The lone masterpiece in a painting is rare in art history. That Keitelemeer by the Finnish artist Axel Gallen (1865-1931) there is one, a loner who has found a place because someone was hit by it.
Gallen, a painter with a broad oeuvre, was a fascinating figure who, at the turn of the last century, led an extremely double life, filled with projects, travels and prizes, mixed with stays in the quiet vastness of Finnish nature. He was also condemned to do so, the Finnish place was his niche, in the extremely competitive art world of the late nineteenth century. Like Van Gogh, Gauguin and many other contemporaries, he understood that he had to work on his own image to conquer a place in the then enormous European art supply. Van Gogh had early taken over the role of folk painter and comforter, Gauguin chose the role of ‘noble savage’, who exchanged his comfortable life for the purity of the South Pacific.
In that spirit, Gallen developed into a specialist in performances with a distinctly Finnish character: Finnish peasants, Finnish landscapes and Finnish mythology, with a pantheistic basic tone. In France, where he received his education, the election for such a national stamp was encouraged. Gallen also had some success with it in his time, but it’s as if he never quite found his form. Primitive peasant scenes, symbolist fantasies full of Finnish mythology, polar snow, you can see him navigating through the possibilities of a Finnish idiom.
He worked hard, was technically good, but something is missing. Maybe persuasion. He felt that too. After a period in Paris in which he proved less welcome than he had hoped, he strictly turned his artistic compass from north to south. In 1909 he moved to Nairobi, where he began making impressionist paintings with African motifs. Maybe he, as a northerner in Africa, hoped to achieve something according to Gauguin’s recipe, but it never got started. One second reset as a painter of Indians in the United States also failed.
Gallen shows how difficult it is to find your own form, where you can move consistently and freely as a modern artist. Why do some things not work out? With Gallen, everything remains a bit emphatic. You can see it calibrate through the paint.
And then you face that lake. Not his biggest or most spectacular painting, in fact not violently Finnish, but completely original with those gray stripes in the water surface. The painting is one of the favorites from the National Gallery in London and you can see why. It is completely devoid of intentions and it shows something that has never been painted this way before.
The American critic Clement Greenberg wrote in the essay Convention and innovation (1976): “Some artists make superior art as soon as they give up striving for it.” It nicely sums up the lonely artist’s situation in search of his place in art history. There should be more artists like Axel Gallen, talented, ambitious men and women who can only really celebrate their original talent when they let go of the idea that something extraordinary should be achieved.
When you stand in front of the beautiful painting of a lake in Finland, in the middle of the searching work, you really understand what Greenberg meant by artists who are best when they let go of their ambitions. It is a landscape that one often sees: a reflective lake with an island in it and a narrow strip of sky with clouds above.
What makes the painting unique, unlike anything else, are the strange horizontal strips that cross the water surface. According to the text sign, these are pieces of half-melted ice, the catalog names the stripes as traces of an air stream that in Finland is linked to an old myth. But it does not matter, the vagueness of the strips actually contributes to the persuasiveness and individuality of the painting. They give the impression that they have been seen but are not yet fully defined.
In everyday life, this often happens without you noticing it: a dead animal that turns out to be a branch, a mirage, a gust of wind, as if someone is pulling at your coat. In painting, however, this kind of associative perception is rare because it is very difficult to achieve. It quickly takes the form of the emphatic symbolism, which is not without Axel Gallen’s oeuvre. But it Keitelemeer is a stand-alone masterpiece, and nothing about it is emphatic. Everything is right in the mysterious way, where everything is often also true with Van Gogh. Although it could be combined with Van Gogh’s artistic mission, it was a problem for Gallen. But he has made at least one masterpiece that succeeded.
Real loners in an oeuvre like that Keitelemeer are rare, presumably because they nine times out of ten have turned to dust, along with the producer’s further oeuvre, which was just not good enough to be treasured by museums. They exist, and remarkably, they are often audience favorites; paintings that are loved by many people. It applies for Keitelemeerbut also, for example, for painting Girl on a red carpet by Felice Casorati, from the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent.
Casorati, like Gallen, was an interesting, ambitious artist, by no means a mess, and also successful in his time. He made a name for himself with a form of toned-down, reduced realism that was popular in the early decades of the twentieth century. He made paintings that looked modern, a little cubist and yet also realistic.
But Girl on a red carpet is different, more common and more special at the same time. The painting shows a child lying rough on the floor and leaning one elbow on a pillow. Her right shoe sole is visible. Only children can lie there without anyone liking it. She is surrounded by a doll, a fan, picture books. Her hand on the back of a small sleeping dog. The vantage point is low, but our gaze shimmers over the girl’s crown over the screen-filling rug. The outside world appears only in the form of bright surfaces, just outside the child’s circle. The girl also has a name, Ada Trentino, daughter of another artist Attilio Trentino.
This painting does not connect with any contemporary of Casorati, nor does it really connect with the currents of his time. It is simple, skillfully painted, but there is no other painting where a human child lies so close, and no painting where a rug gets so much bandwidth. It conveys nothing beyond the small world it represents. It is original in a completely implicit way, and perfect in itself. This effect of implicit completeness is more common in portraits, and also in portraits of children, perhaps because the artist was less on his toes in that company.
Stripes of ice
And so it seems to be the case with that lake in Paris. The story goes that Gallen had settled on the shores of that lake for a while to recover from his restless life. And then he must have seen something that hit him directly and that he could translate into a painting: ice streaks or wind or both. The art world with its demands and directives was far away. There was an artist, and there it was more.
‘Axel Gallen’, reads the signature at the bottom left. Three years later, he changed his name to Akseli Gallen-Kallela because it sounded more Finnish. In 1931 he died in Stockholm of pneumonia, leaving behind the extensive and also somewhat convulsive work. But his one real masterpiece arose when he left the stage for a while. He also realized himself that he had produced something extraordinary, which testified that he made four more copies of it.