8 July 2019


Anders Petersen, Stockholm. 
Anders Petersen, Stockholm.
Anders Petersen, Stockholm.

There’s work to do. Star-work, but earthbound all the same.

– Richard Powers, The Overstory

We are in yesterday and a Nikon F leaps through the air in a caper between the drunk and the briefly gorgeous in an otherworldly place right at the beginning of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn. It is populated by individuals from the lower rungs of society, who anyhow are living their lives to the fullest on some higher grounds of hell-bent, organic existentialism.

“It was an absolutely fantastic bar. It was packed with people and nothing was noticeable from the outside. It was such a huge difference. And the volume was like walking into a wall – with Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, the Beatles, Stones of course, and Jonny who sang ‘Junge, komm bald wieder’ on the jukebox,” recalls the owner of that camera with an immensity of warmth. As a young man he did come back to photograph the regulars there for the remaining years of the 1960s. Half a century later there is a (so-called) gentrified hotel where this bar once was, on the other side of the road from the Zeughausmarkt Square. Still and all, Anders Petersen’s precious family of nocturnal animals has a permanent place in his legendary photobook from the 1970s, the forever gorgeous Café Lehmitz.

Anders Petersen had previously been roaming the streets of Sankt Pauli in 1961 together with the young wild things of Hamburg as a seventeen-year-old. However, when he returned in October 1967 – blessed by his teacher Christer Strömholm – the only one left from his much-loved tribe of outsiders (many had not survived this unrestrained lifestyle) was Gertrud, a lady of the night who suggested that they should meet up in the wee small hours the next day in a place new to him. Petersen fell in love with the Café Lehmitz clientele right there (that his friend was two hours late did not make much difference).

“Is it any good?” asked a destitute king of the Lehmitz crowd, pointing at the Nikon F that the photo student had left on the table. He told Petersen that he of course had a much better camera, a Kodak Retina, whereupon Petersen countered that he had owned a Kodak Retinette when he was little. “And we drank to that. And we continued to toast and after a few pilsners we went to the bar for some stronger stuff, Ratzeputz. We started dancing with some lookers and it was then that I discovered that the camera was gone. It was dreadful. But shortly afterwards I saw it at the other end of the bar, hurling in the air. They threw it between themselves – poof! – and took pictures of each other. I was a little plucky after all the drinking so I danced over to them and insisted that it was my camera, so they could just as well take a picture of me, and that made some sense. They took the picture and handed over the camera – but then I held on to it.”

During this first trip abroad as a photographer, Petersen took a picture of a Hamburg train window on which someone (in German) had scratched: “I love you. Do you love me too?” This has always been the prime motivator in Petersen’s highly subjective and exquisitely tender photography – documentary as it is in some sort of way, yes, but always centred around these auspicious circumstances of love, curiosity, transformation and altered realities; a take-the-sad-songs-and-make-them-better intensity rooted in his urges of longing and belonging, and always this validation of others. Petersen’s work is about the knowledge that we are all full of shit and yet full of wonder, if we are up for it, if only we are seen.

Luis Buñuel (through the handsome editing of Jean-Claude Carrière) described this specific force in his biography My Last Breath in 1982: “When we were young, love seemed powerful enough to transform our lives. Sexual desire went hand in hand with feelings of intimacy, of conquest, and of sharing, which raised us above mundane concerns and made us feel capable of great things.” 

“Photography is not so much about the cerebral for me, it is more about intuition. And then it is actually about this matter of how you are and how you move. It is very, very crucial,” says Petersen. “For example, when you approach a group of people that you don’t know, then it is important to go straight to the nitty-gritty and tell them that I am Anders and that I am about to take pictures and why I do it. As quickly as possible. And then you ask more about them, and learn. Because to be with people is also a way to gain knowledge, and to recognise yourself not least, and to find a kinship and a presence in this group. Many photographers make this mistake, and I have also done that: you see something that looks like an interesting picture, and you go on thinking, and then [makes a clap with his hands] suddenly it just disappears. You should not keep thinking and calculating with risks. It is important to go straight on – and to walk straight.”

We are in his lab on Stockholm’s absolutely most beautiful island, Stadsholmen, on the opposite side of the Old Town’s touristy thoroughfare with the plasticky Viking helmets. We are in a small corner, underground, next to a black staircase – as narrow and steep and dreadfully exciting as the rear airstair of a splendid old Super-Caravelle – that drops down to a medieval coal cellar which for thirty-two years has served as Anders Petersen’s magical darkroom, where days are spent on perfecting a single print, though he claims (under protest) that no one appreciates that kind of craftsmanship anymore. Binders and binders of his negatives shelve one of the walls, and two silver magnetic boards cover the other walls in this corner. For years these were cram-full of small printouts that were rearranged on a regular basis, images of his recent project.

From late winter 2014 until late spring this year – when the largest exhibition of a photographer ever conceived in Sweden opened at the huge Liljevalchs konsthall in Stockholm – Petersen was busy working on his first in-depth examination of the people of his hometown. It is called Stockholm but should obviously have been titled Stockholmers – for geography is of little interest to him; it is the people, their stories and private spheres that make the city great according to Petersen. “One of the most difficult things to do is to photograph in the city where you live, in any case that’s how it is for me, and I needed to give myself assignments. In this project I gave myself a task several times a week to go to a new place with the camera.”

One of those many places was the suburb of Fisksätra, and in Stefan Bladh’s hour-long documentary on Petersen (recently shown on Swedish state television SVT – a shorter version is looped in a room in the Stockholm show) you find the photographer catching the image of an older woman with crutches who is reading a newspaper on a bench in a cheerless shopping mall. When she becomes aware of Petersen and his tiny Contax T3, he makes a hush sign with the finger to his mouth and the lady mirrors the gesture and grants him the picture he is after. He takes her hands and kisses them. The loveliness and the candour. This is Anders Petersen at work.

Orson Welles famously remarked that one of the truer meanings of the word amateur is someone who loves. “I am in that sense an amateur, absolutely,” responds Petersen. “And it is not about having been working as a photographer for fifty years, it’s just about being – and then you are an amateur. To put yourself in situations where the original, the primitive get an opportunity to be present. It is on the earth, on the ground that the creative vitamins exist, not up there among the clouds and the angels. Away with the head! Throw it away! To be conceptual is not my temperament. I prefer to be at speaking distance, and to be a part of the circumstances.”

“The funny thing about Anders is that he is really never getting finished. Constantly new pictures to be taken. As a client you have to keep a cool head, accompany this talent on the journey. Anders, with his warmth and intelligence, has put many a people at work during these years,” tells the Director at Liljevalchs, Mårten Castenfors, who reveals that he had just seen the Anders Petersen retrospective at Fotografiska in Stockholm in 2014 – which followed the Paris retrospective at the Bibliothèque nationale de France – when he decided to produce and host a Petersen show-in-the-making, Stockholm.

“I am personally a minimalist, a sparse boy who travels between home and Liljevalchs every day and sees very little of Stockholm. This is a unique insight into the other Stockholm, which I have no idea about,” Castenfors reflects. “Anders has really come close to a Stockholm that also exists. And when I see the photographs I sense, regardless of the motif, the earnestness and sympathy for what is in front of the lens. And if I look at the exhibition it has become an extremely interesting document about the diversity that exists in today’s Stockholm, highbrow as well as lowbrow, life in the suburbs as well as the Nobel Banquet. Nothing is missing, and for that I am more than grateful.”

