Kirpilä Art Collection

Doctor Juhani Kirpilä (1931–1988) was a respected rheumatologist, world traveller, writer, gourmand, and passionate art lover. Afflicted by several ails, he knew more or less how much time he had left, so he did something pretty gallant: he gave to a foundation his art collection, ample apartment in the ever-classy Töölö neighborhood, and a big chunk of money and investments, stipulating that the place become a free art museum and cultural space. Today, the Finnish Cultural Foundation administers and expands on his legacy by offering access to the Collection, acquiring new artworks and supporting artists, and organizing exhibitions and cultural events.

This magnificent, idiosyncratic labor of love not only highlights more than a hundred years of Finnish painting and sculpture, it also offers a fascinating glimpse into a unique man’s character and aesthetic sensibilities. The walls of the chic residence are altars consecrated to household giants such as Pekka Halonen, Einar Ilmoni, Åke Mattas, Magnus Enckell, Albert Edelfelt, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Eero Järnefelt, Helene Schjerfbeck, Hugo Simberg, and Magnus Von Wright to name a few, yet other minor and even unknown artists that struck the Doctor’s fancy are allowed a space to have their say.

A couple of weeks before the outbreak of the Covid19 pandemic I had the pleasure of meeting Karl (Kalle) Rosenqvist, Juhani’s former partner. Here are some of his recollections about the man behind this outstanding bequest.

Hello, Kalle. I’d like to ask you some questions.

Ask all you want, it’s quite okay. I don’t know if I will answer all of them.

It would be interesting to hear, from your perspective, how the Kirpilä Art Collection came to be.

When Jussi (nickname of Juhani) died in ’88, he bequeathed his home and all his artworks to the Finnish Cultural Foundation, with the requirement that it should function as an art museum. Then all the works were taken away from here and everything that was not in good shape was fixed and mended. In 1990 it all came back and we had our first opening. After that the Foundation created the rules of how everything should be: this works, this doesn’t, this is ok and this is not. That’s how it started.

Do you have a formal role in all this?

I sit in the Board of Trustees as the only permanent member, and I sometimes… interpret what Jussi’s words meant, from his guidelines.

Do you come here often, yourself?

There’s no reason for me to come too often. I rely on the people from the Foundation for almost everything (almost). Everything is in place, doesn’t change much. Paintings are rotated from time to time, but that’s normal. I may come to see new exhibitions.

I’d like to know about you before you met him. What were you doing?

Good question. What was I doing? I was studying Economics. Then I went to Germany, then I came back and was studying again. Then I went to Germany again, and then I came back. And then I realized I was getting old so I better do something with my life. I went to work in an office, until one day I got mad at my job and quit. I became manager of an antique shop that didn’t do too bad.

Were you interested in art?

My family has always been interested in art. Art and antiques.

How did Juhani and you meet?

We met in ’65, at some gathering, a party. I was not particularly keen on anything. I was still living with my parents in Turku. And then Jussi came to Turku and… it was quite nice. And we moved in together.

What was the situation for gay people in Finland?

At that time it was officially illegal to be gay (it was finally decriminalized in ’71). But I honestly don’t think anyone cared anymore. And if anybody had been inclined to make trouble, I think Jussi would have been very good at dealing with it. He had very good connections.

This amazing collection is the fruit of his curation. But how much were you involved in the process? Did you ever say “Jussi, I think you should definitely consider such and such”?

I could have, but I knew he wouldn’t have cared. He had his own tastes and wanted to choose his own art pieces—we even visited different galleries. Rarely he would ask for my opinion, and even if he did, he didn’t mean to listen. So this is his collection, and it’s fine the way it is.

When we were living in Neitsytpolku we had 250 square meters and only 200 paintings. After we moved here in 1980, in the eight years Jussi lived here his collection grew up to more than 500 pieces. He was in a big hurry, because he knew he didn’t have much time left. And this apartment’s big, good walls were convenient for what he wanted to do.

How was it for you, living through that looming countdown?

Oh, it was a thing we had discussed many times. Like the doctor Jussi was, it was quite normal for him to do his own pragmatic calculations. So everything was already legally done; this was going to be a museum, the money would go to the Foundation. I had my own flat. There was nothing really ugly. People die, and you go on.

Did you ever get another partner?

No. Once is enough.

Do you miss him?

Of course you miss people you have been with for such a long time.

What was he like?

He was a nice person, always smiling. He would seldom get angry. He was also a bit… grandiose. For example, he had already planned in detail how his funeral should be, way before the time came. The ceremony, which took place at the Temppeliaukio Church, consisted of lots of horrid people and a big orchestra playing the type of music intended for heads of state, dignitaries and such. I suppose Jussi enjoyed it.

Obviously he had a sense of humor.

Better than mine.

I understand he was a gourmand?

Yes, he liked to eat. And he also suffered from all kinds of illnesses. He shouldn’t have been eating as much as he did, but he loved crayfish, and this and that, and gin-tonic… But he had decided he wouldn’t stop enjoying it, because he knew it wouldn’t have helped anyway.

Do you want to walk around the house? Maybe I’ll remember some other stories I could tell you.

Sure, let’s go.

(we stand at the salon)
Jussi wanted the salon to be arranged in a specific, majestic way, because that’s where he liked to receive his friends, relatives, and guests. He enjoyed very much to stand here, surrounded by his impressive collection of old, precious paintings in their gold frames. With so many works from different artists and periods, the other rooms are left for the curators to play around and create themes; it’s not written in stone how they should be arranged. But the salon looks almost as it did when Jussi lived here.

