PRINT May 1987


“THE MOST DEEPLY INGRAINED TRAIT of the national character of the Swedes—one that goes a long way toward explaining our people’s disposition in other respects—is their strong love for nature.” So asserted Gustav Sundbärg, the Swedish statistician (or, as he was then styled, the “national arithmetician”), in an official report of 1910 entitled “Det svenska folklynnet” (The Swedish national character). Statistics, of course, can mean virtually anything one wants them to, and the face of a nation is about as elusive to read as the face of a human being. (Facial features and cranial bumps may have something to do with genetics and race, but nothing to do with character—physiognomy, and all its accompanying racial and racist assumptions, is fortunately a discredited science.) Were Sundbärg alive today, however, and reading the demographics, it’s unlikely he’d have to change his portrait of a people in love with nature. In keeping with Sweden’s image as a nation with a high standard of living a recent study of the country’s current “national arithmetic” shows that every tenth Swede owns a house in the country, and that even more keep boats and like to go fishing. Furthermore, Swedish television ratings indicate that nature programs attract even more viewers than popular sports such as ice hockey, or well-liked American TV shows such as Miami Vice and Bill Cosby. In keeping with this, Swedish landscape painting, most often modest, intimate, and associated with a gray-silvery “Nordic light,” has been a point of pride for the culture, and in the 20th century it has stood proof of the individuality of Swedish art; often when art critics approach the subject, they tell a story of a certain reticence and restraint in Swedish artists’ relationship with the avant-garde movements of Modernism, and of their choice instead to follow their deep respect for nature.

The continuing story of landscape painting in Swedish art would be fairly straightforward, even uneventful, but for the appearance, some decades ago, of paintings that adhere to the landscape model (though not necessarily to the nature it models itself on) while at the same time pushing it toward breakdown. Theirs is a form of undercover operation. informed by a double rhetoric, a double bind: a deep attraction to the very qualities that are subverted. The love for nature of certain contemporary Swedish artists appears more intense than ever, yet simultaneously a feeling of distance, of artificiality, grows ever stronger. It may well be that this double bind, this chiasmus, has taken the place of Nordic light in Swedish landscape painting.

The Nordic landscape tradition is surely the starting point for the untitled series of 20 paintings that Max Book (born in 1953) completed in 1985–86. The thin, transparent colors he paints over canvases made rough by a nubby coat of acrylic hold a shimmer of that dark silver light so characteristic of Sweden’s long winter twilights and light summer nights—particularly in the country’s northern latitudes, where Book grew up. Despite the large formats of the canvases (the largest nearly 7 feet high and over 14 feet wide), these obscure sceneries and spaces, which evoke landscapes without actually describing them, have been executed without drama—without any suggestion of the vast perspectives and imposing monumentality that so many American landscape artists have sought to convey, for example the Luminists, 19th-century photographers such as Timothy O’Sullivan, and on into the Land art of recent decades. Such work may express many things– a sense of wonder at nature, a sense of loss over its despoilment—but it often at least flirts with the desire to appropriate some of nature’s power for itself. Land art in particular, it can be argued, posits nature as there for the artist’s use, as the American settlers may have felt it was for theirs. The Swedish tradition is no less expressive of its culture, but the attitude is by and large quite different: the paintings are most often small, and the artist approaches nature modestly, as if slightly blushing, with hat in hand, not so much awed by it as intimate with it. If Book’s paintings are large in size, they have a smallness of scale familiar in Swedish art—a domesticity of mood.

Despite his traditional, if magnified, sounding board, however, Book’s painting both coolly and lovingly undermines the Swedish brand of expression, rooted in French 19th-century painting, that views nature as “whole” and “genuine.” A sense of falsity, a sense of chasm, lies at the paradoxical center of this painterly world. The components of the pictures seem to form squalid bits, and where traditional landscape painting cherishes a vision of nature “unspoiled,” here the signs of culture and nature are set to soak in one another. Vaguely geometric forms, small pieces of wood, and odd bits of litter tactlessly emerge, disrupting the harmony of the picture space. “Incorrect” color planes and unexpected figures irreverently intrude on the view, wrecking the illusionistic order of things with sadistic precision, while the brushwork moves in all directions across the asphaltlike texture of the ground, shattering the paintings sense of depth. In exhibitions, Book often uses artificial lighting to oppose the direction of the light within the painting—that cool Nordic light, still shimmering beautifully in these landscapes, with all their voids and blocks, distances and lacunas.

