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Critical Studies

in the Nordic Countries 1900-1925

Klaus Beekman

Associate Editors
Sophie Berrebi, Ben Rebel,
Jan de Vries, Willem G. Weststeijn

International Advisory Board

Henri Béhar, Hubert van den Berg,
Peter Bürger, Ralf Grüttemeier,
Hilde Heynen, Leigh Landy

Founding Editor
Fernand Drijkoningen†

A Cultural History of the Avant-Garde in the Nordic Countries vol. 1

Series editors: Tania Ørum and Marianne Ping Huang

Edited by
Hubert van den Berg
Irmeli Hautamäki
Benedikt Hjartarson
Torben Jelsbak
Rikard Schönström
Per Stounbjerg
Tania Ørum
Dorthe Aagesen

Editorial assistant:
Marianne Ølholm

Amsterdam - New York, NY 2012

Interior design: Anne Houe

Cover design: Aart Jan Bergshoeff

Cover poem: Emil Bønnelycke, New York, Klingen Vol. 2 No. 9, 1918

All titles in the Avant-Garde Critical Studies series (from 1999 onwards)
are available to download from the Ingenta website

The paper on which this book is printed meets the requirements of “ISO
9706: 1994, Information and documentation - Paper for documents -
Requirements for permanence”.

ISBN: 978-90-420-3620-8
E-Book ISBN: 978-94-012-0891-8
Editions Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam - New York, NY 2012
Printed in The Netherlands




The Early Twentieth Century Avant-Garde and the Nordic
Countries – An Introductory tour d’horizon

Nordic Icons in the European Avant-Gardes 67

Rebels and Renegades – Strindberg, Artaud and the Avant-Garde

Munch’s Impact on Europe


Die Asta and the Avant-Garde


“the manifold in one / and the one manifold”
– Asta Nielsen as an Icon for the European Avant-Garde

Nordic Artists in the European Metropolises 119


Nordic Writers and Artists in Paris before, during and after
World War I


Académie Matisse and its Relevance in the Life and Work of
Sigrid Hjertén
Jean Börlin and Les Ballets Suédois


“From the North comes the light to us!” – Scandinavian Artists
in Friedrichshagen at the Turn of the Century


Berlin and the Swedish Avant-Garde – GAN, Nell Walden,
Viking Eggeling, Axel Olson and Bengt Österblom


Icelandic Artists in the Network of the European Avant-Garde –
The Cases of Jón Stefánsson and Finnur Jónsson

Locations of the Nordic Avant-Garde 251


The Avant-Garde and the Market


Promoting the Young – Interactions between the Avant-Garde
and the Swedish Art Market 1910-1925


The Avant-Garde and the Danish Art Market


Art Metropolis for a Day – Copenhagen during World War I


Kandinsky in Sweden – Malmö 1914 and Stockholm 1916


The National and the International in Ultra (1922) and
Quosego (1928)
Avant-Garde Encounters on Karelian Bedrock (1890s-1930s)


The Pavilion of De 14




Copenhagen Swordplay – Avant-Garde Manoeuvres and
the Aesthetics of War in the Art Magazine Klingen (1917-1920)


Dada Copenhagen

Transmission, Appropriations and Responses 417


The Reception of the Early European Avant-Gardes in Sweden


Pär Lagerkvist’s Literary Art and Pictorial Art


The Finland-Swedish Avant-Garde Moments


Danish Expressionism


Avant-Gardism Danish Style –
Jais Nielsen as a Modern Genre Painter 1916-18


Jóhannes Kjarval’s Appropriation of Progressive Attitudes
in Painting between 1917 and 1920
The Modern Breakthrough in Swedish and
Scandinavian Art Music


Dancing across Copenhagen

Politics, Ideology, Discourse 531


Avant-Garde Activism – The Case of the New Student
Society in Copenhagen (1922-24)


Finnish Nationalism and the Avant-Garde


Multilingualism and (De)territorialisation in the Works
of Elmer Diktonius


Hilma af Klint and the New Art of Seeing


Art as a Revolutionary Dionysian Jaguar –
Otto Ville Kuusinen, Elmer Diktonius and the Emergence
of Avant-Garde Poetry in Finland


The Early Avant-Garde in Iceland


Legacies of the Early Nordic Avant-Gardes 631

Abstracts 645

Index 661

A Cultural History of the Avant-Garde in the Nordic Countries is con-

ceived as a four volume work dealing with the aesthetic avant-gardes
in the Nordic countries (mainly Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Nor-
way, and Sweden) throughout the twentieth century. It covers a wide
range of avant-garde manifestations in arts and culture: literature,
the visual arts and painting, as well as photography, architecture and
design, film, radio, television, video and digital multimedia, and per-
forming arts such as music, theatre and dance. It is the first major
historical work to consider the Nordic avant-gardes in a wide
transnational perspective which includes all of the arts and to discuss
the role of the avant-gardes not only within the aesthetic field, but
also within a broader cultural context.

A Cultural History
That is why this is not just another art history or literary history. As
a cultural history of the Nordic avant-garde the present work does
not concentrate exclusively on new aesthetic notions, styles and tech-
niques. It also examines the social and cultural contexts of the avant-
garde: its media, its locations, its reception and audiences, the
transmissions between Scandinavia and Europe, and its cultural con-
sequences. The first volume thus looks at the experimental activities
carried out by Nordic artists and writers as well as the connections
between the avant-garde and the cultural discourses of currents such
as revolutionary socialism, radical nationalism and occultism. Here,
the avant-gardes may be linked to discussions of gender, of ideology
and politics (war, violence, revolutionary and nationalist appropria-
tions of or reactions against the aesthetic movements), of places and
locations (urban centres, magazines, galleries), of technological in-
novations and media, of science (physics, mathematics, linguistics,

psychoanalysis etc.). By approaching the avant-garde not merely as

a collection of aesthetic works by a small number of isolated indi-
viduals and groupings, the cultural history focuses on the role of the
avant-garde in shaping the ideas of cultural modernity and national
identity in the Nordic countries. It describes how avant-garde mani-
festations were perceived, assessed, adopted, criticised or rejected in
the aesthetic field as well as in society at large. This also includes a
diachronic aspect: the acceptance and canonisation as well as the cri-
tique of previous avant-garde developments in later periods.

A Transnational and Cross-Aesthetic Perspective

The cultural history of the avant-garde rejects the national perspec-
tive prevailing in most accounts of twentieth century Nordic literary
and art history. Thus it fills a historiographical lacuna. Avant-garde
endeavours in Scandinavia are considered in their relations to inter-
national aesthetic movements. The documentation of the presence
of Nordic artists in European avant-garde networks, and the con-
tinuous discussion of the transmission, reception and adaptation of
international movements in the Nordic countries are among the most
conspicuous aspects of these relations. The four volumes of this his-
tory trace Nordic participation in the European avant-garde and
make it accessible to an international readership unacquainted with
Nordic languages.
Just as important as this empirical documentation of voices from
a northern European periphery, however, is the underlying funda-
mental shift of perspective. Right from the start, the avant-garde was
itself transnational. It was rarely confined to one country, one lan-
guage, or one nationality. Regarded within a national framework,
avant-gardist enterprises often seem isolated, sporadic and fragmen-
tary. Even in literary histories, for example, some of the experiments
remained strange, incomprehensible or unreadable for decades, be-
cause they lacked an ideational and cultural framework. The transna-
tional perspective sheds light on them as systematic aesthetic
endeavours within widespread conglomerates and international net-
works of travelling artists, exhibitions and periodicals.
The point is not to construct a ‘Nordic avant-garde’ as a homo-
geneous entity. Nordic artists often gathered in small colonies in
Paris and other European centres, and during World War I Nordic

cities such as Copenhagen were certainly important meeting places

for Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic and international artists, often
serving as gateways to cultural centres on the European continent.
In most cases, inter-Nordic contacts were, however, no more impor-
tant than other European connections. That is why we do not take
the concept of a ‘Nordic’ avant-garde for granted, but rather see it
as one possibility among many for forming networks. Sometimes it
was privileged, sometimes it was not. On the other hand, the idea of
the ‘Nordic’ – as a discursive and ideological construct – formed part
of the negotiations of the European avant-gardes. In the European
context, Scandinavian, Finnish and Icelandic artists had to deal with
stereotypes of the ‘Nordic’. Some of these stereotypes were also part
of the cultural discourse within the Nordic countries. The contribu-
tions thus discuss ‘the Nordic’ as a dynamic discursive formation
rather than a fixed entity.
Our cultural history is not divided into a series of parallel national
histories. It has abandoned the linear chronology of traditional art
history. It also transcends the division between the arts – and be-
tween art and other aesthetic and cultural activities. The avant-garde
was characterised by its violation of systemic borders. It went be-
yond the established institutions of art and even contested the divi-
ding line between ‘art’ and ‘life’. Often the avant-gardes travelled in
the zones between high and popular culture. Given the cross-medi-
ality and cross-aesthetic intentions of the avant-garde, the structure
of this history cannot, of course, treat each of the institutionalised
arts separately. Instead, its organisation is thematic.

The Avant-Garde Perspective

The keyword of this cultural history is avant-garde. Avant-garde is
used as the denomination for a conglomerate of heterogeneous
transnational networks of movements, currents, groups, schools, in-
dividual writers and artists, aesthetic activities, journals, galleries,
happenings etc. which emerged in the first decades of the twentieth
century and have lived on until now. The movements did not agree
on much; the radical aesthetic movements and activities which we
treat as ‘avant-garde’ were marked by many internal differences. The
avant-garde is often in-between: Here we encounter complex con-
flicts between and intertwinements of formalism and realism, eso-

terism and extrovert political action, detachment from society and a

quest for new fusions of art and everyday life.
Nevertheless it is possible to discern a sense of mutual opposition
to the cultural, aesthetic and artistic norms and institutions then in
force. In the attempt to create new aesthetic practices, the avant-
gardes radically challenged the hegemonic practices, the institutions,
the genres, the idea of the organic work of art and of the individual,
romantic artist-genius – and even the social and cultural place of art
as such. At the same time new forms, procedures and expressions
were introduced. The focus frequently shifted from the internal qual-
ities of the autonomous work of art to actions, events and interven-
tions. The performative quality of avant-garde activities was most
visible in the actions which disrupted and scandalised established
high art. The formal experiments of the avant-gardes may, however,
also be seen as demonstrative interventions within a specific cultural
and artistic situation rather than as perfect artefacts with a claim to
The avant-garde is no given and fixed entity. Even attempts to call
it an unfinished project run the risk of putting too much emphasis
on the mutual efforts within the many avant-garde networks. Instead
‘avant-garde’ should be seen as a historiographical and theoretical
perspective. It is a question which we ask. The question is: What hap-
pens if we view a group of radical aesthetic activities as avant-garde?
What will look different, what will become strange and unfamiliar,
and what will be readable and comprehensible, if we view the Nordic
cultural and aesthetic history of the twentieth century from an avant-
garde point of view?
We do not take the answer for granted. This also means that we
do not presuppose any theoretical consensus. Several notions of the
avant-garde are introduced and discussed throughout the many
pages of this cultural history. This is also due to differences between
the scholarly traditions of, for example, literary history and art his-
tory. In the tradition of Peter Bürger and others, some of the authors
define a specific project as the quintessence of the avant-garde; this
frequently implies a clear opposition between the avant-gardes and
modernism. Scholars drawing upon Bourdieu’s sociological analysis
of the artistic field, on the other hand, tend to include great parts of
modernism in the artistic positions which they label as avant-garde.
A notion of the avant-garde as a complex and dynamic fluid network

of contacts, collaboration (and of course competition and even

hostility) lies behind many of the individual sections – and behind
parts of the composition of the individual volumes of this cultural
history. What our volumes and contributions have in common, how-
ever, is not a theoretical foundation, but rather an obligation to dis-
cuss a certain perspective: a group of Nordic aesthetic activities as
The central claim of this new cultural history of the Nordic avant-
gardes is that a specific transnational and cross-aesthetic focus on
the avant-garde can serve as a historiographical corrective to previ-
ous literary histories, art histories etc. It opposes their frequently
one-point perspective, i.e. their focus on the individually established
arts in a national perspective, but also the underlying modernist
norms which have led to a neglect or underappreciation of important
aesthetic activities and connections within the aesthetic field, espe-
cially those taking place outside or between the established genres.
Our avant-garde perspective will emphasise the collaboration and
exchange between individual arts and separate national traditions.
In this way, the avant-garde perspective may also shed light on cen-
tral aspects of the cultural history of the region.

Temporal Framework and Structure of the Avant-Garde History

Together, these volumes relating avant-garde history will cover the
twentieth century. The compositional principle underlying the divi-
sion of the century into four volumes is purely formal and mathe-
matical. Each volume in turn deals with a quarter of the century:
1900-1925, 1925-1950, 1950-1975, and 1975-2000. As a starting
point, the dates are demonstratively arbitrary – and not organically
related to any inner unity or even coherence. Of course the avant-
garde did not begin from scratch at the turn of the century; we do
not want to participate in the rhetoric of rupture which has been
widespread in avant-garde historiography and which often involves
an uncritical reproduction of the rhetorical gestures of the avant-
garde itself. Instead of presupposing a motivated periodisation, a
formal model is experimentally chosen as a heuristic and practical
On the other hand, the division into four equal quarters reflects
important shifts in the history of the avant-garde – as well as in its

cultural, social, political and technological contexts. Through the vol-

umes we move from the early avant-garde’s reactions against high
capitalism to the globalised late modernity of the neo-avant-gardes.
On a political level, the twentieth century was in some aspects an age
of extremes with a complex interplay between political and aesthet-
ical radicalisation: the growth of revolutionary movements around
World War I, the polarised thirties, the power balance during the
Cold War etc. Within communication technology, dominance shifted
from the printed media to film, radio, TV and the internet. The
avant-gardes were eager to explore the possibilities of new media.
At the same time bourgeois high culture became marginalised by a
growing cultural industry. Each of these cultural fields might allow
for a separate periodisation. Tracing the dominant avant-garde
movements would be only one choice among many.
In the volume 1900-1925 we trace Nordic responses to the break-
through of the early avant-garde movements in the years around
1910. The dominant Nordic avant-gardes were most of all inspired
by fauvism, cubism, futurism, expressionism, and later on by
dadaism and constructivism. Their aesthetic horizon was constituted
by the institutionalised bourgeois high arts. The movements often
defined themselves against the academies and used new channels of
distribution. The printed media were dominant, but the introduction
of film, telephone and the idea of wireless communication provided
an important background for avant-garde activities – and part of
their vocabulary. Nationalist discourses were widespread, not least
in nation-building countries such as Finland, Iceland and Norway.
From their point of view, the avant-gardes formed a problematic in-
ternational attack on tradition and local identity.
The volume 1925-1950 traces the dissolution of the first wave of
avant-gardism. Journals folded, groups dissolved etc. Internationally,
surrealism became the dominant avant-garde movement within both
literature and painting. But we also see a continuation of construc-
tivism and its specific Nordic variants ‘functionalism’ or ‘funkis’. In
Sweden this functionalist style within architecture and design was
even embraced and appropriated by official culture – as part of a so-
cial democratic claim for modernity. Avant-garde endeavours thus
became part of the formation of the modern Scandinavian welfare
project. This volume also focuses on Cobra as a major avant-garde
movement with substantial Nordic involvement.

The volume 1950-1975 deals with the new post-war situation. The
sixties represented a major breakthrough for new avant-garde move-
ments, often referred to as the neo-avant-gardes. The term is quite
problematic, but it reflects radical shifts in cultural context: the dis-
semination of new media, the emergence of an affluent consumer
society in which the cultural industry became the new dominant cul-
ture, and the rise of new youth cultures. All of this challenged the
divisions between high and popular culture. The term also reflects a
dialogue with the early avant-garde, marked by continuation as well
as critical distance from its elitism and aesthetic totalitarianism. The
new avant-gardes were an important part of the process whereby
early post-modernist aesthetics challenged notions of, for example,
history. This was also a period of systematic attempts to re-introduce
and re-vitalise the early Nordic and European avant-gardes. In this
period, a massive institutionalisation of the avant-garde took place
through institutions such as Moderna Museet in Sweden.
The volume 1975-2000 carries the avant-garde discussion forward
to present-day avant-gardes, challenged by globalisation and new in-
teractive media such as the internet. This volume also includes re-
flections on the present boom in scholarly attention to the

Case Studies
An overall chronology lies behind the division of this history of the
Nordic avant-gardes into four volumes. The individual volumes and
sections, however, are not organised into a comprehensive linear nar-
rative. They consist of groups of essays, each studying a separate
case. We do not treat ‘the Nordic avant-garde’ as a totality; instead
we map it on the basis of its aspects. The history is constructed by
building a network of interrelated cases with several recurring nodal
points. The comparative, cross-aesthetic and inter-Nordic perspec-
tive is also achieved as an effect of this montage.

A Thematic Structure – Volume 1900-1925

The individual volumes of the avant-garde history are divided into
thematic sections which are not identical throughout the four vol-
umes, but all of which may be seen as aspects of a history of the

avant-garde which focuses on aesthetic strategies as well as its cul-

tural context and social impact.
The volume 1900-1925 describes the traffic, exchanges and trans-
missions between the European centres and the Nordic countries
which made the avant-garde a part of twentieth century Nordic cul-
ture. It is divided into five sections, each of which is introduced by a
general framework. The five sections have a lengthy introduction and
a short epilogue.
The title of the first section is Icons, which discusses the role of
Nordic artists who were not themselves part of the avant-garde
movements, but who achieved an iconic status in the European
avant-gardes. These are the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, the
Swedish writer August Strindberg and the Danish film star Asta
Nielsen. This focus on artists who were not necessarily avant-gardists
themselves – including a popular actress, who as a film star was nei-
ther regarded as part of high culture nor of the artistic field – marks
the shift from an art history of the avant-garde to a cultural history
which among other things focuses on the discourse of the avant-
gardes. The perception of artists such as Strindberg and Munch also
included notions of the ‘Nordic’ which became part of the negotia-
tions of art and culture in Germany and France. Because of the
Scandinavian ‘modern breakthrough’ in the tradition of Georg Bran-
des, Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg, Nordic artists could still
be associated with a sort of aesthetic radicalism.
The second section, Nordic Artists in the European Metropolises,
deals with Nordic artists participating in the activities of the Euro-
pean avant-gardes in two geographical centres of the European
avant-garde: Paris and Berlin. This section reconstructs some of the
networks linking Nordic and other European avant-gardes.
The third section moves from the European cultural capitals to
the Nordic countries. The title, Locations of the Nordic Avant-Garde,
is significant. Instead of a linear narrative, the authors describe the
topology of the Nordic avant-gardes. Through the mapping of this
topology, important parts of the cultural context of the avant-gardes
are reconstructed. The section discusses geographical locations, e.g.
the role of Copenhagen as a meeting point for avant-garde artists
during World War I. But it also deals with the institutions and media
which became important avant-garde locations: the art market, the
galleries, the little magazines. Independent magazines and galleries

were fundamental preconditions for the emergence and dissemina-

tion of avant-garde aesthetics.
The section on Transmission, Appropriation, Responses moves
closer to the aesthetic expressions of the Nordic avant-gardes. It dis-
cusses the reception, appropriation and adaptation of avant-garde
impulses in the Nordic countries. This section is primarily concerned
with the marketing of the avant-garde by means of programmatic
statements and other gestures, and it deals with the introduction of
labels such as ‘expressionism’ and ‘futurism’ and the development of
avant-garde groups in Helsinki and Copenhagen.
Finally the section on Politics, Ideology, Discourse describes some
of the discursive and ideological contexts of the early avant-garde.
It focuses, inter alia, on the connections between the avant-garde and
politics. Case studies discussing the association with revolutionary
communist movements in Denmark and Finland show the complex-
ity of a classical topic in avant-garde theory. Just as important, how-
ever, is the ideological instrumentalisation of the avant-garde as a
sort of demonised non-national other in the discourse of national-
ism; the case studies here focus on Finland and Iceland. A study on
Hilma af Klint focuses on the links between avant-garde and oc-
In this volume, there is no separate section on the large-scale po-
litical and social impact of the avant-gardes. This is due to the fact
that the first quarter of the twentieth century was a phase charac-
terised by the emergence and introduction of the avant-garde includ-
ing the controversies following this introduction. Since then, the
avant-garde has been a cultural fact in the Nordic countries. An Epi-
logue sketches some of the threads that connect this early avant-
garde to the aesthetic and cultural modernity of the Nordic countries
in the twentieth century.
Many people have been involved in preparing and finishing this
volume. The editors would like to thank all of them and especially
Anja Skoglund, Thomas Hvid Kromann, Martin Glaz Serup, and
Barnaby Dicker for their valuable assistance.

The editors are grateful for the support from NordForsk, Ny Carls-
bergfondet and Augustinus Fonden.

Hubert van den Berg

The Nordic countries have played only a marginal role in existing

historiographic studies of the classical avant-garde. General accounts
of the aesthetic avant-garde in the first decades of the twentieth cen-
tury focus, as a rule, on the manifestations of this avant-garde in the
main Western-European cultural capitals of the period (cf. Pio-
trowski 2009). While metropolises like Paris and Berlin were un-
doubtedly pivotal to the development of the avant-garde as a whole
(cf. Bradbury/McFarlane 1978, Casanova 2004, Hultén 1978), there
can be no doubt that the avant-garde was not confined to these cities.
The main centres of avant-garde activity were not isolated bulwarks,
but rather market places where the transnational avant-garde met –
stemming from and giving new impulses to a plethora of smaller and
larger pockets of resistance, which constituted an interrelated net-
work of avant-gardists throughout Europe (with links to other con-
tinents as well). This wider presence is receiving increased attention,
marking a shift in general surveys of the avant-garde (cf. van den
Berg/Fähnders 2009). However, a comprehensive account of the pres-
ence of the avant-garde in Northern Europe is still missing. An ad-
mirable, but all too brief, inventory of the avant-garde in the Nordic
countries appeared as an exhibition catalogue some fifteen years ago
(cf. Moberg 1995), and since then monographic studies and exhibi-
tion catalogues devoted to single Nordic artists or movements (cf.
Ahlstrand 2000, Askeland 1987) and locations, in particular in Den-
mark (cf. Aagesen 2002, Alin/Kjerström Sjölin 1997, Jelsbak 2006)
20 Hubert van den Berg

have appeared. Yet the wider panorama of the avant-garde in the

Nordic countries remains a desideratum. Whereas this collection of
essays does not aim to present a comprehensive history of the clas-
sical avant-garde in the Nordic countries, it does aim to fill the lacuna
referred to above on two fronts, by approaching both avant-garde
manifestations in the Nordic countries and the participation of
artists from the Nordic countries in avant-garde ventures abroad.0

Nordic Artists in the European Avant-Garde

This collection documents the presence of Nordic artists in Paris and
Berlin from the fauvist origins of the avant-garde to constructivism
in the early twenties. Although several dozen artists from the Nordic
countries can be found in these European avant-garde centres in the
first decades of the twentieth century, there can be no doubt that the
majority played only minor roles in the transnational arena. Their
written work did not have the international circulation of the poems
and manifestos of Guillaume Apollinaire, Filippo Tommaso Mari-
netti, Theo van Doesburg/I.K. Bonset, Kasimir Edschmid, Ivan
Goll, Kurt Schwitters or Tristan Tzara. In the field of the visual arts,
Nordic artists could be found in private academies of internationally
renowned avant-garde painters, like the Parisian Académie Matisse
(cf. Cohen 2001) and Académie Moderne of Othon Friesz, Ferdi-
nand Léger, André Lhote and Amadée Ozenfant (cf. Derouet 1992),
the classes of Aleksandr Archipenko in Berlin (cf. Terman Frederik-
sen 1987-88 I), the Dresden Kunstschule Der Weg (cf. Kesting 1925)
or the Bauhaus in Weimar (cf. Askeland 1987). Some of them became
important players in their respective national cultural fields, like the
Swedes Sigrid Hjertén and Isaac Grünewald, the Norwegians Jean
Heiberg and Henrik Sørensen (cf. Ahlstrand 2000, Werenskiold 1972)
or the Finn Tyko Sallinen (cf. Ilmonen 1999, Levanto 1987). Others
received little contemporary recognition in their home countries, like
the Dane Franciska Clausen and the Norwegians Ragnhild Kaarbø,
Ragnhild Keyser, and Charlotte Wankel, who were all doubly handi-
capped as female avant-garde painters (cf. Kielgast 2006). Another
case is the Icelandic Finnur Jónsson, who dropped the constructivist
style he had developed in Dresden when he returned to Iceland, since
his abstract work found little appreciation in the mid-twenties; recog-
nition followed only after World War II (cf. van den Berg 2006b).
An Introductory tour d’horizon 21

A handful of artists with a background in the Nordic countries

were players on the transnational art scene – rather than Nordic
artists working for a certain period in an international context –
spending most, if not all, of their active artistic life outside Scandi-
navia. Rolf de Maré, Jean Börlin and their Ballets Suédois were
involved in theatrical and cinematic experiments in the context
of Dada and surrealism in Paris, notably in the staging of Francis
Picabia’s ballet Relâche, scored by Erik Satie and boasting a film
Entr’acte directed by René Clair (cf. Mas 2008, Sanouillet 1993). Nell
Walden, born Roslund in Landskrona, was the second wife of the
editor of the Berlin avant-garde journal Der Sturm and the owner
of the eponymous art gallery, Herwarth Walden. Although Herwarth
Walden was the nominal head of both the journal and gallery, Nell
Walden was no less pivotal to the enterprise as an eminence grise, not
least in supplying economic support for Der Sturm from 1912 to
1924 (cf. Ahlstrand 2000, Alms/Steinmetz 2000, van den Berg 2005b,
2009, Mark 1999).
Despite his very Scandinavian first (or actually, second) name and
his Swedish passport, Helmuth Viking Eggeling, son of a German
immigrant, had virtually no relationship with Sweden. Apart from
his youth which he spent in Lund – he left Sweden at the age of sev-
enteen in 1897 – Eggeling belonged to the international cultural
arena in Germany, France and (for a short time during World War
I) Switzerland, and was not only involved in Dada in Zurich but also
one of the protagonists of constructivism, laying the foundations for
abstract experimental avant-garde film (cf. O’Konor 1971, 2006).
Eggeling is now regarded in Sweden as a major Swedish avant-garde
figure; however, it took many decades before he entered Swedish art
history at all. In the first half of the twentieth century he was prob-
ably regarded as being no more Swedish than Ivan Puni might be re-
garded as being Finnish. Puni was born in the – now Russian – town
of Kuokkala/Repino on the Karelian Isthmus in 1892, when the
summer resort was still within the borders of the Grand-Duchy of
Finland, yet was of Russian descent and as such not seen as an
avant-garde artist with a Finnish background (cf. Berninger/Cartier
The cases of Eggeling and Puni are demonstrative of the complex
cultural geography related to the activities of the avant-garde in the
early twentieth century. Similar examples can be found in the case
22 Hubert van den Berg

of two key figures of the early European avant-garde, Emil Nolde

and Emmy Hennings, who came from the Danish-German border
country of Schleswig and were part-Danish, both in terms of their
ancestry and acculturation (cf. Bak/Ørskou 2009, Echte 1999 and
Reetz 2001). Schleswig had been under Danish rule for centuries and
also had a strong Danish element, but became Prussian in 1864. In
1920, the Northern part of Schleswig – North of Sønderå and Flens-
burg – was returned to Denmark. Nolde’s self-chosen family name
(he was born in 1867 as Emil Hansen) points to his birthplace: the
small hamlet Nolde, now just north of the Danish-German border,
marked by the stream Sønderå. Part of his early artistic development
took place in Copenhagen. However, Nolde regarded himself as a
(Frisian) German and would become a protagonist of German
painterly expressionism as a German artist in his role of member of
the Dresden expressionist group Die Brücke. He maintained close
relations with the border region, where he lived in the summer period
on a regular basis from 1903, first on the island Als and later in the
North-Frisian marshland near the Sønderå. In 1926, Nolde settled
in Seebüll, only a few kilometers south of the Sønderå on the Ger-
man side and became involved in German nationalist and national-
socialist politics in the Danish governed Northern Schleswig. This
did not prevent him from becoming one of the prime targets in the
Nazi campaign against Entartete Kunst; in 1941 he was officially pre-
vented from painting any more. His background played an impor-
tant role in the stylisation of the expressionism of Die Brücke as a
“Nordic expressionism” in the 1920s and 1930s – in contrast to the
Munich-based Der Blaue Reiter with its Russian protagonist,
Kandinsky (cf. Saehrendt 2005).
The expressionist poetess and cabaret artist Emmy Hennings,
who was one of the key figures of expressionist Bohemian sub-cul-
ture in Munich and Berlin, co-founder with Hugo Ball of the
Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich and a prominent representative of the
Zurich Dada movement in 1916-17, was born in the bilingual town
of Flensburg in 1885 (cf. Pust 2000/01). In her early years as an actor
and variety artist, she frequently performed on stages in the Ger-
man-Danish border region. Part of her repertoire as a cabaret singer
was in Danish, and traces of Danish popular folklore can be found
in her poetry (for instance in Cabaret Voltaire). Eggeling stayed in
Flensburg for several years as well and there is a strong possibility
An Introductory tour d’horizon 23

that either Hennings or Eggeling directed Hans Arp towards the

Danish word skypumpe (whirlwind, hurricane), which, transposed
into German, became the title of Arp’s Dada collection of poems:
Die Wolkenpumpe (The Pump of Clouds, cf. Arp 1919, 1920).
Like Puni, neither Nolde nor Hennings can be regarded as Nordic
artists, having been born German nationals, although Nolde was to
receive Danish citizenship as Northern Schleswig became part of
Denmark again in 1920, although he was not of Danish, but of
Frisian-German, origin). The cubist and constructivist, Franciska
Clausen might, on the other hand, be regarded as Nordic, having
been born in 1899 in the Danish, then German, governed town of
Aabenraa, and having lived and studied in her early years in Munich
and Berlin before returning to Denmark in the 1930s after a longer
stay in Paris (cf. Terman Frederiksen 1987-88).

Avant-Garde Primitivism and the Idea

of “Nordic Expressionism”
In the early twentieth century, the revival of Old Norse and Nordic
art and literature became part of the widespread avant-garde search
for aesthetic renewal through primitivism. The intention of avant-
garde primitivism was to recover avowedly “true”, “original”, “au-
thentic” art practices and forms from all parts of the globe: so-called
“negro art” from Africa and Australia, classical – often spiritual –
Indian, Chinese and Japanese art and literature, mystical writing
from the European Middle Ages, popular art forms like reverse glass
painting, everyday artefacts, European popular culture, be it in a
Breton fishing village, a Bavarian or Rumanian farming community
or the Yiddish culture of the shtetls in the Pale of Settlement (cf.
Lippard 1983, Perry 1994, Schultz 1995). Within this framework,
Old Nordic art fitted perfectly next to Byzantine and Gothic art, just
as Inuit art from Greenland went side by side with songs from Poly-
nesia and New Zealand.
As such, medieval Nordic art served as a major primitivist inspi-
ration in the work of the Latvian painter, art critic and theoretician
Voldemārs Matvejs, a member of the Russian avant-garde artist’s
group Soyuz molodezhi (Union of the Young). Matvejs studied me-
dieval art on the Swedish island of Gotland in the early 1910s. His
books on primitivism, published under his Russified name Vladimir
24 Hubert van den Berg

Markov, which were quite influential in Russia, discuss medieval art

from Gotland extensively (cf. Bužinska 2000).
Another example of the links between primitivism and the idea
of the “Nordic” can be found in Emil Nolde’s work. Nolde under-
stood true expressionism as a “Nordic” current. This was not in ref-
erence to the geographic configuration of states referred to today as
“Nordic countries” – Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and Fin-
land – but rather related to the German conservative-nationalist as-
sumption of the cultural and racial superiority of a Scandinavian-
German “Nordic race”, as propagated – among others – by the na-
tional-socialist racial ideologue Hans Günther and socalled “völk-
isch” organisations like the Nordische Gesellschaft (1921-1957) that
promoted the “Nordic idea”, supposedly rooted in “authentic” me-
dieval Germanic culture of Nordic provenance, in a radical right-
wing context (cf. Mohler 2005). Even though the conception of a
Nordic cultural unity could be found in Scandinavia as well, the dis-
tinction of a “Nordic expressionism” with a clear-cut nationalist di-
mension had its basis in German nationalist discourse.
Traces of this discourse could be found in the German expres-
sionist avant-garde, in the shape of a Nordic orientated primitivism
triggered by a new translation of the Edda by Felix Genzmer in the
early 1920s (cf. Heusler 1920). The bureau editor of Der Sturm, the
painter, poet and dramaturge, Lothar Schreyer, who led the Sturm-
bühne in Berlin during the war and continued his experimental the-
atre activities in Hamburg after the war with the so-called
Kampfbühne, used a short song from the Poetic Edda, “Skírnismál”,
as the basis for a play (cf. Schreyer 1926).1 In Hamburg too, elements
from the Edda – figures and plots – were used by the dance pair
Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt for their productions, for which the
composer Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt created the music (cf. Rowin-
ski 2006). At an evening devoted to atonality in the Hamburg Seces-
sion, Stuckenschmidt presented “Eddalieder” by another avant-
garde composer, Hans Jürgen von der Wense (cf. Böhme 2006,
Niehoff/Bertoncini 2005, von der Wense 1999: 34 and 293-315). The
Edda also served as source for the Bauhaus artist Gerhard Marcks,
who created an illustrated edition of the “Völundarkviða” in 1923
under the title Das Wieland-Lied, published by the Bauhaus-Verlag
(cf. Marcks 1923). The revival of the Edda was undoubtedly related
to the “Nordic idea”. This is most obvious in the case of Schreyer,
An Introductory tour d’horizon 25

who was active in the “völkisch” orientated nationalist-conservative

circles surrounding the journal Deutsches Volkstum and the
Hanseatische Verlagsanstalt (cf. van den Berg 2010), in which not
only Schreyer (1931: 48-49 and 132-145), but also Ludwig Benning-
hoff, the editor of the Hamburg cultural review Der Kreis, regarded
early-medieval Nordic art as the cradle of a true German(ic) art that
found its modern expression in expressionism (cf. Benninghoff

A further interesting example is a roman à clef by the German ex-

pressionist Hermann Essig, published in 1919 under the title Der Tai-
fun, which related the (fictional) story of Ossi and Hermione
Ganswind’s (Herwarth and Nell Walden’s) expedition to Iceland to
study “the expressionism of the Eskimos” (Essig 1997: 235). Essig
took his cue from an error in an issue of Der Sturm from the previous
year, where, beside reproductions of drawings by Inuit artist Aron
fra Kangek, Iceland, rather than Greenland, was given as the artist’s
native country (cf. Walden 1918a). In reality, the Waldens never went
to Iceland, but were frequent visitors to Scandinavia. On his way
back from a journey to Norway in 1911, Walden met Roslund (who
would become his second wife) in the Southern Swedish town of
Landskrona. However, their Scandinavian trips were not limited to
family visits. As art dealers, they sought out new merchandise and
opportunities to exhibit and sell their stock (cf. Werenskiold 1980),
even working there during World War I as agents on the payroll of
the German intelligence and propaganda apparatus (cf. Winskell
1995, van den Berg 2009).
It is significant that Walden’s first trip to Scandinavia was not as
a gallery owner – the Sturm Kunsthandlung was only founded after
his marriage to Nell (and in part on her capital), but rather on what
might be called a pilgrimage to some of the holy places of Scandi-
navian literature, theatre, art and music (cf. Bauschinger 2004: 170-
178, Lasker-Schüler 2003). Cities like Copenhagen, Gothenburg,
Kristiania (Oslo) and Bergen may have been situated on the fringe
of the European continent and relatively small and provincial by
comparison to Paris, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Prague and St. Peters-
burg, but they carried enormous prestige as cradles and hotspots of
cultural progress in the last decades of the nineteenth century and
the first years of the twentieth century, when Danish, Swedish and
26 Hubert van den Berg

Norwegian writers like Ibsen, Strindberg and Brandes, and painters

and composers such as Grieg and Munch were recognised interna-
tionally as pioneers of cultural renewal and modernisation (cf. Anon.
1897, Cepl-Kaufmann/Kauffeldt 1994, Henningsen 1997, Briens/
Mohnicke 2009).
Walden travelled via Copenhagen and Gothenburg to Oslo and
Bergen. Oslo, or Kristiania as it was then called, was not only the
home town of Edvard Munch and the city where Henrik Ibsen had
been a stage director, but also a hotspot of bohemian artists. The
‘Kristiania Bohemia’ was well-known throughout Europe (cf. Jæger
1885, Fosli 1997), as were other Nordic artists’ colonies in even more
provincial settings, for instance in the Danish fishing hamlet of
Skagen and on the shores of Tuusalanjärvi (Tusby träsk), a small
lake north of Helsinki/Helsingfors (cf. Lengefeld 2001). The shores
of Tuusulanjärvi served as a residence for Jean Sibelius, among
others. Sibelius’ lakeside house ‘Ainola’, designed by the Finnish ar-
chitect Lars Sonck (cf. Korvenmaa 1991), was internationally ad-
mired as one of the finest examples of Finnish architectural National
Romanticism, a major contribution to art nouveau architecture,
which created an opening for modernist innovation and avant-garde
experimentalism in following decades.
Walden’s tour of the North may have been an exception. Most
Nordic artists went South, to Paris, Berlin and other cultural centres,
where Nordic artists played a prominent role in international artists’
communities or established communities of their own and thus re-
inforced the reputation of the North as a cradle of modernist re-
The popularity of contemporary Nordic culture undoubtedly
stimulated the interest in older Nordic culture, even in areas of the
cultural field in Germany and Western Europe that were not enticed
by the cult of the racist-nationalist Teutonicist “Nordic idea”. Ex-
amples of this include the expressionist journal Die Aktion’s printing
of the first translations from the Edda by Felix Genzmer in 1913 (cf.
Genzmer 1913) and Emmy Hennings’ reference to the Danish popu-
lar myth of the klintekonge, a king living in limestone rock, in the
poem “Gesang zur Dämmerung”, published in the first Dada an-
thology, Cabaret Voltaire (cf. Hennings 1916).
Nordic culture’s widely respected and accepted contribution to
modernism was probably a major consideration behind and cause
An Introductory tour d’horizon 27

of the creation of an association and even an academy of Scandina-

vian visual artists in Paris (cf. Claustrat 1994), who exhibited collec-
tively in the 1920s and took advantage of the “Scandinavian” label
as a generally acknowledged sign of quality. And yet, while assump-
tions regarding the existence of some form of shared Nordic cultural
identity might not have been alien to many Northern intellectuals,
writers and artists – and not just for marketing reasons – primitivist
appeals to ancient Nordic folklore, mythology and artefacts are not
only virtually absent from, but apparently completely irrelevant to,
the early twentieth-century output of avant-garde artists of Nordic
provenance. In the work of these artists we find virtually no examples
of the revival of of Scandinavian Viking-age heritage, as is found in
the work of the German artists mentioned above, or – in later years
– in the oeuvre of Danish CoBrA protagonist Asger Jorn (cf. An-
dersen/Nyholm 1995). The reason for this absence is probably that
reference to this heritage was a major element in the hegemonic na-
tionalist iconography of the period. Here, we find endless Viking ref-
erences in Scandinavian art, while in Finland, under the banner of
national romanticism which dominated the nation’s cultural field
around 1900, artists drew heavily on the imagery of the Kalevala, as
well as on the supposedly unspoiled rural Finnishness of the Kare-
lian woods (cf. Kuusi/Anttonen 1999, Ojanperä 2009).
To the extent that a collective Nordic identity or culture existed
in the Nordic countries, it did not play any substantial role in the
self-understanding of the early avant-garde in these countries as a
“Nordic avant-garde”. An assumed collective Nordic identity was
rather used by opponents of the avant-garde. Conservative polemics
directed at the avant-garde criticised the its international orientation
and European character, and deemed it unfit for the Nordic context.
The Finnish painter Akseli Gallén-Kallela played an interesting dou-
ble role in this context. In his homeland, Gallén-Kallela was perhaps
the most important exponent of Finnish national romanticism in the
visual arts. His work was dominated by Kalevala imagery and repre-
sentations of Finnish nature and rural life (cf. Ilvas 1996). As such,
Gallén-Kallela represented the Finnish cultural field’s hegemonic
aesthetic values which were both opposed to and by avant-garde de-
velopments in the country. Simultaneously, unlike Edvard Munch
and Henri Matisse, he accepted an invitation to join the German ex-
pressionist group Die Brücke (cf. Wietek 1985: 48-60).
28 Hubert van den Berg

To the extent that primitivism was a part of the aesthetic reper-

toire of Nordic avant-garde artists, it neither drew upon still-existent
native rural popular culture nor upon ancient Nordic literature and
art (with the exception of Per Lagerkvist’s Ordkonst och bildkonst
from 1913, in which the new avant-garde poetics – based on cubist
aesthetics – is linked to the tradition of Edda poetry as a source of

Avant-Garde in the Nordic Countries

Most of this book is devoted to the dissemination and recovery of
the avant-garde in the Nordic countries as well to the wider cultural
field’s (often negative) response to avant-garde manifestations in
these countries. The book focuses on Nordic initiatives – whether
led by individuals or groups and centered on journals, galleries or
theatres – that took up avant-garde developments from other parts
of Europe, principally France, Germany and, to a lesser extent, Rus-
sia. Partly these new developments were presented by international
art merchants and collectors showing their stock and collections in
galleries in the Nordic countries, like Herwarth Walden and the Pe-
tersburg collectors Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov (cf. Beeren
1992, Benson 2002, Lahoda 2006). Partly they were promoted
through publications – journals, pamphlets and books – that circu-
lated internationally and in the Nordic countries as well, like Der
Sturm or, for example, a book like Du “cubisme” (1912) by Albert
Gleizes and Jean Metzinger. Partly they were imported by local
artists, art dealers and critics. Nordic artists who made extended
visits to the major avant-garde centres, such as Hjertén, Grünewald,
Heiberg (cf. Cohen 2001) and the Icelander Jón Stefánsson (cf. van
den Berg 2006b) – all of whom studied at Académie Matisse in Paris
– returned to their homelands eager to put their firsthand knowledge
of the latest vanguard trends to use.
While the Danish journal Klingen and the Swedish review flam-
man clearly illustrate how foreign equivalents were emulated or
adapted, the Norwegian painters Heiberg and Henrik Sørensen man-
aged to attain a solid position in their home country as painters of
a modified modernism with neo-classicist tendencies that claimed to
represent genuine Norwegian national values (and blocked the local
recognition of more radical cubist and constructivist avant-garde
An Introductory tour d’horizon 29

painters like Thorvald Hellesen, Kaarbø, Keyser and Wankel as re-

presentatives of a presumedly alien international art, cf. Sørensen
2010). Similarly, the Finnish painters of the November Group re-
ceived their education and orientation from abroad – from Paris and
Petersburg – but managed to position themselves in the Finnish artis-
tic field as representatives of true painterly Finnishness. Local cul-
tural practices were complemented by new impulses through
imported avant-garde aesthetics: on the other hand, imported avant-
garde practices were provided with a specific couleur locale, as they
were combined with local cultural particularities, sometimes literally
by the use of specific colours, as in the case of bright blue in Scan-
dinavian expressionist painting, which followed a local painterly pref-
erence for this colour (cf. Kent 1987, 1990). Similarly, grey tones
dominate the work of the painters of the Finnish November Group,
intended as an adaptation of their colour scheme to local preferences
(cf. Koja 2005).
In the hands of progressive Nordic artists, divergent avant-garde
‘schools’ such as fauvism and cubism, expressionism and futurism
were frequently amalgamated into hybrid syntheses that ran the risk
of blurring the radical programmatic novelties through which the
different ‘-isms’ sought to distinguish their projects from one an-
other. These Nordic hybrids often underlined the obvious common-
alities between the different approaches that were overshadowed in
their home territories by the polemics of the competing protagonists.
Nordic artists also developed new methods and combinations that
would later make an impact on the major avant-garde centres, the
Danish share of CoBrA being a notable example (cf. Stokvis 1980).
The first section in this volume also draws attention to the impact
which the preceding generation of Nordic artists had on the histori-
cal avant-garde. August Strindberg and Edvard Munch, for example,
were not only representatives of the so-called Scandinavian ‘modern
breakthrough’ which paved the way for the international avant-garde,
but also provided valuable orientation for innovative artists within
this emergent avant-garde. Asta Nielsen, the Danish prima donna
of early film, performed a similar function, becoming a favourite
persona in early European avant-garde poetry as an icon of modern
30 Hubert van den Berg

The Avant-Garde as a Network

What we now tend to call the historical or classical avant-garde was
marked by heterogeneity and a considerable degree of incoherence.
Stylistically, we find extreme diversity, ranging from figurative repre-
sentation descended from the European tradition of mimetic realism,
as in the case of fauvism (also known as “French expressionism” in
the Nordic countries, cf. Werenskiold 1984) to abstract imagery of
constructivist provenance, from common prose and traditional poetic
forms to free verse, image and sound poetry, from neo-classical and
impressionist music to jazz and atonality, from conventional chore-
ography with a modern design to free expressionist dance, and from
classical painting to photographic and cinematic experiments. Be-
tween and within the programmatic avant-garde isms, artists fre-
quently held divergent and incompatible opinions regarding such
topics as the political function of art – we find views ranging from
the radical left to the extreme right, from transnationalism to nation-
alism – and whether art should be understood as an autonomous
phenomenon governed by its own laws or as an integrated element
of society. Avant-garde groups sought to be innovative and to pursue
the new, attempting to integrate into their modern aesthetic the latest
scientific discoveries and technological inventions, be they the law of
relativity, the discovery of the unconscious, the invention of the au-
tomobile and aeroplane, the development of electricity and telecom-
munication, or photography and cinema. And yet, earlier styles also
served as major sources of inspiration for many of these artists. These
include prehistoric and Byzantine art, as well as the fusion of arts
and crafts found in the architecture and building process of medieval
cathedrals (cf. Källström 2000). Indeed, the early programmatic state-
ments of the Bauhaus provide evidence of a similar orientation to-
wards the medieval past and towards the fusion of high art and
practical design in the English Arts and Crafts Movement around
William Morris and John Ruskin, as well as in turn-of-the-century
art nouveau, e.g. in the architecture of the Belgian Henri Van de
Velde and Victor Horta, the Vienna Secession, the Latvian Mikhail
Eisenstein (the father of the film maker) in Riga and in Finnish na-
tional romanticism. Like Morris, who drew on traditional English
architectural features, the latter included elements of popular, every-
day rural construction from Finland and Karelia in their designs.
Despite this heterogeneity, we can observe a strong sense of unity
An Introductory tour d’horizon 31

pervading the classical avant-garde. This solidarity is visible in the

comprehensive surveys of the period, authored by major represen-
tatives of the avant-garde, such as Herwarth Walden’s Einblick in
Kunst (1917), Theo van Doesburg’s “Revue der Avant-Garde” (1921-
22), Hans Arp and El Lissitzky’s Isms of Art (1925) and Lajos
Kassák and László Moholy-Nagy’s Buch neuer Künstler (1922), and
in the wide range of different approaches which can be found in
major avant-garde journals of the period. Periodicals like Der Sturm,
De Stijl, The Little Review, zenit, Noi and Ma not only promoted
the various projects and positions of their respective editors, they
also served as platforms for the vanguard isms in general, often di-
recting attention to other groups, initiatives and publications. The
name of an association linked to the ‘expressionist’ Der Sturm is
telling: “Internationale Vereinigung der Expressionisten, Kubisten
und Futuristen e.V.” (cf. van den Berg 2000). A survey of the exhibi-
tions held in the Berlin Sturm gallery and those organised by Der
Sturm in other countries, also in Scandinavia and Finland, reveals
that – to all intents and purposes – the organisation represented the
complete range of avant-garde isms, from fauvism and expressionism
to constructivism and Dada (cf. Brühl 1983, Pirsich 1985, 2000, Rei-
demeister 1962). However, to acknowledge the solidarity among the
various groups is not to deny their many confrontations, polemics,
feuds and mutual dislikes, motivated sometimes by egotism or per-
sonal conflict, sometimes by genuinely unbridgeable differences in
vision, aim, aesthetics and style.
To describe this pluralist unity, one might define the avant-garde
as a project, as Wolfgang Asholt and Walter Fähnders did in their
preface to Die ganze Welt ist eine Manifestation (1997: 1-17), elabo-
rating on Peter Bürger’s Theorie der Avantgarde. As they suggest, the
avant-garde can be understood as a project similar to Jürgen Haber-
mas’s Projekt der Moderne (cf. Habermas 1990), not as a completed
unity, but rather as an enterprise that still has (or, in the case of the
early avant-garde, still had) to be completed. As such, the project is
rather a configuration of fragments that were still partially isolated
and incompatible, yet as fragments pointing toward a future unity
to come (cf. Fähnders 2000). This configuration could be viewed as
what Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze (1976 and 1980) term a “rhi-
zomatic entity” or what Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt (2000
and 2004) call a partially cohesive, but above all, heterogeneous, di-
32 Hubert van den Berg

verse and noticeably incoherent “multitude”. From a socio-historio-

graphical point of view, the avant-garde may be profitably thought
of as a non-hierarchical network structured around several nodes
wherein various lines converge. This network was simultaneously
marked by rips, rents and ruptures. In short: the avant-garde can be
seen as a heterogeneous, hybrid and multiple entity, which as a set
of fragments constitutes a project in the sense of a common enter-
prise still to be realised.
The cohesion of this far from unified enterprise can be traced to
the relations and links connecting the single isms, projects and artists
as well as to the meeting points and occasions on which the so-called
historical avant-garde manifested itself in a collective way. It surfaces
in the lines and nodes of the rhizomatic network as a nomadic, de-
territorialised locus communis, as well as in a mutual feeling of com-
munality (cf. van den Berg 2005a, 2006a). This sense of belonging
to a larger entity was seldom called “avant-garde” by those involved,
but rather presented as endeavours in pursuit of “new art”, “young
art” or “modern art”, as “isms of art” or by way of a pars pro toto,
as “expressionism” or “futurism” as overarching labels. Practically,
the network is visible in collaboration between avant-garde artists
with divergent backgrounds, contributions in (collective) reviews,
magazines, anthologies or book form surveys, at joint conferences,
exhibitions, in collective projects such as publishing houses, in the
membership of certain organisations, through collaboration in
soirées and other manifestations, in the publication and subscription
of manifestos and other proclamations, or in contributions to such
enterprises (magazines, exhibitions etc.) by other avant-garde artists
(often as a kind of mutual exchange) as well as by gallery owners
and art dealers such as Daniël-Henri Kahnweiler or Herwarth
Walden, who often played a key role as “impresarios” and binding
agents (cf. de Vries 2001).
In the configuration of isms nowadays labelled “historical” or
“classical avant-garde”, such platforms and gathering points can be
regarded as nodes and lines in a network in which a fluctuating mass
of collaborating artists and writers would often join or be linked with
one ism after another or even two or more simultaneously. Hans Arp,
for example, can be found as signatory of Dadaist, elementarist, con-
structivist, concretist and surrealist manifestos. Although the notion
of ‘network’ belongs more to the early twenty-first century than to
An Introductory tour d’horizon 33

the era of the classical avant-garde, it was not a completely alien idea
to the avant-garde. Commenting on an international avant-garde
meeting and exhibition in Düsseldorf in 1922, the Polish construc-
tivist Henryk Berlewi referred to the avant-garde as a “world-wide
network of periodicals […] propagating and arguing for new ideas
and new forms” (cit. in Benson 2002: 64). Likewise, the Belgian
avant-garde review Het Overzicht presented a list of international
contacts as “het netwerk” – the network (Anon. 1924).

The Avant-Garde Network in the Nordic Countries

The widespread diversity characterising avant-garde activity – at the
level of both individuals and groups – was not absent from its Nordic
manifestations. Beside the far from mainstream, but still rather con-
ventional, work of artists such as Hjertén and Grünewald one finds,
for example, an image poem like “Berlin” (1918) by the Danish poet
Emil Bønnelycke, who was also involved in Copenhagen soirées wor-
thy of comparison with those of the Dadaists. Whereas in the case
of Dada several mock reports were spread detailing shooting inci-
dents – in Zurich, Geneva (cf. Meyer 1985: 73) and Prague (cf. Ku-
jundžić/Jovanov 1998: 44-45) – Bønnelycke actually drew a gun and
used it at a literary evening in the Danish capital (cf. Jelsbak 2006: 83).
The historical records show that Nordic avant-garde artists and col-
lectives were an integrated part of the network of the classical avant-
garde. References to Bønnelycke and other writers and artists
associated with the Danish journal Klingen can be found on the cover
of Iwan Goll’s Paris brennt, published in 1921 as a pamphlet of the
Yugoslav avant-garde journal zenit, as well as in the first Estredentist
manifesto of Manuel Maples Arce, published in Mexico City the
same year (cf. Osorio 1988: 106-7). In zenit we also find references
to avant-garde artists and writers of the radical Danish New Student
Society DNSS (cf. Subotić 1990: 27), who would later appear in Der
Sturm, where one of them, Rud(olf) Broby (Johansen), was able to
publish after his collection of poems Blod had been banned in Den-
mark (cf. Jelsbak 2006). A reference to flamman is found in Tristan
Tzara’s correspondence with Francis Picabia following a report in
flamman on Dada in 1919 (cf. Sanouillet 1993: 524). Work by several
Swedish and Danish artists as well as the Icelander Finnur Jónsson
could be found in the Berlin Sturm gallery, which, in turn, brought
34 Hubert van den Berg

avant-garde art from Germany, France, Russia and Italy to Den-

mark, Sweden, Norway and Finland. As students of Parisian acad-
emies, most notably those of Matisse and Léger, many Nordic artists
came into close contact with artists from other parts of Europe and
Northern America.
As in the rest of Europe, private galleries played a substantial role
in the Nordic avant-garde network. Blomqvist Kunsthandel, for ex-
ample, established in Kristiania/Oslo in 1870 and, in itself, no avant-
garde enterprise, became an important platform for both Nordic and
European avant-garde art, and exhibited Munch, Die Brücke, Der
Blaue Reiter and Der Sturm. Munch exhibited there several times,
and, in 1908, works by Die Brücke artists were shown (cf. Weren-
skiold 1974, 1997). In January 1914 Blomqvist presented a travelling
exhibition of Der Blaue Reiter arranged by Walden (cf. Westheider
2000: 79). In 1923 works by Archipenko, Gleizes, the Belgian Marthe
(Tour) Donas and Kurt Schwitters drew some five thousand visitors.2
In Copenhagen,the building of the older secessionist movement,
Den Frie Udstillingsbygning, the exhibition venue of a later seces-
sionist group of Den Frie called Grønningen, as well as the gallery
of the art dealer Georg Kleis (cf. Walden 1918b,) and the artists’
cabaret Edderkoppen served as exhibition spaces and meeting points
for local avant-garde artists (cf. Aagesen 2002).
In Finland two Helsinki/Helsingfors-based galleries fulfilled the
same role (cf. Koja 2005). Stenbergs Kunstsalong was led by the
Finnish art dealer Gösta Stenberg, who represented Helene Schjerf-
beck and Tyko Sallinen for many years but also stocked works by
several post-impressionist colourists of the Septem group and the
expressionist November Group. In 1915, Stenberg presented several
of these works alongside those of the Parisian cubists Picasso and
Gris, the fauvist Dérain and the Swedish expressionist Grünewald
(cf. Salmela-Hasán 1994, Sarajas-Korte 1968, 1969). Founded in
1913 by the Swedish art dealer Sven Strindberg, a cousin of the fa-
mous author, Salon Strindberg’s first major foreign show, entitled
“Exhibition of Expressionist and Cubist Paintings” took place in
February and March 1914, presenting work by the Blaue Reiter
group (cf. Walden 1914), previously shown in Kristiania, as well as
that of the Brücke group and other German expressionists. The ex-
hibition was arranged in collaboration with the Berlin Sturm gallery
(cf. Sarajas-Korte 1970, Westheider 2000: 80).
An Introductory tour d’horizon 35

Both Stenberg and Strindberg had direct contact with the Peters-
burg art scene, a major centre of the Central and Eastern European
avant-garde, where works by French cubists with apparent similari-
ties to those of Ilmari Aalto and other representatives of the Novem-
ber Group could be found in local collections. Two major Russian
exhibitions took place in Salon Strindberg in 1916 (cf. Sarajas-Korte
1971, Sinisalo 1993, 1998): In spring, Salon Strindberg presented a
cross-section of Russian avant-garde art featuring work by Ksenija
Boguslavkaja, Marc Chagall, Aleksandra Ekster, Vasilij Kandinsky,
Ivan Puni, Olga Rozanova and Vladimir Tatlin, among others. The
exhibition was a result of Strindberg’s close collaboration with the
avant-garde Art Bureau of Petersburg art dealer Nadezhda Doby-
china. In September, a Kandinsky solo exhibition followed.

The Cultural Geography of the Nordic Avant-Garde

World War I intensified the artistic exchange between Finland and
Russia for a short time. Finland became a backdoor connecting the
Russian Empire to neutral Scandinavia. The neutrality of the Scan-
dinavian countries allowed traffic, travel and communication be-
tween artists of the warring states and turned these countries into a
place of refuge for those seeking to escape the war, including many
members of both the political and cultural avant-garde. Lenin
crossed Scandinavia on his way back to Russia in 1917. Three years
later, a German fishing vessel hijacked by the German expressionist
and dadaist Franz Jung along with other members of the council-
communist Kommunistische Arbeiter-Partei Deutschlands called in
at various Norwegian ports before landing in Murmansk as official
party delegates of the KAPD on their way to visit Lenin (cf. van den
Berg 1990).
From the opposite direction, several Russian artists used Scandi-
navia to meet with colleagues from the West – both from Entente
countries and Germany – in the neutral Northern backyard of Eu-
rope. Vassilij Kandinsky, for example, came to Sweden to meet his
German wife and fellow painter Gabriele Münter in 1915-16 (cf.
Kleine 1994: 453-503). After Kandinsky left her in 1916, Münter
would return frequently to Scandinavia in the following years, ex-
hibiting in Copenhagen and Stockholm, but also to lead a private
summer painting school at Bornholm (cf. Kleine 1994: 502). Scan-
36 Hubert van den Berg

dinavia also provided opportunities to escape the war in more per-

manent ways. For example, the brothers Naum (Gabo), Antoine and
Alexii Pevsner stayed in Kristiania during the war (cf. Hammer/Lod-
der 2000, Nash/Merkert 1985, Pevsner 1964), while Vladimir Bara-
nov-Rossiné became a Copenhagen resident during the same period
(cf. Brusberg 1995, Kiblickij 2007), albeit without any substantial in-
volvement in the local art scene.
These cases resemble those of Sallinen, William Lönnberg, Juho
Mäkelä and Jalmari Ruokokoski and other painters of the Finnish
November Group, who stayed in Helsingør, a small town not far from
Copenhagen, for extended periods of time on their way back to Fin-
land from Paris in the early 1910s (cf. Koja 2005, Ojanperä 2001).
In Helsingør, they worked for and were supported by the local master
tailor Niels Pedersen Rydeng. Sallinen was a trained tailor, Rydeng
a collector of paintings. Although the expressionist November Group
painted, by and large, in the same fauvist and cubist ‘tradition’ as
their Danish colleagues, and although Rydeng collected contempo-
rary Danish painting and had contacts in the Copenhagen art scene,
Sallinen, Ruokokoski and Lönnberg worked in Helsingør for several
years, but had virtually no contact with the art scene in nearby
Copenhagen. This is indicative of the somewhat detached character
of the Finnish-speaking Finnish avant-garde within the wider Nordic
context. In contrast to this, we find close relations between Icelandic
and Scandinavian avant-garde artists and initiatives due to a shared
history, linguistic kinship and colonial dependency of Iceland upon
Denmark. Likewise, close cultural relations existed between Norway
and Denmark in particular. Similar cultural relations existed between
the Swedish-Finnish community and Sweden as well. Thus, Swedish-
Finnish authors can be found in Swedish literary magazines and vice
versa. Likewise, Norwegian and Icelandic artists provided an acte de
présence in the Danish journal Klingen.
The Nordic avant-garde’s closest international relations, however,
were with European art capitals like Paris and Berlin. Thus, it seems
doubtful whether avant-garde activities in the Nordic countries in
this period can be understood as manifestations of a genuine Nordic
avant-garde based on a clear “Nordic” identity, which would be more
than a simple addition of the avant-garde presence and activity in
the single countries (if some Nordic identity can be discerned at all,
this seems to be primarily the case in the diasporic communities es-
An Introductory tour d’horizon 37

tablished by Nordic artists in cultural centres such as Paris and

For obvious topographical and historical reasons, the connections
between different Nordic artists and initiatives were closer than the
relations with the avant-garde community in other parts of Europe
during World War I, since traffic to and communication with the rest
of Europe were very limited due to closed borders and frontlines.
Nevertheless, these Nordic avant-garde artists and initiatives were
rooted in and operative within their respective politically- and lin-
guistically-defined national artistic fields. While these fields were, to
some extent, interrelated, they were far from unified. As a conse-
quence, important players in one country were virtually irrelevant
and unknown in the other Nordic countries. Emil Bønnelycke and
Rud(olf) Broby (Johansen), for example, were household names in
Denmark’s avant-garde community. But although one finds their
names in zenit and Der Sturm, they were never embraced in the
other Nordic countries as major fellow Nordic avant-gardists. To
characterise them as representatives of some transnational entity,
which one could call a ‘Nordic avant-garde’, might suit present-day
perceptions of the Nordic countries as forming a political and cul-
tural unity with close cross-border relations, genuine transnational
artistic projects, exhibitions and literary prizes and so on, but such
a label would misrepresent the obvious dividing lines that existed be-
tween the artistic communities of the individual Nordic countries in
the early twentieth century.
Common features are nevertheless discernable in the avant-garde
manifestations of the Nordic countries. These do not amount to a
set of uniquely Nordic characteristics, but rather to Nordic versions
of peripheral avant-garde manifestations, analogues of which can be
identified in other margins of the European avant-garde. The most
prominent features are: apparent belatedness, moderation, and a ten-
dency toward deradicalisation. In general, the new trends were im-
ported from cultural capitals such as Paris and Berlin and then
reproduced in native contexts, frequently in more moderate forms.
One might argue that this regionalised moderate form was no less
radical than the interventions emerging from the transnational arena.
However, despite figures such as Bønnelycke, there can be little doubt
that avant-garde initiatives in the Nordic countries predominantly
toned down the radical foreign approaches in attempts to make them
38 Hubert van den Berg

more acceptable at home. Indeed, a moderate form of expressionism

based on French fauvism dominated Nordic versions of existing
avant-garde models – as it did in other marginal parts of Europe (cf.
Werenskiold 1984) – setting the tone in all Nordic countries from the
end of the first and the beginning of the second decade of the twen-
tieth century. This expressionism was not only moderate formally
and stylistically, but also institutionally, lacking any attempt to un-
dermine, overcome or destroy the autonomous institution of art it-
self – one of the basic features of the historical avant-garde,
according to Peter Bürger in Theorie der Avantgarde. Against the
background of the modern ideology of progress, however, this ex-
pressionism does show some elements of novelty. These elements al-
lowed its representatives to position themselves as a new generation
of artists and secure positions within the institution, the toned-down
‘wild’ elements directly serving this cause, albeit perhaps uninten-
tionally. Later cubist and constructivist initiatives in the Nordic
countries also lacked a dimension of institutional critique. The only
exception seems to be a circle of artists and writers in Det Ny Stu-
dentersamfund (DNSS), whose activities questioned the institutional
autonomy of art through their attempt to bring art and politics to-
The specific geographical position of the Nordic countries, and
their distinctive (often uninhabited) landscapes, nature, climate and
light made a noticeable impact on Nordic art, the avant-garde in-
cluded; as did the relatively small scale of urbanisation and the en-
durance of strong rural communities well into the early twentieth
century. The countryside has a strong presence in Nordic avant-garde
art. War, however, plays only a minor role. The Nordic countries’ ex-
perience of war and revolution differed markedly from that of most
other European countries. In comparison to the majority of Euro-
pean avant-garde art and literature from the period, the traces of
war and revolution in the works of the Nordic avant-garde are few.
It was not until the Finnish civil war of 1918 that bloody conflict
impinged directly on Nordic life. War and revolution did eventually
become subjects addressed by avant-garde writers and artists in the
Scandinavian countries, most notably among the Danish expression-
ists of the DNSS, but on a limited scale. In Finland one could have
expected a stronger presence. Yet, a period of repression against left-
wing politics and anything suspected of being communist following
An Introductory tour d’horizon 39

the ‘white’ civil war victory limited possibilities for Finnish avant-
garde initiatives considerably.

The Nordic Countries in the Early Twentieth Century

Avant-garde artists and initiatives in the Nordic countries did not
constitute a single cohesive Nordic avant-garde. Nevertheless, within
the Nordic countries relatively close relations did exist among artists,
writers and performers of different nationalities. These relations were
partly a result of their joint stays in Paris, by and large as students,
and partly a result of close cultural ties and shared histories (cf.
Derry 1979, Gustafsson 2007, Kent 2000, Klinge 1995). Denmark,
Norway and Sweden have cognate languages, Swedish is spoken by
a part of the Finnish population and Danish was the language of
colonial rule in Iceland. Whereas Iceland remained a part of the
Danish empire until 1944, Norway became independent from Swe-
den in 1905. Due to Danish rule until the early nineteenth century,
close contacts existed between Norway and Denmark, at least in the
cultural sphere. The fact that the Scandinavian countries remained
neutral during World War I (unlike the Grand-Duchy of Finland,
which, as a satellite of the Russian tsarist empire since 1806, entered
the war on the side of the Entente) allowed Copenhagen to become
a substitute for Paris and Berlin during this period when the French
and German capitals were difficult to reach due to the closed borders
and frontlines.
Copenhagen, due to its Southern location, had served as a pas-
sage for Scandinavians on their journey to Europe South of the
Baltic Sea (at least since the opening of a railway connection from
Helsinki to Petersburg; another route via the Russian Empire was
available for Finns). Due to its role as colonial capital, Copenhagen
had also been the first stop for Icelanders on their way to Europe for
a much longer period. The city’s role during the war as gathering
point for Nordic artists, not least those of an avant-garde prove-
nance, is evident, for example, from the different Nordic nationalities
assembled within the pages of the journal Klingen.
Yet, whereas the Nordic countries might nowadays be seen as a
kind of supranational political entity cooperating in the Nordic
Council, to some extent as a counterpart of or alternative to the Eu-
ropean Union (in which only Finland participates in full), Northern
40 Hubert van den Berg

Europe was still marked by several deep divisions and differences in

the first decades of the twentieth century. Iceland had a special status
as a colony of Denmark in the middle of the Northern Atlantic, with
a distinctive, yet kindred language to the other North-Germanic lan-
guages spoken in Scandinavia (cf. Karlsson 2005). In an age of
emerging nationalisms, the different background and character of
Icelandic society and culture stoked growing dissatisfaction with its
colonial status alongside its aspirations for greater autonomy and in-
dependence. These factors constituted a fertile breeding ground for
Icelandic nationalism, which fostered and defended its ‘own’ Ice-
landic culture against alien influences. From the beginning of the
1920s, this played a large role in the hegemonic attitude towards the
‘foreign’ international avant-garde. In Norway (which regained its
independence more or less simultaneously with the first manifesta-
tions of the avant-garde) nationalist discourses were celebrated for
discerning true Norwegian culture from foreign influences and they
presented a climate in which the transnational avant-garde met con-
siderable opposition.
The political situation in Finland demands a more detailed de-
scription. Finland had a history of its own and, to a large extent, a
unique cultural background in the Nordic context (cf. Sauvageot
1968). As noted, a part of the Finnish population spoke and still
speaks Swedish due to long historical – political, social as well as cul-
tural – ties with Sweden, to which Finland belonged from the late
Middle Ages until 1809, when it became an autonomous Grand-
Duchy within the Russian Empire, gaining independence only after
the Russian Revolution in December 1917. Swedish-speaking Finns
are a minority, although they have a strong presence in the intellec-
tual elite. The majority of inhabitants spoke and still speak Finno-
Ugric languages: Finnish, Karelian and Sami. As in Sweden and
Norway, where Sami is also spoken in the Northern part, Lappland,
the Sami played no role in Southern cultural life, to say nothing of
its avant-garde fringes – with one exception: the Sami John Savio
from Bugøyfjord near Kirkenes adopted expressionist elements in
his wood-cuts of the 1920s. However, he never acquired a position
in the Norwegian art scene (cf. Nerhus 1982).
In Finland, next to Swedish spoken by sections of the establish-
ment as well as in rural and coastal areas in the South and West and
Sami spoken in the North by the nomadic ‘Lapps’, Finnish was (and
An Introductory tour d’horizon 41

is) the language of the majority of the population, who also have
their own distinct cultural features, traditions and ethnic background
that partly differ from those of Scandinavia.
After becoming part of the Russian Empire, Finland endured
concerted attempts at Russification by the tsarist regime in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth century. Partly in reaction to this Rus-
sification policy, and partly as a local manifestation of the nationalist
sentiment spreading throughout Europe coupled with an emergent
self-understanding of being a nation in its own right, Finnish na-
tionalism rose to prominence with ancient Finno-Ugric oral poetry
and folklore as cultural capital of its own, epitomised by the ‘national
epos’ Kalevala, constructed by Elias Lönnrot in the early nineteenth
century in line with the Herderian approach to popular poetic tra-
ditions. The more radical, politically conservative manifestations of
Finnish nationalism were directed not only against the colonial poli-
cies of the Russian Tsar, but also against Swedish/Scandinavian cul-
tural hegemony. This unique set of circumstances is also reflected in
Finnish avant-garde history.
Whereas Swedish-speaking Finnish writers participated in
Swedish literary life, and even played a precursory role in the devel-
opment of an avant-garde poetics3, Finnish-speaking expressionist
artists had virtually no contact with their Scandinavian counterparts.
This is most dramatically visible in the case of the Finnish-Finnish
November Group members who stayed in Helsingør in the early 1910s
without participating in the Danish artistic field (see above). There
may well have been some interaction, but if there was it remains
undiscovered, and the general impression is that the Finnish painters
lived separate lives. When their work was shown following the war
and Finnish independence, as part of the Finnish contribution to an
exhibition of Nordic art in Copenhagen in 1919, the divide was fur-
ther reinforced by Scandinavian critics who – in line with Svecoman
racism – considered the work of the November Group as indicative
of a different, inferior race.
The considerable divide between Finland and the Scandinavian
countries was not only a result of a century under Russian rule, but
also of the experience of revolution and civil war, which tore the
country apart immediately after its independence in the first months
of 1918 (cf. Ylikangas 1993). Although the Finnish independence
proclaimed by the nationalist majority of the Finnish senate was ac-
42 Hubert van den Berg

cepted by the new Russian bolshevist regime in December 1917, a

civil war between ‘Reds’ and ‘Whites’ followed in January 1918. Op-
posing armies were formed, with the Red Guards (Punakaartit) and
Workers’ Defence Guards (Työväen järjestyskaartit) on the left, and
the ‘White’ Protection Corps (Suojeluskunnat) on the right. Initially,
the ‘Reds’ controlled most of Southern Finland, with strongholds
in urban industrial centres such as Helsinki, Turku, Tampere and
Viipuri. The ‘Whites’ controlled Northern and Central Finland, and
chose Vaasa as the provisional home of the conservative government,
which had a well-organised army led by experienced officers at its
disposal and received assistance from German army units. As a con-
sequence, the Red Guards were not able to keep their positions and
suffered a major defeat in a large battle in Tampere in late
March/early April. Later that month, the ‘Whites’ scored another
victory in Viipuri, while the intervention of the German so-called
Baltic Sea Division in Helsinki led to yet another ‘Red’ defeat. Con-
sequently, the Reds were forced to surrender, flee to Russia or go into
hiding. On 2 May the conservative government was able to return to
Helsinki, and by 15 May, all Finnish territory was under control of
the ‘White’ army.
The war was followed by a period of ‘White’ terror intended to
suppress the remaining Finnish socialists and communists, many of
whom were executed, interned in prison camps or chased out of the
country. During the war, some 4,000 ‘White’ and German soldiers
and some 6,000 Red Guards and Russian soldiers were killed on the
battlefield. The Reds executed some 1,500 opponents, while over
20,000 Reds were executed or died in prison camps, where a total of
80,000 people were interned. The civil war created deep, long-lasting
divisions within Finnish society and a permanently tense relationship
with Bolshevik Russia. Together, the ‘White’ conservative govern-
ment that ruled Finland from May 1918 and the conservative-
nationalist cultural elite promoted an anti-Russian attitude that
openly rejected anything communist. Finland’s problematic relation-
ship with tsarist and later Soviet Russia also had an impact on the
reception of art and literature of avant-garde provenance.
Whereas Swedish-Finnish literary circles remained at the fore-
front of poetic experiment and innovation during the inter-war pe-
riod, albeit as a Swedish enclave in Finland, many Finnish
nationalists considered avant-garde art to be intrinsically Russian
An Introductory tour d’horizon 43

and, more specifically, Bolshevist. This opinion – not uncommon in

the other Nordic countries, but especially pronounced in Finland –
was actually borrowed from German conservative and right-wing
nationalist criticism that coined the term Kulturbolschewismus, or
cultural bolshevism, to describe any vanguard art which they felt did
not conform to their programme. In a way, this opinion was con-
firmed in the Finnish context by the fact that Otto Ville Kuusinen,
the ideological leader of the Finnish Soviet Republic, was very much
interested in avant-garde literature and was a close friend of Elmer
Diktonius, one of the protagonists of Finnish-Swedish avant-garde
poetry (cf. Henrikson 1971).

Under the Lee of the “Modern Breakthrough”

The marginality of Nordic activity in general accounts of the classic
avant-garde can be traced back to several factors. Firstly, there is the
simple quantitative condition that, since the Nordic countries are
sparsely populated, their artistic fields have been very small. Iceland,
for example, had a mere 85,000 inhabitants in the early 1910s, and
its avant-garde artists could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Another factor might be that no major manifesto of the classic avant-
garde was authored by an artist or writer of Nordic provenance.4 The
only notable exception to this rule is Viking Eggeling. However, his
contributions can hardly be tied to a Nordic context. Eggeling was
one of the signatories of the dada-related Radikale Künstler group’s
manifesto which appeared in the spring of 1919. Indeed, he was
probably its author, judging by discussions documented in the Marcel
Janco archive (cf. Seiwert 1993: 561-577, van den Berg 1999: 380-390).
Eggeling was also co-signatory with Raoul Hausmann of the “Sec-
ond Presentist Manifesto” published in 1923 in the Hungarian review
Ma (cf. Asholt/Fähnders 1995: 300). However, Eggeling’s crowning
glory – in terms of manifestos – appears to have been a statement on
universal language, written, at least in part, with Hans Richter and
published in 1921. Unfortunately, the manifesto appears to be lost,
although Eggeling did publish what seem to be extracts in Ma. Given
that Theo van Doesburg referred to the manifesto as a key text of
constructivism, it seems reasonable to speculate that had the mani-
festo received a wider distribution, Eggeling would have attained the
status of a major programmatic spokesman of the avant-garde.
44 Hubert van den Berg

But there is more. The presence of the classic avant-garde in the

Nordic countries, its historical organisational structure and artistic
production as well as its historiography, were not only determined
by the political, social and cultural factors outlined here, but also by
other particulars, partly, perhaps, unique to the Nordic countries,
but also partly to manifestations of the avant-garde not uncommon
outside the main centres of avant-garde activity in Europe.
As previously noted, the whole range of avant-garde art – from
moderate fauvism to radical non-objective, abstract art, from free
verse to visual and sound poetry – can be found in the Nordic coun-
tries (with radical practices occupying a much smaller space than
more moderate forms). Most art produced by the classical avant-
garde in the Nordic countries may be different from locally produced
mainstream art, but is nevertheless not marked by a drastic rupture
with hegemonic artistic conventions. Avant-gardism in the Nordic
countries – as in other peripheries – seems often to have a rather di-
luted character, without (or almost without) any of the radical an-
tagonistic edge typical of the main manifestations of the avant-garde
as we know them from Paris or Berlin. This can be explained in dif-
ferent ways. To some extent small innovations may have been already
radical enough to achieve an avant-garde status. Small deviations
from the ruling norms may also have been as far as an artist could
afford to go without risking the loss of buyers for his or her work or
publishers for his or her texts. The moderate wing of the avant-garde
may have been (and was in fact) much larger in the cultural capitals
of Europe, as demonstrated by the case of the École de Paris and
cubism à la Gleizes and Léger compared to – say – Parisian dada,
constructivism or surrealism. Yet, with the larger overall presence of
the avant-garde, the radical wing could still make a far more sub-
stantial impression in Paris than for example in Copenhagen or
Stockholm, not to speak of the pocket-size cultural scenes in Kris-
tiania/Oslo, Helsinki and Reykjavík.
Undoubtedly, the prevalence of moderate avant-gardism in the
Nordic countries makes an even weaker impression when compared
to the historical claims (and ambitions) of protagonists of the clas-
sical avant-garde such as Marinetti, or compared to the historio-
graphical hypotheses drawing on these claims. Influential theoretical
models like Peter Bürger’s Theorie der Avantgarde thus claim that the
avant-garde was essentially characterised by a dramatic and funda-
An Introductory tour d’horizon 45

mental rupture with existing art practices and the ambition to over-
come art as an autonomous institution, even though recent research
has pointed to the fact that even the most radical movements of the
avant-garde were characterised by far more conventialism and tra-
ditionalism than the avant-garde historiography of the past decades
suggests. The fact that the Finnish painter Akseli Gallén-Kallela was
invited to join the German Brücke might support Bürger’s suggestion
that Die Brücke was anything but avant-garde (cf. Bürger 2005).
Since Die Brücke was an integrated part of the historical network of
the classical avant-garde in the years before World War I, Gallén-
Kallela’s invitation indicates that the rupture with the art of previous
generations (to which Gallén-Kallela definitely belonged) was not as
radical as often assumed.
Here, another factor should be taken into account. Despite its
diminutive size, the Nordic cultural field had been enjoying a com-
paratively large international reputation since the late nineteenth cen-
tury, in literature, theatre, visual art, music and architecture. Henrik
Ibsen, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Alexander Kielland, August Strind-
berg, Georg Brandes, Holger Drachmann, Gustav Vigeland, Edvard
Munch, J.P. Jacobsen, Herman Bang, Edvard Grieg and Jean
Sibelius were not only Nordic household names, but major figures
lending impetus to European letters, arts, theatre and music. For
many years, what Georg Brandes called the Nordic “modern break-
through” (cf. Brandes 1883, Ettrup 1993) remained at the forefront
of international literary, artistic and musical innovation.
Similarly, the architecture of Finnish National Romanticism –
combining modern building with (supposedly) traditional elements,
drawing on local material and stylistic features and integrating na-
tionalist imagery based on the Kalevala and Finnish-Karelian folk-
lore in its ornamentation – was generally recognised as an important
contribution to international art nouveau that paved the way to
avant-garde architecture in the following decades. Next to Victor
Horta, Henry Van de Velde and Mikhail Eisenstein, Finnish archi-
tects like Herman Gesellius, Armas Lindgren and Eliel Saarinen as
well as Lars Sonck enjoyed international reputation as innovative ar-
chitects and designers. Like Sonck, in his design of Sibelius’ house,
Gesellius, Lindgren and Saarinen were higly respected for their
home-studio Hvitträsk in Kirkkonummi/Kyrkslätt near Helsinki, the
Suur-Merijoki estate near Viipuri on the Karelian Isthmus and the
46 Hubert van den Berg

design of the Finnish pavillion at the Paris World Exhibition in 1900.

