Volume 1 Number 15
Artists of Dissent
01 December 1988
You will see a wall filled with light and colour, the pattern resolving into the vast hand of God giving to humanity the gift of himself.
By EVA VEJDE AND AILSA HAMILTON
If you want to see one of the largest stained-glass windows in Europe, travel 1,000 kilometres up Norway's coastline to the Arctic Circle, then another 400 kilometres to the city of Tromso, go into the `Arctic Cathedral' and look towards its east end. You will see a wall filled with light and colour, the pattern resolving into the vast hand of God giving to humanity the gift of himself. This window - 145 square metres with its highest point 23 metres above the ground - was created by the Norwegian artist Victor Sparre in 1972.
A maker of stained-glass windows up and down Norway, as well as in the Norwegian Church in Tel Aviv, Sparre uses French glass known dalle de verre, which comes in deep strong colours in inch-thick slabs, cooled on a bed of sand so that one side has a slightly uneven surface, making it reflective as well as translucent. When asked how he shapes such formidable material, he replies, `I don't. I use the hammer and chisel, but I let the glass shape itself.' With mirrors laid below long rectangular frames, he places the glass wrong side up, shape by shape, colour by colour, letting the pattern grow until it has absorbed its allotted space. Then concrete is poured between the shapes, the whole vast section is allowed to set, and it is laid carefully aside while its neighbour is created. Not until all the sections are raised into place in the actual window space, using heavy lifting machinery, does Sparre see what he has made.
Sparre is one of a number of workers in paint, stone, glass and textiles throughout the Nordic North who have deliberately avoided following any trend.
Instead their work arises from their own belief in a moral and spiritual reality. They cannot be called a school - their styles, materials and attitudes are too diverse for that. But they have in common a profound faith and fighting spirit, worked out in their everyday lives and relationships, and a deep awareness of the nature of our time and the direction we are going in.
A giant among these artists was the Finnish painter Lennart Segestraale, who believed in `art for man's sake'. 'The art of the future', he once said, `must be dangerous to evil.' His works hang in the Uffizi Gallery, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert, the New York State Museum, in the Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish National Museums and in galleries in Prague and Riga. Another was - Waldemar Lorcntzon, a founder of the Halmstad Group which brought surrealism from Paris to Sweden in the late 1920s. His work centred on the portrayal of healed relationships and the human search for wholeness.
The present generation - among them Sparre himself, the Swedish painter Kerstin Raaf, the Swedish textile artist Gerd Ekdahl, the Norwegian painter Signe Strong, the Norwegian textile artist Molle-Cecilie Majorhave each in their own way carried on a search for the connection between art and what happens in the human soul and society. Nordic culture is uniquely attuned to the meaning of the visual -a gift not always understood in the more verbal lands to the south. These artists have sought to express their understanding of the purpose of human existence through their works as well as through the pattern of their personal lives. The `effect' of art is a debatable point. But if it is true that the artist both foresees and creates the future path of humanity, then these painters and weavers have been opening up the possibility of a transformed set of relationships between man and his Creator, and man and his brother and sister.
Sparre describes artistic creation as `an act of faith. Every artist has some sort of faith. It can be a faith in the importance of his own self-fulfilment, or it can be affection for an unknown spiritual force that drives him. I have called this force God.' He said, at one stage of his development, `I express my faith in my stained-glass windows and my doubts in my paintings.'
His paintings have indeed portrayed anger, loneliness, violence. Perhaps in spite of himself, the compassion which creates life in another person's spirit is present in all these works. The anger stirred by the brutality of a butcher's shop, where faceless men hack faceless bodies, is a righteous anger against humanity's violence to itself; the desperation of dead tulips drooping in their vase is the desperation of the forgotten soul, which looks at the painting and knows it is not forgotten by the painter; the aloneness of a woman waiting on an island for winter to melt transforms loneliness into expectation.
Sparre grew up during the years of the Nazi occupation of Norway. His parents passed on to him their love of freedom, of literature and of art. A book on the work of the artist Edvard Munch, a gift from his father, was a decisive influence. At the age of 17, by then an art student, he decided to give his life to God. He joined the underground resistance to the Nazis, and then at the war's end had a meteoric rise to artistic success. His beliefs soon brought him into conflict with contemporary social trends, and again he had to make a crucial decision: that the most important thing for him was `to serve God, not to become a great artist'. Since then he has made his mark both as an artist and as a man of convictions, never a comfortable or predictable personality but as vital as leaven in the lump or salt in the porridge. He was born Victor Smith, and when he reached his 50th birthday, which was unusual for the men in his family, who inherit a heart condition, he celebrated by growing a beard and changing his name to Sparre - in memory of his maternal grandfather, an unfashionably progressive politician.
