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Swedish Art – Out in the Open

Movements in modern Swedish art are unique because of their interaction of certain dominant tendencies.  Swedish art is a pendulum balancing between domestic and international focus. 

The art expert, Sören Engblom, who has been a curator at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm since 1990 wrote that Swedish art balances between conventionalism and is a struggle for liberation in the late 19th century, and between the distinctive and the trendy, between the provincial and the urbane during the twentieth century.

Modern Swedish art seeks its roots in what was known as the Opposition (Opponentrörelsen). This movement was the culmination of many years’ discontent with the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, which ruled the art world completely in the mid-19th century, despite miserable funding and a lack of good teachers.

The dominant approach there was the portrayal of everyday life in the sad bourgeois manner, while landscape painters studied outdoor nature with great enthusiasm but still executed their paintings in the studio using montage compositions. The most popular themes of the period, such as historical paintings, idylls, landscapes and portraits, were all thoroughly separatist.

The following generation was international in its orientation, however. Artists preferred to visit France and study impressionism. They did not assume the style, but shared the interest of the impressionists in the study of light and painting out of doors.

The Artists’ Union survived until 1920, but with the years it became a more and more exclusive company. It ran its own school of painting between 1891 and 1908, and organized exhibitions. A group of fellow-students from the Union’s third school (1905-1908) formed the core of a revitalized Parisian movement that began to make itself felt in Swedish artistic circles from 1909 onwards. This movement was preceded by some important pioneering contributions, however.

Ernst Josephson’s early painting are a good example that illustrates happenings in the changing art world of that time.  His work is unsteadily balanced between romanticism and naturalism.   He later became crazy and stopped painting all together.

A similar fate struck Carl Fredrik Hill (1849-1911), who, after a brilliant period of French landscape paintings, in the mid-1870s lapsed into thirty years of mental illness.  Unlike Josephson, even during every day of his illness he produced a steady flow of drawings. His landscape visions are considered to be his most outstanding work. The colleagues of Josephson and Hill from the circle around the Artists’ Union paid a great deal of passionate consideration to these artists.


The modernist breakthrough started when the group of artists calling themselves ’The Young’ (De unga) opened their first exhibition in Stockholm in 1909. The group had formed the previous year around the leading figure of Birger Simonsson (1882-1938), and included such artists as Isaac Grünewald (1889-1946), Tor Bjurström (1888-1966) and Leander Engström (1886-1927).

Most members of the group had studied at the Artists’ Union school, and were therefore against the Academy. They traveled to Paris and there they met the famous Henri Matisse. But the work they exhibited in 1909 was more influenced by Cézanne, who had had his posthumous breakthrough at the autumn salon in Paris in 1907.

’The Young’ movement split up after a couple of years, and in 1912 the core of the group established themselves as ’The Eight’ (De åtta). These groups are usually referred to collectively by art critic August Brunius’s term, ’the men of 1909’, although strangely enough one of the most important among them was a woman, Sigrid Hjertén (1885-1948).

Along with her husband Isaac Grünewald, Einar Jolin (1890-1976) and Leander Engström, she constituted the group’s Stockholm wing-a Swedish fauvism with its roots in Matisse’s art: a strongly coloured, decorative style-while Nils Dardel (1888-1943) developed an elegant naivism and Birger Simonsson and Gösta Sandels (1887-1919) constituted a Gothenburg wing with a more lyrical, picturesque style.

Nordic artists approached the most radical expression of the period-cubism in its various forms-rather gingerly. The mediating link in Paris is André Lhote, whose style the expert Englblom describes as careful faceted cubism is an approach also adopted originally by a number of artists including John Sten and Siri Derkert (1888-1973), who developed a socially committed and distinctively individual style in her later work.

Another prominent artist was Gösta Adrian-Nilsson (1884-1965), also known as GAN, who had been working in Berlin since 1912. He is the only Swedish artist to have been deeply influenced by all the styles of the period. His work, characterized as cubo-futurism, was often colorful and narrative in approach, and is as aware of its period as it is original.

