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Strindberg's painting "The Town"

August Strindberg - Painter, Photographer, Writer

Peter Lathan reviews the exhibition of Strindberg's work in the visual arts at Tate Modern

Dateline: 13th March, 2005

Discovering that Swedish dramatist August Strindberg was also a painter and photographer (and sculptor, too, as this exhibition shows) was a big surprise. But once that surprise has worn off, it is not surprising to discover that he was as innovative (almost iconoclastic) in these fields as he was in drama.

Tate Modern's exhibition, which occupies ten rooms, is the first opportunity we've had in Britain to see this side of a major figure in world drama, and coming to it immediately after seeing the contemporaneous exhibition Turner Monet Whistler at the other Tate, Tate Britain, just a mile or so away on the other bank of the Thames, gives depth to the experience, particularly as Strindberg cites Turner, whose influence one can see in his work, as the English painter he most admires.

His ostensible subjects are seascapes and landscapes but his main preoccupation is with his own internal landscape, emotional and mental turbulance and a sense of isolation. For example there is a series of paintings of a lone flower on the seashore. He had an interest in Botany, which makes his choice of subject matter clear and explains why the flowers themselves are so detailed. On the other hand, the flowers are surrounded by an almost impressionistic landscape, which points up their isolation, and they are not so much flowers as weeds - a thistle and a toadstool, for example.

And there is another series which seems to reflect an inner turmoil: his paintings of seascapes have a tremendous power: not only are they skillfully painted - he captures the heaving waves perfectly - but they seem to capture his own feelings, and he returned to the subject - often with an isolated figure of some sort, a buoy or a lighthouse - time after time. In Storm