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The Mystery of Professor Lemström
research project / introduction (1999)

Picture I: Artificial Northern Light created by Lemström in the year 1882. The Drawing shows the phenomenon observed above Mt. Kehäpää.(Pietarlauttasoaivi)


The objective of my project is to work on an exhibtion and a publication which investigates the history of auroral research of the late 19th century. As the main work of the project I try to reconstruct and write the biography of Karl Selim Lemström - a forgotten pioneer of polar light studies.

The starting point of my interest in Lemström has been his drawings of artificial northern lights. From this point I went more and more into the study of the history of auroral research, because I could see there a very interesting overlapping of the field of science and the field of art. The search of such contact-points between art and science has been the underlying theme of most of my projects and is clearly expressed in my latest publication. (»The Straight Line«

The northern light has very often been described by travellers, scientist and artists as the most powerful »artwork of nature«. In the same time the phenomenon was conceived as undescribable. Every representation was doomed to fail in matching the grandeur of the heavenly spectacle. 

Nevertheless there are existing a number of interesting drawings, paintings and other images of the northern light, which I have collected during the last years. An important role in this respect is rewarded to the field of photography. For decades scientists and amateurs had tried to get an impression of the polar light on the photographic plate - mostly unsuccessful. The numerous research expeditions, which were unable to get photographs of the aurora often used their unexposed plates to photograph the natural surrounding of the observation-stations. This brought them the (unwanted) reward of being pioneers of landscape photography. This one could say about Lemström and his assistants too. 

Picture II. By failing to photograph the polar light, Lemström coincidently became a pioneer of finish landscape photography by exposing his unused plates.

It was not until 1910 that the problem of photographing the aurora had been satisfactorily solved, which enormously boosted the understanding of the northern light. Another attempt of understanding the aurora in the 19th century concentrated on the artificial reproduction of the phenomenon. It is not exaggerating to call Lemström the leading figure in this field. He not only simulated the polar light in the laboratory but even created an artificial aurora with his machine on the summit of Kehäpää in Lappland. From my point of view these experiments can be understood as attempts of imitation of nature. It is not just a coincidence that in the same time vigorous arguments were fought among artists and critics, wheter art should imitate nature or not. Only few years before Lemströms experiments naturalism was introduced into the finnish artworld through W. Holmberg. But there are more recent contact points between Lemström’s work and the field of art. Walter de Maria’s »Lightning Field« - a key work of the land art movement - shows astonishing simularities with the set up of Lemström’s  »Northern Light Machine«. 

I tried to fragmentary sketch some of the keypoints of my interest in the polar lights: art & science, the artworks of nature, landscape, landscape painting & photography, polar expeditions, land art … 

Picture III: A map of Lemström’s Installations at Mt. Kehäpää near Kultala.

I have carefully studied the existing literature and came to the conclusion that no sufficient treatment of Lemström’s work is available neither in finnish nor english. The most extensive study has been made by Peter Holmberg. His work is very valuable, but rather emphasizes the significance of Lemström in regard to the history of physics in Finland. It excludes the discussion of the cultural background of auroral research. There are few good books in english about the history of northern light research. They are quite general in their attempt to cover the field from bronze age to latest space research. If Lemström is mentioned at all, the given informations are mostly incorrect. The literature has as well widely ignored the connection of Lemström’s polar light researches and his contributions to the field of agricultural science. By modificating his machine for the creation of artificial northern lights he was able to increase growth speed and size of vegetables. The so called »Electrification of Agriculture« (based on Lemström’s ideas) was very well recieved in Germany and England of the early twentieth century, especially among social reformers i.e. August Bebel. 

I would like to point out, that an extensive treatment of the life and work of Lemström could give an interesting insight into the connections between art and science and the wider cultural background at the turn of the 19th century. 

As I have mentioned before, by failing to photograph the polar light, Lemström (and his assistant) coincidently became pioneers of finnish landscape photography. From this photographs only few plates have been published yet. To my knowledge a lot more photographs were taken during the operation of the finnish polar stations in the years 1882 to 1884. It would be an important task to publish these pictures from the point of view of early landscape photography. 

Picture IV: »The Electrification of Agriculture«. Lemström used a modification of his northern light machine to increase the growth speed and size of vegetables.

an extensive report on Lemström can be downloaded here in near future