(Editor’s note: Emma Gasterland-Gustafsson was a Junior at Gustavus Adolphus College when she was informed that she would be receiving a 2017 SCA Humanites Scholarship. She did her research in Sweden between June 12 & July 12, 2017. All photos are by the author.)
I applied for this scholarship after hearing that my Swedish teacher from the previous year had nominated me as a potential candidate. When I first heard about it, I was at an absolute loss at what kind of project I would want to do,
and how I would even use the money if I were to receive it. But thankfully, since I found out about it during our J-Term, I had a lot of time to think and to plan what kind of project I would want to do.
Being an Art History major, I am particularly interested in the ways that each art piece has its own story to tell, from the way the artist can express their experiences of the world and their history, or how aesthetic preference can change over time, and even the significance and history behind the materials used. In looking at Swedish Contemporary art and design, I noticed many elements that reminded me of designs and motifs I had seen in old tapestries and clothing; as well as in old furniture and house decorations that I had seen at the Jamtli museum when I visited Sweden last summer. With this scholarship I hoped to explore these connections I had observed, and learn more about why we often look to our histories when we create, and how using aesthetics that originated from tradition can be used to create a message of identity, of feminism, and of societal critique. While folk art can be put on a pedestal of cultural pride, I wanted more to explore how these traditional techniques and designs can still be used today in a way that can be personal and politicized without the toxicity of nationalism.
I planned for most of my research to take place in Stockholm, where I would start my research with Ulla-Karin Warberg, a superintendent at Nordiska Museet for a tour of their folk art collection. I planned for this to be the start of my research so that I could have folk art be my beginning, and from there I could look at how contemporary Swedish art stems from it.
This however was not exactly how it played out once we were in Europe.
Before we drove to Sweden, we were in Kassel, Germany to see the Documenta art festival which takes place once every five years. This was not intended to be part of the research trip and was something that we had been planning on visiting for months before I even knew I had received the scholarship. While there, I came across a piece by Britta
Marakatt-Labba, a Sami artist from Sweden. The piece was titled Historia. This work caught my eye initially because it reminded me of the Bayeux Tapestry in France: an embroidery piece which was stretched along the wall for maybe 30 or 40 feet, with every stitch being an integral part of understanding the story it tells. It began and ended with Sami cosmology, where the middle provided a history of reindeer herding, farming, animal husbandry, migration, and many other events. In looking at this piece I realized that this was a perfect starting point for me, even before I had visited Sweden and gone to Nordiska Museet. Here, on the wall, I could see exactly what had inspired me to choose this topic. It was the use of a technique and aesthetic that had been passed down for centuries, being utilized in a way that was personal and yet had a greater meaning in a globalized perspective. It was also a piece that welcomed a viewer while still having a very strong sense of personal identity and culture. It was here that i realized that I wanted to study not only how artists are using folk art and tradition in a modern way, but how they can also give new life to tradition in a global and inclusive context rather than have it be purely symbolic of cultural pride.
From here I got to working on how I wanted to structure my research. Before we drove back to Sweden after the Kassel Documenta and the Venice Biennale, I was contacted by professor and artist Alison Aune who provided my with a lot of resources to help me start thinking about how I wanted my final project to be organized, as well as some books that provided me with a base understanding of what Swedish folk art is. She got me in contact with artist Anna Sörenson who teaches at Folkuniversitetet, who also gave me insight to some museums and galleries I should check out while I was in Sweden. I began my studies not in Stockholm, but in an exhibition at Malmö Konstmuseum titled Textile Subtexts. This was an exhibition we stumbled upon on our way up to Stockholm driving from Denmark.. This exhibition dealt with issues of using traditional textile techniques in today’s practice, and how we can see them being used in the future. It was organized particularly with Swedish textile methods in mind and showcased a number of Swedish artists such as
Bella Rune, Veronica Nygren, Claes Oldenburg, and many others. My mother was a great deal of help to me while visiting this exhibition having done her Fulbright in Sweden studying weaving and other textile techniques. In looking at these pieces and talking with my mom about traditional techniques, I expanded my understanding of textile art as a form of feminist design, and how traditionally “women’s crafts” can be utilized in a contemporary context to promote a feminist message. The “subtext” of these textiles was that while each piece was beautiful as a work of design, the artists found ways to get some kind of personal and/or political message across in each piece that was created. This was meant to critique the views of textiles in the art world being primarily seen as craft meant for decoration and consumption, rather than as a form of communication. With the rise of the modern art museum and the industrial era, textile works were pushed to the world of cultural history, rather than allowing them to evolve as art pieces in their own realm. With this exhibition we see how a tradition perceived to just be craft or decoration can shine through as a powerful critique of history and of modern society.
