Originally published in Utopia & Reality: Modernity in Sweden, 1900–1960. edited by Cecilia Widenheim. Published for the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, New York. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002. 288–297.

The encounter between different genres, combined in universal works of art or as a speculation about the inner connection of the forms of art, through varied expressions, is a story that is quite unique. It may concern the origins of theatre in the Dionysian feasts of antiquity or the history of opera, but may also be about recurring, more or less artistically successful events in the era of modernism. In the best instance, a kind of happy transition in which poetry and poets, ideas, and the work of translation become the driving force behind international contacts; in which music and rhythm solder the structure together; in which the inventions of painting become scenic reality and in which wordless dance, with movement and form, sometimes sculpts and sometimes narrates a drama composed as a united whole or as a lyrical-fragmentary abstraction.

Speculations, dreams and sketches around these connections were in the air at the turn of the nineteenth century, in the Parisian symbolist theater of the 1890s, in the work of the original theoretician of stage lighting technique, Adolphe Appia, in the Russian composer Scriabin’s experiments with optical color accompaniment and in that of the English solitary A. Wallace Rimmington, whose home-built light-organ was demonstrated in London in 1895. Vasily Kandinsky dreamed of a pure color drama in his text ‘Über Bühnenkomposition’ (on scenic composition) at the time of the German Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter (1909). Perhaps the most vital realization was Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, with Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography (inspired by the rhythmical gymnastics of Jacques Dalcroze) for Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913) as the most famous scandal. Not to mention the 1917 teamwork between Pablo Picasso, Erik Satie, Jean Cocteau and Diaghilev in Parade, a Dadaist ballet-varieté with dancers dressed as cubist buildings, an almost surrealist — avant la lettre — plot and collage-like music complete with pistol shots and the chatter of typewriters.

Then followed the period of the Ballet Suédois at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris from 1920 until 1925. Here there was collaboration between artists: Fernand Léger, Nils Dardel, Francis Picabia and Giorgio de Chirico; composers: Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric and Erik Satie, Gösta Nystroem and Viking Dahl; and choreographers and dancers: Jean Börlin and Carina Ari. Artistic delight in invention and a broad repertoire were the hallmarks of the ensemble, as was a mixture of avant-garde and populism in both choreography and music. The whole enterprise was led and financed by the theatre director, art collector and enthusiast Rolf de Maré.1 One unique pioneering work in which abstract art and musical composition meet in the form of film is Viking Eggeling’s Diagonal Symphony of 1924.

Returning home to Sweden after studying with Léger in Paris, Otto G. Carlsund — a warm admirer of Diaghilev, and deeply musical — tried to introduce the new abstract art at the Stockholm Exhibition of 1930, in a selection of neo-cubist and neo-plasticist works by both international and Swedish artists. Unfortunately it was a fiasco, which came as a bitter blow to Carlsund. However, the contacts made with figures such as the poet Gunnar Ekelöf meant that discussion of the new art was carried forward in the slowly growing welfare state in Sweden during the 1930s — in the Europe of the dictatorships a silent and gloomy decade for all radical art, including abstract modernism.2

Not until after the Second World War was modern art given a real chance to achieve a wider breakthrough in Sweden, and this eventually came about through a combination of strength and strategy. The breakthrough came with an exhibition at the Färg och Form gallery in 1947, showing works by artists Lennart Rodhe, Olle Bonniér, Karl-Axel Pehrson, Randi Fisher, Olle Gill, Lage Lindell, Armand Rossander, Uno Vallman, Knut­Erik Lindberg and Liss Eriksson. They eventually came to embody the concept of ‘the men of 1947,’ in spite of the fact that one of them was a woman. Journals like Konstrevy, Utsikt, Fönstret, Ord och Bild, 40-tal, and especially Prisma gave them space and room to develop. The Bach fantasist Carlsund — who in 1933–4 produced paintings that took the musical form of the fugue as their starting-point, but never realized a direct collaboration between artists and composers — died in 1948. He never lived to see how during the 1950s new art conquered public spaces in the new, beautiful, modern incipient welfare state. Art, music, poetry and dance met again in the late 1940s, a collaboration that bore fruit above all towards the end of the next decade. In the text that follows, the connections with non-representational abstract, so-called ‘concrete’ painting and modern music are set in focus. The 1950s were also a period of intense development in jazz music, whose ‘natural’ partner in painting is informal art — especially in its so-called ‘spontaneous’ form — where in both cases improvisation is the leading principle and also the uniting method. In particular, Olle Bonniér, as a practicing musician, established contact between the art and modern music of the time, especially New Orleans jazz. In a central text from 1948 he describes his pictorial compositions as ‘part surface, part space — multi-space — but all these spaces are completely relative and force the eye to move on: they contain no fixed point.’3 ‘This means that the factor of time is given form in the picture.’4 And of course, music is always extended in time. From the point of view of composition, this forms a criterion that is fundamental to the fusion of art and music. In the field of modern music Bonniér was particularly interested in the work of Schönberg and Edgar Varèse. As early as 1945 he wrote ‘Piece of Music for the Imagination,’ a work ‘that can almost be described as a phonic sculpture or aleatoric sound composition.’5

