Carl Larsson, Azalea, 1906. Thielska Gallery, Stockholm.
On Monday (6 September) I will be lecturing about two great Swedish artists from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, Anders Zorn and Carl Larsson, both of whom (and I know I’ve said this before) deserve to be better known. Aside from their enormous technical skill, the rich use of colour and original compositions are combined in what are, quite simply, wonderful paintings, easy on the eye and a pleasure to behold. On the whole, they communicate a sense of ease and well-being which was not necessarily that of their humble origins. Because of their outlook on life, and their interests in both tradition and innovation, I have called the talk How it was and how it could be – although you’ll find it listed on Tixoom (where you can book tickets) as Two Swedish Masters. But more about them on Monday at 6pm – today I want to talk about Mrs Larsson, although, perversely perhaps, I will do so by looking a painting by her husband, Carl.
According to that well-worn phrase, ‘Behind every great man is a great woman.’ I can’t help finding the motto a little tired. We now know that often the women weren’t behind the men. Often they were alongside, or even up in front – it’s just that the other men failed to notice them, and as some of those same men did much of the communicating (writing books, lecturing, etc, etc) even the other women didn’t get to know about the Great Women who were supposedly backing up the supposedly Great Men. You might, at first glance, assume this is the case with Mrs Larsson, who is half hidden in this work behind an Azalea – the star of the show. Like many a star of stage and screen, this plant has found its place in the spotlight, close to the audience in the middle of the stage – or, in theatrical terms, downstage centre. But then, the Azalea is what this painting is all about, surely? The title tells us as much, doesn’t it?
Azaleas are actually a type of Rhodedendron – a surprisingly broad genus – and, as such, it should really be a more sprawling bush. However, this would appear to be a ‘standard’ variety, with the attractively-grouped blooms growing from a tall slim stem. It could have been pruned, or even grafted, to make it look like this. A little further back, and to our right, we see Mrs Larsson wielding a pair of shears: maybe she is responsible for its current form. It is not entirely clear, given the scale, whether she is looking out towards us, or at the plant itself – I suspect it’s the latter, though, as her irises are in the far corner of her eyes – she is looking to her right, and a little downwards. Maybe she has just finished tending to it, and, and having walked away, she has looked back, over her shoulder, to check that its appearance is satisfactory. The light floods in to the back of the room through the expansive window, placing her, as the French say, contre jour, ‘against the daylight’, a bravura display of skill from Carl Larsson, using the luminosity of the watercolour medium to full effect. The light filters around one side of her face, leaving the other in shadow. It plays similar across the blooms, with those at the top catching the light, the translucency of the petals making them glow. The lower flowers are more in shadow, allowing Larsson to show off a range of pinks, from the palest tint to almost red. In this light – literally and metaphorically – his wife’s face appears another in the collection of blossoms. She has tended to the flowers, making sure they appear perfect, and he places her perfectly among them.
But is that how he saw her? One of the beautiful things in life, and nothing more? Merely part of the decoration? After all, she’s not front and centre – that position is given to the plant. Admittedly I haven’t helped by calling her ‘Mrs Larsson’ because, of course, she did have her own personality. Mr Larsson was more than aware of the fact. Ultimately, I think that is what this painting is about. Carl had been born into abject poverty (more of that on Monday), but, despite this, his artistic talent was recognised at an early age, enabling him to train at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts. After a period working as an illustrator (an experience which was to prove invaluable throughout his career), he headed off to Paris, and settled in a Scandinavian artists’ colony just outside the city a few years later. It was there that he met Karin Bergöö, a more recent graduate from the Academy. Previously she had studied at the Swedish Craft School, and came from a wealthy and progressive family: she had lived independently in Stockholm, with an allowance, from the age of 14. A year after Karin and Carl met, they returned to Stockholm and married. Following a couple more sojourns in France, they settled in Sundborn, near the town where her father, a successful businessman, had been born. He gave them a small, almost derelict cottage, called Lilla Hyttnäs – which, roughly translated, means ‘the small cabin on the isthmus’. They already had two children, and went on to have six more. Most women’s careers would have foundered at this stage, and, according to the standards imposed by the traditional rigours of the ‘fine arts’ – which insist on the primacy of oil on canvas – Karin’s did. She did not become a professional artist, unlike her husband. As a mother, she was all but restricted to the domestic sphere: it was this which became her ‘canvas’. She designed furniture, and interiors; she wove and embroidered; and she made her own and her children’s clothing. The pinafores she is often seen wearing in Carl’s paintings (she was also his chief model) were her own design, practical and comfortable. To this day they are known as karinförkläde – ‘Karin’s aprons’ – by the women of Sundborn. And, I believe, even much further afield.
On the left of the painting, behind the Azalea, we can see a loom set up with a partially woven textile. The curving lines in bold colours – blue, white, pink and red – framed by a similarly brightly coloured border of rectangles, is typical of Karin’s work. It is not dissimilar to the panel underneath the window of the dining room of Lilla Hyttnäs, their home, now a museum celebrating their work and their life together. Indeed, it might even be Carl’s interpretation of that particular work in progress. The loom itself is delicately depicted, with its bench outlined clearly beside it. In the background we also see a printing press, for the production of engravings. Or am I seeing it this way because I want to see this as the home of an artistic couple? Maybe it’s a sewing machine, and maybe one of you can tell me! Either way, it is part of the artistry.
Karin’s creativity is central to this painting. Although she, as a figure, is to the right of the composition and in the middle ground, she is certainly not marginalised: figuratively she is absolutely central to the composition, in the same way that she was at the centre of Carl’s life and work. She created the environment in which they lived together, and she nurtured the children – in the same way that she nurtures the plants. She was not ‘behind’ him, but beside him, inspiring him, enabling him, and encouraging him on – a sounding board and a critic. She made the family and home what they were, and these in turn became his core subjects, as we will see on Monday. The Azalea in this painting is not just a plant, it is a symbol of their life together, well-ordered, perfectly structured, luminous, and, ultimately, beautiful. Carl acknowledges here that this is the fruit of Karin’s particular genius. We cannot see witness this act of creation: Carl, sitting at his easel, is not in view. But while he holds his paint brush, and she, her shears, I can imagine their eyes meeting across the blooms.