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Akseli Gallen-Kallela (Finland 1865‑1931)

The interior of a sauna

To be sold at Uppsala Auktionskammare’s Important Sale: Classic & Asian 15-18 June 2021

Lot 825 Akseli Gallen-Kallela (Finland 1865‑1931). The interior of a sauna. Signed and dated Axel Gallen-Kallela Korpilahti IX 1928. Oil on board, 30 x 39.5 cm.


125.000 – 150.000 SEK
€ 12.000 – 15.000


Galerie Hörhammer, Helsinki, according to a stamp on the reverse.
Liljevalchs konsthall, Stockholm, ”Gallen-Kallela. Oljemålningar, akvareller, kartonger, teckningar och grafik”, 8 April-3 May 1936, cat. no. 324.

In context

Saunas are an integral part of the way of life in Finland and an important part of the Finnish national identity. In the world at large, the sauna is viewed as a Finnish institution. Accordingly, Sauna is the only Finnish word that untranslated forms part of the English language. Such is it’s fame that a comprehensive study on the Finnish sauna tradition was published in English in 2010 (M. Nordskog, The Opposite of Cold: The Northwoods Finnish Sauna Tradition). Saunas are found on the shores of Finland’s numerous lakes, in private apartments, corporate headquarters, at the Parliament House and even at the depth of 1,400 metres in Pyhäsalmi mine. Those who have the opportunity usually take a sauna at least once a week. The traditional sauna day is Saturday. The sauna tradition is so strong that whenever Finns go abroad, they relish the chance to have a good sauna: even the Finnish Church in Rotherhithe, London, has its own sauna. Finnish soldiers on peacekeeping missions are famous for their saunas; even on the UNMEE mission in Eritrea, a sauna was one of the first buildings to be erected. A Second World War-era Finnish military field manual states that a break of eight hours is all that is required for a battalion to build saunas, warm them and bathe in them. Saunas, even in the military, are strictly egalitarian places: no titles or hierarchies are used in the sauna.

In the present work Gallen-Kallela has depicted a traditional type of sauna known as savusauna, smoke sauna. A smoke sauna does not have a chimney. Wood is burned in a particularly large stove and the smoke fills the room. When the sauna is hot enough, the fire is allowed to die. Smoke is ventilated out through a small hole in the ceiling and the door is left open until most of the smoke had dissipated. The residual heat of the stove is enough for the duration of the sauna. This represents the ancestral type of sauna, since chimneys are a later addition. The smoke sauna take about five hours to heat and produce soot which covers the wooden walls in a thick black layer. The benches are scrubbed clean before entering. In the foreground of the picture, Gallen-Kallela has included wooden barrels and leafy twigs. An ancient custom in Finland in connection with having saunas is the use of a bunch of leafy, fragrant silver birch called a vihta (vasta in Eastern Finland) moistered in wooden barrels of water to gently beat oneself. This has a relaxing effect on the muscles and also helps to soothe the irritation from mosquito bites. It is also used for massage and stimulation of the skin. When the heat in the sauna begins to feel uncomfortable it is customary to jump into a lake or the sea or, in the winter, rolling in the snow or even swimming in a hole cut in lake ice.

Fig. 1
Fig. 1

Gallen-Kallela first treated the subject of the sauna in 1889 in his famous picture In the Sauna (Ateneum, Helsinki), which depicts nude men and women having a sauna (fig. 1). The present picture constitutes the only other known depiction by him of a sauna. Gallen-Kallela has focused his interest in the rendering of the interior of the sauna the moment before it will be embodied by bathers, as witnessed by the smoke hovering below the ceiling. The picture could in a sense be seen as a glorification of the sauna as an historical Finnish institution. Gallen-Kallela had a great interest in the sauna culture. In 1911 he had an old sauna moved to home, the Tarvaspää studio town, now the Gallen-Kallela Museum.

The picture was painted in Korpilahti, where Gallen-Kallela spent the autumn of 1928, a remote and isolated area in Finland’s inland known for its breathtaking vistas with mountains and about 200 lakes, amongst them Lake Päijänne, the second largest lake in Finland. As a young man, when he set out on his career as a painter, he had visited the area. He there discovered the soul of the Finnish nature and the ancient traditions of the people inhabiting the land (A. Gallen-Kallela, Boken om Gallen-Kallela, 1947, p. 185, 197):

”I was looking for virgin landscape, for people of the wilds who lit their fires and built their saunas where they pleased, stuck their spears in the ground and said: Here life goes on, wife and children.”

