With a sample of Swedish photos, Finnish rugs and Norwegian sculpture, the American Swedish Institute, ASI, is offering a light smorgasbord of Nordic culture this summer. While varied in size and scope, each show offers a bit of insight into the history, temperament and traditions of its country of origin.
More than a century after his death, Swedish playwright August Strindberg (1849-1912) remains a controversial figure in the homeland he pilloried as pietistic, repressive and hypocritical. Considered the founder of modern Swedish literature, he also produced expressive paintings and experimented with photography. Always conscious of his image, he took many self-portraits, of which 19 are featured in modern enlargements. They loosely track his life from student days through his writing and theater career, three marriages, sojourns in Berlin and Switzerland, and return to Sweden.
Displayed with samples of his books and an abbreviated chronology of his life, “The Image of Strindberg” shows the writer’s self-absorption and hypnotic intensity, especially the stare with which he attempted to read the “soul” of others. As always in old photos, context and costume are often as revealing as the sitter’s expression.
Early on, Strindberg affects a brooding, poetic style in a flare-collared greatcoat or jaunty tam-o’-shanter. Midlife he dons a straw hat and clutches a shovel in a garden picture with his shy young daughters. Sitting in his plush Stockholm study in 1902, flamboyant scarf tied under his wing collar, he poses as a grand man of letters with quill pen in hand. Nearing death a decade later, his eyes are haggard beneath a distinguished top hat. Backlit reproductions of several Strindberg paintings and a three-minute film flesh out this sketchy introduction to the man. Through Oct. 26.
Norwegian sculptor Ian Ward Garlant salutes the bicentennial of his country’s national day, syttende mai (May 17), with two large sculptural reliefs inspired by language. One is a gold-painted plinth loosely modeled on a runestone. The other, 14 feet wide and more than 11 feet tall, calls to mind a huge computer motherboard, trays of old-fashioned type, or an intricate geometric maze of lines and bars. Painted shimmering black and gleaming silver, it also incorporates the cross that is the centerpiece of Norway’s flag.
Called “Love Norway X” the wall-sized black frieze is composed of symbols, words and phrases from various languages including ancient runes and bits of Norwegian and Mongolian. The X recurs in many cultures, including as a preliterate way to sign contracts and a modern way to blow a kiss. It’s also seen in an adjacent display of antique Norwegian tools where it appears on a knife sheath, a packing case, a door, a 1,500-year-old drinking vessel, and in traditional hardanger embroidery. A brief film introduces Garlant, who comes across as an intense, poetic and rather haunted figure, driven by personal demons that Strindberg might have understood. Through Oct. 19.
“Rugs” is the common, but somewhat misleading, word attached to the colorful ryijy wallhangings that are displayed throughout ASI. With more than 40 on view, “The Living Tradition of Ryijy” traces this beautiful textile from its inception to now.
Usually made of thick, lustrous wools, ryijy (pronounced RYE-ah) look like shaggy tapestries. The earliest surviving pieces, dating to the 1790s, were woven as ceremonial floor coverings on which weddings were celebrated after which the newlyweds used them as cozy bed coverings.
By the late 1800s ryijy were used as wallcoverings that hung from the ceiling, cascaded over benches in fireplace nooks, and then spilled out onto the floor. In the 20th century they evolved again, first into smaller wall hangings and then, beginning about 1950, into thick, colorful rugs that became internationally popular with Scandinavian modern furniture and decor.
The earliest ryijy have soft colors — faded rose, sky blue, honey blond, black — and quilt-like designs incorporating hearts, flowers, stylized animals and human silhouettes that resemble paper dolls. Often the dates and initials of the wedding party are woven in, too.
Sinuous art nouveau designs appear in the late 1800s, almost cubistic patterns in the 1930s, and bold geometric shapes — even a zebra pattern — in the 1950s. The newest design, from 2006 by Tenka Issakainen, is an exuberant and winsomely pretty mass of pink and brown yarns festooned with bits of lace, hair scrunchies, ribbons and even an artificial rose. It reads as a sweet diary of girlhood into which a young woman could pour out her heart. Through Nov. 2.