Modernism is long gone. Even postmodernism is becoming a worn out thing of the past. In a fragmented era of individualism and increasing multiculturalism, where can the Swedish art scene find a common ground and reference point for future work?
The Stockholm art scene is often portrayed as hip and youthful, as a constantly evolving scene for cutting edge work and modern design. There is a tendency to emphazise the Swedish values of liberalism and progressive humanism even in the cultures. Contempary art, often accompanied by ideological agendas, thus overshadow classical painting with emphasis on sheer beauty and technique. Still, the Swedish capital has much more to offer than just the latest fads of hipsters and the avantgarde. In fact, Stockholm has one of the greatest collections of old master paintings in all of Europe.
Nationalmuseum is one of the oldest initiatives of its kind, with the roots of the collections stretching back to 1792. The current building was inaugurated at the Stockholm Exposition of 1866. While the contemporary art scene is in a constant state of flux, and what is considered “Swedish art” is changing too fast even to be considered a real phenomena, Nationalmuseum has stood as a testament to European and Nordic achievements for over 200 years. Spanning all the way from the medieval period to the impressionists, the collection includes many important gems of western painting, including some of the finest works by Rembrandt.
The museum is located on the central peninsula Blasieholmen, east of Kungsträdgården. On three large floors you will follow a timeline from the late 1300’s to the early 1900’s, a perfect way to get a grasp of the development of European and Scandinavian art. In many ways, the spectrum of expression is broader in classical art, than in the pseudo-freedom of the contemporary scene. You will have the chance to experience everything from holy icons of the medieval period, to the alcohol- and drug-ridden decadence of the bohemians around the turn of the last century. Nationalmuseum guides you through the religious painting of renaissance Italy, and the folksy imagery of dutch baroque art, depicting common people drinking and playing in taverns, gambling halls and old-timey casinos.
In 2013 the museum was closed for renovation. An extensive restauration took place, during which previously closed windows and roof lanterns were opened to let in more light. At the same time the exhibition space was enlarged. The museum was reopened in October of 2018, which meant all the fans of old master painting had to wait five years in order to see the collection in their right surroundings anew. The reopening was celebrated with a simultaneous exhibition of paintings by the american artist John Singer Sargent (1865-1925), perhaps one of the last geniuses of true classical realism that ever lived.
5 Highlights in the collections
1. Carl Larsson – Wall Paintings, 1905-1915
The first ‘must see’ at Nationalmuseum is impossible to miss, as it covers the walls of the upper vestibules. These are the wall paintings created by the Swedish artist Carl Larsson (1853-1919) between 1905 and 1915. The largest is the huge Gustav Vasas intåg i Stockholm, visibe from the entrance on the first floor, and the controversial Midvinterblot, depicting the sacrifice of a king in order to avoid famine after a bad harvest.
2. Rembrandt van Rijn – Self Portrait, 1630
Nationalmuseum houses some of the most famous Rembrandt paintings in the world, including The Kitchen Maid, Simeon’s Song of Praise and the gigantic The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis. In spite of these larger paintings, you often find most visitors fascinated by a much smaller piece, displayed behind a case of glass. This is a Self Portrait on a plate of copper, painted by a 24-year old Rembrandt. It is a masterful accomplishment of both stunning realism and clearly visible brushwork.
Stolen from the museum in 2000 it was found 2005 in Copenhagen. The painting is now purposely hung low, which forces most viewers to hunch forwards in order to study it behind the glass. This makes the experience all the more intimate, almost like venerating a holy icon.
3. Antoine Watteau – The Love Lesson, 1717
The perfect example of early Rococo art, Watteaus oil painting The Love Lesson depicts a group of young people in a pictoresque landscape with classical sculpture. The aging of the painting surface, all the cracks and blemishes, actually heightens the experience and charm of the picture. Also, some of the grayish tone of the image might be due to a different fact: It is said that Watteau never cleaned his brushes!
4. Anders Zorn – Self-portrait with a Model, 1896
Zorn, the most internationally famous of all Swedish painters, is well represented in the collection. A perfect example of his art is the mysterious Self-portrait with a Model from 1896. Painted in his famous “Zorn palette”, consisting of only four pigments (no blues), the loose brushstrokes conveys a convincing sense of reality. Up close all you see is a jumble of brushwork, but as soon as you step back it all makes perfect sense again. This is late nineteenth century realism at its absolute peak.
5. Bruno Liljefors – “The Japanese-style Paintings”, 1897
A contemporary of Zorn, Bruno Liljefors (1860-1939) is one of the most beloved painters among the Swedes themselves. Compared to his bombastic friend Zorn, Liljefors was a much more mild mannered character, famous for his realistic depictions of wild animals in their natural habitat. The main body of his work might seem trivial at first glance, but some of his paintings belong to the highlights of Nationalmuseum’s collections. Be sure not to miss his elaborate works influenced by Japanese art – Katt på sommaräng and Törnskateungar from 1897. These often overlooked paintings are some of the absolute gems of the entire body of Scandinavian art.