In contemporary Australia, particularly in Brisbane, the main subject for large bronze statues is generally sporting heroes. Going back a generation, public statues were generally major military figures, war heroes, and usually associated with Remembrance sites. Rarely do we celebrate a politician with bronze statements about their careers…the modern press has told us about too many of their faults. Other celebrities rarely get memorialised in bronze or stone with the exception of Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, whose odd looking statue graces a park near one of the beaches on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.
However when travelling in foreign climes, I like to check out the statues in the main squares, piazzas or parks that I encounter in my wandering. It is a good entry point for understanding the local heroes and gives some insight into the dominant culture of these major urban areas. They are generally statues established by a bygone generation, often pre-dating the twentieth century, celebrating significant military victories or popular, perhaps long-lived monarchs. For example, in Helsinki, Finland, the central square that fronts both the Senate Building and the Helsinki Cathedral, contains a complex memorial to Alexander II.
In general, history remembers Alexander II (1818-1881) for his role as the Tsar of Russia until March 1881 when a group calling themselves Narodnaya Voya (‘People’s Will’) blew him up. He was memorialised in 1894 with this spectacular bronze creation as the ‘Good Tsar’, the Grand Duke of Finland. He was certainly responsible for some major progressive changes for his day; he emancipated the Serfs of Russia, reformed the judiciary and his promotion of self-government in his empire brought local involvement in Finland in their own government. His main impact on the 21st century is that he sold Alaska to the USA in 1867. The statue has been controversial over the years for independently minded Finns but has survived and is a grandly beautiful contribution to the centre of this major square in Helsinki, reminding both locals and tourists of important cultural and historical issues about Finland’s past.
Another significant statue encountered in our rambling of Central Helsinki was the whimsical mermaid and child at the Market Square in Kaartinkaupunki. Gorgeous with no political overtones, celebrating Helsinki’s inextricable link with the sea that laps at their door step. One thing I did learn from this statue was the biology of mermaids; young ‘mer-babies’ are born with two feet ending in fins…they must lose one during adolescence. Also in the market square at the Helsinki waterfront was a much larger and more traditional mermaid fountain and statue entitled the ‘Havis Amanda’ Mermaid. It was slightly more confronting, not by its normal nakedness but by the fact that she had feet rather than fins that would make it difficult to escape the circle of ogling seals that surrounded her on her fish rock.
Two memorials can be found along Theatre Esplanade. The first is to the author, journalist and historian Zacharias Topelius (1818–1898), the man behind the next memorial, which was to his friend Johan Ludvig Runeberg. When the memorial project began in the 1920s, the trend favoured symbolism over exact likenesses. The design competition organised in 1928 by the Society of Swedish Literature was won by the sculptor Gunnar Finne (1886–1952). ‘Fact and Fable’ in all their green nakedness was unveiled in 1932, 34 years after the death of Topelius.
Many of the above sculptures can be found if you wander between the main railway station in Helsinki and down to the sea front via Keskuskatu street. You will encounter the wonderful park that starts at the Swedish Theatre and flows down the hill to the Market Square on the seafront. One of the delightful aspects of this walk, which we did a number of times, was the amount of public musicians to be encountered, playing in the piazza’s and the parks. It is even better if you can listen to the music after you have bought a seafood lunch at the markets.
Perhaps the most curious statue we encountered in Helsinki was a mobile statue dubbed by locals as ‘The Bad, Bad Boy’. We spotted him as we left the Port by taxi, peeing into a pond near one of the official port buildings. I am not sure who moves him around but he was seen the previous year, urinating into the harbour down by the Market Square. Perhaps a roaming statue that attempts to shock both the tourists and local social mores speaks to a curious Finnish sense of humour that is not immediately obvious.
Images from stalls in Market Square
The Finns appear to be as blasé about their national animal symbols as Australians are about our Kangaroos. Rudolf the reindeer, who we encourage our children to sing about at Christmas time for his plucky approach to peer group pressure, is held in scant regard in downtown Helsinki. On the one hand he is being skinned for his coat and antlers and then his sorry carcass is being handed over to high end chefs to be slow-cooked for hours before they ‘pull’ the meat and sell it on plastic plates to tourists, served with small genetically modified potatoes. Perhaps I do the Finns an injustice; maybe they only slice, dice and ‘pull’ Moose carcasses…the older, uglier member of the Deer family.