Inside the Art Market: Amateurs

Strindberg, who had enjoyed painting since university, had already exhibited his paintings the year before in Sweden to critical incomprehension: one critic likened a canvas to dirty bed sheets hung out to dry.

—Sue Prideaux, Strindberg: A Life

August is a magical time for visiting Stockholm, as the weather is warm and the skies remain light and lyrical until midnight and beyond. Seeking a rustic experience to begin our holiday back in 2016, my daughter Gillian and I spent our first night at a yellow-wooden hotel on the city’s forested outskirts, where the lodgings seemed an elegant throwback to 19th century Swedish country living. It was the perfect transition from the swelter of New York in summer.

On Saturday morning we had breakfast on the hotel’s canopied veranda and admired an array of 1950s and 1960s Volvos on the broad back lawn, their proud owners circulating about, dispensing compliments and admiring the spare, un-luxurious old Volvo interiors. One of the cars reminded me of a spring vacation trip I took in March 1968, a 24-hour drive from Massachusetts to Florida with three classmates in a similar, indestructible, ever-reliable Volvo 122 Coupe.

From the veranda we could also glimpse a flotilla of vintage teak and mahogany speedboats and motor yachts moored along the curvature of the lake. And so after breakfast we walked out to the docks, snapping photographs and enjoying the festival-like atmosphere of a late summer weekend that seemed bursting with gaiety and Swedish period style.

The sunlight was almost blinding, which revealed Sweden to me in an altogether new light. For my most vivid images of the country up to that day had come from the crime novels of Henning Mankell—where the sun in Sweden seems almost never to shine.

These bleak and violent stories—The Dogs of Riga, Firewall, The White Lioness, among many others—follow the exploits of the brooding and haunted detective Kurt Wallander in the town of Ystad, far away from the soothing cultural enlightenments of Stockholm. The novels are immensely thrilling, filled with dark psychological twists and often-shocking plot developments. Above all they evoke images of bitterly cold winters, menacing woods and dark Swedish mayhem under skies that seem forever stormy and threatening.

But standing near those sleek mahogany boats in bright sunlight on our first full day in Sweden, I realized that a Henning Mankell crime novel is perhaps not the best guidebook for a serene summer journey to Stockholm in search of sightseeing, museum-going and overall conviviality.

Later in the day we taxied into the city and settled into our hotel on the Stockholm waterfront, opposite the Royal Palace and Old Town. In August it was a lively and joyous locale, for here was an endless line of ferries along the docks loading up passengers for journeys to villages, island encampments and remote cottages throughout the Stockholm Archipelago. I had never seen anything quite like it, as the whole scene unfolded with a sort of rush-hour precision amidst carefree and casual holiday spirits.

In another part of Stockholm, the cruise ships arrive each day and disembark jaded day-trippers in search of t-shirts and trinkets before moving on to another port and more low-impact sightseeing. We were thus happy to skirt that part of town. After all, the venerable old Nationalmuseum of Blasieholmen was practically next door to our hotel, and we were eager to visit it as soon as possible.

But it was closed! The site was boarded up and construction was in full swing behind fences. The museum would not be reopening from its massive five-year restoration and expansion until the fall of 2018. But highlights from the collection were traveling to New York and would be on view at the Morgan Library. We could visit the Nationalmuseum there!

This was a minor setback, though, for there was much to see of Swedish paintings and furniture, architecture, decoration and design during our stay. We thus planned daily walks all over Stockholm, taking us through lush parks, along the waterfront and through enchanting old neighborhoods. We even planned a cruise through the waterways of Lake Malaren to visit Drottningholm Palace, the 16th century residence of the Swedish royal family.

On our initial walks I was intrigued by all the antique shops in Stockholm. Smartly displayed in storefront windows were old-fashioned furnishings like 19th century gold mantel clocks and mahogany Swedish furniture, Chinese export porcelain, silver coffee pots, oriental carpets and tapestries. Of course, antique shops such as these seem largely to have vanished in major cities throughout the United States, so it was reassuring to see so many here, looking prosperous and long-established.

