Sunday, January 10, 2010


August Strindberg, Coastal Landscape II, 1903

In the midst of all this snow and cold weather I feel in the mood to write about some Nordic landscape art and August Strindberg fits the bill.  His paintings have always fascinated me and there was an excellent exhibition of them, along with his experiments in photography, at the Tate in 2005.  It's a pity his novels are hard to get in English translation (his plays are much easier to find), but this post concerns his visual art, starting with a chronology of Strindberg the landscape artist (based on Per Hedström's survey in Strindberg: Painter and Photographer, Yale, 2001):

1849 August Strindberg born.

1872 Strindberg, in a state of crisis (not for the last time!), turned to painting - a few landscape sketches survive from this year.  In his novel Son of a Servant Strindberg compared the painting of a ruined as making him "indescribably happy - as if he'd just taken hashish."

1873 Having tried and failed as a journalist, Strindberg again turned to art, painting relatively unoriginal landscapes in the Stockholm archipelago.  He then concentrated on writing until the early 1890s.

1876 In Paris Strindberg saw Impressionist paintings for the first time.

1889 The novel By the Open Sea from this year includes passages that could be describing some of Strindberg's subsequent paintings, e.g. the "awful volcanic formation of Svartbåden" with its navigation mark, depicted in The Vita Märrn Seamark II (1992).

1890 Strindberg travelled through Sweden and some sketches survive that he made on the island of Runmarö.

1892 In the spring and summer he was sketching on Dalarö in the Stockholm Archipelago and this year he painted many of his best landscape paintings.  Strindberg had his first exhibition of paintings (a reviewer thought his depiction of Pack Ice resembled a plate of bread and margarine, or a dish of grilled veal trotters in veal sause). In the autumn he went to Berlin and fell in with a group of painters and writers who included Edvard Munch.

1893 Night of Jealousy (1893), a stormy seascape, was given by Strindberg to his future second wife (the marriage did not last...)

1894 Strindberg published 'The new Arts! Or the Role of Chance in Artistic Creation' (see below) and moved to Dornach on the Danube where he painted further works.  He moved to Paris and continued painting seascapes, possibly influenced by Turner.  For the rest of the decade he concentrated on writing and experiments in science.

1901 Another crisis and another return to painting - he continued sporadically until 1905.  This year he also collaborated with Arthur Sjögren on a book Sveriges natur (Sweden's Countryside), with Sjögren's illustrations based on thirteen sketches by Strindberg.

1902 His short story 'Fairhaven and Foulstrand' refers to the kind of landscape seen in his paintings of shores with isolated plants: "the long, shallow creeks with the finest of writing-sand ... a home for purple Loosestrife, golden-yellow Pimpernel, mauve Asters and white Sea Radish."

1906 As part of his scientific interest in meteorology, Strindberg photographed cloudscapes and wrote about his theory of recurrent cloudscapes.

1907 The sets for Strindberg's experimental theatre in Stockholm were based on pictures by one of his favourite artists - Böcklin's Island of Death and Island of Life.

1912 Death of Strindberg.

Some of the most striking landscapes painted by Strindberg in the later period show the view from a cave (or, a variation, the view of a landscape framed by leaves).  These derive from an earlier work, Wonderland, which was composed, in proto-Surrealist, proto-Abstract Expressionist style, in accordance with the principles of randomness that he described in his 1894 essay.  Beginning with a 'shaded forest interior, from which you see the sea at sunset', the painting evolved until the forest looked like a cave and cliffs in the foreground appear to be covered in lichen.  The cave motif interested Strindberg, who was fascinated by a landscape I wrote about here last year, Fingal's Cave.  One of the scenes of A Dream Play is set there and it also features in his short story 'The Romantic Sexton on Ränö', where Strindberg likens the cave to a natural organ.

August Strindberg, Wonderland, 1894

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