The Swedish Art Spring

The National Museum is in a crisis and a call to support Gaza divides the art world but everyone joins hands for the sake of queer- and performance art.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self Portrait, etching, 1630. In the collection of the National Museum, Sweden.

Last week, thousands of art lovers jostled in the freezing cold trying to get a glimpse of the new goods as the Stockholm gallery scene inaugurated the spring season. A few days later, the season was rebooted when Stockholm Cultural Workers for Palestine staged a sit-in at Moderna Museet. The group is tired of the hypocrisy of Swedish art institutions and demands that they put pressure on the government to act decisively against Israel’s violations of international law in Gaza. 

In its petition, the group asks why the concern was so much greater for Ukrainian cultural workers after the Russian invasion than for all those stigmatised, boycotted, or killed as a result of the Israeli occupation. Indeed, if the Cooperation Council for the Swedish National Museums, the Klister Network (for small and medium size institutions), and the Artists’ Association of Sweden want to deny them the same support they gave to the Ukrainians, they should at least explain why. 

Personally, I could feel the sweat drops forming on my brow when a friend sent over the petition and asked me to sign it. How did it go for David Velasco again? Jokes aside, it is clear that the former Artforum editor was wrong to sign a petition which he published in his own magazine, since there should never be any doubt that an editor’s decisions and opinions are their own and no one else’s. I guess Velasco was a progeny of the activist 2010s, of MeToo and Black Lives Matter, and followed a different code.

Last week in Stockholm, Magasin III unveiled Pawel Althamer’s sculpture group Emissaries of Light (2022): a circle of naked figures absorbed in a dance which reads as a portrait of the Swedish art world caught with its hypocritical trousers down. Or does the work chide Magasin IIIs own naïve belief in the power of art? When the cultural workers demand that we boycott Israeli institutions, the searchlight inevitably falls on the Stockholm museum, which since 2018 has a branch in Tel Aviv. The museum itself stresses that it shows both Israeli and Palestinian artists, yet due to Israeli discriminatory politics the branch is not equally accessible to Palestinians, which would result in a boycott according to the petition. Still, isn’t it better if Palestinian artists are shown, especially if the audience is mainly Israeli?

Lately, there have been reports that unemployment among artists is on the rise while museum attendance is down. After the free admission reform was scrapped in 2023, the compensation for the loss of entrance fees disappeared alongside many visitors. This contributed to sending the Swedish National Museum into a crisis, which led to a host of drastic measures, including the suggestion to give up the museum’s most prized masterpiece, Rembrandt’s The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661–62), which has been on loan from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts for the last 150 years. Luckily, when the new Director Patrick Amsellem took over at the turn of the year, part of the deficit was explained as a calculation error.

This spring, the National Museum will feature the Norwegian impressionist Harriet Backer. In 2023, the same exhibition was named one of the year’s highlights by Kunstkritikk’s Norwegian editor Stian Gabrielsen. How the Swedish audience will respond remains to be seen. Either way, change is coming to the National Museum. From the former director, old-school art historian Susanna Petterson to contemporary crackerjack Amsellem (until recently director of Public Art Agency Sweden) who now has a museum in crisis to tackle. A recent SEK 10 million (EUR 875,498) grant for a show about seaside tourism from The Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation might help. The Gothenburg Museum of Art was awarded an equal size grant from the same pool for a upcoming exhibition about the apocalypse. 

Josefin Arnell, Beast and Feast, film still, 2023. Arnell’s solo presentation at Index opens 9 February.

Moderna Museet seems to be in flux as well. This spring’s major initiative, the first solo museum presentation of the American performance artist and queer activist Vaginal Davis, is made in collaboration with a host of other institutions ranging from the National Museum to Accelerator and Index. Where is the Moderna of old, I wonder, majestically presiding above the Swedish art world? And the National Museum and Index together? What happened to the ideal of an independent scene? Still, when it opens in May, the Davis-bonanza might prove to be one of the season’s highlights. Until then, we’ll have to make do with a new presentation of the Moderna Museum collection by that old trickster Maurizio Cattelan; such weak programming is supposedly due to an ongoing renovation of the building.