That’s the way it is with Anders Petersen’s photography. He extracts what is us – and with that, what is him. Stockholm dwells (more than anything else he has done) in a time-and-space area that is rare, peculiar and still very real, as if he wanted to stimulate a Verfremdungseffekt in these pictures. “Exactly, that is how I see it too. You walk around the streets, and are a little lost. Thus, there are so many impressions that attack you – from the top, from the bottom, from the sides, from behind – and this is to some extent the diversity that I want to show in this selection. It is too much of everything. It is difficult to see, you have to be very focused to be able to distinguish, and I have tried to just opt for the parts and to put them together in a new way,” Petersen replies.

Stockholm is a city where you can walk around for hours without meeting the eyes of another human being, and for a decade without ever receiving a compliment, and probably for a hundred years before someone invites you home – as Susan Sontag argued in 1969, “Being with people feels like work for them, far more than it does like nourishment.” For a person who has always been interested in “what’s behind all the fucking closed doors”, Petersen uses his camera in genius ways to unlock all sorts of gates and inhibitions.

He explains that with Stockholm he lured himself to be surprised all over again. “Innocence has a lot to do with life and photography. Photography is not about photography but about completely different things. Above all, it is about adventure and, depending on who you are, it is about looking for an answer to the questions that lie in wait.” Something very near in sentiment to what Robert Louis Stephenson observed in his travel memoir The Silverado Squatters (1883): “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.”

“Without knowing about this quote, this is exactly what I think, no matter where we come from and our cultures,” he says. “The more you are going around and meet people, you discover that we are a large family and that we are not so different. We are family members, we are relatives the whole bunch, and that is the very underpinning of everything. And if you have that idea it is fantastic to see how many doors are being opened for you. And it is important that the doors are opened because I am not so interested in the surface or what people represent, but mostly what is inside – for example, our longing, our thoughts, our questions. Other people’s questions are also your own questions. You should remember that and not be dazzled by the outside too much. In order to get on the right track, you have to enter. And when you come in things are happening.”

One such image, and for the Stockholm project one of the not so many pictures photographed in landscape mode, shows a woman and her dog in what looks like a weird internal staring contest (teeth shown as to trigger aggression), but Petersen assures that they had a lovely time together over a fika (Swedish coffee break) in the woman’s home. “If you shoot in Rome, Saint-Étienne, Madrid or Barcelona, it is a completely different matter because every street in these cities is like a scene. You really only have to hold up the camera and the pictures jump in like rabbits. But here you have to go in where people live, and there it happens. This is the case in Scandinavia, especially in Sweden. It is rather little that is actually happening over a whole year, but there is a big difference in the summer months.”

There are quite many pictures of people on their balconies – a remark that takes Petersen by surprise. He figures that they are the outcome of the need for daylight, pure and simple. And there are many pictures of people with tattoos, however it is not the tattoos as such that fascinates him, “it’s just that it is so very common. Sweden has the largest number of head tattoos in the world, this I know as a fact. Previously it was a mark that you came from the prison, that you were a criminal or a sailor. I have photographed in a prison and there the tattoos mean something. Today they mean very little, it is just a decoration, a fashion above all.”

It is no secret of course that Petersen photographs people that he can identify with and that his photography is a kind of enamoured family album. In his book The Ascent of Man (1973), following his BBC television series of that year, Jacob Bronowski writes that “We are all afraid for our confidence, for the future, for the world. That is the nature of the human imagination. Yet every man, every civilisation, has gone forward because of its engagement with what it has set itself to do.” Perhaps no other picture represents Petersen’s quest for companionship without the rosy narratives as much as his augmented self-portrait Lilly and Rosen (1968) from Café Lehmitz, in which a bare-chested man with a girl tattoo is seeking comfort in the bosom of a woman who accepts him with a heartful laugh. This very tender but in no way uncomplicated image is also the face for the Tom Waits album Rain Dogs (1985).

Stockholm picture from a restaurant kitchen with a parade of pickled cucumbers just out of the brine is very Petersen, and even more so are his individual snowmen, these mourning human figures that are eighty per cent air. “There is something that I think is so obvious in Sweden and that is the melancholy, the Scandinavian melancholy, which is poignant and very beautiful. And there is a lot of it in the snowman, you see. Their lives are short. I had a snowman standing outside the door here for four days, and then it languished away. But the snowman that I photographed on Katarinavägen has a twig mouth so it smiles a bit obliquely.”

The animals and the animalistic are part of everything in his work, and Stockholm is no exception. “The primitive is a bit ‘back to basic’. With primitive I do not mean to go to any extremes – if you are hungry then you eat, if you want to say something you say it, if you are angry you are angry, if you are sorry you are sorry – it is about trying to approach the simple things, it isn’t more complicated than that. And you show it, you don’t hide it. It is a way of dealing with things in everyday life and in the work to be like that. It does not mean that you are in any way strong, you are never strong enough. It is bullshit when people say that you have to be strong. In fact, you have to be weak enough because it is then that you open up for opportunities, both for yourself and for others, by showing your fear, your anxiety, your questions, your vulnerability. And I think that this is a fundamental part of being present in what you are photographing.”

Anders Petersen has a metaphor for what is making his photography so distinct and that is the example of the pyramid. “By that I mean that from the beginning you are at the bottom – there you have your friends, food, good wine – but none of that gets you to work as a photographer. It is wonderful if you have a security, but you have to give away the security, scale it off to arrive at a confidence in yourself. You must believe in yourself. Who are you? You must have an idea of why you do this. What is important? The more you peel the closer you get to the capstone. You sharpen it and finally you are so feverish, and that is when you can go on. And then you are a bit dangerous.”

“I have seen so many different types of photographers over the years, but what unites them is usually that they are a bit shy and cautious people, not so outrageous – that they are curious of course, that they are patient, a little stubborn, that they are searching and searching and not giving up. But then it is another thing that may not be so nice when I think of the people I know, and whom I have seen photograph, and that is that they are so incredibly sharpened and focused that it is like they are in a small bubble. They are only inside the creation in some way, and it is a phenomenon for better or worse because it can mean that they are not particularly sensitive, or they can even be rather ruthless. If you look at some of the war photographers, it is a necessity that when they hold the camera it becomes a protection so that they dare to do things. But that also applies to street photography. You can never trust what a photographer really says. That is typical for photographers, they have a bad vision, they see what they want to see.”

Twice before and long ago has Petersen been working on a photographic project on his hometown. In 1969 he and his friend Kenneth Gustavsson (with whom he started Saftra, a famous cooperative of photographers, the following year) made a work together with two very gifted architects at the Stockholm City Museum called The City in Return, an exhibition that delineated both the city’s slum areas and the ravages of a Social Democratic warlord Mayor whose antiseptic demolitions were schemed to erase the better part of Stockholm’s history, vitality and great beauty. And then again in 1973 when he photographed merrymakers at the uncharming amusement park Gröna Lund, which is also the title of his first photobook since all the seven publishers whom Petersen approached in Sweden turned down his pictures from Café Lehmitz.

The large and lush Stockholm assignment very modestly began in a café at the corner of Stortorget in the Old Town (the Grand Square where the Stockholm Bloodbath took place in 1520) when Petersen’s friend Angie Åström came back from Paris with an idea. She had been living in Paris for several years and reflected how common it was that the exhibitions in this city depicted its people in various ways. At the opening of Petersen’s retrospective in the Bibliothèque nationale’s glorious 17th-century building in the late autumn of 2013, she “encountered residences from all over the world, but Anders’s hometown was missing on this map of pictures”. 

