A History of Dead Ends: The Historiography of Early Twentieth-Century Swedish Mural Painting

By Qvarnström, Ludwig | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2018 | Go to article overview

A History of Dead Ends: The Historiography of Early Twentieth-Century Swedish Mural Painting


Qvarnström, Ludwig, Journal of Art Historiography


Introduction

The title of this article, A history of dead ends, is what I would like to call the established Swedish historiography of mural painting from the early twentiethcentury until the mid-twentieth century.1 The literature on Swedish public art is extensive, but only a few studies have been conducted from a critical historiographical perspective that tries to explain or reformulate the history of public art in Sweden.2 This article does not aim to reformulate this historiography, but rather to describe and explain a key feature of its structure - the occurrence of a series of never-realised proposals for mural paintings as key monuments.3 During the studied period, public art was always discussed as permanently installed and often made for a specific place.4 If we think of the history of mural painting as a history of actual accomplished and realised works of art on their intended sites, then the inclusion of never-realised proposals as important paintings in this historiography points at something missing from the public arena - a never-realised possibility. In other words, they are not there representing art we actually can see as part of the urban visual culture, but something else. I am not arguing for a historiography solely based on realised works of art or whether these proposals deserve a place in art history or not. Instead, I see these ostensibly 'paradoxical' inclusions as excellent indicators of the underlying narrative structure of this historiography. These inclusions, I will argue, not only point at a narrow definition of Modernism as the selective norm, but also a story based on a centre-periphery relation between the international avant-garde and the national and regional traditions. In this article I will question this narrative because with this biased focus on highlighting the few moments when Swedish artists had come into direct contact with the international avant-garde, we have been ignorant about regional developments and have consequently further strengthened a hierarchical narrative of art history.

In this context, Skissernas Museum - Museum of Artistic Process and Public Art in Lund is of special relevance because it focus on sketches for public art - not only realised works of art, but also sketches for never-realised proposals.5 This makes the museum's collection and exhibitions ideal to analyse with the purpose to understand the Swedish historiography of mural painting. Although we could follow this historiography from when it was established in the mid-twentieth century until today, I will in this article focus on two cases. The first case is the Swedish artist Isaac Grünewald's (1889-1946) proposal Triangle for the decoration of the marriage chamber in Stockholm Law Court from 1914, including both its role in the established historiography and at Skissernas Museum. The second case is an analysis of one of the most ambitious efforts to summarise and reformulate Swedish Modernism, the exhibition Utopia & Reality: Modernity in Sweden 1900-1960.6 This exhibition was arranged in the year 2000 by Moderna Museet (the Museum of Modern Art) in collaboration with the Swedish Museum of Architecture and Nationalmuseum in Stockholm. My reason for focusing on this exhibition is not only because it was presented as a rereading of Swedish Modernism, but also because it had a great international impact because the exhibition later was displayed at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture in New York and the catalogue was translated into English.

Skissernas Museum

The collection at Skissernas Museum was initially based on the possibility of a separation between the creative process and the final result in the creation of public art (if the work of art has been realised as intended). Skissernas Museum is, in other words, a very unusual museum in that it almost exclusively collects and exhibits sketches for public art, materials that are seldom preserved in museums. …

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