With the exhibition Utopia and Reality: Modernity in Sweden, 19001960, the Bard Graduate Center presented a broad survey of Swedish art and culture from the first half of the 20th century. Organized by the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, the exhibition and its catalogue made an important contribution to English-language scholarship concerning the Swedish perspective on modernism and the rich diversity of modernist art, architecture, and design produced in Sweden during this period.

The exhibition dealt with the aesthetics of the 20th century but also with society during the modernist era in Sweden. A closed chapter or not, modernism still plays a central role in the contemporary discussion of architecture and design. Young artists, architects, and designers who are active today all relate in one way or another to the aesthetic and ideological heritage of modernism.

The full range of artistic expression was covered, from architectural drawings and models to painting, sculpture, graphic and industrial design, crafts, photography, and film. The exhibition marked the first time that these works in different media were shown together, providing a comprehensive portrait of how modernity was expressed in Sweden from the turn of the century to the late 1950s.

The 20th century was characterized by an awareness of the concept of “modern” and the constant search for the new. New technologies demanded new ideologies and models of social and political organization, which in turn stimulated new forms of architecture, design, photography, film, and other art to reflect and comment on a rapidly changing world. Mirroring Swedish modernism is only valuable if it is carried out in relation to concepts such as “modernity”—that is, the economic and social aspects—but also in relation to parameters such as utopia and reality.

In Sweden, artists were influenced by major figures on the Continent and by the activity in avant-garde centers such as Berlin and Paris. Exhibitions in Gothenburg, Malmö, and the Liljevalch Konstall in Stockholm in the first three decades of the 20th century exposed Swedish artists to works by Kandinsky, Léger, Picasso, Braque, Schiele, and Matisse, among many others, and were forums for international modernism. Swedish artists incorporated aspects of the new art movements into a distinctly Swedish modernity, combining the national with the international and adapting their utopian ideals to the reality of everyday life. As a comprehensive survey of the Swedish response to modernism, the exhibition represented both those artists who embraced modernism as an emblem and a means of societal progress and those who rejected the rationalistic ideals of the movement and its unceasing emphasis on the new.

Modernism coincided with a need for new social and political solutions. Architecture gave modernism a strong position on a wide popular front, and the government was to realize many of the movement’s most radical ideas. The Swedes embraced the experiments of Adolf Loos in Austria, Le Corbusier, and the Bauhaus architects, among others, welcoming the new architecture as a solution to everyday social issues in Sweden. Whereas in other countries modernist architecture typically was the style employed for more exclusive building projects, in Sweden the so-called functionalist style was used for public schools, housing, baths, and civic offices, and thus came to be identified strongly with the welfare state and the social democracy movement. Other utopian architectural projects, such as Sven Markelius’s Collective House (Stockholm, 1935) and the apartment hotels that followed, were intended as solutions to the problems faced by working women with families. The 1930s utopia of modern man in modern society led to the postwar development of the welfare state. The provision of housing was one of the most important tasks, and architects were charged with the assignment of designing the framework of the new Folkhem—the people’s home. The radical transition from scarcity to economic security, from countryside to neighborhood centers, from craft to industry, won international acclaim.

In the arts and crafts, under the leadership of textile designer Elsa Gullberg and the Swedish Society of Crafts and Design, artists and manufacturers began to collaborate in an effort to increase the aesthetic quality of industrial products, placing a decidedly national stamp on goods mass-produced for the international market. Objects for everyday use, such as Bruno Mathsson’s bentwood furniture, also reflected this climate of social experimentation. Consumer goods were designed to be functional and widely affordable but also aesthetically pleasing, exemplifying the democratic notion in Sweden that everyone was entitled to beauty in daily life. “Swedish Modern” as a concept was launched at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, with a persuasive program that placed the potential of design in a broader context. The blond Swedish style evoked an enthusiastic response from international audiences, a response still echoed in the contemporary world of design.

Young Swedish photographers such as Arne Wahlberg imported to Sweden the new, objective style they had learned in Germany and frequently put their talents to work for Swedish industry, again imbuing industry with a national aesthetic. The exhibition focused on the photographers who captured the progress of modern society in their pictures of sport, new technology, architecture, and film stars, but also on those who portrayed a society that would soon belong to history, a society caught between rural tradition and modern urban living.

By the 1960s, Sweden saw a new generation of architects, artists, and designers rebel against the social, cultural, and political confines of a modernist program. Scandinavian style—the prevailing identity of the 1950s, characterized by elegant, harmonious proportions and an almost perfectionist treatment of material—was simultaneously called into question. The final part of the exhibition illustrated a number of the interactions between artistic disciplines that took place after World War II. These interactions, together with examples of work by pioneers in Swedish industrial design, recreated the dynamic atmosphere of the 1950s.

Utopia and Reality: Modernity in Sweden, 19001960 included approximately 200 classic works of Swedish modernism, including avant-garde painting ranging from expressionism, abstraction, and occultism to Gösta Adrian-Nilsson’s futurist-expressionist paintings; paintings by Matisse’s pupils Isaac Grünewald and Sigrid Hjertén; furniture designs by Erik Gunnar Asplund, Bruno Matthson, and Josef Frank; Viking Eggeling’s abstract film Diagonal Symphony (1924); Albin Amelin’s anti-Nazi prints and paintings; glass by Edvard Hald; graphic design by Anders Beckman and Olle Eksell; architectural drawings by Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz; textiles designed by Ingegerd Torhamn and Astrid Sampe; industrial designs by Sixten Sason and Sigvard Bernadotte; and premodern paintings by August Strindberg and Hilma af Klint. The exhibition shed light on the perspective of the artiststhe Bohemians, the designers in the service of society, art engineers, architects, social planners, and radical visionaries. The exhibition presented the work of a large number of women artists, illuminating their understanding of the art of the new era and prompting a discussion about the situation of women in general. Utopia and Reality: Modernity in Sweden, 19001960 was curated by Cecilia Widenheim of the Moderna Museet, Stockholm.