Nude girl sitting

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Marzella, 1909–1910 Photo: Moderna Museet

About the exhibition The Man with the Blue Face

The exhibition ”The Man with the Blue Face” comprises some seventy artworks created between 1900 and 1939. All the artists in the exhibition curiously explored the potential of colour to express character traits and emotions, as well as spiritual and musical qualities. Naturalistic depiction had increasingly lost its appeal and relevance. The prospect of being able to artistically explore once’s inner emotions and convey a more personal experience of reality seemed much more enticing.

Why did he paint himself with a blue face? Or is it in fact green?

The Danish modernist Harald Giersing looks straight at us, while also seemingly observing himself in a mirror. His turquoise, slightly defiant countenance appears like a mask against the sprouting neck, painted in a contrasting colour. Is it tiredness, frustration and envy that has made Giersing’s visage blue? Or simply the influx of cold light through a nearby window? The painting was created some time in 1926, and in January 1927 Giersing died of pneumonia, a mere forty-six years old. Perhaps the blue-green skin speaks of his deteriorating health, and of the frigid temperatures in his studio?

Painting of man with blue face
Harald Giersing, Self-portrait, 1926 Photo: Prallan Allsten/Moderna Museet

Colour became a bearer of meaning

Harald Giersing’s self-portrait has inspired the title of the presentation of the collection: ”The Man with the Blue Face”. No matter how the artist’s face is interpreted by the viewer, the painting shows how colour was used by artists at the time, to make visible emotional and sensory dimensions of existence. In the first decades of the twentieth century, colour increasingly became a bearer of meaning. More and more often, it manifested the presence of something that the eye couldn’t necessarily perceive as part of an external reality, but that was nevertheless vital for the inner experience.

A more personal experience of reality

The exhibition comprises some seventy artworks created between 1900 and 1939 reflecting a dynamic revival within art, in particular painting. All the artists in the exhibition curiously explored the potential of colour – as well as line and composition – to express character traits and emotions, as well as spiritual and musical qualities. Naturalistic depiction had increasingly lost its appeal and relevance. The prospect of being able to artistically explore once’s inner emotions and convey a more personal experience of reality seemed much more enticing. Worth noting is also how the role of art went through a radical transformation at the time. While earlier generations had, in different ways, asserted the educative and identity-creating functions of art, twentieth century modernist circles assigned it a distinct intrinsic value for the first time – l’art pour l’art.

The cities seethed with creativity and experimentation

The traditional art institutions in Europe could not or would not respond to this generation of artists urging for change. As a result, many aspiring painters and sculptors broke off their academic studies and sought inspiration elsewhere. Paris, which positively seethed with creativity and experimentation was most attractive, while cities such as Berlin, Florence, Dresden and Munich also became important artistic hubs and cultural centres.

Several of the Nordic artists were inspired by Fauvism’s[1] figurehead Henri Matisse, who ran an alternative academy in the French capital for a number of years. Amongst his students were Isaac Grünewald and Sigrid Hjertén, both of whom became ardent advocates for the expressionist movement back in Stockholm. Their contemporary Tora Vega Holmström, who was mainly based in Skåne, moved in different, yet like-minded, artistic circles. While also influenced by the cultural treasures and radical academies of Paris, Tora Vega Holmstrom experienced her most formative years at Adolf Hölzel’s painting school in Dachau, near Munich.

Two laying women in aroom
Henri Matisse, Deux odalisques dont l'une dévetue fond ornemental et damier, 1928 © Succession H Matisse/Image copyright 2021. Photo: Moderna Museet Bildupphovsrätt 2021
Painting with two females sitting close to each other
Sigrid Hjertén, The brunette and the blond, 1911 Photo: Sundsvalls museum Bildupphovsrätt 2021

A need for a new art for a new era

To strengthen the representation of female artists, this presentation of the collection has been complemented with a few valuable loans from Malmö Art Museum and Sundsvall’s Museum. The overall selection moves in an expressionist direction and reflects a painterly movement that was largely inspired by three artists of the preceding generation: Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. This movement grew in part out of a need for a new art for a new era. Industrialisation had wrought major social transformation and increasing urbanisation brought with it a faster pace and a new flow of visual stimuli.

In response to this radical change, the modernist-minded artists wanted to find a more strident idiom, which they hoped could more easily reach and communicate with the busy city dweller. At the same time, many of the artists also felt the urge to return to something primal and closer to nature, to something they perceived as genuine and “primitive”, in a positive sense. This striving often merged with a fascination for other cultures and artistic expressions.

Art objects and cultural artefacts from different parts of the African continent and Oceania inspired European artists in their abundance of colours, patterns and stylisation. Having been made more widely accessible through colonial conquests, this art also stimulated fantasies of the Other, as well as of a life beyond the bourgeoise norms of Western society.

The human being, creativity and sexuality

In this search for an expressive art for the modern age, the feminine archetypes of mother and temptress continued to fascinate, while women’s suffrage added a third position, that of woman as political subject. The work of leading thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud fuelled discussions about gender roles and morality, and contributed towards a deeper and broader interest in the human being, creativity and sexuality.

Landscape with road, houses and mountains
Karin Parrow, Långedrag, 1937 © Karin Parrow/Image copyright 2021 Photo: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet Bildupphovsrätt 2021

Mythological and biblical motifs

As we see in ”The Man with the Blue Face”, the painterly emancipation of early modernism also had a spiritual and musical dimension. Towards the end of the exhibition, a polyphony arises between lyrical colourists like Karin Parrow, Inge Schiöler and Åke Göransson on the one hand, and the leading figure of the German Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter[2] – Wassily Kandinsky – on the other. Colour has a given intrinsic value in the work of these artists. It can appear as tones in an exulted interplay and open up perceptual doors onto something beyond reality as we know it.

In this more spiritual and musical part of the exhibition, several mythological and biblical motifs occur, which, more than illustrating legends or beliefs, seem to explore existential experiences and a freer form of spirituality. Here we also see a distinct leaning towards increased abstraction, although ”The Man with the Blue Face” is still firmly rooted in the representational world.


[1] Fauvism was a French expressionist movement within painting in the early 1900s, characterised by the emancipation of colour and form. The term Fauvism came from the art critic Louis Vauxcelle using the word fauves (“wild beasts”) to describe paintings by Henri Matisse and the group around him at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1905.

[2] Der Blaue Reiter was formed in Munich in 1911 as a loose group of painters led by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. The artists had a shared interest in abstraction and prismatic colour, which they believed had spiritual values and the ability to counteract the materialism of their times. The name Der Blaue Reiter (“The Blue Rider”) refers to a key motif in Kandinsky’s work: the horse and rider, which for him was a symbol for going beyond realistic representation. Horses and other animals were also prominent in Marc’s work as symbols of rebirth.

More about this exhibition