A conversation with Professor Karin Lindegren6 stimulated investigations concerning the cross-genre contacts between the arts during the 1950s, which she experienced at close quarters. These encounters have their origin in the circle that gathered around the journal Prisma, which appeared between 1948 and 1950. It was not a purely literary or art journal, but it had, as the poet and writer Erik Lindegren expressed it, ‘a cultural-synthetic program.’ This was evident even from the editorial committee, which consisted of the artists Eric Grate, Pierre Olofsson, Ragnar Sandberg, Egon Möller­Nielsen, and Endre Nemes; poets and authors like Lindegren, Hjalmar Gullberg, Stig Dagerman; the philosopher Ingemar Hedenius, the theatre director Alf Sjöberg and the architect Paul Hedqvist. Everything tended to favor a meeting of artistic genres, and Prisma became legendary, though it was short-lived. Here, in 1948, Olle Bonnniér wrote his radical conceptual analysis ‘Natural Representation — Abstraction — Concretion’, which came to be viewed as the manifesto of the 1947 group. Here there were meetings of texts by Igor Stravinsky and by the choreographer Birgit Åkesson; in 1949 a whole issue was devoted to contemporary free-form dance. There were articles on experimental film, and a sonata for solo flute by Sven-Erik Bäck was published as a supplement to the first issue of the journal’s final year.

During this period contacts between composers belonging to the so-called Monday Group — with Karl-Birger Blomdahl pre-eminent among a group including Sven-Erik Bäck, Ingvar Lidholm, Klas-Ture Allgén (later Claude Loyola Allgén), Göte Carlid and musical historians like Ingmar Bengtsson, Bo Wallner, Magnus Enhörning and others — and the ‘Forties’ poets were a fact.

Originally, these groups of artists and composers had worked quite separately. In music there was a turning away from all kinds of allusions and programs, from images, narratives and tone pictures to pure, ‘absolute’ music, and in pictorial art there was a development of geometrical abstraction towards ‘concrete art.’ But with the obvious analogies between the genres that are represented by ‘absolute music’ and ‘concrete art’, the contact between visual art and music was hardly unexpected. For other reasons, too, it seems probable that they would encounter one another. Stockholm was not very large, and its cultural circles were even smaller. Furthermore, it is inevitable that those who are working in new methods and media find their way to one another; this had also been true of the first breakthrough of Modernism at the turn of the century, and around 1910. A small number of groups formed an avant-garde in a rather hostile surrounding world. One meeting-place was the Chamber Music Association, founded in 1948, which was led by the composers Carlid, Blomdahl and Bäck, and the painter Pierre Olofsson, and to whose inner circle Olle Bonniér, Karl-Axel Pehrson and Arne Jones belonged.

In April 1949 an exhibition was held at Galerie Blanche for which the composers wrote music to paintings by the concretists among the 1947 group. The young composers had each composed a section of a string quartet, the titles of whose movements referred directly to certain works by the exhibiting artists. Allgén wrote ‘Concretion I,’ Blomdahl ‘Progressive Movement,’ Bäck ‘Dynamic Constellation,’ Carlid wrote ‘Loop Game,’ and Sven-Eric Johanson ‘Dancing Dot,’ each of which shared its title with a work of art. At the same event a ‘Dedication Suite’ was given its first performance: Bäck wrote ‘Préambule pour Pierre’; Blomdahl ‘Ostinato for Olle’; Carlid ‘Kvartander for Karl-Axel’ and Sven-Eric Johanson ‘Jig for Jones.’ The event was unique, but came to form the beginning of collaboration during the 1950s.

