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The World on Fire; Patriotic Honorary Tasks 1939–1954

Marble relief in honour of the nation's freedom

Winning the University of Helsinki invitational relief competition became the culmination point of Aaltonen's series of monumental works in the 1930's. The marble relief entitled The Goddess of Freedom Adorns Youth with a Wreath, reminiscent of ancient Greece, became the focal point of speeches and words of praise expressed by critics at the University's 300th anniversary celebration in 1940.

The relief was seen as the crystallization of the nation's high culture; hence, it was understandable that as the work was destroyed in the bombings of Helsinki three and a half years after its unveiling, the whole nation mourned. The United Bank of the Northern Countries ordered a replacement statue with the same motif. Aaltonen coupled that statue with one entitled Youth Makes a Sacrifice on Behalf of Freedom, dedicated to those who had fallen in the war. Both reliefs were put in their proper places in 1959. The damaged work also received a spot at the university as a remembrance of war.

The university relief further enhanced Aaltonen's national reputation as a genius; winning the Grand Prix at New York World's Fair in 1940 added to his glory. Both events furthered the granting of the title of professor to Aaltonen. The pressures of war united the community spirit of all Finns, and also encouraged Aaltonen to take a political stand. Along with many Finnish cultural personalities, Aaltonen signed the program declaration of the Federation of the Finnish Nation, an organisation formed for the purpose of uniting Finland's extreme right-wing groups.

Support from Sweden during the war

The battle against the Soviet Union brought on sympathy toward the Finns in Sweden. Aaltonen's large private exhibition at the Swedish National Museum, Stockholm, in 1941, won record-breaking audiences and high praise from art critics. Some of the works displayed at the Stockholm exhibition were also on view in Eskilstuna, Gothenburg, and Malmö. On the heels of his success, an honorary doctorate was conferred upon Aaltonen at the University of Lund. During the war, Aaltonen worked in Sweden, as it was difficult to operate in Finland, due to lack of materials. He received several commissions for portraits; among them, The Portrait of Crown Princess Louise (1941-1942) received a great deal of attention.

In order to counterbalance the considerable pressures brought on by work and war, Aaltonen sought out, for the first time, the quietude, along with painting motifs, in the wilderness areas of Lapland in the early 1940's. Travels to the North became an important source of recreation for the artist for the rest of his life. For most of the 1930's, Aaltonen had been separated from Elsa Rantalainen. The divorce became final in 1941, paving the way for the marriage to Elvi Hertell (née Brunila), who had worked at Artek, the following year. 

Aaltonen's flat and atelier in Kulosaari were damaged in the same February bombing, which destroyed the relief at the university. Several works, along with personal property were evacuated to Sääksmäki. The artist and his wife moved to Narvavägen in Stockholm. During the war, two major books on Aaltonen's art were published; the first was by Esko Hakkila, published in 1943.Onni Okkonen's work on Aaltonen was published on the artist's 50th birthday in 1944.

An academician's responsibility

Wäinö Aaltonen apulaisineen Lahden sankaripatsaan yläosan ympärillä

Wäinö Aaltonen with his assistants around the top of Lahti heroic statue.

Photo: WAM / image archive

Aaltonen settled in Finland permanently in 1945, first at his Kulosaari atelier, returning later to Hopeasalmentie. After the war, Aaltonen had a stream of students and assistants; among them were Heikki Varja 1945-1952, Leo Laukkanen 1948-1956, Matti Peitso 1950-1954, and Taisto Martiskainen at the beginning of the 1960's.  Aaltonen's son Matti, who had studied to become an architect, assisted his father in making the overall plans for several public works. Of Aaltonen's daughters, Anja acted as his father's secretary in the 1950's, and Maija as his technical assistant in the 1960's, helping in the casting of ceramic works in particular.

Immediately following the war, Aaltonen's artistic output, and in fact Finnish sculpture in general, was, for practical reasons, focused on small-size works and portraits. A European trip by car provided a two-month break from a hectic work schedule in 1947. At the end of the decade, Aaltonen started work on public sculpture projects.

The idea of founding the Academy of Finland ignited wide-reaching public discussion in 1947. Aaltonen supported the project in his often-cited article that bore the heading "I accuse". The following year, he was one of ten cultural personalities upon whom the title of an academician was bestowed. His public image as an academician was enhanced on account of a film made by Veli Virkkunen and Sakari Kulhia in 1948. The appointment guaranteed Aaltonen an economically secure position, although an increasing number of tasks as a public representative resulted in a decreasing amount of time available for making art.

