Beyond Hilma af Klint: Rediscovering Swedish Women Modernists

Over the past decade, the discipline has ‘rediscovered’ Hilma af Klint’s contributions to the genesis of abstract painting, which has shed new light on our understanding of the origins of European modernism. Focusing on an artist that worked on the periphery of the Francocentric and Germanic canons, as well as the pivotal role that women played in promoting modernist aesthetics, this hurried interest in af Klint’s life and art reminds us how much is yet to learn about the state of the literature. With this lacuna in mind, the present session invites papers on Swedish women artists who participated in modernism in Nordic/Northern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. Possible papers might promote individual artists, or alternatively focus on contributions made by female-only artist groups, such as ‘The Five’ (‘De Fem’). Studies that explore cross-cultural exchanges between Swedish women artists and their male or female interlocutors in Europe are especially encouraged.

Session Convenor:

Nathan J. Timpano, University of Miami


Birte Bruchmüller, Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde, Stockholm

Tyra Kleen’s international networks, career and legacy

The life and art of the Swedish women artist and author Tyra Kleen (1874-1951) have recently begun to be explored and exhibited within the Swedish art context. Kleen was largely based outside of Sweden in the late 1800s and early 1900s; she conducted her complete art apprenticeship in Germany (Dresden, Karlsruhe, Munich) and Paris during the 1890s and established herself as a graphic symbolist and art nouveau artist during her long sojourn in Rome (1898-1906).

While it is often presumed that Kleen’s artistry had become forgotten after her death in recently made Swedish art history contributions, I claim that her artistic legacy was for a long

time more preserved in for instance Italy, where she was represented in several exhibitions in the 1980s, 1990s and onwards. This goes hand in hand with her international career within Europe, whereby especially Germany, France and Italy functioned as central places of her artistic production, networking, and the display of her art. Besides exhibiting frequently in Rome, Paris and London in the early 1900s, her evolving interest in theosophy and women’s rights issues also resulted in engaging with European-wide networks.

Based upon the study of archival material on her artistic, esoteric and women’s rights networks in amongst other Paris, Rome and Berlin, this paper aims to explore Kleen’s enterprise of becoming an international (if not to say cosmopolitan) modern graphic women artist. Special consideration will also be given to her positioning within the male contemporary art world.

Stina Barchan, Independent art historian

Tyra af Kleen’s Other Realities

The Swedish artist Tyra af Kleen (1874-1951) never settled for one art form, nor for one area of research. Her career was prolific with a large production of paintings, drawings, illustrations and publications. The versality of her work mirrors that of her life, living, studying and travelling well beyond the usual paths of her times. Although interested in the esoteric movement of the nineteenth century, she appears less drawn to its spiritual aspect than to the possibilities of other forms of realities in the form of myths, gothic tales and Eastern cultures, which she interpretated in her symbolist images. In this sense, af Kleen differs from contemporary groups, such as De Fem, who engaged more directly with the ideas of Spiritualism in general and Theosophy in particular.

The paper will relate af Kleen to this trend, but more specifically explore af Kleen’s own interpretations of a realm beyond the ordinary. For the purpose of the 20 minutes at hand, I will focus on the artist’s works around the turn of the century, when she spent considerable time engaging with artistic movements in Europe. Considering the scant material on the artist in British libraries and galleries, the talk will uncover new material from the artists’ archive at Valinge gård in Sweden.

Abbey Rees-Hales, University of Birmingham

The Flicka Fauve: Sigrid Hjertén and the Nordic Nude

Pressed uncomfortably against the picture plane, the contorted body of recumbent female nude, rendered in broad brushstrokes, confronts the viewer head on. The abundance of ‘feminine’ soft textiles (polka dot bedding, net curtains and striped pelmet), rendered in magenta, rose madder lake and cadmium lemon yellow, fail to soften this radically modern work from 1916 by the Swedish artist Sigrid Hjertén (1885-1948). The title of the work, Den röda rullgardinen [The Red Blind], gives little sense of just how radical it was for a woman artist to depict the nude in such a manner.

Whilst Hjertén’s expressive use of colour might hint at the influence of her former master, Henri Matisse, whose Parisian academy she attended between 1909 and 1911, her daring and confrontational depiction of the female nude is entirely at odds with the decorative and sinuous odalisques who graced the works of the French artist. Completed the year after Hjertén’s work was featured in an exhibition of Swedish Expressionists at Herwarth Walden’s Galerie Der Sturm in Berlin, the composition of Den röda rullgardinen recalls contemporaneous German Expressionist works. Using Hjertén’s Den röda rullgardinen as a case study, this paper will consider the cultural cross-fertilisation that took place between Stockholm, Paris and Berlin during the early twentieth century. Secondly, this paper will consider what it meant for the modernist female artist to depict the nude, examining how Hjertén’s work both conforms to and subverts notions of ‘feminine’ art that permeated artistic discourse during the period.

Aisha Lovise Maud Bornø, University of Cambridge

Aprilutställningen, 1921: The Depoliticisation of an All-Women Exhibition of Modern Art

This paper focusses on an exceptional manifestation of women artists’ solidarity and collaboration in Sweden: the exhibition Aprilutställningen at Liljevalchs konsthall in Stockholm in 1921. It brought together nearly 400 works of art by seventeen women, ranging in style from Siri Derkert’s refined cubism to Sigrid Hjertén’s virtuosic expressionism. Most of the participants had studied or lived abroad for extended periods of time, and the exhibition was the direct result of their transnational networking. To negotiate their reception in Sweden, the organisers adapted their mode of display and rhetoric to depoliticise the feminist connotations of an all-women exhibition. The reception that followed was, however, marked by gendered debates over female creativity, originality, and foreign influence. An analysis of these tensions suggests the complex position of women artists in the Swedish art world and, more widely, in transnational circulations of modern art.

The canon of Swedish modernism has historically centred on ‘the Men of 1909’, a group of former students of Matisse leading the artistic vanguard in the early twentieth century. Through the prism of the 1921 exhibition, this paper sheds light on an alternative and often-marginalised group of modern artists by looking at their diverse aesthetics, collaboration, and innovative professional strategies. Analysing the background, agendas, and politics surrounding the exhibition, with particular attention paid to the artists’ depolitical strategy and the history of feminist organising in Scandinavia, the paper reflects on women’s contributions to the dissemination and differentiation of European modernism in the face of often challenging local conditions.

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