These projects were landmarks of the art nouveau ambition to com-
bine different arts and crafts in a new architecture intended as a total
work of art. Saarinen’s design for the Helsinki central station and a
comprehensive expansion of the city in the so-called Munksnäs-
Haga Plan turned Helsinki into a major site of modernist architec-
tural innovation (cf. Amberg 2003, Komonen 1986, Pallasmaa 2006).
One could qualify the guiding role played by Nordic artists, writ-
ers, composers and architects in the late nineteenth and early twen-
tieth centuries as avant-garde, in terms of both Renato Poggioli’s
Theory of the Avant-Garde (1968), which suggests a general avant-
garde inclination in modernism as such, and in terms of studies that
situate a first wave of avant-gardism in the late nineteenth century
(cf. Datta 1999, Frascina 1993, Hepp 1987).
Indeed, one can observe in the writings of Georg Brandes, for ex-
ample, that some sense of avant-garde self-understanding (usually
articulated through such labels as “new”, “young”, “youngest” and
“modern”, which remained popular in the following decades as well)
was not alien to the idea of aesthetic modernity in the Nordic coun-
tries in the late nineteenth century. Actually, Brandes used the label
‘avant-garde’ as early as 1872 (Brandes 1901: 174):

What is as distressing as the deep gorge, brought about by the avant-

garde’s all too rapid advance, and the least privileged classes being
barred from all higher culture, which has appeared between the
learned and unlearned in all peoples and what is more natural and
better than the all-powerful scientist and the artist who forcefully let
go of their scholarly sophistication and get accustomed to, if possi-
ble, adopting emotions and thoughts of the simplest and most easily
understood forms? But should one thereby forget, that the road is
uphill, always uphill, that “excelsior” is the watchword, as it is termed
in Longfellow’s wonderful poem, and is there reason in the attempt
to call back the avant-garde in order to not exhaust those lagging be-
hind or even wanting to cut it down so that the whole army can stay

Brandes’ remark sounds a persistent note in the conceptual history

of the avant-garde by foregrounding the term’s transposition from
its military origins to the cultural field. Brandes combines this with
An Introductory tour d’horizon 47

the notion of a linear, progressive, ‘upward’ cultural movement – a

common feature of nineteenth-century cultural teleology echoed in
the label “avant-garde” which endures to this day, despite all post-
modern doubt.
It is also obvious that Brandes does not use the term “avant-
garde” to refer to the specific set of movements or currents within
or supplementing aesthetic modernity, which we now tend to call
‘(classical) avant-garde’, but, rather, to a general cultural trend or,
more precisely, a typical late nineteenth-century cultural pattern of
expectation towards a course of history marked by a gradual pro-
gressive development towards a higher stage of human culture,
which, according to beliefs widespread at the time, can be attained
through utopian concepts of the Enlightenment and philosophical
idealism. These utopian ideas held that (cultural) education, the
growth of knowledge and insight would bring about a better huma-
nity, society, life and world. Brandes’ remarks regarding scientists
and artists seem to echo the nineteenth-century utopian-socialist
conceptions of an intellectual avant-garde in the service of revolu-
tion. This notion can be found as early as 1825 in a dialogue written
by the Saint-Simonist Olindes Rodrigues entitled “L’Artiste, le sa-
vant et l’industriel” (cf. Calinescu 1977: 103), and later, in the anar-
chist Petr Kropotkin’s appeal “Aux jeunes gens”, published in 1880
in the journal Le Revolté, in which he criticises the l’art-pour-l’art
trend, and demands of artists, writers and intellectuals: “Place your
pen, your chisel, your ideas at the service of the revolution [...] take
the side of the oppressed” (1970: 273, 278).
Brandes seems to articulate some reservations about a subjuga-
tion of the artistic and scientific avant-garde to the political banner
of revolution, just as he does about a lowering of aesthetic or intel-
lectual standards to meet the tastes of the masses lagging behind.
One might argue that he leans towards the later notion of the his-
torical avant-garde as an autonomous force detached from a follow-
ing army (cf. van den Berg 2009: 26-27). In his later writings, Brandes
was, however, unequivocal in his rejection of the historical avant-
garde and much closer to György Lukács’ defense of classical form.
In an essay on the future of European literature, published in 1921,
Brandes criticised “Formens Opløsning” (the dissolution of form)
(cit. in Sørensen 2004: 187) in Strindberg, as well as in futurism, cu-
bism, expressionism and dada, referring to Filippo Tommaso
48 Hubert van den Berg

Marinetti, Der Sturm and the dadaists Philippe Soupault and Tristan
Tzara as representatives of an all-too-individualist direction without
any future.
If we understand the classical avant-garde as a network, it is un-
surprising to find that the beginnings of the avant-garde and the tail
end of the “modern breakthrough” overlap to some extent. Herman
Bang and Georg Brandes, for example, can be found in the early vol-
umes of Der Sturm, while Strindberg served as a major point of ref-
erence in German literary expressionism and beyond, much like
Munch, who was not just present in the Sturm gallery, but provided
direction for many early avant-garde painters in Germany and else-
where (cf. Głuchowska 2009). Ibsen’s En Folkefiende (An Enemy of
the People) was mentioned in the same breath as Nietzsche’s Also
sprach zarathustra; such works served as beacons for an avant-
gardism swimming against the tide or standing on some rocky out-
crop looking toward a distant future. Avant-garde or not (and in
terms of the classical avant-garde as a network, not), authors such
as Bang, Brandes, Ibsen and Strindberg, who clearly belonged to pre-
vious generations, overshadowed subsequent avant-garde activity in
the Nordic countries, not least because of its predominantly moder-
ate, derivative character. Thus, the Nordic avant-garde experienced
difficulties in escaping the shadows of its powerful predecessors. The
Paris-based Ballets Suédois (1920-25) and Association des Artistes
Scandinaves à Paris (responsible for exhibitions of little-known
Nordic artists in the Maison Watteau in the years 1923-1925) at-
tempted to turn this challenge to their advantage by drawing on the
heritage of the Nordic “modern breakthrough”.
Not only in the early twentieth century, but also in later historio-
graphy, the Nordic avant-garde artists were placed under the lee of
the “modern breakthrough”. With the emergence of the Anglophone
label “modernism” as an umbrella term capable of encompassing
avant-garde developments (cf. Bradbury/McFarlane 1978, Eysteins-
son 1990, 2008, Eysteinsson/Liska 2007), Nordic involvement in the
early avant-garde remained invisible for many decades, no longer
simply overshadowed by the “modern breakthrough”, but also by
more recent post-World War II avant-garde developments, in which
artists from the Nordic countries attained more important, even cen-
tral, roles in the international avant-garde as a whole. Starting with
the Danish share of CoBrA – understood by those involved as an
An Introductory tour d’horizon 49

avant-garde venture – which eventually relocated to the Situationist

International, and flanked by the substantial contribution of
Swedish writers to the rise of concrete poetry, several Nordic writers,
painters, sculptors, musicians and artists from other disciplines
played a prominent role in the European and global avant-garde of
the second half of the twentieth century. Several Nordic hot spots
of avant-garde activity have emerged in the past half century too, in-
cluding Drakabygget, Moderna Museet and Iceland, the chosen
working place of the Swiss-German artist Dieter Roth.

The Advance of “Avant-Garde” as a Label

As Paul Wood (1999: 10) has pointed out, it was only after 1945 (or
rather, in the 1950s and 1960s) that avant-garde became a more com-
mon label for artists, movements, currents and trends concerned with
innovation, experiment and radical change, not only of art itself, but
also of the status of art within society and, in many cases, of society
as a whole. The post-World War II avant-garde consciously adopted
this label, abandoning the terms that had dominated the first half of
the century, such as “new”, “young” and “modern”:

“Avant-garde” became pervasive as a synonym for “modern art” du-

ring the boom in culture after World War II. But many of the move-
ments it is loosely used to refer to predate World War II by several
decades, and at the time when they first flourished, the term “avant-
garde” was not nearly so often used to describe them. [...] The con-
cept [only] achieved a kind of dominance or “hegemony” in the
period from about 1940 to about 1970. […] In artistic terms, these
were the decades in which a conception of artistic “modernism” was
consolidated, whose most important centre was New York. Mod-
ernism, as a specialised critical discourse in art, declined in influence
after about 1970, but in wider and less specialised thinking about art
during the years since, the term “avant-garde” carried on bearing the
meanings it assumed then, and to an extent it continues to do so.
“Avant-garde”, then, became not just a synonym for modern art in
the all-inclusive sense of the term, but was more particularly identi-
fied with artistic “modernism”, and hence shorthand for the values
associated with that term.
50 Hubert van den Berg

In other words, the classical avant-garde was labelled as avant-garde

through posthumous historiography – a fact revealed by use of epi-
thets such as “classical” and “historical”. These epithets not only
suggest a degree of historical distance, they also imply the existence
of another, contemporary avant-garde from which the earlier incar-
nation must be distinguished.
It should be added here that the more widespread introduction
and circulation of the label avant-garde in the European and global
cultural field in the second half of the twentieth century was not
adopted by all languages or (national) historiographies at the same
time and to the same extent. This ungleichzeitigkeit (un-simultane-
ity), to use a term by Ernst Bloch, is certainly characteristic for the
dissemination of avant-garde as a fixed historiographical label and
concept in the Nordic countries. Avant-garde as an umbrella term for
innovative aesthetic developments, with its continental European
background, rooted in French cultural discourse (and from there
with a longer tradition in Spanish and Italian settings) might have
already entered cultural discourse in the Nordic countries on a spo-
radic basis in the first half of the twentieth century and might be ob-
served more frequently in criticism and programmatic texts after
Yet, if book titles give some indication of the circulation and po-
pularity of labels like avant-garde, the real breakthrough of the term
avant-garde as a historiographical category in the Nordic countries
can be dated back to 1974 – the same year in which Peter Bürger’s
seminal Theorie der Avantgarde was published. One year before
Bürger’s Theorie, a catalogue from Liljevalchs konsthall and Göte-
borgs konstmuseum was the first Swedish book to mention avant-
garde in its title (Anon. 1973). In 1974, the first volume of a book
series edited by Kela Kvam, Europæisk avantgarde teater 1896-1930,
appeared in Denmark. Five years later, the catalogue accompanying
a 1979 Norrköpings Museum exhibition (Lalander 1979) was the
first Swedish book devoted to the Swedish avant-garde (named as
In Denmark, it was not until the early 1990s that the term avant-
garde was applied to Danish art in the title of a book, in a small
brochure published by Statens Museum for Kunst (The National
Gallery of Denmark) (Würtz Frandsen 1993), although the term had
already appeared in a subtitle thirteen years earlier (Loesch 1980).
An Introductory tour d’horizon 51

The first major publication on this topic was a 2002 catalogue from
the same museum (Aagesen).
In Finland, the term avant-garde was first used in a book title in
1986 of a catalogue of Russian avant-garde art. Subsequently, the
term was used exclusively in connection with the Russian avant-garde
for a number of years (cf. Siivonen 1992). In 1996, two scholarly pub-
lications appeared that were devoted to the Finnish (neo-)avant-
garde in music and theatre, depicting these currents as such
(Rautiainen 1996; Nurminen 1996). Until today, there is no mono-
graph of the early Finnish avant-garde that uses avant-garde or the
Finnish equivalent, etujoukko, in the title.
In Norway the first book to use avant-garde with reference to the
aesthetic avant-garde dates from 1987 (Sandberg). The first study
devoted to the Norwegian avant-garde and written in Norwegian to
explicitly refer to the concept in its title was an MA thesis from Oslo
University (Mørch 1993). There exists no comprehensive general
monograph of the early Norwegian avant-garde with the word avant-
garde in its title.
The first Icelandic book to use framúrstefna, the Icelandic equi-
valent of avant-garde, was a collection of European avant-garde
manifestos published in 2001 (cf. Hjartarson/Eysteinsson/Árnason
2001), preceded by a 1997 MA thesis from Háskóli Íslands (Hjartar-
son 1997). There is no book covering the Icelandic avant-garde with
framúrstefna in its title.
As noted at the outset, scholarly books and articles on single
Nordic avant-garde currents and artists have been published in all
Nordic countries – often without avant-garde appearing in the title.
Thus, the preceding overview should not be taken as nominalistic
proof that the avant-garde has been almost completely ignored in
this part of the world. The purpose of this overview is to show how
the label, category and concept of avant-garde have been virtually
absent from most historiographies of the arts of the Nordic coun-
tries until quite recently. This fact self-evidently has some major con-
sequences for and coincides with an apparent absence of avant-garde
historiography in the Nordic countries. This is most obvious in Nor-
way, Finland and Iceland, where avant-garde has only become a re-
current term in twenty-first century cultural histories. Historio-
graphical emphasis on the wider category of modernism has meant
that organisational structures and aesthetic practices belonging to
52 Hubert van den Berg

the network and manifestations of the classical avant-garde – includ-

ing its peripheral fringes – to which Nordic branches contributed,
have long remained invisible, and are only now coming into view.
To the extent that the modern and modernism have been the dom-
inant terms used to focus and describe the avant-garde in the wider
context of twentieth-century arts and letters, the prevalence of mod-
ernism frequently concurred with the assumption of an absent or –
at best – sporadic, almost negligible avant-garde activity in the
Nordic countries. As this volume shows, an application of the avant-
garde lens to the scrutiny of the more progressive elements of
Nordic culture around the turn of the twentieth century can facili-
tate the retrieval of contributions to the development of modern art,
literature and culture that would otherwise slip by unnoticed. In this
way, this collection of essays acts as a historiographical corrective.
This has a transnational bearing, integrating local, seemingly na-
tional, phenomena into a wider context, thereby challenging a model
of cultural history predicated on national segmentation which de-
taches local developments from international ones. The expression-
ism of the Finnish November Group, for example, was long treated
as a Finnish speciality to be distinguished from the expressionism
found on the other side of the Baltic or in Russia; that is, it was seen
as unrelated to the wider transnational expressionist (avant-garde)
network, articulating only the particularities of Finnish soul and
The extent and contours of the wider Nordic involvement in, and
advocacy of, the classical avant-garde have really only become a
firmly established research subject in the past decade through the
concerted efforts of a Danish interdisciplinary research network de-
voted to the “Return and Actuality of the Avant-Gardes”, facilitated
by the Danish Humanities Research Council from 2001-03, and the
Nordic Network of Avant-Garde Studies, sponsored by the Nordic
Research Board, Nordforsk, from 2004-09, which focused attention
on two fronts: the avant-garde as a historiographical category and
the historical presence of the classical and neo-avant-garde in the
Nordic countries (cf. Ørum/Ping Huang/Engberg 2005).
In addition to organising conferences, the Nordic Network of
Avant-Garde Studies is producing a four-volume history of the twen-
tieth century avant-garde in the Nordic countries. This book is the
first volume of this series and focuses on the first quarter of the
An Introductory tour d’horizon 53

twentieth century. As the first extensive exploration of the historical

avant-garde in the Nordic countries, this book is far from exhaustive
and does not claim to cover all native avant-garde manifestations in
this period, nor all Nordic contributions to the classical avant-garde
elsewhere in Europe. The present volume is thus intended to gener-
ate, rather than end, further research in the field. Indeed, the infor-
mation gathered and conclusions drawn here lead to questions that
exceed the scope of the volume, but which demand to be addressed
in order that a more precise picture of the role of the avant-garde in
the Nordic countries can emerge, namely: What has been the wider
cultural impact of the Nordic avant-garde? What role has it played
in the shaping of cultural modernity in the Nordic countries? To
what extent and in which ways has the avant-garde been received and
recuperated within the wider cultural field and society as whole?
Given the marginality of the classical avant-garde in Europe in gen-
eral, and in the Nordic countries in particular, it may be supposed
that this impact was certainly limited in the first decades of the twen-
tieth century. And yet, there can be no doubt that the initial avant-
garde anticipated, or rather, prepared the way for later developments
within both the arts and the wider cultural field – as much in the
Nordic countries as elsewhere.

This introduction is based on research funded by the Groningen Institute for the
Study of Culture (ICOG) in the Faculty of Arts of the University of Groningen,
the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and the Deutsches
Literaturarchiv, Marbach am Neckar, as well as on discussions within the frame-
work of the Danish interdisciplinary research network “The Return and actuality
of the avant-gardes” and the Nordic Network of Avant-Garde Studies in the past
decade. In particular, I would like to thank my fellow editors Dorthe Aagesen, Per
Stounbjerg, Rikard Schönström for their critical comments and advice and espe-
cially Benedikt Hjartarson for supplying me with many valuable new details. For
information on Niels Rydeng and his relation to various painters of the November
group, I would like to thank the town archive of Helsingør, the local historian Tor-
ben Bill-Jessen as well as Peter Sandholt, curator of the museum Hammermøllen
in Hellebæk.
Cf.: Lothar Schreyer: Spielgang Skirnismól (MS, 1920), in: Deutsches Literatur-
archiv, Marbach am Neckar, Handschriftenabteilung, NL Schreyer, Sturm-Archiv,
54 Hubert van den Berg

Kasten A1, 65.861.

Cf. Letters from Kristiania by Herwarth Walden to his secretary Eva [Spector-]
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Marbach am Neckar, Handschriftenabteilung, 67.1957/19 and 67.1957/20.
The fact may be incidental, but Hugo Ball’s roman à clef on the foundation of the
Cabaret Voltaire and Dada, Flametti oder Vom Dandysmus der Armen from 1918
appeared in Swedish translation as early as1920 – in Helsinki/Helsingfors. Transla-
tions into other languages would follow more than half a century later.
Although some Swedish and Danish authors and artists published programmatic
texts in their own languages, e.g. Per Lagerkvist’s Ordkonst och bildkonst (1913) and
Gösta Adrian Nilsson’s Den gudomliga geometrien (1922) in Swedish and Otto Gels-
ted’s Ekspressionisme (1919) and Rud(olf) Broby (Johansen’s) Kunst (1923) in Dan-
Transtated by Kerry Graves.
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Scandinavians were certainly present in the European avant-gardes

1909-25. They participated in the dominant art schools (e.g. the
many artists at the Matisse school) and they were part of the Euro-
pean movements. But with a few exceptions (the Ballets Suédois for
instance) the Scandinavian avant-garde artists did not play a leading
role either as theoreticians or as performers. A few Scandinavians
did, however, achieve the status of symbolic pivots for the develop-
ment and articulation of avant-garde aesthetics and practice. Some
of them even became sort of avant-garde icons.
The avant-garde icons from the Nordic countries were not neces-
sarily identical with the Nordic artists participating in the move-
ments. Quite the contrary, the strongest of them belonged to earlier,
pre-twentieth century and pre-avant-garde generations. That is no
coincidence. As pointed out in Hubert van den Berg’s introduction,
the Scandinavian modern breakthrough, which took place in the last
decades of the 19th century and included key figures such as Georg
Brandes, J.P. Jacobsen, Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg and several
others, to a large extent put the Nordic twentieth century avant-
gardes into the shade. Some of the most influential representatives
of the modern breakthrough (Brandes, Ibsen, Strindberg, Bang)
spent years in exile in the European centres. At the turn of the cen-
tury, the writers associated with the modern breakthrough had be-
come an integrated part of European, especially German and
French, culture. Plays by Ibsen and Strindberg had been staged in
Paris and other metropolises. In Germany, a great number of writers
were translated almost immediately after publication. For a few
decades, the cultural influence of Scandinavian artists, especially
writers, was great. They attained the status of radical trendsetters.
Before the emergence of the avant-garde movements, they had be-
come symbols of modernity in a European context. Scandinavian
68 Nordic Icons in the European Avant-Gardes

writers were part of a generally accepted intellectual frame of refer-

ence, especially in Germany. For example, when Walter Benjamin –
a thinker close to and connected with the European avant-gardes,
especially French surrealism – defined the destruction of the aura,
he referred matter-of-factly to the Danish author Johannes V.
Jensen’s ideas of a sense of sameness (see Gesammelte Werke
As icons of modernity, Scandinavian modern breakthrough wri-
ters became embroiled in ideological battlefields. Topics such as na-
tionalism, modernity, gender, aesthetics etc. were negotiated through
Scandinavians as media and symbols. They were often seen as re-
presentatives of radical or even brutal or barbarian standpoints.
Stereotypes of the primitive barbarian North stuck to Scandinavian
artists. Strindberg was represented according to this iconography –
which incidentally also existed in the Nordic countries; as pointed
out by Timo Huusko in his contribution to this volume, the primi-
tivism of Tyko Sallinen and the November Group around 1919 was
still interpreted according to the racist stereotypes of Finns as semi-
Mongolians when their paintings were exhibited in Copenhagen. The
symbolic value of the modern breakthrough lived on during the first
decades of the twentieth century. That is why Der Sturm still re-
quested (and received) contributions from writers such as Herman
Bang. The most thorough use of Scandinavian icons occurred within
German expressionism. This is also one of the reasons why even
Scandinavians of previous generations such as Strindberg or Ibsen
became icons of the avant-gardes.
The icons served several functions. Established artists from the
Scandinavian modern breakthrough were used to construct a tradi-
tion, for example a prehistory of expressionism, as a way of legit-
imising contemporary experiments and actions. They were
constructed as predecessors of the avant-gardes. An example of this
is the frequent references to the Swedish writer August Strindberg
in German expressionism. Strindberg died before the full-scale
breakthrough of the avant-gardes. This means that he could be ap-
propriated without offering any resistance himself. On the other
hand, controversies stuck to him. Even though he was accepted as
Sweden’s greatest writer, he was not smoothly integrated into official
Swedish culture. He was considered wild and extreme, immoral,
tasteless, brutal, mad and misogynist. In reviews of modern literature
Nordic Icons in the European Avant-Gardes 69

and drama, the word ‘Strindbergian’ is still used to open a field of

gloomy associations. Many of his attitudes and experiments antici-
pated the practices of the European avant-garde. Strindberg is in
many ways an obvious choice as an avant-garde icon; but as the first
contribution in this section shows, his appropriation by the avant-
garde movements did not take place as a seamless integration. Quite
the contrary, Artaud’s staging of one of his dramas foregrounded
radical conflicts and schisms within the European avant-gardes.
Unlike Strindberg, the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, who
is the second icon dealt with in this section, lived to see the emergence
of the twentieth century avant-gardes. In his case, expressionism and
other movements could appropriate a contemporaneous artist who
was still alive and vital. His breakthrough, however, took place before
the rise of the modern avant-garde movements. He paved the way
for them, as it were, by using proto-avant-garde gestures as a mar-
keting device: radical techniques; a break with the standards, tech-
niques and culture of the academies; independent exhibitions leading
to public scandals. His deliberate media strategy placed him in an
oppositional position – and this prototypical avant-garde habitus pre-
pared his iconic status in some German expressionist circles. In Die
Aktion (47/48+49/50, 1916), Theodor Däubler thus described Munch
as a Nordic herald of eschatological expressionist art and a foreboder
of a spiritual Third Reich. The positioning of Munch as a ‘Nordic’
artist was not accidental. Munch was seen as a precursor of expres-
sionism at a time when nationalist or völkisch ideas emerged in Ger-
man expressionism. Munch’s elevation to a forerunner of ‘German’
expressionism is thus rooted in a specific ideological context where
the ‘Nordic’ could be instrumentalised as a counter-model opposed
to Matisse and les fauves, i.e. an expressionism of Romanic descent.
Scandinavian artists, who were already famous before the turn of
the century, and who did not belong to the twentieth century avant-
garde movements themselves, thus became part of the discourse of
these very movements. It is no coincidence that the first topic dealt
with in this cultural history of the avant-gardes is this discourse and
not the Nordic avant-garde works of art. This emphasis on the cul-
tural and discursive context is also one of the reasons why we do not
only focus on canonised artists such as Strindberg and Munch, but
also on Asta Nielsen, a popular film actress, who was neither re-
garded as a part of high culture nor of the artistic field. Asta Nielsen
70 Nordic Icons in the European Avant-Gardes

was one of the first international film stars. At the time of her film
début in the age of the silent movies, the Danish film industry was
of international importance. Like Strindberg and Munch, however,
Nielsen spent several years outside Scandinavia. While German ex-
pressionist artists praised Strindberg as their predecessor, Asta
Nielsen was the best-paid star in German film. Due to mass distri-
bution, her face was already an international icon of popular culture
(like Marilyn Monroe when Warhol appropriated her face). This
made it possible for avant-garde writers from several countries to use
her as a projection screen for their own visions. At the same time it
is worth noting that Asta Nielsen was not only able to adapt to but
also to explore the challenges and possibilities of the new film
medium to a higher degree than most contemporary artists. She is
an obvious object for case studies condensing questions of avant-
garde and popular culture, new technology and gender.

Per Stounbjerg

August Strindberg: Vomiting on Society

Long after his death, August Strindberg (1849-1912) remained a con-
troversial figure. The reasons for this were ethical rather than aes-
thetic. He was considered wild and extreme, immoral, tasteless,
brutal, mad and misogynist. Even though he was accepted as Swe-
den’s greatest writer, he was not smoothly integrated into official
Swedish culture. In the 1920s one of his plays even became pivotal
to a conflict within the European avant-garde, involving precisely its
relations to official culture. The cause was the first French produc-
tion of one of his most experimental, but otherwise – due to its in-
dulgent and melancholy tone – least controversial dramas: Ett
drömspel (A Dream Play) (1902). The performance which took place
on 2 June 1928 was a scandal. This was not because of either the au-
thor’s or the director Antonin Artaud’s challenge to dramatic form,
but because of art politics. Among the audience was a group of some
thirty surrealists, who tried to obstruct the performance, which had
been sponsored by the Swedish Embassy. Artaud’s reaction shocked
the Swedish representatives present at the event. He entered the stage
and praised Strindberg as a revolutionary vomiting on Sweden and
on society in general. The events foreground a tension in the early
European avant-gardes between the liberty of radical aesthetic ex-
periments and the focus on aesthetico-political actions in society.
72 Per Stounbjerg

Strindberg as a Forerunner of the Avant-Garde

These controversies are the reason why the only reference to Strind-
berg in André Breton’s manifestos of surrealism is rather derogatory.
Breton blames Artaud for his “luxurious production of a play by
some Strindberg” in order to gain fame and to get money from the
embassy (Second Manifesto (1930) 1972:130). Only several years
later did Breton recognise Strindberg as a precursor of surrealism
(see Swerling 1971:188).
In many respects, however, Strindberg was a forerunner of the
avant-garde. He was not part of any collective movement, but he be-
came an icon for several avant-gardists. He was one of the most in-
fluential creators of twentieth century drama. In visionary works
such as A Dream Play and Spöksonaten (The Ghost Sonata) (1907),
both made famous by Max Reinhardt’s productions, he challenged
traditional dramatic form. Moreover, his activities anticipated the
practice of the avant-garde movements. His attitude was often ex-
perimental, especially after he had devoted years of his life to scien-
tific experiments (including chemistry, botany and astronomy)
during the 1890s. It is worth remembering that Fröken Julie (Miss
Julie) (1888) was first performed by Strindberg’s own ‘Skandinavisk
Försöksteater’ (‘Scandinavian Experimental Theatre’). His experi-
ments included extra-literary fields such as photography (Strindberg
built his own camera without a lens, which he saw as distorting the
true representation of the world). In “The New Arts! or The Role of
Chance in Artistic Creation” (1894), Strindberg insisted that art
should not mirror nature, but imitate its capricious way of creating.
Like Aragon or Breton he focused on chance and strange coinci-
dences. A few years later, in the autobiographical novel Inferno
(1897), Strindberg transformed Paris into a reservoir of objets trou-
vés, as he treated street names, shop windows, scraps of paper as well
as other trivia of urban life as signs and mounted them into new con-
Strindberg constantly moved towards and beyond the limits of
autonomous art. He even questioned the value of art as a cultural
activity. In the 1880s, he deprecated fiction as a sort of waste:
false and useless for society. In the preface to Miss Julie he declared
theatre itself to be a dying form, which just like religion was to be
replaced by intellectual trial and reflection (Samlade verk 27:101).
The paradox is, of course, that Strindberg’s main efforts were dedi-
Rebels and Renegades – Strindberg, Artaud and the Avant-Garde 73

cated to this highly institutionalised and expensive form of art. Even

in periods of reconciliation with the institutions of art, the distrust
lingered on. The Poet of A Dream Play thus vacillates between en-
thusiasm and scepticism:

Ecstatically. Out of clay the sculptor creates his more or less immor-
tal masterpieces, – Sceptically – which are usually only rubbish. […]
Ecstatically. This is clay. When clay is fluid, it is called mud. (Samlade
verk 46:58 f.)

The scepticism towards art was not only programmatic. In the 1880s,
literature was just one part of a broad field of textual strategies di-
rected against official Swedish culture: satire, polemical essays,
poems, short stories, essays on cultural history, literary criticism etc.
Art had no privileged status. Strindberg devoted years of his life to
non-literary, especially scholarly and scientific discourses (which to-
gether constitute more than 15 volumes of the collected works): his-
tory, ethnology, chemistry, optics, astronomy, linguistics.
An important point is that the genres and discourses did not re-
main pure and separate. In his own practice he transferred a poetic
logic from art to the sciences – and vice versa. He transcended the
boundary between art and other discourses, thus contradicting the
norms of pure and autonomous art. His writings did not maintain
an aesthetic distance to either private or political matters. They were
impure – too intimate, too raw, too subjective, too polemical – ma-
king Strindberg an anomaly hard to integrate in official culture.
Often they provoked radical controversies and scandals. As a result,
the Swedish left wing of the 1880s used Strindberg as a political sym-
bol. In the very last years of his life he inaugurated a bitter feud
(‘Strindbergsfejden’) over topics such as literature, monarchy and
military, placing the author once again in a position of radical op-
position to the Swedish authorities. Artaud’s picture of Strindberg
as an outsider and rebel was not his own invention. Quite the con-
trary, it was one of the reasons why he became a focal point for the
avant-gardes of the twentieth century.

European Reception: Trendsetter and Barbarian

Strindberg gained an international reputation during his own life-
74 Per Stounbjerg

time. He had a broad range of intellectual contacts in Scandinavia

and in Europe, including for instance Gauguin and Nietzsche. His
audience was European, not only Swedish. Strindberg wrote several
works (including Inferno) in French; the translation of Ett drömspel
(A Dream Play/Le Songe) was also his own. During the last fifteen
years of his life, translations of his works appeared almost immedi-
ately, especially in Germany. At Strindberg’s 60 th birthday, Georg
Lukács, who was still in Hungary, declared that everyone sometimes
had the feeling that the solution to all the questions of new literature
was in Strindberg’s hands (Lukács 1909:94).
Strindberg’s influence on twentieth century drama was decisive.
The first movement to appropriate him as a forerunner and stylistic
model was German expressionism (see e.g. Innes 1993:37). Their
canonisation of his late dramas established him as an icon for mod-
ernist and avant-garde theatre.
This canonisation was not, however, an even process. There were
great asynchronicities between different European countries. In Ger-
many, Strindberg had cult status; thousands of theatre performances
took place before the mid-twenties (the culmination was 1923 with
1024 performances), and Strindberg was discussed in a flood of es-
says and books. As a cultural prism he refracted several, often op-
posite tendencies0. The expressionist writers construed him as a
predecessor and a great innovator ahead of his time; they referred
to his dramaturgic ideas as well as to his longing for a spiritual or
religious redemption. Poets glorified him.1 On the other hand, critics
of modernity saw Strindberg as the personification of the downside
of contemporary culture: instability, lack of content and commit-
ment etc. In fact, Strindberg’s volatility made him a catalogue of
often contradictory modern positions: Darwinist, scientific, atheist,
occultist, socialist, aristocrat etc. This turned him into a screen onto
which the controversies of World War I German culture were pro-
At the same time, he was still rejected in France. Later on he in-
spired existentialist and absurdist drama, but in the 1920s he was
thought of predominantly as a radical and immoral Scandinavian
barbarian (an image which he himself anticipated in the 1895 essay
“Le Barbare à Paris”). As a consequence of French post-World War
I nationalism and moralism, Strindberg was only championed by a
small group of “avant-garde producers” (Swerling 1971:53). This was
Rebels and Renegades – Strindberg, Artaud and the Avant-Garde 75

the situation when Antonin Artaud directed A Dream Play at his ex-
perimental Le Théâtre Alfred Jarry.

Between Dream and Reality:

Artaud’s Production of A Dream Play
Due to financial support from, among others, well-to-do Swedes in
Paris, the production of A Dream Play was probably the best oppor-
tunity Artaud ever had to realise his theatrical visions. The production
was scheduled from the very beginning of Le Théâtre Alfred Jarry,
which Artaud had established in cooperation with Roger Vitrac and
Robert Aron. His idea was to redefine theatre as such. It was not to
create any realist scenic illusion to represent life. Instead Artaud used
a dreamlike dramaturgy to establish an independent space with its
own sort of reality. In the prospectus for the production, Artaud
placed theatre “halfway between reality and dream” (1961:79), thereby
intensifying an orientation already present in Strindberg’s play.
Among the means used to realise these visions was a surreal mon-
tage of insistently raw and real objects. Artaud focused on the mate-
riality of voice, light and things. The ladders which he used to
indicate the contact with heaven were not stylised into symbols; they
were common, brutally material ladders. In the prospectus, Artaud
insisted on adding a new “spiritual sense to the objects and things
of ordinary life” (1961:79) – a strategy that was close to surrealism.
The reviews were generally enthusiastic. On the other hand, several
audience members were mystified and disoriented. In her memoirs,
the Swedish writer Marika Stiernstedt thus concluded: “It seemed
absolutely insane” (1948:94).

A Rebel Protected by the Police

The Alfred Jarry Theatre did not have its own premises; it played out
of season in other theatres. Nevertheless its few performances were
well-attended. This was certainly the case on 2 June 1928. Among
the audience were around 150 members of the Swedish colony in
Paris, several members of the Swedish and Danish legations, several
journalists and celebrities, aristocrats, royal persons (including Prince
George of Greece), and not least cultural notaries such as Paul
Valéry (see Artaud 1961:272).
76 Per Stounbjerg

From their central position in the house, the surrealist group soon
interrupted the performance. They made loud and derogatory com-
ments about the play, about Sweden and about Artaud being paid
by Swedish capital. Artaud made the scandal complete by entering
the stage to declare:

Strindberg is a dissident, just like Jarry, like Lautréamont, like Bre-

ton, like me. We are presenting this play because it vomits on its fa-
therland, on all nations, on society. (Virmaux/Virmaux 1979:31)

Subsequently, most of the Swedes led by Isaac Grünewald, the

painter2, left the house in protest (the ambassador had been warned
beforehand and chose to stay away). The supporters of Breton and
Artaud clashed. According to Swerling (1971:185) the agitation did
not end until the police restored order and arrested Aragon, Prévert,
Unik, Baldensperg and Boiffard.
The surrealists, represented by André Breton, tried to press Ar-
taud not to give a second performance; in characteristically legal ter-
minology it was ‘prohibited’. In a press statement, the theatre replied
by reserving the right to take all the necessary steps to maintain its
liberty. The liberty of subversive dramatic action was guaranteed by
the legal authorities, the police. That is why the Second Manifesto
of Surrealism reads:

It is M. Artaud, whom I will always see in my mind’s eye flanked by

two cops, at the door of the Alfred Jarry Theatre, sicking twenty
others on the only friends he admitted having as lately as the night
before, having previously negotiated their arrests at the commis-
sariat. (1972:131)

Art and/or Activism: a Schism within the Avant-Garde

Artaud’s production of A Dream Play could be seen as the ideal ar-
chetype for an avant-garde event: an art experiment turning into a
scandal as the director offends the people who had made the pro-
duction possible. The provocation turned Strindberg’s work of art
into an event within a social and institutional framework. The Alfred
Jarry Theatre was very well aware of the contradiction between the
use of the police and its own “revolutionary spirit” (Aron, 10 June
Rebels and Renegades – Strindberg, Artaud and the Avant-Garde 77

1928, quoted from Artaud 1961:266). The production was a sym-

bolic nexus – not only in the reception of Strindberg, but in the his-
tory of the European avant-garde as well, because it foregrounded
an internal schism within the avant-garde. It is worth remembering
that ‘the avant-garde’ never existed as a homogenous unity, but only
as a theoretical construction. The schism foregrounded by Artaud’s
production is a schism within the theories of the avant-garde as well.
The avant-garde movements challenged the status of art in twen-
tieth century society and culture. This challenge took on different
forms. One took aesthetic actions as its turning point: provocations,
happenings, interruption of institutionalised performances of theatre
and music. Breton’s group of surrealists could be an example. They
considered technical problems within the genres or institutions of
art irrelevant compared to radical social action. They joined the com-
munist party – and excluded Artaud and Soupault from the move-
ment because of their “isolated pursuit of the stupid literary
adventure” (Breton (1927) 1988:928). The other major avant-garde
enterprise was precisely the examination of, reflection on and exper-
imentation with the forms, devices and frameworks of art. The focal
point was still the event, but the event here remained within the aes-
thetic field. The dichotomy is not only theoretical;3 at the perform-
ance of Strindberg’s play the two tendencies clashed physically.
Artaud’s production of A Dream Play was principally a radical
experiment within an art form which was, unlike painting or poetry,
heavily dependent on facilities and funding.4 Still, the role of the
Jarry Theatre in the events of 2 June 1928 remains ambiguous. At
the last moment, seat numbers were changed; consequently, the front
rows, reserved and sold to Swedes from the Parisian colony, became
occupied by the surrealists (see Innes 1993:91 and Artaud 1961:272
f.). This ‘coincidence’ made it possible for Artaud to deliver his
speech (which paralleled the scandal surrounding the Jarry Theatre’s
previous production: a play by Paul Claudel was not only performed
without the author’s permission, but Artaud also called Claudel an
infamous traitor on-stage!). This speech was the true scandal.

“Renegade!” Strindberg’s Unmasking of Representation

Strindberg himself embodied both sides of the opposition. He was
a rebel against the Swedish cultural and political establishment – but
78 Per Stounbjerg

also an innovative artist who used bourgeois theatre as his primary

medium. His relationship with authorities of all kinds was complex
and ambivalent. He wanted to revolutionise literature and science,
but he also wanted recognition. A recurrent motif in his dramas is
the reversal of public acknowledgement into public unmasking and
denouncement. In To Damascus II the celebration of a gold maker
is transformed from an official banquet into a lousy bar; the wreath
is replaced by a prison cell. In A Dream Play, the lawyer is similarly
denied the wreath (and a doctoral degree) in a public ceremony. In
both cases an institutionalised theatricality, a sort of official repre-
sentative performance is interrupted or inverted. The events at the
Jarry Theatre were of a Strindbergian nature. A primary scene in
Strindbergian drama occurs at the end of his breakthrough play
Master Olof (written 1872). When Master Olof, a central figure in
the Swedish reformation, finds out that his idealist innovation of
the church has been appropriated by the king, he becomes a rebel
and conspirator, and is sentenced to death. To secure a pardon, he
abjures his opinions. The last words of the play are the revolutionary
Gert’s public denunciation of Olof, still standing at the pillory:
“Renegade!” (Samlade verk 5:194). Strindberg, just like Olof and
like Artaud, was a rebel and a renegade: a dissident unwilling to
serve or accept the authority of any organised movement, avant-
garde or not.

For documentation see the many reprinted texts in Bayerdörfer et al. 1983.
See e.g. Kurt Heynicke’s “Strindberg”, printed in Der Sturm 1915: “Dein Kreuz
war aus Sternen./ Feuer Gottes/ deine Seele./ Ewigkeit/ gebar dein Schmerz/ Un-
endlichkeit/ deine Tiefe/ Du hast im Liebe empfangen/ Dich wissen/ die Wissenden”
(quoted from Volz 1979:305).
The controversies thus also included a generational clash within the avant-garde.
Grünewald here placed himself as the protector of established culture against avant-
gardist aggression. It is worth noting that Grünewald had himself been accused of
being un-Swedish due to his Jewish background.
Various theories and histories of the avant-garde maintain the dichotomy through
a one-sided focus on either art or social action. It is also evident in the ambivalence
towards the autonomy of art, which Murphy (1999) has highlighted in Bürger as
Rebels and Renegades – Strindberg, Artaud and the Avant-Garde 79

well as in avant-gardist practice – and in Hal Foster’s distinction between a historical

avant-garde opposing the conventional and a neo-avant-garde concentrating on the
institutional (1996:17).
Breton’s surrealist group was also dependent on money and sponsorship, just like
every artist in modern society. The paradox is that their aristocratic sponsors even-
tually became the same as Artaud’s. The viscount and viscountess Charles and
Marie Laure de Noailles “supported surrealist writers by buying manuscripts, such
as that of Breton’s L’Immaculée Conception (1930) for 10,000 francs, which sheds a
wholly different light on his accusation of bourgeois ‘compromise’ at the time of
Le Songe” (Crombez 2005).
80 Per Stounbjerg

Artaud, Antonin. 1961. Œuvres complètes. Tome II. Paris: Gallimard.
Bayerdörfer, Hans-Peter/Horch, Hans Otto/Schulz, Georg-Michael. 1983. Strind-
berg auf der deutschen Bühne. Eine exemplarische Rezeptionsgeschichte der
Moderne in Dokumenten (1890 bis 1925). Neumünster: Karl Wachholtz
Breton, André. 1972. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Translated from the French by
Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. Ann Arbour. University of Michigan
––. 1988. Œuvres complètes I. Paris: Gallimard.
Crombez, Thomas. 2005. “Artaud, the Parodist? The Appropriations of the
Théâtre Alfred Jarry, 1927-1930”. In: Forum Modernes Theater, 20 (2005),
nr. 1, pp. 33-51. See:
Foster, Hal. 1996. “Who’s Afraid of the Neo-Avant-Garde?”. In: The Return of
the Real. The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, pp. 1-32. Cambridge
Innes, Christopher. 1993. Avant Garde Theatre 1892-1992. London: Routledge.
Lukács, György. 1909. “August Strindberg. On his Sixtieth Birthday”. In: K.
Arpad (red.): The Lukács Reader, pp. 91-96. Oxford 1995: Blackwell.
Murphy, Richard. 1999. Theorizing the Avant-Garde. Modernism, Expressionism,
and the Problem of Postmodernity. Cambridge.
Stiernstedt, Marika. 1948. Mest sanning. Minnen. Stockholm: Albert Bonniers
Strindberg, August. 1981-?. Samlade verk 1-72. Stockholm: Almqvist &
Wiksell/Norstedts. Abbreviated: sv
Swerling, Anthony. 1971. Strindberg’s Impact in France 1920-1960. Cambridge:
Trinity Lane Press.
Virmaux, Alain et Odette. 1979. Artaud: un bilan critique. Paris: Pierre Belfond.
Volz, Ruprecht. 1979. “Strindbergbilder in der Zeit des deutschen Expressionis-
mus”. In: Wilhelm Friese (Hg.): Strindberg und die deutschsprachigen Län-
der. Internationale Beiträge zum Tübinger Strindberg-Symposion 1977, pp.
289-305. Basel und Stuttgart: Helbinb & Lichtenhahn Verlag.

Erik Mørstad

Edvard Munch was an especially self-assured artist, organising his

own one-man shows well before the age of thirty. Such strategic mar-
keting by an artist was as unusual in Norway as it was on the conti-
nent. Thus, Munch and his pictures generated much discussion, and
what could be described as a “media strategy” brought Munch wide
attention. This conspicuousness in the public arena, the result of his
positive cultural and social capital, formed the basis of Munch’s
avant-gardism, which was identified just after 1900 and developed
by a younger generation of Expressionists. An event in the autumn
of 1892 projected Munch into the unexpected role of Germany’s pio-
neer of modern painting; but his status in the history of Scandina-
vian and European avant-gardism can also be traced back to that
year. A young “prophet” from a Scandinavian country, Munch
aroused a latent crisis within Berlin’s art establishment: his exhibition
in the city, intended to honour a young talent, was instead perceived
as an attack on mainstream taste.

Succès de Scandale
On 14 September 1892, Munch opened a one-man show in Karl Jo-
hansgate, the fashionable main street of the Norwegian capital, Kris-
tiania (Oslo), in premises he had rented from the goldsmith Tostrup.
During the first week, fifty paintings, plus a number of drawings,
were seen by 900 visitors. Reviews in the press were, as usual, mixed
with regard to the form and content of the works. That, however,
mattered little given the decisive and positive role Eilert Adelsteen
Normann, one of the visitors to the exhibition, would play in
82 Erik Mørstad

Munch’s career. Adelsteen Normann was a Norwegian painter en-

joying great success in Germany with his oil paintings depicting the
fjords of western Norway. (These subjects found great favour with
the upper-middle class and in 1890 Kaiser Wilhelm II bought one of
his seascapes.) Adelsteen Normann was travelling from his summer
villa at Balestrand on the Sognefjord to Berlin when he stopped in
Kristiania to pay a visit to Munch’s exhibition. Though he was fa-
miliar with contemporary art trends in Paris, Adelsteen Normann’s
personal tastes were far removed from those of Munch. Nevertheless,
he resolved to propose that Munch be invited to Berlin as a principal
exhibitor at the artists’ association, the Verein Berliner Künstler. He
was clearly impressed by Munch’s talent, and presumably felt that
both the public and artists in Berlin would more readily accept the
most progressive styles of the day, including French Impressionism,
if they were practised and presented to them by his young Scandina-
vian discovery. As early as 24 September, Adelsteen Normann wrote
to Munch that the Verein Berliner Künstler’s exhibitions committee
(of which, propitiously, the painter himself was a member) had voted
unanimously to invite Munch to hold a one-man show in the Ger-
man capital that autumn. Munch’s exhibition opened on 5 Novem-
ber in the then recently renovated Architektenhaus at Wilhelmstrasse
92, and comprised 55 paintings, the majority of them painted after
1889. Several of these are now in the collection of the National Mu-
seum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo; they include Night in
Saint Cloud (1890), Rue Lafayette (1891), and Melancholy (1892).
It soon became apparent, however, that Adelsteen Normann had
underestimated the hostile attitude of the artists’ association’s aca-
demic and conservative members. The public, too, reacted with
alarm: Munch’s exhibition had become a succès de scandale, as de-
cried on 10 November in the newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung, under
the headline, “Art is in danger!” (“Die Kunst ist in Gefahr!”) (Kneher
1994: 9). Because he had been invited to exhibit, Munch was assured
some degree of courtesy, but during an extraordinary general meet-
ing held on 12 November, the association’s members voted on a pro-
posal to shut down the exhibition: by 120 to 105 they voted that it
should close forthwith. The end came the very next day: Munch’s
paintings had proved divisive, the response to them in newspapers
and other periodicals reflecting both positive and negative attitudes.
Munch was perceived as an exponent of modern French painting.
Munch’s Impact on Europe 83

His work found a degree of favour with some critics, but the unfin-
ished nature of the pictures, or their relative sketchiness, found little
sympathy. However, Munch was not without allies. On the same day
that the proposal to close the exhibition was adopted, he and the
dealer Eduard Schulte reached agreement on compiling travelling ex-
hibitions set for Düsseldorf and Cologne; and in December, Munch
organised another one-man show for Berlin. This time he rented
well-regarded premises in the so-called Equitable Palast, at Friedrich-
strasse 59-60. At this exhibition, which opened on 23 December, he
presented almost the same works that he had at the Architektenhaus.
Ironically enough, this show was a financial success, despite the fact
that Munch was now a notorious and somewhat scandalous avant-
gardist. Indeed, by the time the exhibition closed on 12 January, a
total of 1800 marks had been paid in entrance money – a consider-
able sum for a young artist.

On both social and cultural levels, the scandal triggered a crisis in
Berlin’s established art circles, revealing markedly divergent tastes
and preferences. The Verein Berliner Künstler, previously politically
sanctioned by the Kaiser and a hegemonic arbiter of absolute artistic
taste, was now split into rival factions. There was a distinct division
between majority, bourgeois art and minority, avant-garde art, and
a corresponding polarisation of the mainstream and the avant-garde
among artists, gallery-owners, critics and public alike. Munch ac-
quired an independent position in the new field for the production
and reception of pictorial art. An autonomous arena had come into
being, wherein rival trends competed; this was the case not only in
Germany, but in many European countries and capitals towards the
turn of the century.
With his exhibitions in Berlin, Munch challenged the city’s pre-
vailing aesthetic standards. What people objected to in his works was
not merely their peripheral details, but the very core of Munch’s
artistic project. A striking characteristic of his painterly methodol-
ogy – one attacked by many artists and critics – was his tendency to
stop working on a painting before it would be considered complete
according to the aesthetic criteria of the day. That Munch’s pictures
were “unfinished” in their sketchiness was, from the start of his ca-
84 Erik Mørstad

reer, a criticism voiced both in the press and by his friends. Undeni-
ably, Munch’s paintings bear obvious traces of haphazard and un-
predictable processes. Sometimes he does not cover the entire canvas
with paint; sometimes he lets the paint drip or trickle. He makes his
brushstrokes with varying degrees of pressure, and often they form
a loose network independent of their descriptive function. Such a
lack of congruence between painterly form and narrative content is
not unusual in Munch’s oeuvre. The paintings reflect the artist’s body
language and his movements at the easel. Analysis of the works
shows that Munch was already painting intuitively in the 1880s. His
objection to finishing a painting in the conventional sense can be in-
terpreted as a personality trait. Yet one should not ignore the possi-
bility that his play with fortuity and improvisation was premeditated
and deliberate (Mørstad 2007: 139): in other words, Munch’s extem-
poral artistic activity was the result of a strategy.

Avant-Gardism and Anomie

Shortly before Munch’s visit to Berlin in autumn 1892 to hang his
Architektenhaus exhibition, he was interviewed by an older colleague
and friend, Christian Krohg (see Krohg 1920: 186-88). Krohg men-
tions that Munch espoused Impressionism early in his career, but
that to imitate nature in his pictures was never his intention. Munch
maintains in the interview that a painting must be executed in a par-
ticular state of mind and, since moods are liable to change, work on
a picture must be completed before self-criticism and reflection in-
terfere with the creative impulse.
Krohg was 12 years older than Munch, but they had very similar
social backgrounds and family histories. Yet there was a vital differ-
ence between them. Krohg had had a long, formal education. After
secondary school and his school-leaving certificate, he studied law,
eventually graduating from the university in Kristiania; he then spent
several years studying at the art academies in Karlsruhe and Berlin.
Munch, on the other hand, had received only intermittent schooling
and some sporadic training in draughtsmanship. Up to the summer
of 1879, when he was 15½ years old, he had spent less than a year at
a regular school. From the autumn of 1879 until the summer of
1884, he was a visiting student in the drawing classes at Kristiania’s
technical school and at the Royal School of Drawing; but his atten-
Munch’s Impact on Europe 85

Edvard Munch, Stemmen / Sommernatt (The Voice / Summer Night),

1893, oil on canvas, 90×118.5 cm, Munch Museum Oslo.

dance was irregular, interrupted as it was by long periods of illness.

Parallel with his instruction in drawing during the winter of 1882-
83, Munch and a few of his contemporaries received three months’
instruction from Krohg in the techniques of oil painting. Later, for
three months in the autumn and winter of 1889-90, Munch attended
Léon Bonnat’s drawing classes in Paris. In other words, he had little
formal education, and little institutional cultural capital. Munch was
far more concerned with the end results of learning – and with artis-
tic development – than with passing exams; he did not care about
status as conferred by formal education, and did not seek the dis-
tinction that his pictures could bestow on him as expressions of his
habitus (the sum of all the dispositions he had inherited or acquired
through socialisation). From as early as the mid-1880s, his paintings
were part of exhibitions that, like his one-man shows in Berlin in the
autumn of 1892, attracted considerable, if conflicting, attention. By
virtue of the problematic nature of his production methods, Munch
86 Erik Mørstad

established himself as an “anomic” artist (Bourdieu 2004: 250-53).

The academy-trained artists who voted to expel Munch in Berlin
were explicitly reacting to the unfinished appearance of his paintings
– but on another level, Munch was being castigated for breaking aca-
demic rules, the contemporary nomos or laws on which art education
was based. However, in the last decades of the nineteenth century,
the academic monopoly was gradually replaced by an autonomous
field of cultural production, in which artists could compete for artis-
tic legitimacy, either individually or in groups. Munch safeguarded
himself and his exceptional talent against education’s regimenting
power, and, in the last years of the nineteenth century, took up a po-
sition as an avant-garde artist.

Munch’s Avant-Gardism: Some Characteristic Features

There are aspects of form and content that characterise Munch’s
avant-gardism, over and above subjective opinions as to whether or
not a painting is finished. In the years before the turn of the century,
Munch’s paintings were criticised for being repulsive. His subject-
matter and its treatment were not exactly in keeping with the “trin-
ity” of Idealism’s aesthetic creed: to depict the beautiful, the good,
and the true. The art of the academies presupposed Idealism: a
painting would, by virtue of its beauty and its lofty subject, raise the
viewer’s gaze to a level above material reality, to the realm of the ideal
and of morality. The criticism that Munch’s paintings were hideous
implied criticism on ethical grounds; several of his critics believed
that Munch deliberately depicted unpleasant and subversive aspects
of life, and that his express purpose was to overstep the bounds of
traditional art. Viewed in this way, Munch’s stance was that of a
modern artist in opposition to Idealism.
Also characteristic of Munch’s avant-gardism is the fashion in
which he liberates himself from external reality. The essence of his
Expressionism, in sympathy with most painterly Expressionists, is
that the personal emotions aroused by external stimuli or internal
experiences are transposed to the pictorial surface by means of the
painter’s brushstrokes and paint. Munch is little concerned with
achieving a formal likeness between the signified, as it exists in nature
or society, and his rendering of it on the canvas. As an Expressionist,
he has little regard for the classical rules of composition and repre-
Munch’s Impact on Europe 87

sentation; his pictures express both an aversion to hard-and-fast sys-

tems and formal definitions and an opposition to the artistic atti-
tudes which dominated the period prior to his cultural entrance.
In a number of Munch’s portraits and narrative figure paintings
people are caricaturised. His purpose in using caricature was to un-
mask and degrade; distortion of form and content communicates
the artist’s response to his motifs and subjects. His caricatural idiom,
suitably, is an expressive one; grimaces often supplant harmonious
form. Yet Munch’s deformation is not merely a symptom of personal
idiosyncrasy. The tendency to simplify and exaggerate, and to exploit
the pictorial plane rather than the plane of depth, are stylistic devices
characteristic not only of caricature but also of some Impressionistic
painting. Sketchiness used to convey tempo and superficiality is a
feature of paintings by Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas and Henri de
Toulouse-Lautrec, amongst others. The threat of alienation in the
city, or the isolation of the individual in modern society, can usefully
be expressed with the help of caricature.
Furthermore, Munch’s mode of caricature relies on fixed com-
positional schemes; he repeated such formulas in painting after
painting, and developed them through print-making. In essence, he
alternated between two methods of composition, which we can call
“improvisation” and “formula”. Improvisation, as noted above, is
reflected in Munch’s subjective definition as to when a painting is
finished. In his formulas, Munch reduces or dispenses with all de-
scriptive detail. The best known of Munch’s formulas is his undu-
lating coastline, curving first in and then out as it approaches the
horizon. The narrow strip of shore between the forest and the sea is
the stage on which human passions are acted out. Another well-
known formula is the frontal figure placed as far forward as possible
in the pictorial space; it appears in the foreground of both interiors
and landscapes. In some paintings the background can be interpreted
as the projection of the emotional state of this frontal figure. Munch
also evolved formulas for figures in profile and for figures whose
back is turned to the viewer. Sometimes two figures fuse into a single
form, often accentuated by a contour line. Yet another formula is a
woman’s long, flowing hair: a feature that spreads outwards and fre-
quently envelops the man in the composition, on occasion even twi-
ning right into his heart. When the woman distances herself from
the man, the hair serves as a metaphor for the fear of separation.
88 Erik Mørstad

Shadows, which appear in many of Munch’s paintings, are a further

fixed formula. As a rule, a shadow is associated with the theme of
attachment and separation, a reminder of something that happened
in the past or a pointer to something taking place in the here and
now. The colours in Munch’s paintings fit his formulas, and convey
mood rather than depict reality. In other words, they are metaphori-
cal and express feelings, either those of the artist or of the protago-
nists. A last element in Munch’s cache of formulas relates to the
pictures’ compositions. In several of his paintings there is a diagonal,
perhaps a road or a shoreline, stretching up and across until it meets
a high horizon. Asymmetry and foreshortening are further charac-
teristic features. Compositions of this kind enable him to place one
or more figures in the foreground, sometimes with secondary figures
in the background. Munch’s formulas result in a balance between
depth of field and pictorial surface; between illusion and abstraction.
In his exhibition at the Equitable Palast, Munch included a newly-
painted portrait of August Strindberg. (The Swedish writer was
among the artists who frequented the Berlin café popularly known
as “Zum schwarzen Ferkel”.) Partly independently and partly to-
gether, in Berlin and later, Strindberg and Munch developed an aes-
thetics of the accidental; a central element in Munch’s avant-gardism
as a painter. The two artists explored fortuitous, automatic processes
in the execution of paintings: their combined goal was a type of
painting that would obey its own specifically painterly rules, irre-
spective of the object depicted.

Munch and the Phases of Avant-Gardism

Munch’s position in the field of art, and his aesthetic choices, locate
him as part of an avant-garde tradition existing in contradistinction
to the majority of mainstream art. Common to many assessments
of Munch’s artistic reputation (for example Meier-Graefe 1904,
Eisenman et al. 1994, Rosenblum 1975 and 1978, and Heard Hamil-
ton 1967), however, is an opinion of his oeuvre as peripheral to the
overall thrust of modern painting in the twentieth century. Several
art historians place greater emphasis on Munch’s iconography than
on his stylistic innovation, and since the latter is the principal crite-
rion for modernity in painting Munch is frequently seen as a reviver
of Romanticism, a Symbolist, and a portrayer of existentialist
Munch’s Impact on Europe 89

themes such as love, life, suffering and death. (The artist’s personal
life and well-documented mental problems have supported this in-
terpretation.) Clement Greenberg’s analysis of Munch’s pictures, for
instance, corroborates the view that formal considerations are less
important than the narrative element.
Some of the most authoritative Munch scholars do, however, sin-
gle out Munch as the founder of Expressionism in Scandinavia and
Germany. Gerd Woll, head of the project Catalogue raisonné. Edvard
Munch, states in her article that Munch’s international fame and re-
putation are linked with Germany, and have as their source the ex-
hibition at the Architektenhaus in the autumn of 1892 (Woll 2001:
104). There is no doubt that Munch led the revolt against the de-
scriptive and meticulous academic painting so dominant in some
areas of European art at the end of the nineteenth century. Simpli-
fication of form and increased emphasis on the expressive power of
colour were elements exploited and developed by later Expression-
istic artists such as those involved in Die Brücke and Der Blaue Rei-
ter, who saw Munch’s art as an essential point of departure for their
own efforts. The definitive confirmation of Munch’s status and re-
putation as paradigmatic avant-garde artist came in 1912. In that
year the Sonderbund westdeutscher Kunstfreunde und Künstler or-
ganised a comprehensive exhibition in Cologne, in which Munch was
presented alongside many other contemporaneous artists – and on
an equal footing with Cézanne, Gauguin and van Gogh. Several pub-
lications concerned with Munch’s art appeared at roughly the same
time, and there were numerous other exhibitions in addition to the
aforementioned. A climax was reached when a retrospective exhibi-
tion was held in Berlin in 1927. With this exhibition, writes Woll,
Munch was “inscribed into art history as one of the most important
forerunners of Modernism” (Woll 2001: 106). Consequently, during
the 1930s, the Nazi regime in Germany classified Munch’s pictures
as degenerate, and had them removed from museums.
After 1945, more and more artists found inspiration in Munch’s
visual world, with artists from other Scandinavian countries follow-
ing in his footsteps. The end of the war was celebrated in Oslo in the
summer of 1945 with a major Munch exhibition at the National
Gallery: among its visitors was Asger Jorn (Gauguin 1945).

Translated by Joan Fuglesang

90 Erik Mørstad

Bourdieu, Pierre. 2004. The Field of Cultural Production. Oxford: Polity Press.
Eisenman, Stephen F. et al. 1994. Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History. Lon-
don: Thames and Hudson.
Gauguin, Pola. 1945. “Norsk kunst sett med en abstrakt malers øyne” (interview
with Asger Jorn) in Dagbladet, Norway (29 August 1945).
Greenberg, Clement. 1993. Clement Greenberg. The Collected Essays and Criticism
(Modernism with a Vengeance, vol. 4, ed. O’Brian). Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
Hamilton, George Heard. 1967. Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880 to 1940. Har-
mondsworth: Penguin Books.
Kneher, Jan. 1994. Edvard Munch in seinen Ausstellungen zwischen 1892 und 1912.
Eine Dokumentation der Ausstellungen und Studie zur Rezeptionsgeschichte
von Munchs Kunst. Worms am Rhein: Werneresche Verlagsgesellschaft.
Krohg, Christian. 1920. Kampen for tilværelsen (vol. 1). Copenhagen: Nordisk For-
Meier-Graefe, Julius. 1904. Entwickelungsgeschichte der modernen Kunst. Verglei-
chende Betrachtung der bildenden Künste, als Beitrag zu einer neuen Aesthetik
(vol. 1). Stuttgart: Verlag Jul. Hoffmann.
Mørstad, Erik. 2007. “The Improvisations of Edvard Munch” in Kunst og Kultur
(3): 138-59.
Rosenblum, Robert. 1975. Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition.
Friedrich to Rothko. London: Thames and Hudson.
––. 1978. “Edvard Munch: Some Changing Contexts” in Edvard Munch. Symbols
& Images. Washington: National Gallery of Art: 1-9.
Woll, Gerd. 2001. “Edvard Munch. En evig aktuell samtidskunstner” in Christian
Gether and Holger Reenberg (ed.) Skrigets ekko. Copenhagen: Arken Mu-
seum for Moderne Kunst and Munch Museum, Oslo: 104-13.
Yarborough, Tina. 2006. “The strange case of postmodernism’s appropriation of
Edvard Munch” in Erik Mørstad (ed.) Edvard Munch. An Anthology, Oslo:
Unipub, Oslo Academic Press: 191-205.
Zibrandtsen, Jan. 1948. Moderne dansk maleri. Copenhagen: Hirschsprungs For-

Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen

The New Art of Cinema and the Star System

The Danish actress Asta Nielsen (1881-1972) was the first film star
to inspire worldwide adoration. Urban Gad’s The Abyss/Afgrunden
(1910), in which she played the leading role, made her famous at al-
most one stroke. The alluring gypsy dance that she performed with
Poul Reumert was certainly risqué compared to the usual attractions
served up by the contemporaneous – and comparatively virginal –
American beauties Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish; but she should
not be seen as an early European incarnation of the female “vamp”
that became popular around the time of World War I with actresses
like Theda Bara, Pola Negri, Mae Murray and Gloria Swanson – all
typecast during the formative years of the Hollywood studio system.
“Die Asta”, as she was named throughout the world, managed her
own career (most of the time with Gad, her first husband) and was
never confined to a type. Her characterizations were always subtle,
and throughout her career she portrayed a range of diverse onscreen
Her international film career ran from 1910 to 1932. During that
time, notwithstanding the Great War, she made 70 films in Germany,
most of them silent. Besides The Abyss, she made only three more
films in Denmark, two in 1911 (The Black Dream and The Ballet
Dancer) and one in 1918 (Towards the Light). In 1937 she fled Berlin
for Copenhagen and a lower profile, remaining there until her death.
Her greatest attribute was a personal and intellectual interpretation
of the transition from the dramatic female individuality of Nordic
theatrical tradition (the tradition of Ibsen and Strindberg), to the
filmic representation of passion, emotion and sexuality attached to
92 Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen

the female body and face as readable but as yet unstandardised filmic
signs. She herself was aware of this, in 1919 outlining her views on
the distinctions between Hollywood and North European cinema:

Our strength is in the acting because we have real actors and artists.
American films you see are not based on acting. The type is the won-
derful characteristic of American cinema. You will always find splen-
did types in those films but no accomplished acting performance
whose purpose and core is the spiritual life of a specific human being
(Quoted in Thomsen 1997).

Greta Garbo, who entered the film scene 14 years after Nielsen,
made the full transition and became a full-blown Hollywood star.
Throughout her whole career she fought in vain against being type-
cast as a cold beauty from the North. She and Nielsen both appeared
in G. W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street (1925) in Germany, before Garbo
left for Hollywood with Mauritz Stiller. The Weimar scene (with its
German- and Austrian-born directors, including Ernst Lubitsch,
Fritz Lang, G. W. Pabst, and Josef von Sternberg) was indeed an im-
portant source of inspiration for Hollywood’s representations of fe-
male beauty. Von Sternberg’s astute casting of Marlene Dietrich
opposite Emil Jannings in Der Blaue Engel (1930) is a remarkable
example of how German expressionism could be both transformed
into fetishism (viz. Dietrich’s famous legs), and commodified by the
star system through the use of an absorbing and reflective screen
icon. According to Patrice Petro, Marlene Dietrich and Louise
Brooks can be seen as “convenient figures upon which to project
male subjectivity in crisis” (Petro 1989: 159). In his comparison of
Louise Brooks and Asta Nielsen, Petro explains why Brooks’s clear-
cut avant-garde icon, as well as Dietrich’s more broadly accepted star
icon, had to surpass that of Nielsen (as well as Henny Porten):

The intense, dramatically focused gaze of Nielsen, for example, offers

a striking contrast to the unfocused, almost mirrorlike gaze of
Brooks, and it is hardly coincidental that Brooks’s screen debut in-
volved a remake of Pandora’s Box – a film which originally featured
Nielsen in the starring role. (Petro 1989: 160)

Although Nielsen’s performances are not typically ‘avant-garde’, she

Die Asta and the Avant-Garde 93

certainly demonstrated a keen interest in the experimental possibili-

ties of the film medium. Her acting skills as well as her business ta-
lent made her – along with the better-known Charles Chaplin – a
progressive cinematic artist. She supervised every aspect of a film’s
production from scripting and contractual arrangements, through
camera and lighting, to wardrobe. She was, in a sense, her own di-
rector, and this challenge demanded skills in more than just perform-
ance. The fact that she lost possession as well as the master prints of
some of her films (Nielsen 1945/1966: 201), due to the two world
wars, might, in addition to the worldwide introduction of “talkies”,
explain why her fame faded after World War II. Another reason why
her talent never quite chimed with modernism’s biggest impulses was
voiced by the German film critic Lotte H. Eisner in 1952:

People today cannot understand what that pale mask, with its im-
mense blazing eyes, meant for the nineteen-teens and twenties… It
was impossible to put a label on this great actress: she was neither
‘modernist’ nor ‘Expressionist’. Her warm humanity, full of breadth
of life and presence, refuted both abstraction and the abruptness of
Expressionist art […] Never did she stoop to mawkishness, never did
her travesty shock. For Asta Nielsen’s eroticism was without equi-
vocation, her passion always authentic. (Eisner 1952: 261)

In other words, Die Asta became one of the biggest stars of the silent
period and a major icon for the avant-garde in the 1910s and ’20s,
due mostly to her skilled interpretation of the new medium. But the
mechanical aspect was never predominant in her performance: her
artistic interpretations were too expressive on a human level to qualify
as expressionistic – a quality which becomes all the more apparent
on closer inspection.

Asta in Front of the Mirror

In his influential article “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical
Reproduction” (1936), Walter Benjamin applauded the film medium
for its tactility and ability to create shock effects – superior, in this
regard, to dadaism and surrealism. He also described (following Pi-
randello) the special commodification of aura through which the
film actor is turned into a star with cult personality:
94 Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen

Asta Nielsen as Tamara in Laster der Menschheit, 1926. Photographer

Die Asta and the Avant-Garde 95

The feeling of strangeness that overcomes the actor before the cam-
era, as Pirandello describes it, is basically of the same kind as the
estrangement felt before one’s own image in the mirror. But now the
reflected image has become separable, transportable. And where is
it transported? Before the public. Never for a moment does the
screen actor cease to be conscious of this fact. While facing the cam-
era he knows that ultimately he will face the public, the consumers
who constitute the market. This market, where he offers not only his
labour but also his whole self, his heart and soul, is beyond his reach.
During the shooting he has as little contact with it as any article
made in a factory. This may contribute to that oppression, that new
anxiety which, according to Pirandello, grips the actor before the
camera. The film responds to the shrivelling of the aura with an ar-
tificial build-up of the “personality” outside the studio. The cult of
the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves
not the unique aura of the person but the “spell of the personality”,
the phoney spell of a commodity. (Benjamin 1936: 57)

Asta Nielsen was well aware of this – fragile as she was, with no stu-
dio-system or PR agency to create her cult personality for the masses
– and frequently described this vulnerability in her autobiography,
Den Tiende Muse (The Tenth Muse) (1945). In spite of this, she is
quite able to communicate with the mirror-like reflection of the ca-
mera-eye, as Béla Balázs so vividly describes it in his Theory of the
Film (1945). This description was inspirational to everybody, includ-
ing the European avant-garde, as her technical talent, combined with
her expertise in communicating with the camera, was surely unsur-
passed at the time:

Asta Nielsen once played a woman hired to seduce a rich young man.
The man who hired her is watching the results from behind a curtain.
Knowing that she is under observation, Asta Nielsen feigns love. She
does it convincingly: the whole gamut of appropriate emotion is dis-
played in her face. Nevertheless we are aware that it is only play-act-
ing, that it is a sham, a mask. But in the course of the scene, Asta
Nielsen really falls in love with the young man. Her facial expression
shows little change; she had been “registering” love all the time and
done it well. How else could she now show that this time she was
really in love? Her expression changes only but a scarcely perceptible
96 Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen

and yet immediately obvious nuance – and what a few minutes before
was a sham, is now the sincere expression of a deep emotion. Then
Asta Nielsen suddenly remembers that she is under observation. The
man behind the curtain must not be allowed to read her face and
learn that she is now no longer feigning, but really feeling love. So
Asta now pretends to be pretending. Her face shows a new, by this
time threefold, change. First she feigns love, then she genuinely shows
love, and as she is not permitted to be in love in good earnest, her
face again registers a sham, a pretence of love. But now it is this pre-
tence that is a lie. Now she is lying that she is lying. And we can see
all this clearly in her face, over which she has drawn two different
masks. At such times an invisible face appears in front of the real
one, just as spoken words can by association of ideas conjure up
things unspoken and unseen, perceived only by those to whom they
are addressed. (Balázs 1992: 265)

Balázs’s term for this acting style is “a ‘polyphonic’ play of features”.

He also highly praises the ability of the close-ups in silent movies to
create ‘microphysiognomy’, mentioning a scene from another of
Asta Nielsen’s films which emphasises the ability of the new medium
to show “a deeply moving human tragedy with the greatest economy
of expression” (Balázs: 267). G. W. Pabst, who directed her in The
Joyless Street (1925), also noticed her ability to put on a “frozen
mask” in front of the camera: in dissolving the mask into pain or
passion, she would apparently impersonate “humanity” and create
an emotional reaction in the audience (quoted in Engberg 1966: un-
Her capacity to portray human emotions is praised to such an ex-
tent in these quotes that her impressive technical mastery of the
image is almost disregarded. But, as the following description from
the Spanish journalist Pablo Diaz attests, Nielsen’s screen perform-
ance required an advanced knowledge of the production process:

The lamp is moved up to Asta Nielsen. Her face is shining in the

bluish light of the high-voltage lamp. She only has to make this
small, diminutive turn of her head, to slowly open her eye and glance
Asta Nielsen tries out the small movement. She knows that just
a bit too quick and the effect will be gone. She knows that a small
Die Asta and the Avant-Garde 97

movement out of the circle of light will leave decisive parts of her
face, and consequently her acting, in darkness.
At last, she is satisfied. Now she knows exactly how far she has
to turn her head, how slowly to open her eye. We have the slightly
shivering feeling of automatism.
Oh, we have no idea of a really great artist! Now Asta acts the
scene! No artificiality, no forcedness. Her face is suddenly transfig-
ured, and she turns as if by an inner necessity, her eye opens up – it
cannot be described. It is as if suddenly electric waves of light pene-
trate into permeable matter. Moments before, she looked friendly-
indifferent, now there is high voltage in her glance, the entire soul of
a human being is now speaking solely through her eye. (Diaz 1920:

This description closely resembles those of Benjamin and Balázs; but

whereas Benjamin focuses on the mirror and the commoditisation
of the film image, and Balázs on Asta’s special talent for interpreta-
tion which vivifies the image in the eyes of the spectators, Diaz fo-
cuses on the technical means by which Asta Nielsen succeeds in
creating those close-up images filled with changeable emotions. Diaz
makes it clear that Nielsen knew how to exploit the new technological
capacity of film to portray emotion and that a successful portrait
depended on timing.
Just as Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein were pioneers of filmic
montage, Asta Nielsen was the first to interpret the filmic close-up
of a face as an “affection-image” – a term developed by Gilles
Deleuze following Bela Balázs’s studies of the face of Die Asta. The
“affection-image” is “abstracted from the spatio-temporal co-ordi-
nates which would relate it to a state of things, and abstracts the face
from the person to which it belongs in the state of things” (Deleuze
1986: 97). This abstraction of the affection-image makes it (for
Deleuze) comparable to Charles S. Pierce’s concept of the icon, since
“it is quality or power, it is potentiality considered for itself as ex-
pressed” (op. cit.: 98). This was Asta Nielsen’s greatest achievement:
her face could change from wonder (quality) to desire (power) in its
highlighting of the new abilities of cinema; subsequent directors,
such as Th. Dreyer, Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier have stud-
ied Nielsen’s ability, rendered potent via the close-up, to create iso-
lated images of affection, and almost tactile sensations.
98 Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen

Montage and Close-Up

Seen from a distance of almost 100 years it seems evident that one
of the main concerns of the formative European avant-garde was
how to include, register, or interpret the machine and the medium.
The Danish expressionist writer Rud(olf) Broby (Johansen), in a
1927 Danish film journal, welcomed film as a movement:

In film, life is lived the way we modern human beings perceive it: as
movement. If we are to describe its contrast with absolute certainty,
we say “stonedead”. The tearing speed: the express, the racing car,
the motor boat, the aeroplane let us feel life quite tangibly in and
around us. We cannot comprehend the meditation of the Orientals.
We work incessantly, stretch the net of the electric currents across
the globe, furrow the continents with canals, railways, roads, draw
the wash of the giant steamers across the oceans, go into the depth
of the pits, high up in the skyscrapers, dike in, dry out, water, forever:
activity, movement, dynamics! That’s why, in film, we have found the
art that touches our very core. Film, with the moving force of the
dynamo and the explosive force of dynamite, opposes the remains
of the living past. Its life nerve is ours: dynamics. (Quoted in Thom-
sen 1997)

Benjamin elaborated on Alois Riegl’s term “haptic”, or “tactile”, in

order to relate the automatic image of the camera and the montage
procedures of film to modern life in the new metropolises of Europe,
likening the methods of the filmmaker to those of the surgeon.
Whereas the magician, like the painter, “maintains a natural distance
from reality, the cameraman [like the surgeon] penetrates deeply into
its web” (Benjamin 2006: 29).
Media, technology and science and the links between them are as
central to the writing of curator and artist Peter Weibel as they were
to Benjamin, and Deleuze. Weibel might well qualify as one of the
few guardians of the classical avant-garde spirit alive today. In one
of his key articles, “The Apparatus World – a World unto Itself ”
(Weibel 1992), he highlights the influences of the machine in the pe-
riod following “the great divide” between representation (photogra-
phy, index, mimesis) and abstraction (painting, icon, l’art pour l’art).
One of the most significant changes to take place during the 150 years
following the development of Daguerre’s and Talbot’s photographic
Die Asta and the Avant-Garde 99

apparatus (1839) has been the way classical perceptions of time,

space, duration and movement have been modified by technology. In
the 1870s and ’80s the invention of the telegraph and electromagnet-
ism made sound and sight transmittable, through the telephone and
the electronic telescope. The conditions for creating electronic televi-
sion signals were already present, although they were not extensively
developed until after World War II. With the advent of cinema in
1895 the indexical imprint of reality within the filmic illusion of
movement made the interpretation of time broader according to both
Weibel and Rodowick. The latter writes that time as duration (of a
shot) in the editing process was supplemented by time as:

continuity, ellipsis, simultaneous and parallel actions, or displace-

ment toward the past or the future. As a spatial record of duration,
the history of film has demonstrated a constant fascination for the
durée as lived time, both physical and psychological, and has devel-
oped a rich variety of automatism for expressing that experience.
(Rodowick 2007: 170)

This cinematic sense of time as a durée, where time could be experi-

enced as indexical as well as qualitative time has lately been super-
seded by the “real-time” impressions of a continuous present.
Animation and virtual constructions can produce an infinite quan-
tity of new images, since there is no longer “continuity in space and
movement, but only montage or combination”. In electronic and dig-
ital production the medium has – according to Weibel – finally re-
placed the work of art.
Looking at the film medium from this perspective, it becomes ev-
ident that the experiments with various forms of montage (in, for
example, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929)) demon-
strated how the machine-eye of the camera could interrogate the in-
fluence of time and motion on modern life. Like many avant-garde
artists in post-Revolutionary Russia, Vertov was interested in the
filmic cut as a significant interval between images, since time and its
crystallization within montage could be sensed directly as the work-
ings of the new, cinematic machine. For that purpose the individual
actor was not of particular interest. For Vertov, the movement of
machines and bodies as indexes of time were the revolutionary ma-
terial par excellence. It is my claim that the best actors of the early
100 Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen

film industry (even outside Russia) understood this call for a new
concept of time as indexicality as well as the artistic possibility for
creating the sense of time as durée or qualitative time. Asta Nielsen
and Charles Chaplin, who were trained respectively in pantomime
and theatre, both knew how to shape their talents to meet the de-
mands of the camera lens. Although they appeared in melodramas
and comedies, rather than experimental films, they nevertheless con-
sidered the human body and face to be more than merely literal signs
within a film text. With an extraordinary talent for timing, they
opened everyone’s eyes to the potentialities of film. The remarkable
“microphysiognomy” of Asta’s face created isolated spatial frag-
ments or “affection–images” (Deleuze) of iconic clarity, while the
mechanical movements of Chaplin’s body created a tactile and visual
sensation of indexicality within the kinetic time of film. Their bodies
and faces in other words connected the indexical continuity of space
and movement to cinematic time within montage – enabling the au-
dience to engage with the image stream.