We drove up to Stockholm a few days afterwards where I visited Nordiska Museet and visited with Ulla-Karin Warberg. She gave me a personal tour of the folk art collection, as well as their textiles collection (and even got me into the museum for free!). She was incredibly helpful in teaching me about the function of each object, as well as teaching me about the symbology of certain patterns that were seen on different pieces of furniture and fabrics. I learned a lot about the value of recycling in Swedish folk art, and how every piece of fabric can be put to use. In relating this to modern design it got me thinking about how much waste is produced in factory-made goods, and how a return to looking at used materials (particularly fabrics) as a resource rather than as an object that has reached its expiration date. Even though textiles can be damaged, in many of the rugs, blankets, and pillowcases that were displayed in Nordiska Museet, even the tiniest and seemingly insignificant piece of fabric can be salvaged to create something new. Something else that I found very interesting while I was at the museum was the fact that oftentimes the materials themselves would provide the inspiration for what the piece would become. An example of this was a stool that Ulla-Karin showed me. It was made out of the root of a tree that was curled and crooked and yet it was put to use by carving it into the shape of a dog and using it as both furniture and decoration. She explained how every part of the tree was used after it was cut down so that no material went to waste, but when they came across peculiar shapes such as this one, they often found ways to make it practical by use of imagination.
After Nordiska Museet we visited Moderna Museet to visit the Marie Louise-Ekman and Josef Frank exhibits that were taking place at the time. Upon entering the Josef Frank show, I saw a didactic that explained his major design philosophy: “The old art is the new art, and the new design is the old arts and crafts”. I started at those words on the wall for perhaps a moment too long, happy to be doing a project that consists of studying exactly what this quote was trying to tell us. Everything comes from somewhere and we build off of history so that we can adapt it for our modern day. Art and design comes from what we already know, creating the unimaginable from what we already understand. It’s fair to say I indulged in a few tears of happiness while staring at this didactic. The exhibit itself was focused more on architecture which was more along the interests of my mom rather than what I was looking for, but still I noticed among the objects displayed, many similarities to what I saw I had seen at Nordiska Museet the day before. There was a pillowcase whose design was incredibly similar to an embroidery of Adam and Eve that Ulla-Karin showed me. Also, his textile designs were very reminiscent in the waterfalls of vegetation and flowers that were seen at Nordiska. In the way they were organized and printed, they looked like slightly more detailed versions of the same fabric, something I wouldn’t have noticed without having seen the folk art collection beforehand. The Marie Louise Ekman show sat with me much differently than Josef Frank because it was less of the design aspect and more of what I could find of folk inspiration in contemporary paintings. What I noticed primarily was her use of shape and human form. Each figure was rendered similarly in profile to the human figures I had seen in many folk art pieces, with a simplified dark outline and flat colors. What related her work to my project was how she used these figures and forms to create a critique of a woman’s role in Swedish society, often creating very obscure and occasionally lewd images to normalize the female body as a person rather than as an object. Her way of going about it was not exactly how my view of normalizing female agency normally sits, but it was an expression that nonetheless I found important in understanding how this style of illustration could be used to create a political message.
The crown jewel of this museum visit, however, was an exhibition that we didn’t even know was taking place. The translated title was “Young Swedish Form” and was a collection of young Swedish designers chosen by The Swedish Society of Crafts and Design in collaboration with IKEA and the Stockholm Furniture and Light Fair. There was a variety of different kinds of design, anywhere from cabinets to stress-balls to rugs. There were a few pieces that stuck out to me: Johanna Nestor’s Den Samtida Kakelugnen, a modern rendition of the traditional Swedish fireplace/stove. It was a design that I saw at Nordiska, in the houses of Josef Frank, and that I would also see when I visited Skansen a few days later. This work was inspired by the fact that a work of art can also have a function within the household. A tree trunk to symbolize the support of a shelter, and the warmth of a fireplace to bring people together under one roof. Evelina Kollberg’s Människafällen was a more playful approach to looking at folk craft and design. Using crochet as a way to create and interactive sculpture, a playground of yarn for people of all ages to interact with (given it weren’t being displayed in a museum). Lastly, there was Katja Beckman’s Yellow 3, which utilized traditional tapestry weaving techniques to create a wall of color. She explained in her didactic her fascination with storytelling, and how the material itself can be a story just so much as the final piece can be. I thought this was really fitting considering that in many cultures, large tapestries were used to tell folktales, histories, stories of religious importance; much like the Adam and Eve embroidery I had seen at Nordiska.
Later that evening I met with artist Anna Sörensen for dinner, and we spoke about our views of art both as a global phenomenon and as artists ourselves. We talked about art as a part of the political system by way of expressing ideas through mediums other than simply stating our opinions through verbal argument or essays. Art as platform for change and evolution in a world that needs to see and hear more than the short term solutions often being fed to us by politicians and big corporations, and how the artist, while often rebellious against these systems, can become a leading voice of change. This helped to give me a lot of insight to myself as an artist and performer, as well as to find new ways to look at art and design in a way that’s more political than being purely aesthetic. Anna was incredibly kind and informative and it was such a pleasure to meet her. Her views of art helped me to think of the multiple ways the pieces I saw could be used to create a message. I also am so honored that she took time out of her day to meet for dinner and talk to an unorganized student such as myself, and share her knowledge as both an artist and a teacher.
