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Three Swedish works of art with a special history

A country's art has a lot to say about its history and culture. Below are three works of art that occupy a special place in Swedish art history and illustrate the story of Sweden in different ways.

Midwinterblot by Carl Larsson

The painting Midwinterblot on the wall of the National Museum

Carl Larsson (1853-1919) is one of Sweden's most beloved National Romantic artists and is considered the country's foremost watercolourist. Above all, he has become known as a portrayer of family life, with idyllic motifs from the colourful home in Dalarna. The latter part of Carl Larsson's life, however, came to be dominated by a painting of an entirely different kind: the more than 87 square metre Midwinter Blot. 

Midvinterblot is one of the most controversial works in Swedish art history. The long-running controversy surrounding the painting began when the National Museum's Mural Board announced a competition to decorate the museum's stairwell. However, the result was delayed; the entries in the first call were rejected and the competition was repeated. Several years of debate and complications followed, with the issue being raised as high as government level. In the end, it was clear that Carl Larsson would carry out the commission, but the disputes over the choice of motives did not end. For the upper stairwell, Carl Larsson insisted on an Old Norse motif with a pagan sacrificial ceremony, in which the king of the Swedes, Domalde, stripped outside the Uppsala temple, prepared to be sacrificed to the gods after years of famine.

Domalde, king of Svea, son of Visbur and king of Svitjod.

Many considered the image content to be the height of unsophistication, while it was criticised for a lack of historical accuracy. Carl Larsson was adamant, however, and when the proposal was rejected, he completed the painting at home in his artist's studio in the hope that the National Museum would change its mind. However, this did not happen and the rejection took Carl Larsson very hard. In the autobiography he completed a few days before his death, he stated that the fate of Midvinterblot had broken him.

Carl Larsson: Midwinterblot

After Carl Larsson's death, the painting was kept for over 40 years at the Archives of Decorative Arts in Lund. It was then purchased by the Japanese art collector Hiroshi Ishizuka. But Midvinterblot was not forgotten and over time the view of the work changed. The painting began to be seen more and more as part of the Swedish cultural heritage and voices were raised that it should be returned to its proper context. 

With the help of donations from foundations and benevolent stakeholders, the National Museum was able to purchase Midvinterblot from Ishizuka in 1997 for the price of SEK 14.6 million. Today, the work of art can be seen in the National Museum's stairwell, in the place Carl Larsson himself wanted it to be.

Hjortbergstavlan by Jonas Dürchs

Släps Church in Halland is a rather unremarkable building in itself, but inside hangs a painting that has become known far beyond Sweden's borders and is considered something of a cultural treasure. The painting, known as the Hjortberg Tablet, was painted by the artist Jonas Dürchs in the early 1770s and depicts the family of the vicar Gustaf Hjortberg. Hjortberg himself is on the left of the picture, together with his sons, while his wife and daughters are gathered on the right.

The Hjortberg panel is sometimes referred to as "Sweden's most interesting painting", which is probably an epithet it deserves. The painting is highly detailed and full of symbols that open up peepholes into 18th-century thought and living conditions. It also contains many references to Hjortberg's educated and adventurous life. 

Hjortberg was something of a polymath, who cultivated a great interest in science alongside his ministry as a priest. He devoted himself to the art of healing by setting up copper grafting houses, manufacturing medicines and treating various ailments with electrotherapy. As a ship's preacher at the East India Company, he participated in three trading voyages to China, during which he collected in-kind donations for both the Swedish Academy of Sciences and Carl Linnaeus. At home, Hjortberg tried to improve inefficient farming methods by constructing efficient ploughs, writing about cattle breeding and introducing potatoes as a crop in his home regions. He also worked as an organ builder and clockmaker.

Many of Hjortberg's commitments are evident in the painting, while the spirit of the Enlightenment permeates the motif. Scientific measuring instruments are scattered on the table and a well-stocked library looms in the background. Organ pipes lean against the edge of the table and stuffed animals from different continents hang on the wall. The youngest son grasps the tail of a lemur, an animal found only in Madagascar and probably captured there during one of the East India Company's expeditions. At Hjortberg's feet, the artist has placed a globe, as if to show that Hjortberg, through his travels and studies, has put the world beneath him. Yet we can understand that religion stood above all else; at the top of the picture, above all expressions of success and learning, a crucifix sits atop a firm foundation.

