The Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, is currently undergoing a two-year renovation. For the duration of the work the president has moved out together with his staff and all representation takes place in temporary offices elsewhere. This long period of closure opened up opportunities to let conservationists work on its collections, and to display it to the public.
Said and done, Ateneum (The Finnish National Gallery) opened this exhibition back in April. I had a chance to visit it during my recent summer stay in Finland. Earlier on members of the public could even watch the conservation department work on some of the pieces in the museum, but that was likely on summer break or done with by the time I had a chance to go…
“Treasures of the Palace” starts with a bang on the second floor. As you enter the main hall of the exhibition you are met with the gigantic painting ”Alexander II opens the Diet in 1863 at the Imperial Palace” by Robert Wilhelm Ekman. The huge painting, on loan from the House of Nobility in Helsinki, shows the opening of the Diet of the Estates on 18 September 1863 and those interested in the personalities of the day can borrow an identification map to learn the names of many of the figures appearing in front of the tsar. The painting clearly shows a Finnish lion coat of arms behind a chandelier above the tsar’s podium, perhaps one sign of Alexander II:s benevolent attitude towards his Finnish country and one of the reasons why he is still today held in such good esteem by many.
The exhibition shows art, sculptures, furniture, clocks, chandeliers, tableware and an Iconostasis. Weaved into these categories is also the story of the palace and its varying use through the centuries, told through sketches, drawings, photos and texts.
The Presidential Palace’s art comes from two collections; the Imperial Collection and Ateneum’s deposited collection. The Imperial Collection consists of art bought during the era of the Grand Duchy of Finland, mainly from the second half of the 19th century, and consists of some (nationalistic) pieces that show the defence of Russian soil as well as many landscape depictions. Most of this collection stems from Alexander II:s time and almost all pieces are by Finnish artists. The Ateneum collection at the palace started after Finland’s independence and has shifted through the years.
One of the paintings from the Imperial Collection is “Anchorage in Copenhagen III, 1890” by Albert Edelfelt. It was commissioned by Alexander III in 1889 and shows the home town of his wife, Danish-born Empress Maria Feodorovna. Edelfelt painted three versions of this motif, encouraged to work on the colours which the empress first found “too bland”, and one of them was purchased for her personal collection.
The extensive collection of tableware shown is topped by two dinner sets; the imperial one bought in Russia in the 1850’s, crowned with the grand ducal coat of arms, and the current presidential state dinner set with the Finnish lion. One can also view some photos of palace life from the tsarist era as well as the later presidential one, and there many photos of the traditional independence day ball through the years as well as a photo of how the state dinner set was used by Queen Elizabeth II at a state visit in 1976.
One room shows the sculptural busts of the presidents of Finland and the painted portraits of the spouses of the president. The first ladies (a term not used in Finland) are normally displayed in the apartment of the empress on the palace’s second floor and thus usually have a very limited exposure.
A portable iconostasis painted on canvas as well as other religious objects from the palace’s former orthodox chapel, a room now used as a library, are exhibited in their own room. It was acquired for palace in 1834 and was transferred to Ateneum’s collections in 1919.
Accompanying the exhibition is an audio guide in which the current living presidents and their spouses have selected their favourite piece of art from the collection and tells the visitors about it (the non-Finnish versions are narrated by others).
“Treasures of the Palace” is on until 1 September 2013.