Curator Historical International Art Dr Mark Stocker explores the sensational prints of Swedish artist Anders Zorn.
Kia ora koutou! Varmt välkomna!
Call me biased, but Sweden has the some of the world’s best cars (Volvo), modernist teak furniture, music (ABBA, who else?), politics (social democracy with a cabinet of 12 men and 12 women), and the ultimate, consummate early modern printmaker, both alphabetically and technically, Anders Zorn (1860–1920).
Napoleon and Mozart
‘Who?’ you may ask. If you did so a century ago, anyone educated would have regarded you piteously. Te Papa has 18 Zorn etchings (including two duplicates) in its collection. In this blog I will look at a selection, as well as at the artist himself. Critics heaped accolades on Zorn in his lifetime, with one claiming, ‘He had the talent of a Mozart and the career of a Napoleon’. They weren’t altogether wrong.
Peasant to prince of prints
Zorn’s start in life was not promising, and this makes his ‘self-made’ story all the more remarkable. His origins were humble – he was the illegitimate son of a German brewer and Swedish peasant, and grew up in Dalecarlia (or Dalarna) in central Sweden. And despite the beauties of Stockholm, ‘Venice of the North’, Sweden could never be considered a major artistic centre in the 19th century.
An etching of Mother
Zorn’s mother worked to support him, and only predeceased him by a few months. Mona (the Swedish for ‘Mother’) is his depiction of Grudd Anna Anderscotter. An austere, frontal portrait, her expression is impassive.
Critic Malcolm Salaman noted: ‘As we look at this monumental etching, in which every line tells expressively, we realise a splendid type of peasant woman, who has met all life’s experience with simple dignity and beauty of character’. While this may sound patronising today, it was the last thought on Salaman’s, Zorn’s, or indeed Grudd Anna’s minds.
Anders and Emma
Zorn’s terrific talents at art school in Stockholm got him rapidly noticed, and he made a shrewd marriage in 1885 to the cultured and artistic Emma Lamm, who came from a wealthy Jewish merchant family.
She accompanied Zorn on his international travels – to London, Paris – where he kept a studio – and America where enjoyed superstar status.
Meet Zorn’s mother-in-law, Henriette Lamm, an astute and slightly forbidding character study of an ageing woman sewing. The slightly quirky, cropped pot-plant and the large volumes attest to a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle.
Henriette and Grudd Anna would have had little in common, but Zorn straddled both their worlds with ease and appreciated them for what they were.
Bigger than Rembrandt
While Zorn is best-known for his paintings – and in Sweden is best loved for his Midsummer Dance – his etchings were also hugely popular, partly as they were more affordable, and partly because they are so impressive in their own right.
Actually they weren’t that affordable. In Zorn’s lifetime, coinciding with the height of the so-called Etching Revival, when the medium reached technical and aesthetic heights unparalleled since Rembrandt, they fetched bigger sums than the Dutch master’s originals!
Like tulip fever, the market collapsed in the early 1930s Depression, though Zorn’s prints never quite fell out of favour. Sir John Ilott (1884–1973), Wellington advertising magnate, print collector extraordinary, and philanthropist, shrewdly built up his Zorn collection from this time onward, and donated the lot (current benefactors please note!) to the National Art Gallery, forerunner of Te Papa, between 1952 and 1971.
A prolific printmaker
Back to the prints themselves. Zorn’s made his initial reputation as a draftsman and watercolourist. It was only when he began making oil paintings in a big way during the 1890s that his hitherto relatively tight, fastidious etching style loosened up in turn. He went on to make 288 prints, nearly all of them etchings or etching/drypoint combinations.
What characterises Zorn’s style and what makes his often intimately scaled plates so magical? It is primarily his use of light to convey emotion and motion alike. H.P. Rossiter, Curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, believed ‘Zorn has succeeded better than any of his predecessors in suggesting by layers of lines that evanescence of light and air, which… wrap the body like an invisible cloak’.
Mascha Hagelstam’s ring
These qualities come over brilliantly in A ring. This depicts Mascha, wife of the writer and publisher Wentzel Hagelstam, putting on the barely visible ring of the title: that’s part of the ‘symbolist’ point of the work. Zorn observes her hint of wonderment and absolute concentration.
The etched lines of Mascha’s grandiose, fin-de-siècle headgear, intersecting seemingly casually but knowingly with the darker, probably curtained background, help convey the atmosphere. Evanescent is the word: just two years later the Hagelstams were divorced!
