In honour of the anniversary of the New Kalevala, the Kalevala Society and the Finnish Literature Society, in association with the Akseli Gallen-Kallela Museum, have put together a documentary exhibition entitled “The Kalevala – the National Epic of Finland”.

Elias Lönnrot, who compiled the Kalevala on the basis of oral-traditional folk poetry, wrote in his Preface to the first edition of the Kalevala that from the enormous number of poems he had collected he could have assembled seven Kalevalas, all of them different. When the committee in charge of the Kalevala exhibition were ready to assemble the displays, they found they had gathered enough material for seven different exhibitions.

The exhibition is intended for a wide audience, and its organisers had two specific ideas in mind when putting it together. First, the question: what are the various forms taken by the Kalevala, a national epic already 164 years old, in today’s Finnish culture? Second, the committee wanted to present the Kalevala in accordance with the general theme of the anniversary year, “The Kalevala Worldwide”, not only as a Finnish national epic, but also as member of the family of world epics, as influencing and influenced by other pinnacles of world literature.

The exhibition begins with the position of Finland on the map of Europe during the period of the Kalevala’s compilation. Through the story of Elias Lönnrot’s life, we learn about the cultural circumstances which prevailed in Finland during the first decades of the 19th century. Lönnrot’s poetry collecting trips to Karelia and the works preceding the Kalevala are also on display in the exhibition. The storyline of the Kalevala is summarised on two panels, illustrated by Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s powerful Kalevalaic works of art. These are the masterpieces which still shape the way in which the Kalevala’s events and characters are visualised both within Finland and abroad.

The other half of the exhibition is devoted to the Kalevala’s influence on Finnish and world culture since its appearance in 1849. Karelianism and the Golden Age of Finnish Art at the turn of the century are presented through the works of their most important artists, architects, musicians, poets and writers. The various editions of the Kalevala: illustrated versions, abridgements, Kalevalas for children and young people, as well as Kalevala role-playing games and tarot cards are presented together on one panel. Another interesting panel situates the Kalevala on the world map amidst dozens of other epics, as part of the family of world-class epic literature. The many translations of the Kalevala, in a total of 47 different languages, are also on display in the exhibition.

The last part of the exhibition is devoted to the Kalevala in modern Finnish culture. Names taken from the Kalevala and used, for example, for firms and businesses, technological innovations and products of industrial art are so taken for granted in everyday Finnish life that they are often difficult to spot. Every now and then one hears it stated that the Kalevala no longer speaks to today’s Finnish artists. In the course of putting together this exhibition, we found this statement to be simply untrue. The size limitations of the exhibition, however, prevented us from displaying all but a few examples of works from different genres of the arts which have been inspired by the Kalevala.

Ten identical versions of the exhibition were put together: one is currently touring Finland, the rest will be on display in numerous countries around the world. The exhibition texts and brochures appear in thirteen languages besides Finnish. These are: Dutch, English, Estonian, French, German, Hungarian, Japanese, Lithuanian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish.

The exhibition “The Kalevala – the National Epic of Finland” is literally circling the entire globe. This has been made possible by cooperation with the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and representative agencies of Finland abroad. The exhibition brochures in the afore-mentioned languages will appear in the informational brochure Finfo put out by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The illustrated English text can also be viewed at the website

Further information concerning the Kalevala and the 150th anniversary exhibition can be obtained from the website

Anneli Asplund & Sirkka-Liisa Mettomäki
Finnish Literature Society

(FFN 17, June 1999: 8)

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This