The Projected Image of Fame

From her first performances on the silent screen, Asta Nielsen had
an intense impact on spectators throughout Europe and most of the
world. The Spanish journalist P. Diaz, who lived in Paris before
World War I, vividly reported on how the first Asta Nielsen film
shown in Paris opened people’s eyes to the new medium of film. Her
dark, slender figure, emphasised by clothing and make-up, had an
immediate influence on the streets of Paris, where fashion as well as
painting became “à la Asta Nielsen” overnight:

That’s how it was with Asta Nielsen. Out of all the small and large
cinemas, her figure transposed itself into the life of this large city,
stamped itself on it, and you were not quite up to it if you revealed
the least bit of wonder about this.
Oh, the wonderful destiny of great art, to be able to captivate an
entire city, to give a new quality to the women and a new dream to
the men. And soon the press, big and small, spoke of Asta Nielsen.
And suddenly, you knew that a new power had entered your life:
film. And in front of it, like a pioneer, stood Asta Nielsen, dark, lis-
som, demonic! (Diaz 1920: 7f.)
Die Asta and the Avant-Garde 101

While her triumph was celebrated in the new metropolises of Europe,

in Copenhagen she remained an alien figure (she would visit as often
as possible, as her daughter lived there with Nielsen’s sister and
mother). Nielsen came from a very poor family, and thus could not
easily be accepted by the Danish bourgeoisie or cultural elite, who
still considered film an inferior form of lower-class amusement. An-
other crucial matter was that German-Danish relations had been ex-
tremely strained since Denmark’s defeat in the war of 1864, when a
large part of southern Jutland was lost to Germany. During World
War I, many Danish men living south of the new frontier were forced
to join the army and fight as German soldiers. In 1920, Denmark
was able to win back some of the lost land (by vote). The fact that
Asta Nielsen had chosen to make most of her films in Germany and
to live in Berlin from 1911-16 (and again from 1919-1932) was
enough to limit her fame in her home country at that at time. The
Danish Ministry of Culture even declined 13 applications for a cine-
ma license sent by Nielsen between 1920 and 1948. Her bold rejec-
tion of Hitler’s call for her support did not redeem her, as her
account of this was not included in her autobiography. It was her
friend, Johannes V. Jensen, one of the founding fathers of Danish
modernism, who inspired her to write Den tiende Muse (1945), and
who also advised her not to mention her tea-party with Hitler,
Goebbels and Göring; the very fact that she was even approached
by Hitler could have further damaged her reputation. Her version
of the conversation on this occasion (published in 1966) is neverthe-
less worth mentioning for its straightforwardness. (Hitler is the first

“Yes, now comes the time when we once again shall need the great
artists of film.”
“That can hardly concern me”, I answered. “I don’t belong to
any political party and would never engage in acting in political
“You don’t need to now. You see, it’s like this: I can utter two
thousand words without anyone understanding me whereas a single
movement from you is understood by the whole world.”
“Do you mean this movement?” I asked and raised my hand in
Nazi salute. He didn’t seem to have any sense of humour; my gesture
was answered by an intense frown (Bernth 1999: 113).
102 Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen

Asta Nielsen returned to Denmark in 1937. She kept in touch with

her friends and colleagues from the art scene in Germany, but lived
her life almost anonymously with her daughter and a few close
friends. One of her earliest friends was Georg Brandes, the famous
Danish literary critic. Between 1870 and 1900 he was well known
throughout Europe for defending new realistic and naturalistic (or
modern) tendencies in novels and plays by Scandinavian radical
writers such as Henrik Ibsen, J. P. Jacobsen, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson,
Jonas Lie, Alexander Kielland, and August Strindberg. Nielsen
shared Brandes’s views on those authors, frequently mentioning how
it was her secret improvisation of Ibsen’s play Brand (Fire), at the
age of 8, and a later visit to the Danish Royal Theatre, which inspired
her to become an actor and climb out of poverty. Brandes, like
Nielsen, was certainly more influenced by classical idealism and sym-
bolism than by the new, radical avant-garde ideas of the early twen-
tieth century, as this proposal for a toast for Asta Nielsen reveals:

Everybody knows Asta’s beauty. She is a purebred rose, a moss rose.

Everybody knows her expressive eyes, her suppleness, her versatility,
the world fame she enjoys. If I flew on the wings of dawn to the far-
thest sea, I would still meet Asta’s name. (Georg Brandes, quoted in
M. Engberg 1966: unpaginated)

According to Nielsen, he had only seen a handful of her films, but

she appreciated his company and his public approval of her world
fame. In the rather narrow-minded opinion of the Danish public, it
was significant that a figure like Brandes, who had also lived in Berlin
for some years, should value and promote Nielsen. Other personali-
ties within the Nordic art scene had great admiration for Nielsen;
among them the Norwegian poet Thomas P. Krag and the Danish
authors Herman Bang and Sophus Claussen, who all possessed a
radical spirit. Krag and Bang both acknowledged her talent when
she was still engaged in minor roles in a travelling theatre.
However, her talent truly flourished within the fresh landscape of
cinema, which during the Weimar Republic in Germany was yet to
operate on an industrial scale. As a master of controlling the transi-
tions of expression in the close-ups of the silver screen, she embodied
a European transformation: from naturalistic theatre and mod-
ernistic writing to new kinds of “-isms” (expressionism, futurism,
Die Asta and the Avant-Garde 103

dadaism and surrealism) in which the media-machine played an im-

portant part. She became the first film diva, capable of vivifying the
projected image in the eyes of the masses, as well as of the avant-
garde. As the following praise by Guillaume Apollinaire indicates,
this image combined the rhetoric of symbolism with an embryonic
surrealist sensibility:

She is everything! She is the drunkard’s vision and the lonely man’s
dream. She laughs like a happy, young girl, and her eyes know of
things so delicate and tender that the lips will never formulate them.
She has the élan of Yvette Guilbert and the precocity of a Japanese
woman in one of Utamaro’s famous woodcuts. When hatred glows
in Asta Nielsen’s eyes, we clench our fists, and when she opens her
eyes, they are like sparkling stars. (translated from Diaz 1920: 7)

In this description, Nielsen is depicted as an object of beauty, a quite

perfect automaton (or what would later be termed objet trouvée), and
as a readable sign for emotions no longer attached to a storyline, nor
confined to a continent. Nielsen’s silent movies were famous world-
wide because she was the true ambassador for cinematic distribution;
as Diaz observes: “And suddenly, you knew that a new power had
entered your life: film. And in front of it, like a pioneer, stood Asta
Nielsen, dark, lissom, demonic!” (Diaz 1920: 7f.) Due to her famous
face and body, her films were routinely re-edited, seemingly with no
consideration for spoken dialogue, in order to keep up with the pace
of technological developments. This re-editing was so extensive that
few original films featuring Asta Nielsen appear to have survived.
104 Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen

Baláz, Béla. 1992 [1945. Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art.
Cited from Mast, Braudy, Leo and Cohen, Marshall (eds.). 2004. Film The-
ory and Criticism. Oxford University Press: New York and Oxford.
Benjamin, Walter. 2006 [1936]. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Repro-
duction”. Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Meenakshi Gigi Durham
and Douglas Kellner (eds). Blackwell Publishing.
Bernth, Susanne (ed.). 1999. Danskere i Berlin. Danmarks Nationalleksikon.
Gyldendal: Copenhagen.
Broby-Johansen, Rudolf. 1927. “Filmens Æstetik”. Biografejerbladet nr. 1 og 2, Vo-
lume 14., Copenhagen.
Deleuze, Gilles. 1986 [1983]. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. University of Min-
nesota Press.
Diaz, Pablo. 1920. Asta Nielsen. Eine Biographie unserer populären Künstlerin. Verlag
der Lichtbild-Bühne: Berlin.
Eisner, Lotte. 1973 [1952]. The Haunted Screen. Expressionism in the German Cinema
and the Influence of Max Reinhardt. Berkeley and Los Angeles. University
of California Press.
Engberg, Marguerite. 1966. Asta Nielsen. Det Danske Filmmuseum: Copenhagen.
––. 1999. Filmstjernen Asta Nielsen. Forlaget Klim. Århus.
Langsted, Adolf. 1917. Asta Nielsen. Nyt Nordisk Forlag: Copenhagen.
Malmkjær, Poul. 2000. Asta. Mennesket, myten og filmstjernen. En biografi. Haase
og Søns Forlag: Holstebro.
Mungenast, E. M. 1928. Asta Nielsen. Walter Hädecke Verlag: Stuttgart.
Nielsen, Asta. 1945 and 1966. Den tiende Muse. Gyldendal: Copenhagen.
––. 1998. Breve 1911-71. Udvalgt af Ib Monty. Gyldendal: Copenhagen.
––. 1919. Interview in Kino-Revyen, no. 4, 1. Aarg. Copenhagen.
Petro, Patrice. 1989. Joyless Street: Women and Melodramatic Representation in
Weimar Germany. Princeton University Press: Princeton.
Rodowick, D. N. 2007. The Virtual Life of Film. Harvard University Press. Cam-
bridge, Massachusetts and London, England.
Thomsen, Bodil Marie. 1997. Filmdivaer. Stjernens figur i Hollywoods melodrama
1920-40. Museum Tusculanums Forlag: Copenhagen.
Weibel, Peter. 1992. “The Apparatus World – a World unto Itself ”; David Dunn
(ed.): Eigenwelt der Apparaten-Welt. Pioneers of Electronic Art. Catalog for
Ars Electronica June 22-July 5, 1992, The Vasulskas Inc.: Linz, Austria.

Geert Buelens

In the first decades of the twentieth century the cinema was generally
considered a low art form. Yet, in keeping with Baudelaire’s pen-
chant for the ephemeral and the fugitive, many avant-garde artists
wholeheartedly embraced the new medium. Artists and writers like
Blaise Cendrars and Hart Crane hailed Charlie Chaplin as the
groundbreaking creative genius of the film industry. The quintessen-
tial incarnation of the transitory nature of the moving picture, how-
ever, was Danish actress Asta Nielsen (1881-1972). European
avant-garde writers such as the French Guillaume Apollinaire and
Philippe Soupault, the Flemish/Belgian Paul van Ostaijen and Paul
Joostens, the Hungarian Béla Balázs and the Dane Rud(olf) Broby
(Johansen) praised her kaleidoscopic multiplicity.
The first avant-garde artists to salute Nielsen were German Ex-
pressionist poets. Walter Rheiner included a three-part cycle called
‘Asta Nielsen’ in his volume Das schmerzliche Meer (1918, poems
from 1912-1915). Rheiner remarks, “In all dem Vielen, das du bist,
lebt Eines,” “In all the multitude that you are, lives one” (Rheiner
1985: 55), setting the tone for a series of later poetic tributes hailing
Nielsen as a phenomenon able to incarnate other people’s souls and
minds, seemingly at will. The third and final prose poem goes further,
attributing to the movie star spiritual, healing powers and equating
her to the four elements that make up the world: “Schenk auch uns
deine Gnade, Einmalige, Einfache! Du Wasser, du Feuer, du Luft, du
Erde!” “Bestow upon us, too, your mercy, unique, simple one! You
106 Geert Buelens

water, you fire, you air, you earth!” (58) Rheiner also dedicated poem
‘X’ of his ‘Berlin’ cycle (1916/1917) in his 1919 volume Das tönende
Herz to Asta Nielsen. In Rheiner’s cold, wet, apocalyptic war-time
Imperial capital, Nielsen’s film incarnations stand out as beacons of
strength and life, sensation and mystery:

Da überblüht dein brausendes Gesicht

Die Tose-Stadt!... ein Mond thronst du erhoben
um dich der Donner aller Nächte zischt.

Es flammt das schwarze Haar, ein Brand!, nach oben.

Die Stirne sich den finstren Wolken mischt…:
… Du bist die Nacht, die hängt unendlich droben’
(Rheiner 1919:55; cf. Röhnert 2007: 123).

[There your rustling face overflowers / The roar-city! … a moon

arisen your are enthroned / around you the thunder of all nights
hisses. /
The black hair is flaming, a blaze!, upwards. / The forehead merges
with the gloomy clouds...: / …You are the night, which spreads end-
lessly above ’]0

Considering that Nielsen only started making films in 1910 and be-
came part of the Berlin scene a year later, the pre-war tributes are
testimony to her swift rise to fame. In 1914, Munich editor H.F.S.
Bachmaier dedicated Der Selige Kintopp, a collection of avant-garde
film poems, to Nielsen. The collection featured work by expressionist
poets such as Emmy Hennings, Johannes R. Becher and Karl Otten.
The latter’s contribution included a two-part poem called ‘Asta
Nielsen’ in which the poet mixed the almost religious fascination and
moral reservation he and many of his contemporaries felt when they
saw the new star:

alle Menschen haben sich an dir geweidet

alle haben überall dich ausgekleidet
und versinken starr, so dein Lächeln scheidet
und du kamst und warst wie immer: rein!
(Schweinitz 1994: 86)
“the manifold in one / and the one manifold” 107

[all people have enjoyed you / everyone everywhere has undressed

you / and sink down congealed, as your smile fades away / and you
came and were as always:pure]

The ephemeral figure on the screen is able to do what other mortals

can only dream of: disappear and start anew, pure. The film star is
overwhelmingly present (her hands in close-up are as eloquent and
telling as “ein Monogramm,” according to Otten), yet untouchable.
Consequently, Nielsen is both pure and perverted; in the words of
Hans Schiebelhuth, a ‘schwarzen Engel’ (black angel) (1921:8). In
1919 Kurt Arnold Findeisen mentioned Asta Nielsen twice in his
poem ‘Vorstadtkino’ (Suburbian Cinema), which featured in his col-
lection of social poems, Aus der Armutei (From Poverty). The factual
elements in this poem, which describes an eager crowd’s wait outside
a theatre, seems well documented, but neither the title (“Die Lei-
densstrasse einer Enterbten” [The Suffering Street of One Disinher-
ited]) nor the length (“Sechs Kilometer” [six kilometres]) of the
feature film correspond to any known Asta Nielsen movie.1 Find-
eisen’s point is clear, nevertheless: Asta Nielsen is the symbol of a
new form of entertainment which is quintessentially escapist in na-
ture and leaves the public speechless and uncritical (“Und alles Pub-
likum ist windelweich,” [“And the whole audience is as soft as wax”])
(1919:18). Avant-garde and Aktion leader Franz Pfemfert formulated
a similar critique of the new medium; this, however, did not prevent
the 1916 publication of Ernst Moritz Engert’s Asta Nielsen woodcut
in Die Aktion. Leading expressionist Erich Heckel produced a similar
woodcut in 1919.
‘Junge Dichter in Frankreich und Deutschland besangen mich,’
(‘young poets in France and Germany sang my praises,’) Nielsen
wrote in her 1945-46 autobiography, Den tiende Muse (1961: 144): a
clear indication that she had become a rare cultural phenomenon.
She does not name any of the writers, which might indicate that these
poets were unknown to Nielsen and her circle. But some of them
were famous avant-garde figures. Pablo Diaz’s 1920 monograph Asta
Nielsen. Eine Bïographie unserer populären Künstlerin contained a
quote which has subsequently been used repeatedly in Nielsen criti-
cism. The quote is attributed to Guillaume Apollinaire, cubist poet,
critic and avant-garde icon in his own right. Diaz’s source remains
obscure, even potentially erroneous. This is the most complete ver-
108 Geert Buelens

Paul van Ostaijen Bezette Stad, 1921.

sion of what the French poet supposedly said about the Danish film

She is everything! She is the drunkard’s vision and the lonely man’s
dream. She laughs like a happy, young girl, and her eyes know of
“the manifold in one / and the one manifold” 109

things so delicate and tender that the lips will never formulate them.
She has the élan of Yvette Guilbert and the preciosity of a Japanese
woman in one of Utamaro’s famous woodcuts. When hatred glows
in Asta Nielsen’s eyes, we clench our fists, and when she opens her
eyes, they are like sparkling stars. (Engberg 1996:4)
110 Geert Buelens

Apollinaire’s statement embodies the general avant-garde opinion of

Asta Nielsen: a woman able to express the feelings of just about
every type of girl or woman with her eyes and hands. Or rather: a
woman able to incarnate every fantasy these avant-garde men had
of girls or women.
The infatuation the Danish film star aroused in people is the theme
of Paul van Ostaijen’s ‘Asta Nielsen.’ Eight pages long, this is proba-
bly the most elaborate poetic ode ever composed about the actress.
This part expressionist, part dadaist collage poem about life during
the German occupation of his hometown of Antwerp in World War
I was written by the Flemish poet as part of his 1921 volume, Bezette
stad (Occupied City). Nightlife had suffered considerably during the
occupation and French movies such as the immensely popular ro-
mantic crime serials Fantomas (1913-1914) and Chéri Bibi (1913) were
not shown.2 Van Ostaijen (1896-1928) and his friends were avid film-
goers and the new artistic medium influenced both the structure and
themes of van Ostaijen’s war-themed volume. In Bezette stad the cine-
ma seems to function as a barometer of vitality or despair.
The lines “You will be forgiven much / for / you have seen a lot of
films” open the volume and set the sarcastic and religious tone of
much of the work. The opening actions of the book (and/or war and
culture) are performed by God and directed by the Archangel Michael
as we are informed by the poet in the passage that follows.3 The de-
struction of the actual, cultural and moral world is staged like an
apocalyptic film, resulting in “nihil in all directions”, while the poem
‘Empty Cinema’ describes how Antwerp, a once thriving centre of
trade and culture, seems to come to a standstill over the first months
and years of the occupation (see Bogman 1995:181). When the city
starts to come alive again, the films which are shown in the local
music-hall offer a clear indication of the changing mood. It is in this
part of the volume that the sequence about Asta Nielsen appears. Ac-
cording to Van Ostaijen, Asta Nielsen was “the greatest comfort” for
weary Europeans tired of the endless stream of “official reports Paris
London Berlin Petrograd Rome” sent out to promote their cause.
The religious overtones of the poem are striking. Van Ostaijen
portrays Asta Nielsen as a star with celestial powers, much as
Rheiner had. Of course, the actress’s first name begs for this pun
(“Asta/Astra/star,” begins Van Ostaijen), but it is the way she acts,
looks and moves that seem to convince certain members of her au-
“the manifold in one / and the one manifold” 111

dience that she can perform magic. The circumstances in which the
films are shown reinforce this idea.

out of light emerged darkness

and out of the darkness light
Starring ASta NIElsen

Van Ostaijen is describing the lightning-like flash of the projector as

it is switched on and which lights up the dark space of the theatre.
That is one of the reasons why a modern person who is looking for
light and redemption will go to the movies, the poet suggests. Asta
delivers such light and redemption, whilst playing a “City million-
airess Eskimonolady Carmen de luxe DEATH in Seville” making
her a cult artist par excellence: people worship her and invoke her
name, hoping she will be able to provide divine assistance.

pray for us
poor cinema visitors
pure fall from lax hands
pray for us weary people

Van Ostaijen both subscribes to and parodies this attitude. The in-
fatuation, too, is clearly of a sexual nature. Asta’s hips, lips, teeth,
hands and feet are the focal point of the special magic she conveys.
While members of the audience tend to falter, Asta Nielsen stands
firm, even as the projectionist does not, as Van Ostaijen jokingly sug-
gests. Whatever illness or inconvenience the members of the audience
might suffer, Asta will provide solace. This feeling of comfort causes
people to start addressing the actress as if she were Mary or some
other saint. The Nielsen roles Van Ostaijen mentions in this prayer
are, however, rather secular in nature:

deep laugh of Sebasto whore

pray for us flaccid loins
lipsgap in iridescent aperture
pray for us men with no quenching
ASTA more than all the stars put together
pray for us who can make it even without any stars
112 Geert Buelens

Van Ostaijen’s objectivist poetics are discernable in the further

prayers of Nielsen’s audience, who hope to live blessed modern lives
(“asta free us from misfortune / Bad luck at the races”; “asta free us
from sentimentality / but give us the Objectivity of your footbalan-
cing”). Nielsen is even considered to eclipse actual celestial bodies
by a modernity which suggests replacing nature with technique, and
the cinema seems to provide a case in point.

asta more than the sun

since the discovery of electricity
ASTA more than the moon
since couples are nothing any more but WAXWORK ware
asta pray for us
without sun moon or stars
but not without cinema lax hands and aperitif

The poet seems to be poking fun at the star cult, yet a seriousness
pervades his claim:

this is no fantasy
YOU are more nourishing for us
than Schopenhauer Bergson and the Farmers’ Union

In their time of spiritual or sentimental need, people will turn to Asta

and not be disappointed. Why bother with philosophy if you can have
her? In a democratic, capitalist society the movie star is the ultimate
woman: you pay her to be yours and on the screen she becomes
your/everybody’s dream wife.

You are a good woman

for a low admission fee
you are provided for everyone as their individual fantasy
that’s what I call the progress of science
the multiplication of a woman

At this point in the poem Van Ostaijen explicitly mentions his friend,
the artist Paul Joostens, to whom the poet had also dedicated this
sequence. Both shared a passion for Asta and the artist made several
paintings and drawings (many of them lost today) depicting their
“the manifold in one / and the one manifold” 113

favourite actress. When he first saw the printed text – Van Ostaijen
wrote it in Berlin and they had not seen one another for two and half
years – Joostens was furious. In a letter to another mutual friend Jos
Léonard, Joostens claimed that he invented this litany form to ad-
dress Asta Nielsen and he quotes a passage to prove his point:

General dedication to the community of un-saints

to Asta Nielsen
Hail, Asta
Queen of Eroticism
Our Lady of Denmark
With you, spiritual bride, rather than with Henny Porten
your antipode who’s a cow after all – I would like to die
O general-association of actors and actresses stand by me
in my hour of total need. O for this general dirty-association
not to fall to pieces.
And for our wallets to be less empty when we often come to see you
in the theatre.
(original in Buyck 1995:147)4

Whether Béla Balász also went to the movies with Paul Joostens is
doubtful. Yet, the Hungarian avant-garde poet and film critic used
a secular litany form when he wrote about Asta Nielsen in a piece
for Der Tag in January 1923. “Senkt die Fahnen vor ihr, denn sie ist
unvergleichlich und unerreicht. Senkt die Fahnen vor ihr, denn durch
ihre Kunst wird selbst der Absturz des alternden Weibes zum steilen
Aufstieg des Schauspielerin.”5 (1982:159) In another article two
months later Balász made the case that Nielsen’s acting proves that
film can be a real art form and that the canonical nine muses from
antiquity can now be joined by a tenth muse (184) – hence the title
of Nielsen memoires Den tiende muse which means both the ‘tenth’
and the ‘silent’ muse.
In her native Denmark, a volume which opened with a poem de-
dicated to Asta Nielsen became central to a famous censorship case.
Rud(olf) Broby (Johansen’s) Blod (1922) was banned because it was
deemed too obscene. Maybe the darkness and often fatal eroticism
which was central to so many of Nielsen’s film personae had inspired
Broby-Johansen to write scenes full of graphic violence, abuse, sui-
cide and rape. Only in 1968 was the ban on Blod lifted. In the mean-
114 Geert Buelens

time the use of words had apparently become freer for Nielsen as
well, because in that same year she interviewed herself for her final
film Asta Nielsen. The actress who, as Van Ostaijen put it, had been
‘so much so infinitely much / she is the multitude in one / and the
one multitude’ had finally become one.
Up until that moment Nielsen had indeed been a silent muse. Her
1932 sound film Unmögliche Liebe (Impossible Love) was no great
success – her acting being totally adapted to the silent cinema (Eng-
berg 1996:22). Although many poets hailed her in odes and litanies,
her contribution to European art consisted, as Balász suggested, in
her ability to suggest the deepest, most troubling and exciting emo-
tions without using a single word.

The quotes are from an unpublished translation of Van Ostaijen’s poem “Asta
Nielsen” by the English poet, Andrew Duncan.
Both Seydel and Hagedorff (1981) and Engberg (1996:26-30) contain an Asta
Nielsen Filmography providing the length of the films, in metres. Her films range
from 750 metres (her debut Afgrunden (The Abyss)) to 3738 metres (Pabst’s 1925
Die freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street)).
“Since the occupation began, (direct) import of films from France or Great Britain
and later from the USA had been forbidden. But in the first years of the war, pre-
war allied films submitted to the censor before the middle of May 1915 were still
shown.” (Convents 1995:173)
This might be a reference to Blaise Cendrar’s La fin du monde, subtitled “filmée
par l’Ange N.D.”
Unless otherwise specified translations are by the author of the article.
“Do homage to her, for she is inimitable and unrivalled. Do homage to her, for
through her art even the decline of the ageing woman turns into the rise of the ac-
“the manifold in one / and the one manifold” 115

Allen, Robert C. 1973. “Asta Nielsen. The Silent Muse” in Sight and Sound. Inter-
national FilmQuarterly 42(4): 205-209.
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sätze 1922-1926. Budapest: Akadémia Kiadó.
Bogman, Jef. 1995. “Poetry as a Filmic and Historical Document: Occupied City”
in Dibbets and Hogenkamp. Film and the First World War (Film Culture in
Transition (1995): 179-187.
Broby-Johansen, Rudolf. 1968 [1922]. Blod. Expressionære Digte. Copenhagen:
Convents, Guido. 1995. “Cinema and German Politics in Occupied Belgium” in
Dibbets and Hogenkamp. Film and the First World War (Film Culture in
Transition (1995): 171-178.
Buyck, Jean (ed.). 1995. Paul Joostens: de cruciale jaren: brieven aan Jos Leonard,
1919-1925. Antwerp, Pandora.
Dibbets, Karel, and Bert Hogenkamp. 1995. Film and the First World War. Amster-
dam: Amsterdam University Press, 1995.
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1918” in Film History, 5: 63-67.
––. 1996. Asta Nielsen, Europe’s First Film Star. Berkeley: University of Califor-
nia/University Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.
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Is Living in Retirement in Copenhagen” in Films in Review 7(1): 19-26.
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by the author).
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Verlag von 1917.
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Verlag von 1917.
––. 1985. Kokain. Lyrik, Prosa, Briefe (ed. Thomas Rietzschel). Leipzig: Reclam.
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Stuttgart/Weimer: J.B.Metzler: 72-88.
Seydel, Renate and Allan Hagedorff (eds). 1981. Asta Nielsen – Ihr Leben in Foto-
dokumenten, Selbstzeugnissen und zeitgenössischen Betrachtungen. Berlin:
Vaessens, Thomas. 1998. Circus Dubio & Schroom. Met Martinus Nijhoff, Paul van
Ostaijen & de mentaliteit van het modernisme, Amsterdam/Antwerp: De Ar-
Nordic Artists iN the europeAN Metropolises
Nordic Artists iN the europeAN Metropolises

to a large extent the Nordic avant-garde artists of the early twentieth

century followed in the footsteps of the previous generation and ori-
ented themselves towards the european metropolises. Many of them
stayed in paris and Berlin for longer or shorter periods; some also
went to st. petersburg, while dresden, Munich, Zurich and london
played a lesser role. the european centres attracted artists from
many different countries. Artists went there to meet each other and
to be part of a stimulating artistic environment, as well as to obtain
first-hand knowledge of what was considered to be the cutting edge
of artistic innovation.
the metropolises were much more, however, than mere backdrops
for cultural activities. With the rapid growth of european cities from
the middle of the nineteenth century and the acceleration of their
rhythms of life, their crowds, noise and excitement they became the
most prominent sites for the experience of modernity. they became
the places to encounter not only new conceptions of time and space,
but also all manner of technological and scientific innovation, as well
as new media. the perception of urbanity is one of the crucial com-
mon denominators of modern and avant-garde literature, art and
music. the intensity of perception induced by the experience of the
city, as well as an open and tolerant environment, led to new modes
of writing and artistic creation: the metropolis as an innovative mi-
lieu seems to have furthered new art forms and the transgression of
discursive norms and boundaries. thus, on the one hand, the cities
became important as cultural melting pots and loci for artistic ex-
change and, on the other hand, as privileged sites for the experience
of modernity.
the main subject of this section is the presence of Nordic avant-
garde artists in the european centres. the following pages seek to
map out the Nordic elements in the european avant-garde environ-
120 Nordic Artists in the European Metropolises

ments. they will answer questions such as: Who were these artists?
With whom did they associate? What did they learn? how did they
themselves contribute to the avant-garde scene in terms of artistic out-
put and exchange? And what were the social, political, ideological con-
ditions at the time? implicit in these questions is the view that Nordic
artists travelled from the periphery to the centres not only in order to
passively receive inspiration from international peers closer to the
source than they were themselves, but that they actively contributed
to shaping the art of their time. this was clearly the case with August
strindberg and edvard Munch, who both played significant roles in
paris and Berlin in the late nineteenth century and came to serve as
inspirational predecessors and points of reference for twentieth cen-
tury avant-garde artists (cf. section i).
No matter how controversial they might have been in their home
countries, during the early twentieth century Nordic artists rarely
stood out as central figures in the cosmopolitan art environments of
european cities. the artistic production of the Nordic avant-garde is
often closely related to discursive and formal concerns in the centres
and may be regarded as having been interpretations or variations of
currents in the international environment, and as such they formed an
integral part of the complex transnational and multidimensional field
of european avant-garde art from the period. consequently, what may
have seemed eccentric and marginal from a national perspective makes
sense when analysed in relation to contemporary preoccupations in
the international avant-garde environment.
Around 1900 paris was the artistic and intellectual epicentre of the
world. the city was regarded as the prototype of the modern metrop-
olis. in the 1930s Walter Benjamin called it the “capital of the Nine-
teenth century” and pointed out its character as a “dream city” – a
city of myth and imagination. the vibrancy of parisian artistic life
and the legendary artistic quarters of the city contributed to nourish-
ing its mythological status helping to maintain its attraction, also be-
coming an important part of scandinavian artists’ ideas of the city.
in his first contribution to this section, “Nordic Writers and Artists
in paris”, Frank claustrat maps out the various sections and locations
of the Nordic avant-garde in paris. the Nordic artists’ colony estab-
lished itself primarily in Montparnasse, where it attained special sig-
nificance between the two world wars. the district of Montparnasse
had begun to assert itself as a new centre of modern art around 1908,
Nordic Artists in the European Metropolises 121

when Montmartre, which had previously held this status, became too
expensive and overrun by tourists. during the following decade Mont-
parnasse became the cultural hub of the city, crowded with artists
from all over the world.
upon his arrival, the danish painter Jais Nielsen, who travelled
to paris in 1911 and stayed until the outbreak of World War i in
1914, moved into the hôtel chasteté at the corner of Boulevard st.
Germain and rue de seine in Montparnasse. he later recalled: “in
this “hôtel Meublé” where everything was dirty and frowsy, scan-
dinavians were living from the ground floor to the attic. in spite of
the scruffiness it was a cosy box and all branches within the arts met
here in the mild summer evenings to talk about art: sculptors,
painters, journalists, musicians, writers. […] in exactly that year paris
was flooded by scandinavian artists (Nielsen 1947: 38-40).
Montparnasse was known for its popular cafes, dancehalls and
restaurants and for a greater tolerance of unconventional lifestyles
than in other parts of paris. the cafes provided a fertile environment
for the exchange of ideas and became important social meeting
places where Nordic artists would gather or have the opportunity to
establish connections to other members of the parisian art scene.
the artistic colony at Montparnasse was the first truly interna-
tional artistic environment in paris. Artists of all types and nation-
alities lived there, including Frenchmen, scandinavians, russians,
englishmen and Americans. the presence of artists of all national-
ities contributed significantly to the parisian avant-garde scene,
which was much less French than international. rolf de Maré’s
swedish ballet was the most significant Nordic contribution to this
internationalist avant-garde. during the five years of its existence,
from 1920-1925, the swedish ballet became a centre of artistic ex-
periment, crossing boundaries between the arts, as explained by
Frank claustrat in his second contribution to this section.
the reputation of paris in the early twentieth century incorpo-
rated notions of a good quality of life, a special observance of
human rights, and a particular freedom and tolerance which many
artists could not find in their home countries. A number of foreign-
ers came to paris to escape political or social exclusion, among them
many eastern european Jews who found refuge from pogroms in
their home countries. For women artists, another marginalised group
in european societies, paris also offered better opportunities for
122 Nordic Artists in the European Metropolises

training and the pursuit of a professional career than was the case
in most other european cities the parisian art scene was still domi-
nated by men, but female artists and dealers were part of the picture.
of special significance is the fact that women were granted access to
several of the numerous independent academies which were an im-
portant part of the attraction of the parisian art scene. As shulamith
Behr demonstrates in her contribution, the career of the swedish
painter sigrid hjertén is a telling example of how a female artist of
the Nordic avant-garde could benefit from the particularly
favourable conditions at one of the independent academies in paris
– that of henri Matisse. the Académie Matisse occupies a special
position in the story of Nordic artists in paris, attracting an extraor-
dinarily large number of students from the Nordic countries, espe-
cially Norwegians and swedes, but including also a few others such
as the icelandic painter Jón stefánsson.
paris was uncontested as the largest and most established of the
european art centres. however, for northern artists, Berlin soon be-
came a significant alternative. Berlin had been chosen as the capital
of Germany only in 1871 and was still in the process of establishing
its new role after the turn of the century. the desire to measure up
to the other european capitals and its increasing industrial strength
made Berlin one of europe’s most expansive modern metropolises,
attractive to both businessmen and artists determined to pursue a
career. in addition, Berlin was easy to reach from scandinavia, tak-
ing only ten hours by express train from copenhagen.
scandinavian artists made a their impact felt on the Berlin art
scene as early as the 1890s, when dramas by henrik ibsen and Au-
gust strindberg were staged at the so-called Freie Bühne (Free stage),
paving the way for literary modernism in Berlin. At the same time,
edvard Munch’s scandalous breakthrough exhibition at the Artist’s
Association of Berlin (Verein Berliner Künstler) in 1892 marked the
introduction of painterly avant-garde art. While in Berlin, strindberg
and Munch both joined a circle of artists and intellectuals based
around the tavern “Zum schwarzen Ferkel” (the Black piglet); this
group included the Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland, the danish
writer holger drachmann, the polish poet stanislaw przybyszewski
and the German art historian Julius Meier-Graefe.
the city of Berlin, however, was not the only meeting place for
this group and their peers. strindberg had come to Berlin at the in-
Nordic Artists in the European Metropolises 123

vitation of the swedish writer ola hansson and his wife laura
Marholm, originally staying at their home in the village of
Friedrichshagen, south-east of the city. As Gertrud cepl-Kaufmann
and Anne M.N. sokoll show in their contribution, for a short period
in the early 1890s Friedrichshagen became a remarkably fertile refuge
for several members of the artistic avant-garde – many of them scan-
dinavians – providing an attractive alternative to the noise and stress
of the city, and yet conveniently connected to Berlin by railway.
strindberg, however, had soon had enough and moved into central
At the beginning of the twentieth century, an increasing number
of scandinavian visitors came to Berlin. “it is not Beauty that at-
tracts the many danish tourists to Berlin” a danish newspaper stated
in 1912. “it is the museums and the entertainment, it is the Metrop-
olis, the city of three million that beckons them” (tres: “Berlin”, poli-
tiken, 12.7.1912). the city did not possess the refinement so
characteristic of parisian culture; there was a “brutish quality to
Berlin entertainments”. But Berlin offered activity all around the
entertainment was to be found, in particular, around Friedrich-
strasse, or Kurfürstendamm, the latter increasingly taking the role
as the centre of fashionable cultural life. A peculiarity of the Berlin
entertainment was the role of cinema, for which Berlin became an
international centre in the early decades of the twentieth century.
1911 marked the beginning of German film industry, with the estab-
lishment of the Babelsberg Film studios – the first large-scale film
studio in the world – where Asta Nielsen would perform from the
very beginning, making her a major cultural celebrity of the day. the
special significance of film to the cultural life of Berlin may have
been the reason why the swedish artist Viking eggeling, in collabo-
ration with the German dada-artist hans richter, started experi-
menting with film in 1920, just as he was staying in the vicinity of
Berlin; this could also explain why, in the following years, he chose
to remain in Berlin after having led a life of vagabondage from the
age of 17, moving restlessly from place to place, among them Flens-
burg, Milan, paris, Ascona and Zurich.
Above all, the enterprise of der sturm, founded and run by her-
warth Walden, became of crucial importance to the avant-garde
scene in Berlin. during the decade 1910-1920, herwarth Walden was
124 Nordic Artists in the European Metropolises

one of Germany’s and europe’s most important champions of the

artistic avant-garde. From his base in Berlin, he operated an ever-
more expansive enterprise that began with the establishment of the
magazine Der Sturm in 1910 and subsequently grew to include a
gallery, a publishing house, a bookshop, a literary society, an art
school, a theatre, and soirees. until the outbreak of World War i, he
operated branches in paris and Geneva and organised exhibitions
which toured central europe and scandinavia and even travelled as
far afield as the united states and Japan. the objective of this im-
pressive range of activities was to promote not just German, but also
international, avant-garde art to an equally international audience.
der sturm contributed significantly to making Berlin an interna-
tional centre of the avant-garde. Nordic artists were included in ex-
hibitions and publications from the very beginning.
For this reason, young aspiring artists from the North would na-
turally try to contact der sturm during visits to Berlin, as did the
swedish painter Gösta Adrian-Nilsson (GAN) in 1913, and the
dane robert storm-petersen in 1914 (in his case after having been
in touch with Walden since 1912). or, even better, they would wel-
come the opportunity to exhibit their works in the prestigious sturm
gallery, as was the case with the so-called Swedish Expressionists in
1915, among them sigrid hjertén, isaac Grünewald and GAN. As
described by Jan torsten Ahlstrand, the experience of city life in
Berlin and the cultural environment of der sturm became a turning
point in GAN’s life and career. despite financial trouble in the af-
termath of World War i and difficulties in maintaining its leading
position in German art life, der sturm continued to attract artists
from outside Germany well into the 1920s. GAN kept in touch with
Walden until 1922 when he had his last exhibition at the sturm
Gallery. Another significant example of a Nordic artist who came
to Berlin in the 1920s and immediately oriented himself towards der
sturm is the icelandic painter Finnur Jónsson. As described by hu-
bert van den Berg and Benedikt hjartarson, Jónsson came to Berlin
from copenhagen in 1921 and first contacted der sturm in search
of relevant training and four years later had the opportunity to ex-
hibit his works in the sturm Gallery.
life in Berlin around World War i was marked by social and po-
litical tensions. it was a time of strikes, rebellion and civil disobedi-
ence, which eventually led to the fall of the German empire in
Nordic Artists in the European Metropolises 125

November 1918 and the establishment of the Weimar republic in

August the following year. the political situation naturally affected
the cultural agenda and was the backdrop for The November Group,
which was formed in december 1918 following the revolution of the
previous month, which gave its name to the association. the mem-
bers of The November Group included architects, writers, composers
and visual artists (several of whom had previously been connected
to der sturm) defining themselves as radical, left-wing revolution-
aries committed to the “collective well-being of the nation”. the
idealist aim of the group was to support social revolution in Ger-
many, through the establishment of a close relation between progres-
sive artists and the public. Viking eggeling joined the group in 1920
and participated in its exhibitions, as Jan torsten Ahlstrand informs
us in his text.
one of the many things the Berlin art scene offered was the op-
portunity to see russian avant-garde art, notably at the russian ex-
hibition in the autumn of 1922, including, for instance, the
suprematist compositions of Kasimir Malevitj, which left a deep im-
pression on the swedish painter Bengt Österblom. Among the
Nordic artists, however, it was especially the Finns who developed a
relationship to the russian art scene, with their privileged access to
the russian centres of st. petersburg and Moscow. st. petersburg,
with its geographical proximity to Finland, was in fact the closest
metropolis to the region, providing a cosmopolitan and multicultural
environment which could not be found in Finland itself.
With the exception of the war years, 1914-1918, during the first
quarter of the twentieth century Nordic avant-garde artists would
remain in close contact with the european centres. during the war,
most of the artists who had been abroad returned to their native
countries and contributed actively to the Nordic art scene. For a
while, Nordic cities such as copenhagen and stockholm came to
serve as alternative centres, attracting not only artists from across
the Nordic region but also the enterprising Berliner herwarth
Walden, who organised a number of highly influential exhibitions in
scandinavia during the war, introducing several european avant-
garde artists to the scandinavian public. the vitality of the copen-
hagen art scene became important for, among many others, the
icelandic artist Finnur Jónsson, who arrived there in 1919 and soon
became acquainted with recent developments of avant-garde idioms
126 Nordic Artists in the European Metropolises

and strategies as they had been presented and interpreted in copen-

hagen during the preceding years.
the sudden upturn of the Nordic cities, however, lasted only
briefly. once the war had ended, borders had opened and travel had
again become possible, Nordic artists once more turned their atten-
tion towards the european metropolises.
Nordic Artists in the European Metropolises 127

WorKs cited
hultén, pontus, 1978. Paris-Berlin 1900-1933. Rapports et Contrastes France-
Allemagne. paris : centre National d’Art et de culture Georges pompidou.
––. Paris-Moscou 1900-1930. paris : centre National d’Art et de culture Georges
Nielsen, Jais. 1947. Perlevennen Gaston og andre sælsomme Historier fra Paris, co-
penhagen: rasmus Navers Forlag.
schulz, Bernhard. 2000. “Kunst und Zeitgeschicte Berlins zwischen 1910 und 1920”,
in: Schwedische Avantgarde und Der Sturm in Berlin. Verlag des Museums-
und Kunstvereins osnabrück and Kulturen, lund.
Wilson, sarah, 2000. Paris: Capital of the Arts 1900-1968. exhibition cata-
logue, royal Academy of Arts, london.
Nordic Writers ANd Artists iN pAris
BeFore, duriNG ANd AFter World WAr i

Frank claustrat

paris: capital of the Arts

hundreds of Nordic artists manifested from a very early stage their
openness to the outside world, and to all forms of modernism, par-
ticularly in paris, which from 1889 – the year of the universal exhi-
bition – until World War ii, was considered to be the centre of all
the arts.0 Among the numerous foreign art colonies in paris, the Nor-
dic one included a number of celebrities who, thanks to their French
connection, also played a decisive role in their own countries.1 in the
1920s, rolf de Maré (1888-1964) and his circle strengthened the Nor-
dic avant-garde tradition with the creation of les Ballets suédois, a
transgressive dance company, based at théâtre des champs-elysée
but undertaking international tours in europe and even in America
(de Mare (ed.) 1931). the freedom of expression and the struggle
against academicism that these artists found in the French capital
led to both an individual and collective sense of fulfilment. Associ-
ated with the ideas of cosmopolitanism and universalism, paris be-
nefited in return – like never before – from an unexpected explosion
of inventive force (cassou 1960-1961).
From the Belle Epoque until the end of World War i, a Nordic
colony established itself in paris, most tangibly in the district of
Montparnasse.2 here, private spaces privileged inter-Nordic contacts.
Artists’ studios, such as that of the Franco-swedish/Norwegian cou-
ple ida (1853-1927) and William (1862-1936) ericson-Molard on 6
rue Vercingetorix, were important in this respect. More elitist was
the “swedish/Norwegian circle” artists’ club, located at 58 rue de la
130 Frank Claustrat

chaussée d’Antin. restaurants such as chez rosalie or la closerie

des lilas and cafés like la régence, le Napolitain, le Versailles, le
dôme, and la rotonde and other such public spaces, on the other
hand, provided Nordic artists with good opportunities to forge deci-
sive connections with the central figures of the parisian avant-garde.3
the Nordic artists followed the modernist tradition of training
in ‘académies libres’ (independent academies) where they were intro-
duced to a wide range of pedagogical and aesthetic approaches to
their craft. in addition to the well-established Académie Marie Vas-
silieff and Académie henri Matisse, instruction was offered by
christian Krohg (1852-1925) at Académie colarossi, Kees van don-
gen (1877-1968) at Académie Vitti, Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929)
at Académie de la Grande chaumière, Maurice denis (1870-1943)
at Académie paul ranson, henri le Fauconnier (1881-1946) and
Jean Metzinger (1883-1956) at Académie la palette and André
lhote (1885-1965) at Académie Montparnasse.
the most talented Nordic artists exhibited in the non-official sa-
lons. At the salon des Artistes indépendants (founded in 1884) we
find some of the youngest artists,4 while work by more famous Nor-
dic artists already established in the French capital appeared in the
salon de la société Nationale des Beaux-Arts (founded in 1890).5
the salon d’Automne (founded in 1903) attracted expressionists or
individualists.6 in 1910, the swede Axel petersson, also known as
döderhultarn (1868-1925), exhibited caricatural wooden sculptures
at the salon des humoristes (founded in 1907), while Norwegians
Walther halvorsen (1887-1972) and thorvald hellesen (1888-1937)
exhibited at the exclusive salon d’Antin, organised during the war,
in 1916. prior to this, the work of these artists had found recognition
in the extensive network of parisian newspapers and journals.7
Marie Vassilieff’s canteen and the salle huygens (headquarters
of the Association lyre et palette) came to play notable social roles
– both professional and humanitarian – for the parisian avant-garde
during World War i; in particular for a group of Nordic artists which
included the swedes Arvid Fougstedt (1888-1949) and Viking egge-
ling (1880-1925), and the Norwegian per Krohg.throughout the
inter-war period, which included the era known as ‘les Années folles’
(‘the roaring twenties’), the Nordic presence in the Montparnasse
area intensified – that is, in one of the ‘ecole de paris’ (school of
paris) hot-beds of artistic experimentation.8 the Nordic artistic co-
Nordic Writers and Artists in Paris 131

lony aimed to enter into contact with all areas of the avant-garde
and, boosted by influxes of around a hundred artists each year, drew
on the social possibilities offered by new meeting places. At the same
time the number of Nordic artists participating in the wide variety
of parisian salons was increasing by tens every year.9
public establishments gave rise to a collective experience charac-
terised by a previously unparalleled cultural diversity and fervour.
From 1921 the restaurant strix acted almost exclusively as a swedish
meeting-place. having opened the bar-club chez les Vikings, the
Norwegian businessman trygve Noër founded the artistic and lite-
rary competition the prix des Vikings in 1927 as a means of genera-
ting more publicity in the Montparnasse district. the most chic
cafés, such as le select (founded in 1925) and la coupole (founded
in 1927 and decorated by many artists, including the swedes isaac
Grünewald and otto carlsund), were to be found on the boulevard
du Montparnasse.
the astonishing variety of parisian exhibition venues (salons, mu-
seums, galleries) endured until the end of the 1930s. the ‘non-official’
salons10 extended the arena of avant-garde activity, while, to a certain
extent, art museums such as Jeu de paume took on the role of au-
thenticating it. drawing on the lively cultural policies of the period,
the numerous larger art institutions hosted spectacular artistic events
such as the 1925 Exposition internationale des Arts décoratifs et in-
dustriels modernes (international exhibition of Modern industrial
and decorative Arts), the 1931 L’Exposition coloniale (colonial ex-
hibition), and the 1937 Exposition internationale des arts et des tech-
niques dans la vie moderne (international exhibition of Arts and
techniques in Modern life). From within this effervescent context
emerged a new generation of art critics11 who, in avant-garde jour-
nals such as L’Esprit Nouveau, Cercle et Carré, Cahiers d’Art and
L’Effort moderne, joined the art dealers in defending the foreign ar-

the Maison Watteau

From 1919, Maison Watteau (a building reputed to have previously
been the home of the famous painter of the same name, located next
to the cafés de la rotonde and the dôme, at 6 rue Jules-chaplain)
became a crucial meeting place (claustrat 1994). the house was run
132 Frank Claustrat

by lena Börjeson (1879-1976) – a swede trained in sculpture. Mai-

son Watteau was managed by the Association of scandinavian Ar-
tists from 1922 onwards and opened an academy of painting and
sculpture in 1926 that was baptised the ‘Académie scandinave’.

the original aim of Maison Watteau was to exhibit and sell work by
Nordic artists living in France.12 lena Börjeson organised its first
exhibitions from autumn 1920 until autumn 1922. the first three
were exclusively Nordic and were each concluded by a costume ball.
the fourth, entitled “Maison Watteau. salon d’art moderne” (Mai-
son Watteau: salon of Modern Art), which opened in december
1920, was international, with works by derain, Matisse, Braque, de
chirico, lhote, picasso, rivera, léger, Archipenko, sculpted furni-
ture by Gauguin, “Negro” sculptures and more. From 1923 until de-
cember 1925, the exhibitions were organised (with vigour) by the
Association of scandinavian Artists.
the inaugural exhibition was a major one. opening on 17 No-
vember 1923, l’Exposition franco-scandinave (also known as Exposi-
tion des Franco-Scandinaves et ses invités (exhibition of Franco-
scandinavians and their Guests)), attracted widespread attention
from the press. held at a time when the parisian art world talked
only of the growing success of rolf de Maré’s Ballets suédois, this
exhibition is emblematic of the “ecole de paris”.13 one hundred and
thirteen artists participated in the Exposition franco-scandinave.14
A one-man show by the swedish artist isaac Grünewald opened
in March 1924. the private viewing was followed by Maison Wat-
teau’s “first artistic soirée”.15 the event was, without a doubt, initi-
ated by rolf de Maré, who, by organising such concerts, wanted to
direct public attention to the group that had formed around eric
satie (1866-1925). on the same evening, raynal gave a lecture en-
titled “l’art doit-il réjouir ou assommer?” (should Art Amuse or
Abuse?). A swedish buffet followed and the party went on until six
in the morning.
An exhibition entitled Oeuvres françaises appartenant à des Scan-
dinaves à Paris (French Works owned by scandinavians in paris)
opened in May 1924. on show were the masterpieces in rolf de
Maré’s collection, such as picasso’s Au Lapin Agile (1905). this was
followed in June by the so-called 1ère Exposition scandinave (First
scandinavian exhibition) – although it was not the first – and, from
Nordic Writers and Artists in Paris 133

18 october to 21 december 1924, an exhibition entitled L’Atelier de

Fernand Léger. Exposition des peintres scandinaves et de quelques
tableaux de Fernand Léger (the studio of Fernand léger: exhibition
of scandinavian painters, with Works by Fernand léger), with the
participation of carlsund, Waldemar lorentzon (1899-1982), erik
olson and clausen.
the exhibition Artistes français et scandinaves (French and scan-
dinavian Artists) opened in January 1925  and included work by
Nordic artists Krohg, Grünewald, Fredriksen, Fischer, hjertén,
dardel, Ågren, Jacobsen, Gösta Adrian-Nilsson (Fierens 1925).
othon Friesz’s first student was given an exhibition which ran 3-17
February 1925: Jacques-Etienne Adan. Peintures et aquarelles
(Jacques-etienne Adan: paintings and Watercolours); and, from
March to April 1925, Dix peintres” (ten painters) brought together
laurencin, Bissière, signac, Vlaminck, lotiron, lhote, dufy, Gro-
maire, Gris and léger.
From 15 May to 16 June 1925 Maison Watteau hosted the exhi-
bition L’Art ancien populaire suédois (the popular Art of Ancient
sweden), under the patronage of prince eugène of sweden, with
works lent by the Nordiska Museet in stockholm (wall hangings,
paintings and fabrics). rugs and tapestries of the Association pour
l’Art domestique suédois (Association for swedish domestic Art)
were on sale for the occasion. the modernity of this popular art at-
tracted a large number of visitors, including otto carlsund.
the last two exhibitions mentioned in the press were essentially
concerned with nineteenth century masters and were both organised
with the assistance of the art dealer paul rosenberg, owner of a
gallery on the rue la Boétie, and the Norwegian painter henrik
sørensen. the first was D’Ingres à nos jours (From ingres to the pre-
sent) and took place during June-July 1925; the second, Le portrait
français au XIXe siècle (the French portrait in the 19th century),
which brought together 58 artists, was shown in december 1925.
More modest and less publicised, the exhibitions organised by Mai-
son Watteau from 1926 onward took a more educational than com-
mercial approach, in line with the activities of the Académie
134 Frank Claustrat

Académie scandinave
over time, Maison Watteau and the Académie scandinave became
a meeting point for the international avant-garde. As mentioned
above, in 1924 rolf de Maré, director of the Ballets suédois, exhibi-
ted the masterpieces from his collection (picasso, Braque, derain)
(Asplund 1923). subsequently, the Maison Watteau expanded its
programme of activities, becoming a genuine ‘cultural centre’. No
longer content with staging exhibitions, talks, concerts, masked balls
and parties, its ambition became an altogether different  one: to
establish itself as the most important school of painting and sculp-
ture in Montparnasse. After becoming responsible, in 1927, for the
prix des Vikings (a bursary of 10,000 francs awarded alternately to
a painter, a sculptor and a writer), it took on a philanthropic cha-
racter that became popular amongst the young artists (salmon 2003:
the studios of the Académie scandinave were initially run by
Nordic artists,16 and, from 1927 to 1935, by French artists.17 tutors
were chosen by the academy’s director, lena Börjeson. teaching was
eclectic, undogmatic and as encouraging of sculpture as it was of
painting, although it was oriented more towards figurative than ab-
stract tendencies. people came from all over the world to learn how
to draw ‘modernised’ nudes, portraits, war scenes and landscapes
from internationally recognised artists.
the first ten years of the Académie scandinave were an enor-
mous success: more than 1000 students, the most talented of whom
remain famous to this day.18 humanist, democratic, international
and a remarkable laboratory of forms and ideas, Maison Watteau
played a major role in the ecole de paris. the impact of the 1929
economic crisis put an end to its development, as well as to that of
the Académie scandinave, which closed its doors in 1935.

expressionism and Fauvism

Nordic expressionism – also known as colourism19 – offers a less vir-
tuoso and more instinctive interpretation of the subject (figure and
landscape), in which pure colours and contrasts of light play a fun-
damental role. the paris-based Nordic artists may have been led to
colourism through a number of inspirational sources. According to
the Norwegian painter christian Krohg, edvard Munch was “the
Nordic Writers and Artists in Paris 135

swedish artists at the café de Versailles, paris (Montparnasse), 1909. At

the table, isaac Grünewald and leander engström; behind him to the left
is William Nording. to the right in light-colored coats are Arthur percy
and tor Bjurström, and between them, the head of the waiter, paul.
photographer unknown. ivan Grünewald collection, stockholm.

father of Matissism” in the North. the paintings of Akselli Gallén-

Kallela (1865-1931) also deserve to be mentioned. they were exhi-
bited at the salon d’Automne in 1908, in a special selection of
Finnish art, where one could also see the progressive works of Antti
Favén. Kees van dongen’s teaching at the Académie Vitti offered
Nordic artists, in particular the Finn tyko sallinen (1879-1955) and
the Norwegian ragnhild Kaarbø, another route into expressionism.
however, it was the work and teaching of henri Matisse which had
the most decisive impact on Nordic expressionism.
Between 1908 and 1911, Académie Matisse20 was frequented by
a large number of swedes and Norwegians, but only one icelander
(Jón stefánsson (1881-1962)), one dane (Astrid holm)21 and no
136 Frank Claustrat

Finns. the hjertén-Grünewald couple, who lived in paris from 1920

to 1931, were among the most famous of the swedes to study at Aca-
démie Matisse. Grünewald achieved extraordinary success with his
arabesques and unusual compositions, and his stage designs for ballet
and theatre productions (Deo Ignoto, 1921, by Georges pillement,
or Sous Marine, 1925, a ballet performed at the opéra comique by
the swedish dancer carina Ari (1897-1970) and set to music by Ar-
thur honegger (1892-1955)).
André salmon (who also wrote on the danish painter Astrid
holm), wrote a sensitive preface to the catalogue of Grünewald’s
1921 exhibition at the gallery la licorne (salmon 1921). in 1925,
the artist received the Grand prix for his stage design at the exposi-
tion internationale des Arts décoratifs et industriels modernes. Grü-
newald’s parisian career reached its peak in 1928 when André
Warnod devoted a book to his work (Warnod 1928).
sigrid hjertén, on the other hand, suffered from her husband’s
success. her expressionist style was not without interest and ranks
alongside the work of Greta Knutson (1899-1983),22 another swede
in paris, and one of André lhote’s many Nordic students.
resident in paris from 1899 to 1921, the Norwegian painter ed-
vard diriks developed a form of expressionism inspired by the na-
tural surroundings of his native country (particularly its fjords).
initially associated with the ‘closerie des lilas’ circle, diriks is one
of the few scandinavians to have benefited from regular solo exhi-
bitions in such galleries as le peletier (1904), Bernheim Jeune (1908)
and Galerie druet (1909). diriks’s work (consisting primarily of sea-
scapes) focuses on intensities of light, the power of atmosphere,
forms in movement, and pure colour. in 1909, the critic Arsène
Alexandre (1859-1937) declared diriks a creator able to create land-
scapes in the same way that ibsen was able to paint ‘landscapes of
the soul’ (Alexandre 1909: 6).23
three of Matisse’s Norwegian students stand out through their
participation in paris salons during the 1920s: Jean heiberg, henrik
sørensen and per Krohg. Between 1911 and 1932, Krohg enjoyed
an outstanding parisian career, exhibiting regularly in respected gal-
leries such as pierre loeb and Berthe Weill alongside the most fa-
mous artists of the time and working with both the Ballets suédois
(1920) and the opéra de paris (1927).
Nordic Writers and Artists in Paris 137

the paths that led the Nordic artists in paris towards cubism were
equally diverse, their conceptions of it significantly more individua-
listic than dogmatic (neither analytic nor synthetic cubism). the
work of paul cézanne, extensively exhibited and analysed, was a
major point of departure.
From 1908, Académie russe, then Académie Vassilieff, both
under the direction of Marie Vassilieff, became a famous meeting-
place, visited by picasso, Braque, Gris, Modigliani, cendrars, sal-
mon, Max Jacob, and satie. Fernand léger gave some very popular
lectures there in 1913. Vassilieff initiated ten swedish pupils to cu-
bism, among them Karl isakson (1878-1922) in 1913-1914, Viking
eggeling in 1915, siri derkert (1888-1973) around 1913-1914 and
Arthur carlson percy in 1912.24
William scharff (1886-1959) and olaf rude (1886-1957) initiated
the parisian danes’ brief but intense period of association with cu-
bism (notably that of pablo picasso) in January 1911 (Aagesen 2002,
Frankrig Danmark 1996, schultz 1938). the teaching he received at
Académie humbert from 1912 was a turning point for the swede
ivan Aguéli (1869-1917), while Académie la palette attracted a num-
ber of Nordic students (such as the swede John sten in 1913) to the
studios of henri le Fauconnier, Jean Metzinger and eugène Zak
(1884-1926). André lhote took over in March 1917, creating the
Académie Montparnasse, which from 1925 bore his name. From
1917 lhote outlined his (idiosyncratic and heterogeneous) theory of
cubism in the swedish journal Flamman, run by Georg pauli (1855-
1935),,who had been in contact with lhote since 1912 (lärkner 1984,
lilja 1955).
Among the earliest cubist experimentations to be labelled scan-
dinavian, the work of the swede Nils von dardel carried out between
1911 and 1913 is noteworthy. dardel no doubt read the relevant ar-
ticles published in sweden, such as the one written by Volmar (pseu-
donym of erik rusén) that appeared in Svenska Dagbadet on 10
November 1911 (“Kubisterna”). As a French speaker, dardel may
also have consulted the articles written by ivan Aguéli, a swedish art
critic and personal friend of Guillaume Apollinaire, and published
in the parisian journals La Gnose and L’Encyclopédie contemporaine
illustrée, from 1911. in 1912, Aguéli discussed Futurism and, else-
where, the cubist work exhibited in “la section d’or”. Aguéli de-
138 Frank Claustrat

veloped a definition of cubism that seems, on the whole, paradig-

matic of the Nordic artists:

having discussed the term ‘cubism’ (…) i suggest that we extend the
meaning of the word “cube”, in order to give it a more general geo-
metric signification, regardless of the number or nature of its angles.
in accordance with this understanding of “cubism”, the reader will
not be surprised at our inclusion of Van dongen amongst the cu-
bists. to be a cubist therefore means: beginning with space itself, to
reduce natural phenomena, with all its accidental characteristics, to
rational, or euclidean, forms controlled by internal rhythms. (Aguéli
1912: 175)

his compatriot pär lagerkvist (1891-1974) pursued this theoretical

stance in a manifesto published in 1913 (Ordkonst och bildkonst, om
modärn litteraturs däkadans – om den modärna konstens vitalitet (li-
terary Art and pictorial Art, on the decadence of modern literature
– on the vitality of modern art)), which served as a point of reference
for a number of Nordic artists working more or less within the con-
text of cubism.25

the spirit of dadaism and the Ballets suédois

the synthesis of the arts advocated by sergei diaghilev (1872-1929),
director of les Ballets russes from 1909, took on a more exotic form
in the hands of rolf de Maré, director of the Ballets suédois, the
company he created in 1920 at the théâtre des champs-elysées.26 A
spirit of transgression directly inherited from dadaism and a despe-
rate pursuit of artistic freedom characterise the company’s more than
20 extraordinary productions staged between 1920 and 1925. the
model established by de Maré would soon influence other compa-
At the heart of the Ballets suédois was the choreographer Jean
Börlin (1893-1930) (Mas 2008). With de Maré’s backing, Börlin com-
bined modernist poetry, music, dance, visual arts and cinema in a
collective endeavour to create a transdisciplinary, total work of art.28
here ballet became experimental dance, not simply virtuoso, but first
and foremost performative; marked, in other words, by perpetual
movement, reflecting the modern world. through utopian works of
Nordic Writers and Artists in Paris 139

art that escaped any material definition, the Ballets suédois increa-
singly came to represent the essence of the avant-garde.
From March 1920 Börlin pioneered a profoundly democratised
form of dance. he achieved this through his costumes, masks and,
above all, unrestrained body movements, all of which were in oppo-
sition to classical ballet. in each of his works29 – alternately expres-
sionist (El Greco, 1920), Naïvist (Nuit de Saint Jean, 1920), Vitalist
(Dansgille, 1921), abstract (L’Homme et son Désir, 1921), proto-sur-
realist (Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel, 1921) Futurist (Skating-Rink,
1922), cubist and primitivist (La Création du Monde, 1923), dadaist
(Relâche, 1924), – Börlin engaged with a range of aesthetic modes
and existential questions.
the visionary ballet Maisons de Fous (1920) brought about a syn-
thesis of expressionism and proto-surrealism. 30 in Boîte à Joujoux
(1921), the humorist and illustrator André hellé (1871-1945) created
a childlike view of the world, expressing in an off-beat manner an
imaginary universe rarely explored until then.
For Le Tournoi Singulier (1924) the Japanese artist léonard Fou-
jita (1886-1968) presented a novel form of modernism founded on
ancient Japanese tradition. Foujita’s costume design and scenogra-
phy combined western and Far-eastern stylistic elements, again giv-
ing rise to a work with universal scope.
in 1924 Francis picabia (1879-1953) participated in the creation
of the ‘anti-ballet’ Relâche and its Entr’acte (a burlesque film about
the pursuit of a camel-drawn hearse), which correspond to the last
phase of his dadaist activities. picabia’s acceptance of the absurdity
of existence found a solution in his notion of “Instantaneism”, in-
vented for the occasion (“life as i love it; life without tomorrows,
life today, all for today, nothing for yesterday, nothing for tomor-
Following the disbanding of the Ballets suédois, rolf de Maré’s
involvement in the performing arts continued in a manner that was
both creative and institutional. until 1927, he ran the théâtre des
champs-elysées, which he transformed into an ‘opéra Music-hall’.
he introduced, among others, the young Joséphine Baker (1906-
1975) to the public in the famous ‘revue Nègre’ (october 1925). in
1931 Maré founded les Archives internationales de la danse (A.i.d.)
in paris, the first museum-research institute of its kind in the world.
the following year, he began organising international dance compe-
140 Frank Claustrat

titions. during this time, rolf de Maré was at the peak of his career
in cultural event management.

From Abstraction to surrealism

Fernand léger and Amédée ozenfant’s danish, Norwegian and
swedish students at the Académie Moderne (1924-1931)32 actively
participated in the development of new tendencies in geometric ab-
stract art.33 inspired by humanism, the multiple vision of Nordic ab-
straction would evoke the modernist world through its combination
and organisation of forms inspired either by geometric functional
objects (of a mechanical type) or by the human body. their works
demonstrated a liberating impulse from dogmatic laws such as that
of strict orthogonality.
in the context of the history of the links between Nordic artists,
Fernand léger and ‘non-objective’ art, the activities of the swede
Gösta Adrian Nilsson (also known as GAN) are fundamental. As a
theosopher and mystic, immersed for a time in futurism, GAN wrote
a manifesto entitled Den Gudomliga Geometrien (divine Geometry)
in paris in the spring of 1921. here he asserts that the universe is
ruled by the laws of geometry, which must also determine the creative
process. his theory of the birth of forms, which explains how, almost
unconsciously, one form gives rise to another, prepared the Nordic
artists for a collective shift – from 1930 – from geometric abstraction
to surrealism. As an advocate of non-objective art, GAN encouraged
his compatriots (otto carlsund, erik olson, Waldemar lorentzon)
to follow Fernand léger’s teaching at Académie Moderne.
Between 1924 and 1928 Fernand léger’s students exhibited regu-
larly in paris: a swedish-danish group show in Maison Watteau in
october 1924 (carlsund, lorentzon, olson, clausen) provided the
starting-point. in december 1925, carlsund, lorentzon, Vera Mey-
erson (1903-1981), Österblom, clausen, ragnhild Keyser, and char-
lotte Wankel (1888-1969) represented a larger scandinavian group
in an international collective exhibition (exposition internationale
l’Art d’Aujourd’hui). At the end of June 1926, carlsund, clausen,
Kaarbø and Keyser exhibited their recent paintings at the Galerie
d’Art contemporain. the two final exhibitions were in famous gal-
leries. the first, in March 1927, was in Galerie Aubier (carlsund,
clausen and Kaarbø). the second, in May 1928, was at the Galerie
Nordic Writers and Artists in Paris 141

Mots et images (the swedish painters carlsund and erik olson,

accompanied by their fellow countryman and sculptor christian
in the context of an experimental, abstract style, other less fa-
mous Nordic artists deserve to be mentioned, such as the swede ru-
dolf Gowenius, another one of léger’s students, and a creator of
mural paintings requiring new techniques. his most famous mural
work is the 1930 façade and the internal decor of la cigogne, a po-
pular bar-restaurant situated on the corner of boulevard du Mont-
parnasse and boulevard raspail.34
less well-documented, unfortunately, is the work of the icelander
ingebjörg Bjarnason,35 who came to live in paris during the 1920s.
in 1930, Bjarnason participated in the exhibition of the group Cercle
et Carré at the Gallerie 23 (23, rue la Boétie), contributing works
which the art critic Michel seuphor (1901-1999) described as ‘fish in
an aquarium’ (Moberg 1995: 150-155).
the swedes Viking dahl (1895-1945) and Knut lundström
(1892-1945) focused their own research on questions of abstraction,
harmony and rhythm in music. lundström, painter and theoretician,
exhibited with the Musicalistes36, most notably at la renaissance
gallery in december 1932/January 1933. A friend of Fernand léger
since 1933, the Finnish artist Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) (schildt 1995)
was able to demonstrate his talent as an architect and designer in the
pavillon de la Finlande, built for the 1937 exposition internationale
des Arts et des techniques dans la Vie Moderne. the first photo-
graphs of his avant-garde furniture had appeared in the Autumn of
1933 in L’Architecture vivante, the same year in which his products
began to be sold in France by the company synclair.37
Begun in paris, the Nordic artists’ conversion to surrealism38
dates symbolically from 1930, with the participation of the swedish
eric Grate (1896-1983) in the “internationell utställning av post-
Kubistisk Konst” (international exhibition of post-cubist Art), or-
ganised by otto carlsund in stockholm, from 19 August until 30
september. this conversion was followed in 1932 by the event entit-
led Paris 1932. 10 Nationer. 24 Konstnärer. Utställning av Postkubis-
tisk och Surrealistisk Konst (10 Nations. 24 Artists. exhibition of
postcubist and surrealist Art), organised by eric Grate and rolf de
Maré at stockholm’s Nationalmuseum. the conversion became de-
finitive in 1935 with the exhibition Kubisme-Surrealisme, organised
142 Frank Claustrat

in copenhagen by the dane Vilhelm Bjerke-petersen (1909-1957),

with the help of erik olson, André Breton (1896-1966) and Max
ernst (1891-1976). two danish students of Fernand léger partici-
pated in this exhibition: Franciska clausen and rita Kernn-larsen
the swedish surrealist group, known as the halmstad Group (led
by erik olson, the aforementioned léger student), founded in the
summer of 1929, did not assume a definite character until the exhi-
bition staged in January 1934 at the helsinki Konsthall.39 Just before
leaving paris, olson, a member of the group Gravitations, exhibited
in the gallery of the same name 14-18 July 1935. he was the author
of a surrealist manifesto baptised ‘du transhylisme’ and published
in Paris Soir in January 1935. in August of that year, Gravitations’
owner, louis cattiaux (1904-1953), wrote the preface to a short pu-
blication by erik olson, published in denmark and edited by Vil-
helm Bjerke-petersen – powerful proof of French and danish
admiration for the swedish avant-garde (cattiaux 1935).

