11 July 2014


Nils Dardel, Young Man and Girl, 1919.

I can and shall be a great painter, a beautiful human whose gaze is pure.

– Nils Dardel

Narcissus is always with us. And Narcissus was always with us with the dandies, those entertaining personalities of the past who – as strange as it might appear today – achieved things with an effort and a basic sense of self-worth: “Above all, it is the burning need to create an originality for oneself,” argued Baudelaire in his essay “Le Peintre de la vie moderne – Le Dandy” (published in 1863). “Whether these men are called refined, extraordinary, handsome, lions or dandies, they have all come from the same origin; they all participate in the same characteristic of opposition and revolt; they are all representative of what is best in human pride, of that need, which is too rare in the men today, of opposing and demolishing triviality.”

The works by the Swedish-born artist and complete dandy Nils Dardel (1888–1943) are a dish of scrambled stars, cosmetic fairy tales, and disorderly hallucinations from the sorry corners of life. The artist said that he was setting himself free “by painting myself away from my visions and befriending my demons”. He knew that his time was measured.

Dardel is coiffured like a proto-version of Lux Interior of The Cramps in his most famous (and to many Swedes overfamiliar) oil painting The Dying Dandy (1918) in which he reclines in a Pietà that dazzles with Renaissance colours, Matissean lines and histrionic death. The effeminate star – with his left hand on his failing heart and the other loosely united with his mirror of coquetry, and surrounded by three caring young ladies and a fellow dandy in a mourning pose – is a dashing figure. As Max Beerbohm indeed declared: “Dandyism is, after all, one of the decorative arts.”

The Dying Dandy was Dardel’s superficial farewell to his terminal homosexuality. (The pre-studies show the dandy served by two soft males and a boy.) “By this time, he had established his own trademark. But it was as if the role or myth of Dardel was already getting in the way of the artist. His witticisms and the juicy anecdotes about him spread far and wide. Dardel jokes were told like bar jokes. His private life had virtually become public property,” writes Erik Näslund in the catalogue to Dardel and the Modern Age at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Nita Wallenberg of the Wallenberg dynasty, and the daughter of Sweden’s attaché in the Far East, became Dardel’s marriage obsession in Tokyo in 1917 during a trip around the world together with his friend (and lover) Rolf de Maré. Her father decoupled them as soon as he heard about the engagement.

Dardel and Thora Klinckowström met on a boat to France and then at the Café de la Rotonde in Montparnasse. He proposed to her by saying that they could always divorce if their wedding arrangement would ever bore them. Braque, Satie and Léger were among the guests when they married in 1921. My Daughter (1923) is a watercolour with Dardel in a snazzy outfit and Ingrid high in his arms as if his only child was a trophy toy to flaunt with in the Mediterranean landscape. Two years into the marriage he painted the watercolour Family Idyll (not in the show) with the spouses back-to-back and bored to death, like the last phase in Orson’s breakfast montage of Emily Norton and Charles Foster Kane. The lethargic Dardel is meant to keep up enough interest to be reading the script for his wife’s next book. The featured pictures on the wall in their Montmartre home at 108 rue Lepic are also taken from reality. They are about nightmares, wishful thinking and the other’s sudden death.

Mr Näslund, author of several biographies including Dardel and Rolf de Maré: Art Collector, Ballet Director, Museum Creator, was also a friend of Thora Dardel: “I remember she came to my home and she looked into my bedroom, and she said, ‘Oh, I see you have a partous.’ And I said, ‘Well, Thora, what do you mean by that?’ And she said, ‘A partous! We had that in Paris in the 1920s. A big, big bed that everybody got into.’ And I think that was also the spirit of the 1920s artistically, that all the arts got into that partous, and participated somehow. Everything was allowed, artistically, sexually and whatever. No one cared and everything was open.” The Dardels were like Bowie and Angie in the 1970s, there was never any love but they drove each other mad of jealousy.

British writer Arthur Symons called Decadence a “beautiful and interesting disease” in the 1890s. Dardel was the last in that tainted line of Decadents who sought the poisonous sensations of alcohol, drugs and forbidden love in measures beyond dissipation. Dardel’s remarkable charm, his delicate evasiveness and precise exterior masked the shadows of his self-destructive conduct. He loved to cause a stir but no one really knew who he was.

