At the turn of the century, the Swedish Government publication Sweden; Its People and Its Industry wrote that Carl Larsson was 'the most personal among our painters ... because of his genuine Swedish temperament'.<1> Today, Larsson is one of Sweden's artistic icons, the most popular painter of his country, with prints of his works and his books widely available.
Larsson's work, with his elegant freedom of line and use of blond fresh colour, is visually pleasing to the casual observer with a certain visual naivete and innocence. Upon closer examination, however, his work is not quite so innocent as it may originally appear. There is an undertow of alienation, loneliness and a certain oppressive atmosphere in the ironically cheerful water-colours of his life and family for which Larsson is best known.
Carl Larsson was born in 1853 in a suburb of Stockholm. His father left very early in his childhood and Larsson and his mother lived in extreme poverty. For Larsson this was a time of great anxiety and unhappiness.
His early schooling took place in various schools for the poor in Stockholm, after which he went to a normal public school where he was considered one of the best pupils and was appointed as a paid monitor over other students.
After leaving school Larsson worked in several different artistically linked fields. He was a photo-retoucher and then a reporter/sketcher. Concurrently he studied at the Swedish Academy of the Fine Arts and it was here, in 1873, that he met Vilhelmina Holgrem who was to share his life during this period.
In 1876 Vilhelmina, died giving birth to their second child, the first had miscarried, the second died soon after birth, leaving Larsson alone and disconsolate. He decided to try and take his mind off of his problems and, in the following year, he travelled to France to further his art education.
In Paris Larsson joined a group of young Swedish artists who 'considered themselves the radical reformers of Swedish painting'.<2>. The winter of 1877 was spent by Larsson in conditions of extreme hardship and poverty. Larsson, depressed by the death of Vilhelmina and the conditions under which he was living, was 'close to suicide, but his will to live was stubborn'.<3>
In 1883 he met and married a fellow art student, Karin Bergoo. She was to remain his constant companion for the rest of his life which, for the next few years at least, was generally spent in France.
After about 1889 Larsson returned to Sweden on a reasonably permanent basis and settled down to a life as a professional painter. He painted both on commission, including murals for schools and the Nationalmuseum and portraits of mostly children, and for himself, watercolour paintings of his domestic life.
In 1919, Carl Larsson died at Falun in Seweden, the Grand Old Man of Swedish painting.
In 1931 his auto-biography simply entitled Me was published and his audience were astonished to find that, behind the cheerful facade of the artist who best recorded Swedish pastoral and domestic life was a neurotic man racked by self-doubt, despair and depression.
Larsson's work can be, notionally, divided into three separate periods, the first from 1877 to 1889 when he was a student in France. As a student in the salons of France Larsson, inevitably, painted in a French style. Using the opportunity to converse with other artists in order to explore various styles and motifs.
This was the period when Larsson was most overtly unhappy, writing in his auto-biography that he had thoughts of suicide and felt neurotic. The feelings of despair are not obviously reflected in the physical aspects of his artistic work, but as he was, to a great extent copying, replicating and learning this is hardly surprising. There were some indications of his emotional state as it was at this time that he started painting A Suicide's Journey Into Hell, which he wrote in his auto-biography, was 'symptomatic of my state of mind'.<4>. The paintings of this period are not really representative of Larsson's mature work, those he produced after his return to work in Sweden in 1889 which are without doubt his most popular.
Larsson's third period is that of the final years of his life, after 1903 when Larsson's oldest son, Ulf, died of appendicitis. This threw Larsson into a period of depression and introspection and was further exacerbated when both his personal life and his artisitic merit were criticised by his long time friend, the writer and artist August Strindberg in Strindberg's Blue Book.
The paintings after this period are more forced in their cheerfulness, indeed in the introduction to his book of Family Snapshots The House in the Sun, Larsson writes openly about the 'pitiful, mean, angry individuals'<5> with whom he has to deal and goes on to describe the ephemeral nature of happiness.
Larsson's work in his second period, his most popular work, is not overtly existentialist in its nature and Larsson manages to hide his depression and despair remarkably well. There are, however, some covert existential themes which only become apparent on close examination.
It's true that during this period he painted his most controversial work, Midvinterblot, or Mid-Winter's Sacrifice as a design for a mural in the Nationalmuseum. It depicts the sacrifice of the King to the Winter Gods in order to propitiate them and so allow the return of Spring. The Nationalmuseum refused to either purchase the work themselves or allow Anders Vorn, another Swedish artist, to pay for it. It is unquestionably Larsson's most overtly existential, still extant work, with its themes of necessary sacrifice in order to placate and overcome forces beyond normal control. Larsson's use of bright, almost garish, colour, does however negate much of the feeling of impeding doom which is implicit in the subject matter.
Indeed no overtly existential motifs are immediately apparent in the work of Larsson's middle period. With their saccharine studies of children, their idealised diffused light and limpid atmosphere, these are works which are most apt for a national artisitic icon. They counter the brooding, introspective character of other Swedish painters of the time, including both Anders Vorn and August Strindberg's Turneresque daubs. Larsson's work can be seen as part of the 'general reaction against modernization that swept Europe at the end of the nineteenth century',<6> but deeper meaning is not immediately obvious.