“The reason that I contacted Liljevalchs about a request for the Stockholm project with Anders Petersen arises out of how I figured a similar series of pictures would materialise in Paris,” explains Angie Åström. “The large range of images was not the intention from the beginning, but the renovation and extension of the art gallery led to the continuation of the work with the pictures for four years. It was in this way that the Stockholm project started, and five years later I have not tired of his pictures or his personality. On the contrary, he is even more interesting as a photographer today. Anders’s idea of a diversity of images instead of the individual photograph generates entirely new ways of thinking.”

A bit over two thousand Tri-X negatives were scanned for the Stockholm show. “I made contact sheets and from these I chose the negatives to be scanned, and then I selected too much because you never know how it might work out. A very idiotic process really because it takes such a time and costs money, but that is how it is to be analogue and at the same time insist on doing digital things,” says Petersen. “From these we selected about eight hundred pictures and processed and copied the scanned files much like you do analogue in the darkroom. And then we made a selection from it, seven hundred pictures, but it was too much.”

The around five hundred contrasty printouts do look fantastic, especially the big ones presented in blocks and nailed to the walls in the major of the eleven rooms at Liljevalchs. “The great work with Stockholm was actually done by Erhan Akbulut. He is a digital editor who has worked for Magnum in Turkey, a maestro who I met in Istanbul. Now we have made five books together. He sits with the newly-scanned file and I sit behind and scream ‘Lighter, no darker!’ It is an exhausting and demanding process, as you understand, especially for him. I did a residence there for two weeks and he developed the films and made contact sheets and I saw that he had a feeling for it. And then he came to Stockholm, and now he lives here and is together with an adorable Norwegian.”

Anders Petersen grew up on the posh Lidingö which is one of the islands in the inner archipelago of Stockholm. When he was fourteen the family moved to the city of Karlstad in Värmland, a part of the country that Petersen is very fond of and a province that wrenches Sweden’s largest lake, Vänern. When he was seventeen, Petersen’s parents wanted to do something about his bad results at school so they sent him to the affluent Hamburg-Groß Flottbek district in order to learn German. It did not work out so well with his wealthy host family whose garden he was expected to maintain. 

Soon enough Petersen found his peers in the disreputable underworld of Sankt Pauli. “It was a gang that came from England, France, Italy, America – and then I met a Finnish girl, Vanja – and they were not god’s best children but I liked them very much,” says Petersen with a lot of affection in his voice. “I got the whole package. And this package included companionship and a kind of curiosity on life, unfortunately also drugs and not entirely legal things. It became very clear to me that alone you are nothing, it is with friends that you can create a platform for something worth standing for.”

When Petersen shortly returned to Karlstad from Stockholm to write for the morning paper Nya Wermlands-Tidningen, he had no intention whatsoever to become a photographer. One day the young man was waiting to get his hair cut. Since Petersen has always liked crosswords he flipped through a women’s magazine when a minute photo of a snowy Parisian cemetery grabbed him with a bang. “I was very affected by the picture, that the photographer managed to interlace this idea that the dead were socialising at night when no one was seeing anything and that the footsteps revealed them. It was so poetic, so loaded, but I had no idea who had taken the picture.”

“This thing with being a photographer has never really interested me,” he implies. “I was painting and trying to write before, but I never really got close. When you write you are usually very alone, and same when you sit on your chamber and paint. In photography it is so wonderful that you can be in the middle of a situation with a lot of people and you can talk, you can share views, there is a mutuality in it, and at the same time you can photograph without making a big deal of it.” The next year in Stockholm, in 1966, Petersen met some photographer friends. One of them was Kenneth Gustavsson who – much illegally – provided him with a key to Christer Strömholm’s Photo School whose darkroom Petersen (still much illegally) began to use each night between twelve and four.

Eventually Petersen was caught one night when there were loud bangs on the door to the darkroom. It was the great man himself – the photographer of the metaphoric 1959 picture of the Montparnasse cemetery, where the tombs have begun to rattle and ghostly tiptoe steps make it through the snow. “I was convinced that he would notify the police so my confidence in him grew when he instead just asked me if I wanted to begin at the school.” Petersen was twenty-two years old when he met Christer Strömholm for the first time that night.

“He had already when I started at the school, and how I started there, given me an idea of how to be and how to trust someone, and see someone. So, he not only became a teacher for me or the principal at the school, but also a close friend I would like to say. He also became a deputy dad. I was disconsolate when he died, it was horrible. He had his stroke in 1982 but then he continued for twenty years, and he trained. But his photography was not the same. He focused on stationary motifs, Madonna pictures, symbol images and such. No outreaching photography, it was difficult with the stick. But he went on.”

There was language teaching, history teaching, social studies, writing and photo history continuously at Strömholm’s Photo School. “I remember the first few times when we were at Klippgatan 19C, when we sat there and he initially just talked about his photography. This was not a man of many words, he was more Hemingwayan. It was short sentences and his stories were more like statements in which he mentioned what he had done. And his presence on the scene was ... yes, it was electric in some way. We were quite smitten. Especially when you saw his pictures from Poste Restante [1967] which is a fantastic collection that tells a lot about his life and upbringing and about his fears. And he shared this with us, briefly and distinctly, and said names that showed that he knew things. But then I had the old habit that I used to come in early, already at eight, and there in the windowsills lay his pictures in 18 x 24 size which had been copied during the night.”

“And I looked at the pictures that lay there and it was an incomparable experience. I understood that this was not just a guy who was anyone but a narrator who also made pictures, and when you pulled them together you got Christer and his dreams, his magic and visions. He grew enormously. Another thing that was so nice with him was that he was so adventurous, he had such an appetite for life, even after his stroke. I remember, I went in his Volvo and we were somewhere in the Vasastaden district and suddenly he said, ‘Did you see? But didn’t you see the legs?’ [Petersen mimics Strömholm’s broad Stockholm accent]. He made a U-turn and drove towards the traffic and back and crawled forwards – and there came a girl with very nice legs and high-heeled shoes.”

There were new assignments to solve each week at the school, “like ‘white egg against white background’, which was certainly good but not so fascinating. And then I asked him if it was okay if I went to Hamburg to photograph my old friends, because they had something that I did not have with my bourgeois background. So, it was both a protest and a kind of idea of community that I wanted to photograph.” This was ten years after On the Road (1957) with Kerouac’s gallery of odd ones out, “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time”.

Now six years older, Petersen returned to Hamburg only to find that his desirous Sankt Pauli family was gone – everyone except Gertrud who he found at the Scandi-Bar, which was located on Seilerstraße (a parallel street to Reeperbahn), “a place that opened at twelve o’clock at night, and it was full of striptease stars, transvestites and everything else who used to come there. It is very interesting. You learn a lot about life.”

Gertrud mostly knew him as a painter since he used to sell his postcard drawings at the Fischmarkt every Sunday. “She did not like the idea of me being a photographer, but after three pilsners she changed her mind and said that I could come to Lehmitz at one o’clock the next night.” Though Petersen couldn’t have had a more celebratory start at Café Lehmitz, he did not at first realise what a treasure trove for situational photography that he had run into. “No, no, not at all. This was just a place that I came to, but then I liked the people more and more when I got to know them, and we got along really well. I had to convince them somehow. They were exceptionally kind and decent people,” he answers. 

