PRINT December 1964

Ernst Josephson

THE MADNESS WHICH IN 1888 tore in two the life of the Swedish artist Ernst Josephson was a guarantee of fame—of posthumous fame, since the creations which flowed from an imagination let loose “when the floodgates opened” were largely lost on his contemporaries. It would take vision schooled by Matisse, the monumental line drawings of Picasso, and most of all the intensifying disproportions of the Expressionists, to appreciate Josephson’s late work which anticipated these styles and directions by many years. The Holy Sacrament, (1889–90) Ecstatic Heads, painted in the same year, Portrait of Ludwig Josephson, (1893) are Expressionist works before the term or the school had been thought of Josephson died in 1906 virtually without spiritual descendants (except in Sweden) though Picasso may have seen some of the drawings in Paris and Kokoschka and others knew his work. But he was not a formative influence; his canvases and drawings exist, rather, as isolated phenomena of great beauty and interest uncannily prefiguring styles and directions which will become cornerstones of 20th-century art. It was Josephson’s strange fate to have lifted the veil from the face of the future—but only for a moment. Years were to pass before works as “new” in appearance as his paintings and drawings of the nineties would be produced in Europe.

A brief look at the tragic life of this artist, who is almost unknown in America, may yield clues to the curious neglect which his work has suffered. Born into a cultivated middle-class Jewish family in Stockholm in 1851, Ernst early showed talent for art, poetry, and music. At the age of ten he lost his father and was raised by the women of his family; between them and the boy the most binding ties developed. Like many another artist the talented youth displayed little aptitude for formal study or business, and at 17 was admitted to the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm where his ability gained him some recognition. Very soon, however, he found the atmosphere oppressively reactionary. From 1874 to 1888 he managed a good deal of travel and intensive study of the masters in Italy, Holland, Belgium, and finally Spain. In the late seventies he established headquarters in Paris where he was a leader among Scandinavian artists and an exhibitor in the Paris Salon. His portraits, especially, won him critical acclaim, and deservedly, since these insightful and painterly works may be placed, without embarrassment, beside similar canvases of Renoir and Degas. Josephson learned the lessons of the Impressionists but, like Cézanne, did not reject the teachings of the old masters; among 19th-century painters he admired Courbet especially. But these facts which look so promising and which seem to foretell a successful, even brilliant future do not reveal the inward struggles anti disappointments which were to prove crucial for Josephson.

Josephson poured an enormous amount of psychic and physical energy into the “Opponents,” a group of Swedish artists which he had been instrumental in forming in 1884, to promote the cause of modern art in Sweden. Under Josephson’s leadership it struck openly and vigorously at the entrenched Academy. Like many another dissident group, however, the Opponents became less impassioned as time passed and a tendency to gain their ends by compromise and a softer approach appeared. By 1887 new leadership was found to fit these specifications. The change was a crushing blow to Josephson who felt defeat and rejection all around him: the continued lack of real understanding of his work in his own country, rejections at the Salon, recurring grief over the death of his mother, the conclusion of an unhappy love affair, cooling relations with his friend and patron, merchant Pontus Furstenberg, and rapidly diminishing funds. His despondency grew. The year 1888 found him with his friend, Allan Osterlind, also a painter, on the Island of Bréhat, off Brittany. Desolate in the extreme, the windswept island suited Josephson’s desperate mood but could have done nothing to raise his spirits. He was without money for materials, his legacy from his mother having been spent. In this highly unsettling situation he participated in spiritualist experiments with his friend, Osterlind, taking part in the seances then so widely practiced. These “contacts” with another world produced a series of great trance drawings which Josephson signed with the names of old masters with whom he felt himself to be in communication; but the experiments also seem to have brought on the madness which had long threatened. He was persuaded back to Sweden, hospitalized for a few months and was then cared for, until his death in 1906, by two kindly spinsters. The severity of mental illness diminished and something like health returned. He painted, made drawings, continued to write poetry. Music, which he had always loved, was a consolation. But the vivid, gregarious, vehement artist’s life he had led between Paris and Stockholm was over; his outward life passed into the quiet shadows from which it would not emerge.