Ragnar Josephson is one of the few critics who have mentioned the connection between Dardel and Decadence. This is from his review in the daily Svenska Dagbladet dating May 5, 1939: “Much of Dardel’s art can be perceived as Surrealism predating Surrealism […] but Dardelism is nevertheless neither Dadaism or Dalism. These take their cause solemnly, they seek to reveal new aspects of man’s subconscious, they aim to scrutinise the inexplicable. But Dardel, contrarily, has an irony that fractures any such claims. He may be as eccentric as it is possible to be, but he stands always with a glint in his eye, regarding his bizarre antics. It is this confounding superiority that makes his so-called Decadence seem not so severe after all. Were we to take excessive pains to psychoanalyse his paintings, he would surely be most delighted at having hoodwinked us so capitally. The curious is almost certainly what he himself has experienced, albeit with an intellectual, lucid mind that is tall of ingeniousness and tomfoolery.”

Nils Dardel was born as von Dardel in a mansion 150 kilometres from Stockholm. The young man spent two years at the Royal Institute of Art before he went to Paris in the autumn of 1910 to study at the Académie Matisse and to refine his superlative talents as a social swinger in both Paris and Senlis (north of the capital). Baudelaire’s description of the Dandy in “Le Peintre de la vie moderne” suited Dardel just fine: “To be away from home and yet to feel at home anywhere; to see the world, to be at the very centre of the world, and yet to be unseen of the world, such are some of the minor pleasures of those independent, intense and impartial spirits, who do not lend themselves easily to linguistic definitions.”

Back in Stockholm in 1912, Dardel met the man who would later become the impresario of the superb and revolutionary Ballets suédois in Paris (1920–1925). The extraordinary wealthy and venturesome Rolf de Maré acquired most of Dardel’s early work, and the artist introduced him to Cubism and the great names of French Modernism. Dardel’s paintings before WWI stretched from secondary but competent mimicries of Braque, and prismatic city views, which are rather ruined by his Naïvism of the time, to his wishy-washy country paintings, a crude mélange of Pointillism and druggy candy-shop Renoir. The War and the Existentialism of the author Pär Lagerkvist, who Dardel befriended in 1914, put an end to that.

“Dardelism” is not a singular style but a tendency to collect and reject and wring out the pieces from any possible movement to visualise the impressions of his morbid states of dreaminess and intoxication – his overexcited nerves – flashes of life’s diversions, life’s ill-natured undercurrents … Dardel was great with portraits when he added his own stuff (as with the rogues among the Renaissance artists), and his tender portrait of Rolf de Maré from 1916 is a lovely example of practical Dardelism – a photograph couldn’t have captured de Maré better than this, and yet it is dominated by Dardel’s whimsy: behind the aristocrat is a spongy coastline, a garden of Eden with death lurking up around the next bend, turning our wish to its will.

What makes Dardel fascinating is that he was this obviously contrived and disembodied figure who – when everything was inspired – painted for the eye that registers more than the surface of things. The ensembles of women in ghostly white robes and men in funeral suits in The Drowned Girl (1919) are like pins in a grieving game just waiting for their own collapse. The second version of the work has an important inclusion: a man who is looking at us. Throughout his entire life Dardel lived under the pressure that his weak heart could fail him at any given time. Most of his best works are like confectionary boxes with riotous configurations and sudden (stylish) death.

Cecil Beaton (another dandy) once wrote that, “The West has an absolute need to inject not only the colours of the East into its pallid spectrum of browns and greys and blacks but also its qualities of the bizarre and the alien.” The little Rousseau there was in Dardel painted “nature” as exotic zoos, and the animals – giraffes, lions, elephants, reindeer and the dandy monkeys alike – they all have the look of rub-ons in a panorama. Towards the end of his life he did a series of truly bizarre works that were made after his travels in South America. The way he painted the natives as weird aliens is not racist but a joke without amusement.

The surreal and brilliant Philippe at the Grave (1924) shows a young dandy (likely Dardel himself) sitting on a grave in deep thoughts about his own mortality. Nils Dardel finally met the Grim Reaper at the age of fifty-four, after he and his companion Edita Morris had moved to New York at the beginning of WWII. It is hardly surprising that his last work was his unfinished business with a bunch of skeletons having a laugh. Ingrid von Dardel painted The Dream in 1943. She is the girl who sleeps under a tree as an angel shines up her dream with pappa, dressed to the teeth for the hereafter.

Nils Dardel, Family Idyll, 1923.

Nils Dardel and the Modern Age at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm through September 14, 2014.