Early academic women inspire a new work of art commissioned by the University of Helsinki

Up to now, few women had been depicted in the works of art on display at the University of Helsinki. A remedy to this state of affairs has been found, with the University commissioning from the contemporary Norwegian artist Anne-Karin Furunes a work of art on the first women to have an impact at the University.

The works of Anne-Karin Furunes who has shown her work at Galerie Anhava in Helsinki, are internationally renowned. Her technique is exceptional: she relies on a perforation technique where she perforates a black canvas by hand and in which light brings out a new work. The result is a portrait resembling a photograph, constructed in the viewer's mind. The piece will be displayed in the foyer of the Great Hall on the Unioninkatu side of the Main Building as of 28 March.

Artist Anne-Karin Furunes is pleased with the commissioned work.

“It’s a great honour to have the opportunity to collaborate with the University of Helsinki. It’s also wonderful that specifically these women got to be the subjects of the work. Archives contain a lot of information on them, but now the general public and the University community also have the chance to see what the women involved in the masculine university world of the past were like.” 

Furunes’s work of art portrays Tekla Hultin, Emma Irene Åström and Karolina Eskelin

“Eskelin is Finland’s first female holder of a doctoral degree. She defended her doctoral thesis in medicine in 1896. She was also a sexual minority,” Curator Päivi Rainio says. “Eskelin had an impressive career as a doctor. She loved sports cars and even drove one herself.” 

As for Tekla Hultin, she was the second female doctoral graduate in Finland, with history as her field. She defended her doctoral thesis a little after Eskelin, establishing a career as a feminist and politician. Emma Irene Åström was the first woman in Finland to receive a master’s degree, in 1882. Her field was philosophy. At the time, all women had to apply for special dispensation on account of their gender just to obtain the right to study.

Women and their status at the University displayed in the artwork 

According to Vice-Rector Hanna Snellman, Furunes’s work brilliantly highlights women and their status at the University. Fittingly, the viewer has to put a little effort into distinguishing the women in the artwork. Such was also the burden of women in history: they had to struggle to embark on and pursue an academic career.

According to Snellman, the artworks displayed in the Teachers’ Lounge in the Main Building in particular have raised questions, as only men gaze from the portraits on the walls and in the form of statues at its occupants. There is a reason for this: the aim has been to choose the ‘founding fathers’ of the University for the room, and that is precisely who they were, men. Women gained access to academia so much later that their time of holding positions in the University’s leadership has not been long. Even the first female professors were not seen before the 20th century.

A favourable location for Furunes's work has been found in the foyer that is often used for conferment ceremonies and other major events, where members of the University can easily take a break in the middle of their everyday routine. Students too get to be in the limelight in the artwork – after all, historically women also gained their right to study much later than men.

“The work is a symbol of inclusivity and community, the cornerstones of our strategic plan,” Snellman says, pleased.