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Swedish-American Works from the Hillstrom Collection
November 23, 2009 - January 29, 2010
This exhibition, presented in conjunction with Connected with Water (Paintings by Gudrun Westerlund), includes works by Swedish-American artists Dewey Albinson (1898-1971), John F. Carlson (1874-1945), Henry Mattson (1887-1971), B. J. O. Nordfeldt (1878-1955), Birger Sandzén (1871-1954), and Carl Sprinchorn (1887-1971). These artists were all born in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, they each had prominent careers in the first half of the twentieth century, and, with one exception, they were all born in Sweden (Albinson's parents had emigrated not long before his birth in the United States).
The works in the exhibit include recent donations of paintings by Albinson, given by Bob ('60) and Tucki ('60) Bellig and by Colles and Dr. John Larkin, and a recent acquisition of a woodblock print by Nordfeldt, purchased with funds committed by Dawn ('67) and Edward Michael. Also included are several works donated to the Museum by Reverend Richard L. Hillstrom ('38), and two paintings that have been promised as future gifts and lent by him for this exhibition. The Hillstrom Museum of Art is grateful for the generosity of all its donors.
The question of whether or not there is a discernable "Swedish" quality -- whether stylistic or related to subject matter -- in works by artists such as these is one that was addressed by Mary Towley Swanson in her dissertation Four Swedish-American Painters: John F. Carlson, Henry Mattson, B. J. O. Nordfeldt, and Carl Sprinchorn (University of Minnesota, 1982). Towley, who studied at Gustavus Adolphus College from 1957 to 1959, and who taught art history at Gustavus in the mid 1960s followed by many years at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, researched and published widely on Swedish-American artists, including not only Carlson, Mattson, Nordfeldt and Sprinchorn, but also Albinson and Sandzén, both of whom are discussed in her dissertation. In it, Swanson considered the degree to which the ethnicity of immigrant artists had an impact on their work, careers, and private lives. While it was common for art critics to detect Swedish characteristics in works of these artists, Swanson's conclusion in her exhaustively researched study was that the Swedish background of the artists, although playing an important role in their artistic careers, had a more limited impact on their works. Her conclusion was based on consideration of four particular issues, including the degree of acquaintance the individual artists had with Swedish art prior to emigrating, their experience in America as an immigrant, the extent of their participation in Swedish-American or Scandinavian-American cultural organizations and exhibitions, and, importantly, their degree of involvement with American art, artists, and art organizations. The last factor seems to have been the most decisive one for artists like Carlson, Mattson, Nordfeldt, Sprinchorn, Sandzén, and Albinson, who were more closely connected with mainstream American art than with contemporary or historical Swedish art and, at least in stylistic matters, felt allegiance to American models and teachers more readily that to Swedish ones.
Nevertheless, one can legitimately ponder, when viewing works by Swedish-American artists, if there is something Swedish in them. Two of the artists whose works are on view here, Mattson and Carlson, noted that their thematic selection had at least some connection with their heritage, Mattson's typical seascapes relating to his familiarity with the Swedish coastal regions and Carlson's typical, often snowy, landscapes relating to his experience of winter in the old country. Critics often cited a frequent appearance of landscapes as indication of a connection of Swedish-American artists with their past, in the form of the landscape tradition in Sweden. It should be remembered, however, that an interest in landscape was also prevalent in many American artists of that era, so the fact that the works in this exhibit are almost entirely landscapes does not necessarily relate to the Swedish origin of the artists.
The conclusions of the Swanson study are in accord with observations made by Swedish artist Gudrun Westerlund, who was asked to consider this question in relationship to the specific works chosen for this exhibition. While noting occasional similarities between some of these prints and paintings and works by certain Swedish artists, she generally felt that the connection to Swedish art was not very strong, and that the overall quality of the works on view here owes more to the immediate interests of the Americanized artists than to their Scandinavian heritage.
Images of paintings in the exhibition (please click on names below to view images of paintings and descriptive texts)
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