The artist brothers Magnus, Wilhelm and Ferdinand von Wright are known as painters of portraits, landscapes, and nature subjects, especially birds, and as creators of scientific illustrations of flora and fauna. New contemporary works by Sanna Kannisto and Jussi Heikkilä complement this colourful major exhibition.
The von Wright Brothers exhibition is part of the programme for the centenary of Finland’s independence.
The exhibition introduces new perspectives, as it explores the historical significance of the von Wright brothers for Finnish art, culture and science. The exhibition features more than 300 works from the Ateneum collection, and from Finnish and Swedish public and private collections. The exhibition, occupying the entire third floor of the museum, features oil paintings, watercolours, prints and sketches. Exhibits also includes birds stuffed by Magnus von Wright, courtesy of the Finnish Museum of Natural History. The chief curator of the exhibition is Anne-Maria Pennonen.
The brothers’ works are accompanied by new art by the photographic artist Sanna Kannisto (born 1974) and the conceptual artist Jussi Heikkilä (born 1952). Kannisto photographs nature subjects as still lifes, as she takes the photography studio out into nature. She sees herself as a kind of a collector, adding species, one after another, to her own collection. In his works, Heikkilä comments on the state of the earth and, above all, on the significance of birds as indicators of the state of the environment and the burden on the seas.
The exhibition coincides with the release of a book, The von Wright Brothers. Art, Science and Life, published by the Ateneum, that presents a wealth of new research on the brothers. The book is edited by the curator Anne-Maria Pennonen and the special researcher Erkki Anttonen, and it is available in Finnish, Swedish and English.
The von Wright brothers grew up in a manor in Haminalahti, Kuopio. The brothers’ interest in nature originated in the hobby of hunting, as practised by their father, Major Henrik Magnus von Wright. Skilled hunters, the brothers began to document the birds they caught.
Through watching and painting birds over a long period of time, the brothers gained a wide knowledge of nature. Their works are characterised by detailed scientific accuracy. At the same time, their art conveys a special love of nature. The works reflect the aesthetic values of their time, the 19th century.
The eldest of the brothers, Magnus von Wright (1805–1868), known especially for his landscape paintings, was an influential cultural figure in Helsinki. He worked as a teacher at the University of Helsinki drawing school and as an expert at the Finnish Art Society, in which capacity he contributed to the establishment of the Ateneum collection. In his paintings of Helsinki, such as View from Katajanokka (1868) and Annankatu on a Cold Winter Morning (1868), he documented the changes taking place in the city.
Wilhelm von Wright (1810–1887) was active especially in Stockholm and on the island of Orust on the west coast of Sweden. He worked as a scientific illustrator for the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Wilhelm assisted his brother Magnus in illustrating the book Svenska foglar, presenting Swedish birdlife: the work contains 182 coloured drawings, illustrating birds with scientific precision. According to today’s ornithologists, the illustrations created by the brothers are still accurate. Wilhelm suffered paralysis, which cut his career shorter than that of the other brothers.
The most famous, and youngest, of the brothers is Ferdinand von Wright (1822–1906). Ferdinand is known especially for his paintings of birds, such as The Fighting Capercaillies (1886) and An Eagle-Owl Seizes a Hare (1860). Ferdinand was one of the first visual artists in Finland to make a living from art. He enjoyed the longest career of the brothers, and later attained the status of an old master and earned respect from young artists.
After being on display at the Ateneum, the exhibition will, in 2018, travel to the Kuopio Art Museum and the Tikanoja Art Museum in Vaasa.