From fauvism to surrealism, the Nordic avant-garde adventure in
paris illustrates an exemplary dialectic of specificity and universality
in the arts. this adventure, taking place in a context of permanent
experimentation and inscribed at the heart of an exceptional cosmo-
politan milieu, reignited the original debates of the ecole de paris,
its players, its foundations, its development and its scope. the Nordic
artists in paris brought together numerous strategies: ethical, aesthe-
tic, theoretical, intellectual and economic. their aim was to affirm
both their Nordic identity and their willingness to join the multi-
media “ecole de paris”, obsessed with defining the modern world.
Figurative or abstract, material or ephemeral, the work of the Nordic
artists in paris testifies to their creative, anti-dogmatic and emanci-
patory impetus. this impetus gave rise to a radical societal project;
one that post-World War ii cultural history would embrace as the
‘scandinavian model’.
Nordic Writers and Artists in Paris 143

From 1900 to 1930, more than two thousand Nordic painters and sculptors ex-
hibited in one of the numerous parisian “salons”, as the catalogues’ indexes testify.
this applies to for example Albert edelfelt (1854-1905) and Ville Vallgren (1855-
1940) in Finland; Anders Zorn (1860-1920) and August strindberg (1849-1912) in
sweden; Frits thaulow (1847-1906), Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910) and henrik
ibsen (1828-1906) in Norway; peder severin Krøyer (1851-1909) and Georg Brandes
(1842-1927) in denmark (Bigeon 1894).
lumières du Nord, 1987 ; echappées nordiques, 2008-2009.
such as poets paul Fort (1872-1960), Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), Max
Jacob (1876-1944), writers André salmon (1881-1969), lucien Maury (1872-1953),
musicians erik satie (1866-1925), Arthur honegger (1892-1955), darius Milhaud
(1892-1974), Francis poulenc (1899-1963), Georges Auric (1899-1983), and painters
henri Matisse (1869-1954), Jean Metzinger (1883-1956) and Kees van dongen
Among them swedes david edström (1873-1938), hans ekegårdh (1881-1962),
sigrid hjertén (1885-1948), carl palme (1879-1960) and John sten (1879-1922);
Norwegians ragnvald Blix (1882-1958), Karl edvard diriks (1855-1930), ludvig
peter Karsten (1876-1926), Arne texnes Kavli (1878-1970), per Krohg (1889-1965)
and edvard Munch (1863-1944); Finns uno Alanco (1878-1964), Axel haartman
(1877-1969), Karl emil Jankes (1884-1952), Bertel Nilsson (1887-1939), santeri
salokivi (1886-1940), ragnar ungern (1885-1955), Alarik (Ali) Munsterhjelm
(1873-1944), and carl henrik Wrede (1890-1924); danes Johannes Bjerg (1886-
1955), and Astrid holm (1876-1937) and danish/Norwegian pola Gauguin (1883-
swedes christian eriksson (1858-1935), carl Milles (1875-1955) and Anders Zorn;
Norwegians Borghild Arnesen (1872-1950), christian Krohg, Frits (1847-1906) and
Alexandra (1847-1906) thaulow; Finns sigrid af Forselles (1860-1935), Felix Ny-
lund (1878-1940) and Floria olivia (Viivi) paarmio-Vallgren (1867-1952); and
danes Mogens Ballin (1871-1914), henry Brokman (1868-1933) and J. F. Willumsen
swedes ivar Arosenius (1878-1909), einar Jolin (1890-1976) and Axel törneman
(1880-1925); Finns ellen thesleff (1869-1954), Verner thomé (1878-1953), Fahle
Basilier (1880-1936), Antti Favén (1882-1948), Vilho sjöström (1873-1944), eero
snellman (1890-1951), and eliel saarinen (1873-1950); and danes rudolph tegner
(1873-1950), Johannes hohlenberg (1881-1960) and Jais Nielsen (1885-1961).
including La Revue Blanche, La Plume, Le Mercure de France, L’Eclair, La Gnose,
and L’Encyclopédie contemporaine illustrée.
l’ecole de paris 1904-1929, la part de l’autre, 2000-2001.
At the salon des Artistes indépendants, the Nordic representation was dominated
by strong personalities such as the danes Franciska clausen (1899-1986), einar
(1882-1931) and Gerda (1889-1940) Wegener, the swedes Gösta Adrian-Nilsson
(GAN) (1884-1965), otto carlsund (1897-1948), Nils von dardel (1888-1943), eric
Grate (1896-1983), Bengt Österblom (1903-1976), sigrid hjertén, Knut lundström
144 Frank Claustrat

(1892-1945), the Norwegians ragnhild Keyser (1889-1943), per Krohg, thorvald

hellesen, the Finn Yrjo ollila (1887-1932) and the icelander ingebjörg Bjarnason
(1901-1977). regularly exhibiting at the salon d’Automne, more open to design and
sculpture, were the danes Adam Fischer (1888-1968), carl christian Fjerdingstad
(1891-1968), Georg Jensen (1866-1935), the swedes christian Berg (1893-1976),
Bror hjorth (1894-1968), simon Gate (1883-1945), the Norwegian dyre diriks
(1894-1976), Jean heiberg (1884-1976), ragnhild Kaarbø (1889-1949), Axel revold
(1887-1962), sigri Welhaven Krag (1894-1991), the Finn Aïno Alli (1879-1958) and
the icelanders Gunnlaugur Blöndal (1893-1962), Nina seimundsson (1892-1965)
and Asmundur sveinsson (1893-1982). At the salon des tuileries (founded in 1923),
the most productive and commercially well established artists in the city would meet
again and again, often every year, among them the swedes isaac Grünewald (1889-
1946), signe Barthe (1895-1982), dagmar dadie-roberg (1897-1966), eric detthow
(1888-1952), rudolf Gowenius (1896-1960), the danes Georg Jacobsen (1887-1976)
and Astrid Noack (1888-1954), the Norwegians emil lie (1897-1976) and henrik
sørensen (1882-1962), the danish/Norwegian pola Gauguin, and, finally, the Finn
Gösta diehl (1899-1964).
des tuileries, de l’Araignée, de la Folle enchère, du Franc, des surindépendants,
des Musicalistes, cercle et carré, etc.
paul Fierens, André salmon, André Warnod, Maurice raynal.
in 1918, the swedish art dealer Gösta olson created a gallery in stockholm for
them called “svensk-Franska Konstgalleriet” (the Franco-swedish Art Gallery)
(olson 1965).
First theorised in 1925 by the art critic Warnod, “ecole de paris” refers to the
combined efforts of the several thousand artists from all over the world who had
gathered in the French capital and were attracted to anti-academicism, if not the
avant-garde per se (Warnod 1925).
including Braque, derain, dufy, othon Friesz (1879-1949), Marcel Gromaire
(1892-1971), laurencin, léger, lhote, Matisse, Metzinger, picasso, Vlaminck, Bran-
cusi, Van dongen, lipschitz, Vassilieff, Kisling. 53 Nordic artists were included
among them dardel, Grünewald, hjertén, Jolin, Gösta Adrian-Nilsson, Arthur
carlson percy (1886-1976), rathsman, otte sköld (1894-1958), sten, heiberg,
Krohg, hellesen, revold, rolfsen, salto, sørensen, Fischer, Jacobsen and others.
(Nyblom 1924). Guests included the young musicians of the ecole d’Arcueil: com-
poser henri sauguet and musicians henri cliquet-pleyel, roger désormière and
Maxime Jacob.
the swedish otte sköld, the danish Adam Fischer, and the Norwegian per
the sculptors charles despiau (1874-1946), louis dejean (1872-1954) and paul
cornet (1892-1977), the painters charles dufresne (1876-1938), othon Friesz, henri
de Waroquier (1881-1970), edmond céria (1884-1955), léopold-lévy (1882-1966),
edmond charles Kayser (1882-1965) and Marcel Gromaire (the latter only from
1931), replaced occasionally by scandinavians (amongst them the swedes isaac
Grünewald and eric detthow).
such as the French artists Francis Gruber (1912-1948) and pierre tal-coat (1905-
Nordic Writers and Artists in Paris 145

1985), the portuguese Vieira da silva (1908-1992), the dane Astrid Noack and the
swedes Gunnar Nilsson (1904-1995) and ove olson (1903-1975).
det søte liv. Kolorister i nord 1910-20, 1996 ; scandinavian Modernism, 1989-
Paris tur och retur, 2007.
possibly also carl Forup, although only for a short while during a visit to paris in
Knutson married the rumanian dadaist poet tristan tzara in 1925. her work
impressed otto carlsund so much that he invited her to take part in a collective ex-
hibition in stockholm in 1930 as a unique representative of “post-impressionist
style”. internationell utställning av post-kubistisk konst, 1930, p. 10, 23.
Alexandre, Arsène, 1909, p. 6.
the others were Ninnan santesson (1891-1969) in 1914, sven Kreuger (1891-
1967) in 1913, ragnar Gellerstedt (1887-1963) in 1913, Yngve Berg (1887-1963),
between 1909 and 1913, ulrika Gyllenhammar-Wallen (1878-?) probably between
1910 and 1914, Valdemar leeb-lundberg (1880-1927) probably between 1911 and
1913 and John sten in 1914. claes-Göran Forsberg, John Sten. hudiksvall: hälsin-
glands museum, 1990, p. 51.
the danes Jais Nielsen, Adam Fischer and Johannes Bjerg, the Norwegians per
Krohg and Axel revold, the Finns Alvar cawén (1886-1935) and Valle rosenberg
(1891-1919), and finally, the swedes Georg pauli and siri derkert.
svenska Baletten i paris 1920-1925. Ballets suédois, 1995. (claustrat 2009: 149-
i.e. those founded by the count etienne de Beaumont (‘soirées de paris’, théâtre
de la cigale, May-June 1924) and by ida rubinstein (1928-1929, opéra de paris).
in the literary context, the following names can be noted among the contributors:
hans christian Andersen, Blaise cendrars, ricciotto canudo and three future
Nobel prize winners: paul claudel, luigi pirandello and pär lagerkvist. in music:
hugo Alfvén, Kurt Atterberg, Georges Auric, eugène Bigot, Viking dahl, Alexandre
Glazounov, Johan Algot Aquinius, Arthur honegger, désiré-Émile inghelbrecht,
daniel lazarus, darius Milhaud, cole porter, Francis poulenc, Maurice ravel, erik
satie, Germaine tailleferre. the visual arts: Alexandre Alexeieff, pierre Bonnard,
Giorgio de chirico, Nils von dardel, Gerald Murphy, einar Nerman, léonard
Foujita, Gunnar hallström, Valentine hugo, André hellé, irène lagut, pierre
laprade, Fernand léger, hélène perdriat, Francis picabia, Alexandre steinlen. in
terms of choreography, about forty scandinavian and Finnish dancers, including
carina Ari, edith von Bonsdorff, Kaarlo eronen, Jolanda Figoni, inger Friis, Jenny
hasselquist, toivo Niskanen, Kaj smith, ebon strandin. in cinema: rené clair.
Which inspired the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle to describe Börlin as a dancer who
‘paints and sculpts in space’ (Antoine Bourdelle in Paris-Journal, 25 May 1923).
the swedish artist Nils von dardel was responsible for the costumes and scenog-
raphy and drew directly on the writings of pär lagerkvist (particularly Le Secret
du Ciel, 1919) endorsing the plethora of poses suggesting the mysteries of human
behaviour. the context of a psychiatric hospital presents characters with extreme
mental conditions, offering an enormous challenge for a dancer.
146 Frank Claustrat
La Danse, November-december 1924, unpaginated.
i légers ateljé, 1994; léger och Norden, 1992-1993; léger et l’esprit Moderne,
cubism (thorvald hellesen), purism (otto carlsund, Bengt Österblom, Franciska
clausen), neo-plasticism (clausen), constructivism (clausen), Art concret (carl-
sund), cercle et carré (erik olson) and abstraction-creation, culminating in surre-
alism (erik olson).
in the main room, one section of an Art-deco-inspired panel depicts storks bring-
ing an African baby to a house in Alsace. in another section a hunter holds a wind-
mill with a nest of baby storks. the works are painted on plywood and constructed
from pieces of wood, shards of glass, plates of reflective crystal, carved stones, plates
of duralumin, matchboxes and galatithe in gold and silver. Vidal, h., “un bar à
Montparnasse: ‘la cigogne’, La Construction Moderne”, n°20, 15 February 1931,
p. 311-314.
Born in Germany to a German-swiss mother and an icelandic father.
Qu’est ce que le Musicalisme, 1990.
Anonymous, “sanatorium par Alvar Aalto”, L’Architecture vivante, Autumn-Win-
ter, p. 25-26, pl. 1-9.
Den förvandlade drömmen, 1997; Uroen og Begjæret. Surrealisme i Skandinavia
1930-1950, 2004.
Viveca Bosson, “halmstadgruppen odyssée genom 1900 talet”, Halmstadgruppen
60 år. Halmstad-Berlin-Paris-Halmstad. exhibition catalogue: stockholm: lilje-
valchs Konsthall 7 April-4 June 1989; Mjällby: Mjällby Konstgård 16 July-17 sep-
tember 1989; helsinki: Amos Andersons Konstmuseum 7 october-26 November
1989, pages 90 and 200. the publication of a collection of poetry (Fransk Surreal-
ism) by Gunnar ekelöf (1907-1968), in 1933, would probably have played an im-
portant role in that orientation.
Nordic Writers and Artists in Paris 147

WorKs cited
Aagesen, dorthe. 2002. The Avant-Garde in Danish and European Art 1909-1919.
exhib. cat. copenhagen: statens Museum for Kunst.
Aguéli, ivan (habdul-hâdi). 1912. “les expositions d’Art à paris. celle de la « sec-
tion d’or » à la Galerie la Boétie ”, L’Encyclopédie contemporaine, n°659,
15 November.
Alexandre, Arsène. 1909. Edvard Diriks. Ile-de-France. Iles Lofoden (sic). Fjord de
Christiania. exhib. cat. paris: Galerie e. druet.
Anonymous. “sanatorium par Alvar Aalto”, L’Architecture vivante, Autumn-Win-
ter, p. 25-26, pl. 1-9.
Asplund, Karl. 1923. Rolf de Maré’s tavelsamling. stockholm: A.-B. Gunnar tisells
tekniska förlag.
Bigeon, Maurice. 1894. Les Révoltés Scandinaves, paris: l. Grasilier éditeur.
cassou, Jean. 1960-1961. Les sources du XXe siècle. Les Arts en Europe de 1884 à
1914. exhib. cat., paris: Musée National d’Art Moderne.
cattiaux, louis. 1935. “erik olson”, Unge skandinaviske kunstnere. Erik Olson, nr
2. København: illums, n.p.
claustrat, Frank. 1994. Les artistes suédois à Paris 1908-1935: tradition, modernisme
et création. 4 vols. phd thesis. université paris i panthéon-sorbonne.
––. 2009. “les arts plastiques dans les Ballets russes et les Ballets suédois”, in Ma-
thias Auclair et pierre Vidal (eds.) Les Ballets Russes Mathias Auclair et
pierre Vidal, paris : Gourcuff-Gradenigo.
den förvandlade drömmen. 1997. Den förvandlade drömmen. Trettiotalssurrealism
Paris Köpenhamn Halmstad. Skandinavisk 30-tals Surrealism och några av
dess källor i Paris. exhib. cat. Köbenhavn: Kunstforeningen, halmstad:
Mjellby Art centre.
det søte liv. Kolorister i nord 1910-20. 1996. Det søte liv. Kolorister i nord 1910-20.
Sigrid Hjertén. Isaac Grünewald. Ludvig Karsten. Henrik Sørensen. exhib.
cat. stiftelsen Modums Blaafarværk.
echappées nordiques. 2008-2009. Echappées nordiques. Les maîtres scandinaves et
finlandais en France 1870/1914. exhib. cat. lille: palais des Beaux-Arts.
Fierens, paul. 1925. “scandinaves de paris”, paris-Journal, Vendredi 9 Janvier 1925.
Frankrig danmark. 1996. Frankrig Danmark. Dansk-franske kunstforbindelser i det
XX århundrede. France Danemark. Les relations artistiques franco-danoises
au XXe siècle. exhib. cat. sophienholm.
i légers ateljé. 1994. I Légers ateljé. Léger, Ozenfant, Adrian-Nilsson, Carlsund, Clau-
sen, Lorentzon, Erik Olson, Christian Berg samt Halmstadgruppen före Halm-
stadgruppen. exhib. cat. Mjällby konstgård, halmstadgruppen museum-
internationell utställning av post-kubistisk konst. 1930. Internationell utställning av
post-kubistisk konst. exhib. cat. stockholm: parkrestauranten, stockhol-
l’ecole de paris 1904-1929, la part de l’autre. 2000-2001. L’Ecole de Paris 1904-1929,
la part de l’autre. exhib. cat. paris: Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de paris.
148 Frank Claustrat

léger et l-esprit Moderne. 1982. Léger et l’Esprit Moderne. Une alternative d’avant-
garde à l’art non-objectif (1918-1931). exhib. cat. paris: Musée d’Art mo-
derne de la Ville de paris.
léger och Norden. 1992-1993. Léger och Norden. exhib. cat. helsinki: Ateneum,
stockholm: Moderna Museet, høvikodden: henie-onstad Kunstsenter, Kö-
penhamn: statens Museum for Kunst.
lilja, Gösta. 1955. Det moderna måleriet i svensk kritik 1905-1914. Malmö: Allhem.
lumières du Nord. 1987. Lumières du Nord. La peinture scandinave 1885-1905.
exhib. cat. paris: Musée du petit palais.
lärkner, Bengt. 1984. Det internationella avant-garde och Sverige 1914-1925.
Malmö: Frank stenvalls Förlag.
Mas, Josiane (ed.). Arts en mouvement. Les Ballets Suédois de Rolf de Maré. Paris
1920-1925. Montpellier: presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2008.
Moberg, ulf thomas. 1995. Nordisk konst i 1920-talets avantgarde. Uppbrott och
gränsöverskridande. stockholm.
Nyblom, sven. 1924. “Montparnasse. Grünewald, Gallieni, Gastronomie. (paris
den 4 mars 1924)”, Nya Dagligt Allehanda, 09/03/1924.
olson, Gösta. 1965. Från Ling till Picasso: en konsthandlares minnen. stockholm:
Albert Bonniers Förlag.
paris tur och retur. 2007. Paris tur och retur – svenska och norska Matisseelever.
exhib. cat. Kristinehamns konstmuseum.
Qu’est ce que le Musicalisme? 1990. Qu’est ce que le Musicalisme?. paris: drouart.
salmon, André., 2003 [1950. Montparnasse. Mémoires. paris: Arcadia editions.
scandinavian Modernism. 1989-1990. Scandinavian Modernism. Painting in Den-
mark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden 1910-1920. exhib. cat. Göte-
borg: Göteborgs Konstmuseum, oslo: Nasjonalgalleriet, stockholm:
Moderna Museet, helsinki: Ateneum, leningrad: the hermitage, Moscow:
tretyakov Gallery.
schildt, Göran. 1995. Alvar Aalto. The Complete Catalogue of Architecture, Design
and Art. New York: rizzoli.
schultz, sigurd. 1938. ”paris og den nye danske kunsts gennembrud”, in Jessen,
Franz von, Danske i Paris gennem Tiderne, vol. iii. København: c. A. reitzel:
svenska Baletten i paris 1920-1925. Ballets Suédois, 1995. Svenska Baletten i Paris
1920-1925. Ballets Suédois. exhib. cat. stockholm: dansmuseet.
uroen og Begjæret. surrealisme i skandinavia 1930-1950. 2004. Uroen og Begjæret.
Surrealisme i Skandinavia 1930-1950. exhib. cat. Bergen: Bergen Kunstmu-
seum, oslo: stenersen museet, Göteborg: Göteborgs konstmuseum.
Warnod, André. 1925. “l’ecole de paris”, Comoedia, 27 January 1925.
––. 1928. Grünewald. L’Homme et l’Oeuvre. paris: les écrivains réunis.
Werenskiold, Marit. 1981. Ekspresjonisme-begrepets opprinnelse og forvandling. phd
thesis. oslo universitet.
AcAdémie mAtisse And its RelevAnce
in thelife And WoRk of sigRid hjeRtén

shulamith Behr

the 1890s saw an immense transformation in the professional status

of artists as they increasingly rejected state academies – and in doing
so, ‘traditional’ training routes – in favour of the studios of progres-
sive and established mentors. Women artists were no exception; de-
spite being permitted to train in stockholm (from 1864) and
copenhagen (from 1888) they began to prefer the cosmopolitan and
liberating ambience of private studio tuition in Paris, munich and
düsseldorf (lindberg 1998, christensen 1998, ingelman 1984). tra-
vel offered both a release from the strictures of bourgeois society and
an opportunity to experience foreign avant-garde subcultures and
metropolitan life. in Paris, Académie julian, founded in 1868, was
the first to offer women a course comparable to that of the offici-
ally-recognised école des Beaux-Arts, which did not accept women
until 1897 (Weisberg, Becker 1999: 15-67, kropmanns, schäfer 2004:
25-39). however, Académie julian charged female students much
higher fees than their male colleagues and, after an initial trial of
mixed classes, male and female students were separated. the post-
humous publication of the diary of the gifted Ukrainian artist and
feminist marie Bashkirtseff, who began her studies at Académie ju-
lian in 1877 and died tragically in 1884, offered a precedent for many
aspiring women artists (theuriet 1887). Apart from the expensive
Académie julian, Académie colarossi was the most well-known,
especially for its nude life-drawing and its emphasis on the challen-
ging croquis – short, spontaneous sketches of models, who changed
their poses every half hour (m [mendelssohn], h[enriette] 1897).
following the scandal of the so-called ‘fauve’ exhibition at the
150 Shulamith Behr

salon d’Automne of 1905, matisse was encouraged to establish an

art school. Although it lasted for only three years – from 1908 until
1911 – Académie matisse, as it was known, attracted over 120 male
and female pupils, many of whom went on to become important ar-
tists in their own right. the student cohort was international from
the outset, including a number of gifted germans and Americans:
marg moll and her husband, oskar moll; the young hans Purr-
mann; and the Americans sarah stein (wife of michael stein and
sister-in-law of the well-known collectors leo and gertrude stein),
max Weber and henri Patrick Bruce. Apparently alerted by Birger
simonsson (1882-1938), who visited Paris in 1906 at the height of
matisse’s notoriety, the swede carl Palme (1879-1960) was also in-
strumental in the founding of the school. furthermore, during the
period 1909-1910, around half of the pupils (some 40 in total) were
of scandinavian origin (lalander 1989: 63, Aagesen 2008: 6-17).
And whilst outnumbered by men, women were a significant presence
in the mixed classes, thereby increasing their chances of being ac-
knowledged within the modernist milieu and included in dealership
networks.0 however, contemporary expectations of ‘femininity’ –
publicly voiced by means of a predominantly dismissive critical re-
ception – challenged these women artists’ aspirations of indepen-
dence and contributed to the ambivalence of their relationship with
from their inception, critical discourses on modernism were ex-
plicitly gendered, imlicitly acknowleding the paradigmatic superio-
rity of the male artist.2 Although absent from, and unacknowledged
in, its narrative, modernism’s ‘other’ was a volatile presence that em-
braced the implications of modernity together with the conflicting
challenges of pre-emancipation womanhood. how did women artists
negotiate their precarious existence within the structures of early
avant-garde culture? While the term avant-garde implies a commit-
ment to progressive modern cultural identities, its terms have been
inscribed through a primarily male canon of artwork. furthermore,
many accounts, such as Peter Bürger’s chronological and semantic
distinction between aestheticist-orientated avant-gardes and those
which altered the praxis and institutions of art, exclude considera-
tions of gendered identity (Bürger 1984). feminist literary historian
susan suleiman has described the historical status of the female
practitioner as one of ‘double marginality’, viewed by patriarchal so-
Académie Matisse and its Relevance 151

ciety as incompatible with professional commitment and regarded

as peripheral within avant-garde communities (suleiman 1990). the
notion of différance, espoused by the cultural philosopher jacques
derrida as a movement of signification that welds together difference
and deferral, offers an apt description of the ‘presence-absence’ that
typified the relationship of women artists to avant-gardism.3
the tropes of avant-garde practice – the male artist, the studio
and the nude model – have been subject to immense art historical
scrutiny.4 the implied domination or control of the model as the
object of the gaze has been central to understanding the historical
role of the male artist within the hegemonic structures of patriarchy.5
Parallel to scientific and cultural practices that defined women in
terms of nature,6 the autonomous work of art was regarded as hav-
ing its own ‘natural’ and essential laws. While an overt emphasis on
the sexuality of their models may have transgressed social mores, the
vanguard’s alignment of the image of woman with nature and the
‘primitive other’, as in matisse’s Blue Nude: Souvenir de Biskra
(1907),7 suggests that contemporary discourses on gender and colo-
nialism converged in the figure of the nude (Perry 1993: 67-81).
however, were these values transmitted pedagogically in matisse’s
Académie matisse was opened in january 1908 in an abandoned
cloister of the couvent des oiseaux on the Rue de sèvres. following
the sale of these premises in spring, the Académie moved to the old
couvent du sacré cœur on the Boulevard des invalides, where ma-
tisse also secured his private residence. in the bare, high-ceilinged
former refectory, the students’ studio was separated from matisse’s
by a partition. that marg moll was able to follow the progress of a
portrait of herself that she had commissioned matisse to paint sug-
gests that the master’s presence from behind the screen was as influ-
ential and important as his single, weekly, saturday lesson (moll
1956). 1908 marked a watershed in matisse’s career: on the one hand,
he had had an international breakthrough with exhibitions in new
York, moscow and Berlin, whilst on the other, he turned away from
aggressive fauvism, both stylistically and theoretically. comparison
of his portraits Madame Matisse (The Green Line) (1905) and Greta
Moll (1908) are instructive in this regard, the latter foregoing the vi-
brant contrasts and coloured lines of the former in favour of the use
of decorative contour and restricted colouration.8 in both instances
152 Shulamith Behr

Arvid fougstedt, Matisseskolan (the matisse school), 1910. Borås mu-

seum of Art. matisse teaching scandinavian artists in his studio. stand-
ing in front of the easel: henri matisse, sigrid hjertén, isaac grünewald,
tor Bjurström, einar jolin, Per krogh, carl Ryd, gösta sandels and
Birger simonsson.

crude brushstrokes and an apparent spontaneity of technique are

misleading, moll recalling that she had to sit for at least ten three-
hour sessions for the portrait (moll 1956).
Around this time matisse also published his treatise ‘notes d’un
peintre’, the tenets of which helped to position him within the Pari-
sian art world (matisse 1908). for matisse, as it did for many other
vanguard artists, cézanne’s posthumous retrospective at the 1907
salon d’Automne contributed to a pursuit of order and clarity.9 ma-
tisse’s theories of expression, in particular, proclaimed an art of har-
mony and the superiority of aesthetic process over and above

the work of art must carry within itself its complete significance
and impose that upon the beholder even before he recognizes the
Académie Matisse and its Relevance 153

subject matter. When i see the giotto frescoes at Padua i do not

trouble myself to recognize which scene of the life of christ i have
before me, but i immediately understand the feeling that emerges
from it, for it is in the lines, the composition, the colour. the title
will only serve to confirm my impression. (matisse 1908)

matisse’s critique of philosophical positivism was informed by then-

popular ideas of the philosopher henri Bergson, as propounded in
his book L’Évolution créatrice (1907) (Bergson 1907: 33-34, Padberg
2004: 41-42). the role of subjectivity and ‘intuition’ in the creative
process was considered sacrosanct, matisse claiming, “i am unable
to distinguish between the feeling i have about life and my way of
translating it” (matisse 1908).
on a pedagogic level, however, matisse was far less tied to intu-
itive models, founding his Académie on traditional routines charac-
teristic of his own training during the 1890s, which he began at
Académie julian in the studios of William Adolphe Bouguereau and
gabriel ferrier and completed at the école des Beaux-Arts under
the tutelage of gustave moreau. in other words, the program of
study was fairly conservative and traditional, based as it was on
drawing and painting from plaster casts, models, still life arrange-
ments and modelling clay. furthermore, a weekly visit to the louvre
to view the old masters was considered obligatory. jean heiberg
(1884-1976), the first norwegian to enrol in the Académie, recalled
matisse’s academic approach to teaching drawing, thus:

the school had, at matisse’s suggestion, acquired a copy of two an-

tique sculptures from the louvre, mars and an archaic sculpture,
which he often used to demonstrate. every now and then he com-
pletely got rid of the life model and we only drew from plaster casts
[…] he opened our eyes to architectural composition (construction),
to mechanism, function and movement. overall one can say that the
basis of his teaching was classical. (swane 1950)

matisse’s guidance in the use of colour was similar. swedish-born

henrik sørensen (1882-1962), a colleague of heiberg’s and a promi-
nent figure in the norwegian world of art and culture, recollected:
“he was ruthless with anyone whose pictures were ‘matisse-ised.’”
And: “he gave us the sense of colour as a means of creating depth,
154 Shulamith Behr

distance and motion in the picture” (swane 1950). striking a balance

between analytic and synthetic methods, matisse was rigorous in de-
manding that they perceive nature more fully and learn how to con-
struct a picture before developing a personal style. hans Purrmann,
a massier, or student in charge of the studio, conveyed matisse’s
words as follows, “to attempt to achieve a likeness, one must first
submit oneself totally to her [nature’s] influence. then you can reach
back, motivate nature, maybe even make her more beautiful! You
must learn to walk firmly on the ground before you start walking a
tightrope.” (Purrmann 1922).
these memoirs are consistent with those of other students, such
as sarah stein, whose notes provide fascinating contemporary evi-
dence of matisse’s pedagogic system (stein 1995 [1908]: 46-52).
every account conveys his thoroughness in “stripping down each
student’s work to its essentials” (Purrmann 1922). As we will see, this
approach is clearly evident in the case of the swedish artist sigrid
hjertén (1885-1948), a resident of Paris between 1909 and 1911,
whose experiences at Académie matisse were both formative and en-
during. it is somewhat surprising to learn that matisse, according to
carl Palme, praised hjertén’s works highly, even enquiring on one
occasion whether she had previously studied the nude and, if so,
where (Palme 1936). there is little reason to doubt Palme’s word
since, in a famous ink drawing by the chronicler Arvid fougstedt
(1888-1949), based on his and other scandinavian artists’ sojourn at
the Académie matisse in 1910, we find visual confirmation of the
difficulty women artists faced in combining artistic excellence with
femininity. standing in front of hjertén’s painting of a nude model,
matisse is depicted extolling its virtues to the group of astonished
and/or attentive male students (from left to right carl Palme, Rudolf
levy, Arthur carlson Percy, leander engström, isaac grünewald,
einar jolin, Per krohg and Birger simonsson). Whereas hjertén is
drawn from the rear, almost faceless, elegantly attired and clutching
a bag, the other artists are represented in profile or three-quarter
view, some of them holding brushes and palettes. fougstedt, it seems,
found it inappropriate to equip hjertén with the tools of her trade,
perhaps in light of her upper middle-class status and sophisticated
Born in sundsvall, a northern city known for its timber industry,
hjertén moved to stockholm with her father and brother in 1895
Académie Matisse and its Relevance 155

sigrid hjertén,
Stående modell
(standing model),
charcoal, 1920s.
156 Shulamith Behr

(her mother having died when she was only two and a half). due to
her father’s legal background, hjertén grew up in prosperous cir-
cumstances. she studied to become an art teacher at the Advanced
school for Arts and crafts and, after graduating in 1908, began
working with textiles and drawing cartoons for woven tapestries for
the craft company giöbels. Apparently, it was as a result of meeting
her future husband, isaac grünewald, in 1909 that hjertén decided
to become a painter and forego her plans to travel to england to
study tapestry weaving (Borgh Bertorp 1999: 17-18).10 in Paris, hjer-
tén first attended Académie colarossi, accompanying her brother’s
fiancée, the illustrator sigrun steenhoff; hence, it is likely that she
gained some experience in the study of the female nude prior to her
time at Académie matisse (Wahlgren 2007: 38).11
it is interesting to consider hjertén’s approach to the objectifica-
tion of the female body which drew so much attention at Académie
matisse. in her 1910 painting Female Model, she portrays a figure
freed from the conventions of ‘ideal beauty’, proportion and smooth
facture. Paint is applied in a variegated, albeit tonal, manner; thin
washes sketchily establish the architectonic arrangement of the stu-
dio interior, while shorter brushstrokes and impasto are reserved for
the central area of the composition, which is illuminated by a light
source from the upper right. the model’s facial features are indivi-
dualised, but remain subservient to hjertén’s exploration of the sen-
sual curves of the body. in response to matisse’s teachings, she
quickly assimilated the language of modern painting. it would seem
that hjertén’s encounter with the female model in the semi-privacy
of Académie matisse did not engender any conflicts regarding hjer-
tén’s status as a woman painter deploying the sexualised female body
as a point of departure for modern picture-making.
indeed, returning to fougstedt’s drawing, we notice that the mo-
del is posed according to the traditional conventions of the Venus
Anadyomene (venus rising from the sea). in a controlling manner,
this conventional pose, which suggests availability to the male erotic
gaze, is common to both academic and avant-garde painting. hjertén
herself explored the implications of this pose in the ink sketch, Stan-
ding Model, dated to the 1910s, in which a primitivist distortion of
the buttocks is incorporated into the fluidity of the line. here we
may refer to the passage in matisse’s ‘notes of a Painter’, in which
he rehearses the argument that the autonomous work of art is in-
Académie Matisse and its Relevance 157

vested with its own ‘natural’ and essential laws, which he relates to
the female nude:

supposing i want to paint a woman’s body: first of all, i imbue it

with grace and charm, but i know that i must give it something more.
i will condense the meaning of this body by seeking its essential lines.
the charm will be less apparent at first glance, but it must eventually
emerge from the new image i have obtained. (matisse 1908)

in february 1911, whilst still a resident in Paris, hjertén published

an essay in a leading swedish newspaper that revealed her familiarity
with these core aspects of matisse’s aesthetic theory. entitled ‘mo-
dern och österländsk konst’ (modern and oriental Art), the text de-
clared that “the same characteristics that we admire in the chinese
and Persians are to be found in a cézanne or a van gogh. these par-
ticular characteristics […] can be reduced to elementary laws.”
Among these, she listed “the consistent simplification of lines in
order to obtain the greatest possible expressiveness […] the supre-
macy of colour over tone […] the movement of the figure is now
compressed within the curve of one single line” (hjertén 1911 (1)).
just as matisse’s interest in textiles and eastern art informed his vi-
sual imagination,12 so hjertén seized upon the interplay between fi-
gure and ground as found in Persian artefacts:

the play of lines in the arms of the figures, the inclination of the
body, the movement of the neck balance the proportions and surfa-
ces with the lines of the trees or geometrical shapes according to the
principles found also in a Persian hunting rug or miniature painting.
(hjertén 1911 (1))

evidently, her training in the applied arts prepared her for contem-
porary debates on the importance of ‘primitive’ and oriental orna-
mentation to modern painting.
Upon returning to stockholm, where she married grünewald and
gave birth to their son, iván, hjertén continued to demonstrate her
familiarity with major trends in early modernism by publishing the
first biography of cézanne to appear in the swedish press (hjertén
1911 (2)). having previously devoted her attention to the composi-
tional functions of curvilinear line and rhythmic shape, here, hjertén
158 Shulamith Behr

sigrid hjertén, Den röda rullgardinen (the Red Blind), 1916, oil on can-
vas, 116×89 cm. moderna museet, stockholm.
Académie Matisse and its Relevance 159

voices her understanding of the interdependence of drawing and co-

lour, which arise from the use of contrasts (‘conflicts’) and collabo-
ration between tones: “it is not the black and the white that afford
these contrasts; it is the understanding of the use of colour.” com-
parison of hjertén’s and grünewald’s still-life paintings reveals the
influence of cézanne in two distinct ways. the same arrangements
of fruit, figurines and studio objects produce markedly different re-
sults.13 mediated through the lens of matisse, grünewald’s technique
is freer and synthetic in contrast to hjertén’s more tightly structured
compositions. 14 having looked closely at cézanne’s works, she unites
foreground and background in a radical manner via the echoing of
shapes, nuanced coloration and facture.
the only woman artist to exhibit with the group De åtta (the
eight) in 1912, hjertén’s public début placed her in close association
with the core of french-influenced former pupils of matisse.15 their
first exhibition, held at the salong joël, bore the subtitle ‘swedish
expressionists’, a term adapted from matisse’s treatise.16 however,
whilst matisse’s legacy continued to inform their oeuvres, hjertén
and grünewald emerged as part of a broader subculture of expres-
sionism, brought to international prominence following the group
exhibition of ‘swedische expressionisten’ in 1915 at herwarth Wal-
den’s der sturm gallery in Berlin.
concurrent with her self-portraiture, which explored her complex
identity as artist, wife and mother, hjertén’s portrayal of the nude
displayed ambivalence with regard to both traditional and avant-
garde categorisations of femininity. the painting The Red Blind,
1916, illustrates this ambivalence well, its aggressive distortions, dis-
cordant coloration and ornamental surfaces resisting the sensuality
and lyricism of matisse’s post-fauvist painting. the splayed-out fi-
gure and the spokes of artificial light radiating from the lamp invite
comparison with the work of the insane artist ernst josephson,
examples of which hjertén had the opportunity to study closely. 17
the female subject is arranged so as to suggest availability; however,
the startling proportions of the body and the violent angle of the
woman’s head in relation to her neck perform the task of neutralising
any erotic appeal.
it has been observed that matisse’s swedish pupils viewed their
mentor primarily as an interpreter of cézanne. that this should be
the case and that he was able to steer them away from his own per-
160 Shulamith Behr

sonal style is testimony to the success of his teaching (lilja 1955).

for hjertén, matisse’s studio was instrumental in introducing her to
the discourses of the male-dominated inner circles of the avant-
garde. these discourses revolved around an obsessive preoccupation
with representations of the female body at a time when women were
achieving greater political and social visibility. in her mature work,
instead of adopting the masquerade of masculine desire, hjertén de-
stabilised and subverted the discourses of mastery.

for further commentary see Perry (1995): 19.
for a survey of modernism and swedish women artists see Behr (2000): 108-121
for a discussion of the genealogy of this concept see Battersby (1989).
see derrida (1972): 59-79.
the debate was initiated by feminist art historians, as conveyed in the pivotal essay
by carol duncan (1982): 293-313.
despite michel foucault’s own lack of interest in gender relations and issues of
sexual difference (see foucault (1977)), certain feminists have discussed the control
of women, especially in terms of sexuality and the body, in response to his provoca-
tive questioning of power relations. see Ramazanoglu (1993).
these associations are explored in jordanova (1989).
henri matisse, Blue Nude: Souvenir de Biskra, 1907, oil on canvas, 92 x 140 cm.
Baltimore museum of Art, cone collection.
matisse Portrait of Madame Matisse (The Green Line) 1905, oil on canvas, 40.50
x 32.5 cm, statens museum for kunst/national gallery of denmark, copenhagen;
Portrait of Greta Moll 1908, oil on canvas, 93 x 73.5 cm, on loan to tate modern,
‘look instead at one of cézanne’s pictures [….] if there is order and clarity in the
picture, it means from the outset this same order and clarity existed in the mind of
the painter, or that the painter was conscious of their necessity.’ (matisse 1908: 40)
see Borgh Bertorp (1999): 17-18.
see Wahlgren (2007): 38.
matisse came from a family with a weaving background in Bohain, in north-
eastern france. for the impact of this on his works see dumas (2004): 75.
see for instance their works Still Life with Fruit and Figurines, 1912, oil on canvas,
46 x 38, Private collection, in 2002. Sigrid Hjertén and Isaac Grünewald: Modernis-
mens pionjärer. exh. cat. norrköping: norrköpings konstmuseum and elsewhere:
48-49: cat. nos: 3 and 33.
for a consideration of their artistic partnership see Behr (2002): 13-26.
Apart from hjertén and grünewald, the group De åtta included former matisse
Académie Matisse and its Relevance 161

students leander engström, einar jolin and nils von dardel. other members of
the group were tor Bjurström and gösta sandels. Albert hoffsten left the group
and was replaced by August lundberg, whose work was not included in the first
“What i am after, above all, is expression” (‘ce que je poursuis par-dessus tout,
c’est l‘expressionisme’) (matisse 1908: 37). on the adaptation of matisse’s term see
Werenskiold (1984): 101.
grünewald had one watercolour and at least seven drawings by ernst josephson
(1888-1906) in his collection and, in his manifesto, Den nya renässansen inom konsten
(1918): 31-43.
162 Shulamith Behr

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jeAn BöRlin And les BAllets sUédois

frank claustrat

the first Performance – Paris 1920

the first performance presented by jean Börlin (härnösand 1893-
new York 1930) on 24 march 1920 at the comédie des champs
elysées theatre in Paris represented both a challenge to contem-
porary art and a prelude to the adventure of the Ballets suédois, for
which Börlin was the choreographer from 1920 to 1925.
on 24 march 1920 Börlin had just turned 27 and was virtually
unknown. he was able to present this performance because of his
status as a former dancer at the stockholm Royal opera and his per-
sonal commitment to the avant-garde. Börlin’s project aimed to be,
if not offensive like the dada events of the time, at least revolutionary
in terms of anti-choreography and fusion of the arts.
the conditions of his performance (financed by Rolf de maré)
were exceptional. Börlin chose the champs-elysée theatre, 15 Ave-
nue montaigne, located in a fashionable area of the 8th district in
Paris. this modern theatre, built in 1913 by Auguste Perret, had been
described by the press as an ‘architectural revolution’ technically (in
its use of reinforced concrete) and aesthetically (in its sets designed
by Antoine Bourdelle and maurice denis).
Börlin’s performance took place in the theatre’s 750-seat comédie
auditorium, whose stage curtain had been designed by the symbolist
painter ker Xavier Roussel in 1913. the opening night was thursday
25 march; the dress rehearsal had been the day before at 8.30 p.m.
the performance was so successful that four further dates were
added (26, 27, 28 and 29 march).
the social context of the event was also extraordinary. Anyone
166 Frank Claustrat

who was anyone in the artistic and intellectual circles of Paris at the
time was there: in the front rows at the dress rehearsal were jean coc-
teau, Pablo Picasso, georges Braque and André derain. the genre
label chosen for the performance, which lasted a surprising two hours,
was ‘dance concert’, a performance including both music and dance.
Börlin’s seven solos were framed by a musical programme chosen
by the dancer himself and led by désiré-emile inghelbrecht, the con-
ductor of the ignace Pleyel concerts. At times melancholy, at others
fervent, the music prompted inspiration and enthusiasm.
the musical interludes were:

claude debussy’s Marche Ecossaise (scottish march)

Alexandre Borodine’s Esquisse sur les Steppes de l’Asie Centrale (sketch
on the steppes of central Asia)
maurice Ravel’s Pavane pour une Infante Défunte (Pavane for a dead child)
Wilhelm Peterson-Berger’s Réjouissances (festivities) extract from the
opera Ran
florent schmitt’s Feuillets de Voyage (Le Retour à l’endroit familier and
Marche burlesque) (notes from a journey (Returning to a familiar Place
and Burlesque march))
claude debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune (Prelude to the After-
noon of a faun)
désiré-emile inghelbrecht’s Automne (Les Etangs et Agreste) (Autumn
(the Ponds and Rusticity)).

these compositions acted both as ‘prefaces’ to each solo and mo-

ments of transition that allowed Börlin to change costume.
the programme for the artistic soirée was inspired by the visual
arts and based on the idea of a performance in two acts, presenting
seven characters intended to form a ‘frieze of life’. there were four
characters in the first part and three in the second, each referring to
universal feelings, intense moods, and/or existential facts:

an artist in Arlequin (harlequin) artistic creation

an Asian god in Danse Céleste (celestial dance) expression of the
feeling of ecstasy
a sorcerer in Sculpture Nègre (African sculpture) instinct
a pagan in Danse Suédoise (swedish dance) a tribute to pantheistic
Jean Börlin and Les Ballets Suédois 167

jean Börlin in Sculpture nègre, Paris, comédie du théâtre des champs-

elysées, march 1920. Photographer unknown, 1920. dansmuseet, stock-
168 Frank Claustrat

a Bohemian in Danse Tzigane (gypsy dance) freedom

a christian in Devant la Mort (facing death) suffering
a muslim in Derviche (dervish) the drunkenness of faith.

through the emblematic characters of the performance, described

in the press as a pure artistic tableau, Börlin explored some of the
dominant themes in contemporary painting and sculpture. Börlin’s
work thus emerged from a process of displacing classical notions of
disciplinary fields ranging from dance to visual arts.
the set of Börlin’s ‘dance concert’ was unique. sober yet effective,
it was composed of a simple blue-green backdrop animated by se-
veral light beams. Börlin supposedly designed all the costumes. the
dancer’s face was made-up and in some solos gave the illusion of a
mask. the press reported a mimed performance, distorted solos or
even ‘anti-dance’, which tied-in with the dada revolts of the time.
the performance’s repercussions for the future were threefold.
firstly, it informed the subsequent repertoire of the Ballets suédois
(for example, Danse suédoise). secondly, it proposed a new choreo-
graphic language that included a variety of gestures, movements and
positions which were supple and graceful, but also hieratic and very
expressive: lunges, hands on the chest, teetotum pirouettes and
abrupt halts. foregrounded colour (primarily through different cos-
tumes) and sound reinforced the choreography. finally, this first
‘dance concert’ also formed the basis for all of Börlin’s subsequent
work until his death in 1930.
Accompanied by two studies by frédéric chopin, the first solo,
Arlequin, first choreographed in 1919, explored the metaphor of the
artist as creator and took its inspiration from the Commedia dell’arte
– the subversive theatrical genre par excellence which utilises arche-
typal masks, improvisation, and acrobatic techniques. Börlin played
Arlequin as a libertarian libertine, wearing a polychrome and seem-
ingly rubber leotard. As brightly coloured as a fauvist palette, the
costume’s dazzling circular motifs appeared to have been inspired by
Picasso’s saltimbanque (street acrobat) period or, even more so, by
Picabia’s abstract period. Although based on prescribed expression,
Börlin’s choreography incorporated fluid gestures, masterly curves
and original sequences. the footwork was innovative in its slowness
and balance.
After a musical interlude by Alexandre Borodine, Börlin moved
Jean Börlin and Les Ballets Suédois 169

from the profane and whimsical register of the first solo to a sacred
one. in Danse céleste, from the opera Lakmé (1883) by léo delibes,
which Börlin had first danced in 1918 under the title of Danse
Siamoise (siamese dance), the dancer adopted a fixed stance of a
Buddhist god. in a gleaming gold costume, Börlin appeared as a
bronze statue, amber-coloured from head to toe, wearing a spiky
tiara on his head. According to the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle,
Börlin ‘sculpted’ space with his knees, his elbows, and his straight,
elegantly elongated fingers. With legs in demi plié, angular arms,
hands stretched and swaying, Börlin’s positions were supposed to
represent the nobility and elegance of Asian gesture and to capture
in its stillness a sense of spirituality and ecstasy.
African culture and its tribal dance in particular was the focus of
the third solo. Börlin, now portraying a fetish, explored the notion
of vital instinct linked to the contemporary primitivist trend. Sculp-
ture nègre, accompanied by Alexander scriabin’s 1911 Poème noc-
turne (Night Poem), was first performed at the ‘dance concert’.
According to the french press, Börlin referred to an ivory coast sta-
tue that the art critic and collector Paul guillaume had exhibited in
may 1919 at the devambez gallery and which had already appeared
in the catalogue of the first dAdA exhibition at the Zurich corray
gallery in january/february 1917. A german text specifies that carl
einstein – author of a work on African art in 1915 (Negerplastik) –
was the original source of this solo.0
thanks to Wilhelm Worringer’s 1906 study Abstraction and
Empathy (as well as einstein’s more recent work), the idea of an
affinity between modern societies and tribal cultures became
widespread in the Zurich dada scene from 1916 onwards. in this
work, Worringer argues that ancient cultures express a basic mental
attitude, a feeling of unrest that informs man’s relationship to the
outside world. in order to express this relationship, Börlin took on
the various guises of a witch-doctor. his costume transformed him
into a statuette that seemed to have been carved with an axe in hard,
polished wood. he wore a tormented mask. his neck and belt were
spiked with long whalebones serving as feathers. from initially
crouching in a fixed position, the idol attempted to rise slowly and
stiffly, as if under the weight of fate. the effect of his angular and
fierce movements was accentuated by the music, a combination of
savage sounds. in Sculpture nègre, Börlin demonstrated his ability to
170 Frank Claustrat

transform his youthful grace, his supple slenderness, his almost

feminine face, into a heavy and imposing form, which was a priori
anti-choreographic. his aim was to show the power of impulse.
Danse suédoise, the fourth solo, explored european ethnographic
style. set during a village dance and accompanied by popular songs,
the solo was rustic and marked by a certain naivety. Börlin appeared
on stage as a peasant dressed in his regional sunday best, wearing
an open jacket, short trousers and a light cap. Although Börlin’s shoe
beat out the rhythm heavily, his movements were light. in this origi-
nal solo, which displayed the happy and bouncing rhythms of folk
dances, the question of atmosphere was of vital importance: it is an
atmosphere at once physical (a place in the middle of nowhere), cul-
tural (a rural ancestral rite celebrating fertility) and mental (the me-
lancholy engendered by the physiological impact of the endless white
nights of northern summers). Danse suédoise inspired the Ballets su-
édois’ Nuit de Saint-Jean (midsummer’s night, 1920), staged later
the same year, as well as the following year’s Dansgille (Ball, 1921).
the same ballet, renamed Danses populaires suédoises (Popular Swe-
dish Dances), set to music by inghelbrecht, was performed in August
1929 at a grand gala evening in the saint-Palais-sur-mer casino in
the charente-maritime region. Börlin presented the 1929 show
under the name of les nouveaux Ballets suédois, thus indicating
his intention to pursue the Ballets suédois initiated by maré, which
officially ended on 17 march 1925.
the second part of the champs-elysées ‘dance concert’ allowed
Börlin to display his talents in the mime genre. it started with Danse
tzigane, a dance in the popular style created by Börlin in 1920 and
accompanied by an extract from camille saint-saëns’ opera Henri
VIII (1883). in this solo Börlin was a bohemian character represent-
ing the myth of the nomadic gypsy with an artistic temperament.
for this role, Börlin made his face darker and wore a mother-of-pearl
earring. Portraying a gypsy of surprising agility, prone to lascivious
swaying and catlike crawling, Börlin’s movements were quick, often
extremely so, as if to more accurately express the staccato flow of
in Devant la mort, another 1920 creation, Börlin drew inspiration
from franz liszt’s piano composition Légendes (legends, 1863), to
explore the passions of the soul. Börlin presented human beings as
prey to divine fate, and questioned the spiritual principle of immor-
Jean Börlin and Les Ballets Suédois 171

jean Börlin in Derviche, Paris, comédie du théâtre des champs-elysées,

march 1920. Photographer unknown, 1920. dansmuseet, stockholm.
172 Frank Claustrat

tality as separable from the body itself. drawing its visual inspiration
from paintings by el greco (for example, The Burial of Count
Orgaz), Devant la mort was an expressionist danced mime, devoted
to expressing the torments of physical and mental pain. for this
solo, Börlin was almost naked, but for a scarlet loincloth, his body
darkened to give the effect of a thinner figure, his emaciated-looking
face transformed by a wig and false beard. his gestures were tor-
tuous and angular, his poses shaped so as to give an image of twist-
ing, extreme in its rigidity, as if stigmatised. Devant la mort inspired
the Ballets suédois’ El Greco which premiered in november 1920.
the seventh and final solo of Börlin’s ‘dance concert’ dealt with
the theme of spiritual exaltation, exemplified by muslim mysticism
and sufism. for Derviche, created in 1918 and danced to Alexander
glazounov’s 1908 Danse de Salomé (salome’s dance), Börlin was
appropriately dressed as one such ecstatic dancer, wearing a very
long woollen dress, a short Persian jacket, and a red fez on his clean-
shaven head. At the beginning, the dancer, crouching, seemed to
be tied to the ground inside the immense circle of his white skirt.
he then rocked his chest and head from side to side. When Börlin
turned, the circle in which he was trapped gave him, in his frenetically
rotating movements, the lightness of a flower unfolding its petals.
According to laban, who discovered dervish dances in Bosnia in his
youth, the movements of this dance allow access to the infra-rational
layers of consciousness. in his opinion, dervishes “pray not with
words but with corporeal movements and, in particular, continuous
whirling … At first sight, this may seem incomprehensible, repulsive
even, particularly when the wild whirling is pursued until the dancers
foam at the mouth. it all seems completely mad to us, but meaning
is most likely to be found in madness.”1
this analysis of Börlin’s ‘dance concert’ of march 1920 confirms
the avant-garde solo as a key moment in dance history where aes-
thetic forms are radically transformed and the most daring technical
experimentation attempted. Börlin’s seven solos thus constitute an
avant-garde work of art which is in many respects a precursor of
postmodern dance, visual dance and non-dance. for, with Börlin, it
is not only the physical body which is at work, but also the body as
metaphor and in its relationships with others.
Between 1920 and 1925, Börlin’s visionary approach to choreo-
graphy was realised in the Ballets suédois’s twenty-four projects. for
Jean Börlin and Les Ballets Suédois 173

Relâche, Paris, théâtre des champs-elysées, 4 december 1924, setdesign

by francis Picabia. Photographer unknown, 1924. dansmuseet, stock-

each production maré gathered renowned, innovative and talented

artists around Börlin.2 concerned that the company might begin to
repeat itself, maré closed it down on 17 march 1925.

Performances and films after 1925

maré’s decision did not mark the end of jean Börlin’s career. it is a
little-known fact that for the subsequent five years he brought the
spirit of the Ballets suédois to a south American tour and many gala
performances in france. Börlin made his official return to Paris on
saturday 30 november 1929, on the stage of the champs-elysées
174 Frank Claustrat

theatre with his own company of nine dancers. music was provided
by the straram orchestra, led by vladimir golschmann. in addition
to three new pieces – Cercle éternel (Eternal Circle), Sculpture nègre
and Le Roi galant (The Gentleman King) – the programme for this
one-off show combined work from the march 1920 repertoire – Der-
viches, Danses tziganes, Cake-Walk – with that of the Ballets suédois
– Skating-Rink, Dansgille, as well as the film Entr’acte (Interval) from
Le Roi galant, a mime led by three ghostly-looking characters,
was a modernist remake of a historical ballet in period costume.
music by the swedish composer carl michael Bellman, based on
swedish tunes from the 18th century, was adapted, harmonised and
orchestrated by eugène Bigot. A well-known swedish song entitled
Fjäriln vingad syns på Haga .: (Winged butterfly appears at haga), a
tribute to nature, was performed by Arvid hyden. the performance
was concerned less with nostalgia for a glorious past than with
dreams, a theme cherished by the surrealists. Although Börlin had
already underlined the importance of the imagination in some of his
earlier choreography, he seems to have taken it a step further in this
dance, exploring dreams as if they were a second life and attempting
to represent the reconstruction of the imagination.
thoughts which escape the constraints of reality were the subject
of Le Voyage Imaginaire (the imaginary journey), a film in which
Börlin took part. Written and directed by René clair,3 and initially
entitled Le songe d’un jour d’été (A midsummer’s day dream), the
film focussed on the character of jean (Börlin) in the intoxicated grip
of his dreams. it was screened at the champs-elysées theatre on 14
october 1925 in the context of the music-hall-opera organised by
Rolf de maré.
the following number, Cake-Walk, was a solo Börlin first danced
in 1925 to piano music by debussy (1908). Again, this dance is a free
interpretation inspired by Afro-American dances characterised by
parallel legs in plié almost touching the ground, the weight of the
body transferred from one foot to the other, glissé steps, loss of ba-
lance and, in terms of music, syncopation, indicating a gap between
sound and movement. Börlin appeared in dinner suit and opera hat,
battling with many streamers. following on from the drunkenness
of his dreams, Börlin explored the moods and behaviour of a drun-
ken reveller, the taboo subject of alcohol and the influence of drugs
Jean Börlin and Les Ballets Suédois 175

in general, as well as their impact on body and mind. the in-between

world experienced during states of euphoria allowed Börlin to create
a new gestural vocabulary.
Le Cercle éternel (the eternal circle) is a ballet in two scenes in-
spired by Alexandre tansman’s 1923 Danse de la Sorcière (Witches’
dance) and 1926 Ouverture Symphonique (symphonic overture).
the critic André levinson praised the “fantastical and stravinsky-
like scherzo […] which finds its merit in the intensity of movement
and the violent clashes between tones”. Börlin, dressed in black and
silver and wearing a very strange crown, portrayed a large black devil
from a costume party of which the cosmopolitan artistic community
of Paris knew the secret (klüver and martin (1989): 130-131, 177, 200).
the abstract sets and brightly-coloured costumes were designed by
the painter gladky, considered to be the new léon Bakst (the
Russian painter, scene and costume designer at diaghilev’s Ballets
Russes). like the previous ballet, Le Cercle éternel is part of Börlin’s
everyday world, a world close to that of the ecole de Paris (school
of Paris), a testing ground for ideas and forms, and, more generally,
to what cultural historians call ‘les Années folles’ (the Roaring twen-
ties).4 through the iconography of the fancy dress ball and the figure
of the circle, Börlin’s performance presents a utopian group celebra-
tion, a metaphor of an ideal society.
After the performance Entr’acte (interval) was shown. the 20-
minute film, the burlesque brainchild of francis Picabia and directed
by René clair for the 1924 ballet Relâche, was set to music by erik
satie. the star of this Ballets suédois ‘cine-choreographic’ perfor-
mance is of course Börlin. the scenario – a carnivalesque funeral
procession following a camel-led hearse – is a pretext for a succession
of preposterous images on the theme of death. the film ends with
the resurrection of a magician (Börlin) who emerges from his coffin
with a smile on his lips and makes all the participants vanish with a
wave of his magic wand. the screening of Entr’acte in the context
of Börlin’s new performance was different from that of Relâche. the
cinematographic prologue (lasting one minute and four seconds),
showing Picabia and satie firing a cannon in the direction of the au-
dience, was not included. moreover, Entr’acte was screened between
two solos rather than between two acts. the film thus becomes a
more explicit extension of the dancers’ moving bodies, as well as a
starting point for reflection on the effects produced by slow motion,
176 Frank Claustrat

fast motion, deframing, close-ups and other ways of distorting the

image. the inclusion of Entr’acte in his gala evening reminds us that
Börlin’s idea was that cinema could not only be combined with a
choreographic performance but fully integregrated within it, since
these expressive forms share the ability to make reality fantastic and
fantasy real.
in the second part of the performance Sculpture nègre was a new
version of the dance first performed by Börlin in march 1920.
Accompanied by francis Poulenc’s Rhapsodie nègre (African
Rhapsody), which was dedicated to erik satie, Börlin, disguised as
a god, delved into the most extreme form of the imagination:
occultism. Paul colin designed both the set (black and ochre, in
shades from orange-brown to yellow) as well as the inordinately large
masks. the dancers appeared on stage as one, their gestures slow,
their steps monotonous and forward-facing. the confusion of forms
and colours evoked an atmosphere of magic and incantation. the
instrumentation was almost exclusively limited to piano and
percussion. According to the critic Raoul Brunel, “the exotic style
[of the music] reminds the audience sometimes of the japanese scale,
sometimes of the turkish scale, already popularised by saint-saëns
in that excerpt from the ballet Samson [Brunel is referring to saint-
saëns’ 1877 opera Samson and Dalilah]. the piano, the xylophone,
the drums, linked by a few notes from the quartet, make up most of
the orchestra” (Brunel 1929). André levinson remembered the
“singing gobbledygook of the piano” and the “amusing vibrato of
the strings” (levinson 1929).
described in the press as “an unparalleled performance”, the gala
of 30 november 1929 confirmed the style that would establish
Börlin’s fame: a vitalist expressionism, situated between lyricism and
humanism. he thus pursued his idea of a frieze of life imagined in
march 1920. the three new ballets demonstrated his inexhaustible
creativity and openness to new themes, such as the carnival, in
memory of his 1926 south American tour, or that of the Afro-
American music-hall, embodied by josephine Baker, the star of the
Revue nègre (African Revue) in 1925 who had been invited to the
champs-elysées theatre by maré. the second direction taken was
that of pure rhythm, open to all artistic forms, including the cinema
and the variety hall. the critic Arthur dandelot recognised Börlin’s
skills in composition (dandelot 1929).
Jean Börlin and Les Ballets Suédois 177

Before leaving for new York on 8 january 1930, Börlin presented

a final dance recital at the champs-elysées theatre on 24 december
1929. eugène Bigot was chosen to conduct the straram concert
orchestra. the programme was innovative in that cinema played an
important role. As had been the case in november, four
performances – Danses tziganes, Cake-Walk, Skating-Rink and
Sculpture nègre – were reserved for Börlin in the first part. the
innovation can be seen in the use of two filmic interludes or prefaces
to Skating-Rink and Sculpture nègre.
the first film, entitled Cinq minutes de cinéma pur (Five Minutes
of Pure Cinema), was made in 1925 by henri chomette (1896-1941),
René clair’s brother. Alongside Jeux de reflets et de la vitesse (Play
of Reflections and Speed), made in 1923, Cinq minutes de cinéma pur
serves as an excellent early example of non-narrative film, although
the director worked with figurative images. this extremely visual film
– a series of studies of movement and light filmed from various
angles and through prisms – disrupts spatial laws. shining balls, glass
beads and crystal tubes evoke, in turn, the canopy of heaven, the Big
Bang or polarised vegetation. there is no scenario, no actors, no set.
instead, the emphasis is on moving substance: a juxtaposition of
rotating mysterious and metaphorical objects, of landscapes
activated by cinematographic processes, including fast motion,
double exposure and switches from positive to negative.
Börlin’s choice of film confirms the theoretical and experimental
direction of his choreographic production: the study of movement
in the widest possible sense. from Börlin’s point of view, chomette’s
cinema supported his wish to show contemporary dance for what it
should be. the radical nature of their shared enterprise disregarded
definitions of identity and introduced an infinite alterity, a concept
taken from dada and subsequently surrealism and which would have
been unfamiliar to the general public. the intended effect of these
choreographic and cinematographic visions was to liberate the au-
dience from immediate meaning as well as traditional representation.
for both Börlin and chomette the exploration of physical sensation
and visual emotion was only possible through new approaches to
movement, what they termed pure cinema and free dance.
the second filmic interlude, a documentary entitled Danses et
masques nègres (African dances and masks), just as unusual in many
respects, reflected Börlin’s interest in social and cultural anthropo-
178 Frank Claustrat

logy. the name of the director is not indicated in the programme.

According to maurice imbert, it showed “various episodes of cele-
bration in African countries” (imbert 1929). André gresse linked
the film directly to Sculpture nègre, describing the latter as “a
remarkable adaptation of the indigenous (African) dances that had
just been shown on screen” (gresse 1029).
this documentary may well have been shown a few days earlier
at a study day organised by the Association l’effort intellectual et
Artistique (Association of intellectual and Artistic effort) on 21
december 1929 at the salle d’iéna. Börlin had taken part in this
study day with a performance of Sculpture nègre (music by Poulenc,
set and masks by Paul colin). A seminar entitled ‘Ancient lands…
new minds?’ set out “to study – through film, dance and lectures –
the intellectual evolution of minds in countries … [such as] Africa
since the war” (Anonymous 1929). A film, called La nature et la vie
(nature and life) and edited by the european cinematographic
Alliance, was screened and introduced as a scientific documentary
on the origins of the world. the newspaper, Le Quotidien, stated on
20 december 1929 (the day before Börlin’s event): “this film goes
back to the creation of the earth, to the appearance of the first being
and shows the different links which bring together the great human
races” (Anonymous (2) (1929).
the second part of Börlin’s performance continued in the same
vein, oscillating between cinema and choreography, and closely
resembling the november 1929 gala performance. the film Entr’acte
was shown again and three solos (Le Cercle éternel, Derviche,
Dansgille) were performed. in his paper dated 30 december 1929,
the critic jacques janin, alarmed by the importance afforded to
cinema by Börlin, concluded that “[it] had as much to do with dance
as this review has to do with astronomy” (janin 1929).

Between 1920 and 1930 Börlin’s work contributed to the process of
questioning and innovation taking place within the avant-garde. in
terms of form, the exploration of stillness provided the basis of his
gestural material. his dances may be seen as sketchbooks of
movements and rhythms in dialogue with gravity, which ultimately
resulted in a new choreographic language. Börlin intuitively set space
Jean Börlin and Les Ballets Suédois 179

in motion. he invented an aesthetics of instinct and suggestion

(perhaps even an organic pulsation of body and soul) characterised
by a multitude of fixed positions and actions, by many different
static expressions. in short, an anti-ballet in which the dance
experience is transformed into an aleatory ritualised act. Above all,
Börlin distils the essence of the 1920s, a decade of freedom and
utopian revenge, inseparable from a lust for life and provocative
With regard to Börlin’s method, dance appears as an essential
element in a larger context, thus acquiring a hybrid dimension. it is
no longer about individual work, but collective effort. the constantly
evolving human figure is part of a space/time open to all arts. dance
becomes a refuge for modern identity. in his dances, Börlin defined
a surprisingly modern creative process opposed to compartment-
alisation and hierarchy. he deliberately sabotaged traditional ballet
in order to explore the permanent transmutation of the world and
its representational modes. through the characters he portrayed,
Börlin was able to give a different meaning to both reality and
fiction, thanks to a new visual language in which his body was one
mediating tool among others. Reflected in both his choreographic
vocabulary and the transient image of his body (an extension of
sculpture and painting) are literature, music, variety shows, music-
hall, popular, tribal and folk dances, carnival, circus and film.
finally, in terms of content, Börlin’s style of dance, in its capacity
to exercise the mind, can be compared to the definition of a work
of contemporary art. Both poetic and subversive, Börlin’s intention
goes beyond conventional ideas of beauty. the image of the body
that it conveys is not idealised, but free, everyday and socially aware.
dance therefore acquires the status of resistance, of counter-culture,
of emancipation; it becomes a metaphysics of desire and of freedom.
Börlin was able to go beyond constraints like aesthetic canons and
academic dogmas, technical virtuosity, grand narratives, bourgeois
order, sexual taboos, etc. Börlin argued for a body and mind freed
from conventions, for improvisation and for the merging of artistic
As i hope to have indicated in this text, and have shown extensi-
vely elsewhere (claustrat 2008), the Ballet suédois’s avant-garde cha-
racter is to be attributed to Börlin – a figure who has suffered for too
long from unfair comparison with nijinsky and the Ballets Russes
180 Frank Claustrat

(Russian Ballet). Börlin was neither a mediocre dancer nor a pawn

used by an aristocracy nostalgic for the 18th century. on the contrary,
he was a committed creator, representative of everyday democracy,
an experimental artist, a symbol of singularity projected into the fu-

see the art magazine Der Querschnitt, verlag der galerie flechtheim, düsseldorf, 1922,
p. 66, image titled: ‘Negerskulptur’, tanz von Jean Börlin nach einer idée von Karl Einstein.
laban, cited in dickermann (2005-2006): 1008-1009.
for example: on 25 october 1920, Pierre Bonnard and jeanne lanvin worked on Jeux
(games), steinlen on Iberia, hugo Alfvén and nils dardel on Nuit de Saint-Jean ‘mid-
summer’s night), Alexandre glazounoff and georges mouveau on Derviches; on 8 no-
vember 1920, maurice Ravel and Pierre laprade worked on Le Tombeau de Couperin
(couperin’s tomb), viking dahl and nils dardel on Maison des Fous (madhouse); on 18
november 1920, el greco and georges mouveau on El Greco, kurt Atterberg and einar
nerman on Les Vierges Folles (the mad virgins); on 15 february 1921, claude debussy
and André hellé worked on La Boîte à joujoux (the toybox); on 6 june 1921, Paul claudel
and darius milhaud worked on L’Homme et son désir (man and his desire); on 18 june
1921, jean cocteau and jean hugo worked on Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel (the eiffel
tower Bride and groom); on 20 november 1921, eugène Bigot worked on Dansgille (Ball);
on 20 january 1922, canudo and fernand léger worked on Skating-Rink; on 25 may
1923, hélène Perdriat and germaine tailleferre worked on Marchand d’oiseaux (Birdsel-
ler), Algot haquinius and gunnar hallström on Offerlunden (the sacrificial Wood) ; on
25 october 1923, Blaise cendrars and fernand léger worked on La Création du Monde
(the creation of the World), gerald murphy and cole Porter on Within the Quota; on 19
november 1924, daniel lazarus and Alexandre Alexeïeff worked on Le Roseau (the
Reed), Andersen on Le Porcher (the swineherd), louise labé and foujita on Le Tournoi
singulier (The Odd Tournament), Pirandello and giorgio de chirico on La Jarre (the jar);
on 4 december 1924, Picabia, René clair and erik satie worked on Relâche (no Perfor-
Pseudonym for René chomette, 1898-1981.
see L’Ecole de Paris 1904-1929, la part de l’autre, musée d’Art moderne de la ville de
Paris, 30 novembre 2000-11 mars 2001, p. 373 (Ballets suédois), and collomb (1986): 29
Jean Börlin and Les Ballets Suédois 181

WoRks cited
Anonymous. 1929. L’Echo de Paris, 19 december 1929, dansmuseet, stockholm.
––. 1929. Le Quotidien, 20 december 1929, dansmuseet, stockholm.
Brunel, Raoul. 1929. L’Oeuvre, 2 december 1929 (from a press clip, no page).
claustrat, frank. 1994. Les artistes suédois à Paris 1908-1935: tradition, modernité
et création, 4 vols, Phd thesis, University of Paris i Panthéon-sorbonne.
––. 2008. “jean Börlin hors limites : le temps des solos”, josiane mas (ed.), Arts en
mouvement. Les Ballets Suédois de Rolf de Maré. Paris 1920-1925, Presses
universitaires de la méditerranée, montpellier, p. 259-275.
––. 2009. “les arts plastiques dans les Ballets russes et dans les Ballets suédois”,
mathias Auclair and Pierre vidal, Les Ballets russes, editions gourcuff-
collomb, michel. 1986. Les années folles, Paris : Belfond.
dandelot, Arthur. 1929. Paris-Soir, 29 november 1929 (from a press clip, no page).
dickermann, leah. 2005-2006. in DADA, centre Pompidou, Paris.
gresse, André. 1929: Le Journal, 28 december 1929.
imbert, maurice. 1929. Journal des Débats, 31 december 1929.
janin, jacques. “la danse. m. jean Börlin”, in l’Ami du Peuple, Paris, 30.12.1929.
klüver, Billy and martin, julie. 1989. Kiki’s Paris. Artists and lovers 1900-1930, new York:
harry n. Abrams, inc., Publishers.
L’Ecole de Paris 1904-1929, la part de l’autre, musée d’Art moderne de la ville de
Paris, 30 novembre 2000-11 mars 2001
levinson, André. 1929. “la rentrée de Börlin”, Candide, 5 december 1929 (from a
press clip, no page).
näslund, erik. 2008. Rolf de Maré. Konstsamlare, balletledare, museiskapare, Bok-
förlaget langenskiöld.
“fRom the noRth comes the light to Us!” –
scAndinAviAn ARtists in fRiedRichshAgen
At the tURn of the centURY

gertrude cepl-kaufmann and Anne m. n. sokoll

Bohemian culture in friedrichshagen.

A Place of “spiritual upsurge and uprising”
european art and society at the turn of the previous century were
marked by numerous paradigm shifts, as a young modernist van-
guard asserted itself politically as well as artistically. Although the
protest against the status quo and the desire to stage a fundamental
renewal of art and society was widespread, the movement was
marked by profound diachronic and synchronic heterogeneity. What
culminates in the historical avant-garde in the 1910s and 1920s has
its origins in the late nineteenth century. the notion of artistic bo-
hemia provided one of the cradles of the historical avant-garde, in-
spiring vibrant communities to take root on the fringes of europe’s
metropolises. one such bohemian centre was friedrichshagen, a
lakeside village on the south-east outskirts of Berlin, soon to be-
come one of its suburbs. erich mühsam, writer, bohemian and an-
archist, described it as a site of “spiritual upsurge and uprising”
(“aufgerührte und aufrührerische geistigkeit”) (1977: 42). here, as
was common with other bohemian communities, political and cul-
tural heterogeneity was the order of the day.
Around 1890 friedrichshagen was still situated in the countryside
of the mark Brandenburg, but was connected to Berlin through a
newly opened railway line. over subsequent years, a secession oc-
curred within the Berlin literary scene, as several writers decided to
leave the city and settle in friedrichshagen close to the residence of
184 Gertrude Cepl-Kaufmann and Anne M. N. Sokoll

the naturalist playwright gerhart hauptmann in neighbouring

erkner; hauptmann had recently made his mark with dramas like
Vor Sonnenaufgang (Before sunrise) and Die Weber (the Weavers).
this move to a more rural environment on the doorstep of Berlin
was typical of the way in which representatives of the Lebensreform
(reform) movements of the period tried to escape the experience of
alienation in urbanised and industrialised modernity by founding
communities outside, yet still in the proximity of, the metropolitan
areas they shunned. the foundation of this poets’ colony on the
shores of the müggelsee exemplifies the desire to find “natural soli-
tude near the roaring metropolis” – to use the author Bruno Wille’s
characterisation of the situation in friedrichshagen. Wille, Wilhelm
Bölsche and the brothers heinrich and julius hart were the initial
core members of the friedrichshagen colony. Bölsche became known
through his engagement with the popular social-democratic theatre
movement (Volksbühnenbewegung), and also edited the leading
Berlin cultural journal Freien Bühne für den Entwickelungskampf der
Zeit (independent theatres for the improvement of the Age) from
the rural colony. Wille took part in the free church movement, while
the harts played leading roles as critics in the emergent progressive
intellectual culture. A commitment to proletarian education and cul-
ture acted as a unifying concern for the members of the “muses’
court at müggelsee” (“musenhof am müggelsee”) – to use franz
mehring’s ironic 1894 description. the village of silk spinners and
broom-squires that slowly transformed into a lakeside resort for
those who were tired of metropolitan life, replete with villas and an
open-air bath, provided the poets with an idyllic provincial environ-
ment, from which most of them originated, yet allowed a direct in-
tellectual involvement in contemporary politics.
soon the friedrichshagen colony expanded – in several directions
– and became a prism of intellectual exchange in the fin-de-siècle. in
november 1891, a number of scandinavian poets arrived, led by the
swedish couple ola hansson and laura marholm. A second wave
of scandinavians came in 1892, led by August strindberg, who was
to play a remarkable role in the colony. in 1893, at a party honouring
the presence of the scandinavians, the popular author hermann su-
dermann aptly articulated the paradigm shift that had occurred,
when he declared that, “from the north comes the light to us”
(“vom norden her kommt uns das licht”) (Paul 1914: 82). indeed,
“From the North comes the light to us!” 185

it does seem that the scandinavians gave a new direction to the self-
understanding, work, thought and life of the community, contribut-
ing ideas which differed from both the socialist tendency typical of
the original friedrichshagen poets and from the ideas of the ger-
man-jewish anarchist gustav landauer, who settled in friedrichsha-
gen in 1892. that said, the original members continued by and large
to advocate naturalism – in contrast to the scandinavian poets and
the trends dominating the concerns of bohemian communities linked
to other european cultural centres. After the revocation of the Anti-
socialist laws of 1878, which had prohibited socialist political ac-
tivity in germany in the previous decade, the german friedrichs-
hagen poets positioned themselves in the 1890s as a politically en-
gaged literary avant-garde in pursuit of revolutionary change of a
social-democratic provenance. only after the statist turn of the so-
cial-democratic Party did the poets develop a course independent
from the mother party. initially regarded by friedrich engels from
his london exile as “the young” carrying out a “revolt of men of
letters and students” in 1890, they turned increasingly towards liber-
tarian socialism and anarchism. the arrival of the first scandinavian
intellectuals in friedrichshagen was more or less concurrent with
these events.
the attitudes of the nordic circle that took up residence on the
shore of the müggelsee differed profoundly from those of the origi-
nal friedrichshagen circle. instead of turning to nature and radical
politics, these nordic artists and intellectuals drew on the alienation
found in modern society – particularly in terms of gender and sexual
relations – to create a decadent, individualist culte du moi (cepl-
kaufmann / kauffeldt 1994: 276). despite these differences, the
scandinavians were welcomed wholeheartedly in friedrichshagen
and soon became part of the inner circle. Beyond the general popu-
larity of scandinavia among Berlin intellectuals in the 1890s, the
friedrichshagen poets considered the newcomers to be part of a
broad international vanguard of cultural outsiders who represented
a heterogeneous modern literature that addressed contemporary so-
cial problems, and thus as companions on the road to revolution de-
spite obvious divergences in background and thought (cepl-
kaufmann / kauffeldt 1998: 117 and 1994: 258). While a strong com-
munal spirit and feeling of solidarity appears to have existed
throughout the friedrichshagen bohemian community, the scandi-
186 Gertrude Cepl-Kaufmann and Anne M. N. Sokoll

navians still constituted a distinct circle of their own – a separate

nordic colony in friedrichshagen.

german and scandinavian Bohemia

The Couple Ola Hansson and Laura Marholm

– a Scandinavian ‘Outpost’ in Friedrichshagen
As noted, the first scandinavian extension of the friedrichshagen
poets’ circle took place in november 1891 with the arrival of hans-
son, marholm and their young son. following highly negative criti-
cism and outspoken rejection in puritan sweden of work considered
disgraceful and degenerate, hansson felt himself compelled to leave
sweden. he hoped that germany, Berlin, and more specifically,
friedrichshagen, would offer a positive environment to make a fresh
start, providing new literary opportunities and a new readership.
germany, Berlin and the friedrichshagen bohemians were already
familiar with hansson and marholm following their visit to haupt-
mann in erkner the previous year (gloßmann 2003: 25-26).
When the hanssons arrived in friedrichshagen on 1 november
1891, they were very warmly received by the local poets. With hans-
son taken as a spokesman of a new artistic direction, the new ar-
rivals’ small house on the lindenallee soon became a centre of
intellectual activity (cepl-kaufmann / kauffeldt 1994: 260) where
the writers max dauthendey, Richard dehmel, his wife Paula and
their circle, among them detlev von liliencron, johannes schlaf,
Arno holz and Paul scheerbart, and the critics and essayists franz
servaes, julius meyer-graefe and Arthur moeller van den Bruck,
were regular guests. the painter Walter leistikow, who married a
cousin of marholm, provided hansson with contact to the renowned
max liebermann. the circle was further extended by the arrival of
edvard munch in september 1892. munch’s expressive images were
a sensation on the art scene of Berlin and even caused a scandal
when an exhibition of his work was closed due to the public’s inabil-
ity to cope with his radical modernist imagery. musicians and com-
posers also belonged to the hansson circle, Richard strauß being
perhaps the most famous. the circle offered an ideal platform for the
elaboration of the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, uniting all artis-
tic disciplines in an organic configuration – marholm setting the
“From the North comes the light to us!” 187

scene with a hospitable atmosphere and hansson taking a leading

role in the discussions.
in his Berlin memoirs, hansson mentions that the Polish author
stanisław Przybyszewski was a regular guest. Przybyszewski’s work
centres on themes of occultism, decadence and conflict between the
sexes. he admired hansson: “i trembled from fright when i had to
appear before a man who had meant so much to me for a long time
[...] it is difficult for me to describe what ola hansson was for me
then.” (Przybyszewski 1965: 100) Abroad, the scandinavian artists,
hansson in particular, possessed undeniable ‘radiation intensity’. in
his memoirs, Przybyszewski recalls the influence hansson’s new ways
of thinking had on the german modernist vanguard, pointing
specifically to his crucial role in the dissemination of friedrich
nietzsche’s philosophy within the Berlin cultural scene. (1965: 83)
this popularisation of nietzsche, whose writings became familiar
to hansson after a meeting with the danish literary critic georg
Brandes in 1888, signalled a complete shift in the paradigms of
german modernism. nietzsche’s nihilism legitimised hansson’s
book Sensitiva amorosa, which was rejected as immoral in sweden
(hume 1979: 27). As introduced by hansson, nietzsche’s philosophy
also gave the local german modernists and avant-gardists arguments
to unfold their individualism in clear-cut opposition to bourgeois
“philistine” society. his conception of liberation in general and from
christianity in particular coincided with the increasing value placed
on the individual, and more specifically the individual artist.
nietzsche’s magnum opus Also sprach Zarathustra (1883-91) an-
nounced the coming of a new (super)man, the Übermensch (nietzsche
1994: 10), who, as a divine artist, would show humanity its true path.
on the basis of this nietzschean concept, many friedrichshagen
intellectuals developed an aristocratic perception of themselves which
served variously as a binding agent and a line of division among the
heterogeneous circles. Whereas the nordic colony tended towards a
spiritual-intellectual Geistesaristokratismus (spiritual Aristocracy),
the original friedrichshagen circle opted for a socio-political
Sozialaristokratismus (social Aristocracy). in 1893, in an article en-
titled “socialaristokratie”, Wille explained post-naturalist intellectual
consciousness as a quest for a higher form of individuality which in-
cluded social responsibility and the ambition to educate humanity as
a whole. Wille was inspired by the protagonist of ibsen’s drama An
188 Gertrude Cepl-Kaufmann and Anne M. N. Sokoll

Enemy of the People, dr. thomas stockmann, who stands out from
his community in his pursuit of a higher, better humanity – which he
tries to exemplify. Wille distinguished his and his associates’ project
from stockmann’s by underlining the importance of cooperating
with the working class in the attempt to improve humanity. the ori-
ginal friedrichshagen poets saw the role of the poet as prophet and
precursor of a new mankind legitimised through nietzsche’s writing.
hansson did the same, but developed a new and different notion of
the artist-subject. According to his interpretation of nietzsche, the
artist not only replaces the creative Übermensch, but also represents
a new, both different and higher stage of knowledge. in his Artisten-
metaphysik, (metaphysics of the artist), literature is science and sci-
ence is art. (cepl-kaufmann/kauffeldt 1994: 264). As Przybyszewski
(1965: 103) notes, hansson developed a creative-intuitive means to
pursue a combination of scientific and philosophical thought.
the numerous international visitors to the hansson home inten-
sified the intellectual exchange in the friedrichshagen artist colony.
hansson finally experienced a sense of recognition, not least because
of his ardent admirer Przybyszewski, whom he regarded as the
first man in germany who understood him “unconditionally”
(Przybyszewski 1965: 109).
the contact between the original friedrichshagen circle and the
nordic colony manifested itself through reciprocal visits, parties,
country outings and picnics in the surrounding juniper heathland
and helped affirm the idyllic profile of bohemian life in fried-
richshagen. ‘scandinavian milk’ (a toddy with a high percentage of
rum) also played a part in keeping spirits high. excessive alcohol
consumption gave the bohemians a local reputation as anti-bour-
geois outsiders. Provocation became part of their public personae.
When Wille refused to abstain from teaching the free-religious con-
gregation, he was locked up in the local Gefängnis zum preußischen
Adler (Prison of the Prussian eagle) (Wille 1914), but received psy-
chological support from the whole bohemian community of the so-
called Müggelseerepublik. the artistic apex of the collective activities
of the bohemian circles was their involvement in founding the festi-
vities for the Freie Volksbühne (independent People’s stage) in 1890,
attended by 20,000 visitors. on this occasion, the bohemians sailed
on the müggelsee in a ‘Barge of freedom’ wearing mythological out-
“From the North comes the light to us!” 189

eventually, however, dissenting and incompatible world views and

interests divided the bohemian community. Whereas the original
friedrichshagen poets maintained their social engagement despite
playing the roles of anti-bourgeois outsiders, the scandinavians were
rather more fascinated by the mysteries of their own inner life. in
1896, in an article entitled “jung Berlin” (Young Berlin), servaes de-
scribed ola hansson’s subtle approach to the world thus: “he read
the internal part of things and even read behind things” (servaes
1896: 155). the subtlety of this subjective approach did not suit most
writers and artists of the colony, who preferred more conventional
mimetic styles and focused on social issues. A divergent style is ob-
vious, since the psychological sensibility of the scandinavian writers
was at odds with the crude, traditional naturalism of the original
friedrichshagen poets (cepl-kaufmann / kauffeldt 1994: 262). the
social engagement and the political radicalism of the socialist and
anarchist friedrichshagen poets was “completely alien” to hansson,
according to Przybyszewski (1965: 112). Analogously, his literature
was an insurmountable challenge for the german friedrichshagen
poets, as it seemed too exclusive, subjective and peculiar to them
(cepl-kaufmann / kauffeldt 1994: 262). the friction caused by these
two strikingly different patterns of thought was one of the reasons
why the hansson family left friedrichshagen for Bavaria after a year
and a half.

