of intriguing contemporary art. Opening to the public in 1998, the Kiasma building itself is a stunning architectural landmark, designed by American architect Steven Holl. Finland's natural light, ever-changing both seasonally and with the time of day, is something the building plays with and embraces fully.
The exhibits within the museum itself are also a sight to behold. Because Kiasma's collections are a crucial element of Finnish cultural heritage, it focuses mainly on works created by Finnish artists, or of artists living in nearby countries. They also add additional pieces to their collections by commissioning new, predominantly local work. Acquiring new artwork is run by the Acquisitions Committee, which is composed of experts from Kiasma itself, as well as two artists or external experts.
My favourite exhibit this time around was a temporary exhibit running until February 17th, 2019. Pilvi Takala's Second Shift exhibit features six of her video works, dating from the past decade. It delves into the notion of unwritten rules of communities, in which she discreetly impinges upon various groups by posing undercover. Once "in", she examines how humans set and deal with boundaries, challenging these fine lines as a whole. Perhaps most importantly, Takala explores how we as humans may express consent with or without explicit words. (A fun fact, the exhibit's title, “Second Shift”, was taken from a phrase coined in the 1980s, which was used to describe unrecognized domestic work that was primarily done by women, in addition to their regular paid jobs.)
Kiasma has many other exhibits, both permanent and temporary, for visitors to enjoy and appreciate while visiting the museum. For lovers of contemporary, passionate, and even interactive artworks, this is a prime location to uncover.
Truly, I could not have imagined a better way to spend my first full day in Helsinki. Grasping a better understanding of their art history served as a guide for me in my adventures to come, as it gave me a more rounder comprehension of what Helsinki has to offer culturally, and how this culture manifests within the Finnish nation. Someone visiting Helsinki for the first time, who wishes to get the most out of their trip, would definitely want to visit at least one or two of their museums in order to fathom such an understanding.
Have you ever been to Helsinki? Which of the city's many art galleries and museums are your favourite? If you haven't yet been, which of these galleries would be on the top of your list? Let me know in the comments!
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