The Picture Rebel

Magnus Karlsson Gallery gives a rare and extended glance at Bruno Knutman’s particular form of radical play in a show focused exclusively on his drawings.

Bruno Knutman, The Accident, ink on paper, 22,5×31,5 cm, 1964.

There is a wonderful interview with Swedish artist Bruno Knutman on YouTube, conducted for his exhibition at Skövde Konsthall in 2008. Knutman was not a frequent exhibitor at the time, but he had pushed on in the studio and showed a new form of rebus-like painting that would later form the basis for a celebrated comeback at Lund Konsthall in 2010. The rest is, as they say, history. Towards the end of his life, Knutman experienced a veritable renaissance. Younger artists paid tribute to his original pictorial world, which after his death four years ago has been shown at the Sao Paulo Biennale, among other places. 

In the YouTube clip, Knutman kindly, but somewhat reluctantly, talks about where he gets his ideas: “I get them from home, including from my cat. We used to have a black cat, but it died. Then we got a new cat that was red. And then the cat there [pointing to the painting] also became red. It’s as simple as that.” Indeed, Knutman insisted on showing reality as he saw it, and the beauty of Magnus Karlsson Gallery’s exhibition of his drawings is that it gives us an extended glance at this particular way of seeing and how it developed over time. In the paintings, the paint is layered on; but in the drawings, the images seem more naked, irrespective of technique.

The presentation, made in collaboration with the artist Jockum Nordström, is based on a selection that Knutman left behind at the time of his death. Some drawings had, as I understand it, been ‘archived’, whereas those shown here he considered to be particularly significant. All in all, some forty framed works are displayed chronologically across the gallery.

The show begins with an urban scene, The Accident (1964), one of Knutman’s most famous drawings, and ends with an idyllic nature scene with Romantic allusions, Walking Towards the Sea (1990). The last work doesn’t really belong with the others, since it is made in a different technique, which Knutman developed after 1990, when, as the story goes, he could no longer get hold of his usual drawing tools. Hence, the sharp demarcation in time.

The Accident throws the viewer straight into a state of… uncertainty. The drawing is made with bursts of horizontal lines and loops, while the image itself swerves obliquely down towards the right. This destabilising effect makes me think that Knutman intended to visualise the world as it would appear from the window of a moving car – that he wanted to show the speed of sight itself when one discerns that something has happened, but it is unclear exactly what. It might be a quarrel, or just some people interacting. Indeed, the ominous title suggests that the implied car in which the viewer is sitting is about to have an accident, as the driver is preoccupied with the scene outside the window.  

Bruno Knutman, The City of Childhood, ink on paper, 22,5×29 cm, 1964.

The next work that captures my attention is The City of Childhood (1966), which is drawn with thick black lines and shows a Winnie the Pooh-like figure (a toddler?) with his shirt stuck above his fat belly, apparently in conversation with some amorphous shapes to the left (the parents?). There’s a sudden jerky movement in the image, as the lines jump around and Winnie the Pooh is askew. Messy shapes tower behind him, like in a cartoon where a character pretends to have cleaned up a room, but in fact is just hiding all the junk behind their back. As a viewer, you are in on the scam and in awe of the audacity that will soon be revealed.

Then comes Around Half Past Four (1966), which is set in the same schematically drawn room with three vertical elements on the right and a dark opening towards a back room on the left. Both the toddler and the parents are gone; all that is left is the pile of junk, now with six to seven discernible individuals seemingly rolling around in a wild fight, with faces and limbs protruding from a cloud of dust. A boy in a striped shirt positioned in front of the bedlam suggests that the other characters exist only in his mind. Or perhaps, with the parents gone, his imagination has taken on an increasingly worrying life of its own?

Bruno Knutman, The Picture of the Family, ink on paper, 28,5×26 cm, 1974.

In the next drawing, Knutman has, strikingly enough, changed his style again. Now we’re in a different place – maybe even on another planet – with a sad looking alien and a grinning figure who seems about to stuff something into its mouth. These are all action-packed drawings which make use of sharp contrasts and oscillate between distinct moods. Yet, they all tend to end up in a position of uncertainly somewhere in the middle. They are also typical of their time, influenced by popular culture and the revolutionary turmoil of the 1960s.

Knutman is often described as a “dreamer” or an “outsider,” yet I’m struck by how his work was also very much of its time. After the Pop-and-comic book drawings of the 1960s, he seems to have been influenced by the photorealistic style of the early 1970s. I am thinking of works such as The Picture of the Family and Baracks (both 1974). With their virtuoso technique and contrasts between light and shadow, they are reminiscent of documentary photographs. Also, a striking amount of Knutman’s works from this time depict groups of people, such as “clubs” and demonstrations. Then, in the 1980s, he returned to solitary figures and empty urban scenes, and towards the end of the decade drawings like The Forest Cottage (1987) and Landscape with Road (1989) become increasingly bucolic.  

Bruno Knutman, In the Basement Studio, ink on paper, 21,5×23,5 cm, 1983.

Admittedly, one could say that Knutman never stayed true to just one style. Yet, it seems to me that he could just as easily be described as an artist committed to his time, as someone who stood apart. Similarly, his work could be understood as social commentary as much as reports from his inner landscape. Which reading one prefers depends, to an unusual extent, on one’s optics. 

One of the most influential texts in the reception of Knutman is probably the artist Ola Billgren’s introduction to the book Runt hörnet. Bruno Knutmans teckningar (Around the corner: Bruno Knutman’s drawings, Kalejdoskop, 1986). When Billgren – a subtle and learned art writer – argues that Knutman abolishes the dichotomy between a naïve and a language-critical view of images, he certainly has a point. However, the problem with that interpretation is that it, in turn, is based on an implicit division between introspective and socially-conscious art, a dichotomy which Knutman dissolves to an equal degree. He was, least of all, a formalist; he could just as easily use mass media images as photographs from his own family albums or his inner archive of childhood memories.

Bruno Knutman, Landscape with Road, inkon paper, 22×22 cm, 1989.

Above all, what characterised Knutman was his playful disregard for established boundaries and hierarchies. His true gift, it seems to me, was not his capacity for dreaming, but his ability to look at reality without judgment. A red cat is not better than a black one, just different. Put differently, his images are exceedingly social. But they are social in a way that most of us are so unaccustomed to seeing that we can only interpret them as introverted or utopian. A world without hierarchies. Perhaps the thought was so foreign, even to him, that he had to constantly remind himself of it by making his images? 

In the exhibition booklet, the artist Kristoffer Grip describes Knutman’s drawings as “rebellious.” I can only agree. A rebel movement of one, forever on the barricades of art.

Bruno Knutman, In the Basement Studio, installation view, Magnus Karlsson Gallery, 2021.