Text by Ylva Hillström och Annika Gunnarsson
Karl Isakson was never really appreciated in Sweden during his lifetime. In Denmark, however, he was discovered early on by the art critic Karl Madsen. Even today, Isakson is far from being well-known to the broader audience here, whereas art students throughout Sweden have studied his paintings meticulously in both theory and practice. Perhaps he was more of an artists’ artist.
How were Karl Isakson’s works perceived by his contemporaries and in the years after his death? What were the reasons behind his adversities and triumphs? Here is a short analysis of some of the factors that may have influenced the reception of Isakson’s paintings.
“Just one more piece of advice: don’t turn to the Count too often. be careful. Especially since a lover of colour should shun advice from this colour-hater. When you give in to the temptation to ask Rosen, go first to the museum and look at his Sphinx. Is it Great Art? Is this constructed, pompous gravity healthy and encouraging? Is this what you need? I hope I don’t ever have to hear an answer to that. I cannot stand any more of your Rosenian Sphinx philosophy – it is nauseating.”
Karl Isakson does not mince his words in his letter warning his sister Ester, who was also a student at the Royal Academy, against the director, Georg von Rosen, and his pompous and sometimes contrived academism. He hated all that was superficial and artful, but loved colour passionately, and strove to be completely absorbed by art.
Early on in life, Karl Isakson showed a great love of drawing and sketching, and after five years of schooling he was apprenticed as a painter. In 1892, he enrolled for evening classes at Tekniska skolan (a school of art, crafts and design) but he was not satisfied with being a decorative painter – he wanted to be an artist. What was perhaps the most interesting and modern education in the field in Sweden, the college run by Konstnärsförbundet, had temporarily closed down its courses just when Isakson wanted to study. Instead, he applied to the more conservative Royal Academy of Fine Art. The situation at the Academy was unsatisfactory for Isakson, and for many others. The Antiques school, where students had to sketch plaster casts of antique sculptures, was especially loathsome. Carl Larsson describes his years at the Academy as “killing time and talent”.
The Academy was governed mainly by the above-mentioned Count Georg von Rosen, director and professor. He put his stamp on several generations of Academy students, with his extremely conservative ideals. For Isakson, the years at the Academy were an ordeal that damaged his nerves. He writes, “I don’t give a shit about Academies, because I was forced to paint in a way that doesn’t agree with me.”
Karl Isakson admired Ernst Josephson’s work and often made visits during his student years to the graphics rooms at the Nationalmuseum to study the older Masters Egron Lundgren, Max Klinger, Arnold Böcklin, Raphael and Rembrandt. On his travels to France and Germany in the early 1900s, the works of Munch and van Gogh were great sources of inspiration. In Denmark he was impressed by the paintings of Hammershøj, among others.
After his studies at the Academy, Karl Isakson travelled to Italy, where he met the Danish painter and teacher Kristian Zahrtman. From 1902 until his death in 1922, he lived mainly in Denmark. When Isakson visited the Brandstrup family in 1903, he painted Höder and Loki, which he wanted to submit to the Academy’s Spring Exhibition, in the hope that it would win him a scholarship. Before he had completed the painting, however, his money ran out, and he wrote to Gustaf Cederström, Carl Larsson and others asking for financial help. Thanks to a letter of recommendation from Carl Larsson, Isakson received support from various patrons and was able to continue working on the painting. It was completed by late May 1904, and sent to Stockholm. It was hung high up near the ceiling where the scholarship committee did not notice it.
In 1909, one of Karl Isakson’s larger self-portraits was exhibited at Den Frie Udstilling in Denmark and was praised by Danish critics. It was purchased for Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen directly after the exhibition. The Swedish broadsheet Svenska Dagbladet’s critic August Brunius wrote that although the portrait was painted by a talented artist it “tended towards the sickly sentimental”. This adds to Isakson’s feeling of not belonging in Sweden.
