Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Grand dreams

If you ask me, the most fascinating work at the recent Lux Helsinki 2014 event was a light installation called Edges of Dreams. It was projected onto the facade of the Hakasalmi Villa, one of the Helsinki City Museums that used to be a private residence.

The installation was created by Mika Haaranen, a lightning and set designer and photographer, who had been inspired by the history of the pink villa and its inhabitants. It was compiled of reflections of painted film and shadow patterns with accompanying music composed by Aake Otsala.

The Hakasalmi Villa was built in the 1840s by a prominent Finnish figure and high official in the Grand Duchy of Finland, Carl Johan Walleen. Today the building is only a stone’s throw away from the very heart of the city but at that time it was a bit away from the centre by the Töölö Bay, in other words practically in the countryside. The villa, however, lost its access to the waterfront when the country’s first railroad was constructed in the early 1860s.

During its 170 years, the villa has seen the surrounding town grow into a metropolis, not a large one in present-day standards but a metropolis anyway. It has also witnessed misery, such as the great famine of the 1860s plus a couple of wars but before all that it was part of the glamour and refinement of the aristocracy.

The building is still sometimes referred to as the Karamzin Villa because of its best-known owner and last resident Aurora Karamzin(a) born Stjernvall (1808-1902), the stepdaughter of its builder. She was a Finnish noblewoman renowned for her beauty who lived an amazing life that took her everywhere from the Emperor’s Winter Palace in St Petersburg and villas and palazzi in France and Italy to mining sites in the Ural Mountains.

To make a long story short, Aurora acted as a lady-in-waiting for the Empress of Russia; married a divinely rich Russian prince and imperial master of the hunt Pavel (Paul) Demidov; was widowed at the age of 31 with a baby boy; and as the guardian of her son suddenly had control over enormous assets.

Aurora’s husband died in 1840, which was the year she also lost her mother and one of her sisters. She needed to feel at home and bought the family’s Träskända Manor in Espoo some 20 km out of Helsinki from her stepfather. Incidentally, it was this transaction that provided Walleen the means to build the Hakasalmi Villa.

Later Aurora married captain Andrei Karamzin; developed a serious interest in social issues, for example, starting social reforms at her late husband’s mines and foundries in the Ural; was widowed again at 46; and continued her social pursuits throughout the rest of her long life supporting and working for numerous charitable causes both in her homeland and abroad.

When travelling, Aurora used to visit the local charitable institutions and hospitals to learn about their activities. This was how she familiarized herself with nursing and the first ever deaconess institute that was established in the Rhineland. In the 1860s, she founded The Helsinki Deaconess Institute that is still very much active and highly valued as an important non-profit foundation providing social, health care and educational services.

The lavish lifestyle and self-absorbed character of Aurora’s only child Pavel or Paul was a constant worry for her. Paul died in Florence at the age of 46, 17 years prior to his mother. She lived her later years in the Hakasalmi Villa and left it to the City of Helsinki. For more than a century now, the building has served as a museum, currently as the City Museum with changing historical exhibitions.

Aurora Karamzin’s life was magical like a brilliant film plot. In fact, the Finnish director Maarit Lalli is preparing a script and filming is scheduled for 2015. The working title is ‘Le Grand Sancy’, which refers to the diamond of the same name, the 7th largest in the world that Pavel Demidov gave Aurora as one of the morning gifts. The diamond of 55.23 carats is believed to be of Indian origin but its history is known only from around 1570. It was sold to the Louvre museum in the 1970s by its last private owners, the British Astor family.

I very much hope Ms Lalli will manage to raise the money required to make the kind of movie the extraordinary lady, wonderful personality and pioneering philanthropist deserves.

(And I do hope Mr Haaranen will learn to use a proof-reader to avoid further annoying spelling mistakes. A live show does not draw your attention to such details, at least if you are watching from behind a maple tree, but photos are ruthless.)

By the way, Aurora’s son inherited his uncle’s title Prince of San Donato (as per his Villa San Donato in Florence). The title was created for Anatoly Demidov by Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, so that Mathilde Bonaparte, the daughter of Napoléon’s brother Jérôme, would not lose her title of princess when marrying him. If anyone of you has visited Portoferraio on Elba, Anatoly was the same Demidov who built the museum below Napoléon’s private house Villa di San Martino, the ghastly museum that completely ruins the site’s historical and artistic value.


  1. That looks amazing, it was wonderful to experience it by watching the video too. It was so interesting reading about the story of the building too. What a shame it isn't still on the water front.
    Sarah x

    1. The show was so magical I had to watch it several times. And the feeling of sharing such a special experience with equally enchanted strangers was also rather great. i can't wait what we'll see next January.