Those of us who live in London or New York tend to think the confines of the contemporary art world begin and end in Hoxton, downtown Chelsea or SoHo. It is a narrow view. The Moderna Museet in Stockholm dates back to 1958 when it was housed in an old naval drill hall. In 1998 it moved to a new building on the island of Skeppsholmen only to be closed when serious damp was discovered. The interior has now been largely re-vamped and when I visited it was packed. Situated on an island the building is to Stockholm what Tate modern is to London. On the cold grey day ducks bobbed on sheets of ice outside the large plate glass windows between the moored ferries.
For a country with a small population the museum has a remarkable permanent collection, thanks largely to one if its first directors, Pontus Hultén, whose discerning eye and friendships with artists such as Niki de Saint Phalle, Sam Francis, Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol meant he acquired their work long before it achieved international acclaimed. It is this private collection which forms the heart of the museum. The museum’s own collection is displayed in reverse chronological order from contemporary works by international artists such as Zarina Bhimji, with her evocative film installation Out of the Blue, through Pop and Minimalism back to the earliest movements of the 20th century. There are some fine examples by Picasso, Braque, de Chirico and Kirchner, an excellent collection of Duchamp and the museum has just received a unique donation of seven beautiful Paul Klees. But for the British visitor it is, perhaps, the discovery of works by Swedish artists, not necessarily known here, that is most interesting, to see how they responded to the major art movements of the 20th century, including those who chose to turn their backs on European Modernism to concentrate on domestic motifs influenced by folk art. This group that included Hilding Linnqvist, Eric Hallström, Gideon Börje and Axel Nilsson were interested in how the pre-industrial world met modernity and in the peripheral spaces between city and country. They painted the little turreted houses with their fenced gardens, the parks where families can be seen enjoying the short Scandinavian summer. In the 1930s there emerged a group known as the ‘Gothenburg colourists’. Carl Kylberg was the dominant figure, something of a colour mystic who wanted to express a spiritual dimension in his art through reference to theosophy and Christian and Indian mysticism. The evocations of loneliness and the strong emotions he expresses through paint run parallel to the work of the better known German painter, Nolde.
One of the most interesting of the Swedish painters is Dick Bengtsson, a self-taught painter born in 1935, who made his living as a postman. His ambiguous works critique modernity’s requirement for purity and are charged with a strong sense of social commentary. His paintings, with their infamous hallmark of a black swastika, allude to the work of Edward Hopper, Clifford Still and Malevich. Öyvind Fahlström dreamed of creating an art that would, in true 60s style, fuse playfulness with social and political insight. Making interactive versions of Dominoes and Monopoly, he wanted to mass produce work that would reach beyond the narrow clique of the art world and strike a blow at the commercial market.
The downstairs gallery currently houses an exhibition by Anna Riwkin, the Swedish photographer who died in the 1970s, famous not only for her children’s books, collaborations with authors and her portraits of famous Swedish dancers, choreographers, artists and writers but also for her compassionate, insightful studies that mirrored life on the margins of the mainstream European (largely Aryan) world. These include photographs of Swedish Roma taken in the 1950s where she has captured, neither with sentimentality nor condescension, their hard yet colourful way of life. In the early 60s she photographed Jewish settlers and Bedouin in the desert and children in Korea. But, perhaps, her most potent images are those of the Sami of Lapland dressed in national costumes, driving their vast reindeer herds across the empty tundra and using woodworking and building skills that have now been all but forgotten.