The Kalevala in modern art

The Kalevala interests modern Finns today not only because of its symbolic value, but also because of its content. The epic itself, like folk poetry and folk music, is the focus of intense, ongoing study and interpretation.

The 150th anniversary of the Old Kalevala in 1985 began a new Kalevala renaissance in the Finnish art world. The Kalevala has been "taken down from the shelf and dusted off" for re-use.

When modern artists utilize the Kalevala, they are not merely re-telling or re-illustrating the Kalevala's stories, rather, they wish to address, through the mystical world of the Kalevala, the eternal questions facing humanity: life, death, love, and survival.

The Kalevala thus lives on in Finnish culture. From a perspective of nearly 200 years what is significant is that each generation has interpreted the Kalevala from its own standpoint, using what went before and creating new things. The Kalevala has not gathered dust on a pedestal but has been present in both celebration and everyday life.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela was not the first person to portray Väinämöinen's striving for the impossible in the Kalevala, although his Aino triptych is the best known example of this theme.

Even earlier, in 1864, R.W. Ekman had depicted the elderly Väinämöinen reaching toward a young woman who was mysterious and unattainable.

The women's magazine Me Naiset has made use of this theme which is part of our national consciousness in its advertising campaign emphasizing woman-power. In his Canine Kalevala, Mauri Kunnas has similarly overturned traditional roles.

In the 1990s, the Kalevala has inspired, among others, photographer Vertti Teräsvuori, who stretched traditional boundaries of Kalevala interpretation with his multimedia exhibition Pre Kalevala. This exhibition consists of photographs, film footage, jewelry, objects, clothing, etc. It is a depiction of a world in which the power of the magical word still influences everyday life.

In 1997, after an interval of roughly a decade, the theatre once again took up the theme of the Kalevala, this time using new ideas. For example in the Kalevala as performed by the Finnish National Theatre, a picture was created of Väinämöinen which was more comic than heroic. In this performance, commonalities were sought between present-day Finland and the ancient era described by the Kalevala.

In Finnish music with Kalevalaic themes, the tragic tale of Kullervo has inspired a number of composers, beginning with Sibelius. On Kalevala Day (February 28) 1992, the opera Kullervo by composer Aulis Sallinen made its debut in Los Angeles. In Finland the opera's opening night was in November of 1993.

Aulis Sallinen tells why he selected the theme of Kullervo for interpretation: "This story would hardly deserve to be told if not for one song which stands above the rest. This is theme of Kullervo's mother…Within the figure of a human monster, an wretched man, his mother perceives a small boy, lost ages ago, with shining boyish hair of linen-gold. Having finished this work I am still of the same opinion. That is exactly what he became."

In addition to the Kalevala's Aino and Kullervo, the Sampo is another theme which has guided artists to the themes of the Kalevala. In music, artists have striven to express the mystery of the Sampo in a more spectacular manner. Of the modern Finnish composers, Einojuhani Rautavaara defines the attainment, theft, and destruction of the Sampo during its theft as the key to the Sampo's mystery. It must be lost in order for it to be an object of longing. In Rautavaara's work the tales of the Kalevala are distanced from realism and its events approach legendary status.

The Kalevala and its tales open up possibilities for endless interpretation. Perhaps it is this which explains the longevity and vitality of the Kalevala, which even in today's world show no signs of diminishing.