PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION
Sold by the artist at Konstnärsförbundets vårutställning, Stockholm 1895
Carl Salin, Stockholm
Sale: Bukowski's, Stockholm, 15 April 1959, lot 110
Bonnier family, Stockholm (acquired at the above sale)
Åhlén och Åkerlund Publishing House, Stockholm
Bonnier family, Stockholm
Acquired from the above by the previous owner
Stockholm, Konstnärsförbundets vårutställning, 1895, n.n.
Stockholm, Moderna Museet, Strindberg, 1963, no. 14
Stockholm, Nationalmuseum, Goethe, Hugo, Strindberg - diktare, bildkonstnärer, 1974, no. 187
Oslo, Munchmuseet, Strindberg maler; Stockholm, Prins Eugen Waldemarsudde, Landskap, 1977
Venice, Biennale, Immagini del pianeta Strindberg, 1980, no. 9
Düsseldorf, Kunstmueum im Stadthaus; Munich, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus; Berlin, Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Der August Strindberg, 1981, no. 20
Stockholm, Kulturhuset; Linköpings, Östergötlands länsmuseum, Strindberg, 1981
Linz, Stadmuseum; Vienna, Akademie der Bildenden Künste, August Strindberg, 1982, no. 8
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, August Strindberg. Schilderijen uit Zweedse collecties, 1987, n.n. (illustrated in colour in the catalogue)
Malmö, Konsthall, August Strindberg, Underlandet, 1990, no. 63 (illustrated in colour in the catalogue)
Esbo, Gallen-Kallela Museo, August Strindberg, no. 21
Valencia, Ivam Centre Julio González, Strindberg, 1993, no. 12 (illustrated in colour in the catalogue)
Paris, Musée d'Art moderne de la ville de Paris, Lumière du ciel, Lumière du monde, 1998, no. 205
Lidingö, Millesgärden, Per Ekström - August Strindberg. Yttre och inre landskap, 2000, no. 18
Stockholm, Nationalmuseum; Köpenhamn, Statens Museum for Kunst; Paris, Musée d'Orsay, Strindberg. Målaren och fotografen, 2001-2002, no. 23
London, Tate Britain, August Strindberg: Painter Photographer Writer, 2005, no. 69 (illustrated in colour in the catalogue)
Göran Söderström, Strindbergs Måleri, Malmö, 1972, pp. 120, 122, 129, 135, 142, 147-8, 152, 211, discussed; p. 343, no. 63, catalogued; plate 31, illustrated
Painted in 1894, Alpine Landscape I is an outstanding work from the remarkable series of seven oils that Strindberg painted that spring in reduced circumstances at Dornach on the banks of the Danube following a frenetic year spent in Berlin.
It is the palpable physicality of such a work as Alpine Landscape I that makes Strindberg's paintings both so real and so exciting; quite literally they are the crystallization of his mind. The physical and mental pleasure that Strindberg derived from painting he described in his semi-autobiographical novel The Son of the Servant through the eyes of Johan, his alter ego: '[Johan] thought it not impossible for him to paint, and he borrowed an easel, colours and a paint brush. Then he went home and shut himself up in a room. From an illustrated paper he copied a picture of a ruined castle. When he saw the clear blue of the sky he felt sentimental, and when he conjured up green bushes and grass he felt unspeakably happy, as though he had eaten hashish.'
Strindberg and his young pregnant wife Frida had left Berlin penniless at the end of 1893 to seek rent free refuge with Frida's maternal grandparents Cornelius and Maria Reischl in Dornach, Lower Austria. Strindberg arrived at the Reischl's country estate with a law suit for obscenity hanging over him following the publication in Germany of A Madman's Defence. When the bailiff appeared at the house to issue a summons to Strindberg to return to Berlin for the hearing, Reischl, an up-standing local notary, requested that his grand-daughter and her husband live elsewhere. The situation was remedied by Frida's grandmother who secured them a hut by the Danube, and offered them a simple existence that, despite the increasing tensions appearing in their marriage, seemed to fulfill Strindberg's needs. It was there, waiting for the birth of his daughter Kirsten that Strindberg painted the present work and six other paintings to decorate their accomodation.
As Michael Meyer recounts in his biography, Strindberg appeared to relish his new rather straightened circumstances. The painter wrote to his friend Adolf Paul: 'I am now living on the Danube, so close that I hear the lapping of the water as I lie in bed. I work much, think more, read an incredible amount. The landscape is beautiful... Friendly people, lots of food and early to bed. So I am saved.' Meyer goes on to recount how: 'In their hut by the Danube, Strindberg and Frida prepared for the coming of the child. They painted the doors and the window frames, and he executed seven canvases to cover the bare walls, including a fine "alpine landscape" [the present work]... He planted roses and clematis on either side of the entrance and, in the little garden and the field that ran up the hill "practically every flower and vegetable that could endure the climate... He created a blossoming garden where a wilderness had been"' (Michael Meyer, Strindberg, A Biography, London 1985, pp. 285 & 295).
Of the other six works that Strindberg painted that spring for his and Frida's humble home by the Danube: Golgotha, Dornach; The Danube in Flood; the Verdant Island II; Wonderland; The Fairy Cave and Sverge, the locations of all but Sverge is known. Alpine Landscape I and Wonderland (collection of the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm), are the only two works in the group of seven that share the same dimensions, and it is possible that Strindberg viewed them as a pair. Signifcantly it was these two works alone that Strindberg selected for exhibition in Stockholm in 1895, where they would almost certainly have been hung side by side.