After reaching its peak in the 1890s, Nordic Symbolism has continued to exist alongside the mainstream of Swedish art. We have a kind of national weakness for it, nursed with varying degrees of affection, not least by film directors. The Symbolist vision is one of inner psychological forces, of mysticism, often of a sense of sickness or deathliness, and of a natural world that expresses or gives form to these ideas and feelings, the exterior landscape working as an objective correlative of the interior one. What is implicit here is a notion of the authentic—both nature and the subjectivity of the feelings expressed functioning as fortresses of the true, the genuine, in Europe’s rapidly changing and developing industrial and urban culture. Book, particularly in the painting Utanför trädgården (Outside the garden, 1986), commits a deconstructivist murder of this familiar mythology. His contemporary Rolf Hanson, on the other hand, seems to appropriate the Symbolist involvement with nature and high-pitched subjective program without restraint, in fact going over the top. Abandoning the muted gray-green shimmer of woodland lakes that he explored in his early paintings, Hanson has intensified the color in his increasingly abstract landscapes so that it is now well beyond nature’s register. It is as if a more and more agitated longing for nature, seen as the reservoir for all the qualities in the Symbolist mythology, had led him to the realization of an effect that more and more distances him from it.

Hanson’s current work effectively grafts Nordic landscape painting onto a sense of scale and materiality derived from the New York School. In the process, a kind of heating or vivifying process seems to take place, and these stalactitic landscapes, with their thick curtains of color, begin to suggest not so much the Scandinavian environment as Lennart Nilsson’s hyperreal photoenlargements of the wild grottoes of the human circulatory system, or the primeval forests of the cells of the body as they have been reproduced in Life magazine. The color, meanwhile, assumes the dizzying, artificial luminosity of science fiction films. The work seems solemnly romantic yet bewitched by electronic colors, almost a “victim” of a media society’s preference for shimmering, synthetic appearances and for effect rather than affect.

The first examples of this kind of double relationship with nature, a relationship of both passionate closeness and cold distancing, began to multiply in Sweden in the mid ’60s. In 1966, in an exhibition entitled “Nekromanti” (Necromancy), Ulrik Samuelson (born in 1935) ran a shimmering, undulating sheet of black corrugated plastic along one of the walls of the Galerie Hedenius in Stockholm, strewing it with artificial water lilies as if it were some vertical lake. An element in the tradition proper of Swedish landscape painting was the notion that the artist, by means of a convincing mimesis of the world seasoned with such formulas for “honesty” as expressionism and naivism, could make the work seem utterly transparent, a window on the world; “You don’t see the art, only pure nature,” was the best thing a critic could say about such painting. But Samuelson’s assertively artificial Nordic lake offered no hope of this kind of view.

Sprinkling his work with quotations from and references to art, Samuelson emphasizes the fact that his projection of nature is art—art as in “artificial,” a product of culture. Another, smaller wall piece in the “Nekromanti” show, for example, of the same opaque black plastic and the same artificial flowers, though more like a pond than a lake in size, quotes Edvard Munch’s image of a phallic, golden reflection of the moon in water in The Dance of Life, 1849, and other works. The scene in Munch’s painting is more like a dance of death than of life, and Samuelson’s black pond with its lifeless flowers seems also to deal with a morbidity that I think of as a particularly Nordic tradition. (It is worth noting that the element of the Munch painting that Samuelson quotes is itself a reflection.) The middle section of his triptych McLuhantrilogin (McLuhan trilogy, 1982–83), a winter landscape so candy-colored that it obviously has no counterpart in nature, seems to have Marcel Duchamp’s Pharmacie of 1914 as its referential trigger; cold, shiny, and inaccessible, and recalling certain Bavarian popular art painted on the underside of pieces of glass, the landscape shows itself to be a purely cultural construction rather than a window on “pure nature.” As if in emphasis, under this image of nature hangs a sign on which is written, in gold on black and in Fraktur, or German Gothic letters, the word Arkitekturen (The architecture). (Under the left-hand image, of a woman’s buttocks and flowerlike genitalia, is written, in the same script, Shulpturen [The sculpture]; under the right, a smiling self-portrait, the artist’s eyes covered by gingerbread cookies, is the word Måleriet [The painting].) Where the “Nekromanti” works took stiff plastic as the equivalent of lapping lake water (as lake water in rigor mortis) and applied it vertically to the wall, to architecture, here nature—or, rather, a representation of nature—is specifically labeled as architecture, as something built, constructed, according to set codes. Perhaps the deathliness that permeates the vitreous surfaces and antique lettering of McLuhantrilogin has to do with the passing of an illusion—about art, nature, culture, and the relationships among them.