The Swedish lack of interest in Isakson’s oeuvre becomes even more apparent with a major inventory of Swedish art in Copenhagen in 1916, presenting both giants such as Anders Zorn, Carl Larsson and Bruno Liljefors, and more modern artists such as the Matisse students. In the press, one Danish critic asks where Sweden’s great colourist Karl Isakson has got to. This causes consternation. Could he possibly have confused the names of the great Swedish artists Ernst Josephson and Isaac Grünewald? Once the facts emerged, the tone became placatory. The press wrote: “Calling him Sweden’s greatest painter and colourist is certainly an exaggeration. And it was this exaggeration that led us to think he had got the names mixed up.” This attitude is reinforced when one Swedish art expert after the other, including Georg Nordensvan, Torsten Laurin and Oscar Björck, deny any knowledge of Isakson, referring to the fact that his name is not mentioned in any of the standard encyclopaedias or reference books!
Nationalmuseum bought two works by Isakson while he was still alive – a still-life and a portrait of a girl were purchased in 1921. The following year, the museum bought a further two paintings from his estate. In February 1923, the Ministry of Education and Ecclesiastical Affairs was asked whether it would like to exchange a previously acquired work; it had emerged that “the painting purchased, although of high artistic merit, was far excelled by other works by the same artist”. The exchange was granted, and the charming, almost impressionistic portrait of the girl was replaced with a portrait of a boy in a more academic style. Nationalmuseum was wary of new art in the early 1900s, and the exchange of the Isakson paintings is probably symptomatic of this scepticism. The museum did not acquire a work by Paul Gauguin until 1911, in 1914 it bought a painting by van Gogh, and in 1916 a work by Paul Cézanne. Long before that, the Stockholm galleries could exhibit works by both van Gogh and Edvard Munch. Isaac Grünewald, who dominated the Swedish art scene from the 1910s and for many years to come, was not incorporated in the museum collection until 1917.
Isaac Grünewald first became known when he exhibited at Halldins konsthandel in 1909. The moniker “The Men of 1909” was coined by August Brunius, who saw the embryo of something new at the show. Carl Larsson and others later attacked them harshly for their “betrayal of Swedish painting, contempt of details, over-simplification and incompetence”. Grünewald and his fellow artists studied in Paris (1908-1911) at the school of Matisse, whom they admired partly for the way in which he conveyed the ideas of Cézanne. What characterised them was their vivid colours in what was then unusual combinations, their strong outlines, simplification and decorative two-dimensionality. Karl Isakson also discovered Cézanne, at an exhibition of the large collection of the margarine producer Pellerin in Paris in 1911. But it was Isakson’s fascination for Picasso that set him apart from the so-called Matisse students. Isakson writes, “Beside Cézanne everyone looks pale, even Picasso, but the Spaniard is good…” Karl Isakson was sceptical of what he saw as too much superficiality in the followers of Matisse. “They only know what they have heard from others,” was his scathing comment on the Parisian Swedes. In a letter home in 1911 Isakson writes:
“[The next] exhibition of ‘De Unga’ (The Young) will feature pale colours, a lot of grey. For the new Master Picasso has the absolute upper hand, and I naturally like a man who in some ways could be called a kindred spirit. How the others appear gumdrop-coloured next to this fine and unbelievably insane aristocrat.”
Karl Asplund comments in a review from 1922 that Isakson, “with his entirely personal adaptation of what he has learned, stands apart from our younger, long since more famous, Matisse students”. But it was still the Matisse students, headed by Grünewald, who got all the attention.
It was not until after his death that Karl Isakson’s art aroused serious interest in Sweden. The following could be read in Politiken in May 1922:
“Any discerning person must realise how exceedingly embarrassing it is for a small country like Sweden, after one of its artists has died and been honoured in another country with a commemorative exhibition, to have to send a cultural representative to proclaim, ‘He was not sufficiently recognised here in Sweden, but that is going to change now!’ Now that he is dead!”
Reviewing the commemorative exhibition at Liljevalchs konsthall in 1922, Gotthard Johansson writes, “.and his art is far from original in any deeper sense.”, while Nils Palmgren comments, “.on a par with the best that was produced in the 19th century internationally, not excluding France.” By the time of the exhibition of Isakson’s works in 1936, however, Gotthard Johansson had changed his mind, and believed there was no more radical regenerator who had made as deep and lasting a mark.