“They were people affected by circumstances in different ways. Much like in Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz [1980], a fantastic effort, with the protagonist coming out of prison and is about to start a new life. He is a sensitive, living person, and he has to conduct himself all the time. And it is so difficult. It is through his eyes that the film illustrates various things. There are wonderful films that Fassbinder has done. Even his last film was strong, Querelle [1982], the one about the sailors written by Jean Genet.”

There were several men just like the fictive Franz Biberkopf in Petersen’s new Lehmitz family. “I am a small guy. I was no threat to them, and above all I fell in very well with Lothar who was a fellow who had very great respect. There were really only two things I can say that he honestly liked: his dog and Ramona. Ramona was actually called Karl-Heinz. At the age of nineteen, she changed her name and started with hormone injections, and she was doing that while I met her. Sometimes she was a man, sometimes she was a woman, and then she was a stripper at the Roxy-Bar on Große Freiheit. And Lothar had done something terrible and had been in prison for ten years. He had a gentleness in the midst of everything that I believe opened for a kind of mutuality.”

Lothar, his black poodle and Ramona are also featured in the last section of Anders Petersen’s monograph that came out in 2013. When Petersen returned to Hamburg many years after Lehmitz, Lothar had become a manager of a neighbourhood brothel business in Sankt Pauli. “In the courtyard building he had three older women who worked there, he himself lived in a small outhouse along with one of them. And he had a vegetable patch because he was very keen that everyone should eat well. He cooked for them.” Lothar was one of the Lehmitz jailbirds who convinced Petersen that he should photograph the unseen life inside a penitentiary, an idea that resulted in Petersen’s threefold institutional series (and books) about people in a prison, in the eldercare and in a mental hospital.

Anders Petersen’s first solo show was at Café Lehmitz in 1970. Three hundred and fifty photographs nailed to the walls, and the object of the game was that anyone who recognised him- or herself in a picture was free to bring it home. Later that year, Petersen showed his Café Lehmitz pictures in Stockholm with sounds from the Hamburg bar filling the gallery. (Liljevalchs has a slideshow room with sounds from Stockholm.) But Petersen had to wait until a fortunate meeting at the Rencontres d’Arles in 1977 to get his work recognised – Café Lehmitz was finally released in a German edition in 1978, and the following year as Le Bistro d'Hambourg. A Swedish print appeared fourteen years after this masterpiece was completed.

Much of the 1970s was a difficult time for Petersen. He tried to photograph for some magazines in Sweden and, as a rather desperate measure, attempted to become a man with a movie camera during his two years at the Dramatiska Institutet (Stockholm University of the Arts). “I was quite sad then and figured that film is still quite close to photography. But they are two completely different things. At that time, I wanted to go out with a small film camera and film in much the same way as I photograph. But it was very difficult because it requires a whole staff of people to take care of it, and that is crazy and not my thing. I am more of a solitaire who builds relationships.”

Peter Ustinov is the only light (beside David Bowie) in Hermann Vaske’s misdirected documentary Why Are We Creative? (2018) in which the British actor delineates the case of Albert Einstein who belonged to a yachting club in Zurich, though he preferred to take out his jollyboat on days when there was not even a breeze: “But Einstein, when everything was reduced to the fact that there was no wind, began to notice things he would not have noticed had there been wind. And, therefore for him, it was most important to go sailing on an unpropitious day. He never won any regattas in his time, but he did notice all sorts of things, which eventually led to the ‘Theory of Creativity’.” And that is how Anders Petersen photographed his institutional trilogy (1981–1995) – with the spark of life.

“That is a fairly striking image,” Petersen replies, “because it is about taking the time, both as a human being and a photographer, and not looking for the spectacular and dramatic situations. Because if you do, you will end up in a photography that easily depicts the superficial. I am looking to find a photography that unites people instead of isolating them. I want to obtain a photography that people can identify with and recognise themselves in. And when it comes to people, there is no better way than to just sit down and talk with them, it’s that simple. One must absolutely have a curiosity that is true and correct, otherwise it doesn’t work.”

Although the Nobody Has Seen It All series from a mental hospital was the last in the trilogy of confined people, Petersen ran into difficulties when he was getting too emotively involved with the patients. “It is a creative act when you start shooting and are in the middle of everything. Sometimes I have been too close and standing with both feet in the situation, and that is not negotiable. And I made many, many mistakes then. I became too emotional so I couldn’t handle it visually. I usually come back and give away pictures but I could not do it then, something was absolutely wrong. I have learned to stand with one foot inside and the other outside the situation. I am like a rubber band so that I have an eye on what is happening and then I don’t get so emotionally engaged.”

Petersen talks about photo history as a family tree where he belongs to a branch of photographers with whom he can easily recognise himself. “First, we have Strömholm with his persistence, sensitivity, vulnerability. And then we have Brassaï, the Parisian photographer who came out in the 1930s with his book Paris de nuit. And then Weegee. I especially like Naked City, which came out in 1945, it is such a strong account of its time. Then we have such greats as Lisette Model, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin today, Robert Frank of course, and Daidō Moriyama who now receives the Hasselblad Award.”

What is fascinating about Moriyama’s work? “His waywardness, his amateurishness and that he insists all the time, he releases book after book. Overall, his photography is about his life to begin with, but also about our time. We had an exhibition at the Rat Hole Gallery in Tokyo, and then I was invited to his little place in Shinjuku above a bar, a room with a small sofa. Everything is small. There he puts up his latest pictures. He asked the people in the bar to come up with whiskey and pilsner, and then I sat there talking with Daidō and it was very, very sympathetic. We drank whiskey in a very special way as they do in Japan, one part Japanese whiskey and one part sparkling water.”

“This particular episode was in 2008 and then we talked about how it is with students. He himself has had a lot of workshops and he had almost like a school in the late 1970s. He told me that it became too much for him in the end, because the students became like his children and it was difficult to take care of everything. In Japan, it is almost in the national character that it is very passionate – if they are into something, they are into it one hundred per cent. We talked about how important it is to learn from a younger generation and how a relationship with other people can develop. And then I thought about my relationship with Christer Strömholm. It is funny, the pictures that Moriyama took in the 1960s are very similar to the pictures that Christer took in the 60s, but they did absolutely not know each other.”

He narrates an episode during a residence in Rome when a fan-turned-stalker silently followed him for a whole day, trying to mimic his shots and catch some of Petersen’s genius. He loves to teach, though – “They think that I come there as a fucking teacher and they are completely wrong! I am the student! I learn what a younger generation is doing,” he says smiling – but he has cut back on his workshops to only a few times a year. “Mutuality is magical,” says Petersen, “it is what defines life and serves as a springboard into other circumstances and situations.”

“It was tough to do Café Lehmitz because I had so many slurs from many parts in Sweden, from the political right and the proletarian people. But one has to stay clear of what others think because it is so devastating. I have my vision and it is completely clear and I know why I do things. And it is obvious that you are not immune to criticism, but you still have to be equipped for it. You learn to deal with it after a while. In France, there is a completely different sense of knowledge than in Sweden, and they can handle the information flow in a completely different way. I try to keep everything as clean as possible and that is the only way. From Lehmitz until today, there is a red thread that deals with reciprocity and a presence in people, where I want to be a part of them and not someone from the outside, whether it is a princess or a homeless person.”

As for Stockholm, Petersen operated much like the old telecom tower of the 1890s, from which 5,500 wires were suspended over the city in order to make a connection with the Stockholmers. Everyone he has connected with is – to quote William S Burroughs in Queer (written in the 1950s) – “like a photon emerging from the haze of insubstantiality to leave an indelible recording”, it’s just that “insubstantial” is never the right word for the individuals in Petersen’s photographs. Whatever these Stockholm people are up to they are quite remarkable. In a picture someone has been drawing a heart and written “I love you” four times without even begging for something in return. Though life is far from perfect, these pictures are.

