The current exhibition in the European works on paper rotation space (on view until July 31) is Anders Zorn: Sweden’s Painter-Etcher. Featuring all 18 prints in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection by Zorn, this is the first time ever that they have been on view at the same time. This is the fourth in a series of posts focusing on the exhibition.
So far, in our most recent series of posts, we have seen that, in the 1880’s, the lively cultural scene in newly urban Paris not only inspired Anders Zorn to adopt a modern artistic sensibility but also provided him with modern subject matter. In 1896, however, Zorn and his wife decided to move their permanent residence from Paris back to their native Sweden.
The Zorns built their house in Swedish folk style and decorated it both with local artwork and treasures from their travels. In addition, they gradually moved historical timber buildings from around the area to the property, eventually accumulating about 40, including Sweden’s oldest secular timber building from 1237. A little ways from the house, Zorn established his studio in a farm cottage that was called Gopsmor.
Zorn died in 1920, and Emma continued to live at the house, called Zorngården, until she herself died in 1942. Since the Zorns had no children or other heirs, the estate was given to the Sweden. It has been run as a museum since—if you are ever in Sweden, make sure you plan a stop!
As you can imagine, Zorn had became a Swedish hero even in his lifetime. For instance, his painting Midsummer Dance has, for over a century, been a celebrated a piece of Swedish heritage and a symbol of Nationalistic pride. He captured the energy of a celebration held on the longest day of the year—summer solstice—a time so important to those who live in a country so far to the north. Couples in folk attire dance in a field in front of a rustic log building, and in the distance, in front of the glorious glow of the sky, is a traditional maypole. The windows of the quintessentially Scandinavian red house reflect the light of the setting sun as you can only see in June. I think I can speak for us here in Wisconsin when I say that we can appreciate the happiness of the crowd!
Although Zorn still traveled widely after 1896, his return to Mora marked a change in his subject matter. He began to do more Swedish subjects.
Zorn took great joy in using his neighbors as models for his artwork. He depicts a country girl in his print Skerikulla (above), which is the word for Skeri girl, a name for a local girl. Her costume—including her scarf-covered head—identifies her as a rural Swedish woman before you even read the title. In the best Rembrandt tradition, Zorn focuses on the figure, refusing to provide us clues as to the setting, and only a sketches in an indication of the chair she sits on. At the same time, he uses his strength in capturing the moment, by showing her in the middle of a bright laugh that indicates her happy personality.
Providing a nice foil to the young woman is the older man depicted in Dalecarlian Peasant (right). The word Dalecarlian refers to Dalecarlia, or Dalarna, the region of Sweden where Mora, Zorn’s home, was located. This is the same region that gives its name to the Dala horse, the symbol of Swedish folk culture. For Swedes, anything called Dalecarlian is quintessentially Swedish. Consequently, Zorn is presenting this man a symbol of Sweden. He has done something else, however. He has subtitled the print Lavards Anders. In a way, he has signified this etching as a portrait of a friend, solidifying his identity as “one of us,” a Sweden peasant boy who grew up on a farm, rather than a cosmopolitan artist who is an outsider.
In many of his prints that use Swedish subjects, Zorn continued to challenge himself technically while at the same time layering art historical meaning on the image. Take, for instance, The New Ballad.
Ostensibly, it shows three young Swedish women—identifiable by their headscarves—learning a new song. The one on the left holds a guitar, while the other two hold a piece of sheet music at a table.
In a nod to artists of earlier centuries (such as Dutch Baroque painter Gerrit van Honthorst, right), Zorn shows this simple country event with all of the light coming from one point—presumably from a lamp—which highlights the girl in the middle while casting the other two deeply in shadow. This extreme chiaroscuro, or contrast between light and dark, is particularly hard to achieve in an etching.
Thus, Zorn has successfully combined an everyday scene of rural Sweden with a long art historical tradition through the use of a complicated technique. Talk about an accomplishment!
And now we’ve arrived at one of Zorn’s most complex prints, the one shown below. A young Swedish mother feeds her baby at her breast—a heartwarming scene by the champion of Swedish life. But then you see that Zorn has named the print Madonna, and suddenly it had a whole new meaning.
Zorn is comparing the peasant mother and child with one of the most important types of images for Christianity, depictions of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Consequently, Zorn has raised the importance of this everyday activity to one of religious reverence. From the mother’s headscarf, to the swaddling of the baby, to the glow that makes them emerge from the dark background, the entire composition echoes Renaissance Madonnas in order to create a powerfully religious statement.
It is even more powerful when you realize that it was unusual for Zorn to use religious imagery or meaning in his artwork. He first explored this composition in a painting that is now in the Fine Arts Museum in Budapest. Zorn tended to be anti-clerical, or against the influence of clergy on secular life, and made the painting in order to express his beliefs after arguing about religion with the Swedish art critic Tor Hedberg (1862–1931). You can see best in the painting that Zorn included a man behind the mother, suggesting a holy family; this man is lost in the dark background in the print.
At another time, however, Zorn wrote that the scene is supposed to be a remorseful mother confronted by her former fiancé. This narrative would have resonated with Zorn personally, because he himself was born to an unwed mother. These many layers—public and private, religious and secular—create a complex image that may have reflected Zorn’s own attempt to find a place in the world.
Now that we’ve returned to Sweden with Anders Zorn, next time, in our final post, we’ll focus on one of favorite subjects—the female nude.
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.