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Thursday, July 17th, 2014

“To steal its secret and beauty”: Anders Zorn, Sweden’s Underrated Master of Naturalism


Anders Zorn: Sweden’s Master Painter.  Written by Johan Cederlund, Hans Henrik Brummer, Per Hedstrom, and James A. Ganz

This long-awaited monograph on Anders Zorn accompanied the retrospective at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor last year, seen in New York this Spring at the National Academy Museum, Exhibition and publication alike are the first in a very long time devoted to this underrated virtuoso of fin de siècle painterly naturalism.

Anders Zorn, Martha Dana (or Mrs. William R. Mercer), 1899. Oil on canvas, 69 x 51 inches. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Anders Zorn, Martha Dana (or Mrs. William R. Mercer), 1899. Oil on canvas, 69 x 51 inches. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Zorn was born in 1860 in Mora, Sweden – the same year as Walter Sickert and William Nicholson, two kindred spirits – and died in 1920. He began as a watercolorist, making his name in the Paris Salon in 1882 with The Cousins. He settled in London that year.  At the age of 27, in the artist colony in St Ives, Cornwall, Zorn began to paint in oil. The medium set him free.

In 1888, Zorn and his wife Emma moved to Paris for a decade. As John Cederlund writes in his introductory essay, “A Swedish Painter in the World,”“Zorn’s work often gives us a sense of improvisation, as if they were made without any effort.” Indeed, he paints as he goes, balancing a reverence for tradition and a subversive disdain for fussiness.   “I never spent much time thinking about other people’s art,” the artist wrote. “I felt that if I wanted to become something, then I had to go after nature with all my interest and energy, seek what I loved about it, and desire to steal its secret and beauty.”There were always two sides to Zorn, painterly tradition and the au courant. His early genre scenes, with their muted color and stock characters gave way to informed portraits of the Gilded Age.

Zorn became an international star of portraiture, in the same league as Joaquim Sorolla and John Singer Sargent (there are 550 portraits in all). Zorn’s pictorial economy brings George Romney to mind, especially in the way he handles clothing. Women’s dresses proved a field day for Zorn’s swashbuckling brushwork, : brusque, choppy brushwork hacked in at great speed with an unerring grasp of tone and pitch, verisimilitude hiding its rebellious energy. His backgrounds are loose and abstract, their bravura anticipating the American Ash Can painters, George Luks in particular.

Zorn’s Martha Dana, (1899) on view at the National Academy, is a real knock out. She is a modern woman in the mold of John Galsworthy’s unforgettable heroine Irene in “The Forsyte Saga”.  A rough wedge of white pigment on her front tooth perfectly described the wetness and light. Zorn wrote “All art is difficult or easy, however you may want it . . . such is the concentration of the mind and calculations requires to achieve the right nuance of color on the brush, which must often, with one stroke, express so much.

Zorn was good with patrons, working hard and playing hard, making many extended trips to the United States to paint robber barons, no less than three presidents and countless society women. A Minneapolis journal from 1901 proclaimed that Zorn was earning $15,000 a week.

Zorn was also a sculptor whose work in this medium often closely resembled Degas or Rodin’s female nude figures. His Jewel Box” from 1895, however, a teal blue bronze of a nude on a bed, owes nothing to anyone. It is an intimate one-off revealing the erotic subtext that lies beneath much of Zorn’s work.

Then there are the etchings, of which Zorn made 300 over his lifetime.  Some were portraits of such contemporaries as Saint-Gaudens, Verlaine, Strindberg, Proust, and Rodin,, others were portraits of family members, and many were of models. Zorn never seems to outline anything, instead attacking the copper plate with his needle, forming shapes from tones with dense sloshing strokes, achieving masterful chiaroscuro. Full-bodied in comparison with, say, Whistler’s, they are more like those of Rembrandt, whose etchings he collected. There is little margin for error in this method. At the time, one curator described his prints as a “slanting rain of brilliance”. They were exceedingly popular on both sides of the Atlantic.  James Ganz, curator of San Francisco’s Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, writes about his time as an etcher in Paris amongst the Post-Impressionists.

Anders Zorn, After the Bath, 1895.  Oil on canvas, 21 x 14 inches.  National Museum, Stockholm

Anders Zorn, After the Bath, 1895. Oil on canvas, 21 x 14 inches. National Museum, Stockholm

There is one vital area of Zorn’s oeuvre,  perhaps the most infamous, that is sadly under-represented in exhibition and book alike: his nudes. Zorn had a yacht that he would take up Stockholm’s archipelago coastline for summer work holidays. His Nordic models stand naked on the rocky coastline, dappled with reflective light. The figure-ground relation puts them squarely into nature without contrivance: nude and nature are all of a piece. Symbolism and mythology eliminated, Swedish naturalism reigns supreme, pubic hair and all. These plein-air canvasses are as fresh today as when they were painted. A volume singularly devoted to his nudes would, I believe, be a revelation.

All in all, however, this book is a must for anyone interested in Zorn in particular and fin-de-siecle painting in general. The four essays – of the Swedish authors, one is director, the other former director, of the Zorn Museum in Mora – are ably executed, the reproductions are plentiful and, at least for now, this is all we have on Anders Zorn.

Anders Zorn: Sweden’s Master Painter.  Written by Johan Cederlund, Hans Henrik Brummer, Per Hedstrom, and James A. Ganz. (Skira Rizzoli with Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2013) Hardcover, ISBN: 978-0-8478-4151-6, $60


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