The contact between the poet Erik Lindegren and the composer Karl-Birger Blomdahl grew into a collaboration that came to occupy the central focus of what was to follow. Blomdahl had studied with Hilding Rosenberg before the war and with Tor Mann after it. The music of Bach, and Paul Hindemith’s contrapuntal style were of crucial importance. All of this pointed in the direction of a completely instrumental, absolute music. Thus, the contact with Erik Lindegren’s poetry involved a radical and sudden change in Blomdahl, who now began to take an interest in the role of the human voice in music. His reading of the 40 ‘broken sonnets’ in Lindegren’s first official collection the man without a path (mannen utan vä)7 resulted in the oratorio In the Hall of Mirrors, which included nine of the sonnets. Blomdahl and Lindegren later undertook frequent collaborations, among them the opera Aniara, based on poems by Harry Martinson, for which Lindegren wrote the libretto, and Herr von Hancken, after Hjalmar Bergman’s novel of 1920.

These collaborations in the field of opera were, however, preceded by the ballets with choreography by Birgit Åkesson, who had earlier produced dance without music and without narrative choreography — a kind of ‘absolute dance’. The first collaboration took place as early as the summer of 1951. Lindegren and his wife were in Österlen on the south-east coast with Birgit Åkesson and the sculptor Egon Möller-Nielsen. A good deal of the choreography had already been devised, and during the autumn the rest of it grew into place in parallel with Karl-Birger Blomdahl’s music and Lindegren’s poem. The work came to be called Eye: Sleep in Dream. Birgit Åkesson writes in a memoir: ‘The contrasting sections of the dance are embedded in light and darkness, the illumined and the darkened. The music flares up in the darkness and the dance responds in light[…]Eye: Sleep in Dream has a taut, dialogic form that emphasizes the special nature of both music and dance[…]The poem is printed in the program. The dance does not illustrate the poem. The poem shadows the dance. Poem, dance and music are woven together on their own terms.’8

There now followed a series of dance events: Sisyphus (1957) and Minotaur (1958), both with music by Blomdahl and librettos by Lindegren. In 1960 came Rites, with music by Ingvar Lidholm, libretto by Lindegren and costumes and choreography by Lennart Rodhe. This was followed two years later by Game for Eight, and here as in the next ballets the choreography was created with Kåre Gundersen; the music was by Blomdahl, and the set design and costumes by Olle Bonniér. In 1963 came Icarus, to music by Sven-Erik Bäck and costumes and set design by Lage Lindell, and finally, in 1966, Nausicaa Alone, after an episode in Eyvind Johnson’s Odyssey-paraphrase Strändernas svall (The Surge of the Shores), with music by Ingvar Lidholm and photographic projections by Pål-Nils Nilsson.

At this time it was common for artists to design backdrops for the performances of the Opera and the Royal Dramatic Theater. This, too, was part of what Karin Lindegren calls the ‘collapse of barriers’ in the 1950s, stressing that the 50s were by no means as conservative as people seem to think today. The Chamber Music Association Fylkingen — with the aim of performing and promoting contemporary music — had been started as early as 1933. In 1946 members of the Monday Group took over the running of the association. Karl-Birger Blomdahl was chairman between 1949 and 1954. The association grew in importance during the 1950s. From 1959 onwards, performances were given at Moderna Museet. The 1960s were perhaps its heyday, including appearances by the composer John Cage and the dancer Merce Cunningham, and the famous event in March 1964 when the pianist Karl-Erik Welin — by mistake, it should be noted — injured his leg when he attacked the grand piano with a chain-saw. While this is a different story from the collaboration between the Monday Group, the Forties poets and the Concretists, it was none the less a continuation of the postwar universal artistic work, with music at the center.9

These contacts, these happy transitions, seem to exist only in times of peace and confidence in the future, or at any rate in times when art is not being required to have a political function by a strong central power. With the strong dictatorships of the 1930s, the vital cultural life disappeared from an affected metropolis like Berlin as pioneering artists fled, if they were able to. Many ended up in the United States. In Moscow, experimental, innovative, Constructivism was killed by Stalin’s cultural policies.

