Farewell to the modern world

The new, comprehensively renovated Nationalmuseum in Stockholm fails in coming to terms with the institution’s colonialist heritage.

Nationalmuseum’s upper stairwell with Carl Larsson’s picture of king Gustav Vasa’s entry into Stockholm in 1523, traditionally considered as the birth of the nation. Photo: Bruno Ehrs.

When Nationalmuseum in Stockholm closed for comprehensive renovations in 2013, many people lamented that Sweden would have to do without an essential part of its historical and cultural memory until 2018. In some ways, the critics were right. Five years may seem like a short period of time for an institution that is over 150 years old, yet when Nationalmuseum reopened to the public last week, the world was a different place than when the doors closed. 

Exactly what framework holds the new world together is unclear, but closed borders and increasing political demagoguery, as well as ever more tangible class conflicts and increased inequality, are some of its more incendiary aspects. In Sweden, the third-largest party in parliament stands for hostility toward minority and indigenous rights, a reactionary view of equality and a value-conservative nationalism that ought to have been left in the 19th century, where Nationalmuseum’s institutional identity is, incidentally, still grounded.

Nationalmuseum’s facade. Photo: Bruno Ehrs.

In this situation, it is notable that the new museum appears to have gone full circle and returned to its historical origins. The opening exhibition highlights the portraiture of American painter John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), yet central is the building itself and the collections. Most striking are the new colors. Rather than the lighter and more unified palette that the museum assumed throughout the 20th century, each gallery now has its own characteristic color – yellow, turquoise, violet and so on – inspired by the original color concept developed by the building’s architect, Friedrich August Stüler in the mid-19th century. The spectacular appearance of the building is pushed through by an emphasis on openness and light. The museum has reopened the shut windows that, too, were a legacy from last century, when painting, which needed more wall space, was given prominence over sculpture.

Additionally, rooms that were previously office spaces or filled other non-public functions have been made accessible to audiences. In all, the exhibition area has more than doubled, which, in combination with a much more compact salon-style hanging, means that the museum now exhibits three times as many works as before.

These substantial changes have been praised, nearly in unison, and are, by themselves, enough cause to speak of a new Nationalmuseum. Yet, perhaps the biggest change is ideological, and therefore harder to pinpoint. Indeed, the museological arguments are not unfamiliar. In Nationalmuseum’s catalog, Konst kräver rum (Art Demands Space, 2002), art historian Dan Karlholm, professor at Södertörn University, argues that the most radical renewal of the museum would be restoring it as “a monument and a work of art in itself.” Arguably, this is precisely what has been done by abandoning the modern principles of installation introduced by director Richard Bergh (1915–1919), which then became dominant after the Second World War, in this way getting closer to the original intentions for the museum.

Windows that were previously shut have been opened up, here the display of art from the period 1800–1870. Photo: Bruno Ehrs.

In other words, there are well-founded historical arguments behind the idea of reestablishing the classical museum from the 19th century, characterized primarily “not by exhibiting a multitude of individual works of art […] but different types of arrangements and constellations.” (Karlholm.) From this perspective, a museum should not primarily be an institution that collects, conserves and exhibits unique or valuable objects, but an “experiential projection machine.”

Several critics have pointed out that the return to this modality of display means that the collections can be shown in a more advantageous way than before. This means in part that the museum’s objects of art, design and craft are presented in one single, consistent hanging throughout the building. Instead of safeguarding the boundaries between different media and genres, the museum integrates different parts of the collection within one format of display. This has, to my knowledge, never before been done at Nationalmuseum.

Yet, it has also to do with older installation methods, associated with the idea of the singular masterpiece, that appear ill-suited to Nationalmuseum, where the truly great and canonized works of art are few and far between. The collection is now rather shown as a seamless narrative, from the 16th to the 18th century on the top floor, and from the 19th century to the present on the middle floor. This creates a flattened timeline that makes it possible to highlight works that have previously been regarded as being of lesser importance. In my view, craft, female artists, and painting genres of lower standing have been given space next to large-scale paintings, often with nationalistic content, that before were more conspicuous at the museum.

Gustaf Cederström, The Funeral Transport of Charles XII, 1878

Already in the first gallery on the middle floor, which contains the period from 1800–1870, it becomes apparent that the museum has chosen to downplay the craze for grandiose patriotism and ancient Nordic myths that were in vogue when the museum was inaugurated in 1866. A portrait of Charles XIV John, the king during the union between Sweden and Norway, is placed alongside landscape and genre paintings, and installed together with bureaus and candelabras in the bourgeois style of the time. The presence of Scandinavianism is underlined by thematic sections such as “The landscape of the union” and “The Danish golden age,” while a focus on that time’s fascination with Italian culture is followed by a room which displays how artists in the 19th century used racial stereotypes to represent people from southern Europe.