Strindberg and the Bohemian Circle of Zum Schwarzen Ferkel

as a Metropolitan Counterpart of Friedrichshagen
A shift and intensification occurred in the nordic colony when Au-
gust strindberg contacted the friedrichshagen bohemians in sep-
tember 1892. like hansson, strindberg was in a difficult situation
in sweden. in addition to financial problems and a recent prosecu-
tion for blasphemy in his book Giftas (getting married) (1884),
strindberg continued to write in a naturalist style, although it had
become fashionable in modern swedish literature to turn away from
naturalism (Borland 1979: 64). his much-discussed divorce from siri
von essen prompted strindberg to ask hansson to help him leave
sweden. the two writers first met in denmark in 1888 and became
close friends through a vivid exchange concerning their own literary
work and contemporary philosophy and literature (e.g. nietzsche
190 Gertrude Cepl-Kaufmann and Anne M. N. Sokoll

and edgar Allan Poe) (hume 1979: 28). Prior to strindberg’s appeal
for help, hansson had offered to introduce him in germany. follow-
ing strindberg’s letter, hansson and Adolf Paul published an article
in the first issue of maximilian harden’s journal Die Zukunft (the
future) which drew attention to strindberg’s awkward situation and
asked that funds be raised for strindberg’s move to Berlin. in sep-
tember 1892, with enough donations collected, strindberg arrived in
friedrichshagen (gloßmann 2003: 30). hansson expected a great
deal from strindberg’s presence in Berlin, since, for him, strindberg
was the first representative of a new literature marked by a higher
degree of subjectivity and individuality and a more aristocratic and
international character (Baumgartner 1979: 219). his enthusiasm for
his fellow countryman is apparent in many publications. he wrote,
for example, “this poet is like an old nordic saga, something like a
magnificent fairytale. his outward appearance is already marked by
the stamp of the nobility of genius; there is not one fingertip of com-
monplaceness or ordinariness in him.” (cit. in cepl-kaufmann /
kauffeldt 1994: 290) the hanssons not only introduced strindberg
to the friedrichshagen bohemians, they supported him financially
and were, in many ways, responsible for his success in germany.
marholm, for example, provided the invaluable service of translating
his essays and dramas without payment (hume 1979: 42). they also
housed strindberg, giving him a freestanding section of their lin-
denallee home. strindberg seems to have been extremely happy in
friedrichshagen, even avoiding activities that could have led him
away from the müggelsee. A possible reason for this might have been
the commitment to literary naturalism which strindberg shared with
many of the german bohemians who held his work in high esteem.
initially, strindberg and the hansson couple were very close.
soon, however, strindberg distanced himself from the hanssons, fol-
lowing a heated debate over gender issues and fled friedrichshagen
to stay with Paul in Berlin. many of the lindenallee regulars fol-
lowed strindberg. As a consequence of this, the hansson’s house
ceased to function as a major meeting point for the nordic colony.
however, kinship and continuity remained. Although strindberg’s
stay in friedrichshagen was brief, he nevertheless became a central
figure in its bohemian scene. Where previously the identity of
“friedrichshagen” had centred on topos and topography, it now be-
came fixated on a strong personality – strindberg. his presence en-
“From the North comes the light to us!” 191

couraged both unity and polarisation; often, it seems, simul-

taneously. Paul (1914: 9), for example, wrote of strindberg in his
memoirs: “he was my friend; he was my foe.” the strindberg circle
was, in many respects, a continuation of the friedrichshagen circle,
including the thread of dissent that ran through its heterogeneous
like hansson, strindberg promoted nietzsche. he was, however,
no mere reader of nietzsche, but corresponded with the philosopher,
via Brandes, between late 1888 and early 1889. like hansson, strind-
berg drew a conclusion from nietzsche’s writing that differed from
that of the other friedrichshagen poets. nietzsche’s rejection of
christianity and bourgeois values was of major importance to
strindberg, just as it was for german modernism in general. how-
ever, his reading went a step further and drew on the notion of the
Herdentier or “gregarious animal”, used by nietzsche in Jenseits von
Gut und Böse (Beyond Good and Evil) to reject the work of his con-
temporaries. With a typical fin-de-siècle literary decadence, strind-
berg related this concept to a nietzschean cultivation of the ego in
his short story “tschandala” (1889) and in the novel I havsbandet
(By the open sea) (1890). here, strindberg was close to hansson,
but distant from the other friedrichshagen authors, who did not ap-
preciate subtle introspection (Borland 1979: 58).
in his new intellectual environment, strindberg extended his in-
terest in scientific research, carrying out laboratory experiments with
his friend schleich. the laboratory sessions were used “to mix
colours, to carry out chemical experiments, use the microscope, to
make photographs and music, to paint and to study counterpoint
etc. etc.” (schleich 1925: 242). driving strindberg’s enthusiasm for
experimentation was the quest for the meaning of life, and schleich’s
knowledge of biology, mechanics, physics and chemistry certainly
aided that search. in his autobiography schleich (1925: 245) de-
scribed strindberg almost lovingly as “odd and opaque”, since he
not only doubted that the earth was spherical, but also looked for
the earth’s reflection in the full moon. schleich simultaneously at-
tributed to strindberg a profound scientific knowledge – in botany
and chemistry, for example – and compared his intellect and pursuit
of new insights with those of goethe (schleich 1925: 255).
A major difference between the friedrichshagen poets, including
the nordic colony, and the new bohemian, Berlin-based circle that
192 Gertrude Cepl-Kaufmann and Anne M. N. Sokoll

formed around strindberg, was their lifestyle. While the former

group(s) sought to unite idyllic natural scenery and the bourgeois
literary salon, the latter revelled in the bars and clubs of Berlin,
especially a wine bar which strindberg renamed Zum schwarzen
ferkel (the Black Piglet) due to the stuffed wineskins used as signs.
through this exotic name, the new meeting point also acquired a
rather idyllic character. the strindberg circle gathered for highly ab-
stract debates on philosophy, science, modern painting, theatre,
music and occultism (Ahlström 1979: 50) that would often lead back
to questions relating to the psyche and the relation between the sexes
(as noted, central topics to the hansson circle). these were also ec-
static meetings marked by the “demon alcohol” (Bab 1994: 65) typ-
ical of fin-de-siècle bohemians. competition for the affections of the
muses of the circle (including dagny juel) created regular conflict
among the male members, especially between strindberg, munch,
dehmel und Przybyszewski (cepl-kaufmann/kauffeldt 1994: 300).
these affairs also attracted the attention of outsiders. thus, the wine
bar at Unterdenlinden came to replace friedrichshagen as a meeting
point of the Berlin intelligentsia. in many portraits, munch immor-
talised the members of the schwarze-ferkel circle.
the new participants who joined the strindberg circle also intro-
duced new ideas. Plans were also made for a strindberg theatre in
Berlin where his plays, such as Das Band (the Bond, 1892) could be
staged. the theatre planned by the schwarze ferkel circle was in-
tended to function as an experimental stage, much like the freie
Bühne, in which the friedrichshagen poets were involved. As a
protest against conventional bourgeois theatre, both the choice of
plays and their staging had to be innovative (Bayerdörfer/
horch/schulz 1983: 17). liberty had to become the new norm: “may
we have a free stage, where one has every liberty – with the exception
of lack of talent, being a hypocrite or a fool!” (strindberg 1966a: 56)
With strindberg, a completely new form of scandinavian drama
was staged, differing wildly from the previous scandinavian theatre.
the theatre critic Paul schlenther, for example, criticised strindberg’s
chaotic drama against the background of the clearly structured
works of ibsen (1890: 967-968). such comparisons hindered a proper
reception of strindberg’s work until 1900. his protagonists seem to
be caught in dramatic situations that allow no possibility for escape
or opportunity for them to prove themselves. this staged hopeless-
“From the North comes the light to us!” 193

ness does not necessarily lead to tragic conclusions, but rather – and
far worse – to infinite perpetuation. the ‘resolution’ or ‘non-resolu-
tion’ typical of a strindberg play was intended to shock its audience
into developing a new sensibility. however, perceptions of staged
drama were slow to change, judging by the contemporary criticism
of dramas like Fröken Julie (miss julie, 1888), Brott och brott (Rus)
(crime and crime, 1899) and Dödsdansen (the dance of death,
1900) (Astroh 2003: 182). strindberg’s staging neglected the outer
appearance of the drama, but tried, instead, to focus attention on
“the conflicts in the soul and the analysis of the inner condition”
(strindberg 1966b: 162). After 1902 the “strindberg style” was
plainly used in max Reinhardt’s productions at the freie Bühne and
became increasingly accepted (Bayerdöfer/horch/schulz 1983: 40).
from 30 march to 10 April 1894, strindberg returned for a short
final visit to friedrichshagen. By this time he had become disap-
pointed by germany, since the overwhelming success he had hoped
for had failed to materialise. in 1894, he wrote to his third wife, frida
Uhl (whom he had met in Berlin and accompanied back to her native
Austria): “What happened in germany since it ended for me? Are
they grumbling or keeping silent about me?” (müssener 1979: 119)
strindberg then moved to france, staying in Paris for two years, be-
fore finally returning to sweden in 1896.

Sexuality and Gender in the Discourse of Scandinavian

Bohemia in Berlin
like european modernism and the avant-garde as a whole,
friedrichshagen, its nordic colony and its schwarze ferkel legacy
are characterised by programmatic heterogeneity. over time, how-
ever, a common ground emerged: the celebration of sexuality. the
fascination with sexuality and its psychic dimensions was already a
main issue in the nordic colony in friedrichshagen, as hansson’s
Sensitiva amorosa and Neue Herzensprobleme (new Problems of the
heart), published in german in 1892, make clear. munch’s woodcut
In the Man’s Brain, which shows a female nude behind the forehead
of a man, who can be easily identified as Przybyszewski, is indicative
of the focus on sexuality and the relation between the sexes. sexuality
was seen as a driving force behind literary and artistic creativity
(hume 1979: 38).
194 Gertrude Cepl-Kaufmann and Anne M. N. Sokoll

in hansson’s work, women as a psychological and literary topic

became increasingly important. they represent mysterious nature
(cepl-kaufmann/kauffeldt 1994: 262). in this respect, hansson’s
view on nature conflicts with that of the hart brothers, who regarded
nature solely as a purifying agency, offering an alternative to urban
agonies. hansson relates the experience of alienation to the existen-
tial crisis typical of fin-de-siècle decadence and nietzschean nihilism.
the unconscious, the intuitive and the psychic play an important
role. thus, Sensitiva amorosa presents an impressive image of the ir-
reconcilable and mysterious pains of existence (cepl-
kaufmann/kauffeldt 1994: 263). hansson’s protagonists are
depicted as sensual and incapable of managing life, love and lust.
for max dauthendey, hansson’s stories present “outlines of human
destinies as dumb creatures passing by” (1913: 144). coincidence and
sexual drives determine the lives of the heroes. love and women are
demonised or devaluated. the mysteriously radiant female who se-
duces men is a topic in this chauvinistic representation of women.
the norwegian schwarze ferkel muse, dagny juel, was seen as liv-
ing example of this type of woman (cepl-kaufmann/kauffeldt 1998:
117). her pet name ducha (Polish for spirit or ghost) was a subtle
poetical declaration. she arrived in Berlin with munch, and in
friedrichshagen she had consecutive short relationships with
munch, strindberg, Bengt lindforss and Przybyszewski. in Berlin,
many male nordic and central-european modernists found juel’s
combination of femme fragile and femme fatale attractive – as many
autobiographies testify – especially once they had witnessed her ap-
parently uncanny and irresistible dancing style.
marholm, hansson’s wife, had a different status within the gender
discourse of the scandinavian modernists. she was the living exam-
ple of the revaluation of femininity in hansson’s work. marholm
was already an active literary figure prior to her acquaintance with
hansson (they met at Brandes’ home in 1888). she had published
articles and reviews in several european journals and presented her-
self in her writing as a feminist (hume 1979: 28). marholm also lived
an emancipated life; neither her sturdy, energetic and often loud
character, nor her relationship with hansson were typical of the pe-
riod. marholm was not a restrained lady to be found in the bourgeois
salons of Berlin. the differences between hansson and marholm
were striking, as Bruno Wille recalled: “the couple showed in an ob-
“From the North comes the light to us!” 195

vious way, how extremes can attract and unite. Anyway, his girlish
appearance was complemented by [her] male solidity, his soft voice
and taciturnity by [her] forceful talkativeness” (Wille 1914: 186; com-
pare also Paul 1914: 21). According to Przybyszewski, marholm set
the tone of the relationship (1965: 112). Unlike the wives and part-
ners of the original friedrichshagen poets who did not participate
in the intellectual life of their husbands, marholm expressed her own
“intellectual capacities” freely, participating in discussions and de-
bates about female sexuality and psychology. Adolf Paul (1914: 21)
noted that marholm was held in high esteem in the bohemian circles
due to her intellectual involvement: “she was regarded as ugly, but
nobody could assert that with certainty, since her conversation was
always amusing and sparkled with intellect. so one forgot about such
superficialities in her appearance!” in her essay “die frauen in der
skandinavischen dichtung. strindbergs lauratypus” (Women in
scandinavian literature. strindberg’s laura type) (1890), she de-
scribes how scandinavian women – inspired by ibsen’s drama Nora
(1879) – “came to realize their importance” (marholm 1890: 364).
greater self-reflection, academic education, intellectual and physical
exercise, as well as liberation from sexual and marital conventions,
were regarded by marholm as essential elements of female emanci-
pation, but these had yet to reach the german “gretchen”. she also
suggested that claims made by members of the women’s movement
that women were better and nobler than men went too far. on the
basis of this observation, marholm tried to explain strindberg’s anti-
emancipatory stance: “the first thing that struck him was the new
ambition of women to be something by themselves, since women can
only be something through men according to their natural disposi-
tion.” (marholm 1890: 366) marholm did not object to strindberg’s
radical position. on the contrary, she also believed – despite her
emancipated perspective – that women could only form themselves
through men (marholm 1890: 368). nevertheless, as noted above, a
deep conflict emerged between strindberg, hansson and marholm
over sexuality and gender shortly after strindberg’s arrival in no-
vember 1892. At the centre of the conflict was strindberg’s complex
relationship to women – he could “neither live with or without
women”. After three marriages and several affairs, strindberg
adopted nietzsche’s critique of femininity and his assessment of the
relation between the sexes, according to which women were regarded
196 Gertrude Cepl-Kaufmann and Anne M. N. Sokoll

as lower beings than men. strindberg reduced women to their sexu-

ality and their erotic function, while men represented the pursuit of
ethics, art and politics. strindberg considered his theory absolute and
accepted “no contradiction: whoever dared to oppose him was, in
his eyes, a ridiculous gynolater (gyne = woman, latrein = idolise)”
(Przybyszewski 1965: 185). for strindberg, women were seductresses
that men could not resist. indeed, he believed himself to be a victim
of women and firmly rejected any pursuit of their emancipation.
since marholm represented such emancipation in every respect, he
was highly suspicious of her. he came to believe that marholm was
looking for revenge against him and even sought the subjugation of
the entire male sex, since she disliked the fact that he – like nietzsche
and the “whip” he promoted – regarded women as inferior beings
(Paul 1914: 46-7). strindberg felt persecuted by marholm and re-
garded her care as an evil attempt to subordinate him. consequently,
strindberg gave marholm the nickname “miss Bluebeard” – a man-
eating female to be avoided at any cost (cepl-kaufmann/kauffeldt
1994: 292).
conflicting views of women can be seen to mark an internal dif-
ference within the nordic colony that did not involve the original
friedrichshagener poets. the fact that the latter grouping did not
participate in the debate was probably due to the degree to which the
scandinavians’ views were incomprehensible to them. over the
course of the ‘strindberg affair’, the additional accusation was raised
that the hansson couple had made strindberg appear vulnerable by
appealing publicly for financial help in the journal Die Zukunft.

Scandinavia in Friedrichshagen.
A short, but epoch-making chapter in European cultural history
friedrichshagen played an important role in the prehistory of the
european avant-garde. the bohemian encounter between the Berlin
naturalists and the scandinavians who moved in constituted the basis
for a fundamental cultural change. drawing on nietzsche, hansson
initiated a shift towards a literature that reflected a new, modern
sense of alienation, rejecting old patterns of social and political en-
gagement common among the Berlin naturalists. this shift was in-
tensified by the arrival of munch and strindberg and was noticeable
in both the field of the visual arts and the theatre and paved the way
“From the North comes the light to us!” 197

for subsequent avant-garde movements. in a central european con-

text, expressionism, for example, is unthinkable without the new
paths mapped by hansson, munch, strindberg and Przybyszewski.
the debate about sexuality and gender, which constituted a com-
mon ground and arena of conflict for the bohemian circles, remained
unresolved – not only in the encounter between the first generation
of german poets in friedrichshagen and the emancipated scandi-
navians, such as marholm, but also in strindberg’s theatrical work
and his polemics against marholm and others. here, once more, the
discussions opened up by the encounter between nordic, german
and other central european artists and writers in friedrichshagen
and Zum schwarzen ferkel would be continued by the expressionist
avant-garde that emerged in the following years with munch, strind-
berg and Przybyszwski as notable precursors.

Translated by Paweł Zajas

198 Gertrude Cepl-Kaufmann and Anne M. N. Sokoll

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deutschen literaturgeschichte 18). stuttgart and Weimar: verlag j.B. metz-
ler: 112-126.
dauthendey, max. 1913. Gedankengut aus meinen Wanderjahren. münchen: Albert
langen verlag.
gloßmann, erik. 2003. “die Apollobrüder am musenhof. ein versuch über künst-
ler und Überlebenskünstler” in Baumgartner, Walter and fechner-smarsly
(eds.) August Strindberg. Der Dichter und die Medien. Wilhelm fink verlag:
hume, david. 1979. The German Literary Achievements of Ola Hansson 1888-1893.
(german language and literature 221). frankfurt am main/las vegas:
Peter lang.
marholm, laura. 1890. “die frauen in der skandinavischen dichtung. strindberg’s
lauratypus” in Freie Bühne (1): 364-368.
“From the North comes the light to us!” 199

mühsam, erich. 1977. Namen und Menschen. Unpolitische Erinnerungen. Berlin:

verlag klaus guhl.
müssener, helmut. 1979. “deutschland und österreich in strindbergs Werken und
Briefen” in Wilhelm friese (ed.) Strindberg und die deutschsprachigen Länder.
Basel / stuttgart: halbing & lichtenhahn verlag Ag: 117-139.
nietzsche, friedrich. 1994. Also sprach Zarathustra. Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen.
stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun.
Paul, Adolf. 1914. Strindberg Erinnerungen und Briefe. münchen: Albert langen
Przybyszewski, stanisław. 1965. Erinnerungen an das literarische Berlin. münchen:
Winkler verlag.
schleich, carl ludwig. 1925. Besonnte Vergangenheit. Lebenserinnerungen (1859-
1919). Berlin: ernst Rowohlt verlag.
schlenther, Paul. 1890. “theater [der vater]” in Freie Bühne (1): 967-968.
servaes, franz. 1896. “jung-Berlin iii.” in Die Zeit (114): 154-157.
strindberg, August. 1966. “Über modernes drama und theater (1889)” in mari-
anne kesting / verner Arpe August Strindberg Über Drama und Theater.
köln: kiepenheuer und Witsch: 38-57.
––. 1966a. “Über die vorteile der draperie-Bühne” in marianne kesting / verner
Arpe August Strindberg Über Drama und Theater. köln: kiepenheuer und
Witsch: 161-162.
––. 1966b. “Wege zu vereinfachter dekoration (1908 / 09)” in marianne kesting /
verner Arpe August Strindberg Über Drama und Theater. köln: kiepenheuer
und Witsch: 164-171.
Wille, Bruno. 1914. Das Gefängnis zum preußischen Adler. Eine selbsterlebte Schild-
bürgerei. Mit einem Bild des Gefängnisses. jena: eugen diederichs.
BeRlin And the sWedish AvAnt-gARde –
gAn, nell WAlden, viking eggeling,
AXel olson And Bengt östeRBlom

jan torsten Ahlstrand

in the 1910s Berlin was the fastest-growing major city in europe.

from the unification of germany in 1871 until 1910 the population
of Berlin grew from 827,000 to 2,076,000. it was no wonder the
capital of the german Reich acquired the reputation of being “the
biggest tenement city in the world”. Berlin also became the most
important railway node in europe, with no less than 22 railway
stations. Before 1914, around 100 daily newspapers and a wealth of
periodicals were published in Berlin. the world of theatre,
entertainment and the cafés flourished, and film was making rapid
strides. during the Wilhelmine era Berlin was a great city with
growing pains, typified by huge, growing political differences. not
even the great War of 1914-1918 was able to stall its expansion –
production was kept going by the war. during the 1920s Berlin,
alongside Paris, became a european centre of the continued
development of modernism in various arts. But while Paris, with
interruptions caused by the world war, attracted a never-ending flow
of swedish artists during these years, only five swedish modernist
artists of major significance went to Berlin in the years 1910-1925.

gösta Adrian-nilsson, gAn (1884-1965) was the only swedish

modernist artist of importance who studied in Berlin before the
World War of 1914-1918. he was born in lund in 1884 and grew up
in a new workers’ neighbourhood where his parents had a market
stall. in 1907 he made his debut both as a poet and an artist. the
202 Jan Torsten Ahlstrand

dual debut was in the spirit of Romantic, decadent turn-of-the-

century symbolism with the jugend/Art nouveau style as its artistic
idiom. having written three books and following two exhibitions, a
career as a journalist and studies at Zahrtmann’s independent school
in copenhagen, he travelled to Berlin, the continental city that was
within closest reach of the lund academics. gAn’s mentor in lund,
the radical botanist and publicist Bengt lidforss, was a prominent
habitué of the german capital. lidforss was able to tell him about
the Zum schwarzen ferkel circle of the 1890s in Berlin that he had
frequented along with August strindberg and edvard munch among
others. gAn’s friends in lund also included the art historian gregor
Paulsson and the medical student knut ljunggren, both related to
the parson’s daughter nelly Roslund from landskrona, who in
november 1912 married herwarth Walden in Berlin and became
known as nell Walden. in 1910 herwarth Walden had founded the
artistically radical journal Der Sturm, and two years later he opened
a gallery with the same name. der sturm quickly became one of
europe’s leading avant-garde galleries, with exhibitions by the group
Der blaue Reiter, kokoschka, chagall, italian futurism and french
At the beginning of 1913 gAn arrived in Berlin by train. on 13
february the swedish legation in Berlin issued a certificate of his
swedish citizenship in which he is described as Schriftsteller (author).
through his friends in lund gAn had a dual introduction to
herwarth Walden, who received him at the beginning of spring at
his regular haunt, café josty on Potsdamer Platz. the Walden
couple had been travelling during march-April 1913, and in may-
june they moved to der sturm’s new premises at Potsdamer strasse
134 A. the first exhibitor in the new gallery was gino severini, who
had already been on the italian futurist group’s scandalous tour
during the spring of 1912 to a number of cities, including Paris and
Berlin, where they exhibited at Der Sturm.
his encounter with city life in Berlin and the avant-garde art at
Der Sturm was a turning-point in gAn’s life. in the sturm-Archiv
in the Berlin city library there is a large collection of letters and
postcards from gAn to herwarth Walden from the years 1913-1922.
in his first letter, dated 10th october 1913 and written in swedish
(all the subsequent letters are in german), gAn thanks Walden in
humble terms for the Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon, which was shown
Berlin and the Swedish Avant-garde 203

during the autumn of 1913 in temporarily rented premises at

Potsdamer strasse 75: “never before in my life [...] have i experienced
the sense of being in contact with the pulse of life itself. the hours
which i spent up there gave me my courage back. And let it be to
your unassailable credit that you have opened the doors to this
radiantly fresh world of beauty, which in its midst conceals the very
pulse of life”.0
Prior to the outbreak of the first World War, Erster Deutscher
Herbstsalon (the first german Autumn salon) was the most
important expression of modernism. According to the exhibition
catalogue, 85 artists from 12 different countries contributed with a
total of 366 works. gAn was able, at that exhibition, simultane-
ously to study the Blaue Reiter group’s intensely coloured expressio-
nism, italian futurism’s emotive tributes to the city and modern
technology, french cubism’s formative paintings, and orphism with
its rainbow colours. the exhibitors included artists like Archipenko,
Arp, Balla, Boccioni, carrà, chagall, Robert and sonia delaunay,
max ernst, feininger, gleizes, jawlensky, kan-dinsky, klee, ko-
koschka, léger, macke, franz marc, metzinger, mondrian, münter,
Picabia, Russolo, severini and Werefkin. concurrently, an “anti-
exhibition” was held at the art dealer Paul cassirer’s gallery on the
kurfürstendamm with several of the names that were missing in the
Herbstsalon, including munch, Picasso and the Die Brücke group.
the autumn of 1913 in Berlin therefore offered a unique opportu-
nity for an overview of new modernist painting in europe.
herwarth Walden bridged the gap between the italian futurists’
cult of the city and technology and the unworldly spirituality of
kandinsky and franz marc by paralleling the concepts of
“expressionism”, “futurism” and “cubism”, while at the same time
making “expressionism” the inclusive concept. this seems something
of a logical contradiction, but for Walden expressionism was far
more than a style; it was a new spiritual and intellectual movement
with ramifications for visual art, literature, theatre and music.
According to Walden, expressionism was “eine Kunstwende” – a
turning-point in art. in the preface to the Erster Deutscher
Herbstsalon he wrote: “Art means to present, not to represent [...]
the painter paints what he sees with his innermost mind’s eye [...]
every impression from the outside for him becomes an expression
from the inside” (Walden 1913: 6).
204 Jan Torsten Ahlstrand

Walden’s idealistic view of art and his polemical skills appealed

to gAn, who was himself fond of writing polemical articles. the
aggressive tone was also much in evidence in the futurist manifesto,
which gAn had read in the catalogue of the futurist exhibition at
der sturm in 1912. When he came home to lund after his time in
germany in 1913-1914, he published two articles under the heading
“on new art” in the socialist newspaper Arbetet (labour). “our age
is the era of speed, motion, flaming action”, gAn wrote in a
typically futurist tone. in both articles he perceived the emergence
of a new type of artist who differed radically from the romantic
bohemian artist:

they wore no slouch hats or billowing coats and their mouths were
not constantly full of colour adjectives [...] this was the new type, a
product of the modern age with his heart rooted in it. for him the
beauty of decadence, the richness of sentiment, do not exist. he
loves power and light – the rapid motion of life around him. he
loves the flight of the aeroplane when it rises above the ground and
slices through the sunbeams – he loves the singing automobile that
flashes forth over the shiny asphalt, and the flying, invisible words
of the wireless telegraph pole. he loves the beauty of the mighty
bridges, bridges of steel and human genius, the threateningly
elevated giant cranes that bear loads heavy as mountains, the electric
floodlights that suddenly turn night into dazzling day (Adrian-
nielsson 1914).

the two articles in Arbetet were gAn’s modernist manifesto. the

formerly elegiac symbolist had turned into a technology-worshipping
futurist. it may seem like a giant step from the futurist rhetoric in
gAn’s articles to kandinsky’s spiritual artistic philosophy. But in
fact it was kandinsky’s ideas that were to be most important to
gAn. in the articles he referred several times to kandinsky and his
“spiritual, artistic book” Über das Geistige in der Kunst (on the
spiritual in Art). gAn built a bridge between the futurists and
kandinsky by describing the symbols of industrial and urban
civilisation as products of “human spiritual greatness”. the
innovations of art and technology were both spiritually based,
according to gAn.
one of the largest paintings at the Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon
Berlin and the Swedish Avant-garde 205

was kandinsky’s “deluge vision” Composition 6, which made a strong

impression on gAn, although in his painting he did not adopt
kandinsky’s free, abstract forms. franz marc’s large painting
Tierschicksale (Animal fates) also made a strong impression. in the
painting Indians on the Warpath (1916), depicting indians on
horseback, gAn created a synthesis of visual impressions from the
futurists and marc and his own fascination with his re-reading of
fenimore cooper’s indian books. the july issue of Der Sturm in
1916 published an emotive defence by gAn of franz marc, who
had fallen at verdun the same year. gAn’s article addressed a very
negative critique of marc in an occasional swedish publication called
Nya konstgalleriet (the new Art gallery). the review had been
written by a certain felix Bryk and was about an exhibition marc
had shown in stockholm the preceding autumn. gAn wrote:

the boldness of mr. Bryk is such that he demands that we swedes

should unhesitatingly accept his false gold as the genuine article. We
hear the jingle – we see the glitter. You, franz marc, this jingling
cannot reach. You live among the stars. Which guide us. You gave
the animals human – nay, divine – life upon earth. You gave them
your voice, radiant with inwardness, wild with power. Their cry
reaches the stars. (gösta Adrian-nielsson 1916).

during his stay in stockholm in the winter of 1915-1916 kandinsky

exhibited at gummeson’s gallery, where his friend franz marc had
exhibited a few months earlier. for the exhibition gAn wrote an
article that was printed as a separate appendix to the catalogue. one
of the things he said was:

in principle – in kandinsky’s words – there is no question of form.

the form that is true, that is artistic, springs from an inner
compulsion, an inner striving to make the bridge between feeling and
expression as short as possible. it may then be called expressionism,
cubism, futurism, Passéism – or whatever name you like [...] A
beautiful picture is the one that in itself, in the greatest perfection,
unites the two elements – the internal abstract, the external material.
Where these two elements fully harmonize – there is beauty. (Adrian-
nielsson 1916)
206 Jan Torsten Ahlstrand
Berlin and the Swedish Avant-garde 207

gAn, who never met kandinsky in person, received a letter of

thanks from the admired master with a small etching. “A living,
radiant flower of beauty! suddenly life flows over me. i am no longer
alone,” gAn noted with delight in his diary of 11 march 1916.1
At first the impressions from the Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon
can be traced in gAn’s drawings of athletes and sailors in a futurist-
cubist style and in the expressionist painting The Electrician,
probably painted during gAn’s christmas visit to lund in 1913.
the indigent gAn had his hands full supporting himself during his
time in Berlin in 1913-1914, and the documented works from this
important period are few in number. however, his time in germany
was to end happily when he was employed as an artistic manager
(“künstlerische erklärer”) for the architect Bruno taut’s Glashaus
(glass house) at the Deutscher Werkbund’s exhibition in cologne in
the summer of 1914. in the lower apartment of the glass house there
was a giant motorised kaleidoscope with the brand name
‘liesegang’, which projected images on a frosted-glass disc. gAn
became fascinated with these facet-broken images in unceasing
motion, a film-like synthesis of futurism and cubism.
the great exhibition in cologne was closed down abruptly as a
result of the outbreak of war and the mobilisation of germany at
the beginning of August 1914. gAn did not return to Berlin as
planned, but returned home via hamburg.
safely back in lund, gAn rented a room on idrottsgatan, right
next to the sports grounds from which the street takes its name, and
where he was able to study athletic young men engaging in sporting
activities. his studies produced results in the form of futurist

gösta Adrian-nilsson (gAn), Katarinahissen II (the katarina lift ii),

oil on canvas, 1915, 82.5×51 cm. Private collection. Photo: stockholms
Auktionsverk. Katarinahissen II is one of gAn’s first modernist sailor
paintings. the katarina lift at slussen in stockholm was a popular sym-
bol of modernity in the 1910s, and gAn painted two versions of it even
before he moved from lund to stockholm in 1916, where he did a third
version. Above the black iron of the katarina lift, is a group of sailors in
a futuristic pattern of movement and another symbol of modernity: a
yellow zeppelin against the dark blue night sky.
208 Jan Torsten Ahlstrand

paintings of high-jumpers, footballers and shot-putters. in April-

may 1915, at the invitation of Walden, he participated in the
exhibi-tion Schwedische Expressionisten (swedish expressionists) at
Der Sturm. the other four exhibitors, isaac grünewald, sigrid
hjertén, edward hald and einar jolin, were all from stockholm and
had been pupils of matisse in Paris. the couple grünewald and
hjertén had the largest number of works, twelve items each, while
the other three exhibitors had to be content with half that number.
gAn exhibited four paintings and two drawings. one of these
paintings tellingly had the title Kaleidoscope, while another was
called Train. the critic m(ax) o(sborn) ended his review in Vossische
Zeitung with the following acerbic comment regarding gAn: “With
gösta Adrian-nilsson it is once more the cubist system with its
doctrinaire tiresomeness that keeps an undoubtedly powerful
painterly talent in chains. in this way nothing but a new
‘Academicism’ appears instead of what one longs for: an art of
individual expression” (o(sborn) m(ax) 1915). the reviewer’s nega-
tive attitude to cubism prevented him from seeing that gAn’s
futurist and expressionist cubism was distinctively his own, and that
gAn’s painting differed greatly from the matisse-inspired style of
the other, french-trained, participants.
Presumably it was Walden’s terminology, in which the concept of
“expressionism” is equated with both “futurism” and “cubism” and
at the same time is an inclusive term for both, that enabled gAn in
the autumn of 1915 to present his new modernist painting in lund
under the heading “expressionist exhibition”. his fellow exhibitor
was the former matisse pupil einar jolin. in many of the titles,
gAn’s 49-piece exhibition already demonstrated his new futurist
orientation: Footballers in Motion, Shot-Putter, Javelin Thrower,
Railway Crossing, The Blue Engine, Express Train, Electric Car,
Telephone Box, etc. the katarina lift in stockholm, with its iron
construction, was at that time a symbol of modernity, and gAn
completed two paintings entitled The Katarina Lift. the sailors who
were to become his most popular motifs over the next few years had
also made their entry into his paintings with titles like The White and
the Blue Sailor and Sailors in Motion. in paintings like The Katarina
Lift and Torpedo Boat, Sailors.Harbour his interest in the sailors is
combined with symbols of modernity.2
the idea for gAn’s express train pictures came from a black-and-
Berlin and the Swedish Avant-garde 209

white postcard of the futurist luigi Russolo’s painting Train at Full

Speed of a train rushing through a landscape, casting off cascades
of light. gAn had not seen the painting itself, but the little postcard
inspired him to create some expressionist and futurist paintings of
trains rushing through the night, paintings that differ significantly
from Russolo’s Train. the florentine futurist Ardengo soffici’s
Painterly Synthesis of the City of Prato, which gAn had seen at the
Herbstsalon in Berlin, gave gAn the actual idea for the well-known
painting Synthesis of a City (1915), which can be seen as a futurist-
cubist ‘portrait’ of lund with the cathedral at the centre and other
recognisable fragments of his home city.3
despite the ongoing war, 1917 was an important year for gAn
in his continued contacts with der sturm. on 4 july of that year,
herwarth Walden visited him in his studio apartment in stockholm
(where gAn had moved the preceding year), just when gAn was
represented for the first time at der sturm’s Gesamtschau in Berlin.
the August issue of Der Sturm that year contained a reproduction
of a drawing by gAn, with a cubistically fragmented city motif with
a gasometer; in the same issue he had the pleasure of seeing his name
among the artists Der Sturm represented in germany. his success was
crowned in december 1917 when he contributed eleven items to an
exhibition at Der Sturm, alongside Paul klee and gabriele münter.
A reviewer in Berliner Börsen-courier wrote aptly about gAn:

fewer works have been exhibited by gösta Adrian-nilsson. his

colours are lively, and he sees the world so to speak in rotation. in
front of his water-colours, most of which have something to do with
sailors, my thoughts turn easily to helms, limbs, streamers, harbour
equipment; everything in some way becomes a spoke in the wheel of
his conception of the picture.4

it was to be 1922 before gAn saw Berlin again. in june 1920 he had
moved to Paris and got to know fernand léger, the french cubist
he most appreciated. But herwarth Walden had not forgotten his
friend from lund. gAn was invited to hold a solo exhibition at der
sturm in july-August 1922, and as a result he passed through Berlin
in june 1922 on his way from Paris to lund. in Berlin he stayed for
a few days to prepare his exhibition and attend a meeting at der
sturm, where he saw an exhibition of kurt schwitters’ collages that
210 Jan Torsten Ahlstrand
Berlin and the Swedish Avant-garde 211

filled him with enthusiasm (gAn had by then himself made a series
of dadaist collages in Paris, inspired by max ernst). during his
short stay in Berlin, gAn might have met viking eggeling, who was
also a native of lund. But gAn did not know his four-year-older
fellow countryman, who had already moved abroad in 1897, and
neither, at that time, did gAn know of eggeling’s sophisticated
visual experiments with scroll drawings and film. for his part,
eggeling does not seem to have had any close contacts with
herwarth Walden and der sturm, the circle in Berlin in which gAn
had moved, and it is uncertain whether he knew of gAn. When
gAn visited Berlin for the last time, in november 1930, eggeling
had been dead for more than five years, and the glory days of der
sturm had long since passed. herwarth Walden himself was in
moscow, to where he emigrated in 1932, the same year that der
sturm definitively ceased to exist.5

nell Walden (1887-1975) began studying painting during the first

World War at the der sturm art school. inspired by kandinsky, she
made stained-glass works and a number of non-figurative paintings
in a quite amateurish style. herwarth Walden naturally wished to
promote his wife, who meant a great deal for the survival of der
sturm during the war years, and in 1917 nell Walden made her debut
at der sturm in an exhibition with Arnold topp. she appeared for
several successive years at exhibitions in the gallery. it has sometimes

gösta Adrian-nilsson (gAn), Der Sturm, collage, watercolour, ink on

paper, 1922, 27×18.5 cm. Private collection. Photo: kent Belenius.
inspired by an exhibition by max ernst in may 1921, gAn worked in-
tensively on his collages in Paris. they are more dadaist than cubist and
anticipate surrealism. As part of his solo exhibition at der sturm in
Berlin in August 1922, gAn made the collage Der Sturm, in which he
combines machine shapes with organic forms, including a sailor. the
words Blod (blood) and sjÄl (soul) are repeated rhythmically, the
words viljA (will) and tRo (faith) are at the bottom and top, and sig-
nificantly the words hjÄRtAt (the heart), hoPP (hope), kÄRlek
(love) appear next to the sailor.
212 Jan Torsten Ahlstrand

been said that both hilma af klint and nell Walden, separately and
with no knowledge of each other, made non-figurative paintings
before gAn, who was the first swedish artist to paint entirely
abstract pictures. (At the same time viking eggeling was making
entirely abstract drawings in Zürich and Berlin – see below). But both
hilma af klint’s and nell Walden’s non-figurative paintings were
unknown in sweden at this time, and played no role at all in swedish
modernism, while in 1919 gAn became the first swedish artist to
exhibit non-figurative paintings in sweden. nell Walden’s foremost
contribution to the history of art therefore lies in her activity as a
close collaborator with herwarth Walden in the years 1912-24 and
in the books she published after World War ii about Walden and
der sturm (Walden and schreyer 1954 and Walden 1963).

viking eggeling (1880-1925) was born in 1880 in lund, where he

grew up in a very musical family. his father was a german
immigrant, a music and song teacher, who opened a music shop on
stortorget in lund in 1881. following the death of both his parents,
by 1897, eggeling, just under 17 years old, emigrated to germany,
where he studied commerce in flensburg. he later lived a peripatetic
life in germany, italy and switzerland, earning his living as a
bookkeeper and later as a drawing teacher and skating instructor.
While living and working in milan, around 1901-1907, he attended
evening courses in art and art history at the Brera Academy and
began painting. Around 1911 he moved to Paris, where he got to
know modigliani, hans Arp and the swedish artist john sten, who
at that time was strongly influenced by cubism. during the war years
1915-1919, eggeling lived in Ascona in switzerland, where he began
working on his musically-inspired non-figurative drawings. through
Arp and tristan tzara, he came into contact with Zürich dada and
participated in the group’s activities during its final year, 1918-19. it
was tzara who, in Zürich in 1918, introduced eggeling to hans
Richter, who was to play such a fateful role in eggeling’s life. in a
memoir 46 years later, Richter wrote:

eggeling showed me a drawing. it was as if someone had consulted

the sibylline books for me. i ‘understood’ on the spot what it was all
about. here was a higher order, comparable to counterpoint in
music, indeed the full perfection of a kind of bound freedom or
Berlin and the Swedish Avant-garde 213

viking eggeling, still from Symphonie Diagonale, completed in Berlin

1924. the film was screened for an invited audience in Berlin twice in
november 1924 and in the same month for an invited circle in Paris. on
3 may 1925 eggeling’s pioneering work was shown publicly for the first
time in the UfA Palast on kurfürstendamm, where the screening was re-
peated one week later. on the opening night eggeling was admitted to a
hospital in Berlin, where he died on 19 may 1925.
214 Jan Torsten Ahlstrand

freest discipline, an order in which one could give the random a

comprehensible meaning. this was exactly what i was prepared for.
While for the surface i could only demonstrate a small number of
binary opposites, he offered inexhaustibly many in the area of the
line. Whether art or anti-art, here lay a path for me that enabled
insights into the domain of intellectual as much as spiritual
expression, the attainment of that balance ‘between heaven and
hell’. (Richter 1964: 63)

eggeling, who was at this time deeply involved in creating a musical-

abstract visual language, gave Richter a pencil drawing themed
Horizontal-Vertical Orchestra, with horizontal and vertical lines in
contrapuntal interplay. the dadaist marcel janco wrote many years
later, in a long letter to eggeling’s biographer louise o’konor, that
eggeling had met the composer ferruccio Busoni in Zürich and
discussed with him “the laws and the parallelism that can be traced
between musical composition and plastic art”. According to janco,
eggeling devoted himself to creating a new basis for “a plastic
counterpoint”, and it was probably already at this time that the
dimension of time entered his conceptual world (o’konor 1971: 39).
eggeling had been artistically isolated in Ascona. in Zürich he
made the acquaintance of an international circle of young and
rebellious artists and writers who questioned everything and wanted
to create something entirely new. eggeling’s ambitions certainly
transcended those of the dadaists, but he was able to experience the
stimulus of entering into an avant-garde circle of comrades where
his ideas aroused interest. he participated in Zürich dada’s eighth
soirée in April 1919 with a lecture on “elementary figuration and
abstract art” and published two lithographs, Basse générale de la
peinture (the basso continuo of painting) and Orchestration de la
ligne (orchestration of the line) in the periodical Dada no. 4/5. A
drawing by eggeling, a study for Diagonal Symphony, was repro-
duced in Dada’s last publication in Zürich, Der Zeltweg (1919),
eggeling was also one of the founders of the association Radikale
Künstler (Radical Artists) in Zürich, and according to janco it was
he who wrote its manifesto, which was published in Neue Züricher
Zeitung in April 1919 with Arp, eggeling, janco, Richter and others
among the signatories. the artists in the new group had tired of
dada’s nihilism and wanted art to have a social function: “the
Berlin and the Swedish Avant-garde 215

spirituality of an abstract art means the immense expansion of the

human sense of freedom. our ideal is brotherly art: a new common
mission for mankind” (ibidem).
in the early summer of 1919 eggeling and hans Richter moved
to Berlin. in the autumn of the same year both friends continued to
klein-kölzig, a small town near cottbus, about 140 km south east
of Berlin. there Richter’s parents had an estate to which eggeling
and his wife were invited. the idea was that eggeling and Richter,
undisturbed by material worries, would be able to work together on
their pictorial ideas. the collaboration lasted just under two years,
1919-21, but ended in a schism that led to eggeling leaving and
moving back to Berlin. during these two years eggeling continued
to work on his scroll drawings and his ideas on the orchestration of
the line and on a visual counterpoint. the aim was to use purely
abstract forms to create a new ‘language’ of a universal nature, a kind
of musical ideogram. the work on the scroll drawings involved an
extension in space, while music involved an extension in time. the
ambition to combine the two art forms inevitably led to film, which
involved space and time united in a synthesis, in an integrated space-
time dimension. Among the people in Berlin to whom eggeling and
Richter turned for support for their ideas was the physicist Albert
einstein, the creator of the theory of relativity. for help with the film
techniques that neither of them mastered, they turned to Universum
film Ag (UfA) in Berlin and were allowed to borrow an effects
studio with access to a film technician. But the difficulties of
translating the theoretical pictorial ideas into practical, concrete film
turned out to be unexpectedly great.
“We were at the time convinced that we were entering a
completely new field, where support for anything comparable could
only be found in musical counterpoint,” Richter wrote much later in
his dada anthology (Richter 1964: 65). in 1920-21 eggeling’s and
Richter’s ideas began to be noticed more and more in avant-garde
circles. in may 1921, theo van doesburg, who had visited them in
klein-kölzig, published an article with the heading “Abstracte
filmbeelding” (Abstract film composition) in his periodical De Stijl,
and in the same month ludwig hilbersheimer published the article
“Bewegungskunst” (Art of motion) in the journal Sozialistische
Monatshefte (socialist monthly) in Berlin. then at the end of the
same year the art historian Adolf Behne contributed an article to
216 Jan Torsten Ahlstrand

viking eggeling, Horizintal-vertical Orchestra I. copy from eggeling’s

original. Pencil and black wax crayon, 51.5×465 cm. eggeling’s first ani-
mated film has never been found, and it is not known whether he com-
pleted it.
Berlin and the Swedish Avant-garde 217

the same periodical showing that eggeling had by that time made
some progress with his first abstract film.
But the most important of these first articles on eggeling’s film
experiments was his own manifesto in the hungarian avant-garde
periodical MA (today) in August 1921, illustrated by four drawings
from eggeling’s first scroll drawing Horizontal-Vertical Orchestra I.
Around the same time an identical article was published in german
in De Stijl authored by hans Richter, but with a small historical
appendix. louise o’konor believes that eggeling was the author of
both the hungarian and the german version and that he had himself
written the article in german. According to o’konor, Richter’s
contribution was restricted to the supplement in the De Stijl article.
this has the heading “Prinzipielles zur Bewegungskunst” (Principles
of the art of motion). eggeling (Richter) writes:

declaration. the drawings reproduced represent the major elements

of processes conceived of as in motion. the works will achieve their
realization in film. the process itself: formative evolutions and
revolutions in the sphere of the purely artistic (abstract form); rather
analogous to the events in music familiar to our ears [...]

Basso continuo. the “language” (language of form), which is

“spoken” is based on an “alphabet”, which has arisen from an
elementary principle of perception: polarity. Polarity as a general
principle of life = composition method for any formal utterance.
Proportion, rhythm, quantity, intensity, pitch, timbre, measure, etc.6

the quotation is enough to demonstrate the far-reaching ambitions

eggeling associated with his abstract formal language: to create a
new universal pictorial language for a new age. there can be little
doubt that eggeling, with his decidedly theoretical mentality and his
innovative, sophisticated formal language, was the pace-setter in the
collaboration with Richter. this was how their relationship was
perceived by contemporary critics, and Richter later confirmed this
himself in an article in his periodical G.: “... major elements, for
knowledge of which i am indebted to viking eggeling, on whose
basic research my work is dependent [my italics] ...”.7
At the end of 1921, after the break with Richter, eggeling moved
back to Berlin, where for his remaining years he had a primitive
218 Jan Torsten Ahlstrand

studio on Wormser strasse near the Wittenberg Platz. he continued

his work on the film Horizontal-Vertical Orchestra with his scroll
drawings as a synopsis. there, in the spring of 1922, he was visited
by a young swedish art student and journalist, Birger Brinck-e:son,
who was the first to present eggeling’s film experiments to the
swedish public. the article “line music on the white screen” was
published in Filmjournalen in january 1923. Brinck-e:son had seen
a film in progress and noted that for just these ten minutes of
animated film more than 2000 drawings were needed. he did not
mention the name of the film, but it was undoubtedly Horizontal-
Vertical Orchestra, since the article is illustrated by drawings from
this scroll. in the spring of 1922 eggeling participated in the
November Group’s exhibition in Berlin, and it is likely that Brinck-
e:son got to see the legendary film Horizontal-Vertical Orchestra in
connection with this exhibition.
eggeling was a member of the radical artists’ association called
the November Group and participated in its exhibitions. he became
a well-known name among the constructivist avant-garde in Berlin
and associated with several of the leading artists. hilbersheimer’s
article “Bewegungskunst” was published in may 1922 in Russian in
a revised form in el lissitzky’s and ilya ehrenburg’s periodical
Gegenstand. Objet. Vesch. in this he also reviewed the above-
mentioned November Group exhibition and described eggeling’s
picture scroll Horizontal-Vertical Orchestra I, which he called a “film
composition”. in the autumn of 1922 galerie van diemen in Berlin
showed the first major exhibition outside soviet Russia of Russian
constructivism, organised by el lissitzky. in the spring of 1923
eggeling attended the constructivist congress in Berlin. the same
year, with Raoul hausmann, he published a manifesto, “Zweite
präsentistische deklaration” (second Presentist declaration), in the
periodical MA, where both artists turned against the utilitarian and
politicising aspect of soviet constructivism (o’konor 1971: 77).
no-one knows whether or not eggeling completed his first film,
Horizontal-Vertical Orchestra. it has disappeared without a trace,
and remains a mystery in art and film history. in the summer of 1923
eggeling, along with his assistant and lover erna niemeyer, began
work on transforming the picture scrolls with the theme Diagonal
Symphony into a new film. niemeyer, who had been a pupil at the
Bauhaus in Weimar, stayed with eggeling until january 1925, when
Berlin and the Swedish Avant-garde 219

the couple broke up. As was the case in the first film, the title
indicates that this was once more a film inspired by music. for
several years eggeling had undertaken parallel work on the
orchestration of the line and on counterpoint; the former was
focused on a structure of mainly horizontal and vertical elements,
the latter on diagonal forms. Before the collaboration with niemeyer
was broken off, he showed the new film twice, the first time on 4
november 1924 at verband deutscher ingenieuren on the Pariser
Platz, the second time the following day to an invited circle of friends
and colleagues including erich Buchholz, el lissitzky, lászló
moholy-nagy, Arthur segal and Adolf Behne, who commented on
eggeling’s new opus for the auditorium. the critic Paul f. schmidt
reviewed the film in Das Kunstblatt, and the critic B.g. kawan
included the following in an insightful review in Film-Kurier:

[...] the great merit of Viking Eggeling is the priority of literal motion
in the formation of kinetic artworks. in the first place, in the film he
achieves the dynamic as a real (not only illusionistic) element of
visual art. in film eggeling has discovered a new domain of visual
art [...] he explores such fundamental regularities as the basso
continuo of art, which are valid for all art forms, and as the absolutely
primary principle has also discovered the art of polarity. Polarity
unites in itself opposition and analogy.8

After these closed screenings of Diagonal Symphony, eggeling

presumably continued working on his film. he also paid a short visit
to Paris to meet fernand léger, probably in connection with the
premiere screening in the middle of november 1924 of léger’s and
dudley murphy’s film Ballet mécanique. on 21 April 1925 Diagonal
Symphony was certified under the french title Symphonie diagonale
by the german film censors. it was stated to have a length of 149
metres, which at a projection speed of 18 frames a second
corresponds to exactly 7 minutes and 10 seconds.9 on 3 and 10 may
it was shown for the first time in public at UfA Palast on the
kurfürstendamm. it formed part of a programme of seven avant-
garde films under the heading Der absolute Film (Absolute film),
which had been organised by the November Group in collaboration
with UfA. tragically, eggeling himself could not be present at the
premiere showing of Diagonal Symphony. on 19 may 1925 he died,
220 Jan Torsten Ahlstrand

44 years old, of an infectious disease in a hospital in Berlin. his

health had been undermined by years of sacrifice in the attempt to
realise his great idea of a synthesis of image and music with film as
the medium. in a few succinct words moholy-nagy summed up
eggeling’s significance for the history of art: “he was one of the
clearest thinkers and creators among the young artists of today. his
importance will be trumpeted in a few years by the somnambulistic
historians” (o’konor, 1971: 56, moholy-nagy 1925: 16).
Diagonal Symphony was made with a series of one-image shots
on a rostrum camera for making animated films. each frame was
exposed separately. it was incredibly laborious work. As originals
eggeling used his drawings in black on white, which were
manipulated in various ways to produce the desired effects of
motion. in the film print the effect was reversed: the geometrical
figures appear in white against black. louise o’konor writes in her
analysis of the film: “in Diagonal Symphony movement meets with
counter-movement. through the conflict in this dialectical method
of composition new forms and new movements are generated,
elements which together form a unity. expressed thematically: thesis,
antithesis, synthesis” (o’konor 1971: 133). in order to describe the
film she divides it into 40 parts, but with no hypothesis about the
overarching structure. o’konor analyses Diagonal Symphony first
and foremost from a theoretical perspective with particular reference,
besides eggeling himself, to henri Bergson’s L’évolution créatrice,
kandinsky’s Über das Geistige in der Kunst and Wilhelm Worringer’s
Abstraktion und Einfühlung, to which eggeling referred in his
posthumous papers. o’konor published these in her doctoral
dissertation (1971) and later in swedish translation in the book
Viking Eggeling. Modernist och filmpionjär (modernist and Pioneer)
(2006). Among eggeling’s papers was a text with the heading “film”,
which is almost entirely based on quotations from a german
translation of Bergson’s book. central to Bergson’s philosophy are
the concepts of durée (duration) and simultanéité (simultaneity), and
o’konor shows that eggeling had been influenced by Bergson’s
thinking: “in Diagonal Symphony the forms are generated when past
and present interpenetrate and form a flow of the now, a synthesis.
motion and continuity are made visible. Bergson calls this ‘la durée’,
the duration of the now, the flow of now” (o’konor 2006: 71).
certain of eggeling’s aphoristic quotations from Bergson seem
Berlin and the Swedish Avant-garde 221

directly applicable to his film, for example: “Growth and decay

succeed one another endlessly. the realization of higher planes is
achieved through the renunciation of part of one’s nature along the
way”. And: “form is only a snapshot of an ongoing transformation”
(o’konor 1971: 94; o’konor 2006: 93).
in the book Viking Eggeling Diagonalsymfonin: Spjutspets i
återvändsgränd (v. e. diagonal symphony: spearhead in cul de sac)
(1997) the film scholar gösta Werner and the music scholar Bengt
edlund presented a new interpretation of Diagonal Symphony: the
film has the structure of a sonata. that the film has a strong
connection to music is evident from the title alone, and several
writers had previously referred to the film as music. But none of
these had proposed a coherent interpretation of the structure of the
film, and eggeling himself left no such guidelines. After very detailed
studies of Diagonal Symphony, frame by frame, with its nine different
sign shapes and their repeated variations, edlund concludes in his
section of the book:

the investigation of the film’s formal disposition on the large scale

as well as its detailed structure shows that the course of Diagonal
Symphony is very consciously formed. the flow of images has the
imprint of a creative intelligence that is visual as much as musical,
while at the same time the totality [...] appears as ordered and closed.
it seems obvious that eggeling had an ingeniously developed sonata
form as the pattern for his film.
(Werner and edlund 1997: 91)

gösta Werner, who gives an account in the book of the genesis of

Diagonal Symphony and of the restoration under his guidance of the
copy in the swedish film institute’s cinemathèque, goes a step
further and presents the hypothesis that Diagonal Symphony is in
fact the first movement of a “film symphony” conceived by eggeling
in four parts, four movements as in a symphony, but that because of
his untimely death eggeling was never able to complete more than
the first movement with its sonata structure:

the thought has been proposed that Diagonal Symphony is only a

fragment and that eggeling intended it as the first movement of a
longer film which would then have more palpably justified the
222 Jan Torsten Ahlstrand

designation ‘symphony’. it is just seven minutes long – the normal

duration of the first movement of a classical symphony is between five
and ten minutes. it has an ingeniously developed imaginative sonata
form with a wealth of imitative work. diagonals and sharp angles play
a visually dominant role and contrast with softer visual motifs.10

if it is true, as edlund concludes, that the Diagonal Symphony has

the structure of a sonata, then this interpretation by no means
precludes the possibility that the theoretically-minded eggeling also
had other ideas of a more philosophical nature underlying his work.
that henri Bergson’s ideas, for example, played an important role
for him is clear, as louise o’konor has shown. viking eggeling was
a visual artist, a connoisseur of music and a theoretician. in the
pioneering work Diagonal Symphony his various ambitions are
combined in an optical-musical totality.

Axel olson (1899-1986) came from halmstad to Berlin in november

1922 to study at Alexander Archipenko’s independent school of
painting. the patron of his studies in Berlin was doctor detlef
oelrich in halmstad, married to viking eggeling’s sister sara.
(oelrich also supported his brother-in-law in Berlin financially.) it
was therefore no coincidence that eggeling was one of the first
acquaintances olson made in Berlin. in a letter of 27 november
1922 to his friend egon östlund in halmstad he wrote:

i believe more in eggeling, though. i have met him a couple of times.

he is a truly interesting person, a fully modern artist – a visionary.
he works with conviction on his invention – a film renaissance is his
dream; on the basis of purely abstract speculations he is trying to
work out a musical-cubistic film art – absolutely remote from the
naturalistic, which he considers insane and scandalous [...] derain is
the only painter he is interested in. ‘i would measure myself only
against him,’ he says. ‘he is a genius’. however that may be, eggeling
has recommended to me two ‘painting schools’, those of Archipenko
and doesburg, a dutchman – a good teacher and very well known
and highly esteemed in Paris.11

Axel olson met eggeling a few times during the seven months he
stayed in Berlin, and he drew a couple of small portraits of his
Berlin and the Swedish Avant-garde 223

fellow-countryman. in his last letter home to östlund before

returning to halmstad, olson, interestingly enough, compared
eggeling to gAn, whom he had got to know through östlund as
early as 1919. olson was probably the only swedish artist who knew
both gAn and eggeling. in the letter, which is dated 4 june 1923,
he wrote:

eggeling hardly counts himself one of the swedes, but in fact he is

probably one of the best. Recently i have seen things by him that
have made me respect him more and more. he is on the extreme left
wing – probably even more radical than gAn – if one can speak of
different degrees of extremity in painters. he has introduced painting
in a brand new way – i.e. it has ceased to be painting in the old sense.
his composition drawings are extraordinarily assured and sensitively
done, almost entirely musical and as remote from german
equilibrism as the earth is from the sun.12

At Archipenko’s painting school in the spring of 1923 the pupils

included the dane franciska clausen, of whom Axel olson drew a
portrait. the next year she became a pupil of fernand léger in Paris,
alongside olson’s younger brother erik and their cousin Waldemar
lorentzon. despite inflation and disturbed conditions, the time at
Archipenko’s school was very fruitful for Axel olson. from Berlin
he brought home a series of powerful drawings from life as well as
several high quality paintings from life in the spirit of synthetic
cubism. in the painting Grey Figure, Berlin he painted letters beside
the model as part of the composition in cubist fashion. the letters
were not randomly chosen: P stands for both Picasso and Paris, to
which olson hoped to continue after Berlin; e and R probably play
on léger, and the letter n on (Adrian-) nilsson. olson also attended
many exhibitions of contemporary modern art, for example at
der sturm, and became acquainted with herwarth Walden, of
whom he knew in advance through gAn and östlund. he also
painted cubist still lifes, for example the sophisticated Composition
with Musical Instrument, where he pasted in paper and sand as
part of the rigorously structured composition. inspired by Berlin
dada, olson also made several paper collages and participated in the
Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung of 1923, organised by the November
224 Jan Torsten Ahlstrand

six years later, in August 1929, Axel olson participated in the

formation of the only post-cubist avant-garde group in sweden,
which was given the name the Halmstad Group because all six artists
lived in or had connections to halmstad (in the 1930s the group
became known as the avant-garde group of surrealism in sweden).

Bengt o. österblom (1903-1976) studied in Berlin at about the same

time as Axel olson, but they do not appear to have met. österblom,
who worked as a clerk in stockholm, was drawn as a young man to
gAn’s painting and to léger’s stage design for Skating-Rink, when
the swedish Ballet visited stockholm in 1922. in the autumn of the
same year he went to germany, where he saw the big Russian art
exhibition in Berlin. in particular malevich’s suprematist painting
made a profound impression on the young österblom. in the spring
of 1923 he studied with the german abstract artist moriz melzer, a
member of the November Group, at the schule Reimann in Berlin.
österblom became a devoted adherent of non-figurative geometrical
painting and in Berlin he produced a series of compositions in the
spirit of suprematism. the largest and most important work during
this creative period was the 15 m² cartoon Space-Time in Black
Circle, which was intended as a wall painting but was never executed
on any wall, and was later lost (it is preserved as a sketch and in a
österblom later went on to Paris, where for a short period in
1925-26 he studied with fernand léger, but without becoming a
léger disciple in the same way as otto g. carlsund, franciska
clausen or erik olson. in Paris he also conducted some sculptural
experiments in the spirit of tatlin. After the stockholm exhibition
in 1930 he abandoned non-figurative painting and by his own
account became an “introspective surrealist” and was active as a
writer and critic. in a memoir of 1962 he wrote of his time in Berlin
in 1922-23:

i came to Paris (1925) from Berlin (1923), which in the first post-war
years with the revolutions in germany and Russia was a both
politically radical and aesthetically ultramodernist centre, more
seethingly active than the victorious city of Paris. in Berlin i had
experienced malevich’s suprematism and kandinsky, the November
Group and german constructivism, and i had become a convinced,
Berlin and the Swedish Avant-garde 225

fanatical adherent of the new faith in a new world, artistically

expressed in a supranational, abstract art style: the abstract, the
einsteinian universe of the open space, aesthetically tangible but
non-figurative (gegenstandlos).13

in österblom’s belief in a purely abstract, non-figurative style as a

new “supranational” art we hear a distant echo of viking eggeling’s
thoughts on non-figurative art as a new universal language. eggeling
was the only one of the five swedish artists discussed here who
played any real role in the avant-garde in Berlin in the years 1920-
25. his artistic efforts, it is true, were only an unfinished torso, but
thanks to his pioneering activities he has been counted among the
salient figures in the international history of modernism, in both
visual art and film. nell Walden lived in Berlin for a much longer
time than eggeling, but as an artist she was insignificant and no
innovator. it was above all as a collaborator with herwarth Walden
in the der sturm movement in 1912-1924 that she made a
contribution and was to play a certain role in the history of german
modernism. for gAn the stay in Berlin in 1913-14 meant a life-
determining transformation, and in time he became part of der
sturm and exhibited in Berlin. But, unlike eggeling, gAn played
hardly any role in the avant-garde in Berlin – in contrast to his
influence on swedish modernism, in which, as a pioneer of futurism
and cubism, he is one of the central figures. As for Axel olson, his
study period at Archipenko’s painting school in 1923 was important
for his artistic development; but any dream he might have had of a
further career abroad came to nothing. in halmstad the young olson
had been a “free pupil” of gAn and as far as we know he was the
only swedish artist who met eggeling in Berlin. for Bengt österblom
too the encounter with modernism in Berlin in 1922-23 was of great
importance. he wholeheartedly embraced the non-figurative ideas,
but met neither eggeling nor Axel olson. Within the swedish avant-
garde he remained a quite peripheral figure who was only
rediscovered after his death in 1976, when his artistic estate was
donated to the norrköping museum of Art.
226 Jan Torsten Ahlstrand

sturm Archive, staatsbibliothek, Berlin. (Ahlstrand 1985: 43 and 2000: 36).
gAn’s diary vol. i, gAn archive, lund University library, lund.
Expressionistutställning. Gösta Adrian-Nilsson och Einar Jolin, catalogue, lund
University museum of Art, lund 1915. the exhibition had its opening on the 16th
of october 1915.
Synthesis of a City was used as a symbol of lund in the poster for the city of
lund millennium celebrations in 1990 (property of lund city council, on
permanent loan to the museum of cultural history, lund).
Review in Berliner Börsen-Courier december 1917, gAn archive, lund University
library. Quoted in lindgren (1949: 63).
According to an interview in Sydsvenska Dagbladet of 2.11.1930 gAn had
planned to settle in Berlin again, but was disappointed and returned home after a
week. instead gAn moved in the beginning of 1931 to stockholm, where he lived
until his death in 1965. see also Ahlstrand 2000: 47-48.
o’konor, op. cit., p. 90. the article was published under Richter’s name in De Stijl,
(leyden 1921: 7 and 109-112).
o’konor 1971: 253, n. 49. Quote from article by Richter in G. Zeitschrift für ele-
mentare Gestaltung, Berlin 1924:3.
o’konor 1971: 52. Quote from Film-Kurier 22.11.1924.
According to gösta Werner’s information in gösta Werner and Bengt edlund:
Viking Eggeling Diagonalsymfonin: Spjutspets i återvändsgränd, lund 1997, p. 106.
Werner also writes: “Why eggeling’s film, produced in germany and first screened
for a german audience, had a french title, it has never been possible to explain.”
(p. 51). could the explanation be that Diagonal Symphony was part of the pro-
gramme for the premiere of Ballet mécanique in Paris, and was there given its french
title, which eggeling subsequently kept? According to louise o’konor eggeling
paid a brief visit to Paris at the end of 1924 to meet léger, and in a letter to tristan
tzara, dated Berlin 10th january 1925, eggeling wrote: “etiez-vous à la représen-
tation léger, eggeling? tout le monde s’est renseigné vivement à propos de vous”
(Were you at the léger-eggeling screening? everyone has been inquiring actively
about you”). the quote undeniably suggests that Diagonal Symphony/Symphonie
diagonale was part of the screening in question, with léger and eggeling present.
eggeling’s letter to tzara is both printed and reproduced in o’konor 1971: 53-55.
gösta Werner: “Restaureringen av diagonalsymfonin”, in Werner and edlund
1997, op. cit., p. 115.
Bosson 1984: 44. in the book eight letters from Axel olson to egon östlund from
the period november 1922 to june 1923 are quoted. olson’s portrait sketches of
viking eggeling are reproduced on pp. 45 and 59.
östlund (1947): 30. the letter is also quoted in Bosson, op. cit., p. 62.
Bosson 1984: 170. österblom’s letter is dated 5th october 1962. dokumenterings-
arkiv för modern konst, Arkivcentrum syd, lund.
Berlin and the Swedish Avant-garde 227

WoRks cited
Adrian-nilsson, gösta. 1914. “om ny konst”, Arbetet 27.9.1914.
––. 1916. “Abwehr”, Der Sturm 1916:4.
––. 1916. Kandinsky, gummesons konsthandel, stockholm: unpag.
Ahlstrand, jan torsten. 1985. GAN. Gösta Adrian-Nilsson. Modernistpionjären från
Lund. 1884-1920, lund.
––. 2000. “gAn, Berlin och der sturm/gAn, Berlin und der sturm”, Svenskt
avantgarde och Der Sturm i Berlin/Schwedische Avantgarde und Der Sturm in
Berlin, lund/osnabrück.
Bosson, viveca (ed.). 1984. Halmstad-Berlin-Paris. Målarresa genom 20-talet,
halmstad: p. 44. östlund, egon. 1947. “halmstadgruppen” in folke holmér,
erik lindegren and egon östlund: Halmstadgruppen, halmstad: p. 30.
Expressionistutställning. Gösta Adrian-Nilsson och Einar Jolin. 1915. catalogue,
lund University museum of Art, lund.
lindgren, nils. 1949: Gösta Adrian-Nilsson, stockholm 1949.
moholy-nagy, lászló. 1925. Malerei, Photographie, Film, munich.
o(sborn), m(ax). 1915. “schwedische expressionisten”, Vossische Zeitung may
1915, gAn archive, lund University library.
o’konor, louise. 1971. Viking Eggeling 1880-1925; artist and film-maker; life and
work. diss. stockholm studies in history of Art, stockholm.
––. 2006. Viking Eggeling 1880-1925. Modernist och filmpionjär. Hans liv och verk,
östlund, egon. 1947. “halmstadgruppen” in folke holmér, erik lindegren and
egon östlund: Halmstadgruppen, halmstad.
Richter, hans. 1964. DaDa – Kunst und Antikunst, köln/cologne.
Walden, herwarth. 1913. “vorrede”, Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon, Berlin.
Walden, nell and schreyer, lothar. 1954. Der Sturm. Ein Erinnerungsbuch an
Herwarth Walden und die Künstler aus dem Sturm-Kreis, Baden-Baden.
Walden, nell. 1963. Herwarth Walden. Ein Lebensbild, mainz.
Werner, gösta and edlund, Bengt. 1997. Viking Eggeling Diagonalsymfonin:
Spjutspets i återvändsgränd, lund.
icelAndic ARtists in the netWoRk
of the eURoPeAn AvAnt-gARde –
the cAses of jón stefánsson And finnUR jónsson

hubert van den Berg and Benedikt hjartarson

locating the centre(s) of an icelandic avant-garde in the early twen-

tieth century century is not an easy endeavour. As the careers of the
visual artists jón stefánsson and finnur jónsson demonstrate, the
roots of the icelandic avant-garde are easier to trace to dresden, Ber-
lin, Paris and copenhagen than to Reykjavík, where an absence of
avant-garde activity characterised the art scene at that time. in a
country where the first art exhibition was held in 1900, society had
literally only just begun to offer possibilities for its few artists and
writers to practise at a professional level. in contrast to most euro-
pean countries, iceland’s lack of a tradition in the visual arts meant
that at the beginning of the twentieth century its emergent artists
were engaged in the very founding of a culture, rather than in rebel-
ling against an existing one. Yet, this articulation of a tradition of
icelandic painting did not exclude the possibility of looking toward
the european isms as points of orientation, as the cultural debates
of the period bear witness to. however, the new aesthetic activities
were usually not embraced wholeheartedly, but rather appropriated
through a critical synthesis. icelandic interest in the avant-garde fo-
cused on its aesthetic methods and techniques rather than its modes
of aesthetic activism. halldór laxness’ retrospective remarks on his
early “surrealist” poetry provide a characteristic example of the do-
minant view of the vanguard artistic/literary movements and collec-
tive aesthetic programmes of the period. he claims that surrealism
230 Hubert van den Berg and Benedikt Hjartarson

“in its purest form was […] a kind of spiritus concentratus” which
could not be consumed “unmixed” but had become “such an impor-
tant element and vital condition of modern literature that those au-
thors and poets of our generation, who did not learn from everything
it offered as it appeared, could be declared dead” (1949: 142). this
view prevailed until at least the early 1950s, as can be seen from a
text by sigfús daðason from 1952. in “til varnar skáldskapnum”
(in defence of Poetry), one of the first icelandic attempts to elabo-
rate a new poetics based in part on the literary avant-garde (more
precisely, the surrealist poetry of Paul éluard), the poet declares:
“surrealism in the strongest sense is in fact dead [...] but in another
sense it continues to live, just like expressionism, naturalism, realism,
romanticism, which have all become an element in the literature and
culture of the world. Isms hardly seem to present a danger to ice-
landic culture and in fact i believe it is a great benefit that it has been
so reluctant to form schools” (daðason 1952: 288-9).
due to iceland’s small and (in comparison to many other euro-
pean countries) underdeveloped aesthetic field, as well as its prevail-
ing critical response to the isms, studying, dwelling and working
abroad gave icelandic artists otherwise unavailable opportunities to
gather knowledge of new aesthetic trends and to work in a more pro-
gressive cultural environment. this not only applies to visual artists,
who later became directly linked to avant-garde movements in den-
mark, germany and france, but also to icelandic authors who were
trying to establish themselves as professional authors. faced with the
limited possibilities in their home country, many authors who came
to play important roles in the emergence of modern icelandic litera-
ture in the first decades of the twentieth century chose to leave their
home country and embark upon professional careers in a foreign
language. the best known case is the group of icelandic authors in
denmark who chose to write their texts in danish, among them
jóhann sigurjónsson, gunnar gunnarsson, guðmundur kamban
and (for a short period) halldór laxness. the growth of danish na-
tionalism and an increasing interest in icelandic culture as the cradle
of all things nordic turned out to be beneficial for the reception of
their work and led to successful careers for a period of time (see
jóhannsson, 2001). other authors chose to write in norwegian or
even german, as in the case of kristmann guðmundsson and the
poet jóhann jónsson.0 the role of copenhagen as the cultural – and,
Icelandic Artists in the Network of the European Avant-Garde 231

until 1918, political – capital of iceland is also apparent in the con-

text of the visual arts. since iceland had no art academy or educa-
tional possibilities for visual artists, most icelandic artists went to
copenhagen. some of them stayed on in copenhagen after complet-
ing their studies, others used the city as a gateway to the cultural cen-
tres of europe. copenhagen offered icelandic artists both formal
education and exposure to the newest currents originating from cities
such as Berlin and Paris. for some icelandic artists copenhagen pro-
vided an entrance into the transnational network of the avant-garde,
initially as passive observers and later as active participants. Among
the icelandic artists who participated in the avant-garde network in
the first quarter of the twentieth century, jón stefánsson and finnur
jónsson are the most interesting: stefánsson for his turn to Parisian
fauvism in the first decade of the century; jónsson for his participa-
tion in der sturm-related activities in dresden and Berlin. the ca-
reers of these two artists can, moreover, be seen as characteristic of
the nordic avant-garde’s turn from early expressionism (and cubism)
in the first two decades of the twentieth century toward a more radi-
cal, Berlin-based notion of constructivism in the 1920s. Although
more pronounced in jónsson’s case, the early work of both artists is
characterised by a bold experimentalism rarely found in that of na-
tive contemporaries who had stayed in iceland, and even in the work
of those who chose to stay in copenhagen and were exposed to the
new “experimental” currents that had filtered through to the danish
art scene. stefánsson’s and jónsson’s links with avant-garde groups
and movements in Berlin, dresden, Paris, and copenhagen enabled
them to engage in a productive dialogue with the new art that would
have been impossible within the icelandic art scene.

jón stefánsson: from Reykjavík to copenhagen and Paris

finnur jónsson’s involvement with der sturm, one of the key van-
guard organisations of the 1910s and 1920s, marks him out as the
first icelandic artist to participate in what is termed, according to
Peter Bürger, the “historical avant-garde”. jón stefánsson, on the
other hand, was probably the first icelandic artist to participate in
the historical network of isms we now tend to call ‘avant-garde’, al-
beit on the periphery of french fauvism. With matisse and dérain
as their main protagonists, Les fauves were the Parisian art sensation
232 Hubert van den Berg and Benedikt Hjartarson

between 1905 and 1910 (although soon to be overtaken by cubism).

news of their existence soon spread all over europe, where they were
noticed by other innovation-minded artists, not only in the cultural
centres of countries like germany – as in the case of the Neue Sezes-
sion, Die Brücke and Der blaue Reiter – but also in scandinavia. in
this period, Paris and Berlin served as the ‘secret capitals’ of modern
nordic art with an international ambition. in Paris, artists met each
other and received news about the newest aesthetic trends. stefáns-
son’s career can be seen as a characteristic case in this context. Born
in 1881, stefánsson later took up painting (in copenhagen) as a
member of what would become – from a german perspective – the
‘expressionist generation’. stefánsson’s formative training in the
danish capital took place at christian Zahrtmann’s art school along-
side michael Anker, one of the skagen painters. thus, his point of
departure may be described as lying between naturalism and impres-
At Zahrtmann’s school, where he studied from 1905 until 1908,
stefánsson became acquainted with other nordic artists, including
the dane harald giersing and the norwegian henrik sørensen.
When stefánsson travelled to lillehammer in norway with sørensen
in 1908 in order to paint, he made the acquaintance of another nor-
wegian, jean heiberg, who introduced them to the work of matisse.
As a direct consequence of this encounter, stefánsson and sørensen
travelled on to Paris to continue their studies at the art school
founded and directed by matisse. in fact, they were part of a con-
siderable number of young nordic artists who journeyed to Paris in
search of fauvist inspiration. one could say that stefánsson entered
the european avant-garde at this point, albeit more as a spectator
than as a participant. stefánsson destroyed almost all of his early
work, including his output from his years at the matisse school, and
he never exhibited any of this work in Paris, copenhagen or else-
where. this naturally complicates attempts to form a clear view of
his early career. it has been argued that three surviving paintings date
from this early period from 1908 to 1916 (see ingólfsson, 1993).
these paintings display a close proximity to the work of matisse and
his nordic pupils, as well as an interest in occult symbolism rarely
found in his later work. if the dating of these paintings is correct,
stefánsson’s style during these years evolved in a post-impressionist,
fauvist direction. stefánsson’s first participation in a collective exhi-
Icelandic Artists in the Network of the European Avant-Garde 233

bition did not come until 1919, at the Kunstnernes Efteraarsudstilling

(the Artists’ Autumn exhibition) in den frie Udstillingsbygning
(the independent exhibition Building) in copenhagen.
stefánsson left Paris in 1911, shortly before the closure of the ma-
tisse art school, and returned to iceland. in 1913 he moved back to
copenhagen, where he continued to work in the ‘new’ Parisian style
– a style that (in Paris at least) had now been superseded by a deve-
lopment towards increased abstraction, as in cubism and futurism.
in denmark, but also for example in the netherlands, Parisian de-
velopments were not copied immediately. in some respects the fauvist
leap was revolutionary enough for the nordic art community for its
impact to persist longer than it did in Paris. so while stefánsson’s
work was in no way cutting-edge compared to what was being pro-
duced contemporaneously in Paris or Berlin, it nevertheless belonged
to the danish fringe of the international avant-garde network. ste-
fánsson’s place in the danish avant-garde is indicated by his contri-
butions to the copenhagen-based publication Klingen (the Blade).
judging by the majority of its contributors and their contributions,
Klingen was a predominantly modern or ‘modernist’ magazine, pre-
senting, on the whole, rather moderate examples of the ‘new art’.
Yet the journal also contained quite radical contributions, from both
foreign and ‘local’ artists, such as the poem “Berlin” by emil Bøn-
nelycke and an abstract work by the norwegian Alf Rolfsen. the
work by stefánsson reproduced in Klingen can hardly be described
as belonging to the more ‘radical’ works in the journal. for a proper
understanding of Klingen, and of stefánsson’s contributions, it is im-
portant to note that the magazine is a quite typical product of the
situation in the field of the ‘new art’ in copenhagen during and after
the World War i. likewise, the mixed contents of Klingen can be seen
as symptomatic of the general situation in the cultural field in eu-
rope. many modernist reviews, such as the dutch Het Getij, provide
similar cases, presenting almost identical mixtures of avant-garde or
maybe modernist, but, nevertheless, rather conventional art and lite-
rature. A comparison of Klingen and Der Sturm reveals that the more
traditional contributions of the two publications are far from dis-
similar. thus stefánsson’s contributions to Klingen appear less con-
servative than one might think, and it is certainly not a coincidence
that his work was exhibited in 1920 in georg kleis’ copenhagen
gallery, where a large sturm-exhibition, discussed in Klingen, had
234 Hubert van den Berg and Benedikt Hjartarson

illustration for otto gelsted’s essay, “jon stefansson”, in Klingen, vol. 2.

no. 6 1918 (unpaged).

taken place two years earlier. stefánsson’s work, however, was not
shown in the context of Klingen or Der Sturm, but as part of a col-
lective exhibition entitled “fem islandske malere” (five icelandic
Painters), which gave a general survey of contemporary icelandic art,
including works by ásgrímur jónsson, guðmundur thorsteinsson
(muggur), kristín jónsdóttir and Þórarinn B. Þorláksson. Although
stefánsson is described as the “only mature” icelandic painter in a
note on the exhibition published in Klingen (“islandske malerkunst”
(icelandic Painting), 1920), thus stressing the importance of the dan-
ish background of his work, Klingen also has a reproduction of a doll
made by thorsteinsson, which in itself is just handicraft, but in the
period a common artefact in a dadaist context.
stefánsson’s contributions to the Efteraarsudstilling, Klingen, and
the kleis gallery exhibition present the artist as an active participant
Icelandic Artists in the Network of the European Avant-Garde 235

in the copenhagen avant-garde. they also mark the end of his in-
volvement in the network of the avant-garde. Although stefánsson
lived in copenhagen until 1924, his association with the avant-garde
went into sharp decline following a return to iceland in the summer
of 1920, before the definitive break in 1924. Although his work was
shown in denmark on some later occasions, as well as at an exhibi-
tion of icelandic art by the german Nordische Gesellschaft (nordic
society) in 1928,1 stefánsson’s return to iceland created a consider-
able geographical and communicative distance. the return to a more
conservative artistic climate (in which ‘fauvism’, far from being re-
garded as not revolutionary enough, was in fact conceived as being
too revolutionary) paralleled stefánsson’s move away from the avant-
garde dimension of matisse and fauvism, which also had a more
moderate or ‘classical’ dimension. stefánsson’s work from the
copenhagen period bears unmistakable witness to the fact that he
was influenced or inspired by matisse and fauvism (as well as by its
forerunner cézanne). thus he may be labelled (in contemporary
terms) a fauvist – or, in german terms: an expressionist. stefánsson’s
works were also referred to in the pages of Klingen as a prime exam-
ple of ‘expressionism’ and its rupture with the painterly tradition of
impressionism, as a text by otto gelsted from 1918 demonstrates
(see also Uttenreitter, 1936). While stefánsson may have handled
colour and depicted people and objects in a fauvist manner, he did
so without any of the wildness promoted by the movement. As a par-
ticipant in the international avant-garde network, he remained rather
on the outside, at least as seen from a french and german perspec-
tive. in this respect, stefánsson’s approach differs markedly from that
of finnur jónsson. however, on closer inspection, parallels between
their careers become apparent.

finnur jónsson and der sturm

leaving aside his education and work as a goldsmith,2 the first port
of call in jónsson’s artistic career was also copenhagen. A student
in the art school of viggo Brandt, jónsson was trained in the natu-
ralist school of painting, his point of departure thus showing clear
similarities to stefánsson’s career. this was basically the normal ‘aca-
demic’ start for the average avant-garde career in this period, no dif-
ferent from the start of mondriaan, malevich or schwitters.
236 Hubert van den Berg and Benedikt Hjartarson

compared to stefánsson, jónsson’s career is noteworthy due to the

relative rapidity with which various developments superseded one
another. Born in 1892, jónsson was a decade younger than stefáns-
son. he also started in Brandt’s school in 1919, a little over a decade
later than stefánsson had started at Zahrtmann’s school. the artistic
climate in copenhagen at the end of the first World War was dif-
ferent from that of the first decade of the twentieth century. the war
had had a significant impact: connections with france were few, li-
mited and hard to maintain, due to denmark’s geographic location
on the northern side of the german empire.
As the case of Klingen indicates, france continued to provide a
programmatic orientation for nordic artists during the war. like-
wise, german influence did not disappear. Although germany, like
france, had closed its borders to the neutral countries – denmark,
the netherlands and switzerland – germany remained the easiest to
reach. the inverse was also true, as art, art dealers and exhibitions
from germany could still pass the borders, albeit with some diffi-
culty. As a result, and – it should be added – as a side-effect of her-
warth Walden’s active collaboration with the german secret service
(for whom he worked as an intelligence agent during the war), avant-
garde art with a german provenance was regularly on show in den-
mark and sweden. in other words, as a result of the war,
communication lines to Paris were redirected to Berlin. this, how-
ever, had little impact on the art on display: Walden and his sturm
gallery had a good number of examples of french fauvism and cu-
bism in stock. Another consequence of the wartime border closures
was that transport and communication lines – most notably, those
from scandinavia – ended in denmark. As a result, copenhagen ob-
tained a special status within the nordic art community during the
war as a kind of surrogate for Paris and Berlin. the city’s (tempo-
rary) status as a vibrant avant-garde centre might explain why jóns-
son developed much more quickly in an avant-garde direction than
stefánsson. like stefánsson, jónsson entered the avant-garde in a
passive way. in 1920, he moved from Brandt’s school to that of the
danish painter olaf Rude, who had taken up cubism several years
earlier and belonged to the circle around Klingen. so, whereas ste-
fánsson had to go to Paris to draw fauvist inspiration, jónsson was
able to stay in copenhagen and learn the cubist idiom. nevertheless,
one year later he relocated to Berlin. As described above, the way to
Icelandic Artists in the Network of the European Avant-Garde 237

finnur jónsson, Módel (model), lothar schreyer, Die lüsterne Frau,

1923, 47.5×32.5 cm, ink drawing. 1922, 39.8×30 cm, colour lithogra-
listasafn Íslands (national gallery phy on plane white cardboard, fig-
of iceland). urine for the marionette play Birth.
Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin.

