The imagery of Karl Isakson is cyclical. He painted variations on a few motifs: portraits, landscapes, models, still lifes and subjects from Norse mythology and religion. Each separate work was a process. Regardless of motif, his pictures have colour as the most important building-blocks. In 1911, he encountered the works of Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso in Paris. The same year, he travelled to Christiansö, north of Bornholm. It was here that his work started assuming the shape that rendered him a position in the history of modernism.
Karl Oscar Isaksson grew up in poverty in Stockholm. His father died early, and Karl and his sister Ester were raised by their religious mother. As a child, he was constantly drawing. In 1897-1901 he attended the Royal Academy of Art. On a journey to Italy he was strongly impressed by the early Renaissance and made friends with the Danish painter Kristian Zarthman, who later became his teacher. Karl Isakson went to live in Copenhagen and stayed there until his death, although he travelled extensively to Sweden and the Continent. In 1909 and 1910, he exhibited at “Den Frie Udstilling” in Copenhagen, but declined all subsequent offers to exhibit his works for the rest of his career.
Karl Isakson worked intensely and without compromise. With his sensitivity and nervous character he grew into a unique artistic solitaire, extremely self-critical, albeit with self-irony. Throughout life, he was harassed by physical and mental ailments. He died of pneumonia when only 44. It was not until after his death that Isakson’s works were acknowledged in art history. In Denmark he is the figurehead of the Bornholm painters; in Sweden he inspired the lyrical expressionism of Gothenburg colourists such as Åke Göransson and Carl Kylberg.
National romanticism and symbolism dominated Nordic art in the late-1800s. This could explain Karl Isakson’s interest in Norse mythology. It was not the heroic scenes that captured him, however, but the issues of good and evil, life and death. Sometimes he transformed the mythological figures into pure nude studies. The goddess Sif, whose hair was cut off by the trickster god Loke is a recurring theme. In his earliest paintings, Sif is a girl who gets locks of gold attached to her head, in later works she is a woman. Another recurring motif is the Balder legend: all living beings except the mistletoe, had sworn to protect Odin’s son Balder. Isakson chose the episode where Loke tricked Balder’s blind brother Höder to aim a lethal arrow made of mistletoe at his brother.
Bertha Brandstrup (1873-1918), born in Hirschsprung, was the wife of the Danish sculptor Ludvig Brandstrup. Karl Isakson found a close confidante in Bertha. She was a friend whose character supported Isakson when his self-esteem frequently failed him. There are several versions of this portrait of Bertha, whom Isakson painted on several occasions. It appears as if the colour and the motif fought for his attention. Bertha Brandstrup’s personality has yielded to the expression of colours and shapes.
Upon returning to Copenhagen after two years in Paris, Karl Isakson started working on this large self-portrait. His concentrated gaze regards us, or rather, the canvas he has in front of him. Relaxed, in his shirtsleeves, and with the paintbrush poised in his right hand. His palette is dotted with unmixed colours. The sketchy brush strokes in the background are balanced by the intense face. The self-portrait was exhibited in 1909at Den Frie Udstilling and was praised by Danish critics. According to August Brunius, critic at the Swedish daily paper, Svenska Dagbladet, however, the work, although undeniably painted by a talented artist, “leaned towards the sickly sentimental”. This criticism was to strengthen Isakson’s feeling of alienation from Sweden.
A still life is an arrangement. In his studio Karl Isakson is said to have had a round table with a permanent still life arrangement. The same or a similar arrangement features in most of the paintings shown here. Is there a perfect composition? For Karl Isakson the main concern seems to be to find a rhythm, a pulse, that oscillates between the complimentary colours which enhance one another through contrast. In Karl Isakson’s still lifes, colour creates form. The depicted objects are of minor importance.
Karl Isakson’s landscapes can be coasts or inland countryside, forests or parks, villages or townscapes. As in all his paintings, he gradually liberated himself from the heavier, more opaque painting of the 1800s, in favour of another light, diluting the paint with terpentine and leaving the canvas bare in places. The colour builds up the image, the play of lines is the light that glimmers where one field of colour meets another. The light is reflected and grows from the matter of the painting. In 1911, Isakson went to Christiansö, where he later developed his unique form of landscape painting. The style may appear cool and balanced, yet it is smouldering just under the surface.
In the final years of his life, Karl Isakson sketched and painted Biblical scenes, mainly from the New Testament. In these profoundly personal renderings, Isakson preached his artistic calling. They convey a feeling of being uncompleted and open, and therein perhaps lies their strength. In the work Jesus Awakens Lazarus, from 1921, the main characters of this narrative are secondary to the summarised rendering of the event.
“Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with grave-clothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin.” St. John 11:1-44
“Isakson’s art is solitary, lucid, and necessary: it neither demands that we imbue it with meaning, nor does it refuse to imbue it with its own meaning, it simply takes and it gives, and is refreshing while it is deep and carried forth by passion.” Gunnar Ekelöf. Fönstret, 1936
Karl Isakson has been called “Sweden’s greatest colourist” and “a modern classic” by Swedish 20th century critics. His works have been described both as “masterpieces” and “seminal”. Isakson amalgamated his impressions of various styles and artists to create a unique synthesis. His search for an identity, by trying to achieve something new, demonstrates an original point of view in art. Karl Isakson was very objective about himself and knew how hard this would be.
Boy Planting (Hope), 1909 was a central theme for Karl Isakson in the early 1900s. Like the boy plants a seed, Isakson sows something new with his art, and his own aspiration is to become one with art. This theme has often been used to symbolise Karl Isakson’s life and oeuvre.