Published: May 7, 2002
Utopia and Reality:
NEW YORK CITY – The first half of the Twentieth Century is identified with youth, progress, innovation, new artistic ways to view and understand a changing world and modernity. In Sweden this resulted in innovations such as the spheric ball bearing, new architecture at the Vällingby Center, the skyscapes at Hötorget, and Gunnar and Alva Myrdal’s ideals on social welfare politics. All were expressions of their time and have become world-renowned classics.
The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture presents a broad survey of Swedish art and culture from the first half of the Twentieth Century with the exhibition, “Utopia & Reality: Modernity in Sweden, 1900-1960.”
Organized by the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, the exhibition is on view at the Bard Graduate Center through June 16. An accompanying, fully illustrated catalog makes an important contribution to English-language scholarship concerning the Swedish perspective on modernism and the rich diversity of modernist art, architecture and design produced in Sweden during this period.
“Utopia & Reality: Modernity in Sweden, 1900-1960” traces the origins of modernism in Sweden and explores its cultural and political contexts. It deals with the aesthetics of the Twentieth Century, but also with society during the modernist era in Sweden.
The full range of artistic expression is covered, from architectural drawings and models to painting, sculpture, graphic and industrial design, crafts, photography and film. The exhibition marks the first time that these approximately 200 works in different media have been shown together, providing a comprehensive portrait of how modernity was expressed in Sweden from the turn of the century to the late 1950s.
Modernism in Sweden
The Twentieth Century was characterized by an awareness of the concept of “modern” and the constant search for the new. New technologies demanded new ideologies and models of social and political organization, which in turn stimulated new forms of architecture, design, photography, film and other art to reflect and comment on a rapidly changing world.
In Sweden, artists were influenced by major figures on the Continent and by the activity in avant-garde centers such as Berlin and Paris. Exhibitions in Gothenburg, Malmö and the Liljevalch Konstall in Stockholm in the first three decades of the Twentieth Century exposed Swedish artists to works by Kandinsky, Léger, Picasso, Braque, Schiele and Matisse, among many others, and were forums for international modernism.
Swedish artists incorporated aspects of the new art movements into a distinctly Swedish modernity, combining the national with the international and adapting their utopian ideals to the reality of everyday life. As a comprehensive survey of the Swedish response to modernism, the exhibition represents both those artists who embrace modernism as an emblem and a means of social progress and those who reject the rationalistic ideals of the movement and its unceasing emphasis on the new.
Modernism coincided with a need for new social and political solutions. Modernist architecture gave the movement a strong popular appeal, and the government was to realize many of modernism’s most radical ideas. The Swedes embraced the experiments of Adolf Loos in Austria, Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus architects, among others, welcoming the new architecture as a solution to everyday social issues in Sweden.
Whereas in other countries modernist architecture typically was the style employed for more exclusive building projects, in Sweden the so-called functionalist style was used for public schools, housing, baths and civic offices, and thus came to be identified strongly with the welfare state and the social democracy movement.
Other utopian architectural projects, such as Sven Markelius’s Collective House (Stockholm, 1935) and the apartment hotels that followed were intended as solutions to the problems faced by working women with families. The 1930s utopia of modern man in modern society led to the postwar development of the welfare state.
The provision of housing was one of the most important tasks, and architects were charged with designing the framework of the new Folkhem — the “people’s home.” The radical transition from scarcity to economic security, from countryside to neighborhood centers, from craft to industry, won international acclaim.
In the arts and crafts, under the leadership of textile designer Elsa Gullberg and the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design, artists and manufacturers began to collaborate in an effort to increase the aesthetic quality of industrial products, placing a decidedly national stamp on goods mass-produced for the international market.
Objects for everyday use, such as Bruno Mathsson’s bentwood furniture, also reflected this climate of social experimentation. Consumer goods were designed to be functional and widely affordable but also aesthetically pleasing, exemplifying the democratic notion in Sweden that everyone was entitled to beauty in daily life.
“Swedish Modernism” as a concept was launched at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, with a persuasive program that placed the potential of design in a broader context. The blond Swedish style evoked an enthusiastic response from international audiences, a response still echoed in the contemporary world of design.
Young Swedish photographers such as Arne Wahlberg imported to Sweden the new, objective style they had learned in Germany, and frequently put their talents to work for Swedish industry, again imbuing industry with a national aesthetic. The exhibition focuses on the photographers who captured the progress of modern society in their pictures of sport, new technology, architecture and film stars, but also on those who portrayed a society that would soon belong to history, a society caught between rural tradition and modern urban living.
By the 1960s, Sweden saw a new generation of architects, artists and designers rebel against the social, cultural and political confines of a modernist program. Scandinavian style — the prevailing identity of the 1950s characterized by elegant, harmonious proportions and an almost perfectionist treatment of material — was simultaneously called into question. The final part of the exhibition illustrates a number of the interactions between artistic disciplines that took place after World War II. These interactions, together with examples of work by pioneers in Swedish industrial design, re-create the dynamic atmosphere of the 1950s.
“Utopia & Reality: Modernity in Sweden, 1900-1960” includes 200 classic works of Swedish modernism, including avant-garde painting ranging from expressionism, abstraction and occultism to Gösta Adrian-Nilsson’s futurist-expressionist paintings; paintings by Matisse’s pupils Isaac Grünewald and Sigrid Hjertén; premodern paintings by August Strindberg and Hilma af Klint; furniture designs by Erik Gunnar Asplund, Bruno Mathsson, and Josef Frank; Viking Eggeling’s abstract film Diagonal Symphony (1924); Albin Amelin’s anti-Nazi prints and paintings; glass by Edward Hald; graphic design by Anders Beckman and Olle Eksell; architectural drawings by Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz; textiles designed by Ingegerd Torhamm and Astrid Sampe; and industrial designs by Sixten Sason and Sigvard Bernadotte.
The exhibition sheds light on the perspective of the artists — the Bohemians, the designers in the service of society, art engineers, architects, social planners and radical visionaries. The exhibition also presents the work of a large number of women artists, illuminating their understanding of the art of the new era and prompting a discussion about the situation of women in general.
“Utopia & Reality: Modernity in Sweden, 1900-1960” is curated by Cecilia Widenheim of the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, in collaboration with Eva Rudberg, Arkitekturmuseet, and Cilla Robach, Nationalmuseum Stockholm.
The Bard Graduate Center has complemented its presentation of the exhibition with a range of educational programs including lectures, film screenings, tours and special programs for children, families and senior citizens.
The Bard Graduate Center is at 18 West 86th Street. For information, 212-501-3000.
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