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April 08, 2005

August Strindberg at Tate Modern

Posted by Christie Davies

August Strindberg: painter, photographer, writer
Tate Modern, London
17th February - 15th May 2005
Sunday - Thursday 10am - 6pm
Friday & Saturday 10am - 10pm

August Strindberg is Sweden's most famous and talented writer …come to think of it he is the only one. He was, however, also a gifted painter, an eccentric photographer and a completely mad alchemist who tried to transmute other elements into gold. All these are on display at Tate Modern. Strindberg's paintings are worth seeing and his other foibles are worth laughing at. They are interconnected, which makes the exhibition even more interesting, and indeed well worth visiting, provided you do not mind the disreputable male teenagers hanging round the rest of the building in their "I have just shat myself" prison trousers, who are living proof that the government should reintroduce museum charges.

Strindberg's landscapes reflect his admiration for Turner and his own violent mood swings. Nature is made to fit his moods. There is no reason why it should not. Nature does have an objective existence independent of how we feel about it but that is not what we see. The pathetic fallacy is not a fallacy but a statement about what human beings can be.

Strindberg's storms are, predictably very stormy indeed as in Storm in the Archipelago, 1892, a truly wild seascape or Blizzard, 1892, where the fierce greyness of the sky is matched by the fierce greyness of the sea below. Yet Strindberg could also paint the low islands around Stockholm as calm, smooth, scraped and sculpted rocks as In the Archipelago, 1892.

Perhaps his finest storm scenes are The Wave V, The Wave VII, and The Wave VIII of 1901. The clouds fall and the sea rises until the sky and indeed the breakers are squeezed into a thin horizontal line between vertical clouds and a vertical sea. Close up the sea is a dark olivine green. Step back and it is black. He has used the same pattern in The Town, 1903. A thin glowing line of buildings and a golden dome catch the sun between two dark storms of sea and sky. It is Stockholm turned into Venice.

There is no direct sign of psychological disturbance in his storms. Why shouldn't storms feel like that ? It is only the coincidence of depressed or psychotic periods in Strindberg's life with the creation of these pictures that suggests it.

The only seriously odd phenomenon is his renaming of Storm in the Archipelago, 1892 as The Flying Dutchman because he thought he could see a spectral ship in the cloud he had painted. The outside observer can't see it and Strindberg did not put it there. Strindberg believed in the role of chance in artistic creation. It is a belief that is probably true but so what? Does it enhance our understanding or his creativity to know this? Why not let chance intrude as it will and then decide whether or not to erase it? But do not imagine that chance has inserted on the stair a Hollander who isn't there.

Sometimes the calm and the frenzy are combined by Strindberg in paintings that are calm above and in a suppressed frenzy below as in The Lighthouse II and The Lighthouse III, 1901. A simple white tower is set against a calm sea. Strindberg said he was happy when he painted the lighthouse but beneath the tower the land looks like a fought-over slice of Flanders in World War One or the Brighton rubbish dump (now the amenity site) where films about that war were made. I once saw two men in morning dress, wearing grey top hats, a groom and his best man waiting for the final hour, walking round the perimeter of Brighton's place of churned garbage. Strindberg would have loved that scene.

Often his serene paintings show the lonely land slipping into a calm sea but with a small isolated plant, precisely drawn by the botanically observant Strindberg in the foreground. It is usually a lone weed, a venomous fungus or a thistle, the symbol of prickly people, indeed of one famously prickly people. What do they mean in relation to Strindberg? Are they the man himself or his twin vices of misogyny and socialism?

The last section of the exhibition concerns Strindberg's alchemy and photography which demonstrate the huge gap between scientific and artistic understanding. At a purely descriptive level Strindberg knew his plants and his rocks; he knew what they looked like and what they were called. When the wind was southerly he could tell a granite from a diorite and his paintings sometimes draw their torment from the shape of crushed and twisted metamorphic rocks. However, it is doubtful whether he had any analytical understanding of science whatsoever. Strindberg had of course failed the entrance examination in Chemistry at the University of Uppsala in 1867. It shows. The only consequence of his silly experiments was that his skin disorder was considerably exacerbated by the corrosive chemicals with which he dabbled.