The shops were all closed for the day, which was a disappointment. Yet I wanted to remember their plush interiors, and so I shot photographs of them through the windows, with the shadows and reflections adding a tone of eeriness to each image, as if foreshadowing uncertainty as to how much longer these shops might survive in the currently faddish, ever-changing art market.

Nearby was Bukowski’s, the leading Swedish auction house, which does a lively trade in all manner of fine and decorative art. I was keen to pop in for a look around, for I had seen the firm’s advertisements in the trades and knew of them by reputation. But as it was late summer, when auction houses everywhere take a brief respite from the long, wearying season of exhibitions and sales, the building was closed, the employees scattered.

Not surprisingly, Bukowski’s is prominent in Scandinavian modernism, a robust field of collecting growing ever more popular, offering up sleek and austere pieces that seem ideally to complement that other booming field of collecting—Contemporary art.

It is perhaps a cliché these days that older collectors in the art market generally prefer 18th and 19th century furniture—gilded French commodes, for example, or American Colonial kneehole desks—to anything modern. Such traditional pieces are perhaps more in harmony with the paintings often preferred by these collectors—Old Masters, Impressionists, British watercolors, Hudson River School oils and so forth. For these collectors, clutter and opulence are mostly a desired decorating scheme. And as they probably like researching their preferred fields of collecting and learning as much as they can, they also collect books in abundance, as these go especially well in period decors.

Younger collectors, on the other hand, want simplicity, period. They seem to despair of adornment and embellishment, seeking a pared-down, minimalist look in their residences. The artwork they collect thus has to have visual boldness and make an immediate impact on viewers. A Warhol silkscreen of Elizabeth Taylor or the death chamber at San Quentin will fit the bill perfectly, something that leaps out at you and is immediately recognizable as expensive name-brand Contemporary art.

Hence the perfect furniture to complement such artwork for these collectors would be modernist pieces by George Nakashima or Wendell Castle, say, or just about anything from Scandinavia. Books don’t figure much in such interior decorating schemes, except maybe for oversized coffee-table tomes from trendy art publishers like Taschen, which are really just props. Some collectors even like filling whole bookshelves with sleek leather bindings, preferably all in white and with nothing inside, as if conveying the sensation of learning about art through “books.”

In this regard perhaps one might summarize the mantra of the current art market thus: out with the old, in with the new!

But I was on holiday in Stockholm and far away from the art market, and I had no interest in being reminded of its wearying trends and obsessions. What I really wanted to do was to learn more about Swedish painting.

For here is a field of collecting barely known outside of Sweden but one surprisingly modern. And while private dealers in this trade seem to have disappeared, the auction houses still offer an array of Swedish pictures during the yearly season. These are usually folded into a catch-all theme sale of 19th century European paintings, along with genres like Victorian, Belle Époque and Orientalist art. Sotheby’s has even been so bold as to offer stand-alone sales in London of Scandinavian art, as if appealing directly to buyers of Scandinavian furniture. These sales usually include works by the most prominent Swedish painters of the last century or so.

However, the real star of these sales is not Swedish but Danish: Vilhelm Hammershøi. His paintings are immediately recognizable for their depictions of stark interiors, of whitewashed rooms with one or two sticks of furniture. A lady may be painted into the scene, but she is likely to be glimpsed only in profile, or perhaps with her back to the viewer, thus heightening the sense of mystery. As no doubt intended by the artist, the viewer feels enveloped in an aura of melancholy and complete silence, as if some tragic news is about to be delivered to shatter the silence of the rooms.

But the sun was shining in Stockholm and there was no cause for melancholy. And so after having a long amble through the downtown, Gillian and I were ready to strike out for other parts of the city in search of gardens, parks and small museums. We found the perfect combination on Djurgården, a small tropical island near the waterfront. On this lush oasis in the heart of Stockholm sits the former estate of Prince Eugen, Duke of Narke (1865-1947).