A similar sense of artifice is conveyed by the work of Stig Sjölund (born in 1955). “Distance” is a key concept for Sjölund yet he has plunged into a feverishly exuberant brand of landscape painting, in which the sickly sweet merges with references to the sublime. It is characteristic of the double mood of his work that a series of his from 1985 was inspired not directly by any particular country scene but by the writing of the Marquis de Sade, specifically by de Sade’s account of his visit, in 1775, to the Falun copper mine in the Swedish wilderness. And when, in 1986, Sjölund showed manipulated color photographs along with his paintings, it seemed quite natural—in view of the tension he feels with the idea of the natural—that the photographs were more like paintings than the paintings themselves, and that the suns and moons shining over these abstract landscapes were derived from images of subjects ranging from the Chemobyl nuclear power plant, seen from the air, to sex aids. Here and in the de Sade material, what interests Sjölund seems to be the glue between nature and what a culture does with its idea of nature, rendering nature and culture indivisible.

The same intermingling of culture and nature is an important ingredient in the painting of Kjell Andersson (born in 1937). A full-fledged bricoleur, Andersson finds images and claims them for his own, highly personal aims, painting them on canvas in enlarged form. The basic shape may come from a jigsaw puzzle with a biblical motif, or from a piece of packaging; in Andersson’s hands, such artifacts reveal previously undiscovered landscapes. Each of the three panels in Den andra ön (The other island, 1983–84), for example, shows a form like an abstract human figure floating as if a ripple pattern in water, suggesting an elusive Man Friday on Robinson Crusoe’s island. The shape originates in a detail of an old snapshot that the artist happened upon in a drawer. The painting at once sets the detail in nature and removes it from it, for the image is repeated from canvas to canvas, in a color scheme of poisonous variants of the three primary colors, Modernism’s staple—red, yellow, and blue.

Andersson was raised in the small industrial town of Karlskoga, in the county of Värmland (the home of Selma Lagerlöf the turn-of-the-century novelist of Swedish rural life), and moved to Stockholm to attend a school of advertising. Sjölund grew up in a remote logging village in northern Sweden, but now also lives in Stockholm; he has immersed himself in the study of both historical and ongoing insular situations that the nine-to-five urban West might call “unnatural,” such as those of monastery life or of isolated communities. It is perhaps symptomatic that these two artists are working the territory of the double bind in recent Swedish landscape painting: they contain within their own histories a history of Sweden in this century, touching on its transition from rural to industrial and now to postindustrial life. In the course of some sixty years Sweden has developed from a poor, agrarian society to an affluent industrial nation to, since the mid ’60s, when this kind of landscape art began to appear, a postindustrial media society. It is in fact one of the world’s countries most reliant on computers, and the country with the greatest share of its production lines operated by industrial robots. Add to this the extremely high percentage of Swedes employed in the service sector, and the fact that the country has more VCRs per capita than any other, and you may even have to talk about Sweden as the most highly developed postindustrial nation. At the same time, the land is sparsely populated and embraces immense areas of wilderness, of what might be called “natural nature,” nature unmediated, and most of the first-and second-generation city dwellers who largely constitute the urban population, despite their world of digital and electronic networks, still keep a close relationship with rural Sweden.

