I became inspired to write this post after purchasing a book entitled, Foreign Artists and Communities in Modern Paris, 1870-1914: Strangers in Paradise. Although brief mention is made of the Scandinavian artistic contingency which settled in the Paris region of Montparnasse, the focus relies very much on the groups of artists originating from Poland, the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), Italy, the USA, the UK and even Japan. Furthermore I thought it was about time I wrote down some of my findings from a visit to Paris, a few months ago – part research trip, part holiday. I had been before, but this time the plan was to wander the streets of Montparnasse, looking at buildings which once housed the studios and homes of many of the foremost artists’ of the early 20th century, as well as artists’ of a more personal interest; those who represented the Nordic art scene of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
France during the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century was the main source of inspiration for Scandinavian artists, specifically those in Sweden. Following an act of rebellion towards the archaic institution of the Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm, artists including, Carl Larsson, Bruno Liljefors and Richard Bergh, among others, imposed upon themselves self-exile, relocating to the continent. Here it was the styles of French Impressionism and Realism which captivated the Nordic artist, working out of the artistic colony of Grez-sur-Loing – an escape from the hectic life of city living. It was in fact here, in 1882, that Carl Larsson met his future wife Karin Bergöö.
This Scandinavian love affair with Paris didn’t die out once the likes of Larsson and Bergh had returned to Sweden, rather a thriving interest in cosmopolitanism saw artists’ drawn even more towards the French capital. Here, it wasn’t the countryside which possessed the allure, but instead the close-knit streets and communities of Montparnasse.
It became the artistic centre after Montmartre, from 1910 onwards, where artists came to look for something new and exciting, relocating from the area of Sacre Coeur to the bohemian streets of the 14th arrondissement. It was the artistic centre at turn-of-the-century, with Modernist, forward-thinking and progressive artists, and has remained very much unchanged. Yes, it is perhaps busier, and the wide boulevards are now a maze of pedestrian crossings and unpredictable driving, but the heart of it remains the same. It is still home to a thriving artistic community, with many of the artist studios maintaining their original purpose.
Whereas Nordic artists had previously travelled to Paris to study the works of the Impressionist and Symbolist painters, now at the beginning of the 20th century it was generally Henri Matisse who inspired artists from Scandinavia. His painting was introduced to Sweden in 1908 by the artist Birger Simonsson, who having returned from the French capital advised his students and colleagues to learn from the French painter’s work. Artists such as Sigrid Hjertén and her husband Isaac Grünewald became students of Modernist painter, studying at the Académie Matisse, and who through their painting emulated the bold use of colour and simplified contours for which he was renowned. However, Matisse wasn’t the only attraction for this younger generation of Swedish painters.
The Independent Academies
On the Rue de la Grande Chaumière, the innovative art schools, which provided an alternative to the traditional training at the École des Beaux Arts – the Académie de la Grand Chaumière and the Académie Colarossi – existed side-by-side; with the studios of many an artist including Modigliani and Gauguin, in the neighbouring buildings. What makes Montparnasse such an interesting artistic district, is the neighbourly atmosphere – with artists’ of various genres, styles, and nationalities, working alongside one another. Montparnasse has been described as “the first truly international artistic community in Paris.”(A Cultural History of the Avant Garde in the Nordic Countries, 121).
The Académie Colarossi has an interesting history. Founded by the Italian sculptor Filippo Colarossi, this independent establishment provided a decisive challenge towards the “archaic” institution of the École des Beaux Arts. Not only were women allowed to study at the Academy, but they were also allowed to study from the nude male model – a radical move! The Académie Colarossi remained open until the 1930s (having moved to 10 Rue de la Grande Chaumière in the 1870s), when it was closed following Madame Colarossi’s discovery of her husband’s philandering ways – consequently burning the school’s archives in retaliation for his infidelity.
