Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss, Scenography 9: A Vietnamese oar folds out to a fan and forms a backdrop, Viet Nam Diskurs, 1968, 1967, mixed media, 11 5⁄8 x 23 3⁄8".

Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss, Scenography 9: A Vietnamese oar folds out to a fan and forms a backdrop, Viet Nam Diskurs, 1968, 1967, mixed media, 11 5⁄8 x 23 3⁄8".

Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss

Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss’s first solo exhibition at Moderna Museet comprised a small selection of drawings, collages, models, and ceramic objects made between 1964 and 1984. Curators Emily Fahlén and Asrin Haidari neither framed Palmstierna-Weiss as a craft artist nor produced a purely archival show revolving around her storied career in stage design. Instead, they drew from both aspects of her practice to propose a model for the contemporary artist beyond that informed by the idea of the solitary (and usually male) genius.

Palmstierna-Weiss was born in 1928 in Lausanne, Switzerland, and raised in Rotterdam and Vienna. After World War II, she left continental Europe behind to develop a politically engaged artistic practice in Stockholm. Her career in theater found her collaborating with such aesthetically and politically divergent figures as Ingmar Bergman and Peter Weiss, whom she married in 1964. Thanks in large part to her work on the costumes and set for Peter Brook’s production (and film) of Weiss’s most famous theater piece, Marat/Sade (1964), she is today counted as one of the most celebrated scenographers of postwar Europe.

“Gunilla Palmstierna-Weiss: Vivid Scenes 1964–1984” was primarily devoted to set models and costume sketches from legendary productions of Weiss’s plays: not only Marat/Sade but also the Swedish version of the play the writer based on the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, Die Ermittlung (The Investigation), directed by Bergman in 1966. Materially as well as formally, Palmstierna-Weiss’s designs took on a life of their own as autonomous artworks, separate from the larger theater production, where the director usually reigns supreme. For her stage architecture, Palmstierna-Weiss put an emphasis on function, drawing from art-historical styles such as De Stijl and Bauhaus. For her costumes she veered toward the absurd, as evidenced by the eclectic asylum inmates of Marat/Sade. Outside the realm of theater, she made ceramic sculptures such as Detail relief, Skåvsjöholm’s union house, 1960s, and Ceramic object, 1970s, which are abstract, meaty, and glossy.

By displaying Palmstierna-Weiss’s stage designs alongside her ceramics and public-art proposals, “Vivid Scenes” reflected on the relationship between the autonomous artist and the stage designer. The exhibition also built up a productive tension between the designs for the plays and the public context in which they were realized. Rather than cordoning off archival documents as background material, the exhibition presented Palmstierna-Weiss’s set designs side by side with press clippings and a documentary film montage by Staffan Lamm shot during the premiere of Weiss’s play Viet Nam Diskurs (Viet Nam Discourse) in Frankfurt in 1968. Lamm’s montage includes footage of Palmstierna-Weiss participating in a debate on the political function of radical theater for the working class in Germany. Here, we saw Palmstierna-Weiss emerge in yet another role, that of the public intellectual.

The strategy of juxtaposing archival materials, scenographic sketches, and models for public artworks and theater productions throughout the exhibition added up to more than a mere attempt to emphasize the aesthetic qualities of Palmstierna-Weiss’s professional output and thus elevate these objects to art. Instead, the show tapped into an idea of the artist’s role that is perhaps even more radical today than at the time. Rather than understanding Palmstierna-Weiss’s practice as something that conforms to the mold set by the egoistic male directors with whom she collaborated, the exhibition proposed that the artist always functions in response to a material reality—which in Palmstierna-Weiss’s case spanned from the expressive possibilities of ceramics, to the division of labor within the theater, to the political climate of postwar Europe. 

Instinctively, I would have liked “Vivid Scenes” to have been a grand exhibition in one of the main galleries in the museum, rather than a modest display in the Pontus Hultén Study Gallery. In the introduction to her 1976 book From the Center, Lucy Lippard raised the question of whether women want the same things that men have wanted and whether “greatness” in its present form is even desirable. From such a perspective, “Vivid Scenes” was an attempt to create another, perhaps even greater, kind of greatness.