In recent years Sparre has stretched a hand of brotherhood to his fellow northerners, the Soviet dissidents. It was the film of the making of his `Arctic Cathedral' window, shown in the Moscow Film Festival of 1973, which made the link. Dissidents saw it and said, `That man understands our hearts.' He has visited the Soviet Union, and with other Norwegian artists prepared a possible home for the Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, many months before he was exiled. His paintings of the sufferings and resurrection of Mother Russia have permeated his exhibitions in recent years.
Now his daughter has recently married, and the studio is dominated by a painting of women's preoccupation with so cosmic an event. He has for long understood that women are essential to the shaping of society, and says that the deformation of Nazism would not have taken hold if women had made their presence felt in the handling of power at that time.
Sparre uses his art to express what he believes in; at the same time, he states a belief that art should not be used for a cause, it is itself a truth. `I paint what comes to me without correcting it by the rules of art,' he says. `My pictures are about things which have interested me in life the religious mysteries, the joy and love of beauty. Human beings are masters on earth. We are neither angels nor devils, but something in between. A human being is a universe containing great contradictions of good and evil. Through reconciliation with God, every one of us could change the world - our universe would be changed.'
Dissidents are not only to be found in totalitarian societies. They have their necessary place also in the affluent liberal milieu which takes for granted that acquiring possessions and gratifying passions are the prime human occupations. Gerd Ekdahl knows what it is to go against this tide. She weaves in the traditional French Gobelin manner. Yet her style is far from traditional and her themes are eternal.
Her woven pictures portray resurrected life bursting through the concrete of cynicism, the springtime that flourishes in the graveyard, the unique and precious arrival of a new soul on earth, man listening to green growing things and thereby hearing his maker. For many years she stood alone in portraying these themes. Her friends and colleagues had other values and other priorities, and she suffered from the Nordic weapon against dissidents - ridicule. She was told that faith was old-fashioned, that spiritual life was not credible, that the reality of our time was a material reality. She has persisted with her own style and her own inner truth. She has won scholarships and prizes for the quality of her work. Above all, she has won the respect and affection of colleagues who turn to her for help with their personal dilemmas and stressful relationships, who count on her to live by the costly truths she believes in and to speak them aloud when they are needed.
Gerd Ekdahl was born in Gothenburg, and studied there at the Slojdforeningen and Valand art colleges. Her tapestries, prints and screens hang in many public buildings, and at her exhibitions she likes to hang her poems beside her visual work - giving the viewer the impression of so rich a fount of ideas that no one medium can contain them all. She was married at 17 and now, in her mid-forties, is a grandmother. Her husband Hasse is a powerful painter in oils.
She has passed lately through a period of change. `I have had a time of non-creativeness,' she says, `a time when I mainly worked with old ideas, because my first commitment was to answer the needs which were evident in the people around me. That took my inner strength. Now the need which my family and friends had of me has diminished, and there is time again to give priority to creation.
`There was a period when I wanted to communicate something, something which grew from the tension of meeting with people and with concrete situations which meant that good theories had to be turned into real life. But now I have come to a new phase. In my paintings and weaving I don't want to usemy old symbols. I want to find something in colour itself. This takes courage.
`The decisive factor in life, to my mind, is moral courage. I would like to be able to give that greater play than my talent. Moral courage means having the will to confront one's own life with the absolute norms which are necessary to create a moral world. A renaissance in the world of art and culture goes hand in hand with ceasing to be afraid of what may cause pain, ceasing to be afraid of being honest, of seeing things as they are.'
Kerstin Raaf is an older artist who moves with the swiftness of a young girl, who paints pictures to tell you about the beauty of a spring morning in a park in Stockholm, full of small white flowers that speak of purity and of the power of life to survive pollution. `I find it hard to express my faith with words, that's why I do it in paintings,' she says. The great Swedish scientist Linne, the founder of modern botany, used to go for walks in the fields and forests, where he said he could feel God at his back. Like him, Kerstin Raaf feels God in the simplicities of everyday life. She paints things like windows through a thin veil of fog, a piece of furniture made of old wood, a ship serene in the water.
She grew up in the Swedish countryside, in a castle which had been her family's home for generations. Then she moved to Paris, where her mother married the brother of the architect Le Corbusier. She studied painting with Fernand Leger, going through a hard and intellectual artistic schooling. Then for many years she put her painting aside to take an active part in the campaigns of Moral ReArmament for the primacy of spiritual values in the social structure. The contrasts in her upbringing, her artistic training and her working life have now merged in paintings which are clear in form, clean in colour, and represent a dream of a non-polluted creation made by a compassionate Creator.
