Carl and Karin Larsson Invented Swedish Style a Century before Ikea. but in a Husband and Wife Collaboration Can the Partners Ever Be Equal?

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Carl Larsson is far and away the most famous and influential of all Swedish artists. But it would be easy to make the story of his life sound like a parable of artistic failure. In fact he is reminiscent of those slightly pathetic middle-aged men in Chekhov and Ibsen who have exchanged the ideals of their youth for the security - and constriction - of domesticity and provincial life.

Like many aspiring artists of the late 19th century Larsson knocked around in Paris for a few years and, like most of them, he ended up drifting back to his own country. He had been born in desperate poverty in a Stockholm slum and there is something of the fierce ambition of the young Knut Hamsun about him. But Larsson was able to solve his problem by marrying Karin Bergoo, the daughter of a prosperous merchant. Karin's father gave the couple a little country house, called Lilla Hyttnas, 150 miles northwest of Stockholm, in the rural province of Dalarna. The couple and their growing family spent summers and Christmas there and finally moved there altogether.

Larsson was achieving a certain success from public commissions and portraits but he didn't do what young artists at that time were meant to do, namely neglect his family in favour of his burning artistic ambition. Instead, he took for his subject his family and his home. He renounced oil painting in favour of the "lesser arts" of decoration and design, collaborating with his wife Karin on the interior of their house and making idyllic watercolours of the result. The culmination of his commitment to home and family was not an exhibition but a mass-produced book, Ett Hem (A Home), which became a bestseller at home and abroad.

In retrospect we see it as part of a nationalist movement that was sweeping every country in Europe, but at the time it must have seemed like settling for mediocrity. In August Strindberg's wild first novel, The Red Room, 'published in 1879, a Swedish intellectual delivers a coruscating lecture "On Sweden" which results in his being driven from the hall by a furious audience. It showed, albeit satirically, the world into which Larsson had retreated: "We have no nationality. What is our folklore? French, English and German romances in bad translations. What is the national costume whose disappearance we deplore? Fragments of medieval costumes. Tell me of any Swedish poem, work of art or piece of music that is so specifically Swedish that it differs from all non-Swedish works. Show me a Swedish building! There isn't one or if there is it's either a bad one or built in a foreign style."

Carl and Karin Larsson took ideas from all over, from Japanese prints, English arts and crafts, to bits of junk-shop furniture, and out of these, in some magical, alchemical way, they invented the Swedish cultural imagination. Lilla Hyttnas, or rather Larsson's illustrations of it, became a part of the Swedish psyche.

At this point it all becomes difficult to explain to somebody who isn't Swedish (or at least half-Swedish, as I am). People keep reaching for comparisons, such as William Morris, which don't quite work. In order to be comparable with Carl Larsson, British people have to imagine a William Morris who didn't just write poetry and design wallpaper but also invented the game of cricket, planted village greens, invented the recipe for ale and the idea of thatching cottages.

Or do we have to stop saying just Carl Larsson? The assertive, even provocative title of the new exhibition at the V&A Museum is "Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style". I know a thing or two about collaboration with a partner, since I'm writing a third novel with my wife Nicci Gerrard. To those who imagine a cosy domestic arrangement I say this: if you think it's painful to criticise and rewrite your own work, imagine handing it to somebody else to criticise and rewrite while you criticise and rewrite their work. Yeats said that out of the struggle with others you produce politics and out of the struggle with yourself you produce art. …