Counted among the Academy’s students were the Swedish painters and sculptors, David Wallin (and his wife, Elin), and Carl Eldh, as well as the Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck, and Norwegian painter Nikolai Astrup (recently the subject of an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London). From an Anglophone perspective, the Scottish Colourist Samuel Peploe and the Canadian Impressionist painter Emily Carr, were among the extensive foreign contingency which attended the Academy. No one artist went to either the Academy or Paris for the same reason, it was a time for self artistic exploration; and as clichéd as it may sound – it was a time for the artist to find their own voice.
In Foreign Artists and Communities in Modern Paris the prominence of Scandinavian artists in Paris, both living in Montparnasse and exhibiting at the Salons, is limited to the study of Edvard Munch and his Norwegian colleagues, including Christian Skredsvig. As a result, wider generalisations are made of Nordic art, using Munch as an antithetical example to the Nordic artists who employed “French Impressionist or Naturalist styles they had studied in the Parisian academies to represent stereotypical Scandinavian themes.” (Van Dijk, 48). Instead Munch is identified as being an artist who “presented himself with French-inspired motives and style”, furthermore appearing to “adjust his exhibition tactics strategically according to the city or location in order to stand out and thus attract attention.”(Van Dijk, 49). However, many, if not most of the Swedish artists who sojourned in Paris, were drawn towards the advances being made in French Modernism, as well as for many, to the works of those late 19th century French Symbolists and a continued fascination with the works of the French Impressionists and Realists.
In the case of Wallin, it was the Symbolist painters Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and Eugene Carriere, who came to play a decisive role in the artist’s Parisian education. For his friend and colleague however, Erik Tryggelin, it was the urban landscape as viewed through the prism of French Impressionism that drew the artist to the French capital to begin with. This same Impressionist urbanism was translated easily in Tryggelin’s works back in Stockholm; enhancing the outcome of the image, by using photography as a way of capturing contemporary, daily life. For the sculptors, Carl Eldh, Alice Nordin, and brother and sister Ruth and Carl Milles, it was the work of Auguste Rodin who had a prominent influence on their work. A very interesting insight into the life of the Swedish artist in Paris during the first half of the 20th century, for example, can be found in Carl Milles’ volume, Episodes from my Life – a collection of small essays and radio talks given by the artist. Among these, Milles recalls an occasion he went to Rodin’s home and studio (now the Musée Rodin), where he had been asked to come, following the self destruction of his own work which failed to be accepted into the salon Grand Palais’ first vernissage. Rodin had offered the Swede the opportunity to help and work with him, which he proceeded to do periodically.
There is a strong sense of familiarity between Scandinavia and the French capital, and indeed, despite their minimal study in the history of art, the former played a significant part in shaping the art scene of early 20th century Paris. This is no means a conclusive study of Nordic artists in Paris, essays could be written on the subject – it is more intended to be an interesting insight into their presence in Montparnasse, and how Paris has long played a significant role in the Nordic artists’ training.
Places to Visit
Rue de la Grande Chaumière – If you want to get a feel of where many of the most famous, and indeed less famous, artists of the early 20th century worked and studied then just taking a walk down this street is wonderful. Also where Carl Milles rented a studio for a while, where the Academie Colarossi “was on the other side of my street.”(Milles, 58). And where the famous poet, writer and indeed, painter, August Strindberg had lived at one point, in the Hotel Ulphila.
21 Avenue du Maine – A hidden street of former (and indeed now current) artists’ studios. Between 1915-1919, Marie Vassilief created an area for artists to interact. It’s picturesque, and most importantly a moment of quiet from the hustle-and-bustle of Paris life. With a newly opened gallery space, the Villa Vassilief, just a few vast expanses of window down.
Musée Bourdelle – A gem! I’m including this here, because I only stumbled across it when researching the studios of Carriere – which is included within. Despite having been to Paris on numerous occasions in the past, this was the first time I had heard of this museum. Bourdelle himself an incredible artist and sculptor, whose works instantly impress in the courtyard as well as within. Furthermore an interesting sculptural comparison to the works of the Nordic sculptors, including Eldh and Milles; as well as a version of one of his works, Hercules the Archer, being on display in the garden of Waldemarsudde. Magnificent and monumental!