BIRCH BOARD PICTURE
the birch board picture Nordic Heritage Museum Seattle, wa, United States www.nordicmuseum.org
The Postfuturistic Society Gothenburg, Sweden www.postfuturism.org
table of contents foreword by Lizette Gradén | 6 introduction by Staffan Backlund & Borghild Håkansson | 9 forgotten pictures by Staffan Backlund | 12 the ugly duckling of folk art by Marit Stigsdotter | 14 the son of a birch board painter by Gay Glans | 18 a picture for everyone by Per Dahlström | 28 the birch plaque painting – a delay in color by Ingrid Book & Carina Hedén | 32 birch-trunk art by Rosa Liksom | 34 a symbol of longing by Borghild Håkansson | 38 biographies | 40
for eword Lizette Gradén, Ph.D. chief curator Nordic Heritage Museum
take their point of departure in postcard images of smalltown official buildings and pastoral landscapes dotted with red cabins and fluttering Swedish fl ags. Ot hers bo ast oi l paintings of placid lakes or trickling creeks. Still others are mixed media with postcards, painted birch trees and gluedon items. Regardless of their subject matter, they share the feature of being created from birch slabs. Often the picture itself features a birch tree — a cherished symbol of the Nordic countries, including Sápmi, the land of the indigenous people of Northern Europe. Moreover, the images depicted in birch board pictures underline manifestations of apparently mundane daily life and popular culture.
Faint afternoon September sunlight seeps into my second floor office at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, Washington. The rays reach the west wall and bring out the luster of turquoise linen weft as shown in the Heaven and Hell wall hanging by Wanja Djanaieff. They sweep over the current exhibition schedule, numerous notes, invitation cards, photos and memos tacked onto the bulletin board. Moving south in the room, the rays bring out the vibrant colors and illuminates Jesus and his disciples as shown in the largest in my board picture collection: The Last Supper based on postcard version of Leonardo DaVinci’s mural. As an addition to a few Swedish birch board pictures featuring windmills and red cabins, Th e Last Supper was a gift from a Seattle friend, with whom I share the interest in garage and estate sales. This piece, mounted on pine wood, may be understood as the American cousin of the birch board picture — similar and different at the same time. In order to create a board picture, a postcard was glued to a thin, diagonally sawed piece of a tree trunk, leaving its bark at the edges. In Sweden the preferred wood was birch. The postcard image was then painted on, and sometimes it included three- dimensional objects.
The miniature landscape is an interesting entrance into the study of creative processes. Epitomizing convenience and control, the miniature as a form enables people to create installations of their own — imaginary spaces — poetic places for reflection. As poet and scholar Susan Stewart points out, the miniature format is especially exciting because it intensifies and reinforces values. The board pictures articulate values and perspectives associated with particular places, and in the case of the birch board pictures, the association is Sweden.
The exhibition Bad Art? 1,000 Birch Board Pictures from Sweden strives to demonstrate how and why many artists maintain a dialogue with specific traditions pertinent to a notion of Swedish folk art, and draw inspira-tion from items often associated with informal expressive culture and personal creativity. For the artists in this particular exhibition, folk art or vernacular art serves as a platform for stories about a sense of place, a sense of time, ritual and everyday life. Their works span an aesthetic spectrum from sparse and discreet, detailed and meticulously made, to over-the-top expressions buoyant with color. Some works
One of the most well-known examples of miniature landscapes in the Nordic region is probably Skansen, the world’s first open air museum, established by Artur Hazelius in 1891. It is arranged so that the visitor is given the illusion of moving through the country of Sweden. The birch board picture does the opposite. Small things are easy to store and they are movable. Its capability to harbor an entire world made the miniscule picture a primary object for traveling salesman roaming the Swedish countryside in the early twentieth century, and later, when traveling became more common, the birch board picture emerges
by vernacular art of a particular Nordic-American slant, visible in the local backyards, storefronts, homes and official buildings. For anyone who moves from the Nordic countries to Seattle, it is a place uniquely conditioned by the weather, geography and immigration — also from the Nordic countries. These circumstances inform expressive forms, including vernacular art. Simultaneously, the global context of daily life is changing the look and function of vernacular art, with influences coming from around the world to alter aspects of folk and material culture.
as a souvenir among the working class on vacation at a time when Sweden was building its welfare state, referred to as Folkhemmet (The People’s Home). The birch board picture literally and symbolically combined the familiar birch-centered landscape with budding consumer culture. The pictures selected for this particular exhibition celebrate folk art or vernacular art. The birch board pictures, which were once displayed in private homes, restaurants, tourist information booths, gift shops, cultural clubs and the meeting rooms of historical associations, have now made their way into the museums. Such art tells about aesthetic impulse, creativity and production, but also about the transition from living culture to heritage.
This project would not have been possible without the Postfuturistic Society, which lent us the items in their collection. Thanks also to the authors who contributed to the exhibitions catalogue: Gay Glans, Marit Stigsdotter, Per Dahlström, Rosa Liksom, Ingrid Book & Carina Hedén and to Laura Wideburg, who translated the articles. Special thanks are due to Borghild Håkansson and Staffan Backlund, whose hearts have gone out to the birch board picture and its cultural history.
I have great respect for Postfuturistiska Sällskapet (The Postfuturistic Society) that has collected and documented birch board pictures for nearly two decades and through its projects, reused these pictures from the past in numerous creative ways. These projects have brought forth a cultural heritage, which speaks of place and space, past and present, country and town, society and the individual, art and creativity. Together, Borghild Håkansson and Staffan Backlund have posed questions about circumstances pertinent to Swedish and Nordic art institutions: What expressions of human creativity can be called art? Who can be an artist? In what contexts does art emerge?
Presenting such an exhibition and sending it on tour requires ample efforts of colleagues and financial supporters. The staff at the Nordic Heritage Museum brought dedication and creativity to this project from the outset. As it is part of the Postfuturistic Society’s artistic aim to have the show curated by each institution as a placespecific exhibition, deepest gratitude goes to the members of the curatorial team who were supportive of arranging and hanging 1,000 small birch board pictures. Early and generous financial contribution came from Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation. Västra Götalandsregionens Kulturnämnd has generously supported transportation of the works and travels for the collectors. Without such support, the Nordic Heritage Museum would not have been able to share these aspects of Swedish culture with an American audience.
This catalogue to accompany the exhibition Bad Art? 1,000 Birch Board Pictures from Sweden continues to ponder these questions. The authors of the articles in this catalogue explore some of the circumstances, which motivate a continued interest in birch board pictures, both for the individual artists involved and within a wider cultural scope significant to our particular time. In this context, the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle unravels some current understandings of the notion of this Nordic vernacular art. With one thousand birch board pictures from Sweden at hand, the Museum brings forth many complex forms and myriads of contradictions as manifested in this collection. This particular collection of board pictures represents twentieth-century artists. The collection itself may be viewed as an art piece set in a particular time. It was compiled in the late twentieth century, and can be understood as an expression of the collectors’ experience of a Sweden infused by globalization and cultural change. As a display outside the Nordic countries and curated by curators at the Nordic Heritage Museum, the collection is re-interpreted once again.
Finally the ideas and content of the exhibition rest with the artists, the individuals whose work gives it a reason to exist. Each one — anonymous or known — deserves a sincere thank you for creating work of lasting meaning. October 2012, Seattle, wa, United States
For many reasons, the Nordic Heritage Museum is an ideal venue for this project. Located in Ballard, it is surrounded 7
i ntroduction Staffan Backlund Borghild Håkansson
The birch board picture is part of the Swedish cultural heritage, which has almost been forgotten today. From the be ginning of the twentieth century and well into the middle of the seventies it was very popular, especially in the countryside. Nevertheless, this small object still has a story to tell. We have been met by an engaged audience whenever we display them. Memories are reawakened: some people are happy, others are angry, but no one leaves the exhibit untouched.
to write a short description of what the birch board picture has meant to them. Their contributions will show that different people see birch board picture in different ways: its meaning, its place in the history of art and culture. If you want you may be able to see see the whole world within one birch board picture. October 2012, Gothenburg, Sweden
The birch board picture has a strange ability to encourage conversation about the meaning of art: fine arts versus popular culture; “class specific” culture; shame and pride; good taste versus bad; personal memories; poetry, dreams and longing. We opened our first exhibit in the summer of 1999 at the Jönköpings läns museum. The media attention was incredible. Since then, the birch board pictures have gone on tour and have been shown in 18 different locations in Sweden and throughout Scandinavia. The exhibit has drawn large audiences wherever it went. We couldn’t imagine then the journey we were going to make with the birch board picture … all the stimulating conversations with other people who shared their insights and perspectives and opened doors for us, doors we didn’t even know existed. This led us to the world of self-taught artists, resulting in the exhibition Annan Konst — konsten är ett mystrium (Other Art — Art’s Mystrious)*, which went on tour throughout Scandinavia. For this we have the birch board picture to thank. For this publication, we contacted a number of people with various insights on the birch board picture and asked them
* The name of the exibition Other Art — Art’s Mystrious is a quote from one of the artists.
forgotten pictures Staffan Backlund
The first birch board pictures probably had their origins in the national romantic landscapes, which decorated the drawing rooms of the bourgeoisie during the end of the nineteenth century. The style slowly made its way down the social ladder and when it finally arrived to the working class home, the canvas had been replaced by a wooden board and the golden frame by a strip of bark. This first version of the birch board picture was sold in the countryside by hobos and traveling salesmen until they lost the competition to the mail order companies.
