1892 – Sibeilius and the Symposium Circle

While variety shows rocked the walls in Kämp Upstairs, the goings-on in the former café on the ground floor were rather more cerebral, featuring the young artistic and literary intelligentsia. A small but nevertheless artistically significant band of supporters of the "Young Finnish" was embracing the boulevard culture and urban nightlife under the crystal chandeliers.

Around the tables in Kämp there was general discussion of “an artistic spring”, which led in turn to a proclamation for a national programme in the pictorial arts. They came up with the idea of “Finnish Art”, in which the subject material would be consciously extracted from the nation's history, its people, and the unique natural surroundings. The inner circle included the young and talented painter Axel Gallén and his closest friends, such as the composer and conductor Robert Kajanus and the composer Jean Sibelius. 

In addition to the trio of Gallén, Kajanus, and Sibelius, the evening sessions in Kämp were attended by other young artists. The group represented the coming cultural elite of the nation, and the members were very conscious of their position as harbingers of change. The artists themselves began to see their social get-togethers as a Symposium circle, where alcohol kindled earnest discussions on love and beauty. The Symposium circle was at its most active from the fall of 1892 through to 1895. Sibelius himself reflected on the Kämp years:

“Our gatherings were extremely rewarding. It was not necessary to resort excessively to the stimulating gifts of Bacchus, for simply our being together gave meaning and colour to our exchanges. Our imaginations were free to soar, our thoughts to play. The surge and swell of our discussions reached the heights. We contemplated everything between heaven and earth problems ignited and sparked, but always, always in a positive, liberating atmosphere we felt a need to till the soil, to make all aspects and all spheres open to new ideas. The Symposium evenings gave me much, at a time when I would otherwise have been more or less alone."

Countess Eva Mannerheim Sparre has also described the artists' restaurant life. She was a writer herself, and was closely associated with the group through her husband, the painter and designer Count Louis Sparre:

"Kämp was the standard evening meeting-place for the bohemian set and the intelligentsia to congregate... They would be there until the small hours, and sometimes the sessions could spill over and go on for days at a time. Magic and the occult, philosophy, Sär Joséphin Péladan's Rosicrucian Brotherhood, Symbolism, and copious quantities of spirits all gave wings to the imagination. This was a forum for free and unashamed mutual massaging of the ego, and for equally profound and unconstrained contempt for any who dared hold contrary views."

Eva Mannerheim Sparre, Taiteilijaelämää (“An Artist's Life”) (1951)

Another observer, the portrait painter Elin Danielson-Gambogi, joined the company of her male colleagues around the Midsummer holiday in 1892. She wrote of the Kämp experience to a friend, Hilma Westerholm:

"It has been amusing to be together with these breezy young Finnish boys. They positively bubble over with joie de vivre and they are so filled with the very best of hopes that Young Finland will be able to bring forth everything that has thus far been untilled in the service of the nation. Everyone is longing to get into the woods and the wide open spaces to encounter the gravity of life.”

Riitta Konttinen & Ulla Savojärvi: Elin Danielson-Gambogi (1995)

Sibelius later stressed that these evenings were not just about heavy drinking, but that there was a lot of talk about art. Even as an old man in the 1950s, he recalled with much relish the idealism of his youth, when artists did not chatter about money or about paying the rent, but actually about their art. In his view, even the businessmen of the 1890s were knowledgeable about the arts and were perfectly willing to pick up the tab for the evening's entertainment for being able to have converstations with artists about new trends.

A good many of the cadre of Young Finland artists were married or of marrying age, and the regular evenings in the city's saloons and restaurants provoked family crises, for instance in the Sibelius household. The family archives have revealed slips of paper on which Sibelius asked about the children's health. It was by this means that the composer, on lengthy bar-room sessions, would stay in touch with his wife and family. There were times when he could be holed up in Kämp for days and nights on end, and he would describe himself as being “in captivating discussions”. One such note ends with the somewhat less-than-convincing promise: “I'll be coming in a while”. After her husband's death, Sibelius's long-suffering wife Aino scribbled on the back of the envelope containing these messages: “Unpleasant Letters, 1903–1904. Not to be saved”. 

When Sibelius's wife Aino asked how long the trip to Kämp would take, the answer was, "Aino, I am a composer, not a fortune teller."

The stories are compiled from Laura Kolbe's book Kämp – The Hotel and Its City (2015). Get your own copy at the hotel reception.