Nils Dardel, Den döende dandyn (The Dying Dandy), 1918, oil on canvas, 55 × 70 7/8".

Nils Dardel, Den döende dandyn (The Dying Dandy), 1918, oil on canvas, 55 × 70 7/8".

Nils Dardel

Nils Dardel, Den döende dandyn (The Dying Dandy), 1918, oil on canvas, 55 × 70 7/8".

The January 1917 inaugural edition of flamman (The Flame), the Swedish art magazine founded by Georg Pauli, featured some of the artists who were by then already established as quintessential modernists, from Picasso to Kandinsky. Yet there were fresh names, too, including the Swedish painter Nils Dardel; among his better-known peers in the issue, Picabia is the one to whom he seems closest. And just as Dardel bumped up against Picabia’s style, the French artist seems to have caught Dardel fever in later works such as The Idol, 1940–41. “Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision against the play-it-safers, the creatures of the commonplace, the slaves of the ordinary”: Cecil Beaton’s famous imperative might as well have been a description of Dardel. The painter had a knack not just for keeping himself and his art slightly ajar but for serving up eccentricity and ambiguous sexuality, though it was all suitably distanced from gratuitous scandal; Huvudjägarens frukost (Headhunter’s Breakfast), 1940–42, showing cannibals feverishly dancing around shrunken heads lined up like so many cabbages in a grocer’s window, is a naughty folly worthy of the Bomarzo gardens or a Marx Brothers comedy. An underground legend for his dandyism à la mode, Dardel has become quietly essential to contemporary artists ranging from Elizabeth Peyton to Jason Dodge.

This long-awaited survey, “Nils Dardel and the Modern Age,” curated by John Peter Nilsson, explicates the artist’s sway on modern art and modern life. The starting point is Dardel’s deft theatricality—not only his vivid scenic designs for the Ballets Suédois but, more broadly, the dramatic themes and variations everywhere in his life’s work. Consider a coup de théâtre such as Dam i gröna pyjamas mördande herre i svarta (Lady in Green Pajamas Murdering a Man in Black), 1918: A nimble dramaturge, Dardel savors the piquant aftermath of crime and passion. Escorting us past the murder itself, the artist suggests something even more shocking: In death’s wake, life simply brims again, cocktails are poured, and the Victrola’s needle drops. In painting after painting, Dardel meditates on this modern morality tale.

The cast of Lady in Green Pajamas includes a maid and a dog, equally startled by the pistol’s pop. They are cast in the role of eyewitnesses a precarious one at best while the drama’s protagonist holds his pistol in hand. In an instant, the pooch will bark incessantly toward the noise intruding on his sleepy time. And rounding out the scene, as it always seems to do in Dardel’s works, is the deus ex machina, in this case taking the form of a Buddha smiling from behind the drawn bed-curtain; a godlike vision, it is affected, vivid, and stagey. Left to our mortal imagination is how the Enlightened One will ultimately resolve this shriller-than-shrill drama. The task doesn’t appear easy, even for a deity.

If such theatrics are the gist of Dardel’s art, he joins the ranks of other insightful storytellers with embedded methods of their own, from Euripides to Eudora Welty, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to David Foster Wallace. If it’s true that Dardel was better at telling modern stories than at making modern pictures, so be it. That’s no crime. Yet I can’t help but wonder what he might have done with a camera. Would he have become prematurely postmodern, concocting something on the order of Gregory Crewdson’s theater of the ordinary gone off the rails or making Cindy Sherman’s “fangs out, hair on fire” style seem unusually discerning? Well, Truman Capote had a thought about Cecil Beaton that, once again, might serve our estimation of Dardel. “The camera will never be invented that could capture or encompass all that he actually sees,” Capote declared, and as true as that might have been for Beaton, it goes double for Dardel.

Ronald Jones