Finland at the Exposition Universelle of 1900

Today, the 12th of November in 1900, was the last day when l’Exposition universelle de 1900, or as the event was known in English, 1900 Paris Exposition, was open. It had been opened since mid April. I will concentrate here only on the Finnish Pavilion.

This was not the first time when Finland participated in the world fair. The country had been taken part in ten world fairs before this one, starting from London in 1851.

At the time of the 1900 Paris Exposition Finland was still part of Russia, Grand Duchy of Finland. Having a pavilion of own was much more than having just an exhibition. It was an important weapon against the policy of Russification of Finland. Finland wanted to show the national identity of the country through the pavilion. Finland tried to create an impression of Finland as an independent state.

I have been interested in this particularly World Fair since I was young. I guess it has something to do with the fact that I loved (and still love) l’art nouveau style and this world fair happened at the time when this style was a thing, during Belle Époque. My interest has remained. I have on my kitchen wall a large poster (made after a photograph) of the event and one of my treasures in the bookshelves is this Swedish  guide to Paris and the exhibition.

Commissioner of the Finland’s department was engineer Robert Runeberg, the son of Johan Ludvig Runeberg, and the art commissioner was “a local man”, Albert Edelfelt, who was coming from my home town, Porvoo. If I have understood correctly, it was thanks to these two men and their contacts in Russia that Finland could participate in the world fair with an own pavilion.

Below is a bird-eye-view of the exhibition site. Finland’s pavilion was located on the same side of the river than the Eiffel Tower (built for the 1889 world fair), in the area between the tower and the Grand Palais, the vast building on the other side of the Seine. By clicking this you can see a full size image of the lithograph.

Please note that by clicking any of the image, you will see an enlarged version of it in a new window.

Vue panoramique de l’exposition universelle de 1900. Lucien Baylac, 1900. Library of Congress, ppmsca.15645.

Finland’s pavilion was located on Rue des Nations (Street of Nations). As the country belonged to those “less important nations”, Finland’s pavilion was located in the second row from the Seine, while the more important, independent countries had their pavilions by the river. So, Finland’s pavilion was on Quai d’Orsay between the pavilions of Bulgaria and Luxemburg.

There are lots of great maps of the site to be found on internet, but I chose this one below as it’s very clear. The site of Finland’s pavilion can be found almost in the middle of the map:

A map by John Bartholomew & Son (1900). Plan of the Exhibition Buildings : meeting places of Paris International Assembly. Stanford Libraries.  Source.

Here is another map showing more clearly that part of the area:

Une des illustrations du Guide remboursable de l’Expo 1900, publié par le journal Le Matin. Source

A competition had been organized for the pavilion. There were 18 entries, and the winner was a design called Isidar by the architect office Gesellius, Lindgren, Saarinen. It represented national romanticism, a sort of equivalent to l’art nouveau in France, Jugend in Germany or Modern Style in Britain. It also had links to Finnish church building tradition, for example the roof was made of shingles that were used a lot in the roofs of old churches. The main architect was Eliel Saarinen.

The finished version differed, however, from the original design. It was made simpler and the iron frame was changed for a wooden one. The walls were made of plastered coccolith plates. Also the tower was simplified and the planned stairs were removed totally from the final plan, so there was no access to the tower at all. The pavilion was built by joiners from Pietarsaari.

Exposition Universelle de 1900. – Le Pavillon de la Finlande (1900). Finnish Heritage Agency. Historical Picture Collection. Source. CC BY 4.0.

The moving pavement passed the pavilion very close. The stairs to the pavement can clearly be seen on the left hand side of the picture above. So, even though the pavilion was located “on the second row”, the closeness of the moving pavement helped people to find the pavilion.

Also decoration was simplified. Particularly painter Axel Gallén (later known as Akseli Gallén-Kallela) asked the team to remove some of the decorative elements. Sculptor Emil Wikström was responsible for the decorative motifs of the building like the bears that you can see around the base of the tower and other flora and fauna motifs that were characteristic in the national romantic style. Finland’s 400 square meter pavilion was one of the few that were finished by the opening of the world fair.

Entrance of the Finnish pavilion at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Lahti Historical Museum. Reprography by Tiina Rekola. Source. CC BY-ND 4.0.

Even though Finland wanted to give an impression of a country that was independent from Russia, in the entrance of the  pavilion it said, however, SECTION RUSSE PAVILLON FINLANDAIS SECTION RUSSE after the demands of Russians. But in many published photographs and postcards part of the text was retouched showing only “Pavillon Finlandaise”. The Russian double-headed eagle (that Axel Gallén called a crow) on the tower was retouched away in many photographs.