While his father had been the King of Sweden and Norway and thus he stood fourth in line to the throne, Prince Eugen was indifferent to palace life and seems to have had a Bohemian streak, far more interested in artistic pursuits than royal ribbon-cutting. And so, after studying in the studios of Paris, receiving his university degree in art history at Uppsala, and then serving as an officer in the army, the Prince settled down to life as a landscape painter. Though prolific and highly talented, he had no interest (and surely no need) in selling anything. Some of his paintings would thus be auctioned for charity from time to time, while others were donated to museums. The rest wound up here at Waldemarsudde, Prince Eugen’s estate on Djurgården.

The house is large and flooded with sunlight, with gorgeous views of the grounds and the surrounding waterways. The many rooms, colorful and spacious but also informal, with elegant period furnishings and paintings covering the walls, seemed designed for the salon-like entertainment of art connoisseurs like the Prince. On the third floor of the house was the Prince’s vast studio, now an exhibition space. We walked from room-to-room entranced by the glorious survey of Scandinavian art in the many works by Anders Zorn, Carl Larsson and other well-known artists.

But it was Prince Eugen who was the star! For here were moody and lush oil paintings by him of sailboats and steamships passing through the Archipelago, of wooded scenes in Sweden and Norway, even cloud studies. I was so captivated that I bought several postcards of my favorite works to remind me of the Prince’s shimmering, poetic landscapes.

On view at the time of our visit was a summer exhibition of highlights from the Prince’s vast, encyclopedic personal collection of paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, applied art, icons, miniatures, medals, embroidery and mosaics—numbering 7,000 items in all. Works by Pablo Picasso, Aristide Maillol and Robert Delaunay on view in the studio gave one a glimpse of the Prince’s impressive circle of acquaintances during his sojourns in Paris.

Adding to the homey and welcoming atmosphere of the house were the many helpful and engaging placards in English displayed on the walls. These provided a narrative backstory to the Prince’s long, colorful and distinctly charmed life. To lend further nuance to this story was a grainy old silent film being screened in one of the rooms that recorded a royal gathering here at Waldemarsudde back in the 1930s. I sat riveted watching the tableau of titled aristocrats in fancy dress arriving at the Prince’s house for a lavish luncheon, then walking about the gardens, the children at play, before being whisked away in their long black limousines.

In the dining room, further enhancing the princely mise-en-scene, was a dining table with fresh flowers set for a typical “summer luncheon for female friends” hosted by Prince Eugen, a sumptuous meal that would have ended with fresh strawberries from the Waldermarsudde gardens. The hand-written menu on display was taken, we learn, from the various record books kept by longtime valet Eric Ericson, who chronicled the Prince’s many parties over the years. The table was so inviting I wished to be seated straightaway with a glass of cooling Sancerre.

The whole experience of Waldermarsudde was like a stirring cyclorama! Here indeed was the Swedish cultural and art-viewing experience we had been hoping to find on learning that the Nationalmuseum was closed. The Prince’s house was thus more than we could have hoped for, and it came as a complete and joyous surprise. But the greatest discovery here was yet to come.

For in wandering into the Prince’s red-walled library I was struck by a bronze sculpture whose subject I immediately recognized. Indeed, I had read too many biographies of this man, with his ever-scowling and almost deranged visage, not to know who he was.

It was August Strindberg (1849-1912), the polymath Swede known for his plays but also for his novels, poetry, scientific essays and—not least—his paintings. He clearly must have been an inspiration to Prince Eugen, surely not for his erratic and combative personal behavior throughout his life but because of his talent as an artist. He was, after all, a Swedish national treasure.

One might even go so far as to say that Strindberg is the most famous and acclaimed Swedish painter of all time. This achievement is more remarkable for his meager output, for he only produced about 100 works, nearly all of them brooding and menacing—scenes of lowering skies, dark landscapes, lyrical but disturbing fantasies and above all stormy, raging seas. They seem perfectly to capture Strindberg’s frequent state of mind, notably during his so-called Inferno period.

When these paintings appear for sale at auction, as they occasionally do, they are treated as rarities, and they command huge prices.

