John Bauer, Ännu sitter Tuvstarr och ser undrande ner i vattnet (Princess Tuvstarr Gazing Down Into the Dark Waters of the Forest Tarn), 1913, watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper. 9 7/8 × 10 5/8".

John Bauer, Ännu sitter Tuvstarr och ser undrande ner i vattnet (Princess Tuvstarr Gazing Down Into the Dark Waters of the Forest Tarn), 1913, watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper. 9 7/8 × 10 5/8".

John Bauer

In “Trollbunden—John Bauer och den magiska naturen” (Spellbound—John Bauer and the Magic of Nature), we are led into the dark heart of the Swedish artist’s style as it reflects a fin de siècle gothic revival in its levitating perspectives, processional poses, and tenebrous palette folded into the melancholic atmospheres of Nordic folklore. Equally committed to wandering through the mythic as a forest of symbols were Bauer’s belle epoque contemporaries such as his fellow Swede Agnes de Frumerie, Finland’s Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Hugo Simberg, Denmark’s Louis Moe, and Norway’s Theodor Kittelsen, whose works were also included in the show. All were enchanted by faeries’ capacity to join local tradition with avant-garde practices throughout Europe. These are works wrought in a glamoured naturalism, with allusions to medieval, Northern Renaissance, and Symbolist art and references to Anglo-Saxon peers such as Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac. Tales culled from the Tristan myth, Grimm stories, and so on coexist with those of forest dwellers: the water sprites, the Swan of Tuonela, the Finnish Maiden, ogres, and trolls.

Rather than depicting romantic forests in the idealist tradition, shimmering with bright possibility, Bauer’s landscapes are suspended in the ornamental dimness of psychic alienation. Skies are an expressionless pale white. Forest canopies blur into swaths of pure blackness, as in Stugan vid bergets fot (The Cottage at the Foot of the Mountain), 1914. Snow is a somber gray disturbed by traces of unseen inhabitants, while summer is only ever glimpsed in small speckles of white flowers tucked into moss. Vitreous lakes refract the lack of light, darkness visible in millpond stillness. Ännu sitter Tuvstarr och ser undrande ner i vattnet (Princess Tuvstarr Gazing Down into the Dark Waters of the Forest Tarn), 1913, is the exhibition’s emotional home. Tuvstarr, the child protagonist of many of author Helge Kjellin’s tales, has in Bauer’s depiction wandered from her home, a dream meadow, into a forest of perils. Her crown has been stolen by hellish elves and her silken dress snatched by a jealous witch. Her heart has sunk into the dark tarn, forever. In Bauer’s painting, a lamentation for what has been lost to the psychosocial impulses of the woodland inhabitants, Tuvstarr sits naked with her gaze locked on the impenetrable lake. Her reflection provides her with company: a foreboding double, or an impression of the self, that has dissolved into the mythos of the water—a character in its own right.

Fjords and lakes, ponds, seas, squalls, tempests, and snowfall in many artworks speak a watery idiolect of their own: a language of mute things, as Baudelaire might have it. Here we understand the significance of water and weather to the Scandinavian imaginary as emblems of catharsis, but also of premonition, grief, loss, and transformation. Mystical rites such as rolling naked in dew on a midsummer’s dawn or experiencing the self as it dissolves into the sauna’s commons are moments where a certain logic of distinction—between empirical nature and its magic call, self and other, civility and feral abandon, life and death—dissolves. Gallen-Kallela’s painting Vanitas, 1900, is a strange scene that seems to recall some Scandinavian version of the Sisyphus myth: Three men are seen suspended at the edge of a still lake, hauling a rock onto land. Kittelsen’s drawing Nøkken (Water Sprite), 1904, sinks us into the still reflections of pine trees inverted into a lupin-laced pond where the head of the supernatural creature peeks from under the surface. Though here found basking in the pleasant calm of a moonless summer night, the water sprite or nix is known to lure those who hear its song to a watery death.

As though moved forth by the sibylline impressions of the etiäinen, a Finnish spirit-entity of premonition, the works in “Trollbunden” find belle epoque emotionalism in the solemn atmosphere of Swedish lakes. Grief glitters on their surfaces. Perhaps the artist’s style was premonitory: Bauer, together with his wife, son, and twenty-one other people, would drown in a boating accident on Sweden’s Lake Vättern in 1918.