When Albert Johansson (1926-1998) passed away, it was clear that his shimmering white, magical imagery had carved out a position of its very own in Swedish art history. Stockholms Auktionsverk has now been entrusted with the sale of a collection comprising approximately 50 of his works. The collection has been assembled with knowledge and sensibility, and the paintings represent key works from the different periods of the artist’s oeuvre.
Albert Johansson’s rise to the position of ‘established artist’ was by no means easy. During his formative years, he had no help from anyone but himself in developing his artistic gift. He nevertheless found his own way and finally had the opportunity to study at the School of Modern Art (Moderna Konstskolan) in Stockholm. Driven by a powerful artistic inquisitiveness and inner turmoil, he came to devote his entire artistic production to striving for purity and spiritual balance.
It may be the white paintings from the 1950s that are most readily associated with Albert Johansson, or it may be the masks from the 1960s… His full body of work is clearly divided into different periods, and his changes of direction are definitive, forced upon him by his internal unrest. However, a consistent theme in his work is his unswerving criticism of modernity and his search for a transcendent dimension. He tirelessly sought out traces of mystical forces in nature, time and history.
Albert Johansson’s troubled upbringing in Västerbotten plagued him for the rest of his life. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was just five years old, leaving a spouse and a large number of children. Johansson grew up on the family farm and was schooled at a workhouse. He left home at the age of 13, never to return – breaking all future contact with his family. He then earned a living doing random jobs, and devoted his free time to drawing. A few years later he found himself in Umeå, where he encountered ‘established art’ for the first time – initially through art books he borrowed from the public library. It was an overwhelming experience for the artistic young man to immerse himself in books about Carl Fredrik Hill, Ernst Josephson, Morandi, Braque, Chagall, Picasso and Mondrian. Tentatively, and with no-one to guide him, he began painting, and then in 1947 he met the Umeå artist and purist Helge Linden, who became Johansson’s first significant artistic sounding board. It was around this time that Albert Johansson’s life began to stabilise and he met his life-long partner Gunnel.
He attended the School of Modern Art in Stockholm for a while, getting to know Vilhelm Bjerke-Petersen – one of the teachers – who guided him through the world of modern art. Moving to Stockholm with his wife and two daughters in 1953, he soon became acquainted with Olle Baertling and Oscar Reuterswärd. These two people, together with Helge Linden and Vilhelm Bjerke-Petersen, had a huge influence on Johansson’s artistic development. He painted in the purist spirit to start with, but the only surviving painting from this early period of his art is from 1949. He destroyed his other works from around this time.
Out in Europe, the immediate post-war years saw the arrival of the avant-garde wave. The Dadaist movement and the surrealists’ ideas concerning automatic painting and symbolism were reborn in the informal style of art that gradually found its way to Scandinavia. One of the most significant advocates of the new style was the Danish Bauhaus-trained artist Vilhelm Bjerke-Petersen, who founded the School of Modern Art in Stockholm where Albert Johansson trained. Johansson was strongly influenced by Bjerke-Petersen’s ideas concerning tactile art and the spiritual charging of the shape. Johansson’s painting, which had thus far been concerned with refining external realities into something representative, now turned towards the abstraction of the internal reality, and he started to create his first white paintings.
Albert Johansson achieved his breakthrough in 1958 with an exhibition at Sturegalleriet in Stockholm. The reviews were both tough and laudatory, and he was often referred to as ‘the white painter’. The paintings from this period were created using a technique he had developed himself, and featured a coarse texture built up using concreter filler, aquarium sand and white adhesive colour, mixed with yellow or grey pigment. The works were meditative and introverted, and the archaism of the surfaces exudes a strong perception of time. The shapes he works with are remarkably simple: circles and scratched black lines that make their way between large fields of white. As eternal, magical symbols, the gently curving lines continue on their way through the frame and out into the universe.
Harry Martinsson’s poetic work from 1959 depicts the irradiated spaceship Aniara knocked off its intended course and drifting towards its ultimate destruction in outer space. The story has inspired numerous artists, but none of them has grasped the mystical and ritual elements as tightly as Albert Johansson. Towards the end of the 1950s, he started to work on the theme: mankind and our doomed civilisation. When the perceived no longer provides stimulus, and the future seems hopeless, thoughts inevitably turn towards the past. The religions and semi-barbaric practices of forgotten cultures are brought to life. When language loses its usefulness, man turns to signs and symbols. In the coarse surfaces of his paintings, Johansson began to scratch symbols and signs. He created a synthesis of Martinsson’s text: figures and events blended together in a language of signs. The classic saga of Hero and Leander formed the continuation, and the intensity of love spurred his imagination.
In 1962 and 1963, Albert Johansson changed direction, seeking out a manner more faithful to the period in which to depict his social criticism. The symmetrical composition of the daily newspapers inspired him to lay out his pictures in grids, and he created them as flat, diagram-like works, or in relief with rows and rows of elevated masks. Here, he is examining mankind as de-individualised in an anonymous collective.
For Johansson, the 1960s were distinguished by existentialist pessimism. His Biokemisk observans series centres on environmental pollution and the effect this has on human life. His paintings resemble doomsday prophecies, and the belching black and white clouds they contain hint at the environmental threat to mankind and nature. Towards the end of the 1960s, he started to use urban planning sketches as a base for presenting society as a doomed technocracy. In a series of works he dubbed Konnexion, we see parallels with the gigantic construction project taking place around this time. The pictures portray dense areas of dreary high-rise housing slashed by heavily trafficked roads and surrounded by factories and plants stretching away into the distance. The works express a reality that has become incomprehensible to man, and where the modernistic project has taken over. The terrifying depictions are founded in the artist’s inner conflicts and finally became too difficult to deal with. Deep depressions increasingly prevented him from working in the mid-1970s.
When Albert Johansson began to paint again, the dark clouds had vanished and he recommenced his meditative painting – even making use of old sketches. These works are a direct continuation of his white paintings from the 1950s. The colour palette has lightened, and poetically ethereal colour compositions of translucent pastel shades are held in place by thin, black contours. The legacy of purism has been heightened, and the introverted attitude of the white period has been softened. Johansson worked increasingly with light in his art from this point on. The paintings from this period are located in a borderland between the normal and the super-normal, between reality and extraordinary reality. Melancholy and introspection have been transformed into new energy, and the life-affirming light continues to shine.
For further information
Ebba de Faire
+46 8 453 67 35
Pierre Olbers St Bellies
+46 8 453 67 61
Viewing 14-21 March at Nybrogatan 32, Stockholm
Open: Mon-Fri 10am-6pm, Sat 10am-4pm
Bidding online 14-21 March