“Neo-Rococo and the North” – reviving the Rococo and the Enlightenment eras in Finland

Finnish museums usually work on tiny budgets, but despite this constraint, they often produce wonders. At the Serlachius museum in Mänttä (wwww.serlachius.fi), you can enjoy a pearl of an exhibition until April 26th – and the museum itself is a jewel.

Serlachius Gösta pavilion in Mäntta, the old Serlachius pavilion reflected in the new contemporary building - picture Pedro Pegenaute

Serlachius Gösta pavilion in Mäntta, the old Serlachius pavilion reflected in the new contemporary building – picture Pedro Pegenaute

This exhibition is a must-see for several reasons; many rare pieces from abroad will be on display (from the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the National Gallery in Stockholm, etc.), as well as master pieces on display outside of their home locations for the first time in decades (Carl Larsson, Little Suzanne). Besides, several other art works have been reattributed for this exhibition – Augustin Ehrensvärd’s drawings were initially wrongly attributed to Francois Georgin, and, interestingly, would later influence Edelfelt’s historical work (listen to the soundcard at the end of this post).

View on Carl Larsson's

View on Carl Larsson’s “Little Suzanne” (left) at the Serlachius Gösta pavilion

Finally, the possibility to explore the work of well-known Northern neo-rococo artists from the turn of the 19th century in an unfamiliar light – namely, historical painting – is a further reason to definitely visit this exhibition. Foremost, this exhibition comes at a time when the neo-rococo movement and retrospective reflection upon it are very much in vogue. (Sophia Coppola’s film Marie-Antoinette springs to mind, as well as the current trend to turn towards the philosophers of the Enlightenment, especially to Voltaire, in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks last January). Look into your past to master your future. If ever this mantra could be applied to an exhibition, it would be this one. Art HotSpots (ArtHS) met its commissioner, French art historian, Laura Gutman.

ArtHS: To Finns visiting the exhibition “Neo-Rococo and the North”, it might be surprising to discover that Helen Schjerfbeck or Albert Edelfelt painted historical scenes or works including costumes inspired by the French rococo. What were the circumstances behind it?

Neorococo - Schjerfbeck-Naamiaiskuva

Helene Schjerfbeck “Masquerade Pisture, Rococo Lady” (1887) Ostrobothnian museum, Karl Hedman collection, Vaasa (photo credit Ostrobothnian museum/Erkki Salminen)

Laura Gutman: Although Neo-Rococo has not been studied in any great

Laura Gutman, commissioner of the exhibition

Laura Gutman, commissioner of the exhibition “Neo-Rococo and the North”

detail, there are signs of a renewed interest in the 18th century revival. For example, carte blanche has been given to the famous fashion designer Christian Lacroix at the musée Cognac-Jay in Paris, resulting in signs of “l’air du temps” at the museum.

Applied to Nordic art, Neo-Rococo is a discovery. Albert Edelfelt or Gunnar Berndtson are no surprise, but the names Magnus Enckell, Akseli Gallen-Kallela or Helene Schjerfbeck do not come quite so naturally to mind. Neo-Rococo has been despised by modernity for being kitsch, but in failing to understand the period, a key moment in art history is forgotten. In the 19th century, history painting had always been the paragon of art, but was no longer offering substantial commissions. Painters trained at Ecole des Beaux-Arts created a new genre and market for themselves by painting historical scenes. These scenes were easily understandable, were well painted according to the old standards, and were more valuable than any Impressionist painting of the time. They were also highly appreciated by the new bourgeoisie. With his rather small formats, Ernest Meissonier was the most expensive artist on the market, and there was a niche for a number of followers. The 18th century period conveyed an image of charm and pleasure which always inspires nostalgia.

ArtHS: What specific political dimension is present in the Finnish Neo-Rococo?

Albert Edelfelt

Albert Edelfelt “Bellman playing lute for Gustav III of Sweden and Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt at Haga” (1884), Göstä Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation

Laura Gutman: Up to the late 19th century, the Gustavian period had been neglected, regarded as a military failure. Famous Swedish portraitists, celebrated in France, where they had built up their career, were rediscovered in the wake of Neo-Rococo by French art lovers. With growing Russian pressure on Finland, the earlier relationship with Sweden was remembered by the Finns with more complacency. Neo-Rococo gradually took on a political dimension in Finland, balancing between the remains of a glorious past and the ignorance of the new rulers. Before the Kalevala took up the mantle of forging an independent past, the Gustavian era appeared as a lost paradise.

ArtHS: In the current exhibition there are few contemporary pieces that highlight the continuous return to the rococo era in art. Today’s interest in this historical era is not limited to the rococo and its apparent aspiration to enjoy and experience the pleasures of life, but rather seems to be an active striving to structure ideas (paradigms for a new civilization) as was typical of the Enlightenment. More than an expression of nostalgia for a certain part of European history, isn’t Neo-Rococo a craving for profound insights that blur the boundaries between Rococo and Enlightenment?

Gunnar Berndtson,

Gunnar Berndtson, “Garden Idyll (a girl catching butterflies). Image: Ett hem-museum, Vesa Aaltonen

Laura Gutman: The Enlightenment philosophy actually developed as a

Francois Boucher

Francois Boucher “La Marquise de Pompadour” (1756)

reaction towards Rococo, which was, like the Pompadour style, ridiculous. Liberty was conceived as a reaction towards libertinism. The amalgam was made later by readers of the brothers de Goncourt, who were involved in the whole 18th century revival, including the Directory. A sort of fixed image, influenced by costumes and interior decoration, erased all the nuances of a rather complex intellectual period.

The opening of the exhibition at the Gösta Serlachius Museum came a few days after the Charlie Hebdo events in France. I was amazed whenNeorococo - voltaire_charlie_affiche I realised that Voltaire is referred to repeatedly to counter our contemporary Obscurantism. Ever since the French Revolution, the 18th century has been revisited and instrumentalised to serve different purposes – from nationalism to fashion style.

Neo rococo and the North Serlachius catalogue

Neo rococo and the North Serlachius catalogue

“The Neo-Rococo and the North” can be viewed at the Serlachius museum in Mänttä (wwww.serlachius.fi) until April 26th . Its trilingual velvet cover catalogue (in Finnish, Swedish and English) is  conceived as a real book with numerous comparative illustrations from the rococo and Enlightenment eras, and  can be ordered from the Akateeminen bookshop. www.akateeminen.com.


To learn more about the Neo-Rococo and the North, listen to Laura Gutman, the commissioner of the exhibition, speaking postcards. Click on the soundcards to listen to her comments (in French, text in English).

Author&Concept Developer: Ruxandra Balboa-Pöysti

Text review: Rebecca Capova