Kalevala was (and is, I guess) a part of Finland’s identity, so a theme taken from Kalevala was quite an obvious choice. It appeared in a shape of frescos by Axel Gallén. The symbolism in the frescos was referring to the country’s political situation. (Gallén presented more Kalevala themed paintings in the Grand Palais.) In the pavilion there were also wooden reliefs by Eemil Halonen and fourteen panel paintings from several artists representing Finnish livelihoods, history, education and characteristic feature of the geography. Among them there were two images which themes were of my hometown, Porvoo, and one panel was about an icebreaker Sampo. The artists were Finland’s frontline painters Albert Edelfelt, Magnus Enckell, Juho Rissanen, Pekka Halonen, Venny Soldan-Brofeldt, Väinö Blomstedt and Albert Gebhard. The works were full of symbolism against the Russification and that was also noticed by the press. All the artists, who painted the panels, had also real “works of art” in the Grand Palais. The panels were regarded just as decoration.

Finland’s pavilion under construction. On the ceiling you can see one of the frescos by Axel Gallén, Ilmarinen ploughing the field of snakes. In the middle there is the showcase for Bjurböle meteorite. Finnish Heritage Agency. Historical Picture Collection. Source. CC BY 4.0.

The central exhibit piece was the famous and internationally known Bjurböle meteorite. The meteorite landed into a lake in a village of Bjurböle, Porvoo, on 12 March 1899. (I remember it from my teenage years, as a part of it was on display in Porvoo Museum. It still belongs to the exhibits that are on display, I guess, but it’s not in the same place anymore, in the staircase. It’s odd to visit the museum and see no sign of the meteorite in the spot where it used to be.) Anyway, in Paris, there was not a genuine meteorite but a copy made of plaster. But that was not told to the visitors. Around the artificial meteorite there were smaller genuine rocks from the real meteorite.

There was another Porvoo-related thing in the pavilion besides the meteorite; so called Iris-room. The furnishings of the room as well as the tiles of the tile stoves and sinks were made by Porvoo based Aktiebolaget Iris – the Iris Co. Ltd.

Iris-room. Finnish Heritage Agency. Historical Picture Collection. Source. CC BY 4.0.

The room was mostly designed by Axel Gallén, whose aim was to create a sort of example for those who were planning their own home. Marja Supinen writes in her book that the result, the Iris-room, was paving a way for the development of so called Finnish Style. Supinen continues that the ethnographic ornaments that were usually linked to the Finnish style, were now left behind. (Supinen, p. 74)

The ceramics were designed by English Alfred William Finch, who was director of the ceramic department of the Iris factory. The textiles were realized by Suomen Käsityön Ystävät (Friends of Finnish Handicraft).

The Iris factory was noticed in international media, but even though the Iris-room (and the pavilion) became one of the best known visual symbols of the national romantic period, it didn’t help the company and its short existence ended in bankrupt in 1902. Participation to the world fair gave, on the other hand, to the Friends of Finnish Handicraft organization a boost. Also so called Finnish style in textile designing got a new interpretation.

The rya rug called ‘Liekki’, designed by Axel Gallén, on the wall of my living room.

The rya (ryijy) rug that was originally designed by Gallén for the Iris-room, may be the most famous of all the Finnish rug designs. It’s called Liekki (‘flame’). The one shown in Paris was bigger than the one on my wall (left), and it was flowing down to the floor as you can see in the picture taken of the Iris-room. Here you can see how the rug looks like.

I made the rug for my parents by stitching. When we were choosing the rug that I would make, Liekki was the only one we all (at least me and my mum, I guess it was all the same for my dad) loved. As I would inherit it anyway, that’s the one I made. And now it’s in my living room. So this shows that the Paris Exposition that took place 120 years ago, created something that lasts.

Here is a fantastic film about the Finland’s pavilion. There are contemporary photos, and film shots and a 3D model of the pavilion that shows how it really looked like. Please click to see the video. It lasts 8,5 minutes and the languages are Finnish and English. I really do recommend you to watch it, if you are interested in this topic.

Below is an explanation for the video. Source.

Systems of Representation research group of the Department of Media has created a virtual reconstruction of the Finnish Pavilion that was part of the Paris World Fair in 1900. The installation, first shown at the Design Museum as part of their Fennofolk exhibition, lets users interactively explore the pavilion both inside and outside. A short film version presenting the work was produced for the Akseli Gallen-Kallela exhibitions at Museé d’Orsay in Paris and Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf.