Statues of heroes; politics

Aaltonen's retrospective 35th anniversary exhibition at the Art Hall in Helsinki was the first in a series of exhibitions in the 1950's. The artist participated in an exhibition of Finnish art in Oslo, as well as a European travelling exhibition of Finnish art. During a remarkable year of outstanding exhibitions Aaltonen also received an honorary doctorate at the University of Helsinki. The following year, he participated in the Eino Leino memorial competition, winning first prize. In a follow-up competition, Aaltonen shared first prize with Lauri Leppänen, whose proposal was realized. Aaltonen was commissioned to prepare a memorial of Joel Lehtonen, completed in Savonlinna in 1952.

At the beginning of the 1950's, Aaltonen started work on heroic statues, continuing for several years. First to be unveiled were the sculptures in Alastaro and Lappeenranta in 1951. The following year saw the completion of heroic statues in Lahti, Karinainen and Kauhajoki. The production of heroic statues received international attention, and the statue entitled Peace won a gold medal from the World Peace Council. It was developed for Lahti from a sketch for The Spirit of Freedom, completed for a competition in the 1930's. Aaltonen attempted to promote the cause of international harmony by suggesting that a peace statue be built on the border between Finland and the Soviet Union in 1953. The idea was well received, although the project did not progress any further.

A competition for the design of a gravesite memorial of Marshall Mannerheim was organised in 1951. Aaltonen took first prize with his sketch entitled Burning Bush, which was not built, however. Instead, the Finnish state commissioned Aaltonen to create a simple cross to be placed in front of the graves of the fallen soldiers at the Hietaniemi graveyard, and a stone adorned with the Finnish Coat of Arms for Mannerheim's gravesite. The sketch for the Hietaniemi statue found its place on land owned by the Kymi Company in Kuusankoski. The statue entitled Through the Fire, built in honour of fallen soldiers, who had been workers at the plant, was unveiled in 1958. Aaltonen also participated in the competition for a statue of Mannerheim on horseback in 1954. After receiving second prize, he did not participate in the next phase of the contest.

The nation's women; daydreams

Throughout the 1950's, Aaltonen had several monumental works in progress. The Railroader, a Memorial to Railroad Builders, from 1957, represents the conciliatory societal spirit, which became important in the politically tense situation after the wars. Memorials honouring workers were built in several communities. The Railroader is true to the custom that became commonplace in the 19th century of depicting labourers as solemn-faced, with a bare upper body emphasizing their muscularity.

Heroic statues were commissioned works of patriotic value, whose spirit had long-standing influence on other commissions the artist received. Banks were important clients for sculptors, who were to create works expressing the entrepreneurial spirit of the nation's rebuilding, a faith in the future, and national dignity. The Rebuilders was unveiled at the United Bank of Finland in 1947, The Pale Maiden in 1950, Contemplation and A Mother's Love in 1954; Boy Holding an Eagle was unveiled at the United Bank of the Northern Countries in 1949.

Aaltonen liked to shape female figures and faces, the most reserved among them were created during the years after the war. He may also have been consciously looking for ways of expression, which would be well suited in spirit for heroic figures; or he may have looked for details, which could be developed further as independent works of art. One of the most impressive of the works from this period is The Head of a Karelian Woman, for which Anna Lindqvist was the model.

The Aaltonens moved from Kulosaari to Fredrikinkatu at the beginning of the 1950's. Painting brought Aaltonen a sense of freedom from national pressures. The artist painted romantic idylls, returning to his old motifs, including The Home Garden and introverted female images. Aaltonen was granted his own compartment at the exhibition of Finnish art in Washington, and travelled across the Atlantic in 1952. During the next two years, exhibitions continued, and he participated in exhibitions of Finnish art in England, as well as in Moscow and Leningrad. He also represented Finland in the Venice Biennial in 1954, along with Tyko Sallinen.



Wäinö Aaltonen 1894-1966. Heidi Pfäffli, Ed.  Wäinö Aaltonen Museum of Art publications, number 10, 1994, Turku. ISSN 0788-0324, ISBN 952-9565-09-7.

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Sivua viimeksi päivitetty 21.5.2012 12:44 ja sivu on julkaistu 3.4.2008 16:31



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