To cite an example, a smallish oil on board entitled Alpine Landscape I appeared in a Scandinavian Sale at Sotheby’s London in October of 2007 and brought a stunning $4,175,648. Here was a price worthy of one of those exalted evening Impressionist sales at the major auction houses! It is thus no exaggeration to say that August Strindberg has become a rock star of the international art market.

How did this ever happen?

After all, Strindberg seemed only to paint during periods of extreme stress and depression, especially when he was broke, had marital problems and was being hounded by his creditors. He earned his living principally as a novelist and playwright (Master Olof, Miss Julie) and is hailed as the father of modern Swedish literature. As for his role as a painter, it is safe to say that most people in the art market don’t even know his name and couldn’t tell you a thing about his paintings, let alone his plays.

But Strindberg was no dabbler. He had started his career as an art critic, lived for a time in Paris and had a studio there, knew many artists, such as Munch and Gauguin, and was recognized for having a profound painterly sensibility. He greatly admired Turner, knew all about the Impressionists, was a relentless experimenter and seemed to understand well the treacheries of the art market. Many of his works wound up in private collections and museums.

Still, one has to wonder: how did Strindberg’s paintings reach the top tier of the art market?

This was perhaps the central, vexing and unanswered question that arose in 2004 when the Tate Modern mounted in London a major exhibition of over sixty paintings and photographs by Strindberg. Here was big-time, mainstream endorsement by the art establishment of a painter almost unknown in England, let alone in America or anywhere other than Scandinavia. And while the exhibition dazzled its visitors, it also rankled the critics.

The exhibition featured not only Strindberg’s paintings but a selection of his daring and story-like photographs, called mystically “celestographs and “photograms”, enabling the Tate to put forward this compelling theme song: that by today’s art market standards August Strindberg was way ahead of his time in style, temperament and attitude. For here was someone extravagantly self-assured and daring, an artist with perhaps just the sort of unhinged, flamboyant, rule-breaking behavior that would have perhaps made him a sensation in today’s art market.

It was an inspired way of introducing Strindberg to the English public. Still, the critics had to take him down a few pegs, for to them Strindberg remained strictly an art-market outsider, crude, self-taught, an amateur. And so, after tossing off a few dizzying comparisons to the work of Barnett Newman and Gerhard Richter to establish a plausible Contemporary art context, the critic for the Guardian delivered this verdict:

. . . his paintings are born out of the most basic technical accomplishments. Small for the most part, clogged, scraped, much-worked, intense, at times botched and misconceived, little more than mucky palette scrapings . . , the product of a complicated personality.

As I stood there in Prince Eugen’s soothing, red-walled library and stared up at the bust of Strindberg, looming like a totem over the house and the grand collection of art arrayed in all of the rooms, I could see how the Prince must have deeply admired Strindberg’s accomplishments as an artist. Of course, he and Strindberg were hardly kindred spirits. The two would have had nothing in common and would never have known each other on a personal or a professional basis.

What they shared, however, was an artistic fate as amateurs. Prince Eugen, of course, had proudly and steadfastly remained one his whole life, staying well above the grubbiness and promotional vanities of the art market and its carping critics. His house was thus a shrine to good taste and quiet, restrained, timeless elegance.

Strindberg, on the other hand, living a far more turbulent and nomadic life, had eagerly sought acclaim as a painter and the financial benefits that might have gone with it, although in vain. He had never thought of himself as an amateur in any field of endeavor, and the disdain of the critics meant nothing to him. He seemed willfully to embrace hardship and calamity.

How ironic then, and perhaps fitting, that a century after his death Strindberg’s paintings—his “mucky palette scrapings”—have the power to command rapt attention in the glittering salerooms of Sotheby’s, Christie’s and, of course, Bukowski’s.

Thinking of Strindberg in all his turbulence seemed to break the spell of calm in Prince Eugen’s villa, and so it was a good time to leave. A short walk through the wooded paths of the Djurgården soon brought us to an organic farmer’s market for lunch. It was just the sort of rustic setting that Gillian and I had so enjoyed on our first day here in Stockholm, with many more such rhapsodic settings to follow.

—Ronald Varney

(Image: August Strindberg, The Flying Dutchman, 1892. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.)