The result expresses a tension between a patriarchal and nationalistic tradition on the one hand, and ideals of gender equality and anti-racism on the other. An exemplary manifestation of this is found in the gallery 1900, where one of the museum’s iconic paintings, Gustav Cederströms Karl XIIs likfärd (Bringing Home the Body of Karl XII, 1878), strongly associated with both 19th century patriotism and contemporary Neo-Nazism, is juxtaposed with the childrens’ book illustrations of Elsa Beskow and a portrait of Ellen Key, who represent what many today would stress as more progressive ideas from the turn of the last century. Especially heartwarming is the section “The century of children,” with lesser-known artists such as Emma Ekwall and Emma Löwstädt-Chadwick, where the somewhat awkward installation only enhances the charming contents of these images of childrens’ play and camaraderie.

Nationalmuseum’s stairwell with scenes from Swedish history by artist Carl Larsson. Photo: Bruno Ehrs.

And yet, something is askew. For the modern installation apparatus that has now been cleared away was not only about isolating works from their historical contexts and establishing a western, male canon and gaze. That is an important and familiar aspect. What is more seldom mentioned is that the principles that separate and isolate works from one another in light spaces can also be viewed as an expression of the ideals of equality in the modern period. It could be described as a method of staging art as a democratic relation, as a relation between equal intellects.

By removing these modern updates and returning to the salon-style hanging of the 19th century, it seems that Nationalmuseum instead promotes a restless and consuming gaze that is constantly in search of new experiences and impressions. It forms an experience that recalls an Instagram flow of images, where one tableau follows another. Thereby, the museum has distanced itself from the critical ideal of intellectual liberation through art in favor of an educational principle where the works, to a large extent, are shown as representative examples meant to communicate one or another artistic or political insight. To walk through the galleries is to envelop oneself in an experience of the collections that is designed to be as pleasant and frictionless as possible.

That Swedish history is presented as a progression towards greater multiplicity – from the supposed founding of the nation with Gustav Vasa’s entry into Stockholm 1523, to a contemporary photograph of footballer Zlatan Ibrahimović and a textile work about women’s liberation by Ulla Andersson – risks confirming the fatalist notion that equality and democracy is an expression of national values (rather than the result of political struggles). Neither does it feel entirely credible when the museum simultaneously avoids coming to grips with misrepresentation in its own collection. Recent acquisitions have focused on female artists and craftswomen, yet do not appear to have extended to indigenous or minority artists. Sami people are not included as artists in their own right, but rather as motifs for National Romanticism. It is clear that Nationalmuseum has not engaged critically with its colonialist heritage and ties to Sweden’s growing territorial claims over Sápmi in the late 19th century. This solidifies the impression of a country with unequal representation of its citizens, which is hardly congruent with the mission to be a museum for the whole people.

The display of 18th century neoclassicism. Photo: Anna Danielsson.

The decision to invest in a costly restoration of Nationalmuseum can, in itself, be viewed as an expression of the return of nationalism as a political force in the 21st century. With the museum’s new hanging, Swedish cultural heritage receives an updated form that is better adjusted to the bourgeois values that today are regarded as crucial to defend. Yet, the new museum still testifies to a worrying return of national heritage as a model for the institution, which was previously abandoned in the post-war era. In 1958, modern art was transferred to the new Moderna Museet, which from its inauguration had an international focus. That time also meant, as art historian Maria Görts stresses in Konst kräver rum, the end of “the national Nationalmuseum,” which instead put European, Nordic and Swedish art history on more equal footing. Additionally, attempts were made to widen the exhibitions beyond the West. 

I am seized by the disturbing notion that Nationalmuseum has become a more exemplary contemporary museum than its neighboring institution Moderna Museet, and that modernism’s ideals of universality, equality, and intellectual liberation through art have become outmoded in a time that prefers rather different heroes and models. Granted, it is hard to avoid national history in a national museum. However, when nationalism remains largely unchallenged, and furthermore is combined with the demand that people be constantly fed with new images and experiences, the results are perilously close to populism’s affects, which have taken a firm hold over society during the time that Nationalmuseum was closed for renovation.

Nationalmuseum’s atrium has been turned into a sculpture hall. Photo: Anna Danielsson.