Where did the birch board picture go? This modest little picture once decorated the walls of many a Swedish home. In days gone by, it gladdened the heart of its proud owner, but, as time passed, it slowly but surely disappeared as if it had never existed. How did it happen? How did the popular birch board picture, manufactured in the millions throughout the world, become so insignificant that not a single example could be found in the extensive collections of the Nordic Museum in Stockholm — until we pointed out what they were missing.
The folksy wooden birch board was modernized as time went on. It developed into a popular tourist souvenir once a colorized post card was added. It was extremely popular in the beginning of the twentieth century and innumerable copies were spread throughout the world. It is not certain where the idea to add a post card originated, but possibly the idea came from Germany, no one knows for sure.
This insignificant little object has hardly ever been found in a wealthy home and as it also did not belong to traditional folk culture, it never received any cultural status. No researcher in folk art history had ever shown interest in it. Not much has been written about it, so that, for the most part, the history of the birch board picture is still mostly unknown. If the birch board picture was mentioned at all, it was most often used as an example of doubtful taste from the fringes of folk art and kitsch.
No matter where the idea originated, it spread quickly, first throughout Northern Europe and eventually worldwide. We have found birch board pictures from all corners of Europe, from Russia (where boards are still produced), Asia, Africa, the Americas and the Pacific.
All of this — plus the fact that the “birch board picture” never had a formal name — contributed to its quick and complete retreat from the general consciousness.
The birch board picture has been manufactured in Sweden for about seventy years and became the standard souvenir from a countryside tourist trip. Most of the attached post cards show smaller places. Some depict the big city, but these examples are rare compared to ones depicting the countryside.
The birch board picture, it might be necessary to explain, is an oval wooden board, which has been sawed diagonally from a thin tree trunk with the bark still in place on the edges. A postcard has been glued to the board and the motive is painted out over the surface of the board. Birch trees in relief, made of white putty, are placed on the border between the postcard and the painting. Barometers, thermometers, cottages in relief and plastic padding cliffs might also be added.
Although these pictures were made not that long ago, they already seem antiquated and exotic from our perspective. They represent a time gone by — a time when the world was
larger and a working class man finally received a paid vacation, but also a time when it was still fairly expensive and exhausting to travel. Having seen a place like Trollhättan or the Håverud aqueduct was something to be proud of even if the attraction was only twenty or thirty miles away from home. The birch board picture was tangible witness to the fact that you had actually been there — and not everyone had been there before you. All of this changed once mass tourism to the Mediterranean began during the seventies. Who could be proud of visiting Trollhättan now, when your neighbor had gone to the Canary Islands on a charter flight? The birch board picture was quickly replaced by Spanish bull fighting posters. It was exiled to the outhouse or the weekend cottage, where some of them can still be found. From this last refuge, the next stop for the birch board picture would most often be the garbage dump. Few antique dealers were interested in selling these insignificant objects, which would only bring in a few pennies at most. They were not even kitsch. The humiliation was complete. What can these small pictures, tell us today? For me, these small and often overlooked pictures reveal a naïve belief in the future and a hopeful declaration of love to a vast and wonderful world. They tell me about an average Swedish person’s dreams — to someday take a trip somewhere, maybe to the closest city, or even — unthinkable — to another country. In the end, these wooden pictures are the last traces of dreams so modest that today we hardly recognize them.
the ugly duckling of folk art Marit Stigsdotter
a time when it was an adventure to travel through many provinces. A visit to Varberg Fortress or the Flower Garden of Blekinge was something to boast about to the folks back home. People would buy a birch board picture as a souvenir. It was more than just a post card — it was a real picture that could be hung on the wall and yet was so reasonably priced that it did not seem pretentious. When charter trips became popular in the seventies, the birch board picture was replaced by other kinds of souvenirs. Decorated castanets and posters of bullfights showed that people had left the provinces and seen the world beyond the borders of the country.
Plaster representations of the Colosseum were purchased by upper class travelers during their visits to Rome in the eighteenth century. Seafarers to Australia purchased coral and sea shells. Tourists to Norrland bought Sami knives. The souvenir throughout time has represented a moment of importance in a person’s life and represents a deep human need to remember and to show others: I was there. I’ve done something unusual — I had the courage to travel and received an experience not given to everyone. The Swedish birch board picture was the most popular souvenir during the fifties and sixties. During its heyday, it hung on many Swedish walls. It was an oval slab, cut a half an inch thick on the diagonal from the trunk of a birch tree, a panel which had come directly from the forest and which was framed by bark. A postcard had been glued to the front side, which was enhanced by a hand-painted birch tree in its summer greenery, which would arch over the subject from the right or left, as well as a clear, blue sky and succulent grass. The subject could be Värnamo’s town square, the waterfall in Trollhättan or the bridge of Svinesund. In the real world, perhaps, a stately birch tree does not grow halfway out in the water, but there they were, just as in the pictures from Bollnäs Center, Helsingborg and Säffle.
The birch board picture has been studied as a phenomenon and a product of its time, but one question has been left out of the discussion: why is there always a birch tree on the edge of it, no matter how badly placed it may be in the depicted environment? That the birch tree fits the base of the picture may be a rational conclusion, but there are pictures made from other species of wood, which still give the birch tree a prominent place in the picture. Of course, the birch is exceptionally decorative with its white trunk with black splotches and its lacy foliage. Still, this is not enough of an explanation of the strong symbolic value which the birch tree has had in art and literature for much longer than the phenomenon itself, and which carried the birch board picture into the souvenir shops of the sixties.
The birch board picture belongs to a time, which is not all that long ago but seems completely different from our own. Sweden was building its folkhem, the cradle to grave welfare state, and belief in the future was very strong. Modern Sweden was taking shape and the postcards on the birch board pictures often displayed newly built apartment buildings and shopping malls with their expansive parking lots. People were no longer in poverty and many people even had paid vacation time. Although it was not much in the beginning, people had a week or two at their own disposal every year. Some people had even acquired automobiles and all of a sudden it was possible to visit places and go see the sights, which earlier had been too far away. It was
In historic Swedish landscape painting, there is a great number of birch tress. They are reflected in still waters, shade resting pastoral animals in dewy meadows and brighten the landscape around cabins and villages while the needled evergreen forests are shown as a slight blue sheen in the background. For a naturalistic poet such as Harry Martinson, the birch is a feminine being. She is almost always young, slightly vain and smiling. The prevalent explanation for the special place the birch tree has among trees in literature and art has its roots in this and 14
Regardless of whether the birch board painting is a decoration or a symbol of greater depth, it is clear that in and of itself it is a phenomenon, which stirs up strong emotions connected to status and class belonging. “Amazingly strong,” Borghild Håkansson says. She worked with Staffan Backlund in 1999 to arrange the exhibit at Jönköpings läns museum, which would bring new life to the discussion of fint och fult (good versus ugly) in art. She was unaware of the birch board picture’s explosive power when she found her first birch board painting:
similar poetic depictions — it, she, symbolizes that which is light and smiling. Art and poetry alike show us that the birch is a symbol of the short Swedish summer, the light in the dark, melancholy evergreen forests, which is believed to characterize not just our outer landscape but also our Nordic souls. But perhaps our experience of the symbolism of the birch has its roots even farther back in time. In the old agricultural society from which we Swedes have come, you don’t have to go far to see a birch tree, no matter where in the country you find yourself. The birch has always been planted near the residences of human beings. The birch followed human beings wherever they went, wherever grazing animals, chopping axes or forest fires created open space where humans could dwell. Human beings also actively cultivated the birch tree. It gave wood, both for burning and for creating handles for tools, as well as bark for tar, roofs and containers. It produced food for animals, sap to drink and roots with which to bind things. It could be here where the birch tree’s beauty is created — its usefulness made it beautiful. At the beginning of time, we cultivated the birch tree not for its pleasant light color, but because we needed it. It’s a bit of a reach to declare that the birch tree allowed us to survive, but it contributed vital resources at a time when the margin for survival was thin and existence itself depended on how much you could eke out from the natural resources of the closest environment. So the birch tree has always lived next to our very doorstep, generation after generation, and it became an obvious part of the landscape in which we feel at home and which we value.
