August Strindberg

Purple Loosestrife, 1892
Oil on Canvas
Tate Modern, London 2005

I was surprised how much I enjoyed this exhibition, I found it both charming and melancholic and was interested to read that he was a Gemini and prone to mood swings. Strindberg was clearly influenced by Northern Romantic [1] landscapes, but had his own expressionist way of painting that relied more on the palette knife than the brush. There were many of Strindberg's dark brooding seascapes that shared a single man-made object at the mercy of the elements: a buoy in the midst of a stormy sea, or a startlingly white navigational mark against a tempestuous sky. Several paintings of lighthouses conveyed a similar mood reflecting his inner turmoil, but most interesting were his astonishing delicately painted pictures of wild flowers set against a very loosely knifed / brushed landscape. If these earlier solitary flowers are also to be read as symbolic self-portraits he chose very unappealing plants, thistles, toadstools, and "weeds".

Purple Loosestrife August Strindberg

Purple Loosestrife is typical of the genre, with the painting divided by a pronounced horizon and the plant a small element isolated in the landscape. The mark making is vigorous but the mood is serene and melancholic, he uses a buttery yellow thickly applied with a palette knife for the foreground gradually merging with a blue/white shoreline and then above the horizon line similar blues and whites for the sky but painted in a different style. He was clearly an acute observer of nature and the plant named in the title is painted with accurate botanical detail, causing it to stand out sharply against the loosely painted landscape.

These small flowers in the vast landscape reminded me of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich that also use the shoreline as a metaphor for the daunting vastness of the world. Whilst it isn’t as dark as Friedrich’s Der Mönch am Meer, for example, it shares some of that painting’s depiction of the sublime; a boundless, silent, solitude. These qualities were typical of all these paintings of solitary flowers that were painted on the shore south of Stockholm and even more pronounced in some e.g. in Lonely Poisoned Mushroom (also 1892) there is no clear division between the land, sea and sky. I found myself reacting to the emptiness in these calm paintings much more than the violent seascapes, as at least in those there was the storm to provide a narrative!

[1]Strindberg wanted Bocklin's painting “The Island of the Dead”, to serve as the final image of his 1907 play The Ghost Sonata

©blackdog 2019