One of her paintings represents trees, trees that together make a forest. They are like people, they seem to talk to each other - a conversation held by nature. `Nature lives, develops, moves. The energy of development and growth is enormous. I cut some branches outside my window, and almost immediately there were others. They stretch upwards, towards the sun, towards the light.' She adds, after a pause, `Sky and earth are one. Naturally I want to paint it that way.'
Molle-Cecilie Major paints with textiles, using clear glowing colours from dyes which she makes herself, working with wool, silk, copper wire, birch twigs, hen-coop fencing- anything which allows her to express her imagination. She has a sturdy touch with the earth, taking the look of roots, the colours of lichen, the textures of bark, the play of light on leaves, and transforming them into compositions and designs `which in their expression and colour have clarity and purity, and which can give joy to people'. A simple enough aim but, as she says, `It is what you have in your heart that is expressed in what you create.'
She and her husband Svend put care for people top on their listof priorities. She says this is one thing which has helped her to live out the faith she tries to express through her work. `If you're interested in people, it's not difficult; if you're only interested in yourself, it's much tougher.'
They built an elegant but simple home away from the tensions of money- and reputation making. There Molle-Cecilie Major has created weavings which she has exhibited throughout Scandinavia, in Poland, Belgium, Spain, Mexico and the US. This small woman in her quiet home has produced large works for schools, offices, ships, churches and hotels. Two of her tapestries hang in the chapter house of Wells Cathedral. Each one receives individual thought, not only in relation to its physical setting but also for the atmosphere it is intended to create. As she says, `Tapestries take a long time to make!'
Signe Strong has the same kinship with the natural world. She lives in the middle of the woods. She can do without cities and their nervousness. Amid the forests of Varmland, in the west of Sweden, she can breathe. She gets her inspiration from the silence, from communication in the silence with God and with people who trust in him. `We are all artists,' she says, `as we let inspiration take us forward. Searching for God's guidance, listening to what is pure and true - that to me is life. And it is a way into the civilization of the heart, where people are not put aside. We who have experienced that something happens when we listen have a treasure to pass on to others.'
A Norwegian married to an Englishman, Signe Strong has travelled all her life. She was born north of the Arctic Circle, in wild mountain country where her father was an engineer on a copper mine. Hard economic times forced them to move to Sweden, where she studied art at the Konstskolan in Stockholm. She was then in Berlin in 1935 and 1936, studying at the Reimannschule. She says she did not understand the significance of their forced attendance at rallies where Hitler was speaking, the disappearance one year of all their Jewish teachers, the phalanxes of young marchers; but it was enough to send her back to Sweden, where she eventually found a job with a publisher. From there she went to America, where she and her future husband, a skilled professional photographer, worked together for several years on publications calling for the moral and spiritual regeneration of the democracies, before they were married in Switzerland in 1946. They live now with their daughter and her family in Arvika.
She feels an affinity with Japanese artists. `They immerse themselves in the spirit of what they are going to paint. They live with it. It is not an activity but an absorption, until the moment that it takes form and can be put on paper. Our Western society worships the artist and not the message. We have lost sight of art as a means of communication - it is becoming a status symbol instead of a spiritual language. If we do not alter our attitude to art, we shall never change our society from a fundamentally pragmatic one, where in order to make money we produce material things whether we need them or not, into a spiritually growing society, where care of people is the primary concern. For some reason no one can explain, to see others develop is the deepest satisfaction.'
At her exhibitions, people tend to say to Signe Strong things like, `It must be a wonderful thing to paint.' `It's not a relaxation for me,' she says, `it's a battle. As a young artist, I had an extraordinary experience. I felt that I was in the presence of God, and that he said to me, "You need to become an artist with people." From that moment I could not paint, and for 20 years I remained without the gift. Then, just as suddenly, it came back to me.
`Art is one of God's lines of communication between us and him. Without art civilisation dies. I paint because God needs all the media to develop the spiritual side of man. A sense of beauty is the beginning of spiritual development - small things explode inside you as you let yourself be invaded by them.'
In the north of Europe there are summers of nights without darkness. There are also winters of days without light. As winter comes, people go into the darkness as into a tunnel. Nobody dares to hope for the spring. These artists may be there to tell us that we are not alone, that in the middle of the dark we will find light, that in the utmost remoteness of the universe there will be a voice that answers when we seek help.
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