“At a flea market, under the table, it lay there and looked at me. The picture showed the Tjörn Bridge and I couldn’t resist it. I just thought it was pretty. I had grown up on a country farm in the province of Bohuslän, where most of the wall decorations were certificates for a perfect record of milk deliveries. We never travelled anywhere, so we had no vacation memories. I didn’t have any relationship to the birch board picture earlier, but I liked their unpretentious and tenderhearted expression. They’re also fascinating as a phenomenon. I realized after some time that many people remembered them as their first contact with another world — the world of art and poetry — but also that they were class bound and therefore emotionally laden.” The picture showing the Tjörn Bridge became the first one of a great collection, which was then exhibited at the library of the community college in Ljungskile. As a result, Borghild Håkansson was contacted by Staffan Backlund, another collector. They put their collections together to create the first of many exhibits throughout Sweden. Borghild explained:
The great amount of birch trees in art can perhaps be related to even older traditions. As long as human beings have had a pictorial language, they have used their art in various ways. Pictures could be used to make life difficult for predatory animals and for enemies, both of which threatened existence itself. The extensive rock carvings next to the Nämfors waterfalls in Ångermanland reveal the reality of the younger Stone Age about 6000 years ago, in which human beings lived. The carved pictures show animals: a salmon or two and some birds, but mostly moose. This animal stood for great quantities of food as well as useful hide, sinews, bones and antlers. The moose was the prerequisite for human survival in that area and it is the subject of over 1,400 carved figures in that space. The thirty thousand year old cave paintings in Altamira, Spain and Lascaux, France also show large pastoral animals such as steppe bison, wild horses, ur-oxen and giant deer. The usefulness of these animals charged these pictures with significance. Even if the primary use for these carvings and cave paintings were hunting magic, it’s not hard to believe that these people who created them also saw them as beautiful.
“People told us to show up at the press opening in Jönköping when our first exhibit opened. On the drive over, we were whining a bit about the need to travel 180 miles from Gothenburg and back on a Friday when we really didn’t have the time to do so. We were convinced that the museum employees would be able to take care of a few local journalists on their own. When the doors opened, there were over twenty journalists and photographers there … Afterwards, we were completely overwhelmed and we were able to see just how emotionally charged these simple birch board pictures really were.” Some people reacted to the exhibit with spite at first. These people had grown up with the birch board picture in their homes, but had then travelled up the social hierarchy. The pictures symbolized something, which they’d not only left behind, but were also actively working on trying to forget. The birch board picture reveals something about our society. It is connected to the working class, to people who had little formal education and were not interested in intellec15
tual matters — all of which they had striven to escape. To be reminded of that part of their past was painful, which explains their strong reactions.
Instead of an outright ban, the general public was to be educated, which would be the most effective method against “useless art”.
Seen in a greater context, the pictures are highly relevant. There has always been an elite, which determined what was high (good) culture and what was low (ugly) culture — what was good taste and what was bad taste. This elite at times has seen it as a duty to educate the general public toward what is good — in a greater or smaller scale. Since the Edwardian Era, artists, gallery owners and critics had tried to enforce custom protection in Sweden against the import of “low-value” art (mindervärdig konst), as they called it, but only in 1937, when the newly elected Social Democrats came to power and created the National Art Advisory (Statens Konstråd) could these ideas be put into practice. Trade abroad was restricted for a long time and import licenses were needed for many items, including art works. The National Art Advisory, together with representatives from the National Museum and from private galleries, acted as advisors for the National Trade Commission and therefore were able to determine which works could be brought into the country. If the experts decided that a piece was “unworthy”, it would not be given an import license.
Fishermen and crying Italian children did not belong in the Swedish folk home, and neither did the birch board picture. It had too little handiwork to be folk art and too much manufacturing to be art. When the birch board picture reappeared, which many people who had risen in social standing had hoped was long dead and buried, it allowed the taste makers to comment ironically and to poke fun at it, and, by extension, at themselves and their origins. It was as if they brought friends from the academic upper class to their childhood homes and revealing there were more plaster figurines than books in the bookshelves. On the other hand, people with other backgrounds were delighted. Many well-known authors, artists and ethnologists expressed their reflections in the anthology Björktavlan i våra hjärtan (The Birch Board Picture in our Hearts), which also functioned as a catalogue for the exhibit.Even if someone did not come in contact with the birch board picture while growing up, everyone knew where it stood in the hierarchy of the art world. Their distance, however, allowed them to see the birch board picture with new eyes. These observations from curious newcomers allowed the birch board picture to be raised to an object worth discussing, just like any other cultural object. This — above all via Borghild and Staffan and their loving interest, free from irony and condescension — has given the birch board picture and its people rehabilitation.
There were two motivations behind their reasoning. First, they were protecting Swedish artists against competitors from abroad during a time when many people were beginning to realize that a war would be breaking out. Secondly, they were teaching the general Swedish public the difference between good and bad taste. The spirit of the times thought that good art was national and modern and bad art was foreign and traditional. The customs agents, who would have to make sure that the import rules were being followed, asked for clearer guidance. How could they know whether the art they stopped at the border was good or bad? It was obviously difficult for the experts to formulate themselves simply and concretely, but certain subject matter was seen as sentimental and banal: pheasants, moose, sailboats in high seas, fishermen and moons were classified as less worthy and therefore not eligible to cross the border. This propaganda was evident in Sweden for years. In the exhibit God konst i hem och samlingslokaler (Good Art in the Home and in Social Spheres) at the National Museum in 1945, there was a special section displaying “Haymarket Art” (hötorgskonst), which was entitled Front mot skräckkonsten (The Front against Frightful Art), in which the art “stands as a laughingstock and a general warning against frightful art”.
The birch tree as a symbol is so firmly anchored in our consciousness that it will continue to appear on our walls for the foreseeable future. Painted on an oval wooden panel with a faded postcard from Borås or Hässleholm beneath it, we will now find the birch board picture in environments to which it had never previously been received. The return of the birch board picture may give us the opportunity to stop being ashamed of our baggage, whatever it may be, and think about the words said years ago by Pablo Picasso: “Good taste is a horrible thing. Taste is the enemy of creativity.”
This text is a rewritten version of a chapter in the book Björk – trädet, människan och naturen (The Birch –Trees, Humans and Nature) by Marit Stigsdotter with photography by Bertil Hertzberg. It will be published in January 2013 by Balkong Förlag, Sweden. 304 pages.
When international trade was liberalized during the 1950s, it became economically no longer viable to restrict imports.
the son of the birch picture painter Gay Glans
— No, I don’t want to, I said with irritation. — But I need your help, Pappa replied as he filled a cup with water from the tap. — We cut down birch trees all last Sunday! Isn’t that enough? — Now we have to drag them to the road. Pappa said nothing for a moment as he drank his water and continued: A truck is coming for the birches at ten a.m. tomorrow morning. We have to be ready by then. It costs a lot of money to pay the driver. I can’t afford to let him wait. All of my arguments to put off the work in the forest, which was five miles from our home had no effect. I might as well have thrown an icicle from the eves of our house into Mamma’s baking oven — it did not make a difference. — We’ll have to get going by seven a.m., Pappa continued. Otherwise, we won’t be finished in time. If the truck can’t get the birch trees to the carpenter tomorrow, there won’t be any birch board pictures. The carpenter has a gap in his schedule next week, where he can saw and smooth the boards. — Do we really have to start biking over there at six thirty in the morning? — At the latest, Pappa answered. At that time he was forty-eight years old, well built and had as much stamina as a weathervane in a windstorm. He was a house painter by day and a track-and-field runner or skier by night. He also earned extra income by creating birch board pictures. — It’s supposed to snow overnight so we probably should leave home at a quarter past six. — You’re kidding. I can’t do that. What about Dan and Thony? Are they getting out of it? Pappa looked at me without anger or irritation. Rather he seemed concerned about having to ask for my help on a Sunday morning. — You need to help out too. If you go to bed early, you’ll
