The Norwegian Artist Who Brought Painting Into the Space Age

Anna-Eva Bergman’s first major retrospective in Paris is unlike anything else.

Anna-Eva Bergman, Grand rond, 200 x 250 cm, vinyl colour and sheet metal on canvas, 1968. © Anna-Eva Bergman / Adagp, Paris, 2023. Photo: Fondation Hartung-Bergman.

When I was young, I went through a phase of going to see every Wagner opera I could find. Sometimes, I would fall asleep and be woken up by the cymbals, those nasty instruments that seem to have the capacity to rouse the dead. I developed a bizarre relationship to cymbals. They seemed overpowering, evil even. Did they really belong in an orchestra? It wasn’t until I had a secret crush on a mysterious cymbal player – who himself looked like he kept falling asleep, only to suddenly wake up and start striking his cymbals – that I finally reconciled with the instrument. I saw all the Wagner productions he was in that year, and no, I never dared to seek out the cymbal player.

I was reminded of Wagner’s cymbals as I walked around Anna-Eva Bergman’s exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, looking at her magnificent paintings of giant gold and silver spherical moons. I thought of my bizarre crush, but also of the history of cymbals. In the New Testament, as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey he is welcomed by people holding palm leaves, harps, and – you guessed it – cymbals. Once inside the temple, Jesus orders all the old documents with old laws and bills to be burned: the dawn of a new era. Since then, cymbals have always symbolised a new time. This is also the case for Bergman, who seems to make a tabula rasa of all the art that has preceded her. Her sublime semi-abstract images of desolate and dramatic mountainscapes and planets merging with the landscape of the soul are unlike anything else.

Bergman was born in Stockholm in 1909 to Norwegian parents and lived alternately in Norway and France until her death in 1987. But no one I know in France has ever heard of her. Some assume she is related to Ingmar Bergman. This is not helped by the fact that she is often associated with her much more famous husband, the artist Hans Hartung, whom she married, divorced, and married again. However, Bergman was well-known in Paris during the 1960s and 70s and had an international breakthrough when she was shown at Documenta in 1959. It’s quite an event in Paris to have a forgotten artist be given so much space in the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris – one of the city’s largest museums – with as many as two hundred works. In addition, she is represented by a market-leading gallery, Perrotin. Who was she? What did she want with her art and what does it have to say to us today?

Bergman was a contradictory artist who lived in isolation for many years, but she also spent much of her life in close connection with artists such as Vassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and Sonia Delaunay. Edward Munch was a great source of inspiration, but her greatest aesthetic awakening came from encountering the Renaissance painter Fra Angelico, whom she repeatedly identified as her favourite artist. In Fra Angelico and Johann Sebastian Bach she found “a cosmic piety,” or simply humility in the face of the incomprehensibility in and around us. Perhaps one could say “a cosmic piety without God”. For Bergman transcended all these influences in her search for an unpopulated universe – the great dream of the Romantics, a kind of “anthropo-escape,” to quote Thomas Schlesser, director of the Hartung-Bergman Foundation.

Anna-Eva Bergman, Deux formes noires, 130 x 97 cm, oil on canvas, 1952 & Stèle avec lune, 146 x 97 cm, tempera and sheet metal on canvas, 1953.

The exhibition is very strict and museum-like, bordering on impersonal, as if curated by a bot who has methodically and chronologically included all of Bergman’s periods and transformations. The first galleries show her post-war caricatures and illustrations filled with humorous anti-Nazi drawings and folk tales. It seems like a contradiction that such a calm and monumental artist produced such witty and messy paintings at the beginning of her career. Some of her paintings suffer from a heavy debt to Kandinsky and Mondrian, others from obsessive back and forth dialogues with the Expressionists. But around 1950 something happens. Bergman comes into her own with paintings that make time stop. Her interest in the golden ratio made her susceptible to nature’s geometric rules and laws of gravity, to the rhythms of shapes and the impossible pursuit of the horizon. Her main interlocutor is nature, her new cathedral. Within the framework of the image, everything becomes possible; both matter and nature appear to follow new secret laws.

