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A Swede Among the Sprites

Beyond Saab, Volvo, ABBA and Ikea, the English-speaking world is relatively ignorant of Swedish culture, but 19th-century Swedish-Jewish painter Ernst Abraham Josephson, although still under-celebrated outside Scandinavia, is increasingly being seen by academics and art historians as a key figure in European modernism.

William Butler Yeats, in “The Bounty of Sweden” (1925), a literary thank-you to Sweden for bestowing upon him a Nobel Prize, praises Josephson’s early realist portraits for proving “that their painter was entirely preoccupied with the personality of the sitter; light, colour, design, all [being] subordinate to that.” After these early works, Josephson descended into syphilitic madness, and the drawings of his later years differed drastically from his previous, more formally elaborated paintings. Some fellow artists treasured Josephson’s late effusions, and in 1908, German Expressionist painter Emil Nolde purchased some late Josephson drawings from the family of the recently deceased artist, prizing their “spontaneous” qualities.

Yet, art lovers in America have been slow to recognize Josephson, which is why “Northern Arts: The Breakthrough of Scandinavian Literature and Art, From Ibsen to Bergman” by Arnold Weinstein, published by Princeton University Press, is of groundbreaking importance. Weinstein, a professor of comparative literature at Brown University, discusses many authors in “Northern Arts,” but within this work he devotes virtually a separate short book to Josephson, making a plausible case that he ranks alongside Van Gogh as a pioneering visual modernist.

Starting with early works like 1878’s “David and Saul,” an oil on canvas in Stockholm’s Nationalmuseum, Weinstein notes that “Jewishness remains a key component of Ernst’s moral thinking, and we will see in the late work a vivid sense of the Old Testament stories.”

King Saul, depicted as troubled by an evil spirit, seems to foreshadow the artist’s own later full-fledged mental torments. Cultural historian Neil Kent states in “Soul of the North: A Social, Architectural and Cultural History of the Nordic Countries 1700–1940” (Reaktion Books, 2004) that both David and Saul are “portrayed with strong Semitic physiognomic characteristics… as if an allegory is being presented of the Jews in Sweden in the 19th century, leavening the loaf of the Swedish nation with their fresh talents and loyalty.”

Like his better-known Norwegian counterpart, Edvard Munch, Josephson’s own mental loaf had been overbaked with crippling neuroses by 1871, when, during a nature walk in Norway, he experienced a vision in the form of a water sprite, or “Näcken,” a figure from Scandinavian folklore. No sooner did Josephson return home than he declared: “I shall be Sweden’s Rembrandt or die…One can admire many beautiful women but love only one of them, and that one is Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn.” Despite such peculiar outbursts, in 1883 Josephson created a realistic, luminous portrait of Swedish-Jewish art collector Pontus Fürstenberg, an oil on canvas now in Stockholm’s Jewish Museum.

Another Josephson portrait, also from 1883, of Jeanette Rubenson, now in Gothenburg’s Museum of Fine Art, presented the Jewish subject busy with needlework, despite Rubenson’s declaration that she “detested” such drab domestic chores. Eliane Strosberg’s 2008 “Human Expressionism: The Human Figure and the Jewish Experience,” from Somogy Editions, links portraits by Josephson to other 19th-century European-Jewish bourgeois portraiture by Germany’s Max Liebermann and Holland’s Meijer de Haan. Yet Josephson’s imagery, even in his ostensibly realistic genre paintings, could seethe with multiple, sometimes conflicting tensions. With a strong Orientalist element, the portrait of Rubenson, as Weinstein perceptively notes, idyllically reflects “all the strident and warring elements of Josephson’s psyche: Jew vs. Swede, dream vs. reality, groundedness vs. exile.”

Josephson’s psyche was, however, not particularly stable terrain. As we read in Michelle Facos’s 2009 “Symbolist Art in Context” (University of California Press), even the early works of Josephson, much like the lives and works of Van Gogh, Munch, Russia’s Mikhail Vrubel, and England’s Richard Dadd, seem to confirm 19th-century Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso’s theory that “genius is a degenerative psychosis.”

This belief would explain the ominous overtones of Josephson’s youthful scenes of local color, like the creepy black-kerchiefed woman looming behind two grinning Spaniards in the 1881 “Spanish Blacksmiths.” Like the tormented Saul in “David and Saul,” Josephson has Pontus Fürstenberg pose with head in hand, as if possibly trying to ward off a splitting migraine. This saturnine pose of head in hand is also seen in Josephson’s 1879 portrait of the modernist Danish author Jens Peter Jacobsen.

Josephson’s many grandiose paintings of the fiddling Näcken, some more than two meters high, are even less ambiguous illustrations of Lombroso’s theory. The paintings express clear forebodings of doom with a quasi-science fiction-like and hallucinatory otherworldliness. In popular lore, the fiddler is told he will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and his unavoidable demise echoes the Death of Pan in Greek mythology.

In 1887, under the ominous weight of this imagery, Josephson fled to Bréhat, a small town in Brittany, France, to paint local genre scenes. Josephson also experienced séances with Bréhat’s local medium, which agitated him to the point that he told a small girl that God had “instructed him to sacrifice her, in the manner of Abraham and Isaac.” Naturally her parents demurred, and Josephson was soon repatriated to Sweden and institutionalized.

He would live for another 18 years, under various types of supervised care, while creating artworks hitherto mostly seen as the product of mental illness. Weinste in, however, links these works to groundbreaking Symbolists, such as Gustave Moreau and Swedish playwright and painter August Strindberg. Referring to himself in private scribblings as “a jew — until recently the wandering one,” Josephson deliriously drew a self-portrait and signed it “Velasquez,” then imagined that all the greats of cultural history, from Plato onward, were personally applying to him in order to be admitted into heaven. Another 1889–1890 self-portrait drawing shows the “swarthy Semitic features” of Josephson, as Weinstein describes them, in the guise of Apollo the Sun God, as a “sly but desperate effort to fuse the pagan and the Semitic.”

Even hampered by madness, Josephson strove to illustrate such Old Testament scenes as the Creation of Adam, as if to trace his own troubles to the dawn of man. An undated drawing of David and Goliath has neurotic power akin to nightmarish works by Egon Schiele, featuring a twisted, hunchbacked David and armored Goliath, who “looks on leeringly.” Equally odd is the 1893 oil portrait of Josephson’s Uncle Ludvig, a manic-depressive theater director, which one Swedish art historian has likened to Michelangelo’s statue of Moses for its iconic biblical force. Weinstein notes that in this final major work before his death in 1906, Josephson pays homage to “his family, keeps covenant with the line of earlier portraits, honors the Great Dead of the past, and is at the same time [creating] a masterpiece of transfigurative art.”

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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