Greta Knutson-Tzara, Resistance Painter

A new exhibition rehabilitates an overlooked Swedish modernist, for whom contemplation, rest and sensual pleasure were essential capacities of modern painting.

Greta Knutson-Tzara, Interior with Woman and Child, ca.1940.

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) was published around the same time as Greta Knutson-Tzara (1899–1983) created the first painting in the comprehensive retrospective currently on view at Norrköping’s Konstmuseum. Did she read Woolf? Possibly, maybe even likely. An aspiring artist, Greta Knutson moved to Paris in 1920 and soon became involved with the city’s artistic and literary avant-garde, with the Surrealists and Dadaists. She married the poet Tristan Tzara, and history would record her as Knutson-Tzara, even though she stopped signing her paintings with that name after the couple divorced in 1939 – a proof of the thesis that a woman artist is only allowed to exist in relation to a man.

This is the first larger presentation of Knutson-Tzara since her death in 1983, at which time she had lived and worked in France for over six decades. When I visited the exhibition, organised by the museum’s curators Martin Sundberg and Helena Scragg, I stayed for a quite a while in front of that first painting, an untitled interior from the late 1920s. A bouquet of flowers rests on a table, and a balcony door opens up onto a bay. In the sky, the brushstrokes are left visible, inscribed into the paint, as if to physically demonstrate the sun shining down on the water. With this move, the illusion is broken, and in an almost naïve way – a naïveté that requires skill to get away with – it articulates that this picture is about painting: painting as life, Knutson-Tzara’s life, a room of her own. It is an image of pure joy, where all the possibilities that the young artist had in her are foreshadowed in that one view out through the door, off towards the horizon.

Greta Knutson-Tzara, Composition, 1953.

As I move on through the galleries, I realise that the painting doesn’t capture a moment in Knutson-Tzara’s life, as much as it registers a capacity of painting itself – one to which she would return with remarkable consistency during the following decades. It is the capacity whereby colors are in maximum harmony, and shapes are arranged to capture the moment when rest turns into action. This can be understood as expressing a classic ideal, which Knutson-Tzara acquired as a student of the Cubist André Lhote in Paris in the 1920s. But it can also be described using Gilles Deleuze’s idea of the creative act as an act of resistance, which frees the potential of life held back or suppressed, and which another philosopher, Giorgio Agamben, later developed in his reasoning about potential as the position where act and non-act exist as equal possibilities. It is this particular “inoperativity” that can make art an act of resistance, according to Agamben.

With this in mind, the first painting invites us to see Knutson-Tzara’s practice in terms of a resistance, which, in Agamben’s words, is “inherent in the operation.” That is to say, in painting. Another way of putting this is that Knutson-Tzara, as opposed to her husband, wasn´t interested in revolting against tradition. Her approach to painting was as affirmative as it was critical, as loving as it was analytical, and a reason for this could be that the medium made it possible for her to preserve her artistic integrity in a setting that was dominated by men. After all, she worked in an avant-garde environment wherein, as she herself testified, it was difficult for a woman to be taken seriously as an artist. She later dismissed the Surrealist group as “Stalinists,” and Breton as a “tyrant.”

Thus, what first appears as a post-Cubist, bourgeois set of motifs – the exhibition is dominated by decorative still lifes, interiors, and garden views – gains a different political currency. In a moving letter cited in the catalogue, Knutson-Tzara writes to her lover, the esteemed poet and member of the French Resistance René Char, about her urge to paint in the midst of World War II, which was then raging. Herself active in the resistance, she simultaneously experienced a renewed inspiration in painting, which she marvels about in her letter. But this is actually not that incongruous. After all, it was modern life – not least French life, which she had adopted as her own – that needed to be defended, if only by upholding the ideal of painting as a promise of freedom.

Installation view from the Greta Knutson-Tzara-exhibition at Norrköping’s Konstmuseum. Photo: Mats Arvidsson.

Indeed, it is Knutson-Tzara’s paintings from the war years which most clearly relate to Agamben’s idea of the inoperative. I’m thinking here mainly of a group of large canvases which were shown at her breakthrough exhibition in 1946 at the Swedish-French Art Gallery in Stockholm. They too are interiors, but in contrast to the painting from the 1920s, the rooms are closed, and the feeling is restrained and muted. In a painting like Interior With Woman and Child (ca. 1940) it is difficult not to discern anxiety in the artist who has stopped in front of the easel. With her left arm resting horizontally – neither active nor passive, but passing – she looks with a contemplative gaze straight at the viewer. In the background, a boy sits at a table reading, probably her son Christophe Tzara, whom she often painted. The room is hinted at through blurred sections and ‘showers’ of paint, which place both artist and viewer inside painting as a room that radiates stillness at the same time as it seems to be constantly on the verge of changing before our eyes.

Another work from the same period, At the Lamp (1945), depicts two men engaged in a conversation, while a third figure, a woman, is lost in her own thoughts. The figures are seated around the table and separated from the background by clear contour lines; at the same time, their bodies dissolve and are visible only as fragments – a hand, or a head floating freely in space – an effect which suggests a semi-dark room. The same can be said about the background, which is both emphasised by taking up a large part of the image, and dissolved by acting as a sign for the obscure light conditions in the room.

Greta Knutson-Tzara, Spring Morning, 1950s.

