Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A visit to Norrköpings Art Museum

Otto G. Carlsund was a Swedish man born in Saint Petersburg in 1897. He began his education as a professional illustrator in 1921 at university in Dresden. His ability as an artist was already well-developed. During his time in Germany Carlsund showed his talent for Cubism. He wasn't there long, and soon moved to Paris where he studied under and with some well-known artists of the period. Paris was home for many painters which took part in Modernisms earliest years. Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, and others were all part of this early Modernist movement. To understand Carlsund's painting called “Den sista kubistiska harlekinen” (The Last Cubist Harlequin), it is important to know a little bit more about Modernism. (I am barely scraping the surface here. There is much, much more to be read on the topic.)

In the beginning of the 1900s the western world was seeing the conditions for big changes. The world was getting smaller on account of technology. Science discovered new unimaginable things every year. With the train, steam boat, electricity and airplane people had discovered a new freedom. While people were being introduced to such modernity the question arose of how we could cope with such changes. Would everything be better now? Would technology provide peace for everyone?

Half of the planet was taken up with the question. It was reflected in everything. Music, art and culture suddenly became completely different from anything the world had seen before. Jazz music. Albert Camus. Pablo Picasso. The Classic stiles were over. Carlsund was an unknown part of the movement. His work was quality, but unappreciated.

Then came The Great War. The horrible answer came, and the new peace was lost forever. There was no way back to the Classical period either. The typical opinion before the war had been that humans couldn't possibly use technology to make such horrific weaponry. The artists which made up Modernism had previously seen technology as the greatest expression of mans abilities. Now the found themselves afraid of mans ability to destroy.

The art of Dalí became popular during the 1930 and gave rise to Surrealism. It was an escape from the unanswerable paradoxes which would lead to so many terrors during the following years. His painting told exactly what other artists from the period were feeling. The hope of the early 1900s had been replaced by something strange and menacing.

Cubism was an especially simple and playful style which came to an end not long after the end of the war. To mark the occasion Carlsund would later create his best work in 1934. Den sista kubistiska harlekinen shows an olden times clown in cubist form. The harlequin was a common example of the attitude of the time, shown in many cubist paintings. Carlsund's version, however, curls at the edges and reveals a hard stone wall underneath. The colors of the reveled wall are cold and stark. In front of the harlequin stands a young girl painted in the classic mode which had been used for hundreds of years before Impressionism. The girl is Carlsund's daughter, it is said. The meaning can be read that we who live after the Industrial Revolution would reach for a simpler time because we now see the world so much more for its reality.

The most difficult thing to understand about the painting is its background. On the same surface as the harlequin is a window which shows a distant bridge holding up a steam train. One can't say if the window is a part of the “painting” or a part of the stone wall itself. It's easy to suppose that Carlsund intended this to be unclear. The technology question which plagued modernists was never fully answered. Historical sources show that their opinions on the problem were contradictory. But one thing is certain. Carlsund's comprehension of the situation was perfect.


  1. Your interpretation? It makes sense. I'm wondering if there's an accepted meaning for the harlequin. Are they meant to be joyful or menacing?

  2. That's a good question, Murr. My observations lead me to believe that it was a symbol of gaiety during the aughts of 1900, back when the US could handle such things. (Nod to your possum blog there.)

    The cubist harlequins really do look like a happy lot, though. This one, however, seems completely without personality. You can see a major difference in that Carlsund's appears to be wearing a mask of some sort. Or simply has no face. That was a departure and almost certainly an admission of his opinion of the previous decades.

    In my mind the harlequin of the 1900s finally matures into the morally ambiguous Master of Ceremonies character from Cabaret. Seems like that chap best represents how we ended up feeling about the archetype. (And probably where we started, come to think of it. No one ever really thought of the trickster as a good old party boy until the roaring 20's, I'll guess.)


So what do you think?