I’m fascinated by the jolts that occur when you assume you’ve understood something, but it turns out you didn’t. Sometimes it has tragic consequences, like when foreigners come to your land and you assume they’re planning to visit or perhaps cohabitate but it turns out that they appropriate it by force of arms. Other times – and certainly more often – it has humorous results.
I never thought about this situation in relationship to paintings in which the subject appears self-evident and the work is relatively modern. The case of Swedish painter Richard Bergh’s iconic Nordic Summer Evening, executed at the turn of the twentieth century made me more – and inexplicably more permanently – alert to cultural difference in places where you don’t expect it.
Bergh painted two friends of his – fellow artist Prince Eugen, youngest son of reigning King Oscar II and Queen Sofia, and the Danish singer Karin Pyk. They were hanging out at the estate of a friend on Lidingö, one of the ultra-bourgeois, island suburbs of Stockholm. I was there a while back – it became an Arabian horse farm – and the view from that spot is identical, aside from the liberty Bergh took in transferring the ground floor porch rail to the second story.
The painting is dense with meaning intended for a specifically bourgeois, Swedish public. The first subject is harmony with nature. Bergh represents a summer evening, a moment that, with the luminal elasticity of the northern latitudes, seems to last an eternity. With nearly 20 hours of daylight at Midsummer (21 June), the sun moves at an undetectably glacial pace, and barely dips below the horizon. There’s plenty of time for reverie and reflection, and for cortisol levels to sink as one inhales the moist air scented with pine and salt, perhaps even lilacs, and listens to the faint strains of nightingales. In Bergh’s painting, the intense rays of the evening sun bleach the edges on the balustrade and create strong highlights on the fabrics.
This bourgeois pair is physically separated from the nature with which their spirits and thoughts mingle – a kind of natural, Nordic, collective unconscious. Swedes consider themselves to have a kind of biomystical codependence with nature and Bergh evokes this masterfully. Unlike peasants, fully integrated into the natural landscapes in which they live, these sophisticated city dwellers live in two worlds: civil society and nature. Prince Eugen, perhaps, even a third: the court.
Bergh wanted his paintings to create an “emotional bridge” to his (principally bourgeois) audience. By evoking an experience common to all, Bergh hoped to foster feelings of interanimation with nature, which nourishes both mind and body, and consequently solidarity among one’s fellow citizens. Bergh wrote: “We love this land, with its dark winter nights and its light, fragrant summer nights, we recognize their shifting character in ourselves. We love it and we want to have an art that unequivocally sings it into our hearts.”
A stalwart feminist, Bergh also intended to convey the fundamental equality of men and women. He and his wife belonged to a cultural that centered around the influential feminist-socialist Ellen Key, author of Year of the Child and. Bergh made several drawings in a sketchbook in which he experimented with various figural arrangements. In one, the couple stand together, his arm around her waist. Pyk’s shorter stature and Prince Eugen’s proprietary gesture suggested male dominance, however, as did another sketch in which Pyk sits and Prince Eugen stands behind her, one hand patronizingly on her shoulder. Finally, Bergh decided to separate them, minimizing the difference in height, and have them unite, not physically, but spiritually, in the great space of nature.
Bergh created an image intended to encourage the bourgeoisie to transcend gender and social differences and embrace a sense of egalitarian solidarity with all fellow citizens. Thus, I was surprised to read in a New York Times article published decades ago, that Bergh’s subject represented the aftermath of a “Strindbergian outburst” in which the couple were filled with anger and frustration and unwilling to engage with each other. This interpretation, the result of projecting contemporary American attitudes on a painting made a century earlier and complete ignorance of authorial intention of the painting’s original context, divulged more about the journalist than the painting. That body language and spatial arrangement could mean contrary things in two Western countries with presumably shared ideals and values shocked me.
It was a cautionary experience, one that made me mindful of the fact that we often have insufficient information to fully grasp and adequately judge motives for and conditions of events past or present. One is as likely to be completely wrong in one’s assessment as one is to be right!