It would be pointless to defend Strindberg on the grounds that earlier eminent folk such as Sir Isaac Newton, master of the mint, or Dr Samuel Johnson were also alchemists. In their day little was known about chemistry, so while it might have been odd to go in for alchemy, it was not downright irrational. However, by Strindberg's time chemistry was much advanced. After the discoveries of Mendeleev and Sweden's Svante August Arrhenius, alchemy was obviously nonsense but Strindberg, the failed chemist, couldn't see this. By Strindberg's time chemistry was about atoms, molecules and ions and there was no room for the occult.

It is impossible to transmute another element into gold by purely chemical means. Even if you could it would be pointless. Either it would be so expensive, as when gold is produced in a modern atom cracker by non-chemical means, that it could not compete with the mines of the Rand or gold would become so cheap as to leave no profit for the innovating alchemist. Gold is valuable mainly because it is scarce and this was even more true in Strindberg's day. If the price fell no one would want it. Indeed even the news that cheap gold was on the way would cause traders to sell gold, driving the price down even faster. Cheap gold would be good news for arthritis sufferers, industrial gold users and Central European dentists but it would be disastrous for Fort Knox or bangled Hindu women both of whom store gold only for its value. But then Strindberg didn't know any economics either, despite the prominence in his lifetime of Swedish economists, notably Knut Wicksell, founder of the Swedish school.

His photographs fail for similar reasons. Strindberg distrusted the use of lenses in cameras and built a pinhole camera, his Wunderkamera. The results do not justify his choice. Only his photographs of his children, the purpose of his many wives, are memorable and they would have told us more about his childrens' "inner psychology" (Strindberg's obsession) if he had used the right combination of lenses. It seems likely that he needed very long exposure times. If so how did he get the children to sit still for so long? Were they gripped in hidden clamps?

At other times Strindberg would try to capture the stars by exposing photographic plates to the night sky on a moonless night. For all I know it might work in outer space but we live under and in an atmosphere. The resulting blobs are not attractive yet some will call it a great achievement "by chance". You or I can do as well by making mistakes; one occasionally keeps a blurred and blobby print as an objet trouvée but usually it rightly gets thrown away.

Strindberg was very successful in literature of all kinds and in painting but as a experimenter with science he was a complete dolt. It shows how innovation in literature or art is one thing; attaining a greater and deeper scientific understanding is quite another. Either may begin with an intuition or an impulse but what happens next is quite different. The scientist has to ask questions about truth, whose answers in the long run can not be reduced to mere social constructs. We can not say with complete certainty that the chemistry of today is superior to that of Strindberg's time but we can be far more certain that this is the case than we can of most of the everyday certainties we do not question. There are mistakes and reversals but in general there is progress. If you hark back to alchemy or homeopathy then you are a foolish anachronism.

In Strindberg's artistic activities, his crackpot belief systems did not matter, indeed they may have enhanced his creativity by allowing him to innovate in ways peculiar to himself. The test of the success of his artistic experiments is a purely subjective one and one constructed within a social context.

As the curators of the exhibition stress Strindberg was a successful innovator in his painting as in his writing. We have his work in front of us in the exhibition and we have to assess it and respond to it. The curators of the exhibition are to be congratulated on enabling and indeed helping us to do so.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, Transaction, 2004.


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Prof. Davies makes a very important point - how someone can be brilliant in one field, and absolutely hopeless in another. Strindberg undoubtedly was a brilliant writer and a lesser - but still very good - artist - but absolutely mad as a scientist.

It is interesting to note that the opposite phenomenon is also widespread - brilliant scientist who become completely mad when they comment outside of their field.