An artist cannot make great art unless she or he tries to become one with the universe that surrounds her, Bergman supposedly said. Surrounding herself with mountains and planets as if they were her best friends, she began making Romantic landscapes deprived of male heroic viewers; landscapes that are flat, like Hokusai’s woodcuts of mist-shrouded vistas, where meticulous brushwork gives way to large glossy metal leaf surfaces that bring weight and calm to the images.

Anna-Eva Bergman, Montagne transparente,180 x 270 cm, vinyl colour and sheet metal on canvas, 1967. Fondation Hartung-Bergman. © Anna-Eva Bergman / Adagp, Paris, 2023. Photo: Claire Dorn.

At the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville, there’s a complete sense of sacred reverence. People stand and sit as if petrified in front of Norway’s mysterious fjords with snowy rifts that, in turn, seem to conceal other secret images painted in negatives; skies where moons and suns struggle with each other beyond human crises and catastrophes, beyond Munch’s anguish, in the calm after the scream, beyond Lars Von Trier’s dystopias, beyond everything. The French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux explains in The Number and the Siren (2011) – a metaphysical detective work, looking for a secret code in ‘Un Coup de Dés’ (A Throw of the Dice, 1897) – that Stephane Mallarmé, after the death of God, wanted to create a religion for art that would put humans in the place of God. Meillassoux would love Bergman’s intergalactic paintings, which open for journeys towards an inner wordlessness, eternity, emptiness; the passage towards the unknown, the absolute.

All shapes are set in motion. In Stèle avec Lune (1953), a phallic monolith ducks gently towards a moon; in Grande pyramide (1960), a silvery, ethereal pyramid seems to want to fly off; in Montagne transparente (1967), a massive yet delicate glass cube floats along the image surface. And in Grand rond (1968), a silver moon looks like a tentative overture to the spectacular planetary dance in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Anna-Eva Bergman, A Journey Within, installation view, Musée d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris, 2023.

I tried to meditate on the abstract forms, to see them for what they are, and not let my associations run amok towards different points of reference. But the paintings wouldn’t let me, as if they wanted to be seen as both abstract and figurative. What else can be said about Rocher sauvage (Wild rock, 1975), which looks like: a white table on a black floor; three black monoliths against a white sky; and three black rectangles on white paper at the same time? It’s like looking at a Hilma af Klint for grown-ups, with no angels and no spiritualistic formulas. These are on par with Rothko’s emotive paintings. But no, I didn’t cry in front of them – an effect Rothko often has; I smiled, filled with inner peace. Especially when faced with Carboneras (1963), which looks like an upside-down version of Rothko’s infamous moon landscape Untitled (1969-70), with the difference being that Bergman has brought Rothko down to earth (and this was before he made his painting) so that the earth is dark and the sky is white. 

I can’t wait to set foot on the island of Citadelløya – one of Bergman’s favourite places, south of Oslo – or to go to Antibes to bask in the same carefree sunlight that inspired her L’or de vivre – Feu (The Gold of Living – Fire, 1965), a painting that looks like either an old parchment with no words, or as if someone had ripped open the night with a flame.

If the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) knew how to live in fire, then Bergman seems to have known how to live in both fire and ice, how to speak and be silent. The French psychoanalyst André Green (1927-2012) saw the unconscious as an incessant bass roused from time to time by the cymbal, the psychoanalyst’s cut, which sounds when you least expect it. And why does it do that? So that what is said can be heard – the unsaid too. The cut castrates, but it also keeps desire alive. Bergman’s art is a cut, a visual cymbal that both stops time and starts it again. No wonder people stay so long in front of her paintings.

Anna-Eva Bergman. A Journey Within, installation view, Musée d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris, 2023.