Last year, Moderna Museet was allocated an extra SEK 25 million (EUR 2,4 million) to support the Swedish art sector during the coronavirus pandemic. The historically unprecedented budget was used to purchase 373 works by 169 artists. Still, that record-breaking sense doesn’t really show when some thirty of these new acquisitions are exhibited in the museum’s windowless and rather introverted ground floor. Instead of going big with an all-encompassing presentation, Moderna Museet has settled for two consecutive smaller shows followed by a catalogue later this year.
If anything, the first exhibition, carefully assembled by the museum’s curator Asrin Haidari, highlights the corona-collection’s character of a support project. It’s not the big names or the commercially successful artists that are prioritised here. Rather, we are presented with new works by less established artists, or older ones from previously overlooked practices – something that is confirmed by the fact that up to 70 per cent of the buy up was made directly in-studio, without a middleman. The oldest artist is around 90, but the median age is about 35, making it feel like a rather young exhibition reflecting the diversity of the Swedish art scene.
Cultural politics aside, there’s a distinctly articulated aesthetics here: a certain gaze to the overlooked and the disregarded and to the use of simple materials to create small warming flames of sensuous everyday presence. More specifically, the presentation has a clear slant towards figurative painting, photography, and drawing – small and intimate works that close in on the viewer with topics that are easily related to. Video installations, digital works, and performances are conspicuously absent. Instead of pieces that want to ‘artsplain’ or overpower the viewer, we get art that carefully puts a comforting hand on our cheek – with the full consent of both parties, of course!
Which is not to say that the exhibition is about making us feel comfortable. On the contrary: Illness, war, and misery are the dominant themes of works that often build upon personal experiences and open up difficult topics through intergenerational dialogue. I’m thinking, for instance, of how painters like Lena Cronqvist (1938) and Helena Lund Ek (1988) both complicate the idea of motherhood as a pathway to happiness. Considering her iconic status, Cronqvist is not as well represented in the collection as one would think. Now, her painting Tvättning (Washing, 1971), dealing with the postpartum psychosis that got her committed to a psychiatric clinic, is complemented by Inlåst (Locked up) from the same year. This might not be one of Cronqvist’s strongest works, but it’s still an important acquisition.
From Lund Ek, Moderna Museet has bought a double self-portrait from the series Crack an Egg (2018), bearing witness to another silenced topic: abortion. While the artist has often been noted for her boldly experimental painting practice, this work is strikingly representative of the exhibition’s low-key sensibility. Which makes me wonder. Of course, it’s important that artists are given room to work with difficult topics close to themselves. Still, I can’t escape the impression that Moderna is placing art in a box, where its value lies in offering comfort rather than challenging boundaries.
Astrid Svangren (1972) often works with room-size installations using bold colours and compelling materials. Yet, here she is represented by a work comprising a one-metre high sheet of glass leaning against a wall. Again, this is not a bad choice. Indeed, one could argue that the modest scale accentuates the artist’s ability to create powerful assemblages out of delicate materials like silk, paper, or foil. Nevertheless, the choice underlines that one should express oneself in a correct and fine-tuned manner to have a say in contemporary art. If I were an artist with a personal inclination to make art that’s impersonal and detached – or repulsive and uncanny – I might despair over even getting through the door at Moderna.
There is a political dimension to this aesthetics of modesty and tolerance which says that you can make art about anything – as long as it’s done in the proper way. Which says: You can make art about gay porn as long as it’s not too exciting, or about suicide as long as it is not too upsetting. Or about the suffering of the Sámi, as long as you don’t make the politics behind the injustices too visible. Thus, to launch mourning as the corona-collection’s finely tuned sentiment comes across as emphasising that contemporary art is for well-educated, responsible, up-standing citizens – in contrast to anger and resentment, which are passions reserved for lower-class people, anti-vaxxers, zealous Italian philosophers, and the like.
To the extent that there’s room for different emotional registers, it’s to be found in the older generation. If Kerstin Bergh’s (1935) painting of a rickety surgery table depicts sorrow, it’s of a more furious kind; the strokes of black and green paint evoke the sharp light and cold materials of a hospital. And Kristina Eriksson’s (1948) painting of a woman carrying a bag-in-box is both humorous and elegiac. It’s a caricature of sadness, something to laugh at as much as cry over – a small oasis for maladapted misfits.
A younger artist like Oskar Hult (1986) is also aesthetically maladapted, but in a quirky, self-conscious way that makes his references to modernist painters like Juan Miró and Pierre Bonnard feel somewhat superficial. Like Hult, Fatima Moallim (1992), another rising star, is represented by a large-scale drawing that feels more mature than her work in general. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but rather a sign of the museum’s good aim. Both artists have made a mark on the art scene in recent years, with fresh takes on traditional image making, so typical of artists in their generation.
If the exhibition’s eye for painting is a bit insecure at times, its approach to photography feels more confident. I linger in front of Snežana Vučetić Bohm’s (1963) factual self-portraits taken in Yugoslavia just before the war, and Patricio Salinas A’s (1966) triptych portraying the Chilean prison camp where he was interned during the 1970s. Nevertheless, their inclusion doesn’t say much about the current state of photography.
I appreciate Moderna’s newfound trust in art’s ability to communicate on the level of form without force-feeding the viewer interpretations the way a lot of art did during the 2000s. Indeed, the exhibition’s focus on a small-scale and intimate aesthetics reads as a welcome attempt to navigate, by way of a minor position, between the dominant narratives of art as a luxury object or an academic career path. The acquisition project appears rather uneven, though, and I would’ve liked to know more about why a certain work was chosen to represent an artist, and how it fits in the collection. But perhaps those reflections will appear in the upcoming catalogue.