One of the joys of the art market is discovering new artists who are valued by others. Sotheby’s continues to bring more worldly voices to its Modern art sales with painters like Rufino Tamayo, Joaquin Torres-Garcia and Vilhelm Hammershoi. The latest Nordic painter to be featured in the Impressionist and Modern Evening sale is Akseli Gallen-Kallela, the Finnish Symbolist painter. This July, Sotheby’s set a record for the painter with the $886k sale of View Over a Lake at Sunset. This November, the auction house is poised to move that number up again by more than $1m. Palokärki (Great Black Woodpecker or Wilderness) is estimated at $1.8-2.5m.
Sotheby’s is pleased to announce that we will present Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Palokärki (Great Black Woodpecker or Wilderness) as a highlight of our Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 12 November 2019 in New York, where it will make its auction debut after residing in the same private collection for more than 45 years.
In the 1890s, when his cosmopolitan contemporaries, such as Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin, sought the exotic in Pont-Aven and Tahiti, Gallen-Kallela traveled to the Finnish wilderness. Finding even the modern bustle of Helsinki overwhelming, he struck out into the wilds of North Karelia, near the Arctic Circle, with his wife and daughter, in search of empty acreage to build a new home and the passionate life force of nature, his new artistic inspiration.
For Gallen-Kallela, nature increasingly became a source of symbolism and metaphor for a growing Finnish patriotic movement. Known at the time as the Grand Duchy of Finland under the control of Russian authorities, Gallen-Kallela found a passionate argument for the sovereignty of Finnish identity in the wilderness, and expressed these political and cultural concepts in his revered landscapes. He stated: “He who lives and works much out in nature, can almost catch himself speaking to the trees of the wood…our folklore witnesses to the fact that a deep experience of nature is a characteristic of the Finns. It can be said, perhaps, that we tend to personify nature, which expresses itself in our art and literature.”
Palokärki (Great Black Woodpecker or Wilderness)
A masterpiece of Finnish art, the bold, enigmatic and sublime landscape, highlighted by the stark contrast of the woodpecker’s deep black plumage and red crown of feathers, fuses two of the greatest art movements of the late 19th century: French Realism and the burgeoning Nordic Landscape movement. Painted between 1892 and 1894, the painting is the first by Gallen-Kallela to combine his prior adherence to Realism and his clear but occasionally dispassionate representation of nature, with a growing perception of landscape as an evocation of emotional meaning. Partly inspired by National Romanticism, a strain of Symbolism that took hold in the Nordic countries in the 1890s, Gallen-Kallela painted the woodpecker to further mark this shift in attitude, as he painted two additional works in the same time period that articulated this change of conception of landscape as a metaphor for mythology and folklore with distinctly political subtext.
In summer of 1892, Gallen-Kallela travelled to Lake Paanajärvi, then in northeastern Finland and now just beyond the Russian border. Along the banks of the fjord-like lake, Gallen-Kallela began painting Palokärki, completing this oil in his studio in either Helsinki or Sääksmäki by 1894.
Describing the inspiration for the painting and the symbolism of the woodpecker, Gallen-Kallela stated: “The woodpecker has always been my friend. Always when I listen to its fresh, piercing voice I get the feeling that I am so far from all the human habitation that there no longer is any contact—even if this occurs just around the corner from my home…The red spot is the individual’s cry for life in the quietude of the hinterlands.”
For Gallen-Kallela, the woodpecker was a symbol of Finnish patriotism, embodying his pride in the natural world he called home and a defiant resistance to “Russification,” a program of systematic attempts by Russian authorities to culturally assimilate the Finns prior to winning their independence in 1917.
Over 100 years later, the painting continues to reverberate with Gallen-Kallela’s call to the individual spirit and freedom embodied by the solitary woodpecker among the vast Finnish wilderness. Beyond the surface of its dispassionate representation of nature, the painting’s undertones of hard-fought political autonomy and national independence make it a subversive masterwork of Finnish art and modern landscape painting.