In Sweden, the century’s great manifestation of Modernism in architecture took place with the Stockholm Exhibition of 1930. Functionalism slowly began its march to victory, but in the field of art abstract, formally strict and reduced modernism had a shaky start. It may have been that Swedes were more prepared to accept the new forms if they could be incorporated into a functional, everyday context, such as architecture or design. Abstract art had to wait until the end of the 1940s. Not until then did peace and faith in the future seem to create a more relaxed cultural climate, though the era was overshadowed by the growing threat from the Cold War. It was also a breakthrough for an international attitude — and here ‘international’ also means ‘intellectual’ — in contrast to the naivism of the inter-war years, or the patriotic poetry of wartime. But the modernity of this period is paradoxical. One who sought the balance between lived experience of darkness and marginality on the one hand, and of light, confidence in science and optimism about the future on the other — between ‘Lort-Sverige’ (Dirt­ Sweden) and Sport-Sverige’ (Sport-Sweden’) — was Gunnar Ekelöf.10 Perhaps it was mainly within music and abstract painting (rather than in architecture and design) that formal Modernism was cultivated in its pure form.

One source of cross-genre experiments in Sweden came from French poetry.11 The translation work of poets kept open a door on the international scene even in the provincial 1930s, and a volume such as 19 franska poeter (19 French Poets), with translations by Erik Lindegren and Ilmar Laaban, published in the ‘Panache’ series in 1947, was widely read. It contained work by many of the French modernists: André Breton, René Char, Jean Cocteau, Paul Éluard, Michel Leiris, Henri Michaux, Saint-John Perse, François Ponge, Tristan Tzara, etc.

Important sources of cross-genre contacts may in general be sought in the Parisian theatre of the 1890s, with their many encounters on the stage between the play of shadow and light, poetry, mime and dance. But in Vienna, too, there was a meeting of visual art, literature and theatre — here were the theosophical, and later anthroposophical, movements that perhaps constituted the first interchange of artistic genres. The new, free-form dance was a particular focus of interest. What differentiates the scorned avant-garde of the turn of the century from that of the 1950s is its — for its time — strongly erotic expression, which was viewed as grossly improper, something that was also true in the 1920s. Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller were considered not only ‘liberated,’ but also indecent. This is hardly something one associates with the 1950s, which in retrospect can seem overdressed, even chaste. Perhaps this factor has contributed to the decade’s ‘bourgeois’ reputation.

Opera became the object of a lively avant-garde aesthetic during the 1950s. Its history — from the camerata in Florence to the elaborate stage designs of the Baroque, the reforming works of C. W. Gluck and the Gesamtkunstwerk dreams of Richard Wagner — came to form a source of inspiration for followers in our own time. Perhaps a little paradoxically in view of the prevalent stylistic purism, music’s great Modernists have all exploited this hybrid form of art. Igor Stravinsky, possibly the most important Modernist composer, wrote The Rake’s Progress (1951) and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (1925) is considered the most convincing opera of the twentieth century. Even the strict contrapuntalist Hindemith wrote an opera, Mathis der Maler (1934), the protagonist of which is the sixteenth-century painter Mathias Grünewald.

In the Swedish context — or better: on the Swedish stage — the opera Aniara is a high point probably unsurpassed in the history of the modern universal artwork. Yet it does not involve a direct analogy between image, music, poetry and stage, but is simply a high point of modern opera. Erik Lindegren based the libretto on Harry Martinson’s verse epic, which had been inspired, among other things, by a meeting with the Danish nuclear physicist Niels Bohr. The work came to be called a ‘revue about man in time and space.’ The earth has become uninhabitable and human beings are instructed to flee. The spaceship Aniara is to take them to Mars, but a collision knocks the ship badly off course and we follow the doomed travelers who have nothing ahead of them but a slow death. Harry Martinson’s original has no plot to speak of, and neither does the opera. But Lindegren’s adaptation has given the work ‘a clear line of action which observer and listener can follow, and above all it possesses an arc of symphonic tension that gives the composer room for his expressive needs.’12 On board there is an instrument, Miman, ‘which captures images, language and smells from other worlds.’13 Blomdahl’s inventions in Aniara include tapes with both concrete and electronic material, which constitute Miman’s song before it breaks down after it has reported the end of the Earth. The female pilot, Isagel, is a dance role, in choreography by Birgit Åkesson. The stage design for Stockholm Opera’s premiere in 1959 was done by the painter Sven X:et Erixson. Thus, from a formal standpoint, this was not a pure modernistic solution, but the work also contains a deeply felt ambivalence towards the brave new world, in parallel with — or as a part of — the overriding apocalyptic theme. The fact that the premiere was staged in the final year of the 1950s might also be construed as significant. During the decade that followed, established Modernism would encounter a critique that in extrapolation was to throw us into our current Postmodern position.

