Lemminkainen's Mother

7:00 AM

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lemminkainen's Mother, 1897

Last week in art history we had an interesting discussion that particularly resonated with me. As we perused and talked over one chapter of history, we discussed whether knowing contemporary events and background or just observing a painting matters more when searching for meaning. Some of the paintings we worked with in that class period were hard to discern at first glance, but Lemminkainen's Mother struck altogether a different chord. I first saw this painting while flipping through the art history book, but it made me suddenly stop. This painting emanates raw emotion and a quiet, dignified power. I saw a dying son and his mother, facing the heavens in quiet reproach or pleading. By the son's hair and emaciated features, I even imagined that he mimicked the traditional images of Jesus, and that their heads both turned toward a heavenly light, demanding justice.

I guess it just goes to show how much perceptions and intents can diverge.

Lemminkainen's Mother is in fact a Finnish nationalist painting that recounts a time-honored Finnish myth, none of which was evident to me upon my first viewing. Lemminkainen, one of the heroes of the Finnish epic, in Rune XV of the Kalevala, has just been drowned in the underworld river Tuonela while attempting to capture its elusive swan, which can be found in the upper left corner of the piece. His distressed mother finds him and uses a bronze rake to fish the pieces of his corpse out of the river and then carefully sews them together. His mother revives him, as his clenched fist evidences, but his life force cannot be restored. She implores a passing bee to fly up to the realm of the gods and steal a few drops of the gods' potent, panacea honey. This painting reveals the mother's tenuous hope and fear in the bee's absence, waiting.

Born in 1865 in Finland as Axel Waldemar Gallén, Gallen-Kallela traveled to France and Germany in his early adulthood in order to study art, meeting Edward Munch and developing a Symbolist style.  He made frescoes for the Finnish Pavilion at the 1900 Paris World's Fair and became renowned as the painter of Finland and changed his name to the more Finnish-sounding Akseli Gallen-Kallela.  His illustrations from the Kalevala comprise his most venerated works and perpetuate the values of old Finnish civilization.  The revival of old myth into painting was a display of Finnish nationalism in the years before the 1917 October Revolution and the declaration of Finnish independence.  The country's romantic artists such as Gallen-Kallela attempted to establish Finland's national identity and sought cultural autonomy from Russia.  He began Lemminkainen's Mother just after his daughter's death by disease, making it even more personally relevant by showing a parent's loss and desperation to save someone who may be beyond their help.

The pain and emotion are glaringly perceptible at first sight, but any surrounding circumstances and history are not.  What is important, then?  The initial poignancy or the completeness of understanding someone else's entire story?

One final interesting aspect of this painting that I would like to indicate lies in its subtle subversion of gender roles.  While Lemminkainen lies prone and has a subtle color emphasis placed on his effeminate hair, his mother assumes the traditional male hero role and has muscular arms, large hands, and covered hair, laying a protective hand on her son.  These techniques serve not to diminish either's respective inborn femininity or masculinity or make a social statement but to show their reversal as savior and saved.  So much can be made of this painting that may not have been the author's original intent, so is it any less valid to study it and postulate?

What do you see?

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