A Discussion of the Aino Myth, #Metoo and the role of museums

by Mari Viita-Aho

The Finnish national epic, Kalevala, has become a controversial topic during the past winter. Particularly the character of Aino has been in the center of debates inspired or proceeded by the #metoo campaign. The director of the Ateneum Art Museum (Finnish National Gallery) has received emails suggesting the removal of Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Aino-myth from the exhibition. The Gallen-Kallela Museum, which has been founded to foster the heritage of Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela, considered its duty to take part in this conversation and arranged a discussion on the topic.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela: Aino Myth, Triptych. 1891. Photo: Kansallisgalleria / Aaltonen, Hannu

Participants had been invited from diverse fields and backgrounds. Present were Collections Management Director of The Finnish National Gallery Riitta Ojanperä, PhD Student of Musicology Sini Mononen, Professor of Folklore from the University of Helsinki Lotte Tarkka and Director of Gallen-Kallela Museum Tuija Wahlroos. The conversation was moderated by Director of the Finnish Museum of Photography Elina Heikka, and it took place at the Gallen-Kallela Museum  in 17th of March.

Tuija Wahlroos started the occasion by presenting the story of Aino as a character in Kalevala, and elaborated Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s relationship to Kalevala. The Aino-myth was Gallen-Kallela’s first major Kalevala painting and it provoked debate already at the time it was first exhibited in 1889. Since then, Gallen-Kallela’s paintings have become probably the most famous depictions of Kalevala in Finland, and they are acknowledged and appreciated widely.

Tuija Walhroos and Elina Heikka. Photo: Salla Tiainen / Gallen-Kallela Museum

One of the central topics of the discussion was the means of art in observing and reflecting society, and the importance of the reflection in itself,  as Riitta Ojanperä pointed out in her opening. Art can be perceived as a common space, in which approaching even the most awkward topics is enabled. Something very similar to this is the idea of the  #metoo-campaign: it aims to create a public space, which would be safe and open for discussion.

In the case of #metoo and Kalevala, Aino and Väinämöinen are treated as stereotypes of feminine and masculine characters in Finnish society. Debate has twirled around the image of Finland as an equal place, and whether this equality is reality or fiction. The character of Aino has been seen, in the #metoo conversation, as evidence of inequality in Finnish society. Tuija Wahlroos noted that Aino is one of the iconic characters in Finnish art history, and opens many doors for discussion. Through #metoo, the character of Aino allows to open up the conversation of equality in Finnish history without personifying it into any actual incident or individual.

Lotte Tarkka, Riitta Ojanperä, Sini Mononen and Elina Heikka. Photo: Salla Tiainen / Gallen-Kallela Museum

It is quite remarkable that Kalevala, which was first published in 1835/1849, still draws attention and stirs emotions, even provokes quarrels. People relate to the characters and their destinies so intensely, that contradictory interpretations can seem obnoxious. It seems, however, that the discussion around Kalevala is not really about the storylines of the characters, but the values in society. Some of the questions #metoo raises are: How do the gender roles of Kalevala relate to our current time? What does the Aino-myth tell about the options women had in the 19th century? And on the other hand, have those options become opportunities or otherwise changed so drastically as we have thought?

Always, when a period of transformation is ongoing in the culture, its elementary values will also be contested, noted Lotte Tarkka. Thus it seems, that we are now living in one of these cultural transformation phases. National myths, and their characters, reflect the values cherished in different eras. In art history, depictions of national epics can be seen as a mirror of society and therefore also tools for scrutinizing the inherent values, on which national identity is based on. Sini Mononen also noted, that if these conversations about the values of the society, happen in a public level, they might finally effect to the legislation. Currently, this is what is happening with #metoo. This seems to be an opportunity for institutions to open up the discussion, or to invigorate it.

Sini Mononen suggested, that the role of institutions is to take part in cultural conversations and therefore also be part of the transformation. It is interesting to observe, which ways museums do find to initiate conversations, launch new openings, and to participate into a defining process of cultural and national identity in the future. Museums are experts of art, culture, and history, and their expertise are valued in many fields of society. At the closure of this conversation, Riitta Ojanperä returned to her observation of art as a reflection of society. It could be worthwhile to imagine novel ways, through which this ability to reflect the society would be utilized.

2 thoughts on “A Discussion of the Aino Myth, #Metoo and the role of museums”

  1. There is no mention whether the idea of censoring the painting was even discussed.

    1. Hei, good observation, thank you!

      The removal (or censoring) of Aino actually wasn’t discussed with more details. I believe there existed an unanimity among the participants, that Aino is part of the Finnish (art) history, and therefore it should be kept in the exhibition. In this discussion, Aino was treated more as an example of an art piece, which gets interpreted in different ways at different times. Values it represented, or discussions it participated in, in its own time, are longer obvious to the present viewer.

      I think this is one of the major possibilities and responsibilities for museums, as well as for the research of art history: to uncover the forgotten interpretations associated to images. Maybe this will teach us something fundamental also about our own time.

      However, it would be very interesting to set up a conversation around the censorship and art, and the ideas in which censorship has been based on different eras.

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