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Jag. Carl Larsson. En biografi Per I. Gedin, Jag. Carl Larsson. En biografi (I. Carl Larsson. A Biography)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2011. ISBN: 9789100125745

Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2011:2

Per Gedin’s biography of Carl Larsson is the first since a friend of the family, soon after Larsson’s death in 1919, compiled an affectionate and unavoidably restrained ‘Life’. Gedin cares for his subject, but is not restrained: Larsson is shown to be a greater artist and a less consistently agreeable man than his reputation might suggest. This is Gedin’s third work about an important cultural figure in Sweden of 1880-1900; the period is as significant as the choice of subject. The net effect of the ‘naturalistic 80s’ and ‘romantic 90s’ was a lasting, radical change to the intellectual life of a country that had been timid and deeply conservative. As his first subject, Gedin, who has had a distinguished career as a literary publisher, picked Karl Otto Bonnier, influential scion of the largest publishing house at the time. Next, he chose one of Bonnier’s most admired writers, Verner von Heidenstam, who in 1888 set the tone of the decade to come with his first, vividly individualistic collection of poems. Carl Larsson might seem a logical if slightly weak third choice of subject: a successful book illustrator and arts-and-crafts enthusiast, who published amazingly popular books about his large family, illustrated with charming images of life in a lovable country house. But Gedin is a trained art historian, aware that Carl Larsson’s current onedimensional reputation as an interior decorator with a facility for domestic water colours obscures that he was an immensely talented artist. Larsson, the professionally sought-after, outwardly contented family man, was aware of his gifts but yet insecure, constantly anxious for approval and often teetering on the brink of depression. Besides, his lifestyle, with its conviviality and hard work, interrupted by frantic bouts of chasing money, would have worn any man out. That he lasted well into his sixties must be at least partly ascribed to his loving wife Karin, home-maker, interior designer and painter manqué. As he gained fame, Larsson increasingly acquired the self-confidence to follow his artistic instincts. He was very good at portraiture, but feared exposure to criticism from his sitters. Having admired frescos during his travels in Europe (mostly in France; such trips were practically obligatory for young northern artists), he became, with a combination of skill and relentless application, Sweden’s leading mural painter. Back home, Larsson was one of the first to articulate, in words as well as in paint, the new patriotism, drawn less from historical sources – though that, too – than from a passionate identification with the native landscape. However, by the early 1900s, the public rhetoric of high-flown nationalism had become alarmingly close to fascism. Larsson was one example of that risk, but like a sufficient proportion of his countrymen, managed to pull back in time. Still, his grand plan for the last remaining entrance wall in the National Museum (he had completed the others) disconcerted even his usual supporters: a scene of ritual sacrifice from some imaginary past of brutal Nordic heroism. It took until 1992 for the huge canvas to be finally bought and hung. Gedin’s biographical studies provide a panoramic, if Swedish-biased view of rapid cultural change in Europe, a turbulent time for a small, knowing intelligentsia, interconnected across national borders. One man stands out, though: Strindberg, who has been given a separate chapter in each of these ‘Life & Times’. He comes across not only as one of the greatest writers of the period, and one of the most dangerous, persuasive polemicists ever, but as someone who knows everyone, charms and infuriates, awes and disappoints. Surely the next Gedin work will confront this most intimidating of subjects? You heard it first here…

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