See with Your Heart

Gustaf Fjaestad, The Boy Who Sees With his Heart, 1898.

The first time I saw Gustaf Fjaestad’s magnificent pastel, The Boy Who Sees with His Heart (1898), it was love at first sight. The artwork was, and still is, privately owned, although I hope that one day it will enter a public collection, where others can enjoy it. On a cold spring day in Stockholm during the era when I live there in order to conduct dissertation, I kept my appointment at Galerie Northern Light, operated by two friends/collectors/gallerists named Claes and Kjell. Theirs was a small, cramped, yet light-filled space on a quiet street in the commercial Norrmalm neighborhood. I removed my coat and draped on a chair intended for clients before I sat spellbound as Claes and Kjell brought out paintings and drawings one after another—landscapes mostly—created by the artists about whom I wrote. Having immersed myself in the lives of a group of renegade artists who hoped to reform Swedish society along gender neutral, egalitarian/democratic lines, I could identify most of the works by artist, date, and location; it was a gratifying challenge.

Claes and Kjell patiently answered my many questions and I think we all enjoyed meeting kindred spirits enthusiastic about this then-forgotten movement of European art. They showed me other Fjaestads in their collection, but since my arrival, I had been waiting for The Boy Who Sees with His Heart. As our conversation wound down, they wondered if there was anything else I’d like to see; they seemed to have an endless supply of National Romantic painting and drawing! ‘Oh, yes’! I said and asked for the pastel. I’ve written about it many times, but here is an excerpt from my 2009 book, Symbolist Art in Context:

“The Swedish painter Gustaf Fjaestad (1868-1948) specialized in depictions of the forests and lakes of central Sweden. In The Boy Who Sees with His Heart—a pastel executed on the scale of an oil painting and encased in a simple frame designed by the [furniture-building] artist—a youth sits on a grassy bank in the mist of a fir and birch forest. His legs dangle in the refreshing water as he leans back on his hands with eyes closed, inhaling the perfumes and listening to the sounds of the forest. As Fjaestad’s title indicates, the boy sees with his heart: the youth transcends visual distractions and concentrates on the experience of being in nature. His red heart, containing an eye and capped by flames, suggests a biomystical rootedness in nature; the boy’s body completes a circuit among air, earth, and water…Fjaestad suggested the promise of youth, connected to the vitalizing forces of nature and free from the false values of his elders. The heart and the halo that enframes the youth’s head suggest a religious dimension; Fjaestad sacralized the landscape by transferring religious sentiments from Lutheranism to nature and nation. He directed attention toward his ideas through stylized reflections on the water, bold outlines, a predominantly monochromatic palette, and oddly shaped parameters.”

What I don’t explain here is why Fjaestad made this unusual work; unusual for Fjaestad both because it was figural (and not a portrait) and because drawing and frame form an integrated whole. He was commissioned by the Association for the Blind to design a tapestry (he designed several), hence the closed eyes. The artist suggests  that sight is one—but certainly not the most important—sense. Severed from visuality, the boy ‘sees’ more perceptively and intently with his heart, with compassion and empathy, values that foster a just society. The artist suggests that closing one’s eyes intensifies the functioning senses, in the same way as when you close your eyes it’s easier to concentrate on—and hear the nuances of—music. The tapestry was never made.

With his gold leaf halo, the boy functions as a kind of secular saint who shows Swedes their original, pantheistic pagan roots. Like Joan of Arc and so many other saints, youth embodies most strongly and purely religious truths.  Fjaestad’s image is impressively prescient: the boy is ‘earthing’ or ‘grounding’. By sitting on the ground and planting his hands on it and his feet in the water, he connects to the electrical current running through the earth and all nature; he is a part, but not a dominator, of nature. The boy models the humble, harmonious, sustainable relationship with nature after which so many strive today. This is as much an altarpiece as Caspar David Friedrich’s Cross in the Mountains (see 15 May 2023 blogpost), one that suggests that humans are a part of created nature and not its architect.

By michellefacos

I am a multi-lingual art historian, consultant (art, travel, writing), editor, entrepreneur, lecturer, and writer who has lived along the shores of the Baltic, the Mediterranean, and Lake Erie, in New York and in Paris, and in the forests of Quebec and Sweden. While I’ve lived a semi-nomadic existence for the past few decades, I’m inching toward a life anchored in Europe.

1 comment

  1. DEar Michelle,
    Such a wonderful comment on this painting and its creator. Thanks.
    Can you send me an image of it?

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