Anyone looking at the painting cannot help but notice the size of the family. Hjortberg and his wife Anna Helena had a total of 15 children. Some of them look out boldly from the painting, while others are partially withdrawn and seem to be hidden behind their siblings. The youngest girl is portrayed lying in a coffin. In this way, the artist made room for the children who have passed away; they are not fully present, but are still with the family. When the painting was made, eight of the siblings were still alive. We can understand that death, especially infant mortality, was a part of life in a very different way than it is today. 

The Hjortberg panel was commissioned as an epitaph, i.e. a memorial plaque depicting a dead person for posterity. Hjortberg died at the age of 51, a few years after the painting was completed. We do not know the cause of death, but the fact that the clock face in the upper left corner shows a quarter to twelve perhaps indicates that Hjortberg had realised that his life was coming to an end when the painting was completed.

With its rich content, the Hjortberg panel has much to tell us about its time and continues to fascinate today's viewers. It appears as an illustration in several historical books and has entered Swedish popular culture through mentions in the book Quicksand by Henning Mankell and the TV series The half-hidden by Jonas Gardell. When it is not on loan to exhibitions and museums, it can be seen in its original location in Släps Church, where Särö Pastorate organises guided tours.

The resurrection of Charles XII by Gustaf Cederström

Charles XII's Funeral by Gustaf Cederström (1845-1933) is one of Sweden's most famous paintings. The central part of the motif consists of soldiers carrying the dead body of King Charles XII home from Norway after he was killed at Fredrikshald. To the side, a hunter has stopped with his son and bows his neck reverently.

Gustaf Cederström was a great admirer of Charles XII and chose to paint the motif for the World Exhibition in Paris in 1878. The artistic work was carried out on site in the city and prepared with the utmost care. Cederström used people close to him as models to give each soldier individual features, and a professional model was placed on a stretcher to become the model for Charles XII. Copies of the Carolingian uniforms were ordered from Sweden and salt was used as artificial snow. In addition, Cederström incorporated himself into the picture by lending his suit to the Carolinians, who walk first in line. In total, the painting took over a year to complete and was just in time. At the exhibition it attracted a lot of attention and Cederström was awarded a medal. The painting was also his breakthrough as a historical artist.

The artistic qualities of the painting are undoubtedly very high. We can read the hard-headed thoughts of the Carolinians in their faces and sense the weight of their steps. Their clothes move naturally in the wind and their boots leave tracks in the snow. But despite the strong realism, the painting is not a historically accurate depiction, as Cederström himself was careful to admit. Charles XII was not carried on an open stretcher, but was transported most of the way in a coffin. Nor did the journey go through the mountains. Cederström has used his artistic freedom to create drama, and his depiction should be seen as a way of giving greater weight to the fateful historical event.

After the exhibition in Paris, the painting was purchased by the Russian Grand Duke Constantine Konstantinovich and taken to his palace in St Petersburg. Many were outraged that such a historically significant painting had fallen into the hands of the arch-enemy and saw it as an affront to the Swedish nation. A collection was made to pay for a copy and Cederström was therefore given the opportunity to execute the same painting once again. The replica was begun in Italy and completed in Sweden in 1884. This time the models were Swedish, which meant that the hair colours were a little lighter. The painting was signed on the day of Charles XII's death and then handed over to the National Museum. It can still be seen there today.

In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the first painting was purchased by a Swedish art dealer and brought to Sweden in 1923, where it was sold to the businessman Gustaf Werner, who decided to donate it to the Gothenburg Art Museum. This is how the two versions of the painting finally ended up in Swedish museums and became available to the public.

The fact that Gustaf Cederström's account of Charles XII's resurrection has gained such notoriety is certainly due to several reasons. The paintings can be appreciated for the high quality of their execution and the liveliness of their composition, but also for the charge of the choice of motif itself. The viewer follows the monarch's final journey, which is also a depiction of the fall of the Swedish Empire. The two twin paintings are regarded by many as something of a national epic, symbolically depicting the transition of the country's history from one stage to another.

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