Somewhere at Liljevalchs is a photograph that Petersen has taken of his notice board at home. It shows (among other things) a press clip with a picture from Café Lehmitz and a cropped image of Robert Doisneau’s Coco (1952) in his bowler hat, and that smile as wide and peculiar as the one on the fugacious snowman on Katarinavägen. Stockholm stands, in a host of ways, with one foot inside those past ages and together with the curious characters who made them real and fulfilling. Half hidden behind the flap of the inner cover at the end of the catalogue is a greeting to Lilly and Rosen, as lustrous, melancholy and life-affirming as everything else in this show: a couple’s tender caress on a bed, a man’s head against a chest, again – and then (you just know it) the whispering words of the receiving naked body, “I love you.”

We are in today and Anders Petersen sees what he wants to see.

All the somebody people.

Anders Petersen, Stockholm.
Anders Petersen, Stockholm.
Anders Petersen, Stockholm.

Anders Petersen – Stockholm at Liljevalchs konsthall in Stockholm through September 1, 2019.

This essay is for Maria Östman, Aleksandra Narancic, Sarah Cracknell and Anne Morin. Nous savons pourtant les mots de passe.

20 May 2019


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, The Wanderer, 1922. Courtesy of Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau and Institut für Kulturaustausch Tübingen. Photo: Jörg Müller.

In Expressionism there is an undeniable tendency away from the natural, the plausible and the normal towards the primitive, the passionate and the shrill … In its restlessness and its tendency towards the extreme the Expressionist movement seems quintessentially German, rather than simply modernist.

– R S Furness,  Expressionism

“Never look away,” says the pleasant young woman in a pistachio green dress to Kurt, a boy of six, as they move hand in hand through the rooms of Dresden’s Schandausstellung during the first year of the Third Reich, 1933 – though in this significant film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck the year is set to 1937 – and when the brilliancy of an abstract little painting by Kandinsky makes them stop in their tracks, away from the smear and the snigger of the guide, aunt Elisabeth becomes a careless whisper: “Don’t tell anyone but I like it.” This was the start of Nazi Germany’s “shaming exhibitions” which would swell into the horrendous Entartete Kunst (“degenerate art”) exhibitions a few years later, with its core of genuine German artists who spoke like Zarathustra: “You must have chaos in yourselves to give birth to a dancing star.”

Paul Ferdinand Schmidt was dismissed from his post as the Director of Stadtmuseum Dresden ten years before the National Socialists’ seize of power, for filling the place with a considerable collection of works from the Brücke (Bridge) group and other luminous, knotty artists of the Expressionist movement. Never Look Away (2018) begins with that idiot guide slandering a slightly prismatic painting of a blue horse by Franz Marc who was a founding member of the other major group of Expressionists, the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider). Six hundred and fifty works of art of this kind by one hundred and twelve artists, most of them Expressionists, were selected for the first of several Entartete Kunst exhibitions that would tour the Reich from the summer of 1937.

On July 19, 1937, the new neoclassical propaganda temple Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art) at 1 Prinzregentenstrasse in Munich was inaugurated with another load of animosities from the Aryan soapbox orator Adolf Hitler: “The mass of the people moved through our art exhibitions in a completely uninterested fashion or stayed away altogether. The people’s healthy perceptions recognised that all that canvas smearing was really the outcome of an impudent and unashamed arrogance or of a simply shocking lack of skill. Millions of people felt instinctively that these art stammers of the last few decades were more like the achievements that might have been produced by untalented children from eight to ten years of age and could under no circumstances be regarded as the expression of our own time or of the German future.” This was the end of Expressionism, the avant-garde, spirit, life.

Joseph Goebbels, the clubfooted Minister of Propaganda who had the looks to match a puissant Expressionist portrait, contented himself with Wolfgang Willrich’s book of January 1937 – Cleansing of the German Art Temples: An Art-Political Polemic for the Recovery of German Art in the Spirit of Nordic Style (co-written by the malignant art educator Walter Hansen) – which became the template for the purge surrounding the whole Entartete Kunst circus. By June 30, 1937, the Führer commanded his favourite painter Adolf Ziegler, President of the Reichskammer der bildenden Künste (the Reich Chamber of Culture), to “select and impound works of German art of decline since 1910 currently in the possession of the Reich, the states, and the communes, from the fields of painting and sculpture, for the purposes of an exhibition”. 

The Munich exhibition was thus followed through in two rapid weeks. The Great German Art Exhibition, with the official daubers and sculptors of Nazi banality and propaganda (Willrich included), took up the whole ground floor of the German art temple on Prinzregentenstrasse. The show was a public fiasco. As an overture to enter the exhibition of the “degenerates”, the visitors had to climb some deliberately giddy, shaky steps to the Entartete Kunst exhibition which was exactly what twenty thousand visitors did every day for the almost four and a half months that the show(s) lasted. Up here were works of art that at once expressed their time and the funereal course of the German future. During the second part of 1937, Ziegler’s five-man commission confiscated twenty thousand works by fourteen hundred artists; a quarter of these pieces were thrown into a bonfire on March 20, 1939 outside a Berlin fire station.

In Berlin on December 18, 1901, the last of the thirty-two kitsch-baroque statues representing the idols of the German past was uncovered at the beginning of the all new boulevard Siegesallee (at the Platz der Republik). The public found them ridiculous and pompous and on par with their “art expert” sovereign, who made his much famous speech next to a marbled Kaiser Wilhelm I: “The thought fills me with pride and happiness today that Berlin stands before all the world with artists who are able to produce something of such magnificence. It shows that the Berlin School of Sculpture is at a level which even the Renaissance could not possibly have surpassed,” asserted Wilhelm II, Kaiser of the German empire and King of Prussia from 1888 to the end of World War I when he fled the country.

Only the Germans remain and are above others called upon to guard these great ideals to enable the working and toiling classes, too, to become inspired by the beautiful and to help them liberate themselves from the constraints of their ordinary thoughts and attitudes,” the Kaiser went on. “But when art, as often happens today, shows us only misery, and shows it to us even uglier than misery is anyway, then art commits a sin against the German people. The supreme task of our cultural effort is to foster our ideals. If we are and want to remain a model for other nations, our entire people must share in this effort, and if culture is to fulfil its task completely it must reach down to the lowest levels of the population. That can be done only if art hold out its hand to raise the people up, instead of descending into the gutter.”

The Expressionists went down the slippery slopes of human living. “Art as suffering and redemption, as a metaphysical outcry – this seemed to be the secret of the distortions and alienations of form which were supposedly typical of German art since the Middle Ages,” argues Norbert Wolf in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1880–1938: On the Edge of the Abyss of Time. The Expressionists were a motley crew of aberrant painters and printmakers (Expressionism was by and by applied to plays, literature, dance and atonal music). They were extravagant and headstrong – most of them were in their early twenties at the beginning of the movement. Their art came with a plan for unrestraint and aesthetic rebellion against the hidebound institutional society of Wilhelmine Germany and a longing for an idealist counterworld through unlearning and revamping the old creeds.

