Peter Johansson


Peter Johansson argues for the inclusion of vernacular Swedish folk art as yet another of society’s “Others,” but in the same gesture sets inclusion at cross-purposes with itself; he problematizes it as deftly as Fred Wilson does. But where Wilson instrumentalizes rude ceramic pickaninnies as divining rods locating lost African-American histories and masked racial attitudes, Johansson scans day-tripper souvenirs such as Dala horses for traces of Swedish National Romanticism, a cultural movement that began in the late nineteenth century.

The “otherness” Johansson reawakens is regional authenticity. Today’s typical “Swedishness” can be said to have been born in Anders Zorn’s studio in Sweden’s Dalecarlia region in the nineteenth century. Johansson’s art tropes Zorn’s nationalism, but then he warps it through the tourist’s Sweden lite, and freckles it with accumulated peccadilloes from the darker fringes of Swedish history. Such was the case in Little Sweden, the performance from 2000 when he turned a picturesque and typically Swedish little red cottage into a raft where three actors portraying skinheads lived, drank, and, inevitably, brawled. And Johansson’s Little Sweden parable rings true: Sweden’s “dangerous classes” have converted Zorn’s ideology of tolerant isolationism into something sinister. That Johansson’s exhibition stages a festival of troubled nationalism at the end of a year during which more people migrated to Sweden than in any other year since Zorn first considered the virtues of national purity only adds to the confusion.

The exhibition “Kunglig Majestat Pluralis” (The Royal We) possesses all the dimwitted novelty of Goofy Golf. Theatrical drapes snake around on automated tracks, encircling and ex abrupto revealing wacky mise-en-scènes as if seen through the eyes of Zorn’s Dalecarlia community on crack. There are fluttering Swedish flags, stockpiles of garden gnomes, rustic backyard birdhouses featuring revues of silly birds, bags upon bags of the unpalatable but addictive Swedish snack OLW Potato Squiggles, and a miniature version of Stockholm’s adored tourist attraction the Sultan’s Copper Tents—the architectural crown jewel of Haga Park, a landscape precursor of National Romanticism. Johansson’s point, made ad nauseam, is that Swedish nationalism has been boiled down into burlesque slapstick. But after years of exhibitions like this one a crucial question remains open: Why repeatedly lampoon the impurity of modern Swedish life if not to reinstate the bona fides of being Swedish and replenish homeland culture? Or is Johansson of a mind with Martin Kippenberger, who with faux innocence and clowning sarcasm could address German nationalism with pictures such as Bitte nicht nach Hause schicken (Please Don’t Send Me Home), 1983? Is Johansson forever homesick or sick of home?

Contempt is appropriate when the amity that eventually developed between National Romanticists and Nazis comes up, as it did, for example, in the life and career of sculptor Carl Milles, but in early incarnations National Romanticism deserves appreciation as a forward-thinking movement. Even in coming to terms with the anti-Semitic völkische movement, the German historian Fritz Stern, in his book The Politics of Cultural Despair (1961), accepted that for late-nineteenth-century intellectuals an imaginary past could be the catalyst for an imagined future. Likewise with National Romanticism. Unable to come to terms with modernism, Zorn and his Scandinavian contemporaries invented their own Nordic or Germanic legacy that, however delusional, was not entirely retardataire. Zorn envisioned the movement as an advanced society of close-knit communities that, while anti-bourgeois and anti-urban, was nonetheless pro-labor and pro-feminist. It is possible to speak of authentic National Romanticism prior to 1914 without invoking National Socialism—as a progressive regional movement with profound international implications that still resonate. Not least for this reason has Sweden become, as political columnist Polly Toynbee put it in the pages of The Guardian, the “most successful society the world has ever known.” Exploiting National Romanticism as some generic ideology is naive and renders Swedish nationalism in shades of artless incomprehension.

Ronald Jones