manage, he said quietly. I’ll wake you up at quarter to six. — Isn’t it still dark that early in the morning? — I’m borrowing some headlamps from a guy who does orienteering. We’ll have enough light. The snow was deep that second Sunday of March in the year 1965. Snow was unusual in Sweden’s most southern province, which Carl von Linné called “Continental Scania”. I was fourteen years old, three years younger than my brother Thony and four years younger than my brother Dan. I realized that my contribution to the family work was just as necessary this Sunday as it had been last weekend. That Sunday had been the first Sunday in March. My father and my brothers had been chopping thigh-wide birch trees. Thony and Dan were on each side of a bow saw, while my father cut the birch trees on his own, working in a calm, methodic manner. The farmer, from whom my father had bought the birch trees, had offered him the use of a motorized saw. My father demurred. He did not want to risk injuring himself or, even worse, one of his sons. — Bow saws are good enough, he said. Even if it takes more time. My job was to chop off the branches and twigs from the tree trunks. My father had marked the trees with a red marker. The work went smoothly, at least as far as my father and my brothers were concerned. I never knew if they thought it was as boring as I did. I felt better when my brother Thony set a transistor radio on one of the felled birch trees so that we could listen to the progress of the skiers in the Vasaloppet race. When the batteries died from the cold I became irritated. I felt that if I’d been able to choose, I’d have chosen something completely different: gone to the movies or flirted with the girls instead of going to bed so early on a Saturday night. I slowly let my sharpened axe fall into the snow, just the
way my father had taught me; plant the blade so that the axe doesn’t slip and hurt me or the rest of us. When Thony stated that the batteries were hopelessly dead, I yelled Daaaamn it! Thony and Dan added their complaints. Pappa said nothing. He continued to saw steadily. That Pappa was content with the work of his sons was something I knew. He said as often as he could: You’re hard-working boys. You also get the benefit of training for track-and-field or skiing while you’re out here. You’re getting strong from this. When talking to Pappa in the kitchen, I had realized that he wouldn’t manage on time without the help of his sons that coming Sunday. As he said, things were “starting to bunch up”. — I have to work overtime all next week. There’s nothing I can do about it. The worst thing about it is that I’m going to be unemployed. No one knows for how long. That’s what the boss told me today. The company has a gap until the next job and no one knows if we’re going to get it. Pappa fell silent. Both Mamma and I stared at him without saying a word. We waited for him to continue. After a few doubt-filled seconds, as if he were trying to figure out how to put things, he finally said that the money from the birch board pictures was needed. — We’ll all have to help out, he continued before falling silent again. He sounded worried. Worried in a way that I’d never heard before. — Of course the boys will help you, Mamma replied. She also worried. It was almost worse than if she and Pappa had started to quarrel. A quarrel would be over quickly, but Pappa’s unemployment would continue for a long time. I’d only heard my parents arguing twice before. I wasn’t sure what they were arguing about. I believe it was about mo ney. The next day everything appeared as if they’d never bickered at all. — I’ve talked to Dan and Thony, she continued. They understand that they have to help you out. And if Dan and Thony can help, Gay will help out, too. In the mornings, as I tiredly got ready for school, I saw traces after Pappa: the open closet door and the plate on the kitchen table with the remains of his breakfast, usually thick milk with blueberries and home baked bread. At times he made porridge, which was the only meal he knew how to make. He never drank coffee or tea — rather, he drank just water or a health drink, the name of which was so odd that I couldn’t pronounce it. He got up early in the morning — often so early that Mamma would still be sleeping for a few more hours. Mamma would often prepare Pappa’s breakfast the night before. She’d set out a plate, a spoon and a glass on the kitchen table and she’d put a lunch bag into the refrigerator, which Pappa took to work. Regardless of the season, Pappa would get his bike out and ride to work. During the weeks
before my brothers and I started to contribute to the work in the cold winter forest, he would ride twelve miles one way to reach work. One early morning, when I had to visit the outhouse, Pappa was on his way out the front door. It was cold, dark and snow-covered outside beneath the lone streetlight next to the gravel road. — Bye now, my boy, he said. I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. As I latched the door to the outhouse I heard him release the clip of the bike rack and take off. I’d already been back at home from school for hours when he returned and leaned his bike on the long side of the house so he could come and sit at the kitchen table and eat. Once he’d finished eating, reading the paper and chatting to Mamma, he changed into white overalls co vered in paint stains. For the rest of the evening and well into the night, he stayed in the basement and worked on his birch board paintings. During the summer months he spent many evenings a week at his track and field club. He therefore started his birch board paintings much later in the evenings and ended much later at night. In spite of this, he’d be long gone on his bike by the time I woke up in the morning. It was cold, but the wind was still at six thirty that morning. The snow was powder white on the roads as we biked to the forest where Pappa had purchased standing birch trees from a farmer. Pappa was first in line, followed by me, Thony and Dan as we biked. Pappa did not want to risk having the youngest fall behind during the five miles route to the forest. We put our bicycles next to the edge of the road and dove through the trees, carrying two bow saws, two axes and a lunch bag. We all helped drag the birch trees to the spot at the forest road where Pappa had arranged his meeting with the truck driver. Pappa took the largest trunks and I took the smallest ones. Sometimes Thony, Dan and I pulled the same tree trunk. By the time we heard the truck struggling to drive up the slope we were almost done. While Dan and I went back into the forest to get the last birch trees, Thony and Pappa helped the truck driver load the last. A mere hour later we were biking back home. I wanted to keep as far away from Pappa as possible. I didn’t want any of my classmates to see me in work clothes on a Sunday morning, with the saw and axes fastened to the bike rack. They’d realize that I’d been working in the forest while they’d been relaxing and having cornflakes for breakfast. It was a comfort that they didn’t know that in our family we had blueberries (which we’d picked ourselves), thick milk and home-baked bread for breakfast. We never had storebought bread, like the white bread which Lena had offered me one afternoon. That bread almost melted in my mouth. By the beginning of May, the snow was long gone. Spring had come and the wood anemones were covering the for19
est floor. The heavily scented lilies-of-the-valley were just getting ready to bloom on the woody hillside next to the house as we were about to begin our walk to Grandma’s and Grandpa’s. We’d been invited to supper that Sunday afternoon. Neither Dan nor Pappa were coming with us. Dan was at running practice with his track and field buddies, while Pappa had an important job to do. He was going to transport all the sawed and sandpapered birch boards home from the woodshop — on his bike cart. The day before, Pappa had been sitting at the kitchen table and eating a late dinner after finishing his workweek. Mamma was leaning against the kitchen counter and observing her husband, whom she’d met at the toy factory when she was sixteen years old. She’d married him the year after the war ended. Pappa was nine years older than Mamma and he gave his word that she would never have to work at the factory again. You can stay home and take care of the kids, he’d said.
stack birch boards for drying. We should have finished up two weeks ago, he said. Thony and I have already done our share. Now it’s your turn. — Yeah, I know, I said at the same time that Dan began to run towards the edge of the forest, which was about one hundred meters from where we were standing. He was looking good — his paces were quick and clean as if he was floating over the ground. He ran like no one else in the club and almost as well as Gunder Hägg and Jim Ryan, whom I’d seen on television. No more than an hour later, I was squatting by the south wall of the outhouse, stacking birch boards. The heat of the summer would draw out the moisture from them and prepare them for the many hours of work done in the fall and winter. Those hours were mostly worked by Pappa, but also my brothers and I contributed to the total. Damn, I thought, here I am with sawdust irritating my eyes. I could be playing cowboys and Indians with my pals or flirting with the girls. Things did not get better when I — I don’t have enough money to pay for a truck, he said heard the new Beatles song, A Ticket to Ride, on the transiswhen Mamma asked how much time it would take for him tor radio. This song is rotten, I thought. Disillusioned, I said to get the birch boards home. aloud that now I’d start liking The Rolling Stones instead. — I understand, Mamma replied. But are you sure you That summer in the southernmost province of Sweden don’t have enough time to come with us to my parents? We was like the others usually were: waves of heat followed by don’t have to be there until five. violent thunderstorms. The piles of birch boards behind — If I want to finish up before it gets too late, I’ll have to the outhouse had dried well. Only a few boards had split work all weekend. I want to be ready until next week. from the heat. Even less had to be thrown out because the Except for two upward slopes, where Pappa was forced to bark had separated from the wood. pull the whole thing using his own muscles, the road was My father did the work of gluing the postcards from flat. If it hadn’t been flat, the whole enterprise would have Stockholm, Gothenburg or as far away as Mora by himself. fallen apart, he said late that Sunday evening. It was important that the postcard was placed properly — — But I did it, he said. Now it’s done. I have enough birch not crooked, not too high and not too low on the 12 milliboards to last for three years though maybe only two. metre thick birch boards cut at an angle. Not a single person in our family could escape this stage of the work. The I’d had a depressing day at school. My teacher was irritated unpleasant stench surrounded us when Pappa boiled his when I said that I found the book on the Snapphanarna* homemade glue in the most central part of the house — on much more fun to read than the lesson on the stupid Swed- the stove in the kitchen. Since there was no kitchen fan, the ish king who loved to make war. Thony had let me borrow stench was almost unbearable and it crept into our clothes his book. He was not as interested in sports as Dan and and our hair. I imagined that the smell was entering my thought that reading was much more fun. He was the one lungs and I spread the odor of rotting flesh for many days who told me about that idiot king, Charles the xii. He did afterward, whenever I exhaled, especially in school when nothing but start wars and he didn’t care one bit about I sat close to the cute girls, the ones with chestnut brown the poor farmers. The Snapphanarna were different, Thony or blonde hair or the one with the ash-blonde hair and the said. They were poor farmers themselves. shiny, raspberry red lips. On the way home from school, longing for summer va— Can’t he boil that crap in the basement? It stinks like cation to begin, I saw Dan heading my way at high speed, pigs! I’d scream at my mother before I even knew that the wearing training clothes. He was training for the Swedish glue was made from slaughterhouse leftovers. Junior Championship in track and field that summer. He was aiming for the 1500 meter hurdles and his goal was Mamma never replied, perhaps because she saw her job as to win over the latest great track hope of Sweden, Anders keeping the pot on the boil. The kitchen was the heart of Gärderud. the home and the centre of Mamma’s existence, the kitch— Hi Dan! I called out. en was the most likely spot. I never said that I was mostly He stopped long enough to tell me that it was my turn to worried that a classmate, especially a female one, would 21