Where the spreading of new musical expression was concerned, the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation (Sveriges Radio) came to play a central role. The composers of the Monday Group were immediately able to disseminate their music by means of radio broadcasts, and gradually a number of them came to occupy positions at Sveriges Radio. Writers had the journals at their disposal, but artists only had a small number of galleries that were interested in the new art, and possibly Liljevalchs Konsthall. It was partly in response to this that Moderna Museet took shape. When the professor and artist Otte Sköld took up the position of curator at the Nationalmuseum in 1950, there was already a plan to house modern art in a separate building, and in 1953 the Friends of Moderna Museet association was formed. When the museum was finally opened in 1958, it did so in the context of the increasingly lively art world of the late 1950s. There was as yet no House of Dance, or Swedish Film Institute or Cultural House in Stockholm. Fylkingen had no premises of its own, as it does today. Consequently, the new museum on Skeppsholmen became a focus for all of the arts, and by the early 1960s the flow of new expressions and contacts between the arts were established in a way that had not been known before. Another chapter, happenings and pop art, took up where the cross-genre works of the 1950s had left off. This continued until 1968, when politics, student revolt and the Vietnam War produced a different attitude in the arts. Thus, the era we have discussed here embraces a period of twenty years: from 1948, when Prisma was started, until 1968. Then art was once again required to put itself at the service of political slogans. And, for the moment, the time of happy transitions was over.

© Bard Graduate Center, Sören Engblom.

1.The survey presented in the introduction is based on Gösta M. Bergman, Den moderna teaterns genombrott (The Advent of Modern Theatre), 1966.

2.For further reading, see Teddy Brunius, Ulf Thomas Moberg (ed.) Om och av Otto G. Carlsund (About and By Otto G. Carlsund), 1989.

3.‘Naturavbildning, abstraktion, konkretion – en begreppsutredning’ (Natural Representation, Abstraction, Concretion – a Conceptual Analysis), Prisma no. 2, 1948.

4.Thomas Millroth, Rum utan filial? (Room Without Branch?), 1977.

5.Thomas Millroth, Olle Bonniér. Och varför inte dansa? (Olle Bonniér. And Why Not Dance?) SAK publ. 104, 1995.

6.Karin Lindegren studied art history at Lund with Professor Ragnar Josephson; married to the poet Erik Lindegren (d. 1968); curator at Moderna Museet during the 1960s and early 70s; editor of Konstrevy 1960-5; Swedish Cultural Attaché in Bonn 1970s; Director of Moderna Museet 1978-80; secretary of the Royal Academy of Art 1980s; and recently, chairperson of the Friends of the Architectural Museum association.

7.Lindegren had published Posthum ungdom (Posthumous Youth) in 1935, but later disowned it.

8.Birgit Åkesson, Den skapande akten (The Creative Act), Artes, no. 3, 1992.

9.For a more detailed account of the 1960s at Moderna Museet, see Leif Nylén, Den öppna konsten (Open Art), SAK publ. 1998.

10.Gunnar Ekelöf, ‘Styggsvensken’ (The Stubborn Swede), from Utflykter (Excursions), 1941.

11.See Charles Baudelaire, Correspondances for examples of words being transformed into images: ‘luxe, calme et volupté’ from Invitation au voyage became Matisse’s motto; Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘L’après-midi d’un faune’ became a symphonic poem by Debussy, as well as a work of the Russian Ballet. Or Rimbaud, whose poetry might be seen as pointing towards surrealism in film and painting, but possibly also towards instrumental poetry, abstract art and music.

12.Rabe, Hellqvist, Estrén, Opera, 1966.