Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / The canonical Swedish painter Carl Larsson (1853–1919) planted an Arts and Craft emphasis on pastoral family life in the nation’s art, and in the early twentieth century, Swedish artists’ tendency was to adapt and domesticate classical motifs into distinctly serene, elegant, and wry art and design. But while British architectural critic Philip Morton Shand dubbed this disposition “Swedish Grace” in 1930, he also judged it to be flagging against the challenge of Modernism. Swedish artists and curators appear to have internalized that historical tension, whether in Stockholm’s grand state museums, its smaller boutique-like ones, its bountiful converted mansions and salons, its stylish established galleries, and even its hipster-ish upstart spaces. At least on the evidence of an unavoidably incomplete late September visit to the city, the net result is contained vibrancy, exciting and inventive but also richly contextualized and sensibly progressive.
On a peninsula in the city center, the majestic Nationalmuseum offers both historically expository and broadly thematic exhibitions, sharply curated and well-served by informative wall plaques. Danish painter Joakim Skovgaard’s 1911 painting The Snake in Paradise, depicting a naked Eve sitting on a bucolically situated rock, casually dismissive of the hovering asp, somehow seemed to encapsulate the museum curators’ knowing balance of solemn tradition and expansive wit. Hallwylska Museet, the sumptuous home of the von Hallwyl family now serving as a cultural museum, offers a wistful and telling snapshot of fin-de-siecle Stockholm on the cusp of Modernism. They understood that its pull was irresistible, and that the calm hominess of Swedish art, however eclectic and refined, felt stagnant.
The sleek, ascetic Moderna Museet, ensconced on the island of Skeppsholmen, sharply moves the conversation forward, having recently presented “The Great Cosmic Mother,” arraying Monica Sjöö’s combatively feminist work of the 1970s, and “Sleepless Nights,” tracing the subtler struggle of female artists for recognition in the 1980s amid global political change and social disruption. Fotografiska, an effervescently contemporary venue occupying a converted customs house on the picturesque Sodermälm waterfront, just offered Peter Lindbergh’s improbably probing photographs of supermodels and their world in “Lightness of Being.” Slickly presented, yes, but it was also insightfully conceived.
The compact and pristine Magasin III Museum and Foundation for Contemporary Art, archly situated in a suburban commercial outpost near a brewery and a train station, housed three very squared-away shows. “Skin of the Soul,” in particular, covered a generous range of sensibilities, moving from Carin Ellberg’s penetratingly existential abstract sculpture to Markus Schinwald’s conceptual riffs on vanity to Geraldine Swayne’s cheekily gnawing figurative paintings. Magasin III’s collaboration with Stockholm University on an MFA in curating spawned Accelerator, the university’s audacious art gallery, which opened in 2019. Situated in a cavernous repurposed physics lab but emphatically contemporary, its current exhibition is Lisa Tan’s elaborate installation “Dodge and/or Burn” in which the Stockholm-based American artist undertakes a conceptual deep-dive on the cathartic potential of global crisis alongside the harrowing risks and debilitations, extending the metaphor of the migraine headache. Around the arty Vasastan neighborhood is Bonniers Konsthall, which featured a compelling two-person exhibition of Tilda Lovell’s immersively primal sculptures and installations and Sara-Vide Ericson’s bracingly raw paintings, examining the confrontation and accommodation between people and nature.
Nearby, Sven-Harry’s Konstmuseum – founded by nonagenarian art collector Sven-Harry Karlsson – presented the deftly curated exhibition “Art + Machine – Rising Contenders of the 1920s.” It explored the notion, centered in the Modernist ideas and work of French artist Fernand Leger, who influenced many Scandinavian artists taking flight from Swedish Grace, that mechanized means of human liberation could also be tantamount to art. The top floor comprises a replica of Sven-Harry’s former home on the suburban island of Lidingö, blending traditional work and contemporary acquisitions.
Then there are Stockholm’s elegant houses of art. Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde, in the royal island park of Djurgården, includes a museum wing now showcasing the work of the iconoclastic and eclectic Swedish painter Ernst Josephson (1851–1906) and the bachelor prince’s remarkable collection of mainly Swedish paintings – including several by Larsson, the pre-eminent Swedish portraitist Anders Zorn of the same generation, and playwright-cum-painter August Strindberg – distributed among the large and brightly lit rooms of his home, as well as his own painting studio on the top floor. Up the road is Thielska Galleriat, a four-story Art Nouveau house that was once the residence of banker and art patron Ernst Thiel and is now home to his art acquisitions. It boasted a selection from the iconic twentieth-century Norwegian painter Edvard Munch – hardly the one-note painter of popular conception – from its world-class collection of his work alongside the contemporary paintings of Swedish artist Andreas Eriksson. In thoughtful counterpoint to these forceful works of male artists are the sly new photographs of Swedish artist Maria Friberg that provocatively question male primacy and, beyond that, the validity of rigidly binary gender distinctions in art.
