In his satirical article 'How To Become An Art Connoisseur In Sixty Minutes'<1> the Swedish playwright and artistic polymath August Strindberg uses his knowledge and ability in the visual arts to poke fun at the critical establishment of his time. To a certain extent, this can be seen as a response to the way in which his own paintings were rejected by his contemporaries. Yet, as an artist Strindberg was accomplished, indeed, forward looking and experimental in his works. His work is valued today for its 'vigorous movement, bold use of colour and, intriguingly abstract, complex content'<2> and behind the satire can be seen the serious intent of dragging the conservative critics of his work into the modern age.
Strindberg did not paint on a regular basis, but rather painted at moments of 'sterility or crisis in his literary career'.<3> It seems, then, that he painted as a form of consolation or distraction when he was stymied in his literary pursuits. However 'Strindberg considered himself primarily and artist, although posterity has generally judged him on his literary efforts, belittling his artistic work'.<4>
Strindberg's visual work is difficult to categorise being variously placed in the categories of Expressionism, Symbolism, Romanticism, or Surrealism. How then can his visual art works be categorised, if at all, and what influences are evident in them?
He was friendly with many of the leading artists of his day and corresponded regularly with both Paul Gauguin and Edvard Munch. As a result he was well aware of many of the artistic and technical problems facing the fin-de-siecle artist in Europe. He certainly was aware of the different driving forces which were both dividing and yet in many ways uniting visual artists in the push to the future of a new art.
Strindberg had met Gauguin in Paris in 1894 and 'he and Gauguin seem to have taken an immediate fancy to each other'.<5> Such a fancy, in fact, that Gauguin asked Strindberg to write an introduction to a catalogue of his works, Strindberg, regarding Impressionist painting with ambivalence,<6> refused in a letter which also gave permission for the letter itself to be printed as an introduction,<7> this Gauguin duly did. Both artists were in agreement about not painting in a naturalist manner with Strindberg saying that 'one should paint from within ... from memory and from fantasy' thus echoing Gauguin's belief that art should be an abstraction, a dream, a fantasy,<8> and complaining that there was no fantasy in art of the time.<9> Gauguin said that he would like to paint 'following my fancy, following the moon and finding the title long afterward',<10> this creative process is similar, if not identical, to the methods laid out by Strindberg in his article 'Chance And Artistic Creation' in which he writes of painting in an almost random way, not deciding what is being represented until the work is finished.<11>
It is this randomness and painting in an uncontrolled and automatic manner which leads many to believe that Strindberg should be considered a Surrealist, particularly since there are Surrealist parallels in his written works, especially the Dream Play in which 'he uses Impressionist words and Surrealist images'<12> to achieve the aims of the work, that is 'to [attempt] to imitate the inconsequent yet transparent logical shape of a dream'.<13>
Certainly the techniques which he uses when painting in an automatic style reflect the ideas of the later Surrealists and lead commentators such as Thomas Mann to describe Strindberg as 'the first Surrealist in every sense'.<14> However, in his figurative works at least, Strindberg should not be considered a true Surrealist, the works are representational even if the method of production does use some Surrealist techniques, the works themselves are not truly Surreal, indeed are often closer to naturalism than either Strindberg or any Surrealist painter would prefer. Strindberg himself admits this when he says that the works produced in this way are 'a delightful confusion of the conscious and the unconscious',<15> a true Surrealist work would have nothing of the conscious in it. Kent calls these works a place where 'the poet's dream fantasy and the scientific researcher's sober experiences meet'.<16>
Similarly, the consideration that Strindberg's pictorial works might be Expressionist is limited by the fact that they have some Expressionist elements, but also many non-Expressionist elements particularly considering that
The paint is thickly applied and
Strindberg's paintings of this period have much of the subdued violence which is inherent in Turner's work with swirling and coruscating dabs of naturalistic colour surrounding and delineating centres of calm and peace. This is particularly the case with the picture titled Golgotha of 1894 in which 'one finds the earliest reminiscences of the storm pictures by Turner'<20> and in which Fraser sees ' a connotation of rebirth in the primarily visual image of a light circular form surrounded by a darker frame',<21> a proposal which is certainly at odds with the precepts of Expressionism. Many of Strindberg's works, whilst still wild and lively have none of the gloom and darkness which seems to be an overriding necessity in Expressionist painting, whilst they have some Expressionist elements, they are by no means completely Expressionistic. In Sunset At Sea (1893), regardless of the symbolism of the death of the day,
Many Swedish painters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century can be considered as Romanticists, in particular, Romantic Nationalists having
Even Strindberg himself found it difficult to categorise his visual artworks defining his work as Symbolist<26> and, indeed, many of his sketches for backdrops and scenery for his plays are full of symbolism. His paintings, however, lack any overt public symbolism although they may well have private symbolism, especially given Strindberg's automatic painting style in which the subject of the work is not decided until it is completed. As with other labels, Symbolist only partly explains and categorises Strindberg's work. He did use the 'light and wind and their effects which are fundamental to the ... mood of [Symbolism]',<27> but as with Surrealism or Expressionism, the use of these effects is merely that - an effect. The works are insufficiently naturalist, as would be expected given Strindberg's own predilections, to be symbolic of anything other than, perhaps, Strindberg's own inner turmoil.
It can be seen, then, that Strindberg's paintings are difficult to categorise, they are 'completely subjective and impossible to place in any kind of movement or label',<28> they contain many elements drawn from different schools and categories but do not fit precisely into any of those categories. Of all the categories listed by Håkansson<29> Strindberg can be specifically excluded from only one, he had no liking for, nor desire to emulate the Impressionists. Of the other labels, Strindberg certainly used elements from all of them at one time or another, and even foresees some of the future directions of painting. A good example of this is The City in which the emphasis is on suggestion of movement through the use of texture, a technique which anticipates in some respects the later Abstract Expressionism of post second war artists such as Jackson Pollock. He cannot, however, be considered as a follower or disciple of any particular school nor do his works fit easily into any of the other categories. It is true that Strindberg painted in the automatic and random way beloved by the Surrealists and also painted works which must be considered as Expressionist, however, in the end his work can only truly fit into one category - the paintings of August Strindberg.