The play and reflections of the water
Zorn with his model, Dalarö
Naturalism can mean many different things. In the world of art, the choice of direction seems almost infinite. For Anders Zorn, naturalism largely entailed communicating sensory impressions that bring pleasure. And that was the case when he faced the challenge of doing justice to his sensory impressions from the Stockholm Archipelago. “We returned to Sweden and stayed with my mother-in-law at Dalarö,” he writes in his autobiographical notes on the summer of 1886, “and I then turned my attention to nature and to solving new problems. It now seems that what particularly attracted me was the water, its playfulness and reflections; I sought out ways to make it really come alive, to put the waves and everything else into perspective and to apply a scientific explanation to everything, right down to the tiniest detail.”
His studies of the movements and changes in water surfaces in his work had actually begun on the banks of English watercourses in the early 1880s. In the summer of 1886, he sharpened his observations of the moving water surface even further. His watercolours Kapprodd and Sommarnöje stand proud as magnificent examples of how to reproduce the memory of the fundamental life value inherent in experiencing close interaction with the water with all your senses.
Zorn has called his method “scientific” in the sense of optically credible, which demands patient and precision-focused processing of sensory impressions. It was never a question of simply transposing photographic snapshots, even though photographically registered movements of water were useful as random reference points in the painstaking sketch work. The crucial factor was the capacity of Zorn’s memory – his ability to activate his sight memory during the work process and simultaneously to allow every accent and every touch to transform into a new one. Each shape gives rise to the next. What may appear spontaneous actually conceals a calculated method of approach.
He spoke of the “play of the water” but inescapably also of “reflections”, i.e. the light – changing with the weather – that envelopes the water landscape Zorn saw on and around Dalarö. However, he had not come here to devote himself to the study of nature. His aim was to narrate something – an anecdote, an episode or similar. But never anything charged with conflict. His watercolours from the summer of 1886 were about the peaceful interaction between summer guests and the local population. When he returned to Dalarö the following summer, he had other ideas. “I don’t recall how I came to experiment that particular summer with what is now my favourite theme: the naked female body outdoors,” he writes in his autobiographical notes, adding: “And I can’t call to mind any example that inspired the idea of painting outdoor nudes. I picked up a model rejected from the Academy (too fat) – a worker from the sweet factory. A guy from Dalarö sailed me out to a nearby island, where I painted some bathing women on the basis of this curvaceous girl. A combination of grey rocks, pines, nudes and water. When I look at this work now, I get the impression that the last of these elements inspired me more than anything else. Since then, it has probably had to yield to the reflections on the naked body.” No example? This question has fascinated art historians, who have come to various conclusions. It is possible that Zorn has drawn succinct impressions from the nymph theme – naked female figures as inspiring natural beings – that appears abundantly in classical art. Closer to home, he may have been familiar with Renoir’s Les Grandes Baigneuses – as has indeed been suggested. Whatever the truth of the matter, there are still grounds for taking Zorn at his word. After all, it was a giant step from the Baroque world from which Renoir drew his inspiration – i.e. from François Girardon’s Le Bain des Nymphes at Versailles. A more likely assumption is that with his new choice of motif, he was consciously distancing himself from the artificial nature of the nymph genre. It is no longer a matter of idealised images, rather of an attempt at renewal.
In all events, Zorn has cut himself loose from the gentrified summer pleasures at Dalarö). He recruited a curvaceous model, organised boat transport, and headed out to an undisturbed island where he could arrange his subject in peace. Spontaneous nude bathing was (and still is) rarely deemed acceptable in socially rigid environments. However, there were “free zones” for relaxing nude bathing where conditions permitted, even though – as far as is known – these were never mapped out in more detail. Nevertheless, the general air of intolerance ceased to apply when the old perception of nudity as a state of innocence took over. Far from the jetties and beaches of the officially sanctioned bathing areas, with their socially controlled swimming, the senses opened up to the fresh, pure air. Nude bathing was considered not only innocent, but also therapeutically beneficial. If such an agenda was what Zorn had in mind when he sailed off with his model, then his intention would have been respectable enough. What he was now adding to his artistic oeuvre was a form of health cult; he himself used the term “fresh and lively”. But despite this new direction, he remained true to bearing aspects in the philosophy of his pictures – his preferences for episodic and generally affirmative narration.
The following summer (1888), he repeated the expeditions with the aspect of health very much to the fore. This time, a boy model was also involved: “My model lived in Stockholm, one of a shoemaker’s many children; when I asked the shoemaker if I could borrow a boy, he had nothing against getting rid of one of them,” writes Zorn.
“The one who suited me was sickly and destined to die. However, such was the effect of the fresh air on his naked body that when I returned the boy to his family a couple of weeks later, he looked so ruddy and healthy that his parents hardly recognised him.” It need not be any more remarkable than that. A brief, touching moment. The result of this summer’s sessions was Une Première, a picture showing a protective mother wading out into the water with her anxious boy.
The true-to-reality idiom lauded everyday life and thus allowed space for personal issues – even such an apparently simple act as sailing out into the archipelago on a small boat with a professional model and a little boy in need of some fresh air. You can write a variety of scripts with regard to the underlying motives, and a great deal has been written and said in this regard. (For example, it has been claimed that Zorn’s choice of subject “is founded in the fact that he never reconciled with his mother, and that his father was never around to liberate him from his castration anxiety”.)