The 1920s brought a renewed interest in classical forms of expression, in which category the movement known as Neue Sachlichkeit (New objectivity) is included. Sköld, with his Paris pictures of the 1920s, Arvid Fougstedt (1888-1949), with his more intimate Stockholm motifs, and the graphics virtuoso Axel Fridell (1894-1935) are accounted the most eminent Swedish legislature of this association.

Idyll and metropolis

Perhaps the most typical prerequisite for Swedish culture is a duality.  This means a polarity between town and country, between nature and culture-with its roots in the development of a peasant nation to a post-industrial urban society.

This opposition is heightened by the depth of a Nordic native’s feeling for nature on the one hand and the ease with which he finds himself in awe of the great metropolises of the Continent on the other.


If many of the painters mentioned above may be said to seek Swedish reality-although in very different ways-a Swedish surrealist movement, with strong roots in the French origin of the tendency, also exists.

For instance, the Halmstad group, founded in 1929 and surviving for more than fifty years, became a landmark in Swedish 20th century art. Its six members-Erik and Axel Olson, Sven Jonson, Esaias Thorén, Stellan Mörner and Waldemar Lorentzon-were painting in post-cubist, constructivist or plane-geometrical styles in the Parisian years of the 1920s, but when the group was founded they were exploring the various extensions of a dream world.

In a number of cases there are clear stylistic echoes of the work of Salvador Dalí or Yves Tanguy, but as is so often the case when Swedish art (or music, for that matter) is strongly influenced by an international movement, a note of Nordic temperament and light steals into its artistic expression.

A New Age

After the abstract termination of the 1950s, there came the disorder of the 1960s. The figurative mass image with all it represents found its way into art by way of pop. New York took over the role of Paris as the world’s artistic metropolis. There was a sense of breaking away from a constrictive old world and this spirit of the age brought dadaism and particularly Marcel Duchamp into the focus of attention once more.

Then there was the installation art, typical for the 1980s.  The installation art of the 1980s has often sought out bizarre locations such as abandoned industrial plants. The three ’ibid’ exhibitions, initiated on the model of New York by Jan Håfström in the early years of the 1980s and attracting many participants, represent this path away from the large institutions.

On the other hand, the new Moderna Museet in Stockholm, which opened in 1998, has countered this trend with its series Projects of the Moderna Museet, in which young artists from Sweden and abroad are invited to produce new and often ’site-specific’ works.

And the Rooseum in Malmö has broadened the traditional concept of the art gallery towards closer contact with the surrounding world, a trend which is affecting more and more art galleries and museums in the interests of art education and popularization.

As the 1990s passed, however, a growing social orientation could be seen budding in Swedish art. If the 1980s produced installations in abandoned industrial buildings, the 1990s entailed a movement towards social meeting places like streets and public squares, shops and shopping centres or hotels and commercial art fairs.

This extremely social form of art gave rise to the concept of relational aesthetics. Elin Wikström (b. 1965) belongs here.

She exhibited herself asleep at a supermarket, ran a cycle club for cycling backwards at a festival in Münster in Germany, and completely revolutionized the social life of the Barbie doll. With her investigative approach-almost socio-anthropological in its focus-Annika Eriksson (b. 1956) uses her video works to examine popular manifestations of such phenomena as collecting in the Swedish welfare state.

Painting lives on alongside the new media. In his expressive painting with its preference for motifs from the natural and symbolic worlds of the Nordic countries, Ernst Billgren (b. 1957) has established a link to kitsch and paradoxically become the most written-about artist in Sweden without really being a ’populist’.

The painter Cecilia Edefalk (b. 1954), who investigates the nature of painting and the image in her self-portraits and light-shimmering figure-studies, has exhibited work at the Biennial in São Paulo (1994) and at the Whitney Museum in New York.

The reawakened interest of present-day society in telling a story makes itself felt in painting in figurative works like those by Linn Fernström (b. 1974). Ann-Sofi Sidén (b. 1962), on the other hand, has aroused much attention with her video works.

They often present great social and political issues (Warte mal, 1999, about prostitution in the new Eastern Europe). Sidén has exhibited at the Venice and São Paulo Biennials, and in 2001 she put on a well-received exhibition of her own work at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.