Berlin was opened by the war. Whereas a journey to france had be-
come more complicated, the borders to germany had become easier
to cross after the outbreak of the war. more importantly, Berlin
(aside from its turbulent political and economic situation) offered
artists something different than Paris, which came under the grip of
dada in 1920-21. Berlin was dominated by ‘expressionism’ in the
widest sense, with der sturm providing the main point of orienta-
tion: the art scene in the city was thus far more international than
that of Paris. furthermore, as mentioned, special ties existed between
the copenhagen art scene and der sturm. during the war Walden
and his swedish wife nell Walden-Rosland were not only active in
the artistic field. Beside the art enterprise der sturm, there was also
the intelligence, news and propaganda agency der sturm, which op-
238 Hubert van den Berg and Benedikt Hjartarson

finnur jónsson, Sinfónía (symphony), 1924, 20.8×25.6 cm, collage. lis-

tasafn Íslands (national gallery of iceland).

erated notably in denmark, sweden and the netherlands as a kind

of private contractor for the german secret service. the Waldens
travelled frequently to copenhagen and sweden, partly to continue
their art business, partly to carry out their intelligence work (which
gave them considerable freedom to travel and export art, e.g. for ex-
in Berlin, jónsson came into contact with der sturm and took
lessons at the art school of carl hofer, an expressionist with classical
leanings akin to matisse. As such, hofer was – even by copenhagen
standards – a rather conventional ‘modern’ artist, not unlike stefáns-
son. hofer’s influence is apparent in jónsson’s work from this period.
however, it seems that hofer’s approach did not satisfy jónsson for
long. indeed, in comparison to the latest avant-garde developments
of the time, such as the abstract work of mondriaan and malevich
Icelandic Artists in the Network of the European Avant-Garde 239

or schwitters’ first merz works (the latter were shown in the sturm
gallery), hofer’s work is highly conventional. judging by the subse-
quent work he undertook in Berlin, and later dresden, jónsson was
attracted to the work of schwitters and other artists from the sturm
stable who developed in abstract, constructivist directions in the
years following the first World War. these artists, now lesser-
known, included oskar fischer, johannes molzahn, thomas Ring,
fritz stuckenberg, eduard kesting, vordemberge-gildewart, lajos
kassák and lothar schreyer. the affinities between the works of
jónsson and these artists are obvious. Although a more precise as-
sessment of jónsson’s position in the sturm circle has still to be
made, it can be claimed with certainty that many elements in his
work appear as visual quotes from the work of these artists.
jónsson’s decision to turn to der sturm was quite typical for a
young, foreign avant-garde minded artist new to Berlin. Although
der sturm was rapidly losing (or had already lost) its pivotal role in
germany’s artistic field, its reputation abroad remained intact and
almost all foreign artists visiting Berlin (for example from the nether-
lands, Belgium, Bulgaria et cetera – i.e. from the european cultural
provinces – but also tristan tzara and the dadaists from Paris, for
example) went to der sturm. the reason was simple: in the previous
decade, der sturm had been very active not only in the german em-
pire, but also abroad. obviously attracted by the new developments
represented both in the Sturm-journal and gallery, jónsson remained
in its inner circle. jónsson did not stay in Berlin, but went to dresden,
where oskar kokoschka, a regular contributor and a close friend of
Walden since the inception of der sturm, taught at the art academy.
dresden was also the place where the expressionist/constructivist
painter and photographer edmund kesting led an art school named
“der Weg: schule für neue kunst” (the direction: school of new
Art). jónsson’s decision to go to der Weg may have been influenced
by his contact with the icelandic composer emil thoroddsen, who
was studying at the school at this time. der Weg was very close to
der sturm; indeed, it can be seen to belong to the avant-garde net-
work surrounding der sturm, given that kesting was one of
Walden’s close associates in the 1920s. interesting here is the similar-
ity between a portrait of Walden by kesting and a painting by jóns-
son, which also resonates with other works by stuckenberg and
schwitters. from his largely passive position on the fringe of the
240 Hubert van den Berg and Benedikt Hjartarson

avant-garde network close to der sturm, jónsson also established

contacts with schwitters and moholy-nagy. jónsson’s work increas-
ingly developed in a constructivist direction, his constructivism re-
maining close to the artistic ideas propagated by der sturm – one
main difference from dutch and Russian constructivism being the
fact that the aesthetics of der sturm was often not geometrical or
not exclusively geometrical. it is interesting that not only does the
biographical data situate jónsson in the environs of the avant-garde
community close to der sturm, but comparison of individual works
also shows that the development of his art leads directly to this po-
it took jónsson several years to step out of his more or less pas-
sive role in the sturm community and into the role of an active par-
ticipant in the avant-garde network. According to jónsson’s own
account, or, more accurately, an amalgam of several different indi-
cations, in 1924, oskar kokoschka and kurt schwitters advised him
to present his work to Walden in Berlin (see Pálmadóttir, 1992;
Runólfsson, 1987). Upon arrival at der sturm, jónsson (still by his
own account) discovered that kandinsky happened to be present.
Both kandinsky and Walden turned out to be very enthusiastic
about his work and chose eight paintings, which were subsequently
exhibited in the sturm gallery in the summer of 1925 and afterwards
included in a touring sturm exhibition in north America. it is not
unlikely that kandinsky appreciated jónsson’s work. however,
kandinsky’s relations with Walden were quite tense in the 1920s, so
the chance that they would judge the work of another artist together
seems unlikely. And schwitters proposal to jónsson that he should
go to Berlin? it may not be unlikely that schwitters asked jónsson,
‘Why don’t you exhibit at der sturm?’, but given that Berlin was only
a few hours by train from dresden, it seems far more probable that
kesting suggested jónsson to Walden, who would then have invited
jónsson for a meeting. Walden, who was facing serious financial
problems at this time, would have been glad of ‘fresh blood’. this
was as fortunate a situation as jónsson could have imagined.
the sturm enterprise’s great financial trouble was due to a num-
ber of factors: the inflation; the trials of several artists, including
kandinsky and chagall, who, as a result, were demanding payment;
lastly, Walden’s divorce from nell Walden-Roslund, who had, in fact,
been financing der sturm for some time. As part of the divorce
Icelandic Artists in the Network of the European Avant-Garde 241

arrangements, she received the private art collection, the ‘sammlung

Walden’, which had always made up an important component in
sturm exhibitions. Walden, by this time, had also developed some-
thing of a bad reputation within the german art community. he was
suspected of financial misbehaviour and exploitation of artists re-
presented by his gallery. these suspicions were exacerbated by his
fierce, merciless and rather nefarious polemics against those whom
he regarded either as irritating competition or as opposed to his aes-
thetic programme. thus Walden turned his attention to emerging
artists interested in any exhibition opportunity; not only those from
germany, but from other countries, too, where der sturm’s reputa-
tion still endured. thus Walden needed jónsson, no less than jónsson
needed der sturm. As an emerging and relatively inexpensive artist,
jónsson probably had to pay for all exhibition costs, given that this
was Walden’s policy, even in the case of his star artist, jacoba van
this much is clear: during the period in question, jónsson’s work
was listed in a commemorative der Weg catalogue, as well as in two
sturm catalogues dated july and september 1925, not as one of the
main artists of these exhibitions (who featured in the titles of the ex-
hibitions), but as part of the so-called Gesamtschau, or ‘collective
section’, a cross-section of works currently in the gallery’s stock. this
recognition of jónsson’s work by the sturm network marks the end
of the artist’s involvement in both this network and the avant-garde
in general, although he apparently had the intention of maintaining
his activities as an avant-garde artist once he was back in iceland –
as an exhibition at café Rosenberg in Reykjavík in the winter of
1925, featuring abstract works, indicates. this not so grande finale
has obvious parallels to stefánsson’s fleeting involvement with the
copenhagen avant-garde. critical response to jónsson’s icelandic ex-
hibition was mixed. several reviews were quite positive; however
these were written by critics and artists close to jónsson in some ca-
pacity. valtýr stefánsson’s extremely negative review is notable. Ac-
cording to jónsson, the circle of icelandic artists in copenhagen to
whom the reviewer was connected had become hostile to der sturm
and its associates after their fellow icelander jón Þorleifsson’s un-
successful attempts to have his works exhibited in Walden’s gallery
(see gottskálksdóttir, 1993: 93). jónsson’s decision to stop painting
in a sturm-like, constructivist way has often been explained as a re-
242 Hubert van den Berg and Benedikt Hjartarson

sponse to the negative reviews of the exhibition. A closer look re-

veals, however, the inadequacy of this explanation.
having apparently stopped working in his avant-garde idiom,
jónsson took up occasional work as a goldsmith before returning to
figurative painting. Although jónsson created some abstract work
in later years, his departure from the avant-garde network coincided
with the end of his exploration of avant-garde aesthetics, as had been
the case with stefánsson. An important question arises: Which came
first – the turn away from avant-garde aesthetics or the break with
the avant-garde network? An obvious explanation might be that by
returning to iceland and its ‘provincial’ art scene, jónsson – inten-
tionally or otherwise – severed his connection to the european avant-
garde network, thus excluding the possibility of sustaining an active
dialogue with like-minded artists abroad. one might argue that jóns-
son had to adapt himself to the taste of the province, where only
very moderate and diluted avant-garde elements resonating with the
provincial tradition of naïve painting (itself a source of inspiration
for the figurative avant-garde) were accepted as supplements to figu-
rative work. Painting styles that diverged from these pictorial con-
ventions in a radical manner, like abstract constructivism, were thus
not an option. however, another important factor must be acknow-
ledged: in most parts of europe, the heyday of the avant-garde had
ended by the mid-1920s. Admittedly, constructivism endured, albeit
in a more institutionalised form lacking its previous revolutionary
impetus (the Bauhaus, for example, became the state-funded
Staatliches Bauhaus) and, in france and Belgium, surrealism was
only just beginning to articulate itself clearly (Breton’s first surrealist
manifesto was published in late 1924). on the whole, however, the
majority of avant-garde initiatives, projects and journals that had
emerged in the 1910s or early 1920s collapsed, evaporated or simply
stopped around 1925 or shortly thereafter. in the dutch context, for
example, a number of artists continued their avant-garde activity
(e.g. mondriaan and van doesburg, still living in Paris). De Stijl
continued until 1928, albeit no longer in its initial weekly edition,
while a number of other notable constructivist journals appeared
alongside it in the late 1920s. examples of these include the some-
what more voluminous internationale revue i10, and – in terms of
format and distribution – the smaller reviews De Driehoek, Het
Woord and The Next Call. however, most artists and writers who
Icelandic Artists in the Network of the European Avant-Garde 243

had been involved in the avant-garde in the 1910s and early 1920s
ceased to be so and returned to more conventional forms, a process
that was aptly accompanied by a turn from the abstract to the figu-
rative. the same tendency can be observed in most other european
countries. it can thus be argued that jónsson’s departure from avant-
garde aesthetics was not entirely the result of his return to the iso-
lated icelandic ‘province’. on the contrary: jónsson’s break with
(constructivist) avant-gardism was no isolated case; rather, he was
only one of many artists and writers who made the same decision.
At the centre of the constructivist avant-garde around 1925, initially
on the peripheries and later in the inner circle of der sturm, jónsson
may well have been aware of the growing doubts, changes and shifts
that would lead to the demise of so many avant-garde initiatives dur-
ing this period. this atmosphere would certainly have suggested a
need for new directions, even if they resembled old ones.

finnur jónsson’s exhibition in Reykjavík 1925

and the debate surrounding der sturm
As the preceding survey of stefánsson’s and jónsson’s careers shows,
their early development took place within the context of the conti-
nental european avant-garde. from an icelandic perspective, their
early work has traditionally been seen as a rather isolated break-
through of avant-garde art in the early twentieth-century, as the con-
tribution of two young artists who absorbed the latest currents from
the continental art scene, anticipating new aesthetic paradigms which
only gained acceptance many decades later in the icelandic cultural
field. it was certainly not accidental that neither stefánsson nor jóns-
son invested much effort in positioning their early avant-garde work
within the icelandic art scene, at least not in the 1910s and 1920s. Any
attempt to do so would have been a waste of energy, as the icelandic
debate on jónsson showed, which followed the single exhibition of
his continental european avant-garde oeuvre in Reykjavík in 1925.
jónsson’s exhibition in november 1925 generated a heated debate
among the artists of Reykjavík which affords a view of the ideologi-
cal issues at stake in the icelandic response to the avant-garde. this
debate can be seen as the manifestation of extensive hegemonial con-
flicts and reveals the sway which nationalist ideologies held over ice-
land’s cultural life in the mid 1920s. Although the critics’ views of
244 Hubert van den Berg and Benedikt Hjartarson

jónsson’s work differed profoundly, almost all expressed a nationalist

attitude aimed at forging a healthy and powerful national culture in
compliance with the natural disposition of the icelandic people. the
press-based debate, which mainly revolved around der sturm, actu-
ally predated jónsson’s exhibition. on 22 july, valtýr stefánsson, edi-
tor of Morgunblaðið (the morning Post), published an anonymous
notice reporting jónsson’s return to his homeland after far too long
a stay in germany. the editor acknowledged jónsson’s affiliation
with der sturm, and pointed out the gallery’s notorious policy of
not accepting any work that was not in “the spirit of modern art
movements” (Blaðagreinar (1983): 48). four days later, jónsson re-
sponded to this notice, thus opening the public debate. jónsson
stressed the international character of der sturm, explained its
broad conception of “expressionism” in terms of “new art”, and re-
ferred to the work of “mature artists” such as chagall, kokoschka,
kandinsky, Archipenko and Picasso. the editor stefánsson re-
sponded by pointing out Walden’s dogmatism and polemical style
(which had obviously reached the northern peripheries). more in-
teresting than the debate on the nature of expressionism, however,
is valtýr stefánsson’s description of jónsson’s november exhibition.
the critic, in a somewhat ironic gesture, predicted a more positive
future career for jónsson, provided that “he doesn’t immerse himself
too deeply into the german aping of french art” (Blaðagreinar 1983:
51). these remarks, which reveal a clear alternative opinion about
the model on which the icelandic art of the future should be based,
echo debates that had shaped the cultural field in copenhagen since
the mid 1910s, when anti-german resentment and pro-french atti-
tudes were on the rise (see jelsbak 2005). stefánsson’s comment re-
garding the “german aping of french art” has striking similarities
to earlier descriptions of work by danish “expressionists” as “poor
imitations of german imitations”, to quote Andreas vinding in a
1918 article for Politiken (quoted in Aagesen 2002: 168).
the nationalist perspective articulated in valtýr stefánsson’s re-
view was given a more positive spin in Björn Björnsson’s report on
jónsson’s exhibition. Writing in Vísir, Björnsson warned against nar-
row-mindedness and pointed out the genuine nordic character of
even the abstract paintings. Whether they celebrated or dismissed
jónsson’s exhibition, all responses sprang from the nationalist per-
spective pervading the young icelandic nation state. indeed, this
Icelandic Artists in the Network of the European Avant-Garde 245

point of view was not confined to the reviews published in the two
right-wing newspapers quoted above, but also appeared in left-wing
newspapers. the most curious example is emil thoroddsen’s review,
in which the notion of ‘imitation’ also played a central role. in a rhe-
toric characteristic of the german Jugendbewegung, which thorodd-
sen had probably become familiar with during his studies in dresden,
the author praised the youthful energy of jónsson’s art, describing
it as the manifestation of a genuine germanic character:

isn’t icelandic art for the most part a bad imitation of bad danish
painters who themselves are not very original and hasn’t art thus ar-
rived in iceland in outworn copies? i believe that those people who
have been sucking skimmed milk from the baby bottle of the artist-
clique in copenhagen, which is nurtured by an outmoded ‘formal-
ism’ and misunderstood french watchwords, don’t like the fact that
a germanic flavour appears in some of finnur jónsson’s paintings
(Blaðagreinar 1983: 50).

the path chosen by jónsson after the exhibition may reveal that he
was not as strongly drawn to the völkisch cult of the germanic as
thoroddsen, his former fellow student at der Weg. the increasingly
chauvinistic rhetoric radiating from all sides in the debate surround-
ing jónsson’s exhibition may shed additional light on the artist’s shift
in idiom. jónsson’s insistence on the international character of der
sturm and his unwillingness to follow thoroddsen’s line may indi-
cate that jónsson did not feel at ease in an increasingly hostile cul-
tural field pervaded by the idea of national identity and thus
consciously sought to position himself between emerging political
extremes. indeed, jónsson’s contributions to the debate represent the
only voice not driven by nationalist rhetoric. if the debate generated
by the Café Rosenberg exhibition was indeed instrumental in the shift
in jónsson’s career, his choice of a different path may not only be
seen as a reaction against his critics but also as a defence against his
246 Hubert van den Berg and Benedikt Hjartarson

jónsson was writing in icelandic and german in leipzig during the 1920s.
the Nordische Gesellschaft exhibition also featured work by finnur jónsson,
among others. the curatorial focus was not the avant-garde; rather it treated the
works as objects of a kind of contemporary ethnographic interest, related to the
predominant völkisch (folksy?) ideology of the period (see gretor, 1928).
jónsson trained under, among others, Baldvin Björnsson, who was the first ice-
landic artist to make attempts at abstract painting during his stay in Berlin in the
Icelandic Artists in the Network of the European Avant-Garde 247

WoRks cited
Aagesen, dorthe. 2002. “the Avant-garde takes copenhagen”. The Avant-garde
in Danish and European Art 1909-1919. edited by d. Aagesen. copenhagen:
statens museum for kunst, 152-171.
Blaðagreinar 1921-1929. 1983. frank Ponzi (ed.). Finnur Jónsson. Íslenskur brau-
tryðjandi. Reykjavík: Almenna bókafélagið, 48-51.
daðason, sigfús. 1952. “til varnar skáldskapnum”. Tímarit Máls og menningar, 3:
gelsted, otto. 1918. jon stefansson. Klingen, 6: [no page numbers]
gottskálksdóttir, júlíana. 1993. “tilraunin ótímabæra. Um abstraktmyndir finns
jónssonar og viðbrögð við þeim”. Árbók Listasafns Íslands 1990-1992.
Reykjavík: listasafn Íslands, 74-103.
gretor, georg. 1928. Islands Kultur und seine junge Malerei. jena: diederichs.
ingólfsson, Aðalsteinn. 1993. “jón stefánsson, grünewald, matisse og Picasso. hu-
gleiðingar um þrjár myndir”. Árbók Listasafns Íslands 1990-1992. Reykjavík:
listasafn Íslands: 12-29.
islandsk malerkunst. 1920. Klingen, 6-7: [no page numbers]
jelsbak, torben. 2005. Ekspressionisme. Modernismens formelle gennembrud i dansk
malerkunst og poesi. hellerup: forlaget spring.
jóhannsson, jón Yngvi. 2001. “jøklens storm svalede den kulturtrætte danmarks
Pande”. Um fyrstu viðtökur dansk-íslenskra bókmennta í danmörku.
Skírnir, 175 (vor): 33-66.
kvaran, ólafur. 1989. “jón stefánsson. sensations and classical harmony”. Jón
Stefánsson 1881-1962. edited by karla kristjánsdóttir. Reykjavík: listasafn
Íslands, 41-55.
––. 2006. jón stefánsson. “nemandi matisse og klassísk myndhefð”. Frelsun litarins
/ Regard Fauve. ed. by ó. kvaran. Reykjavík: listasafn Íslands: 41-42.
laxness, halldór. 1949. Kvæðakver. Reykjavík: vaka-helgafell.
Pálmadóttir, elín. 1992. “vor hinnar ungu listar. spjallað við finn jónsson um listir
í evrópu á öðrum og þriðja áratugnum”. Finnur Jónsson í Listasafni Íslands.
ed. by karla kristjánsdóttir. Reykjavík: listasafn Íslands, 49-53.
Ponzi, frank. 1983. “Artist Before his time”. Finnur Jónsson. Íslenskur brautryð-
jandi. edited by frank Ponzi. Reykjavík: Almenna bókafélagið, 53-60.
Runólfsson, halldór Björn. 1987. “concrete Art in iceland”. Konkret i Norden. Po-
hjoinen konkretismi. Norræn konkretlist. Nordic Concrete Art. 1907-1960.
helsinki: nordic Arts centre,160-163,
stefánsson, jón. 1989. “nokkur orð um myndlist”. Jón Stefánsson 1881-1962.
edited by karla kristjánsdóttir. Reykjavík: listasafn Íslands, 1989, 79-85.
Uttenreitter, Paul. 1936. Maleren Jón Stefánsson. copenhagen: Rasmus naver, 1936.
Locations of the nordic avant-Garde
Locations of the nordic avant-Garde

in historical handbooks the imagery used to characterise the aes-

thetic avant-garde has generally been of a temporal kind. the avant-
garde is understood as a group of artists that breaks away from the
traditions of the past and strives for a position ahead of its own time.
common to these artists, so the argument goes, is that they represent
something new in a temporal line of progression. one should keep
in mind, however, that the military term avant-garde is just as much
a spatial concept. as is well known, it originally referred to a com-
pany of soldiers sent out ahead of the main force with the dangerous
mission of investigating unknown and often hostile terrain. thus,
the avant-garde was primarily situated not in a different time but in
a different place to the rest of the army. When transferred to the con-
text of art this aspect of the metaphor should be explored rather
than ignored. the early avant-garde not only opened up new periods
in art history but also new social, cultural, economic, political and
geographical spaces for art production and consumption – spaces or
places in which the artist could meet his audience under different
conditions and in different ways than before. the essays in this sec-
tion will, from a variety of perspectives, discuss this topographical
aspect of the nordic avant-garde.
as sven-olov Wallenstein points out in his introductory essay,
the most important space in the development of avant-garde art was
the market system of modern, capitalist society. Mainly consisting
of abstract social relations, the market nevertheless took material
shape in the fetishism of commodities and in the emergence of a new
kind of urban environment. this new space was formed not so much
in accordance with the geometrical power structures of the old soci-
ety, where churches, castles and government buildings had been the
natural centres of the city, but rather with the unpredictable move-
ments of the anonymous masses in the streets. compared to earlier
252 Locations of the Nordic Avant-Garde

forms of urban environment it was thus much more flexible, dynamic

and labyrinthine. the arcades in Paris, discussed by Walter Benjamin
in his famous studies of Baudelaire, may be seen as its origin and
prototype. in Benjamin’s view the porous architecture of modern
commerce gave birth to eine Traumstadt (a dream city) in which the
boundaries between fantasy and reality, past and present, inside and
outside, were blurred. naturally this had a huge impact on the arts.
the commodity, which replaced the use value of a thing with a mys-
terious market value, gave the work of art an autonomous, free float-
ing existence, whereas the chaotic, ever-shifting urban environment
provided new types of localities where aesthetic goods could be ex-
posed, admired, judged and consumed.
one such place was the free or independent exhibition. in the
nordic countries as well as in the rest of europe art production had
for a very long time been regulated by the national academies of fine
arts, but, inspired by the “salon des réfusés” and the “societé des
artistes indépendants” in Paris, many scandinavian artists towards
the end of the nineteenth century tried to liberate themselves from
the harsh censorship of the academy and exhibit works that did not
comply with official taste. a good example was “den frie Udstill-
ing” (the independent exhibition) in copenhagen, established in
1891 as an alternative to the academy at charlottenborg but in its
turn shattered by a revolt in 1915, when some of the most radical
members created an even “more independent” institution with the
somewhat primitivist name “Grønningen” (the Green). the basic
conditions of the independent exhibition were the autonomous art
school, on the one hand, and the commercial gallery, on the other.
With great success Kristian Zahrtmann’s art school in copenhagen
and “Konstnärsförbundet” (the artist Union) in stockholm edu-
cated young artists who had failed to enter the academy or were op-
posed to its conventional tastes and traditional methods.
at the same time private galleries, art stores and auction houses,
like dansk Kunsthandel in copenhagen, Gummessons, Liljevalchs
and svensk-franska konstgalleriet in stockholm and salon strind-
berg in helsinki, became centres not only of commercial art dealing
but also of art’s exposure to a wider audience. as andrea Kollnitz
and dorthe aagesen observe in their essays, the economic upswing
in sweden and denmark during World War i led to increased activ-
ity in the local art markets. the so-called “goulash barons” (war
Locations of the Nordic Avant-Garde 253

profiteers) thought it a good investment to buy and collect new

works of art both from abroad, where the prices in wartime were
low, and from young, still unknown talents at home. that explains
why some of the most impressive collections of avant-garde art in
the nordic countries were established by individual art dealers, like
christian tetzen-Lund in copenhagen, hjalmar Gabrielson in
Gothenburg or Gösta stenman in helsinki, and often displayed in
their private homes or shops.
another important location of the early avant-garde was the little
magazine. the breakthrough of modern society led to dramatic
changes in what habermas and his followers call “the public sphere”.
no longer an arena for the hegemonic bourgeois ideology of the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Öffentlichkeit became a field
of conflicting social, political and cultural interests. in the modern
mass media everyone was allowed to speak, but at the risk of being
misunderstood or not being heard at all. to make themselves heard
above the noise, artists had to raise their voices and find efficient,
sometimes drastic means of communication. through bombastic
manifestos and spectacular media events they triumphantly brought
their works to the market and the forums of public debate. these
manifestations characteristically advocated a common cause. in the
initial phase of an art movement it seems urgent to gather forces of
various origins and orientations in a joint attack on the enemy,
claes-Göran holmberg explains in his contribution, and the little
magazine was the ideal printed medium for turning a small choir into
one powerful voice.
during the period 1900-1925 there were only three significant
avant-garde magazines in scandinavia, the swedish flamman (the
flame), the danish Klingen (the blade) and the finnish (or finland-
swedish) Ultra, and none of them survived for more than a couple
of years (in fact Ultra perished after only a couple of months in
1922). nevertheless, they played a considerable role as communica-
tive channels, through which the latest innovations in european art
could be imported to scandinavia, and as discursive platforms, on
which the nordic avant-garde artists could present and promote
themselves. flamman and Klingen were both inspired by amédée
ozenfant’s L’Élan and herwarth Walden’s Der Sturm, but, compared
to their cubist and expressionist editorial models, they were rather
conventional in their layouts and surprisingly naïve in their political
254 Locations of the Nordic Avant-Garde

views. as Bjarne s. Bendtsen argues, the “war issue” of Klingen, pub-

lished in May 1918, seems most of all a belated and totally misplaced
celebration of romantic heroism on the battlefields. What made flam-
man and Klingen truly avant-garde, though, was precisely their mili-
tant attitude towards everything that smelled of tradition and
complacency. What mattered most was the provocative gesture, not
a thorough discussion of the new aesthetic ideas.
an important aspect of the gestures and attitudes branding the
avant-gardes in the little magazines and elsewhere was the invocation
of cosmopolitanism as opposed to the conservative national scenes.
in his essay about, inter alia, the magazine Ultra, stefan nygård
analyses the complex interplay between this internationalism and the
local cultural and political situation of the young finland-swedish
artists. they used cosmopolitanism to claim the autonomy of art as
against nationalist instrumentalisation. internationalist poses thus
built up imaginary communities which served as a sort of symbolic
capital to create local legitimacy and prestige.
a third kind of avant-garde locality was the café, dance hall,
nightclub or similar place of public entertainment, where the artists
could gather more or less spontaneously, organise themselves in
groups or coteries and create “happenings” for a socially more di-
versified audience than the traditional art public. as early as 1915
isaac Grünewald and arturo ciacelli arranged a “futurist” cabaret
in stockholm, and in 1919 the artists and writers associated with
Klingen organised a series of “expressionist evenings” in copen-
hagen. according to torben Jelsbak, the last event had very much
in common with the activities at the legendary cabaret voltaire in
Zürich, although it remains uncertain whether the participants were
actually familiar with the ideas of the continental dada-movement.
due to the transitory character of these gatherings, the historical
documentation of them is limited, but they probably played a deci-
sive role in the promotion and marketing of the avant-garde. emil
Bønnelycke’s wild shooting of a revolver during one of the expres-
sionist soirées in copenhagen no doubt reinforced his status as a lit-
erary celebrity.
the new artistic topography opened up by the avant-garde led to
what might be described as a decentralisation of art. naturally, the
early avant-garde activities mainly took place in the big cities, and
at least during World War i, copenhagen was the indisputable centre
Locations of the Nordic Avant-Garde 255

of art and culture in scandinavia. on the other hand, the altered

conditions of art production and consumption resulted in a centrifu-
gal movement, as a result of which the artists were marginalised and
quite often reduced to the role of bohemian outsiders. if this was to
a certain extent an alienated and lamentable state, it also increased
the artists’ opportunities to move around more freely in society, ex-
plore new areas of the urban jungle, meet fellow combatants from
other regions or countries and participate in international art net-
works. that is why the avant-garde movements were indeed move-
ments – in the sense of mobile forces consisting of rather small
groups of people, tightly knitted together but spread all over europe,
and settling down as colonies not only in the large cities but also in
the most unexpected geographical locations. herwarth Walden’s rest-
less touring with various exhibitions in northern europe bears wit-
ness to this mobility, as do Kandinsky’s early exhibitions in Malmö
and stockholm, discussed in the essay by Margareta tillberg, as well
as the russian futurist elena Guro’s creative sojourn in the Karelian
ishtmus, studied by natalia Baschmakoff. evidently, it was also due
to the mobility of the avant-garde that the nordic countries could,
perhaps for the first time in history, play an active and influential
role on the international art scene.
in trying to describe the decentralisation of avant-garde art, hu-
bert van den Berg has used the image of a rhizome, originally intro-
duced in a slightly different context by Gilles deleuze and felix
Guattari (van den Berg: 2005). Rhizome is a botanical term standing
for the underground network of stems and roots of a plant. the
metaphor is illuminative in so far as it draws attention to the diversity
and heterogeneity of the avant-garde. although spread out over a
vast social, political and geographical landscape, the various mani-
festations of modern art can at a deeper level be connected by a com-
plex system of roots, knots and branches. the question is, however,
by what vital force or logical principle this network hangs together.
everything in modern art is clearly not avant-garde, and in the end
one must ask oneself in what way the avant-garde rhizome differs
from other sorts of vegetation.
according to Peter Bürger, the historical avant-garde should be
understood not as a new style or a new stage in the development of
modern art but as a critical reflexion upon the art institution as such
(Bürger 1974). When Marcel duchamp exhibited his famous Foun-
256 Locations of the Nordic Avant-Garde

tain he demonstrated that practically anything (even a urinal) could

be transformed into a work of art if placed in the right institutional
context. the aesthetic gesture behind a readymade did not consist
of inventing something new but of rearranging and expanding the
given system of art. Much the same could be said of the surrealist’s
“objet trouvés”, of the cubist’s collage paintings and of the early
russian film maker’s montage techniques. in the field of literature
ezra Pound’s injunction to “make it new”, t. s. eliot’s theory on tra-
dition and the individual talent and Bertolt Brecht’s “Umfunktion-
ierung der Klassiker” (restructuring of the classics) – although very
different from a political point of view – all bear witness to the same
ambition. thus, a major characteristic of the avant-garde was its
view of the creative act as a recycling or reinvention of previously-
used material, aesthetic as well as non-aesthetic. instead of looking
forward to a bright future, avant-garde artists usually looked back
to the ruins of the past.
the emblematic image of this reversal is of course Paul Klee’s
watercolour “angelus novus”, according to Walter Benjamin’s fa-
mous thesis (Benjamin: 1991). With his allegorical gaze, the “angel
of history” freezes the flow of time and shatters the widespread illu-
sion of linear historical development. at the same time he reveals a
space in which unexpected constellations between all sorts of past
and present cultural phenomena can take place. When trying to un-
derstand the complicated relationship of the avant-garde to history
there is, however, no need for any mystical visions of a “Messianic
time”. one could instead sharpen Benjamin’s materialistic thinking
and look for an explanation in the social, cultural and geographical
topography of modern art. What made it possible for the avant-
garde artist to look back with critical eyes on history and tradition
was not his belonging to an imagined future but his displacement
and estrangement in the world here and now. only from a position
at the periphery could the artists view the art institution as a whole
and relate this complex to other discursive practices in society. only
from a marginal position could the boundaries between art and non-
art be transgressed in such a way that the former art system was
turned into a rubbish dump and a construction site for new and dar-
ing projects.
Locations of the Nordic Avant-Garde 257

WorKs cited
Benjamin, Walter. 1991. “Über den Begriff der Geschichte”, in Gesammelte Schrif-
ten Bd. i:2, (eds.) rolf tiedemann, hermann schweppenhäuser, suhrkamp
verlag: frankfurt am Main: p. 697 f.
Berg, hubert van den. 2005. “Kortlægning af det nyes gamle spor. Bidrag til en hi-
storisk topografi over det 20. århundredes avantgarde(r) i europæisk kultur”,
in En tradition af opbrud: Avantgardernes tradition og politik. (eds.) tania
Ørum, Marianne Ping huang, charlotte engberg. forlaget spring: copen-
hagen: p. 31 ff.
also published in english: hubert van den Berg. 2006. “Mapping old traces
of the new. for a historical topography of 20th-century avant-garde(s) in
the european cultural field(s)”. in: Arcadia 41 (2) 2006: 331-351.
Bürger, Peter. 1974. Theorie der Avantgarde. frankfurt a.M.: suhrkamp.
the avant-Garde and the MarKet

sven-olov Wallenstein

Ein Kunstwerk von mir verstehen, heißt es zu kaufen

(To understand a piece of my artwork is to buy it)
– anonymous German artist, c.1985

during the post-war era, a period sometimes labelled “late modern”,

the early twentieth century’s avant-garde movements were regarded
as a series of outspoken and fierce acts of resistance to the commod-
ification of culture and to the levelling of cultural hierarchies – in
short, to the whole complexity of social mechanisms known as the
“market.” although recent scholarship has attempted to move be-
yond this Manichean concept, such analyses still exert a pervasive
influence on the rather tortuous relations between the theory and
practice of contemporary art and its economic substructure. “art
and the market” is an alloy that many reject on moral grounds; it
also generates a kind of writing that thrives on the frisson produced
by the outlandish excesses of the art world. But more fundamentally,
it can also serve as a springboard for historical-critical reflections on
the idea of “aesthetic autonomy” – and sometimes also engender
new practices that actively incorporate economic sub- or infrastruc-
tures into the work itself and thus into the artistic process. from
duchamp through conceptual art to contemporary ideas of the art-
work as “service”, “intervention” and “social trigger” one could trace
a history of strategies for using the market as leverage, in which the
work becomes increasingly integrated into systems that are at once
symbolic, aesthetic, and economic. the key question, not only from
the point of view of historiography, but also with respect to how we
judge our present situation, is this: does this process amount to a
260 Sven-Olov Wallenstein

loss of critical potential (and hence a regrettable surrender to con-

sumer society), or might it in fact result in new definitions of practice
with respect to an altered, but not necessarily deleterious, situation?
it has often been noted that the development of modern art runs
parallel to the rapid expansion of commodity trading during the
nineteenth century. this is confirmed, rather than contradicted, by
the fervent resistance put up by many early modernists opposed to
industrial capital and its colonisation of the everyday world. as com-
modification is increasingly seen to define an artefact’s status, lend-
ing it a new societal mobility, opposition to this development grows.
the idea of aesthetic autonomy, or of the work in itself as a hermetic
and self-referential reality (a notion rooted in Kant’s philosophy,
crystallised only in the late nineteenth century), may be seen as a
complex reaction: it is only by internalising, paradoxically, the com-
modity form, or by its becoming an absolute fetish, that the work
may avoid the humiliation of being subjected to the external and
fluctuating evaluation of the market.
a clear indication of this social mobility, and of the resulting
destabilisation of taste, might be located in the shifting functions of
the salon system.1 its roots lead as far back as the late seventeenth
century, although the social role now ascribed to it dates from the
mid-eighteenth century, when it became a space in which a particular
form of discourse – art criticism – developed in conjunction with a
freshly active spectatorial role.2 the salon exercised such influence
on and authority over artistic matters that many artists wanted to
close it down; throughout its history it maintained capricious rela-
tionships to political power and to the academy, forming, moreover,
a precondition for the emergent art market. significantly, a backlash
against the tradition epitomised by the academy mutated into a con-
flict around the status of the salon, from the first battle between ro-
manticism and classicism (symbolised by delacroix and ingres)
the salons were subject to constant reorganisation, the sponsors
shifted; above all, the jury system was rigorously questioned. the
rapid and unprecedented breakdown of artistic criteria pitted suc-
cessive generations of artists against each other: the most vitriolic
attacks often came from older artists who perceived a challenge to
their authority. the complexity of this process, where the locus of
authority was by no means certain, is exemplified by the split be-
The Avant-Garde and the Market 261

tween the official salon and the Salon des refusés (founded in 1863),
above all since this bipartition was royally sanctioned. the split can
be understood as one of the foundations for the avant-garde and its
dialectical interaction with the public sphere: an interaction repre-
senting a desire to fuel revolt inside a system in order to change it
completely, engendering a vast array of “compromise-formations,”
to use an apt psychoanalytic term. Generations of artists were ex-
cluded from the salon, even as they craved its social graces and pub-
lic rewards. all these factors fed into a burgeoning system whereby
commercial galleries eventually came to replace the salon as spaces
embodying financial as well as symbolic success. the link between
aesthetic value and market value thus became closer as predeter-
mined relationships between artist and contractor were displaced by
a volatile mass market, wherein the economic potential of the work
was conjectural, and the demand for marketing and public recogni-
tion grew concomitantly.
courbet’s refusal to participate in the exposition Universelle in
1855, opting instead to open his own exhibition pavilion in the vicin-
ity (just opposite the official building), has been called “the first
avant-garde gesture,” (Bois: 1990) and it inaugurated a new phase:
the artist protesting against the vitiation of his work’s by various
commercial elements; which, in turn, became the precise expression
of a new marketing strategy. others were to follow in courbet’s foot-
steps, including Manet, who set up his own pavilion during the
World exhibition of 1867, and seurat and signac, who in 1884
founded their Sociéte des Artistes Indépendants with the main target
of establishing processes for institutional validation, and the official
motto of which was “neither award nor jury.” if one leaves theories
of Post-impressionist painting aside for the moment, one may sense
political connotations in this new approach: the artists’ independence
of established institutions corresponds to the idea of a newly attuned
general public whose tastes and opinions were no longer governed
by tradition. in this climate of revised intellectual propriety, perhaps
everybody could, in some sense, become a critic. “When the society
we dream of exists,” wrote signac, “when the workers, rid of the ex-
ploiters that drive them stupid with work, have the time to think and
to learn, they will appreciate the manifold qualities of works of art.”4
this new mass audience did not appear; but instead of seeing this
as a simple collision between wishful thinking and harsh reality, we
262 Sven-Olov Wallenstein

could adopt the retrospective view that it marked a new turn in the
logic of the commodity. the artwork had to break away from tradi-
tional norms in order to produce its own values, and in so doing it
also attempted to create a new audience. a painter like seurat went
as far as to suggest that this process should be integrated into the
practice of painting itself; for a while he toyed with the idea that
paintings were to be priced according to the amount of paint applied
and to the exact time it took to execute them, as if the issue were to
find a new form of financial evaluation that would guarantee the ob-
jective status of the work in an increasingly insecure marketplace.
the creation of new exhibition models is an inheritance from the
older idea of the avant-garde, which was first formulated as a pro-
gramme aimed at regenerating society, and at overcoming social and
aesthetic divisions. the application of the term avant-garde to art
derives from the group around henri de saint-simon. the first time
that it seems to have been used to explicitly refer to the role of art in
relation to politics, economy and science is in an essay entitled
“L’artiste, le savant et l’industriel” (1825), written by one of saint-
simon’s followers, the mathematician and banker olinde rodrigues.5
the promise signalled by this term in the middle of the nineteenth
century was a fusion of art, politics, and science, where art, at least
for a moment, seemed to be able to give plasticity to other social
forces. the ambivalence of the term, however, comes to the fore in
rodrigues’s initial formulations, which draw directly on the military
use of the term: on the one hand, the avant-garde is positioned on
the front line, whilst, on the other, it obeys orders issued by cultural
generals, who, in the case of art, were philosophers or politicians.
the key to its success is discipline and obedience, not personal free-
dom. in this sense it is no coincidence, as Jean-françois Lyotard has
pointed out, that the discipline demanded by an avant-garde mani-
festo far exceeds that of any artistic programme within classicism
and the academy (Lyotard 1988).
the promise of this progressive synthesis soon faded, however,
giving way to a long-standing disagreement between avant-gardists
and the “petty bourgeois” as portrayed by Marx, flaubert, and
countless other writers of the period. the historico-political vision
presented in courbet’s L’Atelier du peintre (the Painter’s studio)
(1855), where the intellectuals of the period could all come together
in one symbolic space, was already a dream by then, and the artist
The Avant-Garde and the Market 263

increasingly came to be opposed to established authorities and bour-

geois public life. on the level of aesthetics and art theory, this is re-
flected in the way that genius breaks free from the old Kantian
framework – in which its role was to displace the frontiers of taste
by going back to a common nature, an infinite source that secures
the continuity of art history as governed by rules and conventions –
to become a figure for the unacceptable or that which breaks apart
the concept of nature and taste and whose value lies precisely in re-
sisting incorporation into an aesthetic consensus (while this value as
novelty is also what allows the work to find its place in the sphere of
commodity circulation).
Walter Benjamin precisely described this dialectical contradiction
in his analysis of Baudelaire, who was perhaps the first to experience
the intrusion of capital and the commodity form into the interiority
of poetic language, while at the same time mounting a strong resist-
ance to it. a paradigmatic case in point is his reaction against pho-
tography as one of the most powerful instruments of a technological
as well as commercial levelling of art. in Benjamin’s optic, Baudelaire
is a figure of transition – the latter’s work is indeed in this sense also
a “Passagen-Werk,” wherein an older image of the poet and artist
collides with new realist claims, and the poet’s symbolist doctrine
constitutes an attempt to fuse these two poles into a dissonant whole.
in his constant quest for the new, Baudelaire points to the funda-
mental emptiness of the novelty, which Benjamin, renaming it com-
modity, considers nothing but the capitalist version of the eternal
return of the same. here, the connection between “modernity” and
“fashion” established in Baudelaire’s poetics strikes back at the poet
in Benjamin’s interpretation, the Parisian arcades become a con-
crete architectonic expression of the intermingling of old and new,
and as the “capital of the 19th century,” Paris is a focal point of
modernity in its non-synchronicity and overlaying of different times,
a bustling city full of dreams in which ghosts attack passersby in
broad daylight (“fourmillante cité, cité plein des rêves / ou le spectre
en plein jour raccroche le passant,” as Baudelaire says in the poem
“a une passante”). this allows Benjamin to interpret Baudelaire’s
flâneur not only as a belated romantic echo, but also as an image of
the artist’s new social position, caught between aristocratic self-af-
firmation and a desire, perhaps even a freudian death drive, to be
264 Sven-Olov Wallenstein

absorbed into the new urban masses. Baudelaire becomes a mod-

ernist against his own will, and in this respect he is not altogether
different from Balzac as portrayed by Lukács: the choice of these
two models, the objective reactionary turned realist or the recalci-
trant modernist who wants to uphold a lost poetic stance against the
onset of a new journalistic writing culture, reflects the split in the
Marxist interpretation of modernism and realism that would open
up in the 1930s.
But when Benjamin, in the essay “Paris, capital of the 19th cen-
tury,” emphasised the intermingling of old and new, he also pointed
to a caesura between them, to an essential non-synchronicity. divid-
ing time from itself, this fissure liberates a retroactive possibility and
provides a distance from the present that otherwise would be impos-
sible to attain. for Benjamin, the description of nineteenth-century
Paris becomes an image of his own actuality, a history of the present
and by no means simply a detached historical analysis. as a “disen-
chantment of the world,” the capitalist process of rationalisation lib-
erates us from old myths; but it also gives rise to new ones:
commodity fetishism, the “theological niceties” of the commodity,
in Marx’s words, and a universal phantasmagoria – Benjamin shows
us the double-edged quality of this, both at the level of historical
analysis and in relation to his own time. the liberating gestures of
the avant-garde are not only irrevocably caught up in the process of
commodity fetishism, but have it as their very condition of possibil-
ity, which is why the “puzzle images” created by Benjamin must al-
ways retain a double legibility as ciphers of emancipation and
in the wake of Benjamin’s interpretations, Giorgio agamben has
pointed to the profound influence exerted by the World exhibitions
on Marx and engels’s description of commodity fetishism (agam-
ben: 1993). Marx’s experience of these exhibitions, where commodi-
ties and products, as he saw it, were severed from their immediate
functional value and turned into free-floating signs of modernity, led
to his famous description of fetishism, as delineated at the beginning
of Capital:

a commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, very trivial

thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing,
abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. so far
The Avant-Garde and the Market 265

as it is a use-value, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we

consider it from the point of view that by its properties it satisfies
human needs, or that it first takes on these properties as the product
of human labour. it is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man
changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make
them useful to him. the form of wood, for instance, is altered if a
table is made out of it. nevertheless the table continues to be wood,
an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commod-
ity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. it not only
stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other com-
modities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain
grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing
of its own free will. (Marx (1990: 163-4)

What is fascinating about this description is that it also applies to

the idea of the autonomous art work – if we understand this idea in
such a way that the Kantian framework is interpreted as derived
from a logic in which utilitarian value is gradually absorbed by ex-
change value (through this displacement, real material and social re-
lations appear increasingly unreal), while relations between things
appear increasingly social. here it must be emphasised that com-
modity fetishism for Marx is not something psychological; it is not
some perceptual and/or intellectual mistake, but an objective social
structure that determines consciousness and its products. art be-
comes autonomous in the same way that the commodity becomes a
fetish, and this process cannot be undone by a return to a natural
object-form since the commodity-form has become irreversible in
both. on the level of consciousness, this subsequently allows them
to be opposed as truth (an art object which saves, preserves, or re-
deems a dimension of authenticity) and falsity (a commodity that
alienates, levels and perverts all human values).
When modern sociology emerged around the turn of the century,
this liquefaction of experience had already become commonplace.
in his texts on The Philosophy of Money and “Metropolis and Men-
tal Life,” Georg simmel gives a penetrating account of how mone-
tary economy permeates all forms of social life, rationalises them,
and produces a wholly new type of consciousness. in the latter essay,
simmel writes:
266 Sven-Olov Wallenstein

Money is concerned only with what is common to all: it asks for the
exchange value, it reduces all quality and individuality to the ques-
tion: how much? all intimate emotional relations between persons
are founded in their individuality, whereas in rational relations man
is reckoned with like a number, like an element which is in itself in-

for simmel, this new consciousness should not be understood as

purely negative: in the metropolis, “mental life” acquires a different
dimension and complexity because of the ubiquity of money and
the commodity form, and this is the essence of our modernity, which
must be understood not primarily as a loss, but as qualitatively new
drawing on Benjamin’s and simmel’s analyses, it is possible to
paint a rather different picture of how the “historical avant-garde”,
to use Peter Bürger’s term,7 interacted with commodity culture. this
is what Manfredo tafuri and francesco dal co have done in a series
of investigations that focus primarily on architecture, where the in-
tertwining of artistic and commercial values is particularly intense.
the initial shock of urbanity that Baudelaire registers, tafuri writes,
had to be interiorised so as to appear as an expression of freedom
and inner spontaneity, and the blasé attitude of the flâneur as active
participation in commodity culture. Performing this interiorisation
became the task of the historical avant-garde, who sought to “free
the experience of shock from any automatism”; to create “visual
codes and codes for action” in order to reduce “artistic experience
to a pure object”; and to “involve the audience” by organising a new
spectacle of consumption (tafuri: 1976). the technological culture
inaugurated by photography and the spectacularisation of urban
space was a first step in this process, but it would soon be followed
by other transformations that penetrated even deeper into the sub-
stance of art: avant-garde techniques of estrangement, montage and
collage, amongst others, were the instruments for this.
Understood within the logic of the commodity, the de-structuring
of traditional formal values enacted by the avant-garde in the period
around World War i saw the reduction of the language of art to
modular unities (which subsequently could serve as the basis for the
promise of a universal design language). in this way, francesco dal
co and Manfredo tafuri could claim to have discerned a direct (and
The Avant-Garde and the Market 267

at the time, for traditionally-minded historians, no doubt surprising)

connection between the disruptive gestures of dadaism and the ra-
tional form-grammars developed in the Bauhaus and in esprit nou-
veau: “in the early 1920s, the avant-garde was moving toward a
common language” where ”destruction and construction were prov-
ing complementary” (dal co and tafuri 1986: 112); an institution
like the Bauhaus could function as the “decantation chamber of the
avant-garde” (tafuri: 1976: 98) by systematically testing all its strate-
gies against the demands of reality and production, and absorbing
the utopian impulse as an immanent moment in activity. the flat-
tening of signification analysed by simmel is intensified by the avant-
garde, and becomes the prerequisite for the creation of a flexible
commodity that in turn can give rise to the emergence of a corre-
sponding type of consumer. the self-awareness of many painters
notwithstanding, abstraction no longer pointed towards a realm of
Platonic essences, but became the basic tenet of a modernity that
conceived of production without any basis in a pre-given nature or
hierarchy of forms. this could be perceived initially as a movement
toward a purification of the different art forms – a pure language
for a pure poetry, and pure visibility for pure painting – that subse-
quently evolves into the “medium specificity” of post-war formalist
criticism, projected back onto the early avant-garde in a somewhat
one-sided fashion, as in clement Greenberg and a long tradition of
post-war art criticism and art history. the actual movement led to-
wards the surpassing of traditional genres and mediums, where the
reduction to a general “surface” constituted one intermediary step
in the direction of an integration of art within capitalist commodity
in tafuri’s and dal co’s version, there is something of a hegelian
“cunning of reason” – perhaps “malevolence” would be a better word
– in this process, where artists, no matter what their actual intentions
may have been, are understood as mere bearers of an anonymous
rationality. it must, however, also be emphasised that this situation
was often interpreted by the artists themselves in a strategic fashion,
and that the issue for them was very rarely to simply oppose com-
modification, but most often to attempt to gain control over it and
to use its mechanisms for the production of a new kind of art. from
the new synthesis of the arts in the Bauhaus and the transformation
of the object into a psycho-social matrix in russian constructivism
268 Sven-Olov Wallenstein

and Productionism (Kiaer: 2005) to Le corbusier’s subtle use of ad-

vertising and techniques drawn from publicity9 and the modernist
social engineers in sweden (for whom architecture and design be-
came one of the most important tools for the creation of a consumer
endowed with rational desires),10 there emerged a wide variety of
strategies for encountering and taking charge of this development,
out of which a multiplicity of modernities unfolded that resist sub-
sumption under any singular logic.
the most complex and self-consciously paradoxical example of
this introjection of the commodity is probably Marcel duchamp’s
readymades, which pick up the idea of serial production and pose
astutely the question of how economic and aesthetic values are in-
terrelated. What occurs when we ascribe “value” to something? What
could aesthetic value be but a position within a system – and thus
something analogous to the symbolic convention governing the func-
tioning of money? if duchamp’s desire to play with his identity as
an artist and his general view of the artist’s personality and work as
a kind of dissimulation game both have an essential relation to the
“infrastructure” of aesthetic autonomy, he also frames these traits
in a mischievous fashion. When Picasso brags that his paintings have
the same function as bills, or when he signs pieces of paper as pay-
ment, duchamp responds with his Tzank Cheque (1919): a fake
cheque (originally sent to his dentist, daniel tzanck) whose only
guarantee is the convention that upholds the fiction of “value” in
art, a pure sign of aesthetic and economic value that enacts a short-
circuiting movement. duchamp, aloof as always, refuses to draw any
political conclusion from this, and suspends his critique with the
ironic indifference of the dandy – he has no intention of dissolving
fetishism, rather he wants to intensify it in order to create even more
perverse effects.
at the other end of modernism, in what was perhaps the last
recognisable avant-garde movement – conceptual art of the late
1960s – duchamp’s heirs came to similar conclusions in his absence.
drawing on the example of duchamp, conceptual art undertook to
inspire a sort of revolt when it demanded that art should no longer
consist of objects to be bought and sold, but should be transformed
into ideas that could be owned by everyone and could circulate freely
outside traditional institutions. Marx’s analyses of commodity
fetishism here gained a new currency, for what could be more fetishis-
The Avant-Garde and the Market 269

tic than a work of art that seems to display exchange value in its
purest form? and what could be more (at least symbolically) efficient
than to attack this aesthetic institution at its very foundation and re-
fuse the form of the object?
if conceptualism in the arts propagated a notion of a potential
break with the commodity- and/or object-form of art, it is possible
to see it continuing the movement initiated by the historical avant-
garde of the early twentieth century. this is a limitless expansion of
the logic of the commodity, in which everything can be art, and
seemingly “non-artistic” objects (an instruction, a description of a
process, an event) can be packaged and sold as items for aesthetic
enjoyment and consumption. in this way, conceptual art, through its
radical critique of commodity fetishism, prefigured the next twist in
the art-economy spiral, where the focus is no longer on objects and
things, but on social processes. We may find a precise analysis of this
transformed commodity logic in the work of Jean Baudrillard,
whose early writings are contemporaraneous with conceptual art
(even though his own examples are usually taken from pop art). We
are moving, he claims, from the political economy once outlined by
Marx, to a political economy of the sign, where exchange value has
finally absorbed use value, making it possible for use value to be
recreated as a myth: truth and falsity, nature and artificiality now
form oppositional pairs within an economy that is semiotic and psy-
chic rather than based on industrial production – it produces affects
and effects consumed by us so that we may reproduce ourselves as
the subjects of consumption. We live the “object system,” Bau-
drillard claims, simultaneously as “sense and counter-sense”: it con-
stitutes a point of intersection between two logics, a process of social
differentiation in which we consume things in order to set us apart
from our neighbours, and a “fantasmatic” order where things corre-
spond to our unconscious cathexes. Because of this, the system is al-
ways inherently unstable and consumption, as an active practice, is
required to keep it alive. ritual consumption and an equally ritual
critique of consumerism in the name of an alternative and more “au-
thentic” life are what provide the object system’s energy.
as our societies increasingly take their cues from the service in-
dustry, art itself often appears as a kind of “service”, as action un-
dertaken to produce a psychological state or influence a situation (or
a set of social relations) rather than to produce a material object.
270 Sven-Olov Wallenstein

this need not be understood as a step away from a commodity logic;

in fact it is probably only the expansion of the new commodity form
into the symbolic sphere. ever since the diminishing of the academy’s
authority, in the nineteenth century, art and the bourgeoisie (with
whom it has always bitterly fought) have remained uneasily con-
nected: the two are indeed perhaps tied with what clement Green-
berg called an “umbilical cord of gold.”11 What seems more
promising today, however, is to study the multiplicity of ways in
which this cord can be attached, rather than to decry this state of af-
fairs in any psychologising or moralising manner. a more nuanced
and complex assessment of the avant-garde’s early stages will make
us keener to the possibilities of the present.

for discussions of the salon in its various phases and political vicissitudes see
thomas crow (1985), Mainardi (1993), Lemaire (2003) and roos (2000).
for discussions of the new role of the spectator see fried (1980) and ray (2004).
a literary version of this is given in Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, where
Balzac draws together a series of traditional oppositions (colour-drawing, emotion-
ality-rationality, intuition-rules, etc.), and interprets them on the basis of the artistic
conflicts of his own time. Balzac’s story subsequently became a paradigm for the
self-image of many modern artists, from Zola to cézanne and rilke. for a discus-
sion of the reception see ashton (1980); for close readings of textual structure and
art-historical sources see damisch (1984) and didi-huberman (1985).
signac cited in de duve (1996: 192f).
for this history see calinescu (1987). on the connection between rodrigues’s
scientific and social ideals see altmann and eduardo (2005). as will become clear,
i do not subscribe to calinescu’s division between a constructive “modernism,” and
a destructive “avant-garde”; it is, in my opinion, a backward projection from late
modernist formalism which disregards the developments within visual arts and ar-
chitecture. My emphasis here on visual arts and architecture can be seen as an at-
tempt to correct the one-sidedness of calinescu’s history, which almost exclusively
draws its examples from literature.
Wolff (1950): 410. see also the more developed argument in simmel (1900).
My proposals here intersect with some of Bürger’s themes, although his division
between the “historical” and the “neo-” avant-garde seems far too sharp to be able
to grasp the process in question here. see Bürger (1984).
the historical connection between pure poetry and pure painting lies in the inven-
tion of an idea of a pure surface onto which signifiers of different orders can be in-
The Avant-Garde and the Market 271

scribed, but which itself is not yet differentiated. cf. de duve (1996): 251 and 264
ff and rancière (2003).
for corbusier’s use of advertising see colomina (1994).
for a discussion of the case of sweden see Mattsson and Wallenstein (2009). for
an attempt to connect the above examples with an analysis of the impact of tech-
nology see Wallenstein (2007), chap. 5.
see “avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939) in Greenberg (1986).
272 Sven-Olov Wallenstein

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mation of the discursive citizen,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 37, 2004.
roos, Jan Mayo, 2000. Early Impressionism and the French State, cambridge: cam-
bridge University Press.
simmel, Georg. 1900. Philosophie des Geldes. Leipzig: duncker & humblot.
tafuri, Manfredo. 1976. Architecture and Utopia, trans. Barbata Luigi La Penta.
cambridge, Mass.: Mit: 84.
Wallenstein, sven-olov, 2007. Essays, Lectures, stockholm: axl Books.
Wolff, Kurt (ed.). 1950. “Metropolis and Mental Life,” in The Sociology of Georg
Simmel. new York: free Press: 410.
ProMotinG the YoUnG
– interactions BetWeen the avant-Garde and
the sWedish art MarKet 1910-1925

andrea Kollnitz

De unga (the Young) is considered to be the earliest swedish avant-

garde artists’ group. following its now famous debut exhibition in
hallins, a small art dealer’s shop in stockholm, in 1909, the group’s
shows, until 1911, are said to mark the beginning of modern painting
in sweden.1 the group’s choice of name not only suggests the age of
its participants but can also be considered to be an explicit an-
nouncement of a stance antithetical to the older traditionalist
painters from which it tried to distinguish itself. this essay looks
beyond “the young” as a specific artists’ group and takes its con-
sciously chosen name as a metaphor of the avant-garde in general
and of its situation, reception and promotion in the early twentieth
century swedish art market. to promote the young, the avant-garde
and the new art can be considered a central aim of the modern art
market2. the swedish art market, centred on the capital, stockholm,
took the thriving art markets of Paris and Berlin as its main models
and came to resemble these international counterparts in being ex-
tremely multifaceted. the lack of clearly defined institutional and
professional identities in the early modernist art market poses an en-
during and exciting challenge to the art historian; indeed, it furnishes
this essay with an important point of departure. after a general sur-
vey of the swedish art field, its main agents and interactive structures
during the period in question, i will discuss the “typical” character-
istics of the successful modernist art dealer and the commercial
strategies of avant-garde artists through case studies of Gösta olson
276 Andrea Kollnitz

and isaac Grünewald, two central agents in stockholm’s modernist

art field.
according to Peter Watson, the modern international art market
emerged around 1880 and remained – broadly speaking – unchanged
until 1929 when its era of “glory and glamour” ended as a conse-
quence of the Great depression (Watson 1992: Xvii). in sweden
the early modernist art-market from around 1910 to 1925 was a con-
glomerate of interactions between different agents, a dynamic plat-
form very different from the more institutionalised and conformist
market of the 30s.3 furthermore, the numerous agents on the early
modernist art market often combined different professional identi-
ties: many of the most prominent participants in the swedish (and
european) early modernist art field acted as artists as well as critics,
art dealers or curators. the artist Georg Pauli became one of the ear-
liest swedish spokesmen of, and internationally-informed writers on,
modernism, as well as the editor of the first modernist swedish art
journal flamman (1916-1921). the cubist painter Gösta adrian nils-
son, author of sweden’s only modernist art manifesto, Den gudom-
liga geometrin (divine Geometry, 1922), was also an art and fashion
critic. the artist G. carlsund organised and reviewed international
exhibitions, while the italian émigré arturo ciacelli, founder of the
nya Konstgalleriet (new art Gallery), started out as a painter. the
interchangeable roles of artist, art dealer, critic and curator reflect
the way the system of the “art market” operated as a dynamic net-
working community in which different aims and actions intersected.
We may identify the mutual interdependency of some of the cen-
tral agents: the artists, with their artistic, economic and not least self-
marketing or self-performing aims and needs; their supportive as
well as demanding collectors and patrons, who were the predominant
buyers of avant-garde art; and the museums and art galleries which
chose to exhibit and thus distribute modern artworks practically as
well as theoretically. art criticism played a crucial part in these in-
terchanges. the distribution network linking artists, dealers and col-
lectors interacted with the critics’ information network.4 art criticism
as a printed discourse on the new and avant-garde art object was a
power instrument which gained increasing rhetorical and art-politi-
cal force during the debates on national and international modernism
in the 1910- and 20s.5 critics, such as the conservative carl G. Lau-
rin, who consistently idealised the art of the swedish national-
Promoting the Young 277

the caricature shows isaac Grünewald in a typical anti-semitically

charged Jewish profile driving around with his “sale’s” car and thus ridi-
culing the artist’s presumedly immoral economical strategies while simul-
taneously presenting his art works as cheap commercial goods or food.
the signs are saying e.g. “try my exquisite still lifes!” or “always fresh
goods, fresh colours, today’s (cheapest) prices”. sign at the front: “Be-
ware of the conductor!”. strix, 1924.

romantic Konstnärsförbundet and was called a “cultural brake

block” in avant-garde circles, or the modernist august Brunius, the
lonely defender of early swedish modernism, exerted enormous in-
fluence on the purchasing policies of the major swedish art muse-
ums, dealers and collectors.6 in their criticism they constructed
images of modern national and international art as a contrast to tra-
ditional and established art, thereby making it known and establish-
ing its value on the art market.
avant-garde art dealers and critics actively collaborated to pro-
278 Andrea Kollnitz

mote innovative art. this is clearly illustrated by the journals and

magazines founded by swedish art dealers according to existing
french models (such as that of Revue internationale de l’art et de la
curiosité, established principally by Paul durand-ruel, the
spokesman of impressionism and “the first modern art dealer”)7:
ciacelli’s short-lived journal Ny konst (new art), founded in 1915;
Pauli’s flamman (which ciacelli and olson were involved in publish-
ing); and olson’s Konstrevy, the longest-surviving swedish modernist
magazine, founded in 1925. not only french but also German mo-
dels, especially Der Sturm, influenced the swedish art market. for
instance ciacelli tried – unsuccessfully – to found an artistic society
with its own journal, aggressively named Vampyren (the vampire)
modelled on Der Sturm (Lärkner 1984: 154ff).
transnational and international connections and networking were
another crucial precondition for the interactions between avant-
garde artists and their economically powerful audience. sweden, like
the other scandinavian countries, remained almost untouched by
World War i and built up a thriving economy which made it an at-
tractive place for the continental art market. Between 1915 and the
early twenties, stockholm blossomed into a centre of international
modernist exchange where all of the continent’s major modern sty-
listic movements – expressionism, cubism, futurism – were intro-
duced and debated vigorously. according to Bengt Lärkner, the
shock of this sudden influx of avant-garde impressions on the
swedish public may have helped shape the moderate, anti-radical at-
titude that dominated the swedish art field (Lärkner 1984: 275).
an important example of interaction between swedish galleries
and the continental avant-garde is the contact between der sturm
and Gummesons Konsthandel. Gummesons became a sanctuary for
Kandinsky in 1916 (and later on in 1917, 1922, 1932 and 1934) and
made him the most prominent avant-garde artist in the swedish art
life of the 1910s.8 another example is Gösta olson, who had gained
direct experience of the french art market during his years in Paris.
once back in sweden, he made his breakthrough by curating a large
exhibition of modern french painting that toured all the scandina-
vian countries in 1918. this became the starting point for his legen-
dary svensk-franska Konstgalleriet (the swedish-french Gallery)
which grew into a meeting place for the swedish and french avant-
garde and its spokesmen.
Promoting the Young 279

international networking and exchanges between stockholm, the

other scandinavian capitals, Berlin and Paris not only facilitated the
exchange of artistic novelties, but turned out to be a crucial precon-
dition for the success of an artist. one example of artistic and eco-
nomic success is the increase in isaac Grünewald’s prestige after his
exhibitions in Berlin, copenhagen and oslo 1915-6. Grünewald and
Gösta adrian nilsson (Gan) were part of the “small but combat-
ive” group of swedish modernists with contacts on the continent
and promoted by influential critical voices (Lärkner 1984: 273). Be-
fore taking a closer look at Grünewald and olson in their respective
roles as artist and dealer, i will give a brief survey of other major
players and prevailing conditions in the swedish art field in the pe-
riod 1900-1925 and point out some of the operative mechanisms of
the early modernist art-political networks.9
one of the most powerful institutions on the swedish art-political
stage was the national Museum. Until 1915, when the artist richard
Bergh took over as its head, the Nationalmuseum was criticised for
its conservative and academically-oriented purchase policy. during
Bergh’s four years of leadership the museum changed its exhibition
strategies in accordance with modern museum technologies from the
continent and opened its doors to international modernist art.
Bergh’s implementation of a more democratic purchase committee
and his plan for the museum to present the best new art secured his
reputation as the museum’s most radical innovator (Lärkner 1984:
37-40). although he remained sceptical of abstract modernism,
Bergh’s extensive travels kept him well-informed about the various
international movements of modern art and led to the purchase of
post-impressionist art by such painters as Pissaro, van Gogh,
cézanne, Gauguin, and Munch. Works by Lhôte, delaunay and Ma-
tisse also entered the collection, as did, between 1916-18, works by
members of the young swedish avant-garde (Leander engström,
isaac Grünewald, Gösta sandels and edvin ollers).
the museum’s change in policy under Bergh was certainly influ-
enced by the curator, art-historian and critic Gregor Paulsson. Pauls-
son, who maintained active links with the continental modern art
scene (most notably with oskar Kokoschka and fernand Léger), is
considered one of the most progressive and influential cultural per-
sonalities in swedish modernism. Until 1920, when he resigned from
his post as curator, disappointed at being considered too radical to
280 Andrea Kollnitz

hold the post of museum director, Paulsson arranged the purchase

of works by Klimt, Kandinsky, Kokoschka, Kollwitz, Grosz, nolde,
de vlaminck, Léger, Metzinger and Picasso. he also had an agree-
ment with the swedish avant-garde circle around Grünewald which
allowed him to “buy as much as i wanted for 5 crowns a sheet”
(Lärkner 1984: 50) for the museum. Paulsson’s deal reveals the open-
ness and uncomplicated practicality of the networks of the early
modernist art field. the relevance of (international) networking be-
tween artists, art historians, critics and curators is clear in for in-
stance the case of ernst Josephsson’s drawings from the period of
his illness: when oskar Kokoschka was shown the drawings by Pauls-
son and his colleague, the art historian and critic ragnar hoppe, he
encouraged them to publish the drawings. this publication had a
great impact on european modernism and Kokoschka called it
“[hoppe’s] most important contribution to the history of modern
art” (Lärkner 1984: 51).
Between 1919 and 1925, the museum’s acquisitions of modern art
consisted predominantly of swedish art. the inclusion of several
pieces from the above mentioned exhibition of the “Young” in 1909
marks the swedish national Museum as a comparatively progressive
museum in a contemporary european context. Göteborgs Konstmu-
seum (the art Museum of Gothenburg) was also keen to promote
a modern attitude. its director, the art historian axel L. romdahl,
succeeded in acquiring a representative number of works by swe-
den’s youngest generation of artists, focused on the pupils of Ma-
tisse’s art school. Grünewald’s circle appears to have been the
Gothenburg Museum’s favourite representative of new swedish art.
a final institution of great importance in the promotion of modern
national and international art was Liljevalchs Konsthall. founded in
1916, the gallery distinguished itself as a stage for large exhibitions
by the young swedish avant-garde movements as well as comprehen-
sive exhibitions of continental modernism.10
art collectors, too, played an important role in promoting modern
art. three of the most influential swedish collectors who supported
the young artists were herman Gotthardt in Malmö and conrad
Pineus and hjalmar Gabrielson in Gothenburg. as Lärkner notes,
their real achievements as collectors began when they allowed them-
selves to be led by artists, exemplifying the interdependence of col-
lectors’ economic capital and artists’ symbolic capital.11 the import-
Promoting the Young 281

ance of purchase advice from artists was stressed in the art dealer
Gösta olson’s biography.12 the wealthy, liberal-minded postal official
hjalmar Gabrielson has been credited with acquiring perhaps the
most important private collection of swedish and international
modernist works.13 he was praised as an ‘individualist’ with an
‘unerring instinct’, ‘fearlessly’ buying art by as yet unknown artists
so that his collections were seen as ‘still current today and a beautiful
emblem of “young art” that is nowadays accepted.’14 in the heroic
descriptions of Gabrielson’s achievements the courageous and gene-
rous art collector is given the role of saviour of the young avant-
garde artists. By his own account, Gabrielson’s financial support of
poor Berlin artists was the start of his international avant-garde col-
lection.15 Gabrielson’s acquisition of his German and russian ex-
pressionist and constructivist collection has been called one of the
most extraordinary european art affairs of the time. in 1923
Gabrielson enlisted the help of artur segal, the rumanian artist and
member of the Novembergruppe, and gave him a budget of 5,000
swedish crowns to spend according to his own judgement on high–
quality art by avant-garde artists. in 1923 Gabrielson’s purchase of
works by chagall, Moholy-nagy, Marc, schwitters, Klee, Kandin-
sky, Kokoschka etc. was documented in an illustrated catalogue by
the famous and widely appreciated German art critic adolf Behne,
which was intended to contribute to the promotion of Gabrielson’s
collection and his campaign for radical modernism in the swedish
art world, which remained, for the most part, sceptical.
according to olson, the founder of the svensk-franska Konst-
galleriet, no major private art galleries were established on swedish
ground during the 1910s. this comment should be interpreted in the
light of olson’s claim to have been the first substantial gallery owner
in sweden (olson 1965: 54). While olson might be correct in terms
of scale, small art dealers’ shops such as hallins and salong Joël in
stockholm and olséns in Gothenburg had prepared the ground, pro-
viding important exhibition locations for both the young swedish
avant-garde and the first imports of international modernism.
nevertheless, the responsibility for promoting national and interna-
tional modernism between c.1915 and 1925 mainly belonged to three
stockholm galleries, nya Konstgalleriet, Gummesons Konsthandel
and the svensk-franska Konstgalleriet. these galleries positioned
themselves as the modernist counterparts of Bukowskis and fritzes,
282 Andrea Kollnitz

stockholm’s established outlets for academic and national-romantic

art. all of the stockholm art dealers engaged in promoting modern
art were men16 with important contacts in the international art scene:
ciacelli, to artists in italy; Gummeson, to artists in Germany; olson,
to artists in france.17 While ciacelli was considered a difficult person
and was disliked by many artists, olson and Gummeson appear to
have been born diplomats who fostered warm and inspiring relation-
ships with the various figures on the art scene with whom they dealt.
such relationships were a precondition and an important part of the
symbolic capital in an art dealer’s career. Gummeson was also fa-
mous for his innovative marketing methods and one of the first
swedish art dealers to demand an entrance fee from his gallery visi-
tors (Lärkner 1984: 157).
in his autobiography, From Ling to Picasso, Gösta olson exposes
several crucial features of the avant-garde art market in an interna-
tional as well as in a swedish context. olson repeatedly provides long
lists of the friends and contacts he made in Paris and the swedish
art world. according to olson, “everybody knew everybody” in
Paris, the favourite art city of numerous swedish artists and intel-
lectuals; parties and other kinds of social events were indispensible
for an upcoming art dealer. olson describes how he became the me-
diator between the large stockholm auction house Bukowskis and
the french artist albert Gleizes, who wanted to sell french mod-
ernist art to sweden after having been told “there is a lot of money
in sweden” (olson 1965: 38). Knowing many other international art
dealers (such as daniel-henry Kahnweiler or ambroise vollard),
critics (such as félix féneon), and artists became part of the sym-
bolic capital in olson’s career which could later, after ‘our happy
fighting years’ (in olson’s own heroic words), be turned into eco-
nomic capital. if olson’s autobiography is anything to go by, ‘fight-
ing’, financial crisis, hard-won success and acknowledgement are just
as crucial steps in the myth of the career of the modernist art dealer
as they are in that of the modernist artist.
olson also provides many anecdotal examples of lucrative invest-
ments in the form of cheaply bought or overlooked modernist
masterworks – such as a Picasso rejected by the national Museum
which later gained in both financial and aesthetic value and a van
Gogh, ‘wanted by no-one’ in sweden which finally became the prop-
erty of the billionaire onassis.18 tales of undetected genius and ini-
Promoting the Young 283

tially negative reception contribute intensively to the myth of art

works, artists and visionary art dealers. the symbolical value of the
shocking features of avant-garde art– in the eyes of both the public
and the art market – is made clear in olson’s anecdotes of agitated
gallery visitors. on one occasion, a visitor kicked a painting by
Grünewald that was lying on a gallery floor. after inspecting the re-
sulting hole, the artist Georg Pauli decided to buy the picture, since
“it ought to be good” (olson 1965: 68). this account suggests that,
within the avant-garde art field and art discourse, negative public
reaction to an artwork was considered evidence of its quality and
thus of its (potential) symbolic capital. indeed, Pauli – one of the
few swedish artists from an older generation who kept up to date
with avant-garde developments from impressionism to cubism –
stands as a brilliant example of the importance of established artists
as buyers, collectors and patrons of the upcoming generation of
young artists. another example is the nationalist-romantic painter
Bruno Liljefors, who collected the works of colour expressionist
Gösta sandels.
as already noted, young artists can be considered one of the main
concerns of the swedish modern art market during the period in
question.19 for olson, the art dealer’s main tasks are to discover, in-
troduce and promote young artists and build up the price of their
work (olson 1965: 79), so that their “breakthrough” will be to the
advantage of both artist and art dealer. Being discovered by an art
dealer also meant the opportunity for solo exhibitions which made
the art dealer’s shops or galleries a more attractive exhibition place
than larger institutions and gave the small galleries a dominant role
in the modern art field.20
Grünewald was one of the first and most important artists that
olson promoted as an individual. indeed, olson’s gallery opened, in
1918, with a Grünewald exhibition, thus promoting the dealer as
much as the artist. i will now focus on Grünewald’s career in order
to explore the artist’s role in the art market and its network. ideo-
logically, the avant-garde artist was supposed to be uninterested in
money, in conformity with the artist’s mythological role as an out-
sider, a revolutionary or a prophetic leader opposed to the bour-
geoisie and rejected by the uncomprehending masses.21 Kandinsky
summed up this situation when he told his partner Gabriele Münter,
“the longer an artist has to wait for his public break-through the
284 Andrea Kollnitz

more undisturbed and powerful his force can grow inside”.22 how-
ever, revolutionary persona and economic success could be com-
bined by established and powerful modernist artists. this is
evidenced not only by Kandinsky’s long career, but also by
Grünewald, who, while being initially considered an enfant terrible,
became widely recognised as the figurehead of “swedish expression-
ism” and later gained a position as an academy professor.
Grünewald was a self-proclaimed “avant-garde leader” and key
figure of early swedish modernism, whose dealings with the national
and international art world exemplify the conditions of the swedish
avant-garde and its market at that time. as Lars a. anderssson has
noted, Grünewald also became the scapegoat of swedish anti-
modernist criticism, not least because he was Jewish (andersson
2000: 371). Grünewald’s fusion of the roles of the bohemian outsider
and the strategic businessman made him suspect in the eyes of both
the bourgeois public and his artist colleagues. early in his career
Grünewald was a leading figure among the young swedish artists
educated in france and an important member of De unga (the
Young) whose eagerly debated exhibitions in 1909, 1910 and 1911
have been seen as the breakthrough of modern painting in sweden.
Grünewald, at this time, also established himself as a topical writer
in his polemic newspaper articles directed against such issues as the
purchase politics of the national Museum. his first solo exhibition,
in 1911, was a great public success (1200 visitors in 14 days). follow-
ing the break-up of De unga in 1911, another group, De åtta (The
Eight), emerged with Grünewald in a central position.23 in 1912 the
press began persecuting Grünewald. although the press campaign
was defamatory and often anti-semitic in its caricatures and accu-
sations, it nevertheless contributed to Grünewald’s fame and ad-
vanced his artistic breakthrough. this breakthrough was closely
connected to a public debate named the “vigselrumstriden” (the
wedding room controversy), which ran from 1912-1914, over
whether Grünewald or Pauli had won the commission to decorate
the wedding room in stockholm’s town hall.
reports of Grünewald’s apparently egocentric and ruthless tactics
are frequent. in 1916 the other participants in an exhibition at Lilje-
valch’s accused him and engström of taking the “best walls” for
themselves and objected to being called “Grünewaldare”
(“Grünewaldians”) by critics. this title is a revealing consequence of
Promoting the Young 285

isaac Grünewald, Det sjungande isaac Grünewald, Självporträtt (self

trädet (the singing tree), 1915, Portrait), 1912, oil on canvas. 46×38
oil on canvas. 116×89.5 cm. norr- cm. Private collection.
köpings Konstmuseum.