Industrialism entails a structural opposition between nature and culture that is entirely foreign to agrarian society. As the Swedish industrial and welfare state emerged, the idea of nature came to represent the repository for the old ideals of simplicity, genuineness, and naturalness that Swedes have always valued. (By and large, Sweden shuns any high-flown or nationalistic enthusiasm for dramatic Nordic myth.) Here as elsewhere, tourists and painters alike discovered “natural nature": the wild rivers and rapids of the north, the barren limestone heaths of the island of Oland, the naked, rocky landscape of the west coast, splashed with salt water. And landscape, elsewhere often considered a minor genre, became the primary category of 20th-century Swedish painting—an intimate scene of the humble and of the preservation of the genuine. At the same time, landscape painting also reflected Sweden’s insularity, its opposition, again of long standing, to any kind of “internationalism.” This insularity has contributed decisively to another aspect of Swedish art: although well-informed, particularly during the last few decades, Swedish artists, with a few notable exceptions, have never participated fully in the events of the great artistic centers. Perhaps as a consequence, for better or worse, one finds few radical experiments with form in Swedish art, but mostly hybrids—though often of an intriguing kind.

In a way, one might say that there exists in Sweden a tradition that comes in handy in the new post-Modern situation. Today, when the nation has passed so rapidly through its industrial phase and on into a new postindustrial geography, Swedish painters find themselves with a heritage of landscape art to confront, along with a sense that the conditions that made it so important no longer hold, and that the values that once seemed invested in nature, in part as a reaction to the rapid encroachments of the industrial age, were not innate to it but planted there. To varying degrees, such a view affects not only sophisticated deconstructivists but nearly all the young Swedish artists who choose to tackle this Swedish specialty. Hanson is an obvious case. Even a relatively straightforwardly expressionist painter like Claes Eklundh (born in 1944) is unable to escape a curious position between the by-now-traditional Swedish sensibility for nature and the simulated landscapes and personas of the mediated world.

The double bind in the Swedish perception of nature is perhaps most dearly expressed in the works of Dick Bengtsson (born in 1936). At first sight, these seem firmly rooted in the Swedish tradition. They are of moderate size, and fairly modest in their color range; formally, the only details to differentiate them from the solid, restrained provincialism to which they appear to belong are a slight “dirtiness” in the coloring and a curious, perhaps deliberately clumsy drawing technique. In Landskap med kryka (Landscape with church, 1969), a field, a stone wall, and a church, embedded in thick foliage and bathed in evening light, seem a secure, “natural” motif, a true emblem of the Swedish tradition. One either is filled with nostalgia or dismisses the painting as unfit for the age, but quickly one notices another emblem in the lower left corner: a swastika. One’s heart turns a somersault. History and culture have penetrated what at first seemed an innocent scene, revealing the meanings that can lie behind such a picture. The juxtaposed emblems suggest interpretations but give the viewer no help in choosing among them. An obvious possibility, of course, is that Bengtsson is drawing a historical analogy between fascism and the specifically anti-Modern stance that in the ’30s became associated with the category of painting to which Landskap med kryha at first seems to belong. This kind of painting would have been quite at home in Nazi Germany, he seems to suggest. Or perhaps he is setting up a clash between two vocabularies of signs that exist in contradiction of each other, that even when set side by side in a painting communicate with each other only through reciprocal negation.

In Bengtsson’s Bergsvandrare (Mountaineers, 1974), three Wandervögel pass through a dramatic mountain landscape. Their backpacks take the form of Modernist paintings—a Wassily Kandinsky, a Wols, a Kasimir Malevich, perhaps. The picturesque mountain landscape could be an innocuous Sunday painting, of a similar ostensible innocence to that of the church scene in Landskap med kryka. Yet just as that painting bears a swastika, so these mountains and hikers, on reflection, recall the mountain landscapes of Third Reich art, with their message of a “pure” uncontaminated nature. In this context, Bengtsson may be showing the Nazi hatred of Modernism—Modernist art fleeing over the mountains. Or, in light of the later rigidity of Modernism, he may be implying that Modernist dogma secretly shares authoritarian values—the three healthy hikers seem very comfortable with the paintings on their backs. Observing the contradictions between these two readings, we may again feel that Bengtsson is setting up a confrontation between mutually exclusive signs, or drawing attention to the fact that this supposedly realistic scene is governed by esthetic and cultural conventions of construction. Once again, the work is calculated to lay a middle ground between oppositions that seem to allow none.