Writing about the new approach that he had taken in this series of works, Strindberg described them in July that year as: 'a new (that's to say, old) kind of art which I've invented and call L'art fortuite [the Art of Chance]... Each picture is, so to speak, double bottomed, with an exoteric aspect that everyone can make out, with a little effort, and an esoteric one for the painter and the chosen few... All the pictures are painted using only a knife and unmixed colours, whose combination has been half left to chance, like the motif as a whole.' (letter to Leopold Littmansson, 31 July 1894).
Strindberg developed his thoughts on the role of chance in art in the article that he published in La Revue des revues that autumn. As if musing on one of his own works, he noted in the article: 'At first all you notice is a chaos of colours, then it starts to look like something, there's a resemblance, but no: it doesn't look like anything. All of a sudden a point is fixed like the nucleus of a cell, it grows, colours cluster around it and accumulate...' Describing his own unique painting technique he went on to write: 'In order to be able to dominate the material I choose a middle-sized canvas or, preferably, a piece of board, so that I can finish the painting in two or three hours, for as long as my mood lasts... with the palette knife I use for the purpose - I have no brushes! - I spread the paints across the card, mixing them together until I have a sort of rough sketch... A touch of the finger here and there, blending recalcitrant colours, merging and softening any harsh tones, thinning and blurring, and there the painting!' (August Strindberg, "Des arts nouveaux! Ou le hazard dans la production artistique", La Revue des revues, Paris, 15 November 1894).
Strindbergs description of his visceral painting technique is captured to full effect in the highly worked and richly textured surface of Alpine Landscape I. Both the sharp edge and the flat surface of Strindberg's impatient palette knife define the picture's surface. In the foreground Strindberg creates a thickly impastoed dark swirling vortex of reddy-browns and inky blacks. As the eye travels up the picture surface the muddy foreground is adumbrated with dots of pure red and white as hints of blue, yellow and green emerge from the paint surface. Higher still the colours fuse into whites and greys, suggestive of choppy foothills and mountain peaks. And at the top of the canvas through what appear to be broadly scraped-in cloudy whites are glimpses of a blue sky.
As Strindberg indicated in general terms in his letter to Littmansson, however, his title for the work (Alpine Landscape I) was not intended to describe the subject, but was a point of reference, and just one of many possible subjective interpretations. Indeed, as Goran Söderström recounts, the present work has subsequently been referred to as Storm at Sea (Göran Söderström, p.122).
Strindberg's interest in the sea as a subject for his painting first came to dominate his work when he was painting on the island of Dalarö off the Stockholm archipelago in 1892. Recently divorced from his first wife Siri von Essen he translated all his pent up vexations and anger into a series of small dark and brooding seascapes.
Removed from both the power of the sea and his native Sweden, when Strindberg next returned to painting in earnest in Dornach two years later his compositions are visual parallels of the scientific theories that he had been developing at the time. In his theories Strindberg was attempting to prove that everything was ultimately derived from the same essential elements. As Olle Granath has discussed, Strindberg was not alone in entertaining such ideas. Known as monism, this approach was quite common among scientists inclined toward mysticism. Strindberg published his theories in the autumn of 1894 in his book Antibarbarus. Granath explains that although Strindberg's writings refuted some of the basic truths of science, his ideas 'were an attempt to prove what he had already discovered in his art... [and] ...they had their proof, indeed their apotheosis, in his paintings. It is quite conceivable that, swept up in the act of painting, Strindberg experienced himself as realising his monism by raising a craft to the level of poetry, his painting reconciling earth, sea and sky into a single element.' (Olle Granath, August Strindberg. Painter, Photographer, Writer, London, 2005, p. 23). Strindberg's merging of the elements is visualised to perfection in the present work.
As much as Strindberg's approach to oil painting was without precedent in his day, being as well travelled and as well read as he was, Strindberg was not immune to the influence of other artists, their techniques having an undoubted influence on his style.
Already in the late 1870s he extolled the freedom of the palette knife, using Courbet as his example: "Courbet laid down his brushes and pasted with his knife. All great painters have been deeply involved in their art, without for that sake getting stuck on technique, which in no way kills the spirit but, on the contrary, releases it, if there is any." (quoted in Olle Granath, London, 2005, p. 15).
Arriving in Berlin in the autumn of 1892 Strindberg became a close acquaintance of Edvard Munch. Munch painted Strindberg's portrait, and hung it in pride of place at his next Berlin exhibition. Although their work is stylistically very different, in Munch Strindberg found a kindred spirit. Equally driven, Strindberg squared up to Munch intellectually and like the Norwegian projected his own state of mind into his work.
Strindberg also felt a strong affinity with the paintings of J.M.W. Turner. He had first praised Turner's work in the 1870s, although it was not until he visited London in 1892 that he had an opportunity to see Turner's work at first hand. Five years later he named Turner as his favourite English artist, and among the effects that he left in the Royal Art Library, Stockholm where he had worked were two reproductions of Turner's work. Painted less than a year after Strindberg had been in London the swirling foreground of Alpine Landscape I bears striking similarities to Turner's style.
In light of the recent re-assessment of Strindberg's work at exhibitions both at the Musée d'Orsay, Paris and Tate Modern in London, Strindberg's own influence on his successors is also clear. Georg Baselitz is an admirer of Strindberg's work, as is Anselm Kieffer, who like Strindberg, pushes the boundaries of painting to the limit.
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