On further examination, though, the idealisations of rural life in A Home and A Family do have some existentialist features and, whilst Larsson may well have used them to exorcise his unhappy childhood by painting his desired happy childhood, there are certainly indications of a feeling of alienation and being an outsider. The works have a voyeuristic tenor.
In A Home, as would be expected, most of the works are of the interior of Larsson's own family home, yet there is no Carl Larsson present. Whilst the illustrations have Larsson's linear style, with its orientalised blocks of colour and flattened picture field, they are faceless and devoid of any feeling of Larsson's personality. It is as if Larsson is a voyeur, an outsider, looking on to a scene of domestic bliss rather than a participant, the only time he appears, in A Home, is in the dining room, where he is hidden by the dark and shadowy Karin. Instead, in most of the pictures, his place appears to be taken by an empty chair. Larsson's art is filled with empty chairs. The French author/commentator and film maker Robbe-Grillet refers in his work to the empty chair as representing absence,<7> this certainly seems to be the case in Larsson's work. An alternative viewpoint is that the empty chair is a device used to 'create the sensation of a moment in time',<8> but given the nature of the works in these two books, presented as anecdotes, almost a series of comic strips, this seems unlikely. Whether the empty chairs represent Larsson or the father who was absent in his own childhood is the only thing truly open to question. Indeed, in the self portrait which opens A Family both Larsson and the chair are present.
In the same triptych Karin appears , unusually full face on, as an almost ghostly black figure this shadowy image is repeated in other pictures of Karin. There are many representations of Karin in the two books, and very often she appears as a figure half-hidden by her hat almost as if spying from underneath the brim. Sometimes she is partially hidden by having her back turned or her head turned or as if watching over Larsson, through the proxy of her image on painted panels. In other works from the same period she might be half-hidden behind her hand, or, if not physically present, her 'dominating presence [which] inspired and stifled Larsson'<9> may be implied, for example in the presence of her knitting in The Flower Window.
Apart from these subtle indications of alienation, there also frequent inclusion of references to death and sickness. Traditionally, in Northern Europe, a combination of red and white flowers is a reference to death and 'red flowers emphasize the relationship [between] blood and passion'.<10> Larsson often uses the Japanese compositional device of placing a large group of flowers in the centre foreground of a work to draw the eye on, in Larsson's case, these flowers are almost always red or red and white. Not infrequently, he uses this device to hide the physically central figure of the piece. Although the use of the colour red as a central point to draw the eye is a commonly used artistic technique which is readily apparent in many of Larsson's paintings, in the above examples the red flowers appear almost to have an alien life of their own, consuming and subsuming the hidden, central figure. Perhaps the most evocative painting exploring this motif is Around The Lamp at Evening in which a shadowy Karin watches over the pale and ghostly children who are entwined in a flurry of red and white flowers from the table's centre-piece.
It is the self-portrait which contains and exposes the most existential facets of Larsson's work. He variously paints himself as ghostly white or facially distorted - Caricature and Writer's Ghost, both explore this theme. Writer's Ghost, in which 'Larsson painted himself as a great, gloomy ghost',<11> particularly, shares many existential aspects with Edvard Munch's portrait of the symbolist poet Stephane Mallarme, with its striations, swirling atmosphere and indistinct face peering out of the gloom.
In his most important self-portrait, Introspection, Larsson is shown as a colourless, dour figure holding in front of him a smiling and waving, colourful doll, the private face hiding behind the public face. Over his shoulder sits Karin, ghostlike, dim and indistinct.
Many of the various existential elements of Larsson's work are combined in two of the Christmas paintings from his later period, Christmas Eve and Now Its Christmas Again. In both of these works the focus is on the Lucullian feast prepared for Christmas and, yet, there is no atmosphere of celebration, Christmas Eve is sterile with the food, in yellows and whites, piled on a white table which appears to hover in mid-air. The guests are gathered around the table, but there is no host, centre stage is his empty chair, but all look away from it.
Larsson is present in Now Its Christmas Again, but only as a spectre at the far right of the triptych, indistinct and facing away from the table. At the furthest left end of the triptych stands Karin, in black. The Madonna and child, in the centre panel, are completely ignored by the company with the children more interested in the pretty lights and baubles of the tree and the adults more interested in the feast.
There are, then, some demonstrably existentialist aspects to Larsson's art in his popular 'Second Period'. The presence of death and disease can be seen by the symbolic inclusion of the grotesque, grasping red and white flowers, that hide and subsume the central figure in some paintings and are merely present in others.
Feelings of anxiety and alienation are engendered by the voyeuristic composition and execution, and further reinforced by the symbolism of the many empty chairs. These morbid feelings are further intensified by the representations of Karin as a dark, shadowy figure apparently spying on Larsson, watching and controlling his lonely life.
Beyond the first glance appreciation of these sugary, sweet representations of bucolic Sweden, it becomes apparent that they are the work of a deeply unhappy man.