According to Kirchner, one of the original Brücke members (and one of the greatest names in Expressionism), “A painter paints the appearances of things, not their objective correctness; in fact, he creates new appearances of things.” The Expressionists explored the sound and vision of the inner worlds of their unsnarled souls. They used stark, unmixed colours to paint the forms of internality, the subjective self and the whole human cosmos – they were well aware of other dimensions of reality – as Ludwig Meidner put it, “Paint your grief, your entire insanity and sanity out of the whole of your being.”

The Expressionists were for the colourful, the pitchy, the gleeful and the dolorous, instincts, sexual desires, distortions and hyperbole, the writings of Nietzsche, a nostalgia for a Golden Age, a paradise fraught with discrepancies, utopianism, exoticizing fancies about cultures and people of distant (fantasy) lands, the primitivist, the tribal, the late Middle Ages, metropolitan life, the unsullied authentic, internality and bodily merriments, dance, coitus, skinny dipping, new forms, Jugendstil, collaborations, over-excitedness, Arts and Crafts and principles before the industrial revolution, the body and the psyche, Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Dürer, the Isenheim Altarpiece, essences, Romanticism, variety shows, vaudeville, the grotesque, circus freaks and the lowly.

This purely domestic modernist movement came to fruition between Scylla and Charybdis, between Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler: “The era of German Expressionism was finally extinguished by the Nazi dictatorship in 1933. But its most incandescent phase of 1910–1920 left a legacy that has caused reverberations ever since. It was a period of intellectual adventure, passionate idealism, and deep yearnings for spiritual renewal. Increasingly, as some artists recognised the political danger of Expressionism’s characteristic inwardness, they became more committed to exploring its potential for political engagement or wider social reform. But utopian aspirations and the high stakes involved in ascribing a redemptive function to art, meant that Expressionism also bore an immense potential for despair, disillusionment and atrophy,” clarifies Ashley Bassey in Expressionism.

“As far as French art is concerned, the light definitely comes to us today from Germany. Not a day passes without an exhibition of a new French artist opening in Berlin, Munich, Düsseldorf or Cologne,” wrote the great Parisian critic and poet Apollinaire in Paris-Journal on July 3, 1914, and he did not overstate it. “Unadmitted envy of the world capital of art, Paris, certainly played a role here, since all of the revolutionary decisions that shaped modern art had been taken in France,” argues Norbert Wolf in his book on Kirchner. “Nowhere were these currents registered more enthusiastically than in the officially so philistine Wilhelmine Germany. Prior to the First World War, liberal museum directors, progressive art historians, open-minded collectors and dealers had ensued that imperial salon painting would not have a monopoly on setting the tone, and encouraged that very ‘gutter art’ the powers-that-be despised.”

The remarkable Sonderbund exhibition of 1912 presented more of the French modernists than anywhere in France: twenty-six works by Cézanne, twenty-five by Gauguin and sixteen by Picasso – and a whopping one hundred and twenty-five works by the finally-appreciated van Gogh, and thirty-six by the exhibition’s honouree Edvard Munch (who had received much of his art training in Paris). In a letter to a friend, Munch rejoiced that “There is a collection here of all the wildest paintings in Europe. Cologne Cathedral is shaking to its very foundations.” When the works of these foreign Post-Impressionists were gathered together under the umbrella term “Expressionism” in the early 1910s, true Expressionism was already being created by a group of Germans “of a particularly sensitive, even slightly neurotic, perception of the world, which went beyond mere appearances” (Bassey).

There were no church bells for Munch in 1892, however, when Galerie Verein Berliner Künstler (Union of Berlin Artists) presented the Norwegian artist’s new painting Kiss by the Window and many other of his works – the “scandalous” show was annulled within a week. The wealthy artist Max Liebermann (who later operated on the fringes of Expressionism) founded the Berlin Secession as an immediate response to the Munch debacle and the Verein’s obsolete tastes in art. The Secession exhibited everything else than Wilhelmine art but did worse in presenting something original. After a great row in 1910 when Liebermann’s jury symbolically rejected the Brücke group, Max Pechstein set up their own New Secession.

“My aim is to always get hold of the magic of reality and to transfer this reality into painting – to make the invisible visible through reality. It may sound paradoxical, but it is, in fact, reality which forms the mystery of our existence,” explained Max Beckmann in On My Painting (written in exile in Amsterdam in 1938). “Imagination is perhaps the most decisive characteristic of mankind. My dream is the imagination of space – to change the optical impression of the world of objects by a transcendental arithmetic progression of the inner being. That is the precept.” van Gogh had already achieved this. The first time the Dutch outsider was shown in Germany was at Galerie Ernst Arnold in Dresden in 1905. Here, this very year, four involuntary architecture students who wanted to be bohemian artists decided to form the Brücke – swept off as they were by van Gogh, youthful ideas and Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “I love the great despisers for they are the great venerators and arrows of longing for the other shore.”

Nietzsche’s in the air at the beautiful Millesgården (it is specially a ravishing place in the summertime), an art museum and a sculpture garden on the Lindingö island in Stockholm, and what is shown in the gallery from our millennium is one hundred and thirty-four works (mostly paintings and prints) from 1905 to 1938 by nineteen of the most celebrated Expressionists, sampled from the Häuptli Collection at the Aargauer Kunsthaus in Switzerland and the Collection of the Osthaus Museum Hagen in Germany.

Millesgården is the former home and workplace of Carl Milles, the Swedish sculptor famous for his monumental outdoor pieces, who – and how ironical isn’t this? – detested modern art and particularly the “freakshow” that he experienced upstairs at the historical Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich in 1937. On September 12, Milles wrote to his wife: “We have seen two large exhibitions today. Modern art in a wonderful new art palace, things that the regime allows and then what they do not allow […] I find that they do a great work here when they show this horrible collection.”

One only has to lay one’s eyes on a delight such as Walther Bötticher’s Red Cabbage (1907) in Millesgården’s Back to Paradise show to note that a lot of people are totally wrong. This marvellous oil painting, created by small strokes of greens, blues, yellow, ochre and purple, has an early 20th-century vibrancy of a pretty unruffled commotion – the painter’s nervous system laid bare on a plot of soil. Bötticher painted his jittered vegetables before he joined the Brücke in Berlin, the group from Dresden that agreed on a name lifted from a Nietzschean one-liner: “What is great in man is that he is a bridge with no end.”

The motto for the Technische Universität Dresden still is Wissen schafft Brücken, Knowledge Builds Bridges. In his “Chronik der Brücke” (written in 1913), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner acknowledged that the Saxony capital “yielded much inspiration through its scenic charm and old culture”. He and his friends Fritz Bleyl (not included in the Back to Paradise show), Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff founded the Brücke on June 7, 1905 with a shared idea of creating an art free from academe and restraints, and a desire to accomplish and refine a bohemian modus vivendi full of song, dance, sex (following the words of Zarathustra: “The day is lost on which you have not danced at least once”). A cluster of works in the show are with naked people romping and playing in the water with the very present nature all around them, like in Kirchner’s Bathers (Fehmarn), painted on the island in the summer of 1912 in a roughhewn style not unlike a woodcut, and Otto Mueller’s (who joined the Brücke in 1910) intimate, almost masklike Bathers (1920). In the summers of 1909, 1910 and 1911, the gang travelled to the lakes around the Moritzburg Castle to paint their female entourage in an aquatic Garden of Eden.

