Lena Cronqvist

Liljevalchs Konsthall

Extremely well-known within Scandinavia, Lena Cronqvist remains virtually unknown elsewhere. The massive retrospective of over 100 paintings and numerous drawings selected from work done between 1964 and 1994 accorded to her this fall testifies to the esteem in which she is held in her own country.

The character of Cronqvist’s work derives in part from a period of mental illness during which she received a series of shock treatments. Grotesque, childish, shocking, often stunningly beautiful, the pictures seem to belong neither to the mainstream nor to what has come to be called “outsider art.” Occupying no clear place in the tradition, these works nevertheless involve references to it—to Francis Bacon, Edvard Munch, Alberto Giacometti, Pablo Picasso. At the same time they stand resolutely outside, depending more on the private realm for meaning than on any given link or set of links to the history of painting.

Ingela Lind, in her interesting catalogue essay, says that Cronqvist “creates with blood in her mouth.” Indeed mortality is everywhere in these pictures. Many of the early Bacon-influenced works show slaughterhouses or butchers at work. These mingle with images of vain authority figures and mystical countrysides or roadways. Cronqvist portrays actions or events in a strange and haunting space that is basically perspectival, yet somehow seems not to be. The family theme is prominent. Dim figures appear to be drowning in bathtubs or laid out stark as corpses in huge beds. In one work, a heavy-set woman is being examined by a doctor; in another, someone is kissing a corpse. In yet another, severed heads sit on a table.

A series of works made after seeing a performance by Pina Bausch in Venice show tableauxlike murder scenes. These are followed by a group of works portraying the artist at her dying mother's bedside, which leads to a series featuring the figure of a blonde girl, who is seven years old, with her little sister of about four. Both are usually naked and have red ribbons in their hair, their pudenda prominently displayed. They are fondled by a bald man in a T-shirt, ride a wheeled horse, wade in ankle deep water, hold cats that look dead—always with looks of dazed insensitivity on their faces. The older girl attempts to drown the younger; they dress cats as dolls; gorillas attend them. There is something going on between them that can't be seen, as if the older child exerted some kind of crude mastery over the younger. She strangles dolls. She stands in the moonlight naked. The bald man comes and puts his hands all over her.

Thomas McEvilley