Another place and time
Exploring Stockholm with painter Hans-Erik Eriksson
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
When I think of Stockholm—which I frequently do—I think of it as a city of art, with its fine museums and plethora of galleries. They are filled with treasures, not only by great masters of Scandinavian art but also with works by lesser-known artists. There are many of them, both from past and present, and I am fortunate to have some prize pieces hanging in my own home. They are part of a legacy inherited by my Swedish-born husband, Ulf, and we both treasure them.
One of the artists we treasure most is Hans-Erik Eriksson, a Stockholm painter, who lived between the years 1921 and 1998, a contemporary of my Ulf’s parents, who knew him early on and were counted among his friends and supporters.
Eriksson was born in Bromma in the greater Stockholm region and studied art there with Otte Sköld, later a professor at the Swedish Academy of Fine Arts and director of Sweden’s Nationalmuseum. Eriksson took his creative impulses from the art of the 1950s, which was dominated by abstract expressionism. His works consist largely of floral still lifes and landscape painting, often of Stockholm and the surrounding areas in the archipelago.
Midsummer evening magic
The expressionistic painting of the 1950s prioritized expressive brush strokes and explored ideas about nature, spirituality, and the sublime, concepts that come to the forefront in Eriksson’s painting of a Swedish Midsummer evening. One of his pieces hangs in my dining room, and as I look at it, morning and evening, I am drawn back into the magic of the summer evenings I spent in Scandinavia.
The Nordic summer light approaches the inimitable, but somehow Eriksson is able to capture it in his painting, along with the mood and emotions of the longest day of the year. It is an unusual piece in his oeuvre, in that very few of them depict human figures, but here they fully come to life. There is the accordionist and the Swedish spelman, the fiddler, and the couples delicately and intimately embracing in dance. One couple stands shyly in the background, waiting for the excitement, the eroticism of the moment to draw them together.
One man stands alone to the side observing the scene. I have often wondered if this is the artist looking upon the objects who were to make up his painting. Or is Eriksson the spelman, the artist who holds his captive audience spellbound? For me, this Midsummer motif will always carry an element of mystery or magic. Yet while so ethereal, this painting of mood also carries a certain element of realism: It is a stunning rendering of the Stockholm summer archipelago much as I have experienced it. I may be biased, but for me, it is crown jewel of Eriksson’s entire oeuvre.
View from Mosebacke
August Strindberg’s debut novel Röda rummet (The Red Room) from 1879 begins at Mosebacke, from a terrace on a hill overlooking the center of Stockholm, the very scene depicted in this painting by Hans-Erik Eriksson. On a May evening, the book’s protagonist, Arvid Falk (Strindberg’s alter ego), stands there and looks out over the city:
“The sun was standing over Liljeholmen, throwing sheaves of rays towards the east; they pierced the columns of smoke of Bergsund, flashed across the Riddarfjörd, climbed to the cross of the Riddarholm Church, flung themselves on to the steep roof of the German church opposite, toyed with the bunting displayed by the boats on the pontoon bridge, sparkled in the windows of the chief custom-house, illuminated the woods of Lidingö …”
It is this same scene that we recognize in Eriksson’s painting, with the brilliant colors of summer, the bright yellow of buildings with sunlight cast on them, the brilliance of the blue water, the profile of the skyline with the church steeples of Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s Old Town, which remains much unchanged to this day. As for Strindberg, Stockholm was Han-Erik Eriksson’s muse, and he painted its urban landscape over and over again, sometimes the same settings at different times of the year or in different moods.
Like the Norwegian Expressionist master Edvard Munch, Eriksson often employed very rich, bold colors to evoke a certain mood or feeling. In the Midsummer Eve painting, the colors are more subdued to capture the evening sky, while in the view from Mosebacke, the high summer daylight is captured in all of it exuberance.
Venice of the North
Stockholm is called The “Venice of the North” with good reason: the city is located between Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea, the city consists of 14 islands connected by bridges and is surrounded by the more than 24,000 small rocky islands that form its archipelago. Boating is a way of life in Stockholm, and, of course, it was another source of inspiration for Eriksson’s work.
Eriksson spent countless hours at various waterfront locations in Stockholm to capture both the nautical motifs and the city skyline. Often the iconic and most recognizable profile of Stockholm’s town hall, Stadshuset, appears in his paintings, forever his chosen motifs to his beloved city for both the initiated and uninitiated.
The Stockholm waterfront comes alive in a painting that depicts a view from Riddarholmen, where a man is standing with his fishing rod, and a boy on a bicycle stops to take in the action. Another man stands on a dock working on his sailboat, while another man is heading out in his rowboat.
While there is also a good deal of human action going on is this painting, the people are not its focal point: here the Stockholm skyline and the boats vie for our attention. But it is somehow a harmonious competition, for boating and Stockholm are inextricably linked. When I look at this painting, I want to get out on one of the boats. The brilliantly blue skies and waters are beckoning me to once again explore the Stockholm I love—preferably from the water!
Moods and reflections
In another waterfront motif, Eriksson uses muted pastel colors to evoke a feeling of calmness. In the background, the buildings of Skeppsholmen are depicted in light beige and brown tones—quite realistically I might add—but is the treatment of the water where they are reflected that evokes the mood of the painting.
Even though the sky may be filled with fluffy clouds, the distinct brushstrokes and the variation in the palette give the water enormous depth and interest. Is it a summer morning waiting for the day to start, or is a summer afternoon with a feeling a melancholy as the day is ending? The feeling almost Impressionistic, leaving much to the beholder’s imagination.
Another place and time
Like Strindberg, Eriksson lived at a number of locations in Stockholm, and his oeuvre is filled with depictions of the streets of Stockholm, pictures of everyday life. These motifs may appear more mundane than the waterfront and archipelago scenes, but in their own way, they are just as interesting: they give a glimpse into the architecture and life of Stockholm of days gone by.
A scene from Södermalm, the once working-class neighborhood of Stockholm now a destination for the Stockholm’s young and hip, packed with restaurants, bars, and boutiques, takes us back in time to the 1950s, when life had a slower pace. There are only a few vintage cars parked on the street in front of the old wooden houses, some of them gone today, some under historic preservation. There is a sense of peacefulness, rarely experienced anywhere in today’s Stockholm, evoking a feeling of nostalgia for the simplicity of the past.
My husband and I are lucky to get to relive this world every day in our home here in Seattle. It brings beauty into our life and makes Stockholm feel a little closer. We enjoy sharing the art of Hans-Erik Eriksson, “Hasse” as he was known to his friends, with others. He was a prolific artist, and his works are accessible to collectors at all levels, much available at online auctions. Sadly, Eriksson’s artistic output was very uneven, as he periodically struggled against his inner demons, but many extraordinary treasures are there to be found and enjoyed, as you explore the beauty and magic of another place and time.
This article originally appeared in the June 18, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.