If we ignore the more controversial aspects of the Zornish voyeurism, what remains is a painting charged with immediate sensuality. The open air painting that Zorn cultivated around this time involved interchanging between watercolour technique and oil painting – an interchange that led him to switch definitively to oil painting. His watercolour painting flowed more richly than ever before, but the genre demanded the “old master stability” of oil painting to function in a wider context. He sought – and found – a brushstroke that increased his opportunities to capture the dematerialising impact of the light on the landscape, its capacity to dissolve contours and corporeality.
As a painter of tone, he based his work on the light values of his subject. In French, the technique is known as “enveloppe”. Jules Adéline’s Lexique des termes d’art defines “envelopper” as veiling the motif through soft modelling by blurring the contours of the objects and figures in the picture such that they blend in with the surrounding setting. In his outdoor painting, he succeeded in achieving a cohesive play of light without the interchange between the media becoming too obvious – the colours are applied evenly and unhindered across the surface of the painting. The depiction of outdoor light and the reproduction of fabrics and skin hardly constituted an unknown problem for Zorn the watercolour specialist. His switch to oil painting also allowed him to dilute the pigments with turpentine. Across the weave of the canvas, he could work alternately with areas of dense colour and other areas where the pigment is diluted. When he abandoned his watercolour technique in favour of the stiffer oil painting, he forfeited transparency but gained a saturation of colour. To him, the transfer to oil painting was more-or-less a question of supplementing his engrained watercolour technique with the more limited palette of the tone artist. The “stuffy” oil colours demanded sturdier brushes – round and flat – and instead of the watercolourist’s sponge, the palette knife was at his disposal as an auxiliary instrument.
He found particular success in the summer sojourns on Dalarö, and official recognition was not slow to appear. The first version of Une Première – which he executed in gouache – was rewarded with a first class medal at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1889. It was originally painted with a blonder, more sulphurous shade than it presents in its current incarnation. It was later sliced up by the artist himself – disappointed with an attempt to rework it. Christian Eriksson, the sculptor, saved the painting, which in its current state aligns stylistically with Zorn’s nude painting from the middle of the 1890s.
The blonde tone – sulphurous or faintly blueish – which distinguished his outdoor painting in 1888 transformed into a warmer, more vibrant shade the following summer. This can be confidently stated having studied the principal work from that summer: Reflexer (Reflections). Zorn himself reveals that with this painting, he was seeking to “solve an extremely complex problem of reflection”. Zorn has retained his habitual production method, i.e. with the principal action observed from a slightly elevated perspective. It is a short narrative about a naked young woman’s tentative entry into the water in a sunlit cove in the archipelago. He has succeeded in harmonising the sensory impressions from the archipelago landscape with that which contextualises feeling – the capacity of the skin to register temperature and touch with its tactile corpuscles. We sense how the woman, through the soles of her feet, feels the uneven sandy bottom of the cove, and how the water envelopes her feet; how her skin reacts to the mild breeze and the warmth of the sun on her back.
Zorn demonstrates his evident delight at being able to reproduce the reeds and how they gently bend before the wind. Skin, water, vegetation and rocks alike are enveloped by the clear sunlight. A shadow falls over the rocks, and the woman casts a blue shadow in front of herself onto the water, whose moving surface simultaneously picks up her shape in dark, broken reflections. With unerring precision, he has observed the light’s reflecting and penetrating influence on the streams of water that dominate the painting itself. The blue sky is neatly reflected, and the air is brought to life. Some rather darker reflections are shown by the shore. The lighting of the small wave movements in the foreground shows that the water is transparent, and we understand that it is shallow. What Zorn called “an extremely complex problem of reflection” resulted in a remarkable demonstration of the art of communicating life-affirming sensory impressions. This encompasses irreplaceable life value, which must surely be great enough for any artist’s ambition.
Hans Henrik Brummer
“On Dalarö, where I also – as usual – spent some weeks […] painting nudes, I sought to solve an extremely complex problem of reflection. The painting is called Reflexer (Reflections) and was displayed at the Salon in 1890”
- Anders Zorn
“On Dalarö in 1889, he painted – along with several minor studies – a couple of his principal works: Les Baigneuses (The bathers) and Reflexer (Reflections). The latter is perhaps his most brilliant depiction of an archipelago cove: the only work to compare with it is Frileuse (Shivering girl), which was painted several years later and where he poses other colouristic problems. It is thanks to finely executed work with tone that he has succeeded in making the girl appear to be one with nature, enveloped by the warm air over the water. It makes her immaterial in some way […] she appears simply as a being that concentrates the fullness of the summer.”
- Gerda Boëthius
“It is Reflexer (Reflections), representing a woman in the water, among the reeds, picking her way tentatively forward across the presumably stony bottom. In the background, a rocky beach, cut off by the frame. The title refers to the colour motif that first and foremost interested the artist, and which otherwise constitutes the bearing element in the majority of these ‘bathing paintings’. The reflections of the water and the greenery on the naked body. The cautious progress of the woman is masterly depicted, and the canvas in entirety is one of the very finest of the genre as a whole.”
- Tor Hedberg
“Reflexer (Reflections) from 1889 has to do with sensory perceptions, with the clear light and the mild breeze, with the warmth of the rocks, and the balancing act of the lady bather in the protected archipelago cove.” (Hans Henrik Brummer)
“Reflexer (Reflections) is one of Zorn’s finest works with an outdoor nude as its subject.”
- Birgitta Sandström
“On Dalarö, Anders produced works including Reflexer (Reflections) and Les Baigneuses (The bathers) – two of his very finest outdoor paintings […]”
- Birgitta Sandström
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