In his early years in Copenhagen, Léon Ehlers was one of Isakson’s closest friends. When Ehler died in May 1912, Isakson was devastated. Tor Bjurström was also in the same crowd (Bjurström later married Ehler’s wife, Vera), and the correspondence between the friends concerns art-related issues. Bjurström studied at the Konstnärsförbundet college and, like Isakson, had studied under Zahrtman in Copenhagen. In 1908, he went to Paris and later became part of the Men of 1909 and De åtta (The Eight). Between 1920 and 1929, he was head of the Valand college of art in Gothenburg. His ideas had a huge impact on the painters who later became known as the Gothenburg colourists, who used the inherent energy of colours and were occasionally called colour visionaries (Åke Göransson, Ivan Ivarsson, Nils Nilsson, Ragnar Sandberg, Inge Schiöler). At the posthumous Isakson exhibition in Gothenburg in 1923, it was only to be expected that Bjurström would praise his friend and colleague as a paragon for the students. Göteborgs Konstmuseum also made a few important acquisitions of works by Isakson in 1923, which probably spurred the appreciation of the artist.
Another key factor in Isakson’s success was Gustaf Engwall, who wrote a thesis on Isakson which was published in 1944 by Sveriges Allmänna Konstförening (the Swedish National Society of Art). Engwall was also a curator of the association for contemporary Swedish art, which later became the Friends of Moderna Museet. He was instrumental in the donation of 21 Isakson works to Moderna Museet in 1953, which formed the basis of a modern art collection for the future museum.
Although Engwall’s thesis was criticised for being too biographical at the expense of art historical analysis, it was nevertheless said to be meritorious and to constitute the basis of all future research on Isakson. It is likely that the broader art-loving public was aware of the criticism against the thesis, since Oscar Reuterswärd habitually reviewed theses, including the one on Isakson in the magazine Konstvärlden. In 1945, an abridged version of the thesis on Isakson was also published as a book.
The fact that Isakson was not given much publicity in his own day is partly due, of course, to his own restrictive attitude to showing his works, and his lack of interest and ability in promoting himself. Moreover, he appears to have been out of phase with his own time. Stockholms Tidningen writes in 1922: “He hid his work, as he hid his life, because it moved to a different rhythm than its contemporary time and surroundings.” Isakson was born too late to attend Konstnärsförbundets skola, and a little too early to be swept along by the modernist vogue in Paris. He was not sufficiently academic to win prizes at the Royal Academy; not sufficiently “Swedish” to appeal to authorities such as Carl Larsson or Richard Bergh, nor sufficiently audacious and self-confident to compete with the charismatic Isaac Grünewald.
Several factors, including Tor Bjurström’s teaching at Valand and Gustaf Engwall’s thesis, contributed to raising interest in Isakson’s art dramatically after his death. In the 1940s he was increasingly spoken of as a forerunner and a genius. Colourful painting of an intense nature such as that produced by Isakson became fashionable among young artists. The critic Gotthard Johansson suggested in 1936 that Isakson was actually more innovative than the infinitely more acknowledged Matisse students: “In fact, one could ask if any of the Men of 1909, who are now old enough to be professors, and were vociferous about their revolution, have been as radically regenerative as this timid, self-critical hermit, who has made a deep and lasting impression on the art of two nations.”
Karl Isakson’s artistic method has been compared by some critics to that of the scientist; his studio has been likened to a laboratory, and his works to the profisional results of experimentation. Isakson was perpetually in search of the answer that would resolve his overall question – how to become one with art fully and completely. In his paintings, the cold and warm colours correspond with convex and concave surfaces. His focal points, colour balancing, contrasts of complementary colours and foreshortenings form a synthesis that has founded a general theory of painting. Isakson’s oeuvre is one long process, a symbol of eternity, that leads him neither forwards nor backwards, but inspires others to develop. The Gothenburg colourists, for instance, found a way out of his cul-de-sac. But until now, no one has looked more closely at Karl Isakson’s own position in his creative and interpretative process.
The exhibition Karl Isakson 1878-1922 at Moderna Museet reveals an oeuvre that, despite its obscurity, continues to fascinate and inspire. There seem to be blind spots with regard to how Isakson has influenced Swedish painting in the 20th century. Since the 1960s, his name appears to have slid back into oblivion. The reason for this, and the way in which we regard him today, will be the subject of our next article, which will be published this summer on the website