Monday, January 5, 2009
Review of Carl Larsson: An Annotated Bibliography
My review of Carl Larsson: An Annotated Bibliography by Ann J. Topjon (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2008).
Published in College & Research Libraries, 70(1) January 2009.
Ann J. Topjon, Associate Professor and Librarian Emeritus at Whittier College, California, spent more than twenty years researching Swedish artist Carl Larsson. Topjon wrote exhibition catalog bibliographies for the 1992 retrospective in Stockholm and 1997’s “Carl and Karin Larsson: Creators of the Swedish Style” in London and consulted Swedish archives, libraries, and museums to create Carl Larsson: An Annotated Bibliography, a well-researched guide to his life and work.
Carl Larsson (1853-1919) is best known for his watercolors of domesticity and nature, which “represented the traditions of a peaceful and rural Swedish countryside as well as an uncomplicated existence, an idealized world” in the midst of the Industrial Revolution (vii). One benefit of this modern, mechanizing force was new color reproduction techniques in the 1890s, which brought his eight published albums of art and text into European homes. The German-published Das Haus in der Sonne (The House in the Sun), an amalgamation of three albums, became a 1909 bestseller and Larsson’s first international success.
Born into poverty, Larsson worked as a newspaper illustrator and photograph retoucher to support his family. He struggled at the Royal Art Academy in Stockholm and as an artist in Paris, dealing with depression and rejection from the art community, until he was finally recognized in the early 1880s. At Grèz-sur-Loing, a Scandinavian artists’ colony outside Paris, he painted breakthrough watercolors, abandoning his earlier oil painting style, and met his wife, artist Karin Bergöö (1859-1928). Larsson and Bergöö had eight children and inherited a house, Lilla Hyttnäs, in the small village of Sundborn in Dalarna, Sweden. Their lives and art have characterized the image of Sweden at home and abroad to this day.
Due to a rainy summer in 1894, making plein air painting impossible, Larsson’s energetic family life became the subject of his warm, bright watercolors of domestic comforts, epitomized in his first well-known album Ett Hem (A Home). The “Larsson style” of interior decorating, known for “freshness, light, clear colors, and ‘Swedishness’,” as compared to the dark, dignified Victorian interiors of the time, is the “apotheosis of Swedish design both nationally and internationally” (vii, 143). As well as contributing to design and interior decorating, Larsson was a master of all mediums and was influenced by British Pre-Raphaelitism, the 18th century provincial Gustavian period, Art Nouveau, Japonisme, and traditional Swedish arts and crafts.
The annotated bibliography contains his chronology, publications, book illustrations, and periodical writings and illustrations, as well as works about him, such as monographs, incidental works, encyclopedia entries, exhibition catalogs, and journal, yearbook, and newspaper articles. Sixteen color plates display his considerable skills.
Included is his last monumental, controversial work, “Midvinterblog” (“Midwinter Sacrifice”), a mural for a stairway at the National Museum of Stockholm, which was rejected by the its board of directors in 1916 for its dark subject matter. The “massive paean to paganism” depicts the Norse legend of King Domalde, who sacrificed himself to avert famine (223). Although Larsson’s work is sunny and sentimental, his dark side was demonstrated by his suicidal thoughts as a young man and his struggles with “Midvinterblog,” which some critics assert broke him psychologically.
The work differs from his other frescos for the museum, such as the triumphant, nationalistic “Gustav Vasas intåg i Stockholm 1523” (“The entry of Gustav Vasa into Stockholm, 1523”), also included in the book. One of the criticisms of “Midvinterblog” is that it is not historically accurate, but neither is “Gustav.” The controversy over the work culminated in 1987 when a Japanese executive purchased it, and again in 1997 when the museum bought it back and displayed it where it was originally intended.
Through the bibliography, one traces his narrative through art history. His impact on the Swedish national conscience is noted by the outpouring of grief after his 1919 death. Interest waned until 1953, when a new edition of Jag, his autobiography, was published and a retrospective was mounted in Stockholm to commemorate his hundredth birthday. While earlier works explored Larsson’s formal art, a new generation of scholars shifted their focus to Carl and Karin’s design aesthetics and influence. Also traceable is the “Midvinterblog” controversy, starting in 1911, with peaks during the 1987 auction and 1997 museum purchase.
Carl Larsson: An Annotated Bibliography is an accomplishment, with almost 6,000 entries from around the world, spanning his lifetime to the present. To “engender further interest in scholarly research on Carl Larsson to ensure his continued and rightful place in the history of art,” Topjon skillfully and systematically documents and annotates works of and about the artist (viii). The book is recommended for art history libraries, as well as institutions that focus on interior decorating and design, due to the Larssons’ enduring impact in these areas.