BUT IT IS IN THESE last 18 years that he would produce the images which are so moving, and so startling for the period in which they were done. Central in the complex of pressing questions which arise at once when we consider this life and the late works, is the role—one is tempted to say the function—of Josephson’s derangement in the creation of the great late works. For the change after the mental illness is so far-reaching, so profound that we can scarcely believe they are by the same hand that produced the earlier paintings. The canvases made before 1888, enormously competent and knowledgeable, display a virtuosity which clearly gave him command of any style he chose to explore. Tradition is strong in the work, and to the present-day viewer they are full of echoes of 19th-century directions. Perceptive and beautifully painted (especially the portraits), there is in them a love of the art of painting and a lively response to the visual world, but they do not seem strikingly original. No powerful, unique voice speaks in them. But from the time of the madness onward this voice is heard.

In the earlier group we see a striking 19th-century talent; in the later walks a true precursor, authentically Expressionist a decade before the turn of the century. In these works, both drawings and paintings, an unprecedented freedom from current influences is evidenced: new styles, new images appear on the papers and canvases; highly expressive, unsettling distortions which we now “read” with ease; a flowing, springing, entirely liberated line which the sheet sometimes can barely contain, and which describes with equal effectiveness the contour and the meaning of the figure depicted (a similar but more decorative rhythmic line will become almost a signature of Matisse a few years later and Picasso will produce a distinctive variation in the 1920s); and, finally, a mysticism foreign to the period, which recalls Blake but which is distinctively Northern in the agonizing personal experience it seems to reflect. (Josephson, like Blake, is poet as well as artist and shares also with him the experience of communing with spirits of departed great ones.)

The works referred to here are not the purely psychotic drawings, some of which are included in the exhibition now on tour in America. But they could not have happened without the crisis which obliterated the artist’s habitual life, active and engaged—and shook down the walls that rise around the endlessly varied, profuse images of the unconscious. These flowed unchecked from a hand that had lost none of the skills years of study had given it, from a mind as capable as ever of fine judgments, except that now the complex of decisions that form a painting arise from a new and highly original esthetic. We may regard the mental crisis and the creative powers it unleashed as a fortuitous accident—or as the inevitable result of an inner genius which required the convulsion in order to gain full expression. In any case it would seem that the derangement and the sufferings that preceded it left Josephson abnormally responsive to currents in the life of the period that would later find full expression in 20th-century art movements.

The exhibition is strongest in drawings of which 73 dating from 1888 to 1906 are included. The earliest are the trance drawings from Bréhat, signed Raphael, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Holbein, or Velasquez. In their execution these do not suggest at all the diseased mind, but there are later works, (1888–1889) rigid, strange, childish, that are clearly psychotic and show very little of the great powers of the artist whose hand produced them. Some of these have compulsively repeated dots or dashes, but this method is also used in such drawings as the beautiful Ruth (1889) in which only a suggestion of the mental illness is present. The Judgment of Paris, the powerful and moving Creation of Adam, with the face of God filling the sky as clouds and stars do, the Lady Macbeth made with a rapid, easy brush. All of these date from the years after 1893 when Josephson was stimulated to new creative activity by an exhibition of his work at the Art Association, formerly the Opponents group. The entire group of drawings deserves and will surely receive close critical attention.

The exhibition raises a great variety of interesting questions concerning the whole matter of the perilous imbalances which may open access to the creative powers within the subconscious, the part that mere geography may play in the development of an artist, and, perhaps, especially on the giving or withholding of fame. (If Josephson had worked in Paris instead of Stockholm after his crisis on Bréhat, would his influence have been felt in the mainstream of Western art?) The definition of genius itself would enter into such speculations. If the work of an artist, for whatever reason, does not affect the course of art but exists aside, awaiting discovery, do we say it is the work of genius? These and many other questions will be stimulated by this first American showing of the paintings and drawings of Josephson.

The project was initiated by Dr. Francis J. Newton, Director of the Portland Art Association and organized in collaboration with the Swedish Institute for Cultural Relations, Stockholm. Dr. Ingrid Mesterton, curator of the exhibition and author of many articles on Josephson, assembled the exhibition and prepared the catalog listing. Erik Blomberg, noted Josephson scholar, wrote the introductory essay. The exhibition will be shown at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco; the La Jolla Museum of Art, La Jolla; the University Gallery, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; and the Gallery of Modern Art, New York City.

Rachael Griffin is Curator of the Portland Art Museum.