In February, Index will feature the Swedish artist Josefin Arnell, whose darkly humorous work has attracted much attention lately. Since Arnell lives in Amsterdam and has not shown much in her native country, this seems like the perfect move for a small independent space like Index.

Before Christmas, the newspaper Sydsvenskan’s art critic Linda Fagerström criticised Moderna Museet Malmö for acting like the Stockholm museum’s “annoying cousin from the countryside.” For my part, I’ve noticed that other Malmö institutions have developed a similar tendency to mumble locally instead of trying to engage outside audiences. In February, Malmö Konsthall will feature the acclaimed Swedish artist and poet Leif Holmstrand, who only last year had a solo show at Marabouparken in Stockholm. The show will reference trans, drag, and gay culture and will not only include works by Holmstrand, but also works from his personal collection and by artists who’ve inspired him as well. Bonus material, then. The deluxe edition. A field day for Holmstrand completists!

In recent years, several emerging artists have been given their first major solo show at Bonniers Konsthall. Will the new director Joanna Nordin, who took over last spring, continue to deliver? The season starts off in February with queer video- and performance-artist Conny Karlsson Lundgren. Next up is Markus Öhrn, founder of the experimental performance collective Institutet. From its base in the Torne Valley, just south of the Arctic Circle, Institutet performs at venues ranging from local art centres to Berlin’s Volksbühne. Surely, many are curious about what Öhrn will do next.

The private Stockholm kunsthalle Artipelag is known for its mammoth productions of artists like Anselm Kiefer and Expressionist painter Rolf Hanson. No other institution in the country does shows like that. To my mind, critics’ constant bickering about their expensive admission fees and old-mannish programming has a tinge of ‘Swedish envy’.  In February, Artipelag will feature the Belgian superstar Berlinde De Bruyckere.

Berlinde De Bruyckere, Embalmed Twins II, 2017. Photo: Mirjam Devriendt. Courtesy the Artist and Hauser & Wirth. De Bruyckere’s exhibition at Artipelag opens 3 February.

On the west coast, Gothenburg Konsthall will present the much-hyped Swedish figurative painter Jonatan Pihlgren. Personally, I’m more curious about the Gothenburg-based sculptor Claes Hake, whose micro-retrospective at Galleri Thomassen opened last week. Hake is best known for his monumental public works, but in this exhibition, which spans the 1960s to the present, other aspects seem to come to the fore.

Something that will definitely make me take the train south is Ystad Art Museum’s Leif Eriksson retrospective. A Malmö-based pioneer of conceptual art, Eriksson was never really acknowledged by the mainstream art world. An unsung hero who sadly passed away in 2020. 

Above the Arctic Circle, Maria Lind is set to revive Sweden’s northernmost art museum and the entire regional art scene to boot. In February, KIN (Konstmuseet i Norr) will host an art party with some forty artists while inaugurating exhibitions on textile art and the duodji artist Jon Tomas Utsi, as well as the international group show The Observatory: Art and Life in the Critical Zone, recently on view at Södertälje Konsthall south of Stockholm. A four-hour drive from Kiruna, in the small village of Vitsaniemi (population: 63) Konsthall Tornedalen has been under way for years. Recently, the institution was awarded a regional grant which CEO Theodor Ringborg describes as a political breakthrough and a crucial step towards the erection of its main building designed by the Finnish firm OOPEAA.

In May, the Nordic art fair Market will take place in Stockholm. The programme will be released on 1 February, but acting Director Josefine Hardstedt has promised greater international scope and a continued focus on Market Debut, which was launched in 2023. This year, there will be a mix of new and established galleries showing emerging artists in a joint presentation. Will Market heed Stockholm Cultural Workers for Palestine’s call? I don’t think anyone should dare to get their hopes up. But why shouldn’t gallerists speak up at a time when there is so much at stake?

Conny Karlsson Lundgren, Our Trip to France (Mont des Tantes), filmstill, 2021. Karlsson Lundgren opens a solo show at Bonniers konsthall 14 February.