(Kalle looks at Maria Wiik’s “Thistles”, 1898)
This is the first painting Jussi got with his own money. He got paid his salary and bought it right away.

(pointing at one of Juhani’s busts)
That’s Jussi’s head. (whispers) But it’s not very good, in my opinion.

(Kalle looks at Hugo Simberg’s “Devil on a Swing”, 1907)
This Simberg is of course very well known.

Maria Wiik's "Thistles" (1898) and Hugo Simberg's "Devil on a Swing" (1907)

(at Juhani’s studio)

Did he actually sit here at the desk?

Yes. He used to write his column for Kauneus & Terveys here.

(looking at a portrait of Jussi by Lasse Marttinen, 1962)
Jussi looks like Farouk of Egypt there.

(looking at Ilmari Nylund’s “In the Tavern (Rhodes)”, 1971)
This painting was very dear to him. It’s by Nylund, but it feels so typically Greek, sitting in the shade at noon, having something refreshing to drink. Greece was also dear to Jussi.

Portrait of Jussi by Lasse Marttinen (1962) and Ilmari Nylund's "In the Tavern (Rhodes)" (1971)

He liked to travel as well.

Well, you know how slow Finland can feel sometimes. We would go abroad to feel more… speed, so to speak.

(looking at Teemu Luoto’s “Gorilla”, 1976)
We were at Luoto’s exhibition in ’76, and when the artist saw Jussi he pointed to his statue of a gorilla and said to him “this is you!” So Jussi bought the statue right away! It’s so cuddly and touchable that the guides here had to tell people to please, don’t touch it because it’s an artwork—look at how shiny the top is, from all the hands petting it. Then one day the artist heard about it and said “it’s okay, let them touch it”.

(in front of Magnus Enckell’s “Young Male Nude”, 1920-)
One day Enckell’s son, who was a doctor also, came to visit and said “ah, that’s my father’s chauffeur! We didn’t always have a car, but we always had a chauffeur…” We’ve been told that the cloth that now covers his loins was added later by another painter, at the suggestion of some old spinster.

Juhani with Teemu Luoto's "Gorilla" (1976) and Magnus Enckell's "Young Male Nude" (1920-)

Do you have a favorite artwork from the collection?

It’s not easy to pick one, there are so many good ones (and a lot of bad ones too, but that’s another story). From his parents he inherited several foreign paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries. You know, horrible things. He sold most of them very quickly but held on to a few good ones, like Halonen’s.

Most of the works here are by one artist, and then there are collections by Halonen, Ilmoni, Mattas, Enckell… So many paintings! You have to come here many times to appreciate all the many different styles. And study a bit of Finnish history to appreciate the context of many of them.

(at Kain Tapper’s sketch of “Eternal Flower”)
This is a study by Kain Tapper for the sculpture that sits by Jussi’s grave at Hietaniemi’s cemetery (his parents and grandparents are also there). It’s called “eternal flower” because Jussi wanted to make it easier for the living to visit his grave: no need to bring fresh flowers, because there’s always one there.

(at Eero Järnefelt’s “Läskelä Mill”, 1922)
This is the first piece Jussi bought together with his father. Jussi’s parents were married in Viipuri (Vyborg), so they were fond of Karelia. There was a beautiful orthodox church there, but it burnt down like a year ago.

Eero Järnefelt's "Läskelä Mill" (1922)

(looking through the window at the park six stories below)
The best time to come here is at the turn of May, because the horse-chestnut trees are in blossom. It’s like a carpet, first pure white, and then pink. The first spring we spent here, when they first bloomed, Jussi gave his first party, which lasted two days. The first day was for dull people, and the second day for friends. It was a big party, with like a hundred people, because Jussi liked this new apartment and wanted people to enjoy it. We had a spring party every year after that; good food, good drinks, good company…

Twenty years living in Helsinki and I’d never heard of the Kirpilä Art Collection before.

Initially it was not advertised too much. At first we had more opening hours, but we had to reduce them because this is, after all, a private house. It’s not fair to the neighbors to have a constant crowd in the building.

Do you think some day all this will be a museum somewhere else?

This is very much place-oriented, so no, I don’t think so. And his will is written in a way that indicates the art collection should always be here.

Is there ever danger of running out of space?

There’s enough space here. And they regularly rotate the collection; half of it is here, and the rest is stored away.

Something great that happened to this project was that Jussi’s investments (intended for financing and maintaining this place) were not doing well at the time he died. But within one or two years everything recovered and went up, ensuring the continuation of his legacy.

Anything else to add?

I hope this article creates interest for new visitors, and also younger people. Now the home will be closed for a while for some repairs, and then reopen with a new exhibition. There will be a dance performance on the living room.

Outstanding art on the walls, and interesting events and activities.

There’s live music and dance, guided tours, contemporary art exhibitions… That was what Juhani wanted, a mixture of home and museum. He wrote in his will, in 1976, that it should be “an art center that follows its time”. Things were very different when he wrote that, he couldn’t have foreseen everything that came after. So the Foundation tries, as best as possible, to follow the times of art.

Just like any other museum at this moment of lockdown, The Art Collection is closed. While we patiently wait, don’t forget to visit their website for a lot more information on the history of the man, the artworks, and the interesting events that take place there.

Many thanks to:

Johanna Ruohonen
Senior Advisor, Museum Director, Kirpilä Art Collection

Pia Hyttinen
Museum Curator, Kirpilä Art Collection

Suvi Leukumaavaara
Museum Guide, Kirpilä Art Collection


Photographies © The Kirpilä Art Collection Archive
(digitized by Harri Tahvanainen)

Photographies of the artworks © Rauno Träskelin

Photography of the home © Riitta Supperi