Scandinavian Art & Scandinavian Studies

So it’s been a while since I last wrote anything – turns out it’s actually been around seven months now. Oops! It’s been a busy half-year, with more writing carried out than I thought possible, and yet still not enough.

In addition to reading and collating the material required for the first chapter of my thesis, and beginning the process of writing the first ten thousand words – which has inevitably gone over because no sooner do I think I can’t reach the word limit, than I exceed it – I have for the first time, and then the second time, attended two conferences on Scandinavian Studies.

In May of this year I attended the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies (SASS) annual conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A destination that had never caught my attention until I became aware of the existence of a community of Scandinavian-American artists working throughout the Midwest of the United States during the first half of the 20th century, yet it quickly became the starting point for my PhD. Having only been a PhD student for three months at the time, the prospect of standing in front of a room of people presenting a paper on my own research was a daunting one. For the paper presented here, I spoke about the exhibitions of 1912 and 2012 – see a previous post, 1912: Scandinavian Art Comes to America which I wrote on the two shows. Here, I discussed the approach taken in the past in representing Scandinavian art on the American stage, and subsequently suggested possible routes for a future exhibition – focusing on the selection process of artists and broadening the horizon of what is “Nordic.” This paper became a suitable precursor for my first chapter which integrated elements of my initial research with a further analysis of Nordic exhibitions and the curatorial process involved.

Poster for the Exhibition of 1912-1913, with art by Swedish-American artist Gunnar Hallström.

In addition to giving a paper on Scandinavian art, it was the realisation of not only how small the world of Nordic art historians truly is, but how niche the area is within the realm of Scandinavian Studies. My colleagues at SASS however delivered papers addressing the breadth and diversity of Scandinavian art history; for example, one of these considered the idea of time and temporality in the work of the Swedish painter Anders Zorn. Heavily focused on the fields of archaeology, anthropology, and medieval history, the presence of Scandinavian art was restricted to two early morning sessions – with broader round-table sessions discussing Scandinavian-American artists in particular.

Much the same could be felt at the Nordic Research Network (NRN) Conference in Aberdeen held in August. Drastically different in scale to its American counterpart, the NRN conference, comprised an intense two days of sessions, where the theme centred around the idea of “home”. This topic was approached by subjects ranging from Medieval and Viking archaeology, to anthropology, geography, linguistics, cultural and social politics and art history. As ever in the field of Scandinavian studies, art history maintained its limited presence, enticing the audience with the allure of colourful pictures. Yet, the nature of this conference allowed for one to become immersed in the work of others, from varying fields; the overriding concept of “home” appreciated by all, with some truly remarkable and fascinating research.

Autumn Motif from Torne Träsk by Helmer Osslund. 44.5 x 118 cm. Oil on baking paper. Image: Bukowskis Auction. (Osslund often painted on baking paper as it was a light and easy medium to carry around with him on his walks; for larger pieces he would stick the sheets together).

My paper took a comparative approach, identifying the different techniques applied to the Swedish landscape by two of Sweden’s foremost landscape painters – Gustaf Fjaestad and Helmer Osslund. With this paper I examined the variations of technique and style, moreover identifying the influence of Synthetism – commonly associated with the paintings of Paul Gauguin – in the work of both Fjaestad and Osslund. Indeed, during his time studying in Paris, Osslund was briefly taught not only by Gauguin himself, but by the Danish painter J.F. Willumsen, one of the foremost advocates of Synthetism in Scandinavia.

The idea of form and feeling being inextricably intertwined becomes more recognisable when one considers these paintings within the vision of a new national identity. In the case of Osslund, he was regarded as the first artist to paint northern Sweden – becoming the artist of Norrland – the area of his birth and subsequently the source of much of his inspiration. For Fjaestad, originally of Stockholm, he sought out a rural location from which he could find inspiration, eventually stumbling upon Lake Racken in Värmland, from where he and his artist wife Maja made their home. Unlike Osslund who spent much of his time exploring the wilderness of Norrland on his own, Fjaestad soon became part of a burgeoning artistic community around the lake, with other artists including Björn Ahlgrensson and Bror Lindh relocating to the area. The artistic synergies and contrasts in technique, composition, tonality and artistic motivation are a number of the concepts I endeavoured to explore in my NRN paper – discussing the role and idea of “home” in how the two artists approached the landscape which was most important to them.

For the first nine months of the PhD, my time has been preoccupied with writing and reading and finally starting to establish myself within the community of North American and British art historians and Scandinavian-specialists. The role of Scandinavian art  history within the realm of Scandinavian studies is limited, but so are those researchers working within the field. The task now, is to introduce Nordic art to the big world of wider art history and art historians, which many are already beginning to do!

From Sandhamn by Gustaf Fjaestad (1890). 81 x 65.5cm. Oil on canvas. Images: Bukowskis Auction. (An atypical work by Fjaestad, abandoning on this rare occasion, the scenes of snow which most inspired him).

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