“Textila undertexter exhibit”, Malmö konstmuseum, Malmö
The next day we took a trip to Skansen living history museum to see Swedish folk art and craft in action as it would’ve been. My sister was particularly excited about this day because she is not a huge fan of art, and having being dragged to museums for the past month or so as we drove around Europe was not exactly her cup of tea. At Skansen we sat in on a demonstration of traditional glassmaking techniques as well as learned a lot about the art of wool making; something that especially fascinated me due to my interest in needle felting as a hobby. While in the houses at Skansen I was really excited to spot many of the objects I had learned about at Nordiska, and could now see rather than just read about how they were used. It was also really helpful to have to previous context from Ulla-Karin to help me recognize what kind of people would’ve lived in each house that we visited. This trip helped to contextualize a lot of the decorations and patterns I had been looking at in folk art, so that I knew the meaning of them when they appeared in something contemporary. My favorite part about visiting this museum was talking with one of the workers/actors about the different kinds of pigments used to dye yarn. This fall I had learned briefly about pigment creation during the renaissance period, but I had never really learned anything about it in terms of dying fabric. This was interesting to me because today I feel we take for granted to complicated process required to get the vibrant colors that we knit and weave with. Hearing about the process and how much of a resource was required to make enough to dye a few ounces of wool filled me with a great respect for doing everything by hand rather than by machine, and made me have a lot more respect the materials as well.
Our last visit in Stockholm was at the Thielska Galleriet, a suggestion from both Anna, and Ulla-Karin. This gallery had
a collection that was much more around the time period of the 19th-20th century, but had a contemporary sculpture installation that I was interested in seeing. The pieces were by artist Karin Wiberg and were installed in their sculpture garden. What really drew me to these sculptures was her artist statement, in which she said she was inspired by folk tales and creatures. The figures themselves reminded me of the whimsically folky style of painter Carl Larsson, whose works are celebrated as a beacon of a constructed fantasy for how Swedish life could be. A symbol of the “perfect Swedish life”, his style is highly recognized, and in my opinion, fits with my concept of folk art because of its attention to Swedish lifestyle. These works were in that same air, and while didn’t provide a concrete political or social message, they served beautifully as ceramic sculptures that were simply meant to for decoration. While I was mostly looking for artworks that made a statement, I would still consider these to be a successful study in folk art appearing in the contemporary art world by their style. While they may have been more decorative than some of the other works I saw, their inspiration was drawn very clearly from Swedish folk art and craft, giving the traditional aesthetic of the white ceramic figure a new life in the contemporary world.
Our last art-related visit was after we had returned to the United states, at Norway house for their 4North exhibition which featured paintings by Swedish-Norwegian artist Alison Aune. What I really enjoyed about these pieces was that she used paint to recreate the patterns seen in Nordic sweaters and embroidery. In this way she looked towards tradition to translate the aesthetic into a different medium, transforming both its meaning and use. With these paintings she takes the aesthetic of folk dress and makes it into something that is not purely to be used as decoration, but to tell a story through elaborate portraiture. These portraits aren’t simply pictures of the subjects they’re portraying, but pictures of their identity and heritage as part of them rather than as a symbol of pride. It is a celebration of culture and identity while giving her subjects a sense of realism that can be related to even if you weren’t Nordic. In this way, her work fit perfectly into my project because it was a study of how the Nordic traditional aesthetic can be explored in new form, creating new stories while keeping with a similar look. Additionally, her statement of reclaiming what has been often designated as “women’s work”, stating that even though these designs have been adopted for aesthetic use by many design companies over the years, these patterns and their symbols have cultural significance and meaning and therefore her work aims to use them in a way that respects their history. In reclaiming “women’s work” this exhibition reminded me a lot of the Textile Subtexts show we saw in Malmö a few weeks before. This was because both these exhibitions were bringing into the limelight that craft can be more than decorative and can be used to tell a story, and portray a powerful message of culture and identity
As I look at the future of this project, I feel as though my research is still far from done. I plan to continue to explore this topic over the course of this year and put together a small presentation and discussion about what I’ve learned with through my research. I also hope to create an environment in which we can talk about how we as artists and audiences can work together to understand and respect the importance of folk art and how we can use it as a progressive message through art in the modern day.
This project has been a wonderful experience for me in helping me navigate the process of creating a research project past having the only institution I visit be the library. I would like to give special thanks to Alison Aune, Anna Sörensen, Ulla-Karin Warberg, and Peter Johansson for the help they’ve given me throughout this process.