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Skyscrapers to beauty queens: Helsinki Art Museum hails Finland's first half-century

A lavish exhibition that opened at the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) in the 1938-built Tennis Palace on Friday celebrates the designs and lifestyles of the first decades of Finnish independence, from 1917 to 1968.

Modernia elämää! -näyttely HAM Helsingin taidemuseossa
Modern Life! – Finnish Modernism and Internationalism at Helsinki Art Museum. Image: Wif Stenger / Yle

Modern once meant the newest of the new. Now it seems charmingly quaint, in a world where even the 'post-modern' trend of the late twentieth century seems dated.

A lavish exhibition that opened at the Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) in the 1938 Tennis Palace on Friday celebrates the designs and lifestyles of the first decades of Finnish independence, 1917-1968.

Modernia elämää! -näyttely HAM Helsingin taidemuseossa
The show offers a myriad of visual sensations. Image: Wif Stenger / Yle

The 300 items include newly-uncovered gems and classic works in a new light. These include the first-ever 3D-printed model of Eliel Saarinen's award-winning 1922 design for the Chicago Tribune skyscraper, which he designed without ever having seen an actual skyscraper.

Others are likely to provoke nostalgia or chuckles, such as vintage advertisements showing women posing with home appliances – particularly one featuring a young woman in traditional national dress inexplicably using a vacuum cleaner outside the then-new Olympic Stadium.

Entitled Modern Life! – Finnish Modernism and Internationalism, the show runs through the end of July. It offers residents and visitors alike a colourful, easily-accessible overview of Finland's rapid transformation from a rural to industrial society within just a few decades. This first half-century of independence was marked by optimism and shaping of an international image, but also political tensions and three bitter wars followed by painful periods of shortages and reconstruction.

Modernia elämää! -näyttely HAM Helsingin taidemuseossa
Dresses by Vuokko Nurmesniemi in Modern Life! – Finnish Modernism and Internationalism at Helsinki Art Museum. Image: Wif Stenger / Yle

Greatest hits of the golden era

"The Tennis Palace is a matchless venue for the show, an eminently modernist building celebrating its 80th anniversary in 2017. The exhibition is a tribute to the internationality, fearlessness and curiosity of Finnish modernists," says HAM director Maija Tanninen-Mattila.

The sprawling show repackages the greatest hits of the golden era of Finnish Design as well as other arts and culture more broadly.

All the iconic figures and brands are here from Artek to Marimekko, runner Paavo Nurmi to President Urho Kekkonen and Miss Universe Armi Kuusela – as well as architects Alvar Aalto and Eliel Saarinen, sculptors Eila Hiltunen and Laila Pullinen, textile designers Vuokko Nurmesniemi and Armi Ratia, and houseware designers Kaj Franck, Timo Sarpaneva and Tapio Wirkkala.

Modernia elämää! -näyttely HAM Helsingin taidemuseossa
Putting the finishing touches on the show on Thursday. Image: Wif Stenger / Yle

Revolving furniture and vintage TV shows

Behind the scenes, the exhibition represents unprecedented teamwork.

"Modern Life! is a unique collaboration," says Tanninen-Mattila. "Five Finnish museums have pooled their resources to present the public with treasures of Finnish modernism." The result is a comprehensive salute to Finland’s 100th anniversary, which is part of the official programme for the centenary year.

Lending material and expertise to the project were the Alvar Aalto Museum, the Museum of Finnish Architecture, the Design Museum and the Finnish Museum of Photography. The exhibition architecture – including revolving platforms for Artek furniture and TV screens showing vintage programmes – is the handiwork of Dutch designer Marcel Schmalgemeijer. A hefty companion book is available in English.

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