The abundant and varied museums subtend a rich – and apparently quite close-knit – community of galleries that balance their programs between Scandinavian and international artists. In one cluster, near the city center, Galleri Magnus Karlsson was showing Swedish artist Kent Iwemyr, a former art teacher who makes narrative paintings of Hallstahammar, the industrial town where he grew up and still lives. CF Hill, luxuriantly located in a seventeenth-century palace, offered gestural but nicely controlled abstract paintings by the New York-based Jeremy Lawson and exotically representational, delicately haunting ones by Tincuta Marin of Romania. Up at Wetterling Gallery was “The Time Between Us,” a solo show of British painter Jason Martin’s bold, painterly abstract work, poised between formalism and expressionism. In “Seen Through the Grid,” Andréhn-Schiptjenko arrayed the Minimalist conceptual work of Matts Leiderstam, a Swedish artist who, perhaps improbably, demonstrates that the form has not in fact been mined to depletion and constitutes a means of aesthetic liberation as well as regulation. At Public Service Gallery, an edgy new entry, American artist Anders Lindseth’s Ruscha-adjacent paintings of burning cars, at once aggressive and lambent, in his solo show “Conditional Immortality” plumbed the disconnect between the staying power of commercial iconography and the violent perishability of things themselves with an eye to reassessing humans’ relationship to nature. Anna Bohman Gallery likewise was showing an accomplished American painter – Amy Feldman of New York – but her work is very different: abstract, dichromatic, nuanced, and unabashedly interior.
In Vasastan off Sankt Eriksgatan, its main drag, is a second enclave of estimable art spaces. The rather suave Berg Gallery had Danish artist Hilda Hellström’s solo “For Future Reference” – acrylic-secured natural forms inspired by the excavated ancient city of Pompeii that, in referencing human persistence on a geologic level, cut intriguingly against the lightness of being. Next door, Galerie Nordenhake featured eight large paintings of vivid color and decisive line by American artist Patricia Treib, who manages to catch and capture transitional visual moments – the show was titled “Undulations” – between abstraction and representation. Behind that gallery, in an elevated courtyard, are several more galleries. They include Galleri Duerr, which featured Martina Hoogland Ivanow’s “With Eyes Sensitive for Green” – an impressively enveloping light-and-sound installation exploring back-to-nature impulses prompted by an increasingly fraught civilization. Nearby, Susanne Pettersson Gallery presented Olle Borg’s colorful yet contemplative geometric abstraction and Karin Alsin’s quizzical conceptual installations. The tidy and enterprising Coulisse Gallery, on the other side of Sankt Eriksgatan, had mounted “Another World,” an exhibition of Hank Grüner’s mildly surreal paintings and ceramic sculptures of flora – distillations of beauty, perhaps, to leaven life’s more somber travails. At the small-but-mighty Andys Gallery, a few blocks away on Sankt Eriksgatan, was a neatly curated solo show of Swedish artist Gustaf Nordenskiöld’s smooth and confident watercolors of nude males – each looked as though it were painted in one flowing go – based on images from gay-themed erotic movies of the 1970s and 1980s, alongside his more metaphorically erotic sculpture, both of which operate to demystify and domesticate sex.
As expected of a major cultural hub, Stockholm’s art scene is varied and multivalent. It certainly embraces art’s customary social function as a psychic refuge for unconstrained philosophical consideration, also served by Stockholm’s conspicuous premium on accommodating public spaces and its gentle facilitation of its inhabitants’ interaction. But the wider Nordic context also seems to inform Stockholm’s aesthetic. The Nordic countries’ geographical remove from the rest of Europe and their sometimes dark and forbidding climate have arguably stimulated a psychological impulse to cordon them off as places apart. This mindset was always shortsighted, and Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, imperiling Finland and Sweden’s security and impelling them to join NATO, drove home just how much. So, of course, have climate change and the COVID pandemic, which recognize no boundaries. Swedes, artistic or otherwise, discreetly resist any notion that they are at a hermetic distance from the rest of the world. Their abiding concern for the fate of the earth, implicit in Swedish Grace and now asserted and symbolized by Greta Thunberg and her followers, runs wide and deep. It is logical that the city’s curatorial cadre seems especially hospitable to art that confronts social and environmental fragility, political retrogression, and the urgent need to address them, against the backdrop of a prior century that, despite its unprecedented violence and trauma, yielded historic hope that for the moment has faded. If an overarching message emerges, it is that while we should maintain our civility, we cannot submit quietly.
About the author: Jonathan Stevenson is a New York-based policy analyst, writer, and editor, contributing to the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and Politico, among other publications. He is a regular contributor to Two Coats of Paint.
NOTE: As you may have heard, the Two Coats of Paint 2023 Year-end Fundraising Campaign is underway, and our goal this year is to reach 100% reader participation. If you enjoy the artist interviews, exhibition reviews, NYC and HV Selected Gallery Guides, and other Two Coats painting-cenric content, this is your opportunity to be a part of it. Please consider making a tax deductible contribution to support the project in 2024. Thank you for all your help keeping the conversation going.