Powerful men, beautiful women
Much of Zorn’s art, whatever the medium, addresses portraiture and the female nude. Powerful men and beautiful women – a cliché, for sure, but it was the social norm of this affluent, ‘gilded’ pre-war era. It’s a characteristic that Zorn shared with his friendly rival and almost exact contemporary, John Singer Sargent.
The straight gaze
But whereas Sargent largely avoided the female (though not the male) nude, Zorn, who was ‘reputed to be quite the womaniser’, revelled in it. Of course, the genre has been problematised by late 20th century feminist art history. But we can’t understand Zorn by denying its existence. And though Ilott’s tastes tended to be relatively cautious and puritanical, his collection contains several prime examples of what have been wittily called Zorn’s ‘excessively healthy nudes’.
Salaman comments in this context: ‘The nude studies on the copper which have won popular favour, and are chiefly desired by collectors, are those of the Swedish girls naturally enjoying the sunshine and the lapping waters’.
Perhaps, though, today’s tastes prefer ‘mood’ to ‘nude’. Take the etching below, depicting a young mother, holding her baby. When you note that Zorn has named her Madonna, suddenly it takes on a new, more psychologically complex meaning.
Zorn is comparing the Swedish peasant mother and child with one of the most important Christian images, the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Zorn has thus raised the importance of an everyday scene to one of religious reverence. From the mother’s headscarf, to the baby’s swaddling, to the glow that makes them emerge from the dark background, the composition echoes historic Madonnas to create what seems like a powerfully religious statement.
What about the father?
It’s even more powerful when we note how unusual it was for Zorn to use religious imagery or meaning in his art. He was anti-clerical – against the influence of clergy on secular life. In a painting that preceded this work, he included the figure of an adult male. He claimed it showed a remorseful mother confronted by her former fiancé. Could there have been an element of autobiography here, given Zorn’s own illegitimacy? Was this too painful, and is that why any hint of the man is now lost in the dark background of the etching?
Billy Mason of Illinois
We’ve considered beautiful women in Zorn. And now for one of the powerful men: Senator Billy Mason. Fêted in America, Zorn portrayed three presidents (Grover Cleveland, William Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt), as well as the less distinguished Mason.
Art historian Professor Hollis Clayson writes of this portrait: ‘the pudgy Senator Mason with hooded eyes is a study in forceful concentration’. She notes the ‘intensity of his oblique gaze, his beefy body and disarranged hair’.
Yet at the same time ‘Zorn has given Mason a steady and statesmanlike mien… Mason’s worn countenance, pursed lips and the upright axis of the head help to build the impression of a deadly serious man concentrating ferociously on behalf, we presume, of his constituency’.
Politics and waistcoats
The reality was less flattering. Mason vainly fought the imperialism of President William McKinley in Cuba and the internationalism of President Woodrow Wilson in entering World War One. He was also the originator of a new style in waistcoat peculiarly adapted to stout people and to hot weather. While not apparent in Zorn’s portrait, the waistcoat is a wonderful, almost abstract wave of the etching needle’s lines.
Two Swedish lutanists
Let’s finish with a pair of musical etchings. Both date from the very end of Zorn’s career and certainly show no waning of his powers. Ols Maria depicts a favourite Dalecarlian model who bears a melancholy expression as she plays her Swedish lute.
Her elderly male complement is Vicke, the artist Wicken Andren, who lustily sings one of the joyous songs of Karl Mikael Bellman, the Robert Burns of Sweden. If its mood is ‘filled with the spirit of song and the joy of singing’, as Salaman claims, perhaps this helped keep at bay the demons that evidently destroyed Zorn at the age of 60: alcoholism, obesity, syphilis, and depression. His fate would have appealed to Henrik Ibsen across the Norwegian border.
Yesterday’s man and his comeback
Zorn surely knew that he was yesterday’s man in 1920. What had led to huge popularity in the ‘gilded age’, now brought a savage modernist backlash. Thus, like Sargent, Zorn was absurdly underrated in the mid-20th century, only to recover considerably, with major exhibitions in San Francisco (2013) and Paris (2017) in recent years.
Hollis Clayson now speaks of the ‘suppleness and flexibility of Zorn’s superb work’, while local printmaking specialist, Professor David Bell, says this:
‘Zorn’s skill in guiding his stylus through the resistant copperplate surface was extraordinary. His gestural élan captured the intense gaze and thoughtful moods of his portrait subjects, the chilly atmosphere and glistening light of his landscapes, the ink-darkness of interiors, and the soft fecundity of flesh with an astonishing sensitivity and vigour. His subjects breathe through the passage of his hand’.