Bengtsson’s nature paintings are far removed from the plein air approach of his predecessors in the Swedish landscape tradition. Like Andersson and others, he finds images of nature as they appear in culture—in the inexhaustible supply of landscape images to be found in postcards, magazines, and so forth. (Both Bengtsson and Stig Sjölund like to quote the remark of Des Esseintes, the decadent hero of J.K. Huysman’s novel A rebours [Against the grain, 1884]: “La nature. . . . quel monotone magasin de prairies et d’arbres, quelle banale agence de montagnes et de mers!” [Nature . . . what a monotonous store of fields and trees, what a banal office of mountains and seas!]) And when Ola Billgren (born in 1940), the Swedish landscape painter of the ’80s par excellence, turned to lithography for a series entitled “19 romantiska landskap” (19 romantic landscapes, 1981–83), he based his prints on collages of reproductions torn or cut from newspapers, magazines, travel brochures, and art-history books—in other words, from the layered sediments of culture. Instead of the pantheistic unity of artist or viewer and nature sought in the romantic landscape proper, we find the fragments of collage, the distance of a technique that makes no claim of mimesis. The collage principle also asserts itself in Billgren’s painting, partly because he often proceeds from “sketches” incorporating a form of montage, partly because the layer painting he practices is after all itself a kind of collage. He shifts his elements from canvas to canvas, gliding from well-defined spaces with fore-, middle, and backgrounds to paintings like amorphous color clouds, paintings that seem to gush forth toward the viewer—soft, expansive, warm, moist. Or he cultivates the style of Monet’s late work: the surface is lyrically shimmering, as if whipped with a whisk and held in by a membrane of brushwork. Looking at Billgren’s works, we are tempted to probe what actually constitutes a landscape painting, to question whether certain “realist” elements are necessary (a horizon, a certain light, a certain sense of space), to think about the landscape tradition’s relationship with particular formats or color schemes. Thus armed, we set off into the romantic landscape.

Our guide is a double agent—his aim is to undermine the dogma of unity and genuineness that has formed part of the rhetoric accompanying Northern European landscape painting through its various stages since the beginning of the 19th century. That dogma has been an extension of that period’s hierarchic relationship between nature and culture, symbol and allegory, referent and sign: the first term in each pair has been seen as the primary, natural, and true element, the latter as secondary. Some observers have likened the changes in Swedish landscape painting during the last few decades to the transition from the refined representational mode of 18th-century European art to the emotionalism of the 19th, and there is some truth in this, yet I think the argument misses the point.A double movement is going on: at the same time that these artists aim for the kind of heightening of expression that occurred in the shift from 18th-to 19th-century art, they also seek a distance, a coolness. That movement in reverse is like a movement away from the 19th century’s Romantic view of nature as the true, and recalls certain aspects of the esthetics of the 17th and the first part of the 18th centuries, when the relation between nature and culture was seen as more balanced. Contemporary science was busy discovering natural laws—the laws of motion, the laws of gravity—and encouraging a view of the universe as a machine run by God. Neoclassical art both reflected the idea of a system of rules underlying nature and was itself governed by a system of rules. The correspondence between those systems was to establish a relationship of equivalence between art and nature quite unlike the philosophy of hierarchy of Romanticism.

In this context, it is important to note a recurring feature of Billgren’s “19 of romantiska landskap”—a carefully placed opening in the terrain, for example the space between columns of cypresses. Almost as in the paintings of Poussin, the trees stand out as stoic actors at the same time that they frame the horizon and endow the “infinite” space of the picture with an organized, scenic character. The comparison with a Neoclassical artist might seem to reflect a regression to the idea of a golden age before the disruptions of the modern period, but what is in fact the subtext here, I believe, is something very different from Neoclassicism—postmodernity, our current state. It is a state in which we question the Neoclassical view of the ordered world, the Romantic separation of nature and culture, the age-old duality between original and copy. The old terms can no longer be taken for granted; suddenly one is overcome by the suspicion that the categories that set them up have already collapsed. Artists like Billgren are moving in the open space left by the crumbling of the walls.

Lars Nittve is a senior curator at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Recently he curated two exhibitions of the work of Ulrik Samuelson in New York, at the New Museum and the American-Scandinavian Foundation Gallery. The latter show remains open until May 8.

Translated from the Swedish by Lars-Håkan Svensson.