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This painting shows Lake Keitele in central Finland. The zigzag pattern on the water’s surface is a natural occurrence caused by the interaction of the wind with the lake’s currents, but it is also intended to evoke the wake created by Väinämöinen, the poet-hero of the Finnish saga Kalevala, as he rows across the lake. This epic poem was seen as a founding myth by Finnish nationalists who were seeking autonomy for their country in the late nineteenth century, and reference to it gave Lake Keitele an added political dimension.
Despite the relatively small size of the canvas, Gallen-Kallela creates a feeling of expansive space that brings together meditative stillness and the dynamism of the natural world.
Gallen-Kallela painted three other views of Lake Keitele around 1904–6, all of which show the distinctive zigzag pattern on the water’s surface.
Akseli Gallen-Kallela completed this painting in 1905. It is one of four related pictures he produced around that time of Lake Keitele, in a remote part of central Finland. The picture reflects the mood of Finnish nationalism that was growing in the late nineteenth century. At this time, Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire; it did not become an independent state until 1917, following the Bolshevik Revolution. Landscape, especially when associated with mythology, was an important expression of the desire for Finnish autonomy. Writers, artists and musicians drew upon the ancient Finnish folk poems and myths contained in the epic saga Kalevala, first published in 1835. Gallen-Kallela himself used it from the mid-1880s as a source for paintings, and it is referred to in this picture.
Unlike Gallen-Kallela’s earlier paintings inspired by Kalevala, Lake Keitele does not include any figures. The only trace of human presence is the distinctive zigzag pattern on the lake’s surface. Although a natural occurrence caused by the interaction of the wind with the lake’s currents, Gallen-Kellela referred to this pattern as ‘Väinämöinen’s wake’ – the trace made by Väinämöinen, the bard and principal character of Kalevala, as he rows across the lake. The artist wrote to a friend that the ’silvery stripes at the surface of the serene water are the wavelets announcing the passion to come'. This implied reference to Väinämöinen, with whom Gallen-Kallela may have personally identified, reveals his nationalist loyalties.
The painting’s composition is particularly striking. An almost flat design, made up of broad, blue-grey diagonal bands that cross the lake’s surface, is paired with a more realistic depiction of shimmering waves and ripples in the foreground. Areas of bare canvas add texture and tone. Gallen-Kallela uses a deliberately archaic style, influenced by the decorative abstraction and primitivism of Paul Gauguin and by Finnish folk art, that also has echoes of stained glass and textiles (media he also worked with). The principal colours are kept within a nearly monochrome range of cool silver-greys and blues. Despite the relatively small size of the canvas, an effect of expansive space is produced by the fact that we are looking directly over the water rather than standing securely on the lakeshore. This effect is enhanced by the position of the small wooded island, horizon and thin band of blue sky and bright white clouds at the very top of the picture. The different sizes, directions and textures of the brushstrokes further enhance a sense of space opening out.
In Lake Keitele Gallen-Kallela combines meditative stillness with the forces of nature, and ancient narratives with contemporary political debate, to create a vision of an uncorrupted wilderness imbued with symbolic and emotional meaning.
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