Pop quiz: Name a Swedish painter.
Extra points for anyone other than illustrator Carl Larsson. Or portraitist Anders Zorn. Or wildlife artist Bruno Liljefors.
Stumped? That's not surprising. Despite continual engagement with the international art scene, Swedish artists tend to be little known outside their homeland. Even Larsson, whose charming family scenes grace a thousand calendars, is best known among Swedish-heritage emigrants. Ditto Zorn's glamorous society portraits and Liljefors' impressionistic birds and animals. And all three earned their fame more than a century ago, leaving a lot of visual history unexplored.
Which brings us to "150 Years of Swedish Art," on view at the Hillstrom Museum of Art at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. Organized by Hillstrom director Donald Myers and a consortium of Swedish curators, the show marks the 150th anniversary of the college's founding. Honoring the school's Swedish heritage, it features 44 paintings on loan from the home country's most important art museums, the traditionally grounded National Museum and the more contemporary Moderna Museet, both in Stockholm. The free exhibit is up through Dec. 2.
Most of the artists will not be familiar in Minnesota. Virtually all were trained at Sweden's Royal Academy or the leading art schools of Europe, where they absorbed and adapted all the latest trends.
The show begins fittingly with a dramatic 1855 scene by Carl Wahlbom, "Death of King Gustav II Adolf at Lützen." Nearly 5 feet wide, it is a swirl of rearing horses and flashing swords surrounding the wounded king, who falls from his steed as his troops struggle with thuggish-looking Germans. A Protestant warrior who died in 1632, Gustav II is the college's namesake and a legendary ruler whose blood-stained elk-hide coat is still displayed in a Stockholm museum -- along with the taxidermied carcass of his horse.
Like their American counterparts, 19th-century Swedes loved landscapes such as Edvard Bergh's 1862 vista of a rocky outcropping overlooking Stockholm's island-dotted waters. Shimmering fairies swirl through a moonlit river valley in a visionary August Malmström painting, while Olof Arborelius catches the crystalline light and bright clouds of a summer afternoon.
Even Swedish royalty and celebrities painted. Prince Eugen (1865-1947), son and brother to two kings, was a skilled painter represented by a spring vignette with birch trees and a brooding vista of steamboats in winter. When afflicted with writer's block, playwright August Strindberg painted, often using a palette knife to slather the pigment as in his brooding "Sunset."
By 1900, young Swedes were experimenting, as Nils Kreuger did by spattering an otherwise banal horses-on-a bluff scene with lively dashes of India ink. Meanwhile, Isaac Grunewald borrowed the luxurious pastel hues of Pierre Bonnard for his sunny 1912 "memory portrait" of his wife admiring a rose. Siri Derkert turned to Cubism for a tabletop still life, and Gösta Adrian-Nilsson made a shipyard into a blocky endorsement of modernism.
Swedish painters were pretty much untethered from representation by the 1930s, as Carl Kylberg suggests in his sketchy impression of "Sea Air," a landscape streaked with Willem de Kooning angst.
The post-World War II art scene was even more divided and tormented. In 1958, Olle Baertling went proto minimalist in "Iru," a dramatic canvas of plunging triangles in blue, chartreuse, red and black. That same year, Staffan Hallström vented an existentialist howl in "Nobody's Dogs II," a rough-edged image of four feral beasts whose defensive posture has a scary power. Likewise, there's something ominously unsettled in Lenke Rothman's "Stitched-Up Old Game" from 1964 with its strange needlework, opaque symbols and veiled references to Jewish mysticism and her experiences in Nazi concentration camps.
And for psychological drama, Lena Cronqvist is unbeatable in her nightmarish "Tattletale," a large 1991 painting of a pre-teen girl dunking, perhaps even drowning, her anguished alter ego in a glassy pond on a sunny day. In his 2009 painting "The Old Society," Thomas Broomé uses language to shape a claustrophobic interrogation chamber in which every object is imprinted with, or upholstered in, the word that identifies it -- carpet, wall, door, etc. At its center, a duly marked "chair" faces three inquisitor seats composed of the words "Power," "Greed" and "Vanity."
The show will not disappoint fans of Larsson, Zorn and Liljefors, who are represented by unfamiliar images that may stretch their American reputations. More important, however, it offers a wider look at how Swedish artists have responded to and expanded upon international trends in the past century and a half.
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431