Sleepless Night is a shocking journey to a tragic period in the life of the novelist and poet L. Onerva (1882–1972). Onerva spent five years locked away in a mental institution during the 1940s and survived her confinement thanks only to her creativity. Besides writing thousands of poems, she dealt with her pain by making hundreds of watercolours and drawings, most of which portray herself. Many of the pictures depict the dismal and resigned life in the institution. Some 150 of her watercolours are on display in Meilahti, concurrently with the exhibition After Image which deals with female identity. Sleepless Night is the story of a Finnish woman and the fight for survival by a mangled identity.
For a young Finnish woman in the early 20th century, L. Onerva (Hilja Onerva Lehtinen) led a daring. Her unconventional poetry and behaviour stretched the limits of what was considered proper for women. She had a passionate relationship with Eino Leino, the Finnish poet, but it never led to marriage.
Instead, Onerva married the composer Leevi Madetoja. The couple became the victims of alcohol and what was then considered the best cure for alcoholism. In the end, their marriage was wrecked by discord and made both of them alcoholics and misusers of medicines. When they could no longer manage their lives, Madetoja signed into a clinic and was cured, while Onerva was eventually confined in a mental institution in Nikkilä. Locked inside its walls, Onerva kept her sanity only by writing and drawing. After Leevi Madetoja’s death, she was released in 1947 thanks to her friends. She continued her career for another 25 years, writing and making art.
The discovery of the passion of L. Onerva as an artist was like a detective story. Her archives are in the possession of the Finnish Literature Society, which had agreed to keep them closed for 30 years after her death. After the archives were opened, the author Hannu Mäkelä plunged into the material and was astounded by what he discovered. Besides thousands of unpublished poems, there were a huge number of drawings and watercolours, mainly of women with big eyes and filled with pain. Eventually a selection of her images was chosen for the exhibition at Meilahti by the Museum Director Berndt Arell. Arell and Hannu Mäkelä have also contributed articles to the exhibition catalogue, published by Minerva Kustannus Oy from Jyväskylä.
Guided tours: Free of charge in Finnish on Wednesdays at 17 and on Sundays at 14; in Swedish on every second Sunday of each month at 13. To book a private tour at another time, please call tel. +358 9 310 87003.