Grünewald’s strategic relationship with the press and other major

players in the swedish art world (andersson 2000: 372). olson de-
scribed how Grünewald agreed to exhibit his work alongside “french
art” by Picasso and Matisse, but managed to display their work in
the background while foregrounding his own. such anecdotes speak
not only of the avant-garde artist’s need for strategies intended to
create and/or maintain a prominent cultural position, but also of the
artist’s role as a curator. curating and arranging exhibitions in art
shops and galleries was an indispensable part of promotion and mar-
keting during the period in question and was often built on cooper-
ation between artist and art dealer.
the conservative campaign against Grünewald culminated in
1918 when the militarist thor törnblad accused the artist of asking
disproportionately high prices for quickly produced pictures in an
article called “dekadens. den Grünewaldska massproduktionen”
(decadence. the Grünewaldian Mass Production). these accusa-
286 Andrea Kollnitz

tions led to further articles that emphasised Grünewald’s non-

swedish origin and claimed his art was a threat to national values.
thus, Grünewald was given the role of capitalist, modern decadent,
cosmopolitan and sensationalist artist – an image that combined
several of the stereotypes widely associated with Jewishness and
made him a perfect object for all manner of nationalist and anti-
modernist attacks that simultaneously and inadvertently promoted
him as the most extraordinary and exciting of swedish modernists.24
as noted above, Grünewald’s self-marketing included interna-
tional platforms. With his wife, the artist sigrid hjertén, he super-
vised and took a main part in the 1915 “swedish expressionists”
exhibition in the sturm gallery in Berlin. in doing so, the couple
established themselves as main representatives of swedish modern-
ism in the international arena.25 shulamith Beer has stressed the per-
formative strategies in Grünewald’s career and emphasised his
conscious cosmopolitanism as one of those strategies (Behr 2002:
19f). another performative strategy adopted by Grünewald and
hjertén was to glamorise their ‘everyday life’, presenting themselves
as well-travelled, colourful and elegantly dressed party-goers in touch
with the latest modern trends (Grünewald was an early car driver,
for example). this strategy paid off: Grünewald’s “elegance was
recognised, meals, drinks and textile patterns were named after him”
(andersson 2000: 372). Grünewald achieved major financial success
after his stage and costume designs for the stockholm opera’s pro-
duction of saint-saëns’ Samson and Delila in 1921. the production
was a success, but led to a prolonged debate over Grünewald’s ap-
parently disproportionate fee – although, this time, some felt that it
was too low. Grünewald’s international colleagues and protectors,
Picasso and Matisse, came to his defence, and, once more, the debate
contributed to strengthening Grünewald’s prominence and finally
made him an artist “who could live by his art”. Grünewald’s now
legendary stage and costume designs had a great symbolic and eco-
nomic impact on his career and show how the modernist
Gesamtkunstwerk could provide not only creative but also economic
freedom for an artist. Grünewald’s career culminated when he was
elected a member of the royal academy and gained the title of pro-
fessor. Grünewald exemplifies several of the social mechanisms fre-
quently found in avant-garde artists’ relationships to the art market
and shows how “fame” – whether gained through celebration or
Promoting the Young 287

defamation – may be directly linked to market value. he showed that

it is possible to be both avant-garde and economically successful. in
Grünewald’s case (as in Kandinsky’s, and that of other famous in-
ternational modernists), accusations of greed, fraud and (Jewish)
capitalism – i.e. strategic and successful relationships with the art
market – became assimilated by the avant-garde artist as part of his
role as a decadent figure who threatened national values.
the international atmosphere of sweden’s early twentieth century
art market gave way to a strong national, anti-radical or normative
focus in the thirties. this nationalist turn was, of course, part of a
larger european nationalist movement in response to widespread
economic depression which intensified political and social tensions.
however, as i have shown elsewhere, in an analysis of swedish art
criticism from 1908 to 1934, nationalism and its concern for a
genuine swedish aesthetic identity were already prominent and con-
stant features of the swedish art discourse of the “international”
years before and after World War i (Kollnitz: 2008).

for a thorough investigation of De unga’s reception by the swedish art world see
Lilja (1955: 99-153).
according to raymonde Moulin, the aims of the modern art market may be dis-
tinguished from earlier practices on the grounds of its commitment to progression
through the deliberate creation of avant-garde programs, as opposed to the conser-
vation of established traditions (Moulin 1987: 15).
the economic historian Martin Gustavsson discusses the national and political
functions of the swedish art council Statens konstråd established in 1937 as an edu-
cator of swedish “taste” in Gustavsson (2002). all translations from swedish into
english are my own.
the rise of the modern art market as a “distribution network” and its connection
to the rise of art criticism as an “information network” in nineteenth century france
is emphasised in Moulin (1987: 12).
i have analysed the rhetoric of swedish modernist art criticism and its significance
for swedish nationalism and art politics in Kollnitz (2003).
carl G. Laurin’s hegemonic position in the swedish art field and his impact on
the art market is emphasised and analysed in Gustavsson (2002). for example, Lau-
rin prevented the national Museum from purchasing modernist artworks on several
occasions. Gösta olson discusses this in his biography (olson 1965: 56. as Gus-
tavsson notes, Laurin “won” the battle of swedish art taste – the art of the Konst-
288 Andrea Kollnitz

närsförbundet (the artists’ association) is still considered the best and most genuine
in swedish art history (Gustavsson 2002: 19).
Moulin (1987: 13f). the importance of propaganda in connection with the rise of
the avant-garde is stressed throughout Bengt Lärkner’s dissertation (Lärkner 1984).
the art historian camilla hjelm indicates journalistic experience as an important
background for an art dealer’s strategies and network in her dissertation on the
finnish art dealer Gösta stenman (hjelm 2009: 37). see hjelm’s chapter on publi-
cations p. 190ff.
on Kandinsky’s years and contacts in sweden see Barnett (1989).
this sketch is mainly based on the thorough investigations of Bengt Lärkner who
has mapped the swedish art field of the 1910 and 1920s in his above mentioned dis-
sertation (Lärkner 1984). the only existing explicit analysis of the swedish mod-
ernist art market is Martin Gustavsson’s economic historical dissertation which,
based on Bourdieu’s field-theory, scrutinises the social, symbolical and economic
positioning of two dominant stockholm art galleries from 1920-60 (Gustavsson
Lärkner (1984: 159). on the art-political significance of the German and austrian
exhibitions shown at Liljevalch’s in 1917, 1922 and 1930 see Kollnitz (2008).
the dichotomy of symbolic versus economic capital is derived from Pierre Bour-
dieu’s “the forms of capital” in richardson (1986: 241-256, 241-258 and 241–258)
and will reappear throughout my discussions.
as the american art dealer Peter Watson writes regarding ambroise vollard’s
“discovery” of cézanne (according to legend the art dealer felt as though he had
been “hit in the stomach” when he looked at his first cézanne), vollard’s apprecia-
tion of cézanne’s qualities was actually a consequence of comments by other im-
pressionists who pointed cézanne out as the most talented amongst them (Watson
1992: 153).
the role of Gabrielson in the swedish art world is analysed in Lärkner (1984: 70-
this characterisation comes from an article on Gabrielson’s collections: Birger
Lindberg, “hjalmar Gabrielsons samlingar”, Svenska hem i ord och bilder 12 (1926).
Quoted in Lärkner (1984: 70). see also Moulin (1987: 15) who notes: “at very little
expense they [the art dealers] amassed valuable collections and were looked on after
the fact as heroic pioneers, shrewd amateurs and fortunate speculators.”
Gabrielson’s account of his encounter with the economically depressed Berlin art
world is quoted in adamson (1936: 62).
Gothenburg was the only city in which the main modernist art dealer was a
woman: charlotte Mannheimer, who ran the gallery Ny konst (New Art).
on ground-breaking exhibitions of German expressionism and Kandinsky at
Gummeson’s and its reception by the swedish art world, see Kollnitz (2008).
e.g. olson (1965: 60ff).
see note 2.
the model of these new arenas in scandinavia as well as in Germany was the Paris
art market. see hjelm (2009: 43). on separate exhibitions in early 20th century Paris
see e.g. Jensen (1996: 108f).
Promoting the Young 289
for a discussion of the modernist artist’s role in sweden see cornell (2000).
Quoted in Kleine (1990: 259). My translation.
De åtta made its debut in 1912.
for an analysis of the nationalist rhetoric in swedish art criticism and its image
of the avant-garde artist (e.g. Kandinsky) see even Kollnitz (2008) chapter 4 and 5.
on swedish contacts with Der Sturm see ahlstrand (2000).
290 Andrea Kollnitz

WorKs cited
adamson, einar (ed.). 1936. Hjalmar Gabrielson, en hyllningsbok på 60-års dagen,
ahlstrand, Jan torsten (ed.). 2000. Svenskt avant-garde och Der Sturm i Berlin, os-
andersson, Lars M. 2000. En jude är en jude är en jude… : representationer av
“juden” i svensk skämtpress omkring 1900-1930, Lund: p.371.
Barnett, vivian endicott. 1989. Kandinsky och Sverige, Malmö.
Behr, shulamith. 2002. “Modernity, family and fashion” in: Sigrid Hjertén and
Isaac Grünewald: modernismens pionjärer (ed). Birgitta flensburg, norrkö-
pings konstmuseum 2002, p. 19f.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. “the forms of capital” in J.G. richardson. Handbook for
Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Westport, conn.
cornell, Peter. 2000. “rollhäfte”,p. 26-41, in: Utopi & verklighet. Svensk modernism
1900-1960. ed. cecilia Widenheim, stockholm.
Gustavsson, Martin. 2002. Makt och konstmak: Sociala och politiska motsättningar
på den svenska konstmarknaden 1920-1960, stockholm.
hjelm, camilla. 2009. Modernismens förespråkare. Gösta Stenman och hans konst-
salong, Statens konstmuseum (the spokesman of Modernism. G.s. and his
art salon, the national Museum of art) helsingfors.
Jensen, robert. 1996 [1994). Marketing Modernism in Fin-de-Siècle Europe, Prince-
ton University Press, Princeton 1996.
Kleine, Gisela. 1990. Gabriele Münter und Wassily Kandinsky. Biographie eines Paa-
res, insel verlag: frankfurt am Main.
Kollnitz, andrea. 2003. Konstens nationella identitet. Om tysk och österrikisk mo-
dernism i svensk konstkritik 1908-193. värnamo.
Lärkner, Bengt. 1984. Det internationella avantgardet och Sverige 1914 – 1925,
Malmö 1984.
Lilja, Gösta. 1955. Det moderna måleriet i svensk kritik 1905-1914, Lund.
Moulin, raymonde. 1987. The French Art Market. A Sociological View, rutgers
University Press, new Brunswick and London.
olson, Gösta. 1965. From Ling to Picasso: En konsthandlares minnen (from Ling
to Picasso: Memoirs of an art dealer), stockholm.
richardson, J.G. 1986. Handbook for Theory and Research for the Sociology of Ed-
ucation Westport, conn.
Watson, Peter. 1992. From Manet to Manhattan: the Rise of the Modern Art Market,
new York.
the avant-Garde and the danish art MarKet

vibeke Petersen

at the end of the nineteenth century, artists acknowledged, once and

for all, that they were dependent on market mechanisms to distribute
their work. this involved several parameters. how could the under-
standing of art be propagated? how would their art be received by
the public? and last but not least, how could they make their work
financially viable? to deal with these issues, artists needed allies who
could promote their art through exhibitions and criticism, and auc-
tion houses and art dealers who could work on sales and other profit-
able initiatives. the main players in denmark were the museums, but
their acquisitions of work by contemporary young artists were vir-
tually non-existent. the professional apparatus as we know it today
simply did not exist.
exhibitions, reviews, sales and other kinds of financial support
were all closely connected, but it was difficult for the individual artist
to deal with them all; the artist had to develop a self-image which
could encompass two worlds, one concrete and one abstract.
as no account of the relation between artists and the market in
denmark in this period has previously been presented, it is impor-
tant to investigate the prevailing social and cultural conditions of the
first decade of the twentieth century. Let us first consider how an
artistic career emerged at this time by turning our attention to the
academy of fine arts and its policies.

the academy of fine arts:

a Broad education – a financial foundation
the academy of fine arts in copenhagen was founded in 1754.
292 Vibeke Petersen

views differed within the academy concerning the nature of the re-
lationship between free art and rule-bound art and between art and
craft. the best ways to create a broad financial foundation for the
students was a subject of debate. the idea was to further the indu-
strial proficiency of young artists by not only appealing to their am-
bition to become great artists, but also giving them hope that their
skills could be useful to the craft industry (salling 2004: 30-31). in
other words, the academy adopted a practical view of how artists
could make a decent living. the responsibility of the academy was
to train artists to become respectable citizens.

the role of the academy

in the Marketing of contemporary art
the dissemination – through publication – of the results of this art
training was a vital factor in these endeavours to develop the danish
art market. it was taken from the french enlightenment model
which demanded public visibility and criticism. the french acade-
my of fine arts had taken on this responsibility and, in 1737, created
a programme of public exhibitions, the so-called Salons, which were
held every two years to introduce new trends in contemporary
french art (Bukdahl 1997: 14). this was the model followed by the
academy in copenhagen and, in 1755, the first public exhibition
opened at charlottenborg. initially, the exhibitions served as a show-
case for the students’ gold medal entries, until, in 1769, at the first
copenhagen Salon, the work of graduates of the academy began to
be exhibited (salling 2004: 11-12). following the french model, the
event took place every two years, and the main emphasis was on in-
troducing new trends in contemporary danish art. the spring ex-
hibition at charlottenborg – which still takes place – is an outcome
of this way of thinking.
as well as the public exhibitions of the academy, Kunstforenin-
gen Gl. strand (the Gammel strand art association) was founded
in 1825 in copenhagen as a space for young contemporary art. its
board was composed of artists, business people and professors from
the academy and its purpose was to raise the public profile of art
and to encourage exhibitions and sales. the association also func-
tioned as an open forum for debate (friborg 2000: 8).
The Avant-Garde and the Danish Art Market 293

the Liberation of the artists – or, free fall!

over the course of the nineteenth century, the hierarchical ethos
within the academy, which determined such things as membership
and the importance of genre, caused an ever-deepening conflict. the
academy authorities were tyrannical censors and the number of for-
malities students were supposed to accept was unpopular with the
young experimental artists. towards the end of the century, a number
of artists broke away from the academy, which they considered to
have reached a dead end. the same trend was visible in all the major
european cities, both north and south of the alps. the academies
were felt to stifle originality and reduce art to fossilised formalism.
the artists’ protests brought about the creation of alternative art
schools in denmark. Painters such as P.s. Krøyer, Lauritz tuxen and
Kristian Zahrtmann established the so-called frie Billedkunstskoler
(the autonomous art schools): tuxens skole, 1882, Krøyers skole,
1883 and Zahrtmanns skole, 1883 (Gether 1979: 50). their students’
work was widely exhibited, and in an attempt to compete with the
auction houses and art dealers, these artists explored new areas. once
established, the artists began to exhibit together elsewhere, selecting
each others’ works and agreeing upon their pricing.

the artists’ Leagues:

artistic community and economic solidarity
in denmark the artists’ leagues were the first solution to the problem
of how artists could organise themselves in relation to a modern art
market. these leagues represented a breach with the academic art
establishment. if the establishment of the alternative art schools and
their exhibitions initiated denmark’s modern art market, the artists’
leagues consolidated it. two important artists’ leagues were den frie
(i.e. the independent (exhibition), initiated in 1891 in copenhagen,
and Grønningen (the Green), named after a copenhagen locality),
founded in 1915. even though the founding of Grønningen was an
act of rebellion against den frie, both represented a new sanctuary
for radical and experimental art. emergent art criticism acted as both
standard-bearer and radical opponent of these modern trends and
played an important role in furthering artists’ careers, for criticism,
whether good or bad, was often excellent publicity, which led to in-
creased sales: art critics’ failures to understand new movements in
294 Vibeke Petersen

art often resulted in violent debates waged in newspapers and jour-

nals, which inevitably spread to the public at large. the financial
basis for experimental art could be rather insecure, but efforts were
made to find patrons who were interested in supporting the new art.
den frie and Grønningen, alongside the salon des indépendants
in Paris and the secession in vienna, were part of a wave sweeping
across europe in which artists themselves took the initiative for the
arrangement of exhibitions. the artists’ leagues provided a means
to reconcile the problematic relation between art and finance. the
artists soon realised that they were more powerful if they grouped
together to form leagues; forums for debate and solidarity, concerned
with the organisation of exhibitions and the sourcing and creation
of projects, i.e. the financial viability of their practice.
turning for a moment to new York during the same period, 1900
to 1925, it is interesting to see that, whereas in europe the art acade-
mies had helped artists to launch their careers with consideration for
their financial basis, conditions were different in america. the radi-
cal new departures in art were not made visible through american
associations of artists, but primarily through the great european
avant-garde exhibition, the armory show in new York in 1913. this
exhibition paved the way for the beginning of the modern art market
in the U.s. (Marketing Modern Art in America 2008: 1-2 and Plattner
1996: 33). regardless of the differences between america and eu-
rope, it was the new artistic expression of the avant-garde which set
the agenda – especially the financial agenda – for the art of the future
– thanks to its potential for creating debate and its break with estab-
lished and accepted conventions. in 1914, the photographer and
artist alfred stieglitz opened a gallery which exhibited only euro-
pean and american contemporary art; this made it the first of its
kind in new York (Plattner 1996: 33).

the Paradox – free art and the commercial Market

in denmark, in addition to the artists’ leagues’ exhibitions there were
other venues which showed young and conventional artists side by
side. the most important players in this respect were the auction
house Winkel og Magnussen, and the art dealers Kleis Kunsthandel,
arnbaks Kunsthandel and dansk Kunsthandel.
the auction houses predominantly sold the established art; how-
The Avant-Garde and the Danish Art Market 295

ever, they occasionally put on exhibitions of contemporary art. they

granted a place to young rebel contemporary art. Jens ferdinand
Willumsen was one such up-and-coming young artist who was in-
vited to exhibit in Kleis Kunsthandel. it was a different way of mar-
keting his art and a useful model for both the artists and the
investors. Profit and the financial aspect in general were important
in this type of exhibition. the artist legitimated his participation
through his apparent autonomy in relation to the commercial side
of the business. thus originated the compromise between the artist’s
management of his autonomy and the control of financial parame-
ters which the first modern galleries in new York began to observe
after 1930.

Who Were the artists’ allies?

the artists were also deeply dependent on art collectors. such a man
was carl Jacobsen, the brewer, from the second generation of the
carlsberg Breweries family. in 1902 he set up the new carlsberg
foundation, which, in addition to opening its own museum, ny
carlsberg Glyptotek, also gave financial support to other danish art
museums. its general aim was to support art. this was the start of a
truly significant patronage. others also had a strong interest in sup-
porting danish art. the greatest collector of the period was chris-
tian tetzen Lund. he acquired many works by young danish artists
and also bought new french and German art. the art collectors were
rich and curious about new approaches to knowledge and thought.
their financial privilege gave them access to a milieu in which they
found exciting new challenges.
danish artists attained excellent knowledge of what was going on
in european art through frequent visits abroad and by reading for-
eign catalogues, books and journals. the Grønningen artists were
especially intrigued by the european avant-garde movement. they
were assisted in this by the German artist, musician and composer
herwarth Walden, who founded the art journal Der Sturm in 1910
and, from 1912, owned a gallery of the same name in Berlin show-
casing the latest trends within the avant-garde art movement: expres-
sionism, futurism, cubism, constructivism and dadaism. during this
period, Walden was the most influential impresario of avant-garde
art in europe, building bridges between art and the commercial mar-
296 Vibeke Petersen

ket. he also organised several exhibitions in copenhagen. naturally,

danish artists sought to interest him in their art.
it was important to have a good international network. several
artists also exhibited abroad, which meant that they attracted more
attention. some settled abroad. J. f. Willumsen is a good example
of a danish artist who moved straight to the international centre –
Paris – where he lived for several periods of his life. in 1905, in a let-
ter to a close friend, he gave the following explanation as to why it
was important to live in Paris:

if i can afford it, i shall probably return this summer. […] however,
giving up Paris is a mistake. here, after all, one is like the spider in
the middle of the world’s web. Perhaps i haven’t actually caught any
flies yet, but i often receive enquiries etc. Yesterday, for instance, i
wrote a long memorandum to stuttgart about my intentions with
porcelain. here, i also come into contact with many foreigners whom
i would never meet in denmark. (Krogh (ed.): 1987: 48)

through J.f. Willumsen we gain an insight into the multifaceted ca-

reer of an artist. his allegiance was to new art, but he also retained
a foothold in the creative work in more industrial and commercial
aspects of the art scene.

craftwork and industry

– the spearhead of free art and the art Market
the Arts and Crafts movement also left its mark in denmark. during
this period, several artists were employed in the porcelain factories
Bing & Grøndahl and royal danish copenhagen, or were attached
to new workshops, especially the Georg Jensen silversmith workshop.
these included the painters harald slott-Møller, Mogens Ballin and
Johan rohde, as well as Willumsen. the relationship between avant-
garde artists and industry was established.
Many artists earned a living in this way. this was possible, in part,
thanks to the academy of fine art’s continued commitment to a
The Avant-Garde and the Danish Art Market 297

broad-based education, but also to industry’s increased openness to

new styles, following the increased public awareness and sponsorship
of modern art. the split between the two areas, however, was already
becoming visible within the artists’ own circles.
the creative work on industrial products was not so emotionally
based as work in the category of free art. functionality and aesthet-
ics became increasingly important and widespread concerns during
the first decades of the twentieth century. Art deco was the term used
within handicrafts, design and advertising. Many different stylistic
‘schools’ emerged, developing sometimes distinctive, sometimes over-
lapping approaches to handicrafts, design and advertising.
the relation between the artists’ productivity and their finances
was in constant need of legitimation. the avant-garde artists’ self-
image depended on the preservation of their autonomy vis-à-vis mar-
ket forces. this was something new.
298 Vibeke Petersen

WorKs cited
Barbusse, Marianne et al. 1996. Danske Kunstnersammenslutninger (Danish artists’
associations), Gyldendal, copenhagen.
Bukdahl, else Marie et al. 1997. Denis Diderot. Salonerne 1759-1781. Den moderne
kunstkritiks fødsel (D.D. The salons … The Birth of modern art criticism)
edition Bløndal, copenhagen.
friborg, flemming. 2000. Det gode selskab. Kunstforeningens historie 1825 – 2000.
(the good society - the history of the art association 1825-2000) Gyldendal,
Gether, christian. 1979. “Kunstakademiet og de frie billedkunstskoler” (the aca-
demy and the autonomous artschools) in Brøgger, stig (ed.) Akademiet og
de skønne kunster. sophienholm, copenhagen: 46-64.
Jensen, Knud v. 1996. De glade givere (the cheerful Givers). Gyldendal, copenha-
Krogh, Leila (ed.). 1987. Løvens Breve – J.F. Willumsens breve til Alice Bloch 1899-
1923 (J.f. Willumsen’s letters to alice Bloch). J.f. Willumsens Museum, fre-
derikssund: 48).
“Marketing Modern art in america: from the armory show to the department
store” on line at:
(consulted 22.03.2008).
nørregård-nielsen, hans edvard. 2002. Ny Carlsbergfondet 1902-2002. Bind i.
Gyldendal, copenhagen.
Petersen, vibeke. 1994. “J.f. Willumsen og tyskland omkring århundredskiftet.
den tyske kunstkritiker og forfatter Julius Meier-Graefes kontakt med den
danske kunstner J.f. Willumsen” ( J.f. W. and Germany around the turn of
the century. the contacts of the German art critic and writer J. M.-G. to the
danish artist J.f.W) in Konsthistorisk tidsskrift LXiii (8-4): 212-220.
Plattner, stuart. 1996. High Art Down Home – An Economic Ethnography of a Local
Art Market, the University of chicago Press, chicago and London.
salling, emma and anneli fuchs (eds). 2004. Kunstakademiet 1754 – 2004. vol. i.
arkitektens forlag, copenhagen.
art MetroPoLis for a daY
– coPenhaGen dUrinG WorLd War i

dorthe aagesen

Between 1914 and 1918 cultural life in the danish capital went
through a short-lived, but intense ‘boom’, while war raged in other
parts of europe. “the standing of artistic culture in denmark is now
extraordinarily high, it is swarming with painters, every day has its
own art auction and exhibitions are held in all available spaces”,1
declared one copenhagen artist in a report printed in the newspaper
Politiken in october 1916. the city became a meeting place for artists
from all of the nordic countries. they came to exhibit and to take
advantage of the possibilities of selling their art at exceptionally high
prices; they also came to meet each other, to take part in a
stimulating cultural scene, and see recent international art – the war
rendered such work less accessible. for a moment, copenhagen held
the status of a “Paris of the north”, that is as an attractive stand-in
for other european centres, until travel again became possible.
the story of copenhagen during Wold War i is a remarkable ex-
ample of how political and economic conditions could turn a par-
ticular geographical locality into a vital cultural centre attracting
avant-garde artists from across the nordic region. these artists
gathered in groups that were often competitive and sometimes
antagonistic toward one another. oppositions aside, these groups
nevertheless felt united by a sense of generational solidarity, their
common goal being to distance themselves from the values of previ-
ous generations and develop modern artistic idioms. they saw them-
selves as pioneers in pursuit of an artistic approach that differed
from the “mechanical (academic) transposition of reality to the pic-
300 Dorthe Aagesen

ture plane”, as harald Giersing, one of the leaders of the young

danes put it in 1909 (Giersing 1909: 321).
instead, he called for subjective interpretations of the impressions
of reality led by “the plastic life of the picture” in terms of colour,
line and space. Giersing’s statement can be taken as indicative of the
rhetoric used by young, experimental artists in copenhagen in the
1910s. they explicitly emphasised their generational status as “the
young ones” committed to abandoning naturalistic conceptions of
form and space and to promoting such notions as the “power of
if we define the avant-garde as a network of groups and
individuals who felt united by a common project (despite spanning
several ideological positions and aesthetic idioms (cf. Berg 2005: 31-
34)), the story of copenhagen during the years in question
demonstrates the importance of external conditions in the formation
of this network. following the outbreak of the war, a lucrative art
market and intense media coverage seem to have provoked in a
number of young artists a heightened awareness of the roles they
could take for themselves as an avant-garde. these favourable
conditions also seem to have attracted artists from other nordic
countries who similarly considered themselves involved in the avant-
garde project. as a result the significance and complexity of the
copenhagen avant-garde environment suddenly increased. that
external conditions were crucial to this development is illustrated by
the fact that this environment diminished once the economic heyday
reached its peak and other european centres became easily accessible
again. thus, after the end of World War i in november 1918, nordic
artists soon disappeared from the danish art scene and once again
turned their attention further south.
the fact that this development took place during wartime, amid
severe political tensions and a growth in nationalist sentiment adds
another dimension to the story of copenhagen as an avant-garde
metropolis. one final dimension to be discussed in this text concerns
the status of the avant-garde within danish wartime cultural
discourse – which ranged from sympathetic to prejudicial – and the
influence these discourses had on the reception of avant-garde art
at the time.
Art Metropolis for a Day 301

copenhagen’s brief cultural boom, however, was not only the result
of the particular political-economic situation that flourished during
the war. several preconditions existed which facilitated this
development. the danish capital was already a major city in the
nordic region and an important cultural centre that had been
attracting young artists from the other nordic countries for quite
some time. copenhagen was considered a station on the route to
Germany, france and italy and several artists made stops of varying
lengths in order to visit exhibitions and museums. some were
attracted by educational facilities and commercial opportunities.
indeed, the city had already proved its potential as an avant-garde
metropolis boasting established exhibition spaces willing to promote
such work.
thus, in the early 1890s – a period also marked by strong
economic growth – the cultural life of the city reached similar
heights. Between 1891 and 1894 the most radical french art of the
time was shown in copenhagen at a number of sensational
exhibitions organised by danish artists with close connections to
Paris (cf. Larsen 2004: 77). den frie Udstilling (the independent
exhibition), which was established in 1891 as an alternative to the
official exhibitions, presented works by Paul Gauguin and vincent
van Gogh in the spring of 1893. at approximately the same time
“Works by the french symbolist school”, including paintings by
Pierre Bonnard, Paul sérusier, Édouard vuillard, Émile Bernard and
others were displayed at vesterbrogade in the gallery of the art dealer
Georg Kleis. Both den frie and Kleis continued to play an
important role in supporting young art in the early years of the
twentieth century.
the presence of appropriate exhibition opportunities in
copenhagen was probably part of the reason why edvard Munch
chose to exhibit there, rather than simply passing through on his way
to Paris and Berlin, where he lived and worked from 1889. Kleis
hosted Munch’s first solo exhibition in copenhagen in 1893 – the
same exhibition that had become a veritable succès de scandale in
Berlin the previous autumn. Munch continued to return to
copenhagen, participating in exhibitions there every year between
1904 and 1909 (with the exception of 1907) as well as in 1915 and
1917. four of these were solo exhibitions.
302 Dorthe Aagesen

Zahrtmann’s school of art and the nordic network

Munch’s example probably inspired the subsequent generation of
norwegian artists who came to copenhagen in the first two decades
of the twentieth century. several of these were also attracted by the
possibilities of an alternative art education in copenhagen and found
a stimulating environment at Kristian Zahrtmann’s school of art.
the school opened in the 1880s as an alternative to the royal
academy of fine arts and soon became known for Zahrtmann’s
open and experimental approach to painting, which encouraged
students to explore new means of expression. at the beginning of
the twentieth century the school was still considered to be one of the
best options for an independent, non-academic training in the
nordic countries. the importance of Zahrtmann’s school of art,
however, lies not only in its educational principles, but also in its
status as a meeting place for many of the young, radically-minded
artists from across the nordic countries (cf. abildgaard 1994). the
school played an unquestionably important role in the formation of
artists’ networks and laid the foundation for the most significant
wartime artists’ groups. among the danish students at the school
were Giersing, sigurd swane and ernst Goldschmidt, as well as the
slightly younger Jais nielsen, olaf rude and William scharff. as
early as 1909-10, only a few years after their studies with Zahrtmann,
these artists joined the battle to become leading representatives of
the new generation. the young artists divided into two competing
groups – De Tretten (the thirteen) and Ung Dansk Kunst (Young
danish art) – both of whose core ranks contained former pupils of
Zahrtmann. While the two groups were short-lived, they nevertheless
paved the way for the formation of the artists’ association
Grønningen (the Green), which became one of the most prominent
danish artists’ groups during the war.
among Zahrtmann’s norwegian students were several of the
artists who would later label themselves “the norwegian students of
Matisse”, among those from sweden, future members of de Unga
(the Young).2 soon these groups would contend for precedence with
the young danish artists as the most radical representatives of the
new generation. Zahrtmann’s school of art did not admit women,
thus contributing, from the outset, to the exclusion of women from
copenhagen’s avant-garde milieu. indeed, none of the groups
mentioned above counted women among their members.
Art Metropolis for a Day 303

a strong interest in recent french art was common among

Zahrtmann’s students during his last years of teaching up to 1908.
thus, from 1905 onwards, a steady flow of former Zahrtmann
students travelled to Paris. there, nordic artists lived in close
proximity to one another and formed strong social groups, making
it possible to speak of a tangible nordic environment in Paris.
significantly, parts of the Parisian community of nordic artists were
“relocated” to copenhagen following the outbreak of World War i,
thereby providing an important foundation for the alliances that
emerged there during and after the war (cf. abildgaard 1994: 94 ff).
during their time in Paris, several of these artists attended
Parisian art schools, such as académie Matisse, which maintained a
strong norwegian and swedish student base. only two danish
artists have been linked to the school. one of them was astrid holm
who, as a woman, had been excluded from studying with Zahrtmann.
Unlike Zahrtmann, Matisse welcomed women in his school. apart
from Matisse’s instruction, the attraction of the school seems to have
been the stimulating social environment to be found there. in 1910,
the year holm attended the académie Matisse, the school attracted
a particularly large number of students from the nordic countries –
of a total of around 40 students, almost half were swedes and
norwegians – in spite of the fact that Matisse’s own involvement in
the school was declining and his direct contact to the students was
académie Matisse furnished these artists with new approaches to
painting, among them the use of decorative effects achieved by
means of strongly contrasting colours, simplified forms and dark
contour lines. these tendencies were first presented in copenhagen
in 1911, in the exhibition “Ung norsk Kunst” (Young norwegian
art), featuring works by the Matisse students henrik sørensen, Per
deberitz, severin Grande, Jean heiberg and axel revold, several of
whom were also former students at Zahrtmann’s school of art. the
critics were shaken by the brutality of the paintings and the “roar of
colours” which echoed through the exhibition spaces. “never before
have we seen such extreme radicality gathered together”, wrote one.4
Before the outbreak of World War i, contemporary norwegian art
was considered the cutting edge of visual avant-garde art due to what
was perceived as its radical use of artistic devices. the constant and
strongly felt presence of Munch is most likely to have been a major
304 Dorthe Aagesen

factor in maintaining this reputation. it was not until after the

outbreak of the war in 1914 that young danish and swedish artists
were to receive comparable attention.

avant-garde art in exhibitions before 1914

it was also possible to see art from countries beyond the nordic
region in copenhagen during these years. indeed, many nordic
artists travelled to the city for just this purpose. in March 1908
norwegian and swedish artists flocked to copenhagen – among
them the future Matisse students henrik sørensen and isaac
Grünewald – in order to see an exhibition of english art at the ny
carlsberg Glyptotek, which included works by John constable,
thomas Gainsborough and J.W.M. turner (Werenskiold 1975: 166).
an exhibition hosted by Kleis showcasing contemporary european
avant-garde art ran concurrently with the english exhibition. Kleis’s
show included paintings by erik heckel, ernst Ludwig Kirchner,
Max Pechstein, and Karl schmidt-rottluff from the German artists’
group die Brücke. the exhibition had come to copenhagen from
Kunsthalle Kiel and subsequently travelled to Blomquist’s gallery in
Kristiania (now oslo) before returning southwards to rostock and
Prior to the outbreak of the war, however, exhibitions of this kind
were rare, isolated events in copenhagen and generally attracted
little, all too often unfavourable, attention. danish art critics
characteristically dismissed the works of the Brücke painters as
ridiculous or insignificant. the painter Gudmund hentze was alone
in publicly announcing his support in the press. he had been invited
to exhibit some of his own work at a Brücke exhibition in dresden
during the winter of 1906-7 and probably helped his German
acquaintances to set up their exhibition in copenhagen. hentze
praised the “boiling abundance of colour” in these artists’ works,
their “energy”, “excess” and “powerful words” and strongly advised
young danish painters to see the exhibition (Werenskiold 1975: 159).
the German gallery-owner and magazine editor herwarth
Walden’s first activities in scandinavia also had a significant impact
on the pre-war danish art scene. these started with a bang in July
1912, when Walden brought twenty-four recent paintings by the
italian futurists to den frie Udstillings bygning (the independent
Art Metropolis for a Day 305

exhibition building) in copenhagen. the exhibition was a reduced

version of the one which had been shown five months earlier at the
Parisian gallery Bernheim-Jeune and had caused the futurists’
sensational breakthrough. from Paris the exhibition had travelled
to London and was then taken over by herwarth Walden, who first
showed it in Berlin and then sent it on tour to Brussels, hamburg
and copenhagen.5 copenhagen was the sixth venue en route. from
denmark it would move on to such cities as the hague, cologne,
and Munich. the futurist exhibition became a true sensation,
causing a stir wherever it went and attracting a lot of attention in
the media. danish critics too saw it as an important event and
launched themselves into discussions about the nature of futurist art
with great fervour. Most danish critics, however, had difficulties
understanding the conceptual foundation of the futurist project, and
instead preferred to discuss formal qualities of the works, such as
Umberto Boccioni’s “often magnificent use of colour”6 or the way
in which “life and colour swarm” on Gino severini’s giant canvas
Pan-Pan at the Monico (1911).
although we have only a few accounts of how danish artists
responded to the futurist exhibition, it is clear that they took notice
of it. the papers left by the painter William scharff include a danish
translation of the futurist manifesto, which he may have circulated
among his colleagues (abildgaard 2001: 27-28). Giersing is known
to have seen the exhibition in Berlin shortly prior to its copenhagen
appearance. he also owned a copy of the exhibition catalogue with
his own notes added in the margin (Gottlieb 1995: 134-135). robert
storm Petersen’s satirical comment on the futurist mode of
expression published in the newspaper ekstra Bladet while the
italian paintings were still on show in copenhagen, suggests that he
too attended the exhibition. a month later, we may note, storm P,
as he called himself, established personal contact with Walden (Bing
1985: 43).
Walden returned to copenhagen in May 1913 with an exhibition
of “cubists and expressionists” installed at the Københavns
Kunstsalon (copenhagen art salon) in Bredgade. Gabriele Münter
dominated this event with no less than 30 paintings. also represented
were the russian Marianne von Werefkin – who, like Münter, was a
founding member of the German expressionist group der Blaue
reiter – and the french artists henri Le fauconnier and raoul
306 Dorthe Aagesen

dufy.7 Unlike the futurist exhibition of the previous year, this

exhibition attracted little press coverage. the vernissage was attended
by so few guests that Walden cancelled a scheduled conference at
which he had planned to present explanations of the works to the
copenhagen audience. according to the critic writing for Politiken,
the attendees consisted only of a small, closed circle of repre-
sentatives of the literati “and a couple of our most radical artists”.8
the press coverage also shows that views of art were now
influenced by prevalent pro-french and anti-German attitudes. the
critics clearly favoured the two french painters, who were, for once,
according to one critic, “authentically french”.9 their attitudes
toward the two women artists were more reserved: one found their
pictures garish and gaudy, and thought that their irregular surfaces
made them look as though they had been handled “with heavy
butcher’s fists … something that you will never find with the french,
despite all their sins” (hohlenberg 1913).
“What do we want these russians and Germans here for?” he
asked. “they shall not be prophets here”. this admiration for all
things french and opposition to all things German became
increasingly pronounced in the years to come.

danish neutrality and the cultural Boom

thus, by the outbreak of the war in 1914, copenhagen was already
playing the role of a cultural metropolis. following the outbreak,
however, cultural activities intensified and the art market developed
significantly. Gradually, this also came to benefit young radical
artists. Walden continued his activities in copenhagen during the
war, organising exhibitions featuring international art in 1917 and
this sudden upturn can be partially explained by the danish
government’s decision to pursue a politics of neutrality immediately
after the outbreak of World War i. the strategy entailed avoiding
alliances with any superpower, persistently declaring denmark
neutral in relation to the conflicts of others and calling for this status
to be recognised, even guaranteed by the superpowers (cf. holbraad
1991). implemented by the radical-liberal government which had
been formed in 1913, this strategy stood the test of practical
application following the outbreak of the war in august 1914. after
Art Metropolis for a Day 307

consulting the leaders of the other political parties, the government

concluded that absolute impartiality was the only possible political
strategy and accordingly sent out a number of declarations of
Behind the official stance, however, several unofficial manoeuvres
indicate that the situation was far more complex than might be
assumed. Germany demanded special attention from denmark
during these years, given its geographical proximity to denmark and
its steadily growing power. indeed, denmark had become
increasingly dependent on Germany during the second half of the
nineteenth century and secret, informal negotiations with German
military authorities around 1906-7 were about to turn the politics of
neutrality into an alliance. these negotiations continued under the
last pre-war governments and intensified after the outbreak of the
war. thus, in reality, danish neutrality was pro-German. this meant
that from the outset the danish government was prepared to adapt
to German needs. the danish government’s strategy of adapting to
Germany while simultaneously trying to exploit the possibilities of
being a neutral state was generally accepted among the political
leaders. this might help explain why an enterprising art dealer such
as Walden, from his base in Berlin and with his strong connections
to the political system, could continue his activities in copenhagen
during the war. the sympathies of the King, the cultural elite and
the people, however, predominantly lay with the allied forces. this
indicates a significant discontinuity between cultural discourse on
the one hand and political reality on the other, a conflict which
Walden encountered in the critical reception of his exhibitions in the
last years of the war.
denmark’s political strategy literally paid off. By means of its
neutrality, denmark succeeded in continuing trade with both sides
during the war. for example, danish companies’ importation of raw
materials from Britain in order to supply Germany with agricultural
products was tolerated. danish farming and shipping, especially,
profited from this situation and made large sums of money during
the war period.

collectors and dealers sheltered from the War

this economic prosperity was an important precondition for the
308 Dorthe Aagesen

culture of collecting which flourished in denmark during World War

i. the newly rich, who earned their money by trading food or other
stock to the belligerent powers, played a central role in the
transformation of copenhagen’s modest art market into a special
attraction during the war.
among several major collectors of both danish and foreign art,
the merchant christian tetzen-Lund was the most consistent
collector of new, radical art.10 tetzen-Lund’s wealth predated the
outbreak of the war and around 1909-10 he had started to create a
collection of works by young danish and norwegian painters, in
particular those of the dane aksel Jørgensen of the artists’ group
de tretten and the norwegian Matisse student Ludvig Karsten. he
continued to support these two painters during the war, all the while
adding to the list of names in his collection, which came to include
nearly all the high-profile young scandinavian artists (among them
Giersing, rude, Jens adolf Jerichau, Karl Larsen and svend
Johansen from denmark, Per Krohg from norway, and isaac
Grünewald, sigrid hjertén and Leander engström from sweden).
at the same time, tetzen-Lund benefited from the low prices of the
international art market during the war and, from 1916, began to
buy european, particularly french, art in earnest.
the collector’s own hand-written lists reveal that between the
years 1916-1919, he acquired no less than 20 works by Pablo Picasso,
23 by andré derain, and 12 by Matisse, in addition to a substantial
number of works by auguste renoir, Paul cézanne and van Gogh.
the collection, housed in tetzen-Lund’s private residence in
Palægade, was opened to the general public once a week from
January 1917 and remained accessible until 1924. Given that
travelling abroad was difficult at this time due to the war, the tetzen-
Lund collection provided the citizens of copenhagen with a valuable
link to the contemporary international art scene. tetzen-Lund’s
‘open house’ attracted many visitors, among them artists and
museum officials.
the founding of the dansk Kunsthandel (danish art Gallery)
was another ambitious enterprise dependent on denmark’s wartime
prosperity and which was particularly committed to the promotion
of the artistic avant-garde. founded by the engineer and art collector
Johannes rump and managed by the painter viggo Madsen, one of
the founding members of the art association Grønningen, the
Art Metropolis for a Day 309

company’s aim was precisely to exhibit and trade work by the most
radical figures within the contemporary danish art scene. Modelled
on modern french examples (Warming 2007), the gallery entered
contracts with a number of young artists that specified, in return for
fixed salaries, the delivery of a specific minimum of works, in specific
formats, at specified times. the company, which worked out of
specially designed business premises in central copenhagen, also set
up a bronze foundry, a stonemason’s yard and a ceramics factory,
the gallery’s intention being to take care of all aspects of production,
promotion and sale of its artists’ work.
opening in september 1917, the dansk Kunsthandel ran for two
years and in that time organised around 40 exhibitions. each
exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue and promoted via
modern marketing methods such as advertisements in daily
newspapers and on the city’s trams. Many of the exhibitions were
dedicated to the members of Grønningen, although a notable
amount of attention was also given to significant scandinavian
artists with copenhagen connections, such as the norwegian Krohg,
and the swedes engström, ejnar Jolin, and Grünewald.

avant-Garde art in exhibitions after 1914

the community of young artists in copenhagen began to assume
the character of an avant-garde formation in earnest following the
outbreak of the war. several factors seem to have encouraged this
development. since travel to other parts of europe was both
dangerous and difficult at this time, copenhagen was populated by
an unprecedented number of young native artists (cf. abildgaard
2002: 174). as already mentioned, the city’s favourable position with
regard to sales possibilities would seem to explain why so many
artists from the other nordic countries also flocked to copenhagen
during the war. thus, more artists were gathered in the city than at
any time before the war. Moreover, with organisational changes
improving exhibition possibilities, as well as intense media coverage,
the emergent generation of artists came to play a far more active and
visible role in the danish art scene than had any previous generation.
an important step in this direction was taken in March 1915
when a group of artists led by Giersing broke with den frie
Udstilling in order to form the new artists’ association Grønningen
310 Dorthe Aagesen

(taking its name from the location of its first exhibition venue). as
noted, den frie Udstilling was originally formed in opposition to
the official exhibitions at the academy (charlottenborg) but had
developed into an institution as powerful and oppressive as the
academy itself. emphasising the difference of their position, the
members of Grønningen now defined themselves as “the most
independent of all”.
during its first years, Grønningen presented rather moderate
works of art. But as time passed, its founder members pursued more
experimental avenues, while the arrival of new members also
contributed to radicalising the image of the association. Grønningen
soon became known as the most significant circle of young danish
artists. at first all members were danish (apart from the norwegian
arne Lofthus), although other scandinavian artists frequently
appeared as guests at the annual exhibitions. one such guest was the
swedish painter Karl isakson (in 1915 and 1919), a former fellow
student at Zahrtmann’s school of art and a close friend of several
members of Grønningen’s inner circle. other examples include the
norwegian Matisse students revold (in 1916) and Karsten (in 1916
and 1917).
to further consolidate its image and direction, Grønningen’s 1917
exhibition included a selection of recent french art from the tetzen-
Lund collection, specifically works by Matisse, Georges Braque and
roger de la fresnaye.

in 1915, concurrent with the formation of Grønningen, Kunstnernes

efterårsudstilling (artists’ autumn exhibition, aka Ke) changed its
profile. after fifteen years of being habitually installed at charlot-
tenborg, the annual exhibition moved into the independent
exhibition building. in addition, representatives of the young artists
gained a place on the exhibition committee. this exhibition would
gather together a broad range of work by young artists (not only
those belonging to Grønningen). the final breakthrough of radical
danish art in 1917 and 1918 occurred at Ke, surrounded by storms
of outrage attracting both enormous press coverage and crowds of
visitors. Principal names among the rebels were three of Zahrtmann’s
last pupils, nielsen, rude and scharff, as well as three of the
youngest figures in the danish art community, Johansen, Larsen and
vilhelm Lundstrøm. here visitors met with images of or related to
Art Metropolis for a Day 311

vilhelm Lundstrøm, Det andet bud (the second commandment), 1918,

collage, 113.5×81.5 cm. national Gallery of denmark.
312 Dorthe Aagesen

contemporary urban reality – trams, circus and music hall scenes –

and works characterised by unprecedented formal innovations:
splintered forms, powerful colours and, in some cases, unusual
materials. the latter applied to Lundstrøm’s collage paintings, which
were the first of their kind to be created in denmark and, as the most
radical challenge to public taste, provoked the strongest reactions.
Like Grønningen, Ke invited guests as a means to point out the
orientation of the exhibition. Munch was a guest in 1915, while, one
year later, Krohg’s pictures were displayed alongside those of
cézanne, Matisse, Kees van dongen, othon friesz and other
modern french painters from the Johannes rump collection.
Ke also made space for young artists from other nordic
countries. apart from Krohg, the norwegian painter alf rolfson
exhibited there (1916), as did the icelanders Jóhannes Kjarval (1916
and 1917), Júlíana sveinsdóttir (1918) and Jon stéfansón (1919). a
considerable proportion of the artists who exhibited at Ke were
women, who were not welcome at Grønningen. Between 1915 and
1919, astrid holm and her female colleagues Bizzie høyer, annette
hoff and ebba carstensen appeared frequently at Ke, and were
often represented by several works. the same applies to Yrsa
hansen, Kamma thorn, Besse syberg and ville oppenheim – the
future wives of the painters Lundstrøm, axel salto, Giersing and
nielsen, respectively, who would all later redefine or give up their
professional lives in favour of the careers of their husbands.

the German painter Gabriele Münter also appeared at Ke during

this period. first presented to the danish public by Walden in 1913,
she moved to copenhagen from stockholm in the autumn of 1917.
in 1919 six of her works were on display at Ke.11

nordic characters
the presence of nordic artists in copenhagen’s art scene during the
war years did not diminish but, in fact, increased. two large, official
exhibitions of norwegian and swedish art held at charlottenborg
in 1915 and 1916, respectively, indicated denmark’s favourable
attitude toward the culture of its sister countries. While the war was
tearing the rest of europe apart, a feeling of interconnectedness was
bringing the nordic countries closer together. the belief in a
Art Metropolis for a Day 313

Per Krohg, Granaten

(the Grenade), 1916,
oil on canvas,
172.5×135 cm.
trondheim Kunst-

Per Krohg, Hockey,

1918, oil on canvas,
86×137 cm. Private
314 Dorthe Aagesen

common nordic cultural identity was thriving and initiatives for

inter-nordic collaboration were met with official support.
indeed, the period was characterised by a myriad of exhibitions
of various sizes featuring work by artists from across the nordic
countries. artists had the possibility to rent the independent
exhibition building, which, alongside Grønningen, became the main
exhibition space for young experimental art. exhibitions were also
set up in other art galleries and alternative exhibition spaces such as
the Københavns ovenlyssal (copenhagen skylight Gallery), where
the two swedish painters vera nilsson and Mollie faustman made
their début in 1917. nordic artists – norwegian and swedish, in
particular – figured prominently in the danish art scene of the day.
they actively contributed to defining which formal experiments were
to be placed on the agenda and to shaping the identity of artists
dedicating themselves to “new art”.
the norwegian painter Per Krohg was probably the most
colourful and eccentric of all the nordic artists in copenhagen.
although he had already made an appearance in the city in 1910 as
part of the artists’ group De Tretten, it was not until he returned as
a dancer in 1913 that he really caught the attention of the
copenhagen audience.12 Krohg clearly stood out in copenhagen’s
art scene in 1915, the year he presented a show in the independent
exhibition building comprising paintings, sculptures and drawings
from the years 1911-15. the exhibition showcased examples of the
naivistic and reductivist idiom focused on the planes for which
Krohg was to become known. “it has been a long while since we have
had the opportunity to acquaint ourselves with such crazy ideas,”
wrote an otherwise positive critic.13 Krohg continued to attract
attention over the following years. as noted, in 1916 he was invited
to exhibit at Ke in the so-called “hall of honour” where he
presented 17 works. Krohg’s last solo exhibition in copenhagen
before the end of the war took place in april 1918 in the dansk
Kunsthandel and consisted of 48 works. Krohg’s art seemed to
appeal to the danes: his exhibitions always received extensive press
coverage and he directly influenced the work of several danish artists
through both his repertoire of images and his particular style.

the most significant representative of the swedish avant-garde was

undoubtedly isaac Grünewald, who had already established himself
Art Metropolis for a Day 315

harald Giersing, Danserinden (the dancer), 1918, oil on compoboard,

122×91 cm. Museum sønderjylland, Kunstmuseet i tønder.
316 Dorthe Aagesen

as the leader of a Matisse-inspired expressionist group in stockholm

around 1912. however, it was not until the 1916 swedish exhibition
at charlottenborg that the copenhagen audience had the oppor-
tunity to see both his work and that of his circle (hjertén, engström,
Jolin and nils dardel). dissatisfied with the exhibition space they
had been granted, the young generation of swedish artists organised
a breakaway exhibition entitled “Moderne svensk Kunst” (Modern
swedish art), which was installed in the independent exhibition
building. twelve artists were represented, although engström,
Grünewald and hjertén appropriated far more wall space than the
other participants. as a result, the exhibition became the great
breakthrough of the Grünewald circle in copenhagen. according to
the critics, even Krohg seemed to pale next to these radical swedes.
“Goodbye, Per Krohg! Goodbye, axel Jørgensen! Goodbye, Jais
nielsen. You will have been reduced to insignificant, prim and proper
academy Professors once the good citizens of copenhagen have
attended the young swedish artists’ exhibition,” proclaimed the
newspaper B.T..14
over the following years, Grünewald played a prominent and
often controversial role in the danish art scene. in 1917 he was back
in the independent exhibition building with a solo exhibition that
generated a lot of attention, including harsh criticism. Grünewald
was accused of superficiality, of creating nothing more than visual
effects, of presenting a complete “bluff ”. these claims aside, there
is no doubt that Grünewald made a vital contribution to the danish
art scene through his conspicuous presence in copenhagen in the
years 1916-19. Both his appearance as an elegantly dressed and self-
assured dandy and his schematically simplified and colourful idiom
became a model for other artists. incidentally, the dansk
Kunsthandel strategically exploited Grünewald’s appearance in its
marketing of his second solo copenhagen exhibition, by sending
photographs of Grünewald and his family to the press. this was too
much for the bigoted danish critics, among them sigurd schultz,
who accused Grünewald of belonging “to the circle of ‘modern’
artists active in this country, who have most clearly acted within an
atmosphere of smartness” (schultz 1919) – and this was not meant
as a compliment.
Art Metropolis for a Day 317

european avant-Garde art and the cultural discourse

a certain similarity characterises much of the avant-garde art
produced in copenhagen during its wartime boom. While the many
nordic artists who had gathered in the city at this time doubtlessly
inspired one another, they also drew on the same examples of recent
european developments that were accessible there (abildgaard 1994:
96-101). the tetzen-Lund collection provided one of the major
opportunities for artists visiting or resident in copenhagen to view
such work; Walden’s exhibitions of international pre-war avant-garde
art were significant too (despite increasing hostility towards Walden
and his enterprise).
as noted, Walden brought two exhibitions to copenhagen during
World War i in 1917 and 1918. the first, entitled “der sturm
Kunstnere” (der sturm artists) was shown at the artists’ cabaret
“edderkoppen” (the spider) through the assistance of the danish
painter, draughtsman and actor storm P. the exhibition comprised
76 works in total – all of them drawings, watercolours and graphic art
–– by artists such as Lyonel feininger, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee,
oscar Kokoschka, franz Marc and Münter. as was the case with his
previous effort, Walden’s exhibition received virtually no mention in
the danish press. one exception was the newspaper Politiken, which
was the only one to consistently mention Walden’s activities. however,
the critic reviewing the 1917 show had no sympathy for or
understanding of the art of the sturm gallery and arrived at the
following conclusion: “one leaves this exhibition reinforced in one’s
previous view of the young, German movement: the teutons, weighty,
fastidious, honest by nature have deliberately set out to be
insubstantial, superficial, and degenerate”.15 now, in 1917, as World
War i raged, the artists’ German ties unavoidably influenced the
reception of their works.
the media criticism, or lack thereof, was too much for Giersing
to suffer in silence. he was the first of the radical danish artists to
speak his mind, expressing his support of the participants in the
sturm exhibition:

the naïve nonchalance with which an exhibition like that of ‘der

sturm’ at the ‘edderkoppen’ is dismissed by the copenhagen press
is characteristic of journalistic criticism today […] oh, if only we
had men with eyes to see instead of these minds, ‘scientifically’
318 Dorthe Aagesen

trained at best […] the ‘der sturm’ exhibition was ignored, it

contained good things and bad things, wonderful things executed in
the abstract language of art, a language which has always spoken of
the same things, and which is now racing towards new modes of
beauty with the speed of an express train. Kandinsky was there,
franz Marc, Bloch, Kampendonk. they are not everything, but they
are knights in the realm of Beauty. (Giersing 1917)

Giersing had clearly read the Blaue Reiter Almanac,16 and during the
years that followed he became an eager advocate of expressionist
ideas. his piece on the sturm exhibition was printed in the recently-
founded journal Klingen, which became, over the next three years,
an important polemical vehicle and mouthpiece for young
scandinavian artists in copenhagen.
Walden’s last exhibition during the war carried the title
“international kunst. ekspressionister og Kubister” (international
art. expressionists and cubists) and was shown in Kleis’s gallery.
this, Walden’s largest and most ambitious exhibition in scandinavia
during the period, comprised of 133 works by 24 artists from 8
different countries. insofar as it has been possible to identify the
exhibits, all were created before the outbreak of the war. German art
was the most represented numerically, with a total of 63 works.
Walden also included a large number of works by the most
significant artists from his sturm Gallery in Berlin – Marc chagall
in particular, but also Kandinsky, Picasso and the french artists
albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger. scandinavian art was represented
by the swedish painters hjertén, Gösta adrian-nilsson and
Walden’s wife, nell Walden.
it transpires that this exhibition was the result of an agreement
between Walden and the German authorities to subtly promote
German interests.17 from the outset of the war, Walden was in
clandestine contact with the so-called Zentralstelle für auslands-
dienst (central office for foreign services), a department under the
German Ministry of foreign affairs responsible for distributing pro-
German material in neutral countries and monitoring their political
discussions. in agreement with the central office, Walden acted as
the leader of a news agency supplying the scandinavian and dutch
media with translated German articles and vice versa.18 Walden’s
activities in copenhagen during the war would probably not have
Art Metropolis for a Day 319

been possible without assistance from the German central office.

the office supplied him with money for travel within scandinavia
and with letters of recommendation designed to ease his activities.
in return, Walden was expected to infiltrate the leading media
communities as best he could.
it is against this backdrop that we must understand Walden’s 1918
proposal to Germany’s ambassador in denmark to send an
exhibition of work by sturm Gallery artists to copenhagen to
promote the German case. “More specifically, the exhibition will
have an international feel and will prove to the danes that we are
free of political sympathies or aversions within the art world”, the
ambassador later explained to the German chancellor. “herr Walden
will compile the exhibition by means of works by German artists
and those from enemy nations, albeit by means of a mode of
presentation that lets the German works appear as the more
valuable” (Winskell 1995: 342 and 95). the ambassador was of the
opinion that the exhibition had some chance of success, “as the
secessionist circles among the danes have repeatedly evinced
sympathy towards Germany and would be prepared to receive our
pictures” (Winskell 1995: 99 and 343).
Walden’s strategy failed. Both the exhibition and its organiser
were subjected to severe criticism in the danish press. schultz, for
example, attacked Walden and his enterprise with an aggressiveness
that reflects the anti-German sentiment that had reached new heights
during the war. of the exhibition he wrote: “in sum, a perfect and
hideous example of the dregs of the fundamental German character,
of German tastelessness … and fraudulent manipulation of ideal
values.” (schultz 1918) even the international nature of the
exhibition was interpreted negatively as an expression of “something
belonging to no country, with no roots” (schultz 1918).
the writer and architect Poul henningsen, writing for Klingen,
complained that no more than 30 of the exhibits deserved notice,
and that only very few of these were truly good (henningsen 1918).
“once again, we have ample opportunity to wonder at how superior
french art is to German and swedish art, and once again we ponder
the extent to which art depends on the great People, just as the
People depend on art. German soil is definitely not conducive to
talented painters”, he concluded.
the prevailing view among danish critics was that french art was
320 Dorthe Aagesen

refined, possessed of a rare sensitivity to colour and an immediate

appeal to the eye, or, as the critic and champion of the avant-garde
carl v. Petersen put it in 1912, “the source of light, the very origin
of modern painting” (Petersen 1912). German art, on the other
hand, was constantly compared with french art and characterised
as its polar opposite. admiration of all things french and opposition
to all things German suffused art debates throughout the decade,
and influenced attitudes toward the danish avant-garde during the
war years. for example, a review of the Ke in 1918 included an
attack on olaf rude, who was accused of “wasting his youth on
German scholarly pursuits”. according to the critic, it was evident
“that these young people have not visited Paris for a long time”, and
that most of the works in the exhibition were “poor imitations of
German imitations” – of idealised french art, that is.19
Most of the young artists, however, did not share this opinion.
on the contrary, they had always followed the development of avant-
garde art with great attention and sympathy. in the first issue of
Klingen, axel salto eloquently expressed the attitudes of his
contemporaries, writing, with manifesto-like clout: “Like a mighty
phalanx ‘new art’ advances: frenchmen, russians, Germans,
scandinavians, Poles, spaniards – artists from all countries are on
the march. art is at the threshold of the new, rich land […]”.20
nordic artists saw themselves as part of an international movement,
operating above national allegiances. Whereas the cultural discourse
as expressed in newspaper reports etc. reflected the nationalist
political climate and was consequently critical of the international
avant-garde, the artists’ own declarations – both verbal and pictorial
– revealed their orientation beyond the borders of the north towards
a profoundly international avant-garde discourse.

cultural deroute
the end of the war in november 1918 promptly threw the danish
economy into crisis. the art market suffered badly. in september
1919, the dansk Kunsthandel began to cancel contracts with artists,
sell off its production facilities, and, at very low prices, the art works
held in-store. a few years later, in 1924-25, tetzen-Lund chose to
dissolve his collection. Most artists from the other nordic countries
disappeared from the danish art scene, returning either to their
Art Metropolis for a Day 321

homelands or to other european countries. several danish artists

followed suit, travelling to italy to study classical art, if they did not
return to Paris, which had reclaimed its title as the most important
european centre of modern art. copenhagen’s art scene lost
momentum and as an immediate consequence its avant-garde
community diminished.

ernst Goldschmidt (under the pseudonym Jacques coignard), Politiken, october 1916.
this applies to arvid nilsson, Birger simonson and tor Bjurström among others.
other central members of the group isaac Grünewald, Leander engström and arthur
Percy had been studying at Konstnärsförbundets skola in stockholm, which might be
considered a swedish equivalent to Zahrtmann’s school of art, as it also offered an al-
ternative to traditional academic training.
other Parisian art schools also played a role in the development of the nordic network.
this applies to i.e. henri Le fauconniers school of art, académie de la Palette, which
attracted several nordic artists in the years following the closure of académie Matisse.
among others, danish albert naur and swedish vera nilsson became acquainted here.
‘U.c.’: “Ung norsk Kunst”, in: Illustreret Tidende, 12.11. 1911, p. 83.
the exhibition came to Berlin following negotiations with the group’s leader, filippo
tommaso Marinetti. Walden succeeded in selling 24 of the exhibition works to the Berlin
banker dr. Borchardt with the rider that Walden would be allowed to include them in a
travelling exhibition. this facilitated its visit to copenhagen and elsewhere.
“futurister. de fires udstilling”, Socialdemokraten, 12.7. 1912.
the Berlin artist arthur segal was also included in the exhibition; see Werenskiold
(1984: 144-145) and raaschou-nilsen (1992: 99-100).
anker [Kirkeby]: ”en fornem vernissage i dag”, Politiken, 1.5.1913.
n.L. [nicolaus Lützhøft]: ”Moderne Kunstudstilling”, Politiken, 3.5.1913.
the seminal text on tetzen-Lund’s collection remains Lennart Gottlieb’s article from
1984, which i have used in the following. see also: Kasper Monrad: “christian tetzen-
Lund. the Merchant with the sharp eye and Unlimited ambition”, in Henri Matisse.
Four Great Collectors. ed. Kasper Monrad. statens Museum for Kunst, copenhagen
1999, pp. 137-155.
While living in copenhagen, Gabriele Münter also displayed her art at two compre-
hensive exhibitions of which the first comprising 100 works took place in the free in-
dependent? exhibition building in 1918. the second one was shown the following year
in Københavns ny Kunstsal (copenhagen new art hall) comprising no fewer than 111
With his french fiancée Lucy vidil (who had previously worked as a model at the
académie Matisse), Krohg presented a repertoire of modern dances such as the apache
322 Dorthe Aagesen

dance and the argentinean tango. Press reviews of his dance performances mentioned
that Krohg was also a painter, even of the most daring kind – more radical than his
fellow Matisse students, since he had already long ago “abandoned Matisse’s school of
art which he considered obsolete and old-fashioned” (’anker’: ”Maleren”, in: Politiken,
29.10 1913).
‘helge’: ”hvad folk skal sé”, in: Politiken, 25.2. 1915.
“de svenske sensationer”, in: B.t., 5.12. 1916.
anker [Kirkeby]: ”Æselhalen”, Politiken, 14.10.1917.
as noted by Gottlieb (1995: 192).
on this and the following see Winskell (1995).
for further information on Walden’s secret news agency and his activities in the nether-
lands see van den Berg (2005b).
a.W. (andreas vinding): ”den frie Udstilling og det syvende Bud”, Politiken,
s [axel salto]: ”Kunstnernes efteraarsudstilling facilitated its visit to copenhagen and
Art Metropolis for a Day 323

WorKs cited
aagesen, dorthe. 2002. Avant-Garde in Danish and European Art 1909-1919, statens
Museum for Kunst, copenhagen.
––. 2008. “farvebrøl og sindssyge påfund. Matisse-elever i København 1910-1920”,
in: Nordens Matisse-elever. cat. i. Gl strand: copenhagen: pp. 8-17.
abildgaard, hanne. 1990. “den modernistiske gennembrud i dansk malerkunst om-
kring den første verdenskrig”, in: Argos. Tidsskrift for kunstvidenskab, visuel
kommunikation, Kunstpædagogik. no. 7-8. odense Universitetsforlag: pp.
––. 1994. Tidlig modernisme, in: ny dansk kunsthistorie, bd. 6. copenhagen.
––. 2001. “William scharff og den tidlige danske modernisme”, in: William Scharff.
Mellem myte og modernisme. nivaagaards Malerisamling and others, 2001.
––. 2002. “the nordic Paris”, in: The Avant-Garde in European Art 1909-1919. sta-
tens Museum for Kunst, copenhagen: pp. 172-187.
van den Berg. hubert. 2005. “Kortlægning af gamle spor af det nye. Bidrag til en
historisk topografi over det 20. århundredes europæiske avantgarde(r)”, in:
tania Ørum et al. (eds.): En tradition af opbrud. Avantgardernes tradition og
politik, spring: copenhagen: pp. 19-43.
also published in english: hubert van den Berg. 2006. “Mapping old traces of the
new. for a historical topography of 20th-century avant-garde(s) in the eu-
ropean cultural field(s)” in: Arcadia 41 (2) 2006: 331-351.
––. 2005 (2). “…wir müssen mit und durch deutschland in unserer Kunst weiter-
kommen“. Jacoba van heemskerck und das geheimdienstliche „nachtrich-
tenbüro ‚der sturm’“, in: Petra Josting and Walter fähnders (hgg.):
„Laboratorium Vielseitigkeit“. Zur Literatur der Weimarer Rupublik, ais-
thesis, Bielefeld, copenhagen, pp. 67-87.
Bing, Jens. 1985. Maleren Storm P, copenhagen: storm P.-Museet.
Brunius, teddy. 1986. “svenska Konstnärer i danmark”, in: Svenske kunstnere i
Danmark. Fra 1880’erne til 1930’erne, Kunstforeningen, copenhagen: pp.
Giersing, harald. 1917. “der sturm”, in: Klingen, vol. 1, no. 2 (november 1917).
––. . 1909. “Kunstnernes efteraarsudstilling ii”, in: Kunstbladet, 1909.
Gottlieb, Lennart. 1984. “tetzen-Lunds samling – om dens historie, indhold og be-
tydning”, in: Kunst og Museum, vol. 19: pp. 18-49.
––. 1990. “intrige-bacillen – om den glemte sammenslutning ‘Ung dansk Kunst’ og
dannelsen af Grønningen”, in: Grønningen. De tidlige år. ny carlsberg Glyp-
totek: copenhagen: pp. 7-29.
––. 1995. Giersing. Maler, kritiker, menneske. copenhagen, 1995.
henningsen, Poul. 1918. “der sturm”, Klingen, vol. 2, no. 3 (december 1918).
hohlenberg, J.e. 1913. “Udstillinger. Københavns Kunstsalon: expressionister og
Kubister”, Illustreret Tidende, vol. 54, no. 32, 1913, pp. 400-401.
holbraad, carsten. 1991. Danish Neutrality. A Study in the Foreign Policy of a Small
State. clarendon Press: oxford.
Larsen, Peter nørgaard. 2004. “rabulist-reden”, in: henrik Wivel (red.): Drøm-
324 Dorthe Aagesen

metid. Fortællinger fra Det Sjælelige Gennembruds København, copenhagen:

pp. 70-77.
Meyer, Joachim. 1994. “Johannes rump som kunsthandler – historien om dansk
Kunsthandel (1917-1919), in: Johannes Rump – Portræt af en samler. statens
Museum for Kunst, copenhagen: pp. 42-53.
Petersen, carl v. 1912: “Moderne Malerkunst hjemme og ude”, Tilskueren, 1912,
p. 452.
raaschou-nilsen, inge vibeke: “storm over København. Berlinergalleriet ‘der
sturm’ besøger København 1912-1918”, in: Kunstmuseets Årsskrift, statens
Museum for Kunst, copenhagen 1992.
schultz, sigurd. 1917. “der sturm”, Illustreret Tidende, vol. 59, no. 49, 8.12.1918, p.
––. 1919. “isaac Grünewalds Udstilling”, in: Illustreret Tidende, 23.3. 1919.
Warming, rikke. 2007. “rump, danish collectors and derain”, in: andré derain.
an outsider in french art. statens Museum for Kunst, copenhagen, p. 215,
Werenskiold, Marit. 1975. “tysk eskpresjonisme i norden. ‘die Brücke’ stiller ut i
København og Kristiania 1908” in: Kunst og Kultur. 58. årg. Gyldendal
norsk forlag: oslo.
––. 1984. The Concept of Expressionism. Origin and Metamorphoses. Universitets-
forlaget: oslo, Bergen, stavanger, tromsø.
Winskell, Kate. 1995. “the art of Propaganda: herwarth Walden and ‘der sturm’,
1914-1919”, in: Art History, vol. 18, no. 3, september 1995: pp. 315-344.
KandinsKY in sWeden
– MaLMö 1914 and stocKhoLM 1916

Margareta tillberg

Wassily Kandinsky was already a world-famous artist when first pre-

sented to a swedish audience at a group show of russian artists at
the Baltic exhibition in Malmö in 1914. the great acclaim the show
received smoothed the way for a subsequent solo exhibition at a pri-
vate stockholm gallery in 1916. this essay will contextualise these
exhibitions within a wider social and cultural milieu. due to their
geographical proximity, connections between sweden and russia
were always intense, often complex and sometimes problematic.
from the onset of World War i, followed by six years of civil war
after the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, russia became increas-
ingly isolated. With the exception of Kandinsky’s stay in sweden in
1916 during one of the coldest winters of the war, the Baltic exhibi-
tion marked the beginning of a long decline in russian-swedish cul-
tural contact.

the Baltic exhibition, Malmö 1914

the Baltic exhibition ran from 15 May to 30 september 1914 in
Malmö. situated in southern sweden, Malmö was an emerging in-
dustrial town of 100,000 inhabitants. it specialised in textile, concrete
and food production. its harbour was lively, being positioned oppo-
site the danish capital, copenhagen, along the narrow öresund
channel, and open to prospects for the future. With its recent canal-
isation, broader roads and bridges, Malmö was keen to promote it-
self to the world. the Baltic exhibition was designed by ferdinand
326 Margareta Tillberg

Baltiska Utställningen (the Baltic exhibition), Malmö 1914.