There is also a strong relationship to the spoken word. One can almost hear the low-key conversation around the table, while the connection to language establishes an indirect association to poetry. This may be due to the figure-ground relationship being reminiscent of the space between words and the line breaks in a poem: what represents silence in poetry, inviting a temporary pause in the reading, is linked to darkness as an essential component of the depicted space. It is a silence which appears not as the opposite of speech, not as a negation of the act of speaking, but as a state that contains both speech and continued silence as potential elements. The exact same thing can be said about Knutson-Tzara’s painting where figure and ground – act and non-act – seem to converge at a point where the maximum number of possibilities are open. That point is also depicted on the canvas, in the form of the middle man’s hand floating freely in the room, like a flickering flame, caught in a motion that it simultaneously suspends.

In other words, conditions that are often presented in terms of a lack – rest as the absence of action, form as the lack of content (i.e., ‘formalism’) – are what is most essential to Knutson-Tzara. I think this is not only because she viewed these states as the most elevated form of human life, but also because she perceived them as inseparable from painting. To paint is to engage in what the ancients called otium, which means being free from everyday obligations to instead develop spiritual life through contemplation, rest, and sensual pleasure. This actually corresponds to how Agamben describes the inoperative, not as a characteristic of art per se, but of the creative act, which in its true form cannot be performed without cancelling out its own performance. It is through this lens that we ought to see Knutson-Tzara’s preoccupation with people reading, one of her most common motifs, as well as how she paints hands as a sign for the ability to do something (the ultimate consequence of this being the ability to refrain from doing it).

Greta Knutson-Tzara, Reading, 1940s.

These ideas also seem to frame the abstract painting that Knutson-Tzara embarked on after the war. It is an abstraction that never lets go of the figurative, but is instead based on an intensified observation of nature. Not infrequently, I assume, these are of the views in the garden and area surrounding her farm in Vaucluse in Provence, where she settled in 1949. There, she also began to work with sculpture inspired by the stylised ornamental effects of French medieval art, which are displayed in glass vitrines next to paintings from the same time, such as Spring Morning (1950s) and Forest Snow (1940s). This preoccupation with ornament makes me think of the architect Adolf Loos, author of Ornament and Crime (1913), who designed her and Tristan Tzara’s house in Paris in the 1920s. For Loos, the freedom from ornament was an expression of spiritual elevation and a way forward for European culture. In contrast, for Knutson-Tzara, there was a close connection between the ornamental and the popular, between rhythm and dance, and modern painting.

The fact that Loos’s plans for the house can be seen in an adjacent vitrine therefore allows for a contrasting reading between an approach that sees function as the highest value (corresponding to the ethical notion of duty), and another way, Knutson-Tzara’s way, which sees the spiritual content of art as more valuable than its apposite or communicative potential. Isn’t this exactly what she portrays in the large-scale painting Reading (1940s), where the towering shadow beside the woman is meant to suggest that her inner world of experience is greater than what her outer form can ever show?

I return to Woolf’s words about the “own room” that has been denied women, but which she nevertheless saw as a necessary historical condition for literary and artistic practice. Isn’t this precisely the room which we can no longer take for granted when life itself is under constant pressure to become more productive, less alive? Don’t art’s current circumstances mean that we all, regardless of gender, are increasingly excluded from true, artistic creation? And is this not precisely what Knutson-Tzara depicts in order to give a glimpse of a different life, one that is richer, more nuanced, and, thus, more alive?

Greta Knutson-Tzara, Forest Snow, 1940s.

For me, it seems evident that she was working with an acute awareness of that room as something which must constantly be defended and reconquered.  Who would know this better than her? Despite her talent and financial independence, she never seems to have been admitted into the art world, not fully. Although celebrated as an artist after the war, she remained an outsider both in France and in Sweden. With that in mind, her works from the 1960s and 1970s, which are shown on the lower floor, appear less surprising. During these years, she abandoned her nuanced palette and gaze at nature, and instead turned inward, towards dream images and nightmarish visions, in a nostalgic practice. After all those years, she suddenly became a Surrealist, or oneirist (dream painter), as she herself said. Sundberg identifies her failing vision and growing literary interest – she wrote poetry and art criticism, but published in book form only towards the end of her life – as the possible reasons behind this transformation. Another explanation could be a deeply felt need to constantly conquer her own creativity anew.

It seems obvious, however, that Knutson-Tzara’s late paintings don’t hold up to the work she produced up until the 1960s – which may have contributed to her historical marginalisation. Therefore, it is not uncontroversial to let the late paintings occupy an entire floor of the museum. But then again, this isn’t a show intent on glorifying her, but a feat of art historical research which succeeds in painting a deeper and more nuanced picture of both Knutson-Tzara and the history of modernism in Sweden and France.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder whether a male artist would have been given such a ‘nuanced’ portrait. Wouldn’t it then have felt natural to make a discerning selection in order to present a more favourable image of the oeuvre? There are some works here in which Knutson-Tzara’s skill becomes schematic, her elegance a prison. Nevertheless, this doesn’t really bother me as I walk through the exhibition. On the contrary, it feels valuable that an entire life is allowed to emerge from the selection of works. In the catalogue, her oeuvre is described as inconsistent, and this may be true given what the works look like. But if you approach it from the idea of painting as a language of its own, one that can only thrive when free from outer obligations, it appears exceptionally consistent.

Installation view from the Greta Knutson-Tzara-exhibition at Norrköping’s Konstmuseum. Photo: Mats Arvidsson.