During the summer 1889 he revisited Finland’s inland together with his friend, the Swedish painter Count Louis Sparre. This time they stayed at the Ekola croft in Keuruu northwest of Korpilahti where they each evening participated in saunas together with the rest of the household (T. Martin & D. Silvén, Axel Gallen-Kallela, 1987, p. 57):

”Badstugan [saunominen], som kunde kallas en mönsterbadstuga, beredde trots sin litenhet tillfälle för hela torparfamiljen att bada på samma gång. Och där badades varenda vardagsafton. Varje afton sutto Sparre och jag med torpets övriga folk i badstugan. Husets vackra döttrar skötte ömsom om badångan och lågo ömsom på laven, såsom då ännu var allmänt bruk. Vanligen svävade röken som ett tak över våra huvuden, och återskenet från ugnen bröt sig mot ljuset från  fönstret och skänkte tavlan en enligt min åsikt mycket målerisk belysning.”

(”The Bathhouse [saunominen], which could be called a model bathhouse, provided in spite of its smallness, an opportunity for the crofters to bathe together. And thet bathed every evening. Every evening Sparre and myself sat in the bathhouse together with the crofters. The households handsome daughters would take turns throwing water on the stones and lie on the lichen, according to the custom still widespread at he time. The smoke hovered like a ceiling above our heads, and the reflextions from the stove broke with the light from the window and created a rather painterly atmosphere.”]

One of the first written mentionings of what is believed to be the sauna customs of the forefathers of the Finns was written by Nestor the Chronicler from Krim in 1112. He told of “hot wooden saunas in which naked bathers beat themselves with branches and finally pour cold water over themselves.” Saunas were common all over Europe during the Middle Ages. Due to the spread of syphilis and subsequent scare of the disease in the 1500s, the sauna culture died out on most of the continent. Finland was a notable exception to this due to the epidemic not taking a strong hold in the area, which is a key reason why the sauna culture is nowadays largely perceived as Finnish. In addition, unlike many other, more densely populated places in Europe, the availability of wood needed to build and warm the sauna has never been an issue in Finland. Another reason the sauna culture has always flourished in Finland has been because of the versatility of the sauna. When people were moving, the first thing they did was to build a sauna.

The sauna remained an essentially rural institution, although the nineteenth century witnessed the appearence of saunas in the town and cities. It increasingly became glorified in national romantic terms in the course of the nineteenth century as a Finnish social and even spiritual institution of great antiquity, one which seemed to embody the true essence of the Finnish people whilst serving a multiplicity of purposes. Saunas were used for bathing, for revitalizing the body, for convalescence in times of illness, childbirth and even for bleeding by leeches. The sick and the dying, moreover, often lay on their death beds there. Women gave birth in them because the walls of traditional smoke saunas were lined with naturally bacteria-resistant soot, making them the cleanest room in the house.

In nineteenth Finnish century literature, not least in the epic poem Kalevala, based upon ancient Finnic folk tales assembled by the Finnish-Swede Elias Lönnrot (1802-1844), published in 1835, the sauna is frequently referred to in a purifying sense. In Seven brothers, the first novel written in Finnish bý Aleksis Kivi (1734-1872), the ”father of Finnish literature”, it even becomes the focus of events unfolded; a place of refuge, intimacy, purification, meditation, revitalization and regeneration. There men are cleansed spiritually as well as physically. When disaster strikes and the sauna through misadventure is burnt to the ground, it becomes a symbol of metaphysical and temporal ruin. The prospect of its reconstruction, on the other hand, becomes a guiding star of hope and reintegration into a civilized society.

In 1916 Ivar Hörhammar for a brief period became a partner of Gösta Stenmans konstsalong, the leading Artgallery in Helsinki. The following year he opened Galerie Hörhammar. When Stenman moved his gallery to Stockholm in the late 1920s, Hörhammer became the premier artgallery in Helsinki.

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