Boberg. having worked on many World fairs, designing the stock-

holm exhibitions of 1897 and 1909, the swedish pavilions in st.
Louis 1904, Berlin 1907, venice 1907, and st. Petersburg 1908, he
was well-qualified to do so (Pehrsson 1989: 16). Malmö was chosen
to host the event for its central Baltic position. focused around Pil-
dammsparken, a large park in central Malmö, where some pavilions
remain, the exhibition site took three years to construct.
Large-scale industrial fairs often contained sections dedicated to
art and craft so as to bring added colour and flair to the proceedings.
Kandinsky in Sweden 327

in contrast, art fairs that showcased technology were less common.1

in addition to finland, sweden and denmark, Germany and russia
were included in the art section committee’s definition of “Baltic”.
initially, it was stipulated that art work should not be older than
seventeen years (thus excluding work that could have appeared at
the stockholm exhibition of 1897), and that participating artists
should still be alive. however, due to the world recession and the dif-
ficulties this caused to even the realisation of an exhibition, these
limits were not adhered to.
Willingness to participate in the Baltic exhibition, yet another
of the increasingly frequent international fairs and one to be held in
a small, unknown town in the cold northern peripheries, rather than
in a metropolis such as London or Paris, was understandably limited.
Germany, sweden’s biggest trade partner, showed immediate interest,
while russia refused to commit to the project until the very last mo-
in sweden, awareness of the existence of modern art was mini-
mal, and it was not until the Baltic exhibition that the most recent
russian and German avant-garde art came to sweden. the exhibi-
tion consisted of 3,526 objects and was, at the time, the largest art
event scandinavia had seen.2 the painter oscar Björck, professor at
the swedish academy of art, was appointed director of the art sec-
tion. Björck was a good friend of Prince eugen Bernadotte, the
brother of the swedish king and an artist in his own right. Both
Björck and Prince eugen, as he was called, were members of the pro-
gressive artists’ association, which organised the art section of the
Baltic exhibition. Prince eugen had previously helped the organiser
sergei diaghilev with the important 1897 scandinavian exhibition,
held in st. Petersburg.3 this time, in 1914, a wide range of russian
artists came to sweden for the first time.
the russian intermediary was igor Grabar, then director of the
influential tretyakov Gallery in Moscow (which was already more
of a fine arts museum than a gallery). Grabar not only generously
lent work from his own collection, but he also opened doors to many
private collectors. Grabar was himself originally a painter and a dedi-
cated associate of the st. Petersburg-based group World of art (Mir
iskusstva). as a consequence of this, the majority of the russian
works exhibited in Malmö came from members of this group. But
Grabar also had many more contacts both within russia and be-
328 Margareta Tillberg

yond, since he attended anton azbe’s school of painting in Munich

where Kandinsky was his fellow-student.
in the russian section, nineteen artists showed ninety-three works
in six rooms. Pavel Kuznetsov, nikolai sapunov and Martiros saryan
from the symbolist group The Blue Rose showed pantheist land-
scapes. Members of the society for travelling art exhibitions, the
“Wanderers” ilya repin and the Zorn-influenced valentin serov also
participated, the latter with a portrait of the russian minister of fi-
nance, sergei Witte. aleksandr Golovin contributed a portrait of the
elegant foreign minister tereschenko, nikolai roerich presented
viking ships and Kuzma Petrov-vodkin nude young boys on red
the interest was overwhelming. on the day of the opening, Da-
gens Nyheter (daily news), a nationwide daily newspaper, declared,
“the art exhibition is a total victory for its organisers. to see the best
of contemporary art from sweden, denmark, Germany, finland
and russia is an occasion that has never been offered before and will
most likely not be offered again in decades, if ever”.4 “never has any
exhibition in sweden been able to show so much new and valuable
art”, stated the newspaper Arbetet (Labour).5 according to august
Brunius, the leading critic for the stockholm-based Svenska Dag-
bladet (swedish daily), russia and finland provided the “finest and
most beautiful painting [...] the true sensation of the whole art
show”.6 however, it was Kandinsky, Marianna Werefkina and alexei
von Jawlensky, specifically, who created the real furore.
Göteborgsposten concluded that Kandinsky’s “big canvas [Com-
position No. VI] probably depicts cholera bacteria, colossally mag-
nified, running amok”, and that Jawlensky, “an old friend from the
expressionist exhibition in cologne, [is] crazier than ever [although]
he still paints females with black-blue mouths and cinnabar red
noses, here, there and everywhere butter yellow with violet and facial
expressions that defy any description… which gives a glimpse of an
underlying barbaric tradition”.7
during the first months, many visitors arrived to see the innova-
tions in Malmö, but after the assassination of archduke franz fer-
dinand, the austro-hungarian successor to the throne, in sarajevo
on 28 June, the audience from Germany ceased coming.
after the start of the first World War and the russian entry into
the war, the Malmö authorities decided to store the russian paint-
Kandinsky in Sweden 329

ings following the closure of the exhibition in late september 1914.

the nationalisation of private property after the russian revolution
of 1917 had created confusion as to where and to whom to return
the paintings (christenson: 1989: 112-124). only in 1923 did claims
for paintings start to come. artists living in russia were not inter-
ested in having their work transferred back there, whereas those liv-
ing abroad wanted to reclaim them. the painter Mstistlav
dobuzhinsky acted on behalf of the latter. dobuzhinsky worked to
establish what formalities were required of the painters and supplied
the Malmö authorities with addresses for each one. another offi-
cially accredited proposal came from igor Grabar, who sought to
collect all works from the Baltic exhibition for a large state-organised
russian show in new York. What follows reads like a thriller. the
Malmö authorities received extensive correspondence from the so-
viet authorities claiming ownership of the paintings – claims that
were unacceptable according to international law. that many of the
artists were now dead only made matters more complicated. to cut
a long story short, due to a lack of heirs and inconsistent legal docu-
mentation, some thirty paintings remain at the Malmö art Museum
to this day. With the closure of the Baltic exhibition in 1914, the five
Kandinsky paintings were offered to the city of Malmö at a bargain
price. the local authorities, however, rejected the offer as the paint-
ings were “not considered to be art”.8

Kandinsky in stockholm 1916

during World War i, Kandinsky spent three months in stockholm,
only a few months before his compatriot Lenin bade farewell to this
neutral spy centre and became involved in revolutionary activities in
Kandinsky’s fame ensured that he received an enthusiastic wel-
come in the swedish capital. stockholm’s cultural elite was eager to
meet the Blaue Reiter member and author of Über das geistige in der
Kunst (concerning the spiritual in art) whose paintings had made
such an impact at the Baltic exhibition two years earlier. Gabriele
Münter took care of the practical arrangements. from their corre-
spondence, it is apparent that Münter wanted to help Kandinsky
conquer the creative block he had been suffering from for some time,
and she even went as far as to prepare a workspace for him (paint
330 Margareta Tillberg

cover of Wassily Kandinsky’s Om konstnären (about the artist), 1916,

förlag Gummesons Konsthandel, stockholm.
Kandinsky in Sweden 331

and paper included) in a corner of the premises she rented. Kandin-

sky arrived five months after Münter, on 23 december, 1915. the
couple stayed at Louise Palm’s pension, stureplan 2, in the heart of
the elegant quarter of the city, not far from the Gummeson gallery
where Münter had organised for a sales exhibition of her famous
partner’s work to take place. Münter was doubtless motivated by
Kandinsky’s endless complaints about his lack of money in his letters
to her.9
Kandinsky and Münter had lived together in Munich, but, as a
russian citizen, Kandinsky was forced to leave Germany due to the
war. sweden’s neutrality made the correspondence between Münter,
a German, and Kandinsky, a russian, possible. Münter, a painter in
her own right and Kandinsky’s fiancée since 1903, arrived in stock-
holm on 17 July, 1915. there, she made contacts with the stockholm
art world through nell Walden, artist and wife of herwarth Walden,
the owner of the sturm Gallery in Berlin, where members of the
Blaue Reiter group exhibited. once in the city, Kandinsky met many
influential figures, including Prince eugen and Poul Bjerre, the latter
a psychologist who introduced freud and psychoanalysis to sweden.
Bjerre arranged a dinner party in the celebrated artist’s honour so
that he might become acquainted with stockholm’s major artists,
critics and art historians. Present at the dinner were the sculptor carl
Milles, the artist couple isaac Grünewald and sigrid hjerten (the lat-
ter a favourite of Matisse during her studies in Paris) and many art
critics who knew Kandinsky’s art from the Baltic exhibition, such
as Gregor Paulsson, august Brunius and Karl asplund.10 curious
to learn more about how the legendary artist had abandoned realist
depiction for abstraction, the dinner guests eagerly pressed Kandin-
sky for information, only to receive the disappointing answer, “you
can see for yourselves” (Barnett 1989: 41).
through nell Walden’s mediation, Münter made the necessary
arrangements for Kandinsky’s exhibition at “Gummeson’s konst-
handel” – the carl Gummeson Gallery. its good premises, situated
on strandvägen – the parade street built for the 1897 stockholm in-
dustrial exhibition – promised a good financial return.
during his stockholm stay, Kandinsky’s painting style changed
decisively. indeed, he produced very few oil paintings, of which
Painting on Light Ground (today in the centre Georges Pompidou,
Paris11) is one. instead, he began producing “bagatelles” or trifles (a
332 Margareta Tillberg

name suggested by Münter (eichner 1957: 176 and Barnett

1989:26)): watercolours and fine india ink drawings abounding with
filigree detail. “i have, so to speak, to learn the silversmith’s art”,
said Kandinsky with regard to these works (Barnett 1989: 31). the
“bagatelles” are less experiments in abstraction than cheerful depic-
tions of fantasy landscapes and recognisable subjects from fairy-
tales. Given their small size and the cheap material from which they
were made, the “bagatelles” were very likely intended to be easily
sold (Grohmann 1958: 165-166 and Barnett 1989: 52.). Most went
for 500 swedish kronor (an average white-collar worker earned 2,300
kronor annually at the time).12 in addition to the “bagatelles”, the
Gummeson exhibition comprised five paintings from the Malmö
show, including the famous Composition VI (offered at a price of
30,000 kronor), plus four panels commissioned for a new York col-
lector. Kandinsky’s exhibition in stockholm opened on 1 february
1916 and lasted for one month. the swedish artist Gösta adrian-
nilsson (Gan) wrote the eight-page catalogue text, apparently on
his own initiative. Gan admiringly repeats Kandinsky’s own
thoughts on “inner vibrations” materialised as “colour and line – the
electrical wires between the sender (the artist) and the receiver (the
spectator)” from Über das Geistige in der Kunst (concerning the spiri-
tual in art).13 Kandinsky wrote to Gan in German thanking him
for his perceptive text: “it is a great rarity for an artist to be under-
stood.”14 reviews promptly appeared; many assumed abundance of
colour to be a “national russian trait”. Brunius, who had met the
artist in person, assured the public that despite the wild appearance
of the paintings, Kandinsky was “no incredible, chaotic natural ge-
nius, no barbarian, but a highly cultured person”.15
Kandinsky’s unwillingness to talk about his painting processes
did not prevent an abundance of admiring reviews. for example, on
2 february 1916, Paulsson, the Stockholms Dagblad critic whom
Kandinsky met at Bjerre’s dinner party, recommended that his
readers visit a show by “one of the most interesting painting person-
alities” who, “no matter what you think about his art”, has the ability
to make the innermost problems of modern art “appear saliently in
his works with almost schematic clarity”. he continues in a peda-
gogical vein, “the painter sits in front of the white canvas. he expe-
riences calm, and thus paints a big blue field. now this feeling is
released and another takes its place, possibly a melancholy one which
Kandinsky in Sweden 333

results in violet. in an urge to overcome the melancholy, activity

arises and yellow colour strokes cross the violet to and fro. now hap-
piness presents itself and the satisfaction over the conquered sadness
– red coloured fields are planted here and there and as a sign that
this is the case … etc. … etc. the painting is finished.” Paulsson con-
siders an evaluation unnecessary because Kandinsky is “beyond”
readers’ letters followed: “stop, this is enough”; “May this new,
unhealthy, muddled so-called art die” and “this non-representational
art is humbug”.17 in the essay “a deluge of russian colours”, Karl
asplund considers this “‘l’art pour l’artiste’ a limitation of the social
worth of art” and dismisses Kandinsky’s formulations in Über das
Geistige in der Kunst (concerning the spiritual in art) as “glossolalia”
Kandinsky’s month-long exhibition at the Gummeson Gallery
was followed by a two-week exhibition of Münter’s work (which ran
from 1-14 March). in his catalogue text for Münter’s show, Kandin-
sky wrote, in his unmistakable style: “the creative artist comes into
the world with his own soul’s dream. the justification for his exis-
tence is the materialization of that dream […] then a new world will
open to the true spectator, a world previously unknown to him.”19
Kandinsky left stockholm for Moscow on 16 March 1916. he
had stayed just long enough to make himself known in sweden, cele-
brate Münter’s 39th birthday and see her through her exhibition at
Gummeson’s. the couple’s relationship had been strained for some
time and tensions came to a head during their stay in sweden.
Kandinsky’s stay in stockholm was due to Münter’s efforts to see
him, rather than as a result of any choice on his part. indeed, Münter
had to convince him that he would sell more work if he were there
in person. after Kandinsky’s departure from stockholm for his birth
town of Moscow, the couple never saw each other again.
following his return to russia, Kandinsky’s contact with Münter
became more sporadic. Münter thought that his silence was a result
of some catastrophe that had happened to him in connection with
the civil war that followed the revolution. shortly before christmas
1917, Münter, newly arrived and lonely in copenhagen, sent an an-
nouncement to Moscow declaring Kandinsky a missing person. only
on 11 June 1918 did she receive a response confirming that Kandin-
sky was alive. Münter, aware of the difficult situation in russia, made
334 Margareta Tillberg

repeated efforts to convince Kandinsky’s gallerists in sweden, den-

mark and Germany to accept a reduced commission on his paint-
ings. she also tried to send money to Moscow and worked diligently
until 1919 to sell his works, depositing the money made in a bank
outside russia in his name (Kleine 1991 [1989]: 498-503.). When she
left scandinavia for Germany at the beginning of 1920, Münter had
yet to find out that Kandinsky had been married for three years and
had become a father.
With few exceptions, the “bagatelles” shown and sold at Gumme-
son’s gallery stayed in swedish collections. after 1916, Gummeson’s
held three more Kandinsky shows (1922, 1932 and 1934). the gallery
continued to sell the artist’s work until the late 1930s.

the first World fair type of exhibition dedicated to art was the venice Biennial,
held for the first time in 1895, with national pavilions of the biggest colonial powers.
realising the international impact of the exhibition, other countries soon followed
on the art section of the Baltic exhibition, see christenson (1989: 92-138). “Kon-
stutställningen”, in Baltiska utställningen 1914. Malmö: Bokförlaget signum, 1989,
pp. 92-138.
the 1897 exhibition was important because it was instrumental in leaving a nordic
mark on russian art on the eve of the twentieth century.
einar rosenborg, Dagens Nyheter 15 May 1914, quoted from christenson (1989:
93). all translations are made by the author (M.t.), unless otherwise stated.
on the art section of the Baltic exhibition, see christenson (1989: 92-138). Quote
from p. 93.
august Brunius, Svenska Dagbladet, May 23. a few days earlier, the rubric in the
same newspaper was “art worth 6 million at the Baltic exhibition”, christenson
(1989: 94).
Göteborgsposten, 16 May 1914, from christenson (1989: 104 and 108).
i thank Göran christenson, director of the Malmö art Museum who was very
helpful in giving me this information on the policy of the local authorities.
for the Münter-Kandinsky stay in stockholm, see vivian endicott Barnett,
Kandinsky and Sweden: Malmö: Malmö konsthall, 1989; Johannes eichner, Kandin-
sky und Gabriele Münter. Von Ursprüngen moderner Kunst, Munich: f. Bruckmann,
1957; Gisela Kleine, Gabriele Münter und Wassily Kandinsky. Biographie eines
Paares. Munich:, insel verlag (third.ed.) 1991: 453-503. Kleine’s book is a sensitive
description of a woman artist in the shadow of a self-centered man. for further in-
Kandinsky in Sweden 335

formation on Münter in sweden, see annika öhrner, Gabriele Münter i Sverige: en

liten presentation, stockholm: Millesgarden, 2001.
in the absence of written evidence, it is likely that the critics august Brunius and
Karl asplund and the art historian Johnny roosval were invited. i am grateful to
Bengt Lärkner for this information.
Barnett 1989: Plate 21, p. 154.
for further details on Kandinsky’s work at the Gummeson show, see Barnett
(1989: 34-39), and the catalogue part in the same book for illustrations.
adrian-nilsson 1916. excerpts translated into english in Barnett 1989: 38-39.
Barnett (1989: 38). the letter from Kandinsky to Gan, dated feb. 29, 1916 be-
longs to Jan runnqvist.
selim (pseudonym for ernst Klein), Dagens Nyheter, february 2, 1916; august
Brunius in Svenska Dagbladet, february 2, 1916.
Gregor Paulsson, “Modern Konst – Kandinsky-utställning hos Gummesons”,
Stockholms Dagblad, february, 2, 1916.
Gregor Paulsson “Modern Konst – Kandinsky-utställning hos Gummesons”, dis-
cussion in Stockholms Dagblad, february 8 and 10, 1916.
Karl asplund, “en syndaflod av ryska färger”, Dagens Nyheter, february 10,
Kandinsky German text “Über den Künstler” was transladed into swedish, see
Kandinsky, Om konstnären. stockholm: förlag Gummesons konsthandel, 1916.
Quote from the english translation in Lindsay and vergo (1982: 414 and 418).
336 Margareta Tillberg

WorKs cited
adrian-nilsson, Gösta. 1916. Kandinsky, stockholm: elis österbergs tryckeri, 1916.
Barnett, vivian endicott. 1989. Kandinsky and Sweden: Malmö: Malmö konsthall.
christenson, Göran. 1989. “Konstutställningen”, in Baltiska utställningen 1914.
Malmö: Bokförlaget signum: pp. 92-138.
eichner, Johannes. 1957. Kandinsky und Gabriele Münter. Von Ursprüngen moderner
Kunst, Munich: f. Bruckmann.
Grohmann, Will. 1958. Wassily Kandinsky. Leben und Werk, cologne: duMont
Kleine, Gisela. 1991. Gabriele Münter und Wassily Kandinsky. Biographie eines Paa-
res. Munich:, insel verlag (third.ed.).
Lindsay, Kenneth c. and vergo, Peter (eds.). Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art,
Vol. 1 (1901-1921), London: faber and faber, 1982.
öhrner, annika. 2001. Gabriele Münter i Sverige: en liten presentation, stockholm:
Pehrsson, Per-Jan. 1989. “den vita sommarstaden”, in Baltiska utställningen 1914.
Malmö: Bokförlaget signum: p. 16.
the nationaL and the internationaL
in ULTRA (1922) and QUOSEGO (1928)

stefan nygård

in cultural life in general, and in the avant-gardes in particular, the

relationship between the national and the international is compli-
cated and sometimes contradictory. on the one hand writers, artists
and intellectuals function in an international space where transna-
tional references and alliances play a significant role. on the other
hand, their internationalism is often motivated by very specific local
concerns. in the following article, the local anchorage of cosmopol-
itan positions among small country avant-gardes is discussed in re-
lation to two finnish avant-garde journals in the 1920s, Ultra and
Quosego, as well as their predecessor among provocatively cosmo-
politan cultural journals in finland: Euterpe (1902-05).
Like all small reviews at the time, these journals functioned as
focal points for groups or networks, intellectual “sociabilities”. the
focus here is on the way they aimed to establish a position in the local
cultural field through internationalisation: by means of cultural im-
port, by forming transnational alliances with intellectuals, writers
and artist in other countries, by adopting an international position
against the national imperative in finnish political and intellectual
life and by mobilising recognition abroad in local struggles. such a
recourse to internationality arguably plays a pronounced role in the
positioning strategies of the avant-gardes and radical intellectuals in
small countries, where the cultural field is relatively undifferentiated
and marked by the close proximity of culture and politics.
the transnational networks of the early twentieth-century avant-
gardes were multidimensional and complex, but not always free from
338 Stefan Nygård

hierarchies and asymmetries. recent studies have shown that peri-

pheral actors aiming at recognition from the centres were faced with
several, and not only linguistic, obstacles. (casanova 2008 [1999];
sapiro 2009; rosendahl thomsen 2008). in what follows, the asym-
metries involved in the international circulation of cultural products
and actors are exemplified by the contacts between the finnish ex-
pressionist poet elmer diktonius of the Ultra-group and Parisian
clarté-intellectuals in the early 1920s. Moreover, the ultimate aim of
adopting an international outlook was not always clear, as demon-
strated by the way the writer hagar olsson in Quosego used cos-
mopolitanism as primarily a local strategy. finally, the
impenetrability of small country cultural fields is demonstrated by
looking at the attempts of ernest Pingoud, an avant-garde composer
of french-russian origin, to establish a position within the musical
scene in helsinki in the 1910s and 1920s by defending a cosmopoli-
tan notion of art against national art.

the Journal euterpe and the strategies of

small country cosmopolitan intellectuals
cosmopolitan intellectuals in finland at the turn of the twentieth
century occupied an ambiguous position. the members of the cul-
tural journal Euterpe were, at one and the same time, accused of be-
traying national romanticism and praised for their european
contacts, blamed for being too involved elsewhere and applauded for
their cultural mediation, for bringing “europe” closer to finland
and vice versa.
socially, the Euterpe-group represented a declining elite, consist-
ing of swedish-speaking finns whose fathers had occupied promi-
nent positions in the political and economic life of the country
(Mustelin 1963: 26-27). to simplify, under the growing pressure of
finnish nationalism the members of the group turned to culture and
cultural authority to compensate for the loss of other forms of au-
thority. they defended the freedom of art and intellectual life in re-
lation to national politics, from which they had been relatively
excluded, and in relation to the market, because they could still af-
ford it.1 as self-confident outsiders in the cultural field, the group
was particularly inclined towards importing such literary and artistic
movements (art for art’s sake, decadence, symbolism) that had been
The National and the International 339

excluded from the canon of national romanticism. Being program-

matically uninterested in protecting finnish literature from cultural
pessimism or symptoms of decadence, these currents were presented
in their journal without being adjusted in the interests of national
idealism. Because of their lack of respect for the moral duty of art,
they were quickly, and much to their satisfaction, labelled “deca-
dents” by their critics.2
as individualists with an ambiguous relationship to the prevalent
national enthusiasm, the members of the Euterpe group identified
with misjudged writers who stood by their ideals, such as Étienne
Pivert de senancour or the symbolist villiers de L’isle-adam. these
writers, who also became the objects of academic dissertations by
members of the group, had defended variations of the notion of art
for art’s sake in the french literary field and functioned as symbolic
allies for the Euterpe group in its struggle for the autonomy of intel-
lectual life (nygård 2010: 272-274). in their defence of such values
against national and political positions in finnish intellectual life in
the early twentieth century, the members of the group systematically
looked beyond their national borders. reflecting on the history of
cosmopolitanism in finland, Gunnar castrén, the literary critic of
Euterpe, claimed that there were only two non-nationalist groups in
finland at the beginning of the twentieth century: the socialists and
a “handful of cultural cosmopolitans who until now have not played
a political role despite certain attempts” (roy 1908). the limited suc-
cess of their cosmopolitan strategy should be seen in the context of
a widespread skepticism towards cosmopolitanism in finland at the
time. in addition to the customary references to world citizenship,
the word “cosmopolitanism” was defined in the encyclopedia
Tietosanakirja (1912) as a lack of respect for the interests of one’s
own nation, disguised in a “general mundanity”.
the liberal, swedish cosmopolitan intellectual tradition in fin-
land regards the philosopher and critic hjalmar neiglick (1860–
1889) as one of its founding fathers. during his short life neiglick
established himself as an authority in the philosophical and literary
circles of helsinki, published a thesis in Germany with a foreword
by Wilhelm Wundt, and became acquainted with Émile durkheim
who, incidentally, he introduced to the works of Karl Marx
(Mustelin 1966). in the finnish cultural field neiglick provided a
model for a provocative form of cosmopolitanism, which consisted
340 Stefan Nygård

in declaring finland to be fundamentally peripheral in cultural mat-

ters, in order to position oneself as a local representative of the
modernity of the centre, helping one’s own country to “catch up”.
among the members of the Euterpe group, this tradition was picked
up by the philosopher and cultural radical rolf Lagerborg (1874-
1954), whose dissertation on the nature of morality was rejected on
ethico-political grounds by the University of helsinki in 1900. Lager-
borg was fully compensated for his misfortunes at home when in
1903 he received the highest grade for a french version of the same
dissertation at the sorbonne (Jalava 2005: 344-345). this experience,
and the recognition that he had received from the intellectual author-
ities in Paris, became a major point of reference to which Lagerborg
repeatedly returned in his struggles at home.
during the dreyfus affair a few years earlier, Lagerborg com-
mented on the role of Émile Zola and the implications of his political
intervention. By re-examining the case against the Jewish captain al-
fred dreyfus with his J’accuse, Zola effectively went against public
opinion, which during the affair sided with the army and the church
against the falsely accused dreyfus. instead, Zola gave voice to “an-
other form of public opinion” for which he considered himself ac-
countable (Lagerborg 1942: 226). at the time, the figure of the
modern intellectual personified by Zola in his collective mobilisation
of writers, artists and scientists in the name of universal reason, was
becoming an ideal-typical model for the political intervention of in-
tellectuals on the basis of a specific kind of cultural authority
(charle 1990). the french notion of the autonomy of intellectuals
and artists was mobilised by the members of the Euterpe group in
support of their position against the national imperative, by using
internationality and universalism as an argument in local debates.
according to rolf Lagerborg, this argument could have an effect
even in a climate of intense nationalism like that of the 1920s, mainly
because the country was, after all, “superlatively anxious about its
outward reputation” (Lagerborg 1945: 380).

Being cosmopolitan at home

as demonstrated by the transnational strategies of rolf Lagerborg
and the Euterpe group, the relationship between the national and the
international is perceived by the cosmopolitans of small nations in
The National and the International 341

the periphery of “cultural europe” as analogous with the relation-

ship between heteronomy and autonomy in the intellectual field.
Writers, artists and academics wanting to escape national and pop-
ular themes did so by approaching international modernism. they
conceived of themselves as representatives of a marginal intellectual
field abroad, and as members of an international intellectual com-
munity at home. their transnational references served different pur-
poses. regardless of whether they actually moved beyond their
national boundaries or acted as “local cosmopolitans”, they had the
option of resorting to international references as a source of legiti-
macy and prestige.
the writer, journalist and critic hagar olsson (1893–1978) pro-
vides an example of internationality as a local strategy in confronting
the nationalist cultural criticism of the 1920s. her cosmopolitan
standpoint is summed up in an article entitled “finnish robinson-
ade” in Quosego (olsson 1928, holmström 1993). here she intro-
duces “the new finland-swede” as an alternative to an earlier, sad
figure: “the Lonely finland-swede”, the martyr who sought shelter
in sweden and the swedish cultural tradition in finland against the
alien finnish people (“who urged him to pack his bags and go back
to sweden”). the swedes treated him as the poor provincial relative,
with a friendly pat on the shoulder, but nothing more. such a strate-
gy, the outsider as a martyr, could hardly be successful according to
olsson. the new figure she proposed did not seek consolation in
sweden, but was equally unenthusiastic about adopting a finnish
nationalist position. Being confined to themselves only, “on an island
in the ocean”, olsson’s finland-swedes were urged to turn their ex-
posed position into a source of power. from their “desolate island”
they had an unhindered view over the ocean. “our position”, she
writes, “is the most exposed, but also – the most free. no nationalist
divisions hinder our view, the ocean ties us spiritually to all the con-
tinents, the winds blow freely around us …” as seclusion was
“nowhere in the world” carried to such extremes as in “the intellec-
tual swedish finland”,3 the finland-swedes were internationalists
“by instinct and out of necessity”.
the internationalism of hagar olsson was thus an attempt to
break out of isolation and dependency by adopting a cosmopolitan
position and setting out on the international literary market (“free
international competition”). however, as this market was rarely a real
342 Stefan Nygård

alternative for writers from peripheral contexts, the idea of substitut-

ing national heteronomy for intellectual cosmopolitanism was to
some extent an illusion, or purely a local strategy (casanova 2008
[1999]: 253-293). according to the social anthropologist Ulf han-
nerz, referring to the considerations of the self that inspire cos-
mopolitans to become involved with other cultures, there is a
“narcissistic streak” in cosmopolitanism, which tends to be oversha-
dowed by the celebratory figures of the cosmopolitan, separated from
the notions of rootedness and fixity that they need to be situated
against (Kofman 2007). surrender abroad, argues hannerz, can be a
form of mastery at home by enhancing a reflexive autonomy in rela-
tion to the culture of origin from which one can choose to disengage
(hannerz 1990). to this end, the cosmopolitanism of hagar olsson
consisted in emphasising the dual membership of finland-swedish
writers in both the cultural life of finland and in the global literary
space, even if this was primarily an argument in a local debate.

seeking recognition abroad

Looking for support beyond the national context, when struggling
for a position in the local cultural field, was a common strategy
among the european inter-war avant-gardes, for which being modern
meant being international. sometimes the opposite was true: as na-
tional recognition could be associated with artistic conservatism, the
avant-gardes, even at the “centre”, were inclined towards presenting
themselves as misunderstood at home and recognised abroad, ac-
cording to the rule that nobody can be a prophet in his or her own
country (Joyeux-Prunel 2009). this was certainly the case for radical
finnish intellectuals and writers such as elmer diktonius (1896–
1961), who, especially in the early stages of his career, portrayed him-
self as a nationally misrecognised poet with broad international
networks. Being a self-taught, expressionist writer with socialist sym-
pathies, diktonius’ position in post civil-war finland was challeng-
ing. he had to look elsewhere for support and, with the help of his
socialist networks, travelled to Paris and London. here he spent a
few years in the 1920s as an outsider earning his living by writing ar-
ticles home.
the initial optimism linked to finnish independence in 1917
quickly came to an end with the civil war in 1918. a climate of mis-
The National and the International 343

trust, a frail democracy and national introspection permeated the

country in the years that followed. an apolitical position became in-
creasingly difficult to maintain, as the independent critical position
of the earlier generation of cultural radicals was challenged by the
polarised political climate of the interwar period. the journal Ultra
(1922) confronted the nationalism and politicisation of finnish cul-
tural life, despite having a close relationship, possibly even a financial
one, with the left (salminen 1967; Wrede 1970). the communist otto
ville Kuusinen had perhaps hoped to turn diktonius into a poet of
the revolution (henrikson 1971), but diktonius, despite his close ties
to the workers’ movement, proved to be too much of an individualist
and too influenced by a tradition of aristocratic radicalism in fin-
land-swedish cultural life to submit culture to politics. although the
cultural radicals of the 1920s and 1930s were in general more in-
volved in social movements than the previous generations of intel-
lectual aristocrats (forser 1993: 135-136), the tension between
intellectual autonomy and collective commitment in political mod-
ernisation remained a principal dynamic of the intellectual field in
the interwar period.
in Ultra diktonius attacked nationalism and parochial self-wor-
ship, which had no place in modern poetry. as for olsson, interna-
tionality provided the solution: “if the poetry of our age cannot be
produced in this country, it has to be brought here from elsewhere”,
wrote diktonius (diktonius 1922). With the initial intention of
studying music, diktonius arrived in Paris in 1920, at the age of 24,
without money, contacts or knowledge of french (enckell 1946: 131-
132; Zilliacus 2000). his main reference in the french intellectual
field seems to have been the socialist circle around ivan Goll, henri
Barbusse and the clarté-movement, with its climate of pacifist, in-
ternationalist activism (donner 2007: 133-; Wrede 1970: 156-157,
diktonius’ financial situation did not improve in Paris and Lon-
don. artistically it was not an unproductive period for him – on the
contrary – but it was primarily on the finnish literary scene that he
managed to establish himself during these years, not least by making
the most of the symbolic capital he had accumulated abroad. he was
one of the few writers in finland who was published internationally.
‘the Jaguar’ appeared in the anthology Les Cinq Continents. Antholo-
gie mondiale de la poésie contemporaine edited by ivan Goll, translated
344 Stefan Nygård

into french by Lydia stahl, who also introduced diktonius to Goll

and Barbusse. Born in alsace and fluent in french and German, ivan
Goll had expanded his cultural mediation from the french-German
to a global context. in Les Cinq Continents he aimed to bring together
avant-garde writers from every continent, and he had an optimistic
view of the artistic potential of the new nations that had emerged after
the world war and the collapse of the old empires. through Goll, dik-
tonius’s poems also reached the international, Zagreb-based journal
Zenit, where Goll was co-editor (Zilliacus 2000). But despite belonging
to the programmatically cosmopolitan avant-gardes of the interwar
period, with its efforts to de-nationalise the avant-garde, relativise the
central assumptions of european culture and promote global artistic
exchange (Kramer 2009: 126), the cultural world had an indisputable
centre even for Goll: “it is only in Paris, in the heart of the world, that
the first base of a global anthology could be established”, he writes in
the introduction, where he incidentally characterises scandinavia as
neutral, even in its poetry (“deserted glaciers”) (Goll 1922: 9,12).4
as pointed out by Pascale casanova, writers from small nations
published in peripheral languages have to overcome great obstacles
before they can hope to achieve recognition in the international liter-
ary community. Moreover, this recognition often comes only by sub-
mitting themselves to the rules and norms of the central regions
(casanova 2008 [1999]: 253-293). although diktonius was hardly
recognised in the centre, he adopted the pose of the nationally misun-
derstood and internationally recognised writer in his native cultural
field. When he suggested collaboration with the socialist journal Ar-
betarbladet (the Worker’s Paper), he presented himself to its editor as
“little known in finland, if at all, more so in france (clarté), even in
serbia”. When submitting a poem to the same journal he remarked
that “by the way” it had appeared in Clarté in french (svensson 1979:
161-162, n. 11).
the collaboration of the centre and the periphery, as demon-
strated by diktonius’s contacts with the Parisian avant-garde, is fur-
thermore marked by an apparent lack of reciprocity, as he clearly
failed to mobilise his international networks at home. in the short-
lived Ultra, diktonius was responsible for engaging foreign writers,
possibly encouraged by Goll’s efforts to promote transnational and
translingual artistic collaboration. diktonius had made promises to
supply the journal with contributions from Barbusse, Goll and d.
The National and the International 345

h. Lawrence, but these never materialised, to the great disappoint-

ment of the editor hagar olsson. the correspondence between dik-
tonius and Barbusse, mediated by Goll, mainly concerned
diktonius’s plans for a finnish section of Clarté and the finnish
translation of Le Feu (diktonius 1995: 52-53; svensson 1979).

a view from the outside

hagar olsson stipulated the cosmopolitan mission of the bilingual
Ultra (finnish and swedish) in a few programmatic articles, in which
she emphasised the transdisciplinary and transnational character of
the journal. her emphasis on cultural internationalism was enthusi-
astically welcomed by the composer ernest Pingoud (1887–1942),
the most avant-garde composer in interwar finland and the only one
who did not incorporate any Kalevala motifs in his music. in his
compositions as well as in his writings, Pingoud, who according to
the writer ralf Parland was “the most un-finnish, exotic figure on
our Parnassus in the 1920s and 1930s” (salmenhaara 1995: 248), was
provocatively cosmopolitan and anti-nationalist, seizing every op-
portunity to attack national romanticism in art. he even dared to
express modestly critical views on sibelius.
the russian-born Pingoud, whose family origins were in france,
had studied philosophy and literature in Germany and after the re-
volution he emigrated to finland, where he is regarded as a pioneer
of modernism. his first concert in helsinki in 1918 was a thoroughly
disturbing experience for the public.5 according to erkki salmen-
haara, Pingoud’s “mistake” was his lack of respect for Kalevala and
sibelius, and his opposition to national art and the self-sufficient cli-
mate of the artistic field of the 1930s (salmenhaara 1995: 274). he
expressed his views on nationality and internationality in art in a num-
ber of articles in the russian and finnish press. despite his ambigu-
ous position Pingoud did manage to find a position in the musical life
of helsinki, as director of the helsinki city orchestra and the fazer
concert department in 1924. of main interest here is the way he, from
his internationalist standpoint, defended the autonomy of art against
politics and national art. as in other similar cases, such a strategy of
being overtly hostile to national romanticism in an environment of
distrustful nationalism could only result in a limited success.
Pingoud welcomed the cosmopolitan views that hagar olsson
346 Stefan Nygård

had expressed in Ultra, to which he replied by declaring, in an article

on national music, that there are no frontiers in art, that national art
is merely a primitive stage towards pure art and that the greatest
artists have always been without a fatherland: “they belong to an-
other nation, which is not of this world, and which is not defined by
geographical position and, what is more, which barely even has a
worldly language” (Pingoud 1922). Young nations, Pingoud writes,

with a blown up self-esteem – perhaps especially strong in order to

conceal some of its deficiencies –, are in their art always prone to
give expression to this self-esteem. […] People at this stage of cultural
evolution create national art and boast of it. […] art is given a de-
termined direction and aim, and international evaluation is ignored.

diktonius later proposed, in a comparison of cultural life in Paris

and helsinki in 1927, that the “spiritual overstatement and hangover
from independence” of the young republic was such a fruitful topic
that it should be made the object of an academic dissertation (dik-
tonius 1957: 314).
Pingoud admitted that national art could arouse an interest
abroad, but only in a superficial manner and by virtue of its exoti-
cism. as long as it was subordinated to pragmatic goals and achieve-
ments, there were no great prospects for art. national art could only
be regarded as an evolutionary phase on the path towards “objec-
tive” art, which was international and occupied with form rather
than national motifs. only then, Pingoud concludes, is art occupied
with its own questions. such an autonomy was scarcely within sight
in finland during the 1920s, where it was still considered a crime
against “the holy spirit of the people’s consciousness” to be of the
opinion that national art does not represent the highest art form
(Pingoud 1922).
With his uncompromising anti-traditionalism in music and his
cultural internationalism, Pingoud exemplifies the border-transgress-
ing ideal of Ultra and hagar olsson, who defended a universal con-
ception of art against national art, in the sense of an art that could
only be understood by one nation.6 in interwar finland and beyond,
this position had to constantly defend itself against orthodox na-
tionalism. a less uncompromising, and more successful, form of in-
ternationalism was represented by the journal Tulenkantajat
The National and the International 347

(“torchbearers”). hagar olsson also contributed to this journal, but

elmer diktonius was skeptical of its peculiar blend of nationalism
(“true finnishness”) and cosmopolitanism. he claimed that the jour-
nal employed double strategies by presenting itself as nationalist at
home and cosmopolitan abroad. to some extent the journal was also
conscious of its double strategy, as one of its leading figures, Martti
haavio, declared that “the freedom of cosmopolitanism” should
pass through “the real arc de triomphe, the narrow gate of national-
ism” (tuusvuori 2007: 288). in early twentieth-century finland there
was no escaping the pressure to nationalise or popularise modernism.

in the small countries on the peripheries of the european intellectual
space the autonomy of the cultural field is never really beyond ques-
tion. here the “autonomous intellectual”, as Kjetil Jacobsen notes
from a norwegian perspective, finds himself in a hopeless situation:
transnationally he is inhibited by the limited cultural capital of his
native cultural field, at home because he is not national enough
(Jakobsen 2004: 277). the tension between transnational and local
influences is always present when discussing the figures of the modern
intellectual or the avant-garde artist who, despite the transnational
nature of their fields of expertise, often addressed national audiences
and functioned in national environments. the instrumental aspects
of cosmopolitanism exemplified by the international strategies of
hagar olsson, elmer diktonius and ernest Pingoud naturally only
constitute one dimension of a larger picture. While there are also
more reciprocal and less locally anchored forms of international col-
laboration, the aim of this article has been to draw attention to in-
ternationalisation in the cultural field as a positioning strategy among
small country avant-gardes, as well as to some of the asymmetries in-
volved when peripheral actors approach the “cultural centres”.
the dichotomy of national heteronomy and international free-
dom played a part in the defence of artistic autonomy among the
small country avant-gardes, not least as an argument in a national
debate. emphasising their contacts with the literary opposition all
over europe was imperative also for artists and intellectuals who ad-
dressed themselves exclusively to national audiences. such a strategy
is made possible by the double references of intellectual and artistic
348 Stefan Nygård

life, being part of both a universal community and the cultural life
of a specific nation. the cosmopolitan and mainly finland-swedish
intellectuals, writers and artists brought together in journals such as
Euterpe, Ultra and Quosego struggled for a place in the cultural field
in finland, where the finland-swedes were becoming increasingly
marginalised under the pressure of the fennoman movement, which
had led to the gradual separation of the cultural field into two rival
factions around the language question. With their limited economic
resources, apolitical attitude, ambivalent reputation outside the lite-
rary field and high status among peers, contempt for the bourgeois
public and market-oriented journalism, these journals represented
typical avant-garde little magazines. cultural mediation, transna-
tional alliances and the use of international symbolic capital were
key ingredients in their parallel struggles against the national, ro-
mantic position of the previous generation, for the individual against
the collective, and for art and intellectual life against national politics
and the market.

as Bourdieu argues in his model for the autonomisation of the french intellectual
field during the 19th century (Bourdieu 1992), aesthetic revolutions were carried out
in exactly the kind of social milieus that the Euterpe group represented; not by the
decidedly dominating or dominated, but by the kind of “unclassifiable bastards”
that were losing ground but were still sufficiently socially privileged, endowed with
significant symbolic capital and characterised by aristocratic dispositions which
were translated into aesthetic audacity (nygård 2010).
Within the group the label was interpreted as an honorary title given to anyone
who came up with something new (af nyborg 1906: 129).
hagar olsson’s review of a novel by Jarl hemmer (cited in holmström 1993: 90).
for a discussion on the stereotypical reception of immigrant writers in the cultural
centres, even among those actors in the core with an encouraging attitude towards
foreign influence, see Giladi 2010.
Pingoud responded to his critics by stating that: “if i ever, after some time, decide
to perform here in helsinki again, i only ask for open souls, complete naivety and
most of all that my compositions should not be compared to beautiful, harmonious,
good and well sounding music”. Svenska Tidningen 26.11.1918.
(olsson 1922). the work on this article has been conducted with funding from the
academy of finland.
The National and the International 349

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avant-Garde encoUnters on KareLian BedrocK

natalia Baschmakoff

By the turn of the nineteenth-twentieth centuries the resort area of

the Karelian isthmus in the south-eastern part of the Grand duchy
of finland was finnish territory within the russian empire. since
1809 the Grand duchy, though part of the empire, had enjoyed a
relative autonomy, with its own language, culture and customs, laws
and monetary system. thus, it was perceived by russians as “the fa-
miliar other”, and vyborg had a reputation of being “a real euro-
pean city” (P’ast 1997: 158; isachenko 2003: 114), where educated
st. Petersburg urbanites could find books and magazines not avail-
able in their capital (Kirillina 1977: 39). during the decade preceding
the october revolution the isthmus was a scene of many activities
typical of a borderland: for russian families needing recreation it
was a “domestic territory abroad”; for revolutionaries it was a loca-
tion for conspiracy, smuggling of arms and illegal publications; for
artists – an extraordinary meeting-place of transnational encounters,
creative dreams, intellectual debates and joyful dolce far niente.
retreating from the unhealthy climate of st. Petersburg, russian
aristocrats had, as early as the eighteenth century, begun to build
summer residences, dachas, along the shores of the Gulf of finland.
after the finland railway line was completed in 1870, the dacha fever
was transmitted to the bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. Petersburgers
ventured far into finnish territory, buying and renting even modest
houses in settlements along the sea shore that extended all the way
to vyborg (Lovell 2003: 60, 68). especially attractive were the resorts
of terijoki, Kuokkala, ollila, Kellomäki, raivola, Uusikirkko and
352 Natalia Baschmakoff

the first all-russian convention of futurists (Pervyi vserossiiskii s’ezd

futuristov) gathered on June 18 June 1913 at Matiushin’s dacha in
Uusikirkko on the Karelian isthmus. from the left: Mikhail Matiushin,
Kazimir Malevich and aleksei Kruchenykh. Photo by Mikhail

vammelsuu, with their long sandy beaches and healthy pine forests
of the “northern riviera”. in the early 1900s some 5000 dachas on
the isthmus were already owned by foreigners, mainly russian citi-
zens (hämäläinen 1974: 97). the number of summer dwellers
reached a peak in 1914, with 75,000 people in the district of terijoki
alone (hämäläinen 1974: 205). although the dacha industry gave a
welcome impetus to the finnish economy, it did not bring the local
Avant-Garde Encounters on Karelian Bedrock (1890s-1930s) 353

inhabitants closer to the holidayers; there was too great a social gap
between the summer guests and the finnish peasants, who usually
worked as deliverymen or servants for the dacha owners. indeed,
though the isthmus was a natural meeting place for russian and
northern cultures, cultural contacts remained limited (Bodin 1989:
27). But the rugged and severe northern landscape pointed to a geog-
raphy, climate, history and mythology shared by not only the nordic
countries, but also russia (nilsson 1987b: 126-127; 1989a: 25-31).
the bourgeois city-dwellers yearned for fresh air, high-quality
services and unspoiled nature (isachenko 2003: 114). artists desired
intellectual company and to find their own primeval ego among
brooding lakes and granite rocks. some, like the painter isaac Levi-
tan, found the “threatening eternity” of the rocks moulded by the
glaciers and the “grayness” of the finnish landscape depressing
(soini 2005: 13-14), whereas others, such as the poet osip Mandel-
stam, felt a specific liberating mood in finland: “people drove there
in order to think to the end what could not be thought to the end in
Petersburg” (Mandelstam 1965: 86). the symbolist writer Leonid
andreyev decided to settle in vammelsuu for good and had eliel
saarinen’s architectural bureau in helsinki design a modern log villa
for him. When the house was ready in 1908, andreyev wrote to
Maxim Gorkii that he expected “once and for all to come face to
face with nature, with the sea, the sky, the snow, face to face with
pure human thought” (andreyev carlisle 1989: 7).1
indeed, the dachas on the isthmus created an inspiring transi-
tional space between urban and rural, work and leisure, russian and
non-russian. the cultural life of the isthmus offered a variety of
theatrical or musical performances, lectures, and poetry readings.2
dacha-life within easy reach was like being in a cultural playground
in a foreign land, and moving to the dacha became the equivalent of
travelling abroad. By the turn of the century well-known russian
artists and intellectuals spent their summer vacations on the shores
of the Gulf of finland, among them the writers aleksandr Blok,
osip Mandelstam, Maxim Gorkii, aleksandr Kuprin, Boris Zaitsev,
vladimir P’ast, vladimir Mayakovsky, sergei Yesenin, vasilii Ka-
menskii, velimir Khlebnikov, vladimir Korolenko, aleksei
Kruchenykh; the painters ilya repin, isaac Levitan, valentin serov,
nikolai roerikh, ivan Puni (Jean Pougny), nikolai Kul’bin, elena
Guro, Mikhail Matiushin, Kazimir Malevich, iurii annenkov, anna
354 Natalia Baschmakoff

ostroumova-Lebedeva, vasilii shukhaev and aleksandr iakovlev;

the theatre directors vsevolod Meyerkhold and nikolai evreinov;
the critics and journalists vladimir stasov, Kornei chukovskii and
viktor shklovskii; and the performing artists alexandr Ziloti, fyo-
dor shaliapin, the impresario sergei diaghilev and many others.
Looking, however, at the avant-garde encounters on the Karelian
isthmus from the 1890s to the 1930s, we have to keep in mind the
two distinctive periods: the russian (1890-1917) and the finnish
(1918-1939), separated by a highly politicised historical watershed.

Playing with reality

from the 1890s until the 1920s, russia experienced a cultural renais-
sance, known as the silver age. reformers aspired not only to libe-
rate man from labour through technological development, but also
to reshape the human psyche and build a new holistic civilisation.
the principle of fusing art and life to merge man’s thought and na-
ture into a creative act left a powerful imprint on russian pre-revo-
lutionary culture. the spiritual reshaping of the modern psyche
became easier due to the fact that russia had a long tradition of
eschatological thinking, closely intertwined with philosophical and
social utopianism (Paperno 1994: 3-4).
experimental approaches to art primarily grew out of the russian
symbolist heritage (1880-1910) – often parodying it. the literary
magazine, The World of Art (1898-1904) gave impetus to the so-called
“scandinavian boom” in russia. the members of The World of Art
were inspired by German, scandinavian, and finnish culture, and
many professional ties were formed at the turn of the century be-
tween russian and nordic artists (Gourianova 1990: 88, 91-96)3. the
russians were apparently looking for the neo-romantic “special
mood of sacral silence in the representation of nature”. they found
inspiration in, among others, akseli Gallen-Kallela’s illustrations for
the finnish national epic, the Kalevala, and in erik Werenskiold’s
norwegian legends (nilsson 1987b: 127-129; Gurianova 1990: 96;
Ljunggren 1995, 14).
additional common ground between the finns and the liberal
russian intelligentsia came in their opposition to the reactionary
tsarist regime. in the summer of 1905 some forty russian and
finnish artists – Gallen-Kallela, eero Järnefelt, Magnus enckell and
Avant-Garde Encounters on Karelian Bedrock (1890s-1930s) 355

eliel saarinen among them – gathered on the isthmus at Gorkii’s

dacha in Kuokkala to discuss the founding of a satirical anti-tsarist
magazine Zhupel4. the aim was to apply the skills of the best writers
and illustrators to the cause of constitutional reform (Karasik 1957:
357-361; dobuzhinskii 1987: 299-300; reitala 1987: 49)5.
although the culture of the silver age was not primarily directed
towards responding to social issues, trends within it were affected by
social awareness. Pre-revolutionary russian futurism (1908-1914)
was one such trend. it set its ideals in opposition to petit-bourgeois
philistinism and “generated extravagant visions of the total trans-
formation of the world – if not the cosmos – through an aesthetic
revolution” (stites 1989: 6). futurism proclaimed its hostility to aca-
demic art and resorted to provocative, often aggressive iconoclasm,
mainly borrowing such from the italian futurists (Gray 1990: 94;
Bowlt and Matich 1996: 2-3). one way to escape the academic milieu
of the capital was to meet at hospitable artists’ dachas – repin’s,
chukovskii’s, andreyev’s, Guro-Matiushin’s to name a few. here,
parodying symbolist decadence, the futurists aspired to create a play-
ful reality filled with the childlike inventions of an optimistic homo

in the Kingdom of stone

one of the russian artists, elena Guro (1877-1913), was particularly
attracted to the neo-romantic mood (Mints 1988: 109-112), which
she felt resonated with the medieval epics of the scandinavian north
and the northern landscape. for Guro, art was not merely painting
or literature but life itself. her way of thinking was very visual, and
neo-romantic images of northern nature, characters and way of life
run through her diaries, letters, prose fragments, poetry, paintings
and sketches (Gourianova 1995, 73). in a letter to her husband, the
composer and painter Mikhail Matiushin, she writes:

[…] genuine creation takes place at a far deeper level than writers
and artists in their everyday practice generally believe. it does not
occur during the moment of doing, but at moments of contempla-
tion when nothing is being done, and the doing is merely the embo-
diment of something already completed in the soul […]
(Guro cited in Ljunggren 1995: 12).
356 Natalia Baschmakoff

elena Guro, Self Portrait, mid 1900s, pencil on paper, 20.3×16.7 cm.
Manuscript department of the institute of russian Literature (Pushkin-
skii dom), st. Petersburg.

Guro observed her natural surroundings with a sensitive but analytic

inner consciousness, stressing the persistent work of the creative
process instead of the result of creation. in this respect, she came
Avant-Garde Encounters on Karelian Bedrock (1890s-1930s) 357

close to what Malevich, a friend of the Matiushin family, understood

as the “intuitive will” of the artist. this experience arose from Male-
vich’s understanding of the painted surface itself as a process and a
“real, living form” (douglas 1980: 54).
in 1909, Guro and Matiushin’s home became a meeting place for
modernist artists who started to call themselves budetliane – “people
of the future” and were later known as futurists. in 1910 they formed
an association named “the Union of Youth”. their first, collective
publication, “a trap for Judges”, came out in april 1910, and in de-
cember 1912 the provocative manifesto “a slap in the face of Public
taste” appeared. in february 1913, the second “trap for Judges”
appeared. two months later, Guro died in her dacha in Uusikirkko
(o’Brien 1996: 378-381). in 1914, “the Union of Youth” disbanded.
in the same year, some two months before the outbreak of World
War i, Kornei chukovskii began his legendary dacha guestbook
“chukokkala”, which charts the sequence and range of pre-revolu-
tionary artistic encounters that took place at his villa in Kuokkala
village on the Karelian isthmus (chukokkala 1999).
during these years, one of the trends of modernism, neo-primi-
tivism, was determined to be “a profoundly russian national phe-
nomenon” (raaG 1988: 48), and some of the modernists’ search
for spiritual content turned towards the primeval: native roots, the
natural environment, but also exotic models. striving for a pure po-
etic language, Kruchenykh, Khlebnikov and Guro began to experi-
ment with an atavistic, transrational language – zaum’ – that drew
on russian folklore. Kruchenykh, as well as Khlebnikov and the
painters olga rozanova, Mikhail Larionov and natalia Goncharova
produced in zaum’ language illustrated lithographic and linoleum-
cut hand-made miscellanies imitating the primitive russian lubok
woodcut booklets in folk art style (Janeček 1984: 68-121).
Guro and Matiushin showed a special predilection for forms of
the natural environment and collected driftwood moulded by wind
and water (Povelikhina 2001: 20-21). Matiushin even exhibited root
sculptures in russia and abroad, and was interested in fractal geo-
metry as a pattern-giving basis for organic forms (cf. organica 2001:
42-63). he also argued that, through keen observation of physical
reality, it was possible for the artist to experience a higher order of
“pan-psychic” reality:
358 Natalia Baschmakoff

the branches of trees are like bronchial tubes – the basic element of
respiration… the sacred earth breathes through them, the earth
breathes through the sky. the result is a complete circle of earthly
and celestial metabolism. they are signs of ulterior life (Matiushin
cited in howard 1992: 27-28).

Guro approached nature through a personal infantile lyricism,

equally understanding the world as a pan-psychic, organic whole
(organica 2001: 15). in the northern landscape she found vital forces
and primeval “sacred silence”6. this tradition of admiration for the
landscape around the Baltic sea, created by the early romantics
odoevskii, Baratynskii and Pushkin, continued in the avant-garde.
the artists found in the crude fenno-scandian rocks, untamed wa-
ters and wild forests “a kingdom of stone”, revealing to them frag-
ments of a Myth of the north found in the runes of Kalevala.
the mythical “kingdom of stone” manifested itself in Guro’s
Baltic and finnish imagery, emerging as early as in 1904. in “fin-
liandiia”, published posthumously in the futurist collection The
Three (1913) and probably her most quoted poem, Guro presents
her synthetic perception of a finnish soundscape, which suggests
the melody of spoken finnish combined with the sighs of spruce
trees7. Guro also adopted Kalevala motifs (Baschmakoff 1990: 161-
165)8, while in her unpublished prosaic draft “isteriia” (hysteria) she
gives a stereotypical description of a “clean” and well-organised
finnish servant woman typically employed by russian families on
the isthmus at the beginning of the twentieth century:

everything is very convenient: she is not young, will not run about
at night. and she’s tidy: a finn! a healthy air of lakes and pinewoods
will come from her. the kitchen will be bright: the sun and yellow
straw chairs. (rGaLi, fond 134, 13: 20ob.)

Guro’s canvases “the stone”, “a tale of the stone”, as well as many

of her sketches of stones, show not only the artist’s interest in the
Karelian rocky grounds, but also her tendency to discern even in
non-organic matter the slightest manifestations of growth in nature.
Moreover, Guro was inspired by the finnish landscape painting of
the late romanticists, especially that of eero Järnefelt (1863-1937)
and väinö Blomstedt (1871-1947), who conveyed in their work “the
Avant-Garde Encounters on Karelian Bedrock (1890s-1930s) 359

elena Guro, Kamen (a stone), 1910-1911, oil on canvas, 69.5×66.5 cm.

Private collection, Moscow.

mood of the [finnish] national landscape” (Gurianova 1990: 90-91).

the change in Guro’s work occurs in 1909-1910, when urban themes
were replaced by landscapes, revealed on the “northern riviera” of
the Karelian isthmus.9 the depiction of the shores around the Baltic
basin point to a symbiotic link between russian and scandinavian
artistic traditions: to Guro, ibsen, strindberg and hamsun, as well
as Bang,10 were models of a “daring attitude” (nilsson 1994: 85, 89)11
360 Natalia Baschmakoff

towards a new, fresh way of representing reality as a dynamic con-

tinuum12. throughout her life Guro struggled to achieve intimate
contact with the natural surroundings. roman Jakobson called this
feature of hers an “appropriation of reality” (see in Banjanin 1989:
174): she merged her sensations, emotions, the colour and sound of
everything she saw and experienced into a synaesthetic perception
of the universe.

“victory over the sun”

in July 1913, soon after Guro’s untimely death, Kruchenykh, Male-
vich and Matiushin met at the latter’s dacha in Uusikirkko. they
were working together on the first futurist opera Victory over the
Sun. how did they do it? Kruchenykh wrote the libretto, Malevich
sketched the set and the costumes, Matiushin composed the music,
while Khlebnikov – in absentia – was to write the prologue. Later,
the participants gave this meeting the grand and playful title of “the
first all-russian congress of futurists”. the artists proclaimed
their programme as follows:

We intend to arm the world against us!

the time of slaps is passed:
the noise of explosion and the slaughter of scarecrows will rock the
coming year of art!
(cited in douglas 1980: 35.)

the opera was conceived as a “Gesamtkunstwerk” and an attempt

to overcome linear time (Guntermann 1999: 127-135; Kurbanovskii
2003: 51). as a genuine futurist utopia, it sought to re-create the
world from scratch. Malevich even predicted a change in the old
“habits of mind” (douglas 1980: 53). however, the circumstances
surrounding the opera’s production did not favour its authors’ am-
bitious plans: there were only two rehearsals and the performers were
amateurs. the narrative had no plot, no causal relationships between
the lines, and the whole composition was subject to continuous vari-
ation. the characters, who spoke in zaum’, were personifications of
qualities rather than human beings, an abstract feature stressed by
the geometrical shapes of Malevich’s costume designs.
it was Malevich’s set design for Victory over the Sun, however,
Avant-Garde Encounters on Karelian Bedrock (1890s-1930s) 361

that caused the opera to become a landmark in the history of modern

art. Malevich’s backdrop curtain for the production is seen as par-
ticularly important, having been interpreted as the embryo of the
“black square”. (Khardzhiev, Malevich, and Matiushin 1967: 147-
149; Kovtun 1989: 121-127).

the Great divide

the peak of the russian avant-garde coincided with a wave of po-
litical oppression and the russification policy. in 1912, nicolas ii
signed a law that gave russian subjects in finland rights equal to
those of finnish citizens. the increasing russian presence among
dacha owners on the Karelian isthmus was thus felt to be, on one
side, economically beneficial, while on the other, politically threat-
ening. the finnish poet eino Leino wrote in 1911:

the Karelian isthmus is the toughest place,

the Karelian isthmus is the honorary place
to fight under the eyes of europe,
to answer oppression, by liberating ourselves [...]
(reijonen 1968: 38).

the revolutionary events in Petrograd in 1917 and the subsequent

declaration of finnish independence on 6 december of that year
changed the status of the borderland: the Karelian isthmus suddenly
became a finnish-governed territory.13 although finland’s liberation
from russian rule was initially peaceful, a violent internal conflict
soon flared up in the form of a bloody civil war spanning the period
January-May 1918. Bloody battles swept over the isthmus and de-
vastated the idyllic resort area from vyborg to terijoki.

the outbreak of World War i had already disrupted the lively isth-
mus summer seasons. Between 1917-1920, a flood of refugees,
mainly from st. Petersburg, many of them former villa owners,
crossed the border and settled in abandoned villas or continued on
their way to the european émigré centres – Berlin, Paris, Prague. de-
molished villas, internment camps, starvation and poverty became
an everyday reality for many refugee families. eventually, however,
summer seasons on the finland-ruled isthmus became lively again,
362 Natalia Baschmakoff

although the circumstances and the atmosphere had changed for

good. Leonid andreyev’s son savva reported back to his family after
a visit to his native vammelsuu in 1936; he found the ruined site of
where the family home had stood: “…gray foundation stones pro-
trude from the snow and a clump of young trees… a little fir tree
grows where you once had your study, mamma; and a little birch
grows where papa’s was” (andreeva 1980: 181).

“the Land that is not”

after the closure of the finnish-soviet border, ilya repin’s villa “Pe-
naty” in Kuokkala remained a meeting point for intellectuals, and a
sanctuary for russian émigrés, where they could forget their every-
day worries.14 for the members of finland’s literary circles of the
1920s-1930s, the isthmus became their summer paradise and a
source of inspiration. the group of europe-oriented modernists
linked to the magazine Torchbearers (1924-30)15 who met each sum-
mer at olavi Paavolainen’s villa in Kivennapa were perhaps the keen-
est regular isthmus visitors. the Torchbearers strove to find new
forms of poetic expression, to channel new european artistic trends
into finland, and to break away from the nineteenth century “wild-
wood culture”. for this new generation, the isthmus, with its inter-
national atmosphere, was a perfect meeting place.
the finland-swedes gathered around the short-lived modernist
literary magazine Ultra (1922), which had a bi-cultural orientation
and followed the general trend of european expressionism in striv-
ing to “transvaluate all values” in a nietzschean spirit. addressed
to the “new generation”, the magazine Quosego (1928-1929)
emerged from the same circles and was another short-lived showcase
for finland-swedish modernism. Many of the contributors to the
magazines spent bohemian summer days in villa Golicke in
Kuokkala,16 occasionally visiting the södergrans’ villa in raivola.
the Parland family’s house in tikkala, near vyborg and their dacha
in Kellomäki provided other meeting places (Parland 1991;
schoolfield 1998).
the södergrans, Parlands and collianders all had their roots in
the multilingual culture of imperial st. Petersburg. oscar Parland
proposed in his memoirs that the coarse expressionism of modern
finland-swedish literature drew its unexpected linguistic forms di-
Avant-Garde Encounters on Karelian Bedrock (1890s-1930s) 363

rectly from the liminal position of the swedish-speaking minority,

which, living in a multicultural environment, was exposed to frequent
language shifts. true or not, södergran and Parland certainly ex-
pressed themselves in an atypical swedish (rahikainen 2003: 48.)
in this turbulent environment the fate of edith södergran (1892-
1923) closely mirrored that of the Karelian isthmus, its cultural mix,
its transnationality, and its constant shift between idyll and menace.17
Perhaps this may also explain the tensions and shifts of mood in her
poetic expression (Bodin 1989: 39). in the essay “the Poet Who cre-
ated herself ”, hagar olsson describes södergran as an artist who
was “a combination of genuine child of nature, questing critical in-
telligence and morally serious personality” (olsson 2001: 160). in
this respect, södergran shares the ethical rigour and “intuitive will”
of Malevich and Guro.
the Karelian isthmus was södergran’s land as well as Guro’s. it
was their “secret garden” – a world apart: a landscape, a soil and a
microcosm that nourished their pantheistic mysticism. Both were
raised in st. Petersburg with the same decadent atmosphere, milieu
and linguistic heterogeneity; and both were influenced by rudolf
steiner, attracted to modern German literature and seduced by the
works of Knut hamsun (Birnbaum 1996: 267-268). though they
lived close to each other geographically, there is no proof that they
ever met. however, in the summer of 1907, they both lived in the
small village of raivola. södergran was 15, already writing poetry
in her wax note-book; Guro was 30, working as a professional
painter and poet (Bodin 1989: 37; Baschmakoff 1995: 233).18 for
both, art was a glorious exploit, by which they celebrated the future
in a heavenly place on earth, where the trees seemed to “guard the
peace of existence” (olsson 2001: 162).

the close contact with nature and the informal ambiance which
reigned at the international artist gatherings on the Karelian isthmus
not only during imperial rule, but also during the first years of
finnish independence, seem to fully justify the use of the term genius
loci, reflecting the special spirit of a place. spatial history tells us as
much about the visible and tangible world as it tells about abstract
understanding of relations that construct our social and material re-
ality. environments matter not only because they make us experience
a certain landscape or humanscape, but also because they form our
364 Natalia Baschmakoff

mind and create our “mindscapes”. in Landscape and Memory,

simon schama takes up this question: “Before it can ever be a repose
for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. its scenery is built
up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock” (schama
1995: 7)19.

andreyev’s artistic autochrome photos from the early 1900s reflect the dacha idyll
in the Karelian setting as a total harmony between man, nature and culture, which
the writer was pursuing (see more in davies 1989).
e.g. improvised modernist theatrical performances were staged at the casino in ter-
ijoki during summer 1913 by Boris Pronin and vsevolod Meyerkhold. (P’ast 1997:
the activity of the “World of art” impresario sergei diaghilev (1872-1929) is espe-
cially important. in the first issue of the magazine he introduced finnish painters, in-
cluding Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931), to russian readers. he also organised joint
exhibitions of russian and scandinavian art. one of the results of diaghilev’s work
was a life-long creative friendship between nikolai roerich (1874-1947) and Gallen-
Kallela. ilya repin’s many international connections with artists are also well docu-
mented (see more in Kirillina 1977; reitala 1987; chukokkala 1999).
Zhupel, like most of the satirical magazines of the time, was short-lived (1905-1906),
running for only three issues. among its cartoon designers were great modernist artists
such as Mstislav dobuzhinskii, ivan Bilibin, Boris Kustodiev and others
(dobuzhinzkii 1987: 299-300; Karasik 1957: 357-363).
in april 1917, an exhibition of modern finnish art was organised at nadeshda
dobychina’s art gallery in Petrograd. it revealed the russian’s keen interest in modern
nordic art. Many of the acquaintances between finnish and russian artists may be
traced back to summer seasons on the isthmus (hellman 2002, 27-40).
in this respect, she was not the only modernist artist to be attracted to the fenno-
scandian landscape. others included the painters Matiushin, roerikh, Larionov, and
Goncharova, and the poets Briusov, Blok, Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh. Birnbaum
considers that the Karelian isthmus became Guro’s “literary home ground, where she
wrote her best works” (Birnbaum 1996: 270).
other of her texts, notably “Podrazhaniie finljandskomu” (imitating finnish), “fin-
skaia melodiia” (a finnish tune) and the unpublished draft “Korova” (the cow),
reveal Guro’s knowledge of other finnish literary motifs (see more in nilsson 1987b:
130-132; Baschmakoff 1990: 157-170).
Guro seemed to have a special interest for Louhi, the hostess of the mythic Pohjola
(Land of the far north) that Guro called “the Gloomy north” (see more in
Baschmakoff 1990: 165).
Avant-Garde Encounters on Karelian Bedrock (1890s-1930s) 365
for more about the place of the Karelian isthmus in Guro’s oeuvre and her poetic
kinship with the finnish-swedish modernist edith södergran, see nilsson 1986,
1987a, 1987b, 1989b; Birnbaum 1996; Baschmakoff 2003.
in one of her prose fragments, Guro even argues with the eminent danish writer
herman Bang (Baschmakoff 2004: 41).
Guro called her modernist attitude ‘boldness’ – derzost’.
also the painter Pavel filonov (1883-1941), close to the Guro-Matiushin couple,
stressed the dynamics of the creative process. his idea of persistent work (sdelannost)
meant a record of various processes that take place while the work of art comes into
existence. superimposing on the same canvas, one upon another, several paintings of
the same object – in Bergson’s words producing “an aggregate” of images (Bergson
1988: 9) – filonov emphasised both the duration of the creative process and the visual
dimension of the work (see more in cloutier 2009).
for more information about the precarious situation on the borderland territory
1917-1920, see engman 2008.
Besides repin’s son iurii, a painter, and his daughter vera, an actress, among the
russian émigré artists – many of them modernists – were: the writers vera Bulich,
vadim Gardner, ivan savin; the painters nikolai Blinov, arkadii Presas, Georges von
swetlick; the composers ernest Pingoud, aleksei Krasnostovskii, Petr akimov, sergei
Lappo-danilevskii and Petr Mirolybov (for more information see Baschmakoff and
Leinonen 2001).
among “torchbearers” members and sympathisers were the writers olavi Paavo-
lainen, helvi hämäläinen, toivo Pekkanen, Mika Waltari, Unto seppänen, ilmari
Pimiä, arvi Kivimaa, elina vaara, Uuno Kailas, Katri vala, P. Mustapää (Martti
haavio), Lauri viljanen, Yrjö Jylhä, viljo Kojo, Lempi Jääskeläinen and the painters
sylvi and väinö Kunnas.
villa Golicke was owned by the cousins ina colliander and sven Grönvall. among
the guests were olof, rabbe and heidi enckell, Gunnar Björling, helen af enehjelm,
Lorenz von numers, eva Wichman, ralf Parland, hagar olsson, elmer diktonius,
ragna Ljungdell and atos Wirtanen. the swedes Gunnar ekelöf, Johannes edfelt,
erik Lindegren, hjalmar Gullberg and ebbe Linde also made trips to Kuokkala (for
more information see hirn 2003: 16-24).
södergran’s literary production, like Guro’s, is meagre. the first collection Dikter
(Poems) was published in 1916. the second collection Septemberlyran (september
Lyre) came out in 1918. Rosenaltaret (the rose altar) followed in 1919, Framtidens
skugga (shadow of the future) in 1920 and the posthumous Landet som icke är (the
Land that is not) in 1925.
Both died of tuberculosis – Guro in Uusikirkko, södergran in raivola (Birnbaum
1996: 37).
in designing mindscapes and “cultural islands” around st. Petersburg where “nature
and culture meet each other”, vladimir toporov applies the term locus poesiae to de-
scribe natural spaces that have been “theatricalised” and thus “culturalised”; as a par-
allel term, toporov uses the almost untranslatable russian word ‘urochishche’ (see
more in toporov 2009: 501-643). thus, in toporov’s schema, the artist’s role is to reveal
the theatrical potential of a natural space. toporov links poetic agency to Bakhtin’s
366 Natalia Baschmakoff

and vernadsky’s respective notions of chronotope and noosphere, which both adopt
the symbolist idea of art as creation of life (toporov 1988: 61; 1991: 200-217). More-
over, by theatricalising natural space and “playing culture”, modernists were subli-
mating the fear they felt for the great crises to come. reflecting over his famous
dacha-guestbook “chukokkala”, full of parody, witty jokes, puns, occasional poems,
sketches and caricatures by and/or of summer guests and famous personalities, which
became a mirror of the epoch, critic and writer Kornei chukovskii reminisced about
the fin-de-siècle atmosphere on the isthmus: “it was like a feast during the plague”
(hellberg-hirn 2009: 127).
Avant-Garde Encounters on Karelian Bedrock (1890s-1930s) 367

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archivaL MateriaLs
rGaLi, fond 134, elena Guro.
the PaviLion of DE 14

Øivind storm Bjerke

in 1914, an exhibition of artistic and industrial achievement marking

the centenary of the norwegian constitution was held at the frog-
nerpark in Kristiania. a group of fourteen artists chose to fund and
coordinate their own pavilion for the event. their exhibition opened
on 17 May and was accompanied by a small, 56-page catalogue. the
catalogue carried no preface or any other kind of statement that
could be interpreted as a manifesto or common programme. infor-
mation about each artist was restricted to name, address, a list of
works and 2-4 illustrations. similarly, all artists were entitled to the
same amount of wall space in the exhibition. the principle motiva-
tion behind the creation of De 14 (the 14) was a lack of confidence
in the commissioner of the official pavilion, christian Krohg, and
the curator of the contemporary art show, søren onsager.

from the 1880s onwards, norwegian artists began to take charge of

many aspects of their country’s ‘artworld’, becoming directly in-
volved in the distribution of grants, the selection of jury panels for
the annual autumn exhibition, the selection of artists to represent
norway abroad at official exhibitions, even influencing the national
Gallery’s choice of acquisitions. these artists were dependent on
being recognised as active and valuable participants in a large social
and professional network.
after 1903, the painter christian Krohg took an increasingly
prominent position among norwegian artists. in 1909 he was ap-
pointed to the first professorship at the national academy of art.
active since the 1880s, the so-called heroic years of norwegian art,
Krohg had become a legendary figure. With his unquestionable tal-
372 Øivind Storm Bjerke

ents as a painter, writer, journalist and professor, he was able to dom-

inate those parts of the norwegian artworld governed by artists. the
comparably influential erik Werenskiold looked upon Krohg and
his exercise of power with growing displeasure; in his opinion, Krohg
was a nepotist.
the young henrik sørensen, from 1906 onwards, gradually posi-
tioned himself as the unquestioned leader of the young artists.
around 1910 he managed to form an alliance with erik Werenskiold.
this marked the beginning of the decline of the power and influence
held by Krohg and his entourage. one of the earliest successes of
this alliance was the founding of Kunstnerforbundet (the artists’ as-
sociation) in 1910, a society organised as a corporation with the
artists as its shareholders. the idea was Wilhelm Wetlesen’s (1871-
1924), a minor artist included in the pavilion of The 14, who had a
great talent for forging friendships.
sørensen, Per deberitz, severin Grande, rudolph thygesen, Jean
heiberg and einar sandberg – all former pupils at academie Matisse
in Paris – exhibited as a group in Göteborg and copenhagen in 1911.
these artists, together with axel revold, thorvald erichsen and
oluf Wold-torne, formed the core of De 14 and were responsible
for the organisation of a touring exhibition which visited Barmen,
frankfurt am Main and München during the spring of 1913. With
the addition of erik Werenskiold, his son, dagfin, and the painters
Lars Jorde and Kristen holbø, whom sørensen had befriended du-
ring his stays at Lillehammer, the number of artists increased to four-

in an essay on Bernhard folkestad, anders castus svarstad, Ludvig

Karsten, theodor Laureng, henrik Lund and søren onsager, chris-
tian Krohg coined the term “new impressionists” (Krohg 1911: 219-
232). Krohg predicted that the central artist of the decade would be
Karsten and described him as the most contemporary painter and
Munch’s heir. these six artists had exhibited as a group in copen-
hagen and Berlin in 1910 to considerable critical acclaim. they
painted in a loose, impressionistic style using strong colours, render-
ing their subjects with apparent spontaneity.
Walther halvorsen did not share Krohg’s evaluation of these
painters – as his essay in the same issue of Kunst og Kultur makes
clear. according to halvorsen, a fight for supremacy was taking
The Pavilion of de 14 373

rudolph thyge-
sen Fargesymfoni
nr. III (colour
symphony no.
iii), 1914,
177×232 cm, oil
on canvas. Lille-
hammer art

Jean heiberg
Skadet mann
(injured Man),
1914, 65×54 cm,
oil on canvas.
Lillehammer art
374 Øivind Storm Bjerke

place between the “new impressionists” and the artists who had stu-
died at academie Matisse, whom he refers to as “the radicals”.
halvorsen’s essay reads like an unashamed promotion of his artist
friends. he drew specific attention to sandberg, Grande, deberitz,
heiberg, thygesen, Per Krohg and, in pride of place, sørensen,
whose work, in halvorsen’s opinion, offered the best exemplification
of expressionism. furthermore, halvorsen claimed that, together
with Krohg, Werenskiold and Munch, the young artists demon-
strated that, outside of france, “painting is nowhere as good as in
norway at the moment” (halvorsen 1911: 265). halvorsen’s essay
provoked a response from the swedish art historian august Brunius.
for Brunius, expressionism was nothing new, but had actually been
the dominant trend of the previous forty years, with a lineage run-
ning from cézanne to van Gogh and Gauguin and their wish to cre-
ate a “personal treatment of colour and [attain] emancipation from
all traditional restraints” (Brunius 1912: 224). Brunius, like Krohg,
singled out Karsten, but described him as the most interesting expo-
nent of norwegian expressionism, which, in his opinion, derived its
distinctive character from Munch. for Brunius, sørensen, torstein
torsteinsson and onsager belonged to a minority strongly influenced
by french art, while Lund, erichsen and svarstad were marked by
national idiosyncrasies which placed them outside any definition of
“expressionism”. Brunius’ opinion had no impact on the artists
halvorsen considered “radical” and “expressionistic”; nor has it
made much impact on subsequent generations of writers and art his-
torians, who have predominately accepted and maintained the cate-
gories and groupings outlined by Krohg, halvorsen and sørensen.
in Kunst og Kultur 1911 (sørensen 1911: 242-251), sørensen
established a genealogy in which he saw himself, erichsen, and Wold-
torne at the spearhead of a development combining impulses from
classical and contemporary international art with traditional nor-
wegian painting. sørensen wanted to establish a ‘family’ of artists,
united in building upon the “general results” 1 of the previous gene-
ration, which, for sørensen, included cézanne, van Gogh, Munch
and Werenskiold. he considered the work of these artists to be im-
bued with a manly vitality, with the exception of Munch whose work
he regarded as elegiac and romantic. this manly vitality linked them
with northern european culture. through the fusion of these two
tendencies, sørensen envisaged norwegian art of the near future as
The Pavilion of de 14 375

the next step in the historical development of art. the pavilion of

The 14 at the 1914 jubilee exhibition can be seen as the conclusion
of this idea.

compared with what was on display in the official pavilion, the work
exhibited by De 14 seems to confirm Brunius’ classification and eva-
luation of the artistic situation at that time. the work by Per Krohg
– and even Karsten – included in the official exhibition was far more
radical than anything in the pavilion of De 14. two years earlier, Jens
thiis had visited the international sonderbund exhibition in
cologne and had described the paintings of Werenskiold, torne,
erichsen, sørensen, torsteinsson, Karsten, heiberg, thygesen and
Lund as, “solid, tranquil, steady art, far from all sensation and ex-
travagance. i believe my German colleagues were rather astonished
by how reactionary revolutionary art is in norway” (thiis 1912:
237). When the art historian einar Lexow reviewed the De 14 show
at the 1914 exhibition (Lexow 1914: 54), he confirmed what thiis
had seized upon two years earlier, praising the conservatism of the
norwegian painters as a firm reaction to the excesses taking place
outside of norway.
the exhibition of De 14 did, however, include a number of works
which can be described as “radical” or “avant-garde.” in addition to
two 1914 paintings by thygesen and two recent polychrome wooden
reliefs by dagfin Werenskiold, there were “radical” paintings by
sørensen, heiberg and revold, but these dated from the period 1908-
1910. sørensen, revold and heiberg’s new work was characterised
by strict compositional control, with pencil marks laying out deco-
rative patterns. strong colours, energetic brushwork and striking de-
formations were features of the past.
the attempts of De 14 to construct a clear norwegian ethnic
identity based on traditional genres and landscape motifs were evi-
dent in the work of sørensen, Wold-tone and holbø, whilst deco-
rative work by dagfin Werenskiold and Wold-torne directly
promoted the decorative art popular amongst peasants resident in
remote districts, such as Gudbrandsdalen and telemark, who had
not been exposed to contemporary urban culture. in addition to this,
the pavilion was provided with chairs, made by the company th.
Lunde of Lillehammer, whose design was inspired by the rich tradi-
tion of woodwork in Gudbrandsdalen.
376 Øivind Storm Bjerke

the national Gallery acquired five paintings from the pavilion

of De 14.2 in terms of the national Gallery’s collection, sørensen,
Krohg, heiberg and revold were the most successful artists of their
generation, whilst Karsten, widely considered by art historians and
critics the foremost norwegian painter of the twentieth century –
beside Munch – lagged far behind.
sørensen had wanted to invite Munch to exhibit with De 14, but
erik Werenskiold rejected the suggestion. Munch’s work did not fea-
ture in the official Jubilee pavilion. the questionable isolation of
Munch by art historians as a figure outside the main development
of norwegian art has resulted in a reluctance to include him in the
history of the development of modernism and the avant-garde in the
nordic countries after 1910. his role in the development of expres-
sionism was acknowledged in the 1912 sonderbund exhibition in
cologne and a claim can be made that Munch remained the most
radical artist working in norway from 1909 until well into the 1920s.
and yet, we find Munch left out of the 1989 exhibition “Modernis-
mens Genombrott, nordisk måleri 1910-20” (the emergence of
Modernism, nordic Painting 1910-20), which promoted heiberg,
Karsten, Krohg, revold, sørensen and thygesen.
in connection with an exhibition in Göteborg in 1923, Jens thiis
emphasised the norwegians’ relationship to french art: “renoir and
cézanne have been the stimulating ideals, and Matisse has been the
influential and systematic teacher of the younger generation. the
cubism of Picasso and the efforts of derain to simplify [painting]
have also exerted noticeable influence.” (thiis 1923: 56). thiis thus
agreed with the artistic ideals of sørensen, heiberg and revold. for
thiis, individual efforts in other directions may be regarded as inter-
esting consequences of individual talents, but should not be consi-
dered part of the general development of art, since they were of no
consequence for the future. in the years to come, sørensen, heiberg,
revold and Per Krohg were to hold an undisputed hegemony over
norwegian art, a position that remained uncontested until the mid
1930s and only began to dissolve in the late 1950s.
The Pavilion of de 14 377

By “general results”, sørensen seems to be referring to underlying timeless rules
governing all great painting.
two by thygesen (one of which was presented to the gallery as a gift by the
painter). Both dating from 1907, neither painting represents the expressionism of
his work of 1914; a landscape by sandberg dating from 1910; sørensen’s 1914 “Man
and wife”; and a painting by Wold-torne from the previous year.
378 Øivind Storm Bjerke

WorKs cited
Brunius, august. 1912. “svensk och norsk expressionism”, i Kunst og Kultur, oslo:
p. 224.
edam, c.t., hökby, M.G. and scheibler, B. (eds.). 1989. Modernismens gennombrott,
utstillingskatalog, Uddevalla.
halvorsen, Walther. 1911. “Kunst og unge kunstnere”, i Kunst og kultur, oslo: p.
252 - 265
hoff, svein olav. 1922. Henrik Sørensen, Gyldendal norsk forlag, oslo.
Krohg, christian. 1911. “de seks”, Kunst og Kultur, p. 219 – 232.
––. 1914. 1814 – 1914 Norges Kunst: Jubileumsutstilling, Utstillingsforlaget, oslo.
Lange, M. and skedsmo, t. 1992. Katalog Norske Malere i Nasjonalgalleriet, na-
sjonalgalleriet, oslo.
Lexow, einar. 1914. “De 14”, Kunst og Kultur nr. 1, 1914, John Griegs forlag:
Bergen: p. 51 – 61.
Lone, erling. 1925. Harriet Backer, aschehoug & co, oslo.
Messel, nils. 1989. “fra Munchs have til Matisse atelier”, Kunst og Kultur, nr. 3:
Universitetsforlaget oslo: p. 122 – 136.
sørensen, henrik. 1911. “thorvald erichsen og oluf Wold torne” in Kunst og
Kultur, oslo: p. 242 – 251.
stenstadvold, håkon. 1946. Idekamp og stilskifte i norsk malerkunst 1900 - 1919, f.
Bruns Bokhandels forlag: oslo.
thiis, Jens. 1912. Kunst og Kultur.: oslo. p. 237.
––. 1923. Nordisk kunst idag. oslo.
Werenskiold, Marit. 1972. De norske Matisse - elevene, Gyldendal norsk forlag,
––. 1984. The Concept of Expressionism, Universitetsforlaget, oslo.

claes-Göran holmberg

swedish avant-garde groups were very late in founding their own
magazines. in france and Germany, little magazines had been pub-
lished continuously from the romantic era onwards. a magazine was
an ideal platform for the consolidation of a new movement in its
formative phase. it was a collective thrust at the heart of the enemy:
the older generation, the academies, the traditionalists. By showing
a united front (through programmatic declarations, manifestos, es-
says etc.) you assured the public that you were to be reckoned with.
almost every new artist group or current has tried to create a mag-
azine to define and promote itself.
the first swedish little magazine to embrace the symbolist and
decadent movements of fin-de-siècle europe was Med pensel och
penna (With paintbrush and pen, 1904-1905), published in Uppsala
by the society of “Les quatres diables”, a group of young poets and
students engaged in aestheticism and Baudelaire adulation. Mem-
bers were the poet and student in slavic languages sigurd agrell
(1881-1937), the student and later professor of art history harald
Brising (1881-1918), the student of philosophy and later professor
of psychology John Landquist (1881-1974), and the author sven
Lidman (1882-1960); the poet sigfrid siwertz (1882-1970) also joined
the group later. the magazine did not leave any great impact on
swedish literature but it helped to spread the Jugend style of illu-
stration, the contemporary love-hate relationship with the city
and the celebration of the intoxicating powers of beauty and deca-
in 1915 the stockholm-based italian painter arturo ciacelli
380 Claes-Göran Holmberg

(1883-1966) published the first and only issue of the magazine Ny

konst (new art). an attempt to introduce not only new art but also
new music and new literature, it was the first scandinavian magazine
of its kind. in Ny konst, one could read about the psychiatrist Bror
Gadelius and his book on modern art and mental illness – a discus-
sion that would continue a couple of years later in the danish mag-
azine Klingen. Ny konst also featured Per Krohg’s “futurist” poem
“den kunstige figur” (the artificial/odd figure), its typographic ex-
perimentation soon to be echoed in Klingen and flamman.
another important force in the dissemination of avant-garde aes-
thetics was Thalia (1909-1913), a magazine for “scenic art and
music”. contacts were made with young, modern-minded contribu-
tors from sweden and abroad, including Leon feuchtwanger, sven
Lange and Max reinhardt. in 1912, Thalia showcased italian futur-
ism and published one of Marinetti’s manifestos. the following year,
an interview with nijinski was published under the headline “futur-
ist dance art”. even though scenic art was the main focus of Thalia,
young swedish writers looked upon it as an important magazine for
avant-garde ideas.

flamman, published between 1917-1921, was the most prominent
swedish avant-garde magazine. it was founded by the swedish
painter Georg Pauli (1855-1935), who had shocked his native audi-
ence with his cubist mural paintings in a provincial Jönköping high
school (1912). Pauli had studied in Paris and had met avant-garde
painters and writers there. on his return to sweden, he decided to
found a swedish magazine that would introduce the new movements.
Pauli was allowed to extract and publish texts and pictures from his
two primary influences: herwarth Walden’s Der Sturm (1910-1932)
and amedée ozenfant’s l’Élan (1915-1916). Pauli and ozenfant also
placed advertisements in each other’s magazines.
flamman was published by the “Bröderna Lagerström” publishing
house in stockholm. it is doubtful whether its leader hugo Lager-
ström appreciated the magazine’s typographical playfulness (Gram
2006: 52). inspired by ozenfant’s “typométrie” and “psychoty-
piques”, Pauli used all kinds of pseudo-historical and Jugend fonts.
in a poem inspired by the neo-classical architect carl august