Posted by: Jane at April 8, 2005 05:27 PM
•••

"""= Quote

"""August Strindberg is Sweden's most famous and talented writer …come

to think of it he is the only one."""

How can you say that Sweden has no other good writers? What about Swedenborg, Linaeus, Stig Dagerman, Astrid Lindgren, and many others? They were different from Strindberg of course, but the first one was a real genius, and discovered and worked with many things about natural science before hes breakdown crisis that trow him on religion. And Swedenborg was at Strindbergs line of knowledge, an unique and great mix of science, mistics, and filosophy, wich is the other face of human knowledge. As we all know, all the humans dream, and they all die, and our great and complete science has yet no great anwswers of "truth" about those facts... And by speaking of that, I think you dont know notting about the real nature of truth! Truth is an unknow Idea, you dont know what is true, as no one knows, but you can determine the word truth as I can, so we come to the agrement that truth must be a mutual agreement, and strindberg wasnt so famous at hes time, but nowdays, many admire hes paitings, and some people read hes books and understand them, and that will probably happen even more in the future. Mostly in Sweden, not just because its hes home country, but because, its the most advanced country in terms of racional mentality in the planet, and yes that is truth and maybe not accepted yet by the mutual knoledge, but as everything else in our past that were advanced, with time will be accepted as a "truth", or as most close from truth as possible.

About hes "mad alchemy", all I can say is that alchemy wasnt hes job, we never had the time or the pacience to become a specialist on that, he did it as a kind of hobby that seemed very intersting to him, and only hes curiosity bring him so far but most people cannot see it. Well he was as good in hes hobby as many chemists wasnt in their real job, and that may obviously cause some jealousy amongst them. Alchemy its notting more that a mix of basic science, and mistic knowledge, of course it could not go so further, but Strindberg tryied it. He wasnt frustrated by not passing a chemistry examination, he just didnt felt like the examination deserved hes efforts to go in, as you can read from hes works.

Strindberg paitings were the most easy work of hes life, he just take hes nature, and put it in the paint, and everyone liked it, why? Because hes ideas are more easy to understand in his paintings then in hes books, besides they also sound pretty to the ignorants eyes.

Strindberg passion for violence, could be explained by his way of view of conflict and spiritual growing, that could be analised at the whole inferno book.

Its very easy to talk bad about a dead man, as he cannot speak for himself, and no one will be able to defend him, since most of hes Ideas were so advanced and complicated, that stayed in his introspective mind. So, I think you should study more of hes works with a more open mind, and not with a critic view, of who is the best one. He was just playing alchemy, he wasnt worried about if some people would smille from him in the future, he was stronger than that, and thats something that science will never build.

About the gold that he tryed to make, well what if instead of making a lot of gold and dropping the prices, we was plaining to do some gold, enought to make himself rich and just keeping the formula to himself, I mean 15 kilos of gold its enought to make a man rich without even changing the prices, specially if no one knows that there is a formula for that. But you couldnt see that...

"""It is impossible to transmute another element into gold by purely
chemical means."""

The only reason why you say it is impossible, its because it was never done before, you dumb!

"""His photographs fail for similar reasons. Strindberg distrusted the use of lenses in cameras and built a pinhole camera, his Wunderkamera. The results do not justify his choice. Only his photographs of his children, the purpose of his many wives, are memorable and they would have told us more about
his childrens' "inner psychology" (Strindberg's obsession) if he had used the right combination of lenses. It seems likely that he needed very long exposure times. If so how did he get the children to sit still for so long? Were they gripped in hidden clamps? """

That is your judgement...

"""We can not say with complete certainty that the chemistry of today is superior to that of Strindberg's time but we can be far more certain that this is the case than we can of most of the everyday certainties we do not question."""

Chemistry that the own Strindberg helped to grow.

"""In Strindberg's artistic activities, his crackpot belief systems did not matter"""

Cracks that you dont understand!

Posted by: Jader Ayub at December 26, 2005 02:49 PM
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