drop in and smell the reek and that my classmates, especially the boys, never the girls, would humiliate me. They’d tease me the same way they treated the daughter of the pig butcher: oooo, what the hell! Hold your noses, the piglet is coming! I wanted to avoid that fate at all costs. The pig farmer’s daughter was blonde, blue-eyed and almost cute. Whenever I was most afraid of stinking like glue, I thought of her and the idea that we shared something. Perhaps we could get together and I wouldn’t even notice her piggy aroma and she wouldn’t notice my glue stench, even if we hugged and kissed. One dark autumn evening, my father was even more silent than usual. Mamma asked cautiously if something had been especially difficult at work. Perhaps he’d had too much work to do. Maybe that’s why he’s so quiet, I thought. — Nothing to tell, he replied shortly. — There must be something going on? Mamma continued. — No, what could it be? Just that I’ve been painting radiators the whole entire day? That’s nothing to talk about. He seemed angry or perhaps just tired. I couldn’t tell for sure. — Most of the guys are sick, Pappa went on. Some kind of flu. Still, they keep going to work. I am the only one who’s healthy. I’m working myself to pieces so we can finish on time. The rest of the guys can’t work as hard as they usually do. Is that really worth talking about? — We won’t discuss it any further, Mamma said and silently walked away into the living room. Once Pappa had eaten and finished reading his newspaper, he changed into his white overalls, covered in paint stains. He intended, as he’d done so many other evenings after work, to go on long into the night preparing birch board pictures. Mamma, who hadn’t spoken to a grown person during the whole day, had not yet given up her attempt to exchange a few words with her husband, even if just for a few moments and even if it was about nothing more than the birch board pictures. — What are you going to do this evening? she said, even more cautiously. She was standing in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen. — Cut postcards. — Gay can help you, can’t he? — If he wants to, Pappa said, without looking at me, as if he himself did not want to convince me to spend the evening shut up in the basement with him. There are more fun things to do, such as shooting at targets with my friend’s brand new bb gun. We wouldn’t shoot at songbirds. My friend’s mother had forbidden us to do that. Otherwise I’ll take the gun back, she had warned. Still, the idea of shooting at birds never attracted me. I liked the birds in our yard, such as the duck pair that often came to visit us in the af-
ternoons to beg food from Mamma. Whenever she forgot, they’d waddle up the front stairs and into the hallway and quack complainingly. I would never be able to shoot them. — I think that you should help your father, Mamma said. He needs your help. — Well, it would be nice, Pappa said. — Sure, I’ll do it, I replied. — That’s great, Gay. I can start spackling the pictures once you’ve cut away the edges of the postcards. Then I’d be able to sand them evenly and begin to decorate them already tomorrow evening. Pappa sounded much happier. — Why is there such a hurry? asked Mamma. Can’t it wait a day or two? — Mora-Nisse has ordered two hundred birch board pictures for Midsummer. Mamma knew who Mora-Nisse was, even though she usually didn’t pay attention to sports. Mora-Nisse was the Vasaloppet skier who’d won several years in a row, just as his forefathers had done. He was even well known in Swedish American regions in the United States. Once his skiing career was over, he remained true to Mora, where he ran a sports store for many years. He wanted the birch board pictures by Midsummer, because that’s when the largest streams of tourists came to see the most Swedish celebration of them all: Midsummer celebrations in Dalarna. — What about Dan and Thony? asked Mamma. Couldn’t they help out, too? — They’ve promised to nail on the hangers, but the paint has to be dry by then and that takes a while, Pappa replied. I’ll make it on time, but it still means I have to work every evening. A moment later, I was sitting next to Pappa removing unnecessary edges from the postcards using a sharp Mora knife. It was important not to slip with the knife and damage the bark, or, even worse, myself. A birch board picture without the bark intact was no birch board picture. It would go right into the pile for burning in the boiler. Mamma would prefer if I didn’t use the knife at all. The year before, I’d hurt my hand when I tried to cut a bow from a hazelnut tree. I planned to use the bow when I played cowboys and Indians with my playmates. — You’ll be careful with the knife? Mamma asked, nervously. — Stop it, I replied, irritated, knowing what Mamma was thinking. I’m a whole year older than I was then. While I was cutting the edges of postcards, my father placed about twenty birch boards, which had already had the edges of postcards cut and were already spackled, on his worktable. He mixed a clear blue shimmering paint with white onto a broken birch board, which he used as a palette. This colour would give the viewer the impression that the skies were unendingly high behind the white, cotton-like clouds. Once Pappa had finished painting the skies, he
went on to lengthen the ski track, which Mora-Nisse had skied on his way to becoming the eminent winner in his “forefather’s tracks”. A few days later, once the paint was dry, Pappa set a birch on the right flank using a template cut from hard cardboard. He spackled over the template with a sure hand. Using that same hand, he lifted the template and the birch tree leapt into the motif, in spite of all obstacles in the form of buildings, cars or people. The subject matter is implacable in spite of all hindrances in the form of buildings, cars or people. Pappa felt that the birch tree, in spite of appearing to be misplaced, demanded its spot. A birch board picture without a birch tree was no birch board picture at all. Pappa’s painterly contribution was intended to make the eventual owners of the birch board pictures proud — look here, we’ve visited the cross-country skiing route’s Mecca in the heart of the Swedish folk home’s idyll: Mora town in Dalarna. My Pappa left no place — in fact, he never even considered the possibility — for the approaching modern Sweden and its multicultural society, where differences in culture would enrich work life, every day life, food culture and the way people would interact. The birch board pictures showed Swedes who were often blonde, brunettes or had ash-blonde hair. There were never any people from other parts of the world, from Africa or Asia, with differing skin colour from the people who inhabited the folk home idyll in the north. The birch board picture can be seen as a milder variation of the weavings which decorated Swedish homes during the fifties and sixties; romanticism of the folk home with its happy strawberry blonde, blue-eyed children. Peace ruled between adults and children, between mother and father, between humans and the natural world. The weavings depicted paradise, which is how I imagined it. Once ten o’clock in the evening was approaching, Mamma called down to us from upstairs: — Gay, you have to stop now. You have school tomorrow. — I come, I shouted.
By the time Pappa closed the tubes of paint and turned off the lights, it was deep into the night. A few seconds after his head hit the pillow next to his wife since almost twenty years, he was fast asleep. Four hours later he was straddling his bicycle and was off to a construction site somewhere. One Saturday afternoon, when I came home from my last class in school, Pappa was already at home. During the late hours, he’d been busy wrapping each birch board picture in newspaper and then packing them into boxes, which had been used to transport bananas. When I saw him coming up from the basement he was carrying a box to the bicycle cart, which already had been filled with packed boxes. He was going to bring them to the train station for further transport to Mora. — Hi, I said. — Hi, Gay. — Did you finish them all in time? — Yes, I did. Mora-Nisse doesn’t have to wait for them this year, he said with both pride and gratitude, which I realized was directed also toward my brothers and me. Pappa got on his bicycle into town with his banana boxes strapped to the bicycle cart, while I headed into the kitchen. Next to the basement stairs I saw many boxes heaped on top of each other and filled with sun-dried birch boards. If Pappa was going to have a Saturday evening off before he had to start working on the next delivery to someone somewhere in Sweden, I had no idea. During the week of Midsummer, a family came into Mora-Nisse’s sports shop in Dalarna. The woman of the family weighed a birch board picture in her hand, turned it over to inspect it from both sides, and said a few words in English to her husband and eldest daughter. They smiled at each other. In uneven Swedish with a strong American accent, the woman turned to the cashier: These are so very beautiful and so Swedish. We will happily buy one and take it back home with us to the u.s.
Pappa nodded without looking up at me and smiled absentminded, as if he were tired but still wanted to show me his appreciation. When I got up to leave the basement, he said, still without looking at me: — Thanks, Gay. You’ve done a good job. — Mmm, I said. Nothing else, not even good night. I don’t know why. Maybe I was tired myself. Or perhaps I was in a bad mood from spending the entire evening shut up in the basement instead of running hurdles or playing soccer with my friends. — Gay, Pappa said, could you please give this note to your mother? She wants to know how far we’ve come with the pictures for Mora-Nisse. — All right, I said, as I took the note and left the basement.
* Translator’s Note: The Snapphanarna were a seventeenth century group of organized Scanian farmers who attacked their Swedish overlords and tax collectors and were brutally suppressed.