Finland was exhibiting lots of scientific literature and there was also “a newspaper kiosk” designed by architect Lars Sonck (one of my favourite architects) with Finnish papers and, among others, a book La Finlande au XIXe siècle that told diversely about Finland, to be browsed. The kiosk was regarded as one of the most important sections in the pavilion.

The pavilions of the nations were showrooms that were presenting the cultural special features of the country from upbringing and education to livelihoods, from furnishing and textiles to science etc. There were organizations that were showing their activities from engineering to farming. In the section of the forestry office you could see stuffed animals.

Forest management display in Finland’s pavilion. Finnish Heritage Agency. Historical Picture Collection. Source. CC BY 4.0.

Among the exhibits there were lots of books, and handicrafts made by school children in the upbringing and education section. A department of fishing got lots of attention. It also received the highest recognition, Grand Prix. The exhibition visitors found the departments of fishing and hunting exotic. One magazine published a picture of Finland’s pavilion where you could see people in folk costumes with killed polar bear, and in the background  a person is milking a reindeer and in the bottom of the picture there were a seal hunter and an ice fisher. No wonder Finland was seen as an exotic country! See the picture here.

Finland had 144 different exhibitors of which many were exhibiting in the pavilion, but many in eight other places around the vast exhibition site together with the Russians. Industry was exhibited together with the Russian department. There could be found everything from steam engines to wall papers, from axes to porcelains, from cellulose to carbon black. But still most of Finland’s industrial companies were not interested in taking part of the Paris world fair.

The art was exhibited in Grand Palais. There were famous Finnish sculptors like Robert Stigell, Emil Wikström and Ville Vallgren (once again a Porvoo born artist) as well as all the artists whose work was also seen in one form or another in the pavilion.

Standing (l) Axel Gallén and Emil Wikström, sitting Albert Edelfelt and Albert Gebhard were captured by a street photographer in Paris. Finnish Heritage Agency. Historical Picture Collection. Source. CC BY 4.0.

Finland’s pavilion and eleven bodies (of which one was a person, Ville Vallgren) were rewarded with Grand Prix, although the Grand Prix of the pavilion was given to Russians according to the rules. Lots of medals were received, too. For example Axel Gallén, Eero Järnefelt and Robert Stigell were rewarded with gold medals. Albert Edelfelt received the medal of Commander of the Legion of Honour.

Finnish music was representing with two concerts. Conductor was Robert Kajanus and soloist soprano Aino Ackté, who was at the time signed in the Paris Opera.

Albert Edelfelt was hoping that the pavilion would be preserved but that didn’t happen. It was dismantled in the beginning of 1901 after the movables were rescued and taken back to Finland or sold. But something couldn’t be saved: the French press was surprised that the Axel Gallén’s frescos were destroyed. Later they were re-painted (one image was replaced with a new one) on the ceiling of the National Museum of Finland where they still can be admired. The bears were destroyed, too, but they reappeared in granite in the railway station of Vyborg that was designed by Eliel Saarinen. Unlike the fresco’s, the bears are not existing anymore: the railway station was destroyed in the war in 1941.

Finland’s pavilion was a Gesamtkunswerk of the country’s top architects and artists that wanted to show the country as a solid, educated and creative organism that lives in a harmony with a nature, as it was put in Kerstin Smeds’s book Helsingfors – Paris. And it had its place on a map, on a world map. And thus maps etc. have had their place in the world fairs.

All in all Finnish pavilion was well received and got wide coverage in the press. Country’s bad situation under the Russification policy was noted, too.

Text © Katriina Etholén

Fredrikson, Erkki. Le Pavillon Finlandais à l’Exposition univeselle de 1900. Publication du Musée de Finlande central, 2001. (Finnish-French exhibition publication, main source for the article.)
Smeds, Kerstin. Helsingfors – Paris. Finland på världsutställningarna 1851 – 1900. Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland/Finska Historiska Samfundet, 1996.
Supinen, Marja. A. B. Iris. Suuri yritys. Kustannusosakeyhtiö Taide, 1993.

2 thoughts on “Finland at the Exposition Universelle of 1900

Add yours

  1. Dear Katriina

    Thank you for the article on the Paris exhibition of 1900. I was a little surprised that Finland had a whole pavilion all to itself. Finland was part of Russia at time time – I had expected that there would be just one pavilion to cover the whole of Russia?


    Very best wishes


    Liked by 1 person

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