The shared artistic life between the members of the Brücke began in the garret of Heckel’s parental home where they learned to control the “courageous” lines of life-drawing – in sessions that would never last more than fifteen minutes at a time – using models unaccustomed to posing, who were asked to assume all sorts of bungling positions to enable these novel artists to capture the quintessence of daily life through human bodies. In September 1906, Heckel advanced as the Brücke’s supervisor in their own house at 65 Berliner Strasse near the Dresden Hauptbahnhof. They filled the place with their own designs, their wall and furnishing paintings were bursting with motifs of exotica and carnal knowledge.

Max Pechstein joined the Brücke in the spring of 1906. In his memoirs (which came out five years after his death), Pechstein described how delighted they were “to discover a complete consonance in our urge for liberation, for an art that stormed forwards unconstrained by convention”. When the Brücke published their woodcut manifesto in 1906, it was addressed to a “new generation of born creators and lovers of art”. The manifesto belonged to the first of seven portfolios published each year for their members and patrons, each with three prints and an artist-made front design.

“The technical procedures doubtless release energies in the artist that remain unused in the much more lightweight processes of drawing or painting,” Kirchner enthused. “There is no better place to get to know an artist than in his graphic work.” The raw effrontery of the woodcut, with lively aberrant colours added to the compositions, made it the perfect medium for the Expressionists. Emil Nolde was the ardent Nazi fool who – and how ironical isn’t this again? – became the most castigated artist in the Third Reich. During Nolde’s temporary stay with the Brücke in 1906–07 he taught them how to make etchings. The members produced these pieces with a deliberately obnoxious lack of traditional sophistication and bravura.

Starr Figura curated the important German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse show at MoMA in 2011. In the catalogue she argues that, “This effort to bring forth the distinct expressive potential of each printmaking technique was arguably the most revolutionary of the Brücke artists’ innovations, and it reflects a patently modern point of view. Printmaking was historically tied to craft traditions, and by the 19th century was associated with technical exactitude, faithful reproduction, and uniformity from one impression to the next in any given edition. Brücke overthrew all of this, approaching printmaking as a creative rather than a reproductive technique. Their search for what is most distinctive or immediate about a particular technique goes hand in hand with the larger Expressionist goal of conveying the immediacy or urgency of a particular subject.”

“Before the late 19th century, the graphic arts – one of the most glorious artistic traditions in Germany, going back to the prints and drawings of Albrecht Dürer and other Renaissance masters in the 15th century – had become a marginal genre there,” writes Starr Figura. “Printmaking, too, engendered a sense of experimental freedom. For the impecunious young artists, it was a less expensive way of producing work and developing their craft than painting, and, like drawing, offered an immediacy and intimacy that painting could not. Working collectively, the artists shared technical information associated with the various printmaking mediums. Their embrace of printmaking as an avant-garde practice ushered in a new era in the history of the medium and would have a significant influence on the next two decades of German art.”

Galerie Ernst Arnold in Dresden supported the Brücke with some favourable outcome. For the first exhibition at Arnold with Kirchner, Heckel, Schmidt-Rottluff and Pechstein in 1910, a woodcut rendering was produced of each of the paintings by one of the fellow artists for a thirty-eight-page catalogue, this was a very new thing. Max Pechstein presented his Lying Girl in 1910, a painting of a young woman in a Breton sweater, a blue skirt and black stockings – so far so rather normal – but her jaundiced face is a scream in yellow and red signal colours and she is reclining on a bed of hot lava. What an excellent day for an exorcism of the mellifluous naturalism of Mary Cassatt’s Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878).

Pechstein was one of several Expressionists who travelled to a small South Sea island before World War I, in his case Palau east of the Philippines in 1914. In Manila on March 28, 1915, he wrote: “I have been expelled from paradise and am now sitting in the hell of idle waiting, a scattered grain of sand in the universe.” The tropical painting In the Canoe (Outrigger) (1917) is a recollection of this paradise with three dark-skinned natives in a catamaran speeding towards the hot lava-coloured horizon. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner claimed to be the original artist to unite the fanciful elements of Oceanian and African cultures with his own art (he even maintained that Edvard Munch had imitated his style). “Although Kirchner’s work is nowadays undisputedly regarded as the most significant and influential contribution to the Brücke, he developed an almost obsessive urge in later years to emphasise the uniqueness of his own work and his own dominant position,” writes Dietmar Elger in his book Expressionism:

“In retrospect, the early Brücke years were seen quite differently by Kirchner. He believed that during that time, when the artists had developed their own style mainly by working together and influencing each other, they merely benefitted from his own ideas, which they then managed to market in a profitable way. In his Davos diaries and letters, he attempted to play down the significance of the Brücke years for his own artistic development and even deny it. In 1924, after reading and correcting the manuscript of Will Groham’s book [Das Werk Ernst Ludwig Kirchners (1926)], he added a note: ‘That Brücke episode must be taken out again. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. After all, it’s not even related to my work.’”

Kirchner was Kirchner and the painting of himself as the lonely, crummy The Wanderer (1922) on a bridge with no end in the Alps could very well be the work that defines the darker existentialism of Back to Paradise – he is not exactly the Wanderer of Caspar David Friedrich’s, rather a “bundle of distorted limbs,” as Victor Hugo described his hunchback Quasimodo – however, for those who want to go directly to paradise without much of the angsty ruffle there is a host of prewar paintings such as Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s Arcadian bonbon Boats in the Water (Boats in the Harbour) from 1913. Kirchner never recovered from the nervous breakdown he suffered in 1915, after a short time as an artillery driver in World War I, and lived the rest of his life addicted to drugs. He shot himself in 1938.

Numerous from the avant-garde commended the war, and many of the Expressionists enlisted as long as the exhilaration lasted. Max Beckmann, for instance, wrote this to his wife in 1914 when he served as a nurse in East Prussia: “Outside there was that wonderful, magnificent noise of battle. I went outside, through large groups of injured and worn-out soldiers coming back from the battlefield, and I could hear this strange, weirdly magnificent music.” Like so many others who outlived the war, Beckmann had a mental collapse and was discharged. After three years on the Eastern Theatre, Schmidt-Rottluff came back so shell-shocked that he had to kiss his painting goodbye. The War that was said to End All Wars was a catharsis on what was left of the Expressionists’ young selves.

“The spiritual element in Expressionism, its speculative nature, had been there from the start, but it was only now that a public dissatisfied with the war seemed to suddenly discover it,” explains Joan Weinstein in The End of Expressionism: Art and the November Revolution in Germany, 1918–19. “High profits in the armament industry and few available consumer goods led to a boom in the art market. As prices for older art became prohibitive, it opened a market for modern art, which also benefitted from tax laws favouring living artists. Many of Expressionism’s patrons now came from the newer industrial and financial sectors and often held reformist political and social views.”

There was so much Expressionism visible after the war that one reviewer grumbled, “Now it’s Heckeling and Kirchnering from every wall.” The Weimar Republic provided the “Kandinskying” of the Blaue Reiter as well. Wassily Kandinsky was thirty years old when he just left a future career as an academic lawyer in Moscow (and rejected a profession at the University of Dorpat in Estonia) and moved to Munich in 1896 to become an artist. He settled in the Schwabing area where “Everyone painted […] or wrote poetry or made music, or began to dance. You could find at least two ateliers under the roof in every house, where sometimes not exactly very much was painted, but a lot was always debated, disputed, philosophised and conscientiously drunk (which depended more on the state of one’s purse than on the state of one’s morals).”