Work Plan 1965 1. Agreement on price for standing birch trees. Done. 2. Mark suitable birch trees. Done. 3. 7 March. Cut birch trees. Dan, Thony and Gay. Done. 4. 14 March. Drag birch trees to road. Dan, Thony and Gay. Done. 5. 14 March. 10 a.m. Truck. Done. 6. 14—19 March. Sawing and sanding. Tage Nilsson. Done. 7. 8—9 March. Transport birch boards from woodcutters. Me. Done. 8. Air dry. 10—16 May. Boys. Done. 9. Beginning of May. Begin 200 birch board paintings for Mora-Nisse. 500 boards in storage. Will last to fall, this year, probably. 10. Remove plastic from postcards. Me. Done. 11. Glue postcards. Me. Done. 12. Cut edges of postcards. Me. Perhaps one of the boys. 13. Spackle with sand the postcard edges. Me and Dan. 14. Sand the edges. Me and Thony. 15. Decorate the pictures. 16. Let paint dry. 17. Hammer on hangers. Boys. 18. Ask for banana boxes. asap. Me. 19. Pack birch board pictures. 11 June. Me. 20. Pictures to Mora-Nisse 12 June at the latest. Via train. Saturday 12 June.
a picture for everyone Per Dahlström
There’s something about birch board pictures, which reminds me of the Sweden of my youth. I grew up among timber workers, family farmers and birch groves in western Värmland during the sixties. Much of rural society was unchanged, even though Sweden was becoming a modern country. Our games were simple and uncomplicated. I can still remember my joy when I would throw a stick into the spring creek and watch it whirl downstream, or the smell of a warm moped motor, or how the newly laid eggs felt in my hand when I was in my grandmother’s chicken pen. The birch board picture is a link to that time when I would play in the present. These days, we are often in some other place than where our bodies are located. There’s a gap between reality and the artificial life, which is happening somewhere else. The birch board picture is a link to my beginnings and to a time when experiences were analog and not something found on the net. They are a link to a time and a rural Sweden, which has disappeared, never to return. The era of my grandparents and a family farm Sweden, which was still living when I grew up. It was an innocent time, when things were getting better and better and people still believed in the future. The birch board picture was popular from the beginning of the twentieth century into the seventies, although it was not considered a sign of good taste to have one on the wall. Today its motifs appear simple and somewhat plain. They portray small town and village scenes: squares, bridges, waterfalls with power stations, and other examples of the wonders of the day — things, which were practically tourist sights but have now been mostly forgotten. Sweden was modernized much later than other countries in Europe. When we Swedes started to move into apartment buildings in the larger cities during the beginning of the twentieth century, we longed for the outhouses and
cow pastures. Our hearts remained in the countryside and we dreamed of buying our own little red cottage when we would be able to afford it. Perhaps this is why we hung birch board pictures on our walls. They were remembrances of well-known places — pictures of birch trees as an expression of a nostalgic sentimentality. The birch board picture was part of a past we clung to. The birch board picture appeared, and was common when working class people did not aspire to be elegant, and vanished when we wanted to become like our social betters. During the entire twentieth century, there was a campaign in Sweden to enlighten the Swedish people as to what belonged in a proper Swedish household. The author Ellen Key and the The Swedish Society of Arts and Crafts tried to make the average Swede understand the right way to furnish and decorate a household through magazines such as Skönhet för alla (Beauty for all), which appeared in 1899; Vackrare vardagsvara (More beautiful Everyday Objects), which appeared in 1919; and Acceptera (Accept), which appeared in 1931. Within modernism, there was the idea that beautiful and ugly were objective values, which the initiated understood best of all and therefore were best suited to spread the message to the masses. Beautiful and ugly were compared to right and wrong as well as true and false. Beauty could change and ennoble people and contribute to a more harmonious society. Ellen Key belonged to the previous century’s most influential tone-setter and played an important role within the feminist movement. She is most famous for the book Barnets århundrade (The Century of the Child), published in 1900. It was translated into a number of languages and made the author internationally famous. Ellen Key also had ideas about the importance of the environment of the home and was convinced that beautiful objects within the home could change and ennoble the people living there. They would be healthier, friendlier and happier if their homes 28
contained the proper items. I her eyes, there was a connection between the inner and outer life. A beautiful environment would make people better and happier. Beauty also was something every human being had a right to enjoy, according to Ellen Key. This resulted in an influential pedagogical movement directed at the working class. Inspired by William Morris and the British Arts &Crafts movement, Key connected beauty with simplicity, harmony, honesty and a relationship between the object and its use. Key despised dark and overbearing interior decoration with its aping expensive materials, overstuffed furniture, heavy drapes, fringe, tassels and useless decorative objects. All of this could be found in the new middle class homes and the working class also wanted such design when they could afford it. Key’s thoughts were continued in the magazine Vackrare vardagsvara, where the idea of the social function of art was developed. Industry ought to use artists as designers. In order for the working class to procure beautiful and af-
fordable, rational machine production had to be used. At the Stockholm Exhibition of 1930, the ideas of modernism were launched on all fronts. Functional model dwellings were shown in the interior design exhibit. Many people, however, did have difficulty accepting the geometric language of form and the exhibit was debated long afterwards. One year after the exhibit, the magazine Acceptera appeared. This magazine was a forum for functionalism and design in the same spirit as Skönhet för alla and Vackrare vardagsvara. The propaganda became part of the ideology of the Swedish People’s Home and the new welfare state, which was built up in Sweden during the middle of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, the propaganda was not successful in the beginning. The Swedes loved their coffee cups with curlicues, their heavy stuffed furniture and their birch board pictures. The campaign for how a beautiful home should appear was most intensive in the thirties, but was still continuing long into the sixties.
Although it took a few decades, by the sixties most people knew how a beautiful home should appear: clean furniture in natural materials and light-colored wood. This interior design model is now known throughout the world as Swedish Modern or Scandinavian Modern. Finally, everyone understood that accordion music was dreadful and you couldn’t hang whatever you wanted on your walls. The birch board pictures, which weren’t burned in the fireplace, were hung in the outhouses or hidden in the attics waiting for better times. The years went by, however, and now that modernism has become less influential, not everyone is sure that even a birch board picture might have some kind of quality.
of all artists and the province of Dalarna, with its red cottages and light birch groves are the most Swedish of all landscapes. In the area of design, furniture in light birch wood is seen as more Swedish than furniture in dark wood. When we Swedes celebrate Midsummer, the most Swedish of holidays, we use birch branches to decorate our homes and summer cottages. In this manner, the birch board picture can be seen as typically Swedish. Today birch board pictures are popular again. It can even be seen as stylish to have a birch board picture on the wall and there have even been exhibitions of them in museums. Its function has changed, however. Today a birch board picture is a ‘conversation piece’ and a way to thumb one’s nose at those who believed that quality was determined by objective measures and to those who were so sure that the kitsch of the People’s Home was not fashionable in the world of culture.
Even if the birch board picture is an international phenomenon in that other European countries also have them, the Swedish birch board picture is still typically Swedish. The birch tree, which has given the pictures their name and also a good part of their material, is our national tree. Many artists have used the birch tree as a symbol for Sweden and Swedishness. The most well known is the Swedish artist Carl Larsson, who was active in the decades of the previous turn of the century.
My own relationship to the birch board picture is just as divided as I’ve described above. It had been seen as an example of bad taste and something that one was told not to have hanging on one’s wall during the entire time I was growing up. On the other hand, they awaken nostalgic memories from a by-gone time and a world left behind. As an art historian, the birch board picture is a special object, which a llows me to theorize. It is a form of folk art, which also brings questions about hierarchies in the art world and who sets the norms for what is valuable. They raise discussion about how beauty and ugly are determined as well as what is right and wrong, true and false.
During the era of national romanticism, it was more important that art should be anchored in the nationalconsciousness. Within Swedish cultural life, there was a fight of what best represented the Swedish nation. Simply put, there was a fight between Carl Larsson’s light birch trees and John Bauer’s dark evergreen forests. When Carl Larsson moved back to Sweden shortly before 1900 after many years on the Continent, it was important to him that his art be Swedish. To him, the white birch trees, the red cottages and the blonde, blue-eyed people of Dalarna represented his homeland and its Swedishness more than anything else. His books, especially Ett hem (A Home) from 1899 and Spadarvet (The Farm) from 1906, show this vision and they were widespread throughout Europe. In Ett hem, Carl Larsson shows his and his wife Karin Larsson’s child-friendly home in Sundborn with light watercolors. It became an ideal, even for Ellen Key, who used it as a pattern for how modern Swedish interior design should appear.
The birch board picture is part of theoretical reasoning concerning the function of a picture and what is beautiful or ugly in general, as well as who has the right to make this determination. Perhaps it’s still only the experts who follow this discussion. Those who were never “cool” or never listened to others, but rather followed their own vision and always enjoyed their birch board pictures. They are the ones who kept and cared for their pictures. Perhaps they collected pictures, which appeared in flea markets and small farm auctions. They are the ones who have saved the pictures we now can see in this exhibit.
In later Swedish design history, from Bruno Mattson to ikea, the light birch has come to stand for something definitely Swedish. This was not clear at the beginning of the Twentieth century, as there was a competing idea of what should be seen as Swedish. For many other artists returning from Paris around the turn of that century, a dark, masculine, harsh Nordic nature with giant evergreen trees was seen as typically Swedish. Nevertheless, the light birch emerged victorious as a symbol for genuine Swedishness. Today, Carl Larsson is understood to be the most Swedish 31
the birch plaque pai nting – a delay i n color Ingrid Book & Carina Hedén
The birch bursting into leaf signals the start of summer. This was where the academy professor Edvard Bergh, the painter of the Swedish birch groves, started too. His love of nature, of the cool shade among the white trunks of the birches, the grazing cows, the stillness and peace; all this led him into a temptation he forged into a popularity so great that it became his misfortune. This was the nineteenth century, which was and shall ever remain the Age of Swedish National Romanticism. In 1913 a small birch plaque was painted, one of the earliest to deal with a frequently recurring motif: water surface and sky meet, a headland and a red cottage with a white window, a hanging birch and three boulders at the water’s edge. Pink and light-blue tones of color, the treetop of the birch, the brief moment when the brush touches the surface, reminds us of the Chinese painter who painted bamboo all his life. It is the privilege of the upper class to be able to fully realize its illusions. But the birch plaque also has its back surface — the raw, untreated wood, with price and serial number and other secular signs, shockingly crude and insistent in its materiality as on a Russian icon. Surrounded by birch bark, nature, the guarantee of authenticity. But in the event of the wrong kind of bark or the absence of any bark at all, the frame is painted in mixed grey shades or with white spots. In 1913, Marcel Duchamp abandons painting and exhibits Bicycle Wheel — a found object becomes art. A readymade. Mayakovsky urges the destruction of the museums, the coffins of art. Painting becomes abstract and is emptied of its visible references. The red cottage has already undergone its transformation into pure visibility — the idea of painting as such has superseded representation, and the window of the cottage has become a labor-saving white square. The practice of the readymade is seized on by the painter of the birch plaques long before it has its breakthrough on the art world. In a first stage, the disc of birch from the woodpile
is sawn to size; in later stages a picture postcard is glued to it and the image is raised up with a streak of putty as a birch trunk; and now we are not far from Duchamp’s pithy gesture — “the aided readymade”: the Mona Lisa is rescued in 1919 with a mustache and a goatee. When the birchwood plaque — with expanding communications, the automobile, the bus and domestic tourism turned into a greeting from different places — it was the birch tree, not the cottage, that survived. The birch tree on the picture postcard on the birchwood plaque. Increased communications brought an increasing demand for birch plaque paintings. The painters of the plaque pictures could increase their rate of production with the aid of the found object: the postcard. Duchamp’s cynical genius gave visual art the potential to increase its rate of production and keep pace with technical development in the struggle for markets and attention. ¹ The glued-in photograph, the picture postcard, became yet another token of authenticity. Proof that there was a reality behind the dream of place. But not enough reality to prevent the urge to improve it with brush and paint, often pure paint straight from the tube. ² As when the greatest, most productive post-war German painter Gerhard Richter explained his relationship with the photograph, and why he chose to make a painting of it: “Perhaps it’s because I feel sorry for the photograph, since it has such a miserable existence, even though as a picture it is so perfect. I would like to be able to give it validity, visibility — or quite simply just paint it.” ³ The free gestural painting of the birch plaque expands and sometimes towers up in the skies, borders and birch crowns of the picture postcard — all in an attempt to improve the photograph, to make it sink into the birch trunk, to obliterate the seams, to perfect the illusion of place.
The birch plaque borrows its credibility from painting. Several of the skies manifest striking similarities to the raised brushwork of Richter disciples like Michael van Ofen or the thicker, pastose expression of Axel Kasseböhmer. Or as Richter himself says: all painting, both representative and abstract or gestural, is illusionistic — if nothing else, it is an illusion of painting. In other words, the birch plaque is irradiated with fundamental issues from the discussion of photography and painting in recent years. The originator of the birch plaque painting is anonymous — there is no signature. He never abandoned painting like Duchamp — but he renounced copyright. In this he went a step further than Duchamp and Richter: into a new kind of thinking about space: “... the human person and self-consciousness are not the center, the assessors of existence. Man is 4 only a privileged listener and respondent to existence.” The organic contour of the birch plaque, its form, is pure nature. Here the birch bears within it endless probabilities of variation and has won the victory against the utopia of the square. In the cross-section, the inside of the birch, you find the “place”. The Värnamo market square with its water sculpture, its fountain in bronze. The modern facade of the newspaper Värnamotidningen, the light in the flower beds. The sixties in Sweden. The Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, two birches as a portal to a grandiose spatial depth, the modern arena with its passage into the pastose park. Yet, even these birch plaques are subject to the fate of the found object: a one-way street that goes from reality to art. And art is a method of attempting to get at what is ungrasp able for us. We can never get back to Värnamo or the Kurfürstendamm again. But the birch is the proof, the testimony that “I was there”.
Translated from Swedish into English by James Manley. 1. Boris Groys: “Die Geschwindigkeit der Kunst” in Kunstkommentare, 1997 2. Thierry de Duve: “The Readymade and the Tube of Paint” in Kant after Duchamp, 1996 3. Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practise of Painting, 1995 4. Ilya Prigogine: The End of Certainty, 1997
bi rch-trunk art Rosa Liksom
The railway station in Omsk is absolutely jammed with people. Genuine Ukrainian kolkhoz women with their bags and bundles; scurfy beggars in baseball caps emblazoned with “Texas”; squabbling schoolboys in threadbare, dirty school uniforms; amiably smiling old men elbowed into corners that reek of piss; state officials’ assistants trailing wafts of French perfume; mangy stray dogs; housewife-mothers with throngs of pale, silent children clinging to their skirts; and businessmen whose territory is the Russian market and who have not yet got rich, hissing into their mobile phones. “Viktor, go and stand in the queue! Viktor, are you still standing there, you goddamned bastard, go over there! You ought to end up in purgatory, you bloody crow’s arse!” one businessman curses his right-hand man. I go and stand in the longest queue, because that is the one that probably leads to the ticket window where I might be able to buy a ticket back to the West. “Yesterday Natasha struck an axe right into Igor’s back. She should have gone straight for his head. Why bother saving a man like that. Vanya’s got his first tooth, and Auntie bought him some new winter boots from the market. Last night a rat chewed on the sofa leg, which means it’s going to rain tonight. I went to the public sauna in St. Mary’s Street yesterday, the one that costs three kopecks, and as I was lying there on the bench a bony woman came in without a sauna cap on! And then I said to her, may your head burn in purgatory! She just cackled, you know the sort: she was a Buryat — and what’s more, from Yakutia!” Readers will not need to be told that the queue does not move. Behind the window sits a bloated woman who takes no notice of the queue. She has no intention of serving customers because she simply happens to work for the railway. The man at the head of the queue knocks politely on the glass; the woman casts a stultified glance at the man, a father, then immediately turns to the woman at the next window and launches into some wanton yakking. We stand there for six hours before the window opens and the same
puffy woman sells the first ticket. Just before midnight I stand before the woman, asking to buy a single to Moscow. She doesn’t even look at me, just orders the next person to come forward. The woman behind me shoves me aside coldly, and there is nothing else I can do. I return to the hotel past rusting telephone boxes, ruined playgrounds, sandboxes covered with broken glass and flattened tin cans, through streets caked in ground-in dirt , past prefab apartment houses with cardboard-covered windows and reeking stairwells. A young, well-groomed receptionist refuses to provide me with lodging even though the hotel is practically empty. She refuses to give any reason. But I may sleep on the sofa in the lobby, and the receptionist kindly offers me a cup of sweet tea! I am back at the railway station before the cock crows. The travellers are snoring, drinking vodka, fighting, kissing and phlegmatically staring straight ahead. The queue is even longer than it was the day before. I read the selected works of Gogol, eat a Pan-Russian cutlet, talk to a young man who dreams of a life in Bremen and observe an injured cat as it licks its greasy fur at the feet of an old lady who is praying to the Mother of God. After seven hours of queuing, the same thick-lipped woman shuts the window when there are just a few customers in front of me. The queue gradually disperses, and I spend the night at the railway station. I sit on my suitcase under an illuminated sign advertising Johnnie Walker and notice that only every tenth one of the station’s twenty-seven lights is working. On the third day of queuing, I reach the window with the complacent gossip-monger after eight in the evening. I ask for a single ticket to Moscow. The ticket-seller asks how many tickets I require. One will do. I hand over a pile of rubles and receive a ticket, three chocolate candies and a picture painted on a cross-section of a birch trunk. I am so 34
baffled by my change that I just stuff everything into my rucksack and make my way to the platform. Eleven hours remain until the train departs. I drink a Fanta and recall the white, salt-like sand in Siberian villages that is quickly stirred up in even the slightest breeze. On the train, two Siberian taxi drivers play cards and sing, a balalaika plays along to Metallica and Igor retains his “nothing gets to me” expression from his time in the forced labour camp. It is dark on the train because only one of the twelve light bulbs in the corridor is working. I lean against the cool window and dig out my change and a pocket torch from my rucksack. I give the sweets to a red-nosed little lad and look at the picture. It’s small, cost maybe twenty kopecks: a red power station glowing against a blue background. There is a banner above the main entrance to the power station that reads, “Communism is equivalent to the Soviets’ power and the electrification of the entire land.” The picture was painted with great care — clearly with genuine pleasure in creativity. In Moscow it is summer, and the parks are filled with hungering refugees from the southern republics. A gypsy girl with an eternity of fear and suffering in her eyes takes hold of my leg and won’t let go. She wants food, or money. I give her a bag containing meat-filled turnovers which I bought from the world’s happiest old lady, along with the picture painted on the birch trunk. A sacred icon. The girl gobbles up the turnovers, takes one look at the painting and chucks it onto the ground, then runs off. The picture gets stuck under the high-heeled shoe of a bakery worker. Confused, she snatches it up and quickly puts it into her handbag.
Translated from the original Finnish into Swedish by Sirkka Seppänen; translated from Swedish into English by Ruth Urbom.
symbols of longing Borghild Håkansson
Siljansnäs, Borgholm, Grövelsjön, Osby, Avesta — I haven’t been to any of these places. Still, the birch board picture has fascinated me as a phenomenon, as a human expression; it has made a great impact in spite of its unpretentiousness. These pictures used to hang on the walls of innumerable homes, mostly in countryside and in small towns. Wall decoration, like many other things, is class bound. Fine culture has never been interested in these oval blocks of wood. Perhaps you can look at them as an example of how country culture has not been able to assert itself against city culture. The birch board picture has been forgotten. Perhaps they require too little workmanship to be classified as folk art. Perhaps their mass production made them unsuitable to be considered art. Still, they are pictures that touch the heart and set the imagination into motion, and they were there on the walls to infuse happiness, to decorate and to say I was there. Even if we have learned to differentiate between good and bad taste over the years, there are still many people in Sweden who remember their first introduction to that other world, to poetry and art, was through the birch board picture. Others tell me that they had seen them every day, but had never thought much about them. They were just part of the cultural inheritance, they took them for granted and didn’t give them much thought. The birch board pictures are without doubt hand-made and each one is unique. We can ignore whether they are beautiful or ugly, but they have an unpretentious and tender expression, which still render thoughts of longing. Perhaps they, as symbols of longing, are an expression of the dreams of other people, which makes me wonder. They make me pose questions such as: Am I brave enough to face my own longing? Do I have time for it?
For me, the interest in the birch board pictures started with a picture of the Tjörn Bridge. It was lying there fully exposed at a flea market. Birch tree trunks … vague memories … I couldn’t escape, and after handing over a few Swedish crowns, it was mine. My decision to buy it had no rational explanation — it was completely emotional. As time went on, the number of pictures I collected increased and for my own enjoyment, I still keep my eyes open for birch board pictures. I have come to realize that there are many people beside me who have a relation to birch board pictures, and emotional stories have come from many people I have spoken to. The stories I have had the chance to hear are warm and personal, but still rather similar. Perhaps we are reminded of something that we are missing, something we lost contact with or something that we actively decided to leave behind. They are a reminder of a time when it was a big adventure to travel for 30 or 40 miles, a time when belief in the future was strong and the trust in progress and the future was not yet broken. The motifs were inviting and sometimes showed modern environments, which you could be proud of visiting. On another plane, these pictures bear witness to the importance of a concrete world, of identity, of meaning and of content. The birch board pictures kept their position up to the middle of the seventies. Since that time, the world has changed and is now open to us via television, the Internet and air travel. The future holds environmental destruction, terrorist threats and economic crises. The birch board picture is completely passé. Still, with the birch board picture as our rearview mirror, we can reflect over our present day situation. Which pictures have replaced the birch board picture? Posters from ikea or designed ones we’ve order via the Internet? What is the difference in choice of motif? Geographic character and 38
souvenirs have played out their role. You can buy T-shirts showing Los Angeles in Thailand or Stockholm. We live in a changing world, where we have the apparent idea that anything is possible. On the other hand, that means that we have to search for meaning on our own and are expected to craft our own identities. The birch board picture reminds us and perhaps tells us something about this dilemma. Today we are over-stimulated by impressions, and images force themselves on us from all directions. Naturally our relationship to images and our need of them is different in an era when we need to defend ourselves against them, instead of appreciating with curiousity a rarity from which our fantasies can play. You may wonder what is happening with us when we are forced to shield ourselves in order to cope instead of being open and receptive to our environment. How does this affect our ability to be creative and empathetic as human beings? In todayâ€™s society, there is a huge gap between the everyday reality in which we live and the world we take in with fictive intimacy but still infinite distance via the tv screen, the computer and the cell phone. The consequence can be that our world is at risk of diminishing, even though it appears to be completely open and accessible. A graspable world is one in which we can engage. An apparent world, which seems close but is still distant, is not worth any attempt at influence. Perhaps one can say that the birch board picture stands as a symbol of the graspable, the ability to be made happy by that familiar and yet still unknown place which one can long for and wonder about.
Staffan Backlund is an artist and collector as well as a traveller with the Postfuturistic Society as his base. He has translated traditional Malaysian poetry and has been the editor and one of the writers for the books Björktavlan i våra hjärtan (The Birch Board Picture in our Hearts) 1999 and Annan Konst — konsten är ett mystrium (Other Art — Art’s Mystrious) 2009. Both books were published by Postfuturistiska förlaget.
Gay Glans is the son of the artist of the birch board painting Kay Glans. He was born in Southern Sweden as the third child of four. He is the author of Nils Holgersson landade aldr ig på Finjasjön (Nils Holgersson never landed on the Finja Lake), 2005, and Så Stan heller! — I skuggan av en blivande världsstjärna (Fuck this! — In the Shadow of a rising worldstar), 2010. Both were published by Öraholma bokförlag.
Ingrid Book & Carina Hedén
Ingrid Book and Carina Hedén are artists based in Oslo. With their works (photography, video and installations) they actualize ethical and social issues in the intersection between architecture, urban and regional landscape. Their exhibitions include Temporary Utopias for the Norwegian Investigations on Power and Democracy (National Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo, 2003), News from the Field (Bienale de São Paulo, 2004), Stories for empty shop windows (Salzburger Kunstverein, 2007, Artists’ House, Oslo, 2007); and Military Landscapes (Bergen International Festival Exhibition, 2008).
Lizette Gradén is Chief Curator at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle and Affiliate Associate Professor in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Washington. Gradén holds a Ph.D. in Ethnology from Stockholm University and has produced exhibitions as well as published extensively on Swedish–American culture and Nordic material culture with an emphasis of heritage politics, public displays, museums, and traditional dress. She recently concluded the comparative project Nordic Spaces in the North and North America: Heritage Preservation in Real and Imagined Nordic Places (www.nordicspaces.com).
Per Dahlström Per Dahlström, Ph.D. is the curator and research director of The Gothenburg Museum of Art. His doctoral dissertation of 2002 studied art of eccentrics and how a modern art esthetic derives from discourse of artistic creativity. Dahlström was previously the curator for The Röhsska Museum of Fa shion, Design and Decorative Arts in Gothenburg. Lately he has continued his interest for questions of unconventional artists, but also written about fashion, design and artistic folk art.
Borghild Håkansson Borghild Håkansson is a social worker, interior designer and a collector. She works for the city of Gothenburg in urban crime prevention and safety promotion. She is the standing secretary of the Postfuturistic Society. She was an editor and writer for the books Björktavlan i våra hjärtan (The Birch Board Picture in our Hearts) 1999 and Annan Konst — konsten är ett mystrium (Other Art — Art’s Mystrious) 2009. Both books were published by Postfuturistiska förlaget.
Rosa Liksom Rosa Liksom is a visual artist and author. Her books have been translated into 20 languages. Her novel Hytti nro 6 (Compartment No. 6) was awarded the Finlandia Prize, Finland’s most prestigious literary award for fiction, in 2011. Rosa Liksom was born in 1958 in Tornedalen, in Finnish Lapland, and lives in Helsinki.
Marit Stigsdotter Marit Stigsdotter is Designer, and a lecturer of product design at Jönköpings Tekniska Högskola as well as a frequent guest lecturer at other institutions. She is especially interested in how design, architecture and art reflect their times and play a part of the social construct. She is the co-author with Pia Nordahl Frisk of Vespan, Myran, Chanel No. 5 — 30 designklassiker och deras historia. Stigsdotter has partici pated in a number of groups shows as well as solo exhibitions and she has received awards such as the newspaper Barometerns Kulturpris and Utmärkt Svensk Form.
Laura A. Wideburg translator (unless otherwise indicated) Laura Wideburg has a Ph.D. in medieval Germanic literature and linguistics. She presently works as a translator and has translated works by Inger Frimansson, Lars Kepler, Niklas Rådström and Helene Tursten. She also has written the books Swedish — The Basics (2011) and Swedish — Beyond the Basics (2012) specifically for the North American Swedish learner. She teaches Swedish at the Swedish Cultural Center in Seattle and is a long-time member of the Nordic Heritage Museum.
the birch board picture graphic design Kristin Lidström www.kristinlidstrom.com photo Staffan Backlund page 4, 8, 10 –11, 26 – 27, 29, 33, 35–37, 39 –40 Bertil Hertzberg cover and page 13, 17, 20, 23, 30 Published 2012 isbn 978-91-637-2051-2 Sweden isbn 978-0-09712413-0-5 United States © The authors publisher Nordic Heritage Museum Seattle, wa, United States www.nordicmuseum.org and The Postfuturistic Society (Postfuturistiska Sällskapet) Gothenburg, Sweden www.postfuturism.org
The catalog for the exhibition "Bad Art? 1,000 Birch Board Pictures from Sweden" showing at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle from Novem...