Swedish painter and social activist Richard Bergh (1858-1919) began Vision: Motif from Visby in 1893, following his first exposure to Symbolist art at the Stockholm exhibition of his experimental, adventurous friend Ernst Josephson. It depicts the 1361 invasion of Gotland—an island off Sweden’s eastern coast—by Danish king Valdemar Atterdag, an event that initiated the city’s decline as a Hanseatic power. The king’s ships landed near Visby, and his troops slaughtered Gotland’s peasant army of almost 2,000 men, while Visby’s professional army watched passively from the ramparts. The Danes plundered nearby villages and churches. In return for sparing the city of Visby, Atterdag demanded and received the city’s treasures. Atterdag’s booty, however, was lost on a ship that sank in a storm on the return to Denmark. By recording this event, Bergh reminded his Swedish audience of its cultural heritage in a visual language more appropriate to dreams than to historical narrative.
In a June 1893 letter written from Gotland to his client/friend Pontus Fürstenburg, Bergh explained: “I am doing studies and sketches for paintings I anticipate starting on this winter….I have already begun to underpin one of the paintings out here and think that it will be quite good. It is a magnificent motif—a view of the ring walls here, with the sea in the background painted various shades of blue and Kind Valdemar’s fleet sailing in it.” The story was familiar to Swedes from their schooldays. Bergh may have remembered it as he sailed toward Visby harbor in early June 1893. For him, as for his comrades with whom he was helping to foster a generic national identity that transcended class boundaries, historical events and places fired the imagination. In departing from precise historical narrative, they explored in art and literature the more profound meanings they had from a contemporary perspective. Artists and intellectuals recognized that representations of Visby—and other places anchored in Swedish history—fired the popular imagination and encouraged Swedes to dream Swedish dreams, which themselves served to liberate creativity while strengthening the bonds of national identity.
Bergh emphasized the fantastic nature of his subject partly by recording a medieval event in a contemporary setting, a strategy that also conceptually linked past and present: in his painting Visby’s ring wall stands in its modern state of partial ruin. Bergh’s choice of unnaturally bright colors was inspired, at least in part, by Josephson, whom Bergh proclaimed “the only real colorist among us.” Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh, whose works Bergh had also recently seen at an exhibition in Copenhagen, provided additional incentive for his new approach to color. His use of gold leaf for the ships linked him to Josephson, who earlier had embellished a fiddle with gold leaf in his painting The Water Sprite (1884, Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde, Stockholm), one of the first truly Symbolist paintings, imaginative works that provide clear clues to viewers of the non-natural character of the scenes depicted. Josephson’s application of gold leaf indicated to viewers that what they saw was not a scene one could encounter in nature but a product of the imagination. Vision was the only time in Bergh’s life when he resorted to the use of gold leaf, a material often used during the Middle Ages in religious paintings to indicate both their otherworldly subject and to honor divine power with valuable earthly materials.
By adding gold leaf, Bergh removed his subject from the realm of experience and situated it in the imaginative sphere, a common strategy of Symbolist painters. Viewers knew the fate of those gilded ships, whose sailors—before the storm and the sinking—undoubtedly felt proud, powerful, and victorious. “Pride goeth before a fall,” many of them probably muttered to themselves when reflecting on the painting. It also marked an historical and conceptual boundary between Swedes and their Danish neighbors.
Vision: Motif from Visby presents a vision that the artist himself may have imagined as he sat in the fields outside Visby’s well-preserved medieval wall on a warm, sunny June day. Bergh may also have contemplated the decision of Visby’s government to sacrifice its brave and poorly armed peasantry and to relinquish its vast riches (as capital of the prosperous Hanseatic League during the 12th to 14th centuries, one can only imagine the accumulated wealth lying within its walls), in order to preserve the architecture and inhabitants of Visby, the island’s capital. Much of what transpired during that bloody siege and the strategies that were considered in order to end it expeditiously and with the least damage, is shrouded in mystery. We will simply never know.
Bergh intended his painting as a ‘hook’ for his contemporaries, a motivation to foster thinking about and pride in the common past shared by Swedes. He hoped to encourage engagement imaginatively with the past and actually with the present. As a staunch Social Democrat from the bourgeoisie, Bergh hoped to dissolve social demographic barriers, establish common ground, and generate empathy. Bergh wasn’t naive regarding the audience for fine art—it was his own, the privileged bourgeoisie. Because this was the group that made and enforced the laws governing Swedish society, it was they whose beliefs he wanted to shape.
As is clear from his copious writings, Bergh understood the urgency of empathy in order to moderate the deleterious effects of industrialization and capitalism on the peasant and working classes. He and his social democratic comrades envisioned the outcome as a kind of ‘people’s home’ in which each contributed according to their ability and received in accordance with their need, a vision realized in the twentieth century and now waning in the twenty-first. Bergh fervently believed that empathy and conceptual/juridical equality of all (including women and children, employees and servants) was the key to social harmony. Too great a disparity in wealth within a society always leads to suffering, oppression, and eventual instablity, as a wise label in Athens’s Acropolis Museum notes.
Bergh’s painting was a drop in a bucket that gathered many drops—by artists, bureaucrats, educators, musicians, philosophers, politicians, and writers motivated by empathy and common sense. Might such a return to balance and harmony remain a possibility in a world enfeebled by capitalism, ecological degradation, egotism, materialism, and a too-large population?
To find out more about the origin of links between social democracy and culture in Sweden, check out my book Nationalism and the Nordic Imagination. Link on the BOOKS tab.
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