Kandinsky appeared as the great strategian among the bohemians of Schwabing – these people knew about the art of Paris better than everyone else in Germany but their aim was something else – and collaborated and exhibited with many of the artists in the city until he and his woman, the artist Gabriele Münter, embarked on a five-year journey across Europe (and Tunisia) in 1903. There is a great little painting in Back to Paradise by Münter – Landscape with White Wall (1910) – in which the colours are separated in blocks to build the motif. Unfortunately, there are only two etchings by the genius Kandinsky – Small Worlds X and XII (both 1912) – spatial microworlds of shapes and figures swirling into geometrical forms, which in 1913 would turn wholly abstract.

His art was a forceful argument to reinstall the “what” in art. “This ‘what’ is the eternal truth embraced by art and which only art can express by means essentially its own,” Kandinsky argued in his famous Concerning the Spiritual in Art (published in 1911), his call for cosmological and spiritual concerns: “The solitary seekers, the hungry of soul, the visionaries are derided or dubbed as spiritually abnormal. Those are souls, however, who refuse to be lulled into lethargy and forever yearn, however vaguely, for spiritual life, advancement, and knowledge, sound disconsolate and lamentful amidst the coarse materialistic chorus of spiritual darkness.”

The Blaue Reiter was more of a coterie of friends than a group like the Brücke. It was founded in 1911 by Kandinsky and his younger companion Franz Marc who loved horses since his days in the military and who had only recently found a style as an artist that wasn’t retrospective. Small Composition III (1913–14), his painting in the Millesgården show, is surely influenced by his meeting with Robert Delaunay in Paris in the autumn of 1912. Delaunay’s new direction in painting was called Orphism and involved geometry, vibrant colours and sheer abstraction. Marc travelled to Delaunay’s studio in the company of August Macke, who seems to have collected Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Berlin, Street (1913) (not included in the show) of two fancy prostitutes on a pink sidewalk full of furtive Herren and painted it through a cut diamond for his own Bright Women in Front of the Hat Shop (1913). (The translation of the title in the catalogue is faulty.)

“The laws of perspective, faithfulness to anatomy, natural appearances and colours counted for little or nothing; distortion and exaggeration became an equivalent for rendering the material world transparent to the psyche,” writes Norbert Wolf in Expressionism. “Their search for metaphysical foundations or cosmological orders, utopian designs and elementary realms beyond history from which they hoped for a rebirth of unadulterated creativity, the Expressionists developed many an idea that originated in German Romanticism.” When Macke declared that a composition “must transpire out of a source still hidden from us today, full of joy, full of sorrow, powerful, thoughtful, full of farts”, his stance was part Blaue Reiter, part Brücke. Macke was only twenty-six when he painted his last work during the second month of World War I. It is called Farewell.

A planned illustrated folio version of the Holy Writ was postponed due to the war and definitely cancelled with Franz Marc’s death at Verdun in 1916 (he was thirty-six). Four years earlier, he and Kandinsky published the Blaue Reiter Almanac. “The volume is like a cabinet of curiosities, a trove of images combined in ways that are suggestive of unexpected relationships,” writes Ashley Bassey who calls it “the most important single document of prewar Expressionism”: “On one level it is a kind of sourcebook for artists of texts and images. However, taken as a whole, it can be read as an entire argument for a radical revision of art and how we look at it.” 

Germany officially lost the Great War after a settlement that was reached in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles on June 28, 1919 in less than an hour. At daybreak on November 9 the year before, zealous workers and soldiers joined forces and breezed Berlin’s jurisdictions and public buildings. They and their red flags did not encounter any resistance. The same day the Weimar Republic was declared by the leader of the social Democratic Party, Philipp Scheidemann. Pechstein, who now was part of the November Group which had been formed by Expressionists during the short-lived political eagerness following the outset of the revolution, made a handbill statement with the heading “What We Wish”: “We are as rich in inspiration, readiness to sacrifice, belief in our people, as we are poor in possessions. Let the socialist republic give us trust, we have freedom, and out of the dry earth flowers will bloom in its honour.”

The Expressionists’ sudden interest in politics stemmed from this gullible conception that the Socialist State would finally be the Eden that would provide them with complete artistic freedom and that art would be everywhere in society. (This is an example of a letter between these artists in the early days of 1919: “News from Russia has finally arrived. Moscow is said to be flooded with Expressionism. They say Kandinsky and the moderns are splashing whole quarters with colour, using blank walls and the sides of houses as the surfaces on which to paint modern pictures.”) In Munich, the Bavarian Soviet Republic was proclaimed. However, when the independent Social Democratic Party called for a general strike in the spring of 1919, the dream of a republic within the republic was squashed with such a level of barbarity that one thousand people lost their lives. Springtime for Hitler.

“Under such conditions, Expressionism withered: as an art and a lifestyle,” notes Starr Figura in the MoMA catalogue. “It was too dependent on an optimistic vitality that could not withstand the combined shocks of wartime and post-revolutionary trauma. Its demise was caused in part by being outflanked by other artistic movements that proclaimed very different styles of aesthetic and political radicalism, most notably Dada.” A hundred flowers bloomed while hundreds of millions of human lives were extinguished in the Socialist utopias. What happened to Herwarth Walden – one of Expressionism’s greatest supporters as the publisher of the avant-garde magazine Der Sturm (The Storm) and, from 1912, also proprietor of Galerie Der Sturm in Berlin – was emblematic of what happened to the avant-garde when it was swept away by its Stalinist ravings. Walden went to Moscow in 1933 to teach but perished in a gulag during World War II for talking about the art that he lived for.

It is true that the Expressionists lent themselves to the primitive, the passionate and the shrill – August Macke once confessed to colleagues that maybe what they did was “too big for what they wanted to say” – and that their “gutter” art gave birth to dancing stars, years after Nietzsche and Zarathustra: “Life must overcome itself again and again. Life wants to build itself up into the heights with pillars and steps; it wants to look into vast distances and out toward stirring beauties: therefore, it requires height. And because it requires height, it requires steps and contradiction among the steps and the climbers. Life wants to climb and to overcome itself climbing.”

Bassey: “Among the ideas that proved most alluring for artists were his diagnoses of the decadence of contemporary culture and his exaltation of creativity as a force pregnant with the potential for vital salvation. He championed instinct over morality. His writings proffered the idea that they were superior men who could rise above the crowd. His vitalism and ecstatic ‘Dionysian’ affirmation of life, which embraced extremes of both joy and pain, fuelled Expressionism’s passion, while his damning indictment of conventional morality urged on its rebellion.”

It is rather appropriate that you have to cross a bridge to reach this tiptop show at Millesgården, but the title’s promise of a return to Paradise is a bit of a hit or miss due to these poles of joy and pain that nurtured and inflamed the Expressionists’ art. Two more paintings and a linocut: Erich Heckel’s Woods by the Sea (1913) is a paradise tainted by conflict skies and a water void of yesteryear’s merry bathers. Three years later he painted Spring in Flanders as if this new reality with a lonesome wanderer moving through a landscape laid waste by war could only be processed in the style of a theatre backdrop. Christian Rohlfs’s wide-format print The Fallen One (1913) is an eternal picture of man expelled from Paradise or just the glory of life. He could be a man in Pompeii 79 AD or the artist himself or a Swedish gentleman of today entangled in the hole of the tarantula.

Don’t look away. Never look away. All that is true is beautiful.

Christian Rohlfs, Fallen Man, 1913–14.

Back to Paradise: Masterpieces of Expressionism from the Aargauer Kunsthaus and the Osthaus Museum Hagen at Millesgården in Stockholm through June 9, 2019.

This essay is for Kevin Wright, Stephen Ferber, Ronny Svensson and brothers everywhere.