Wednesday, 3 February 2010

August Strindberg
Purple Loosestrife, 1892
Oil on Canvas
Tate Modern, London
10 May 2005

I was surprised how much I enjoyed this exhibition, I found it both charming and melancholic and was interested to read that he was a Gemini and prone to mood swings. Strindberg was clearly influenced by Northern Romantic [1] landscapes, but had his own expressionist way of painting that relied more on the palette knife than the brush. There were many of Strindberg's dark brooding seascapes that shared a single man-made object at the mercy of the elements: a buoy in the midst of a stormy sea, or a startlingly white navigational mark against a tempestuous sky. Several paintings of lighthouses conveyed a similar mood reflecting his inner turmoil, but most interesting were his astonishing delicately painted pictures of wild flowers set against a very loosely knifed / brushed landscape. If these earlier solitary flowers are also to be read as symbolic self-portraits he chose very unappealing plants, thistles, toadstools, and "weeds".

Purple Loosestrife is typical of the genre, with the painting divided by a pronounced horizon and the plant a small element isolated in the landscape. The mark making is vigorous but the mood is serene and melancholic, he uses a buttery yellow thickly applied with a palette knife for the foreground gradually merging with a blue/white shoreline and then above the horizon line similar blues and whites for the sky but painted in a different style. He was clearly an acute observer of nature and the plant named in the title is painted with accurate botanical detail, causing it to stand out sharply against the loosely painted landscape.

These small flowers in the vast landscape reminded me of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich that also use the shoreline as a metaphor for the daunting vastness of the world. Whilst it isn’t as dark as Friedrich’s Der Mönch am Meer, for example, it shares some of that painting’s depiction of the sublime; a boundless, silent, solitude. These qualities were typical of all these paintings of solitary flowers that were painted on the shore south of Stockholm and even more pronounced in some e.g. in Lonely Poisoned Mushroom (also 1892) there is no clear division between the land, sea and sky. I found myself reacting to the emptiness in these calm paintings much more than the violent seascapes, as at least in those there was the storm to provide a narrative!

[1]Strindberg wanted Bocklin's painting “The Island of the Dead”, to serve as the final image of his 1907 play The Ghost Sonata

©blackdog 2009


  1. August Strindberg, the great play writer, a rebel of the modern theatre -now as painter? I'm ashamed to confess that I didn't know that- and I'm asking: Are there corrspondences, relations between his extreme, psychological literature and his paintings? My first impression: what a lovely painting, beautiful colours...- but after having read your carefully fine and sensitive analysis I can recognize and feel -while looking at the chaos of uprising clouds, the mixture of sky and sea...- an atmosphere of loneliness, wildness, and restlessness- full of confusion and commotions- shortly before a storm wind may be rising up- and that all could be an expression and a kind of processing of the inner turbulences, the chaos in the soul...I know that AS was often under mental strain and mentally disturbed- but I'm not sure about a biographical interpretation of his paintings! The reference to Caspar David Friedrich may be convincing. I find it very intersting to get to know a new side of this great author, a multi-talented personality. I very like this painting, but I'm afraid we could get lost in it if we longer looked at it...

  2. It was a surprise to me too Philine, the room guide to the exhibition is still online if you want to see more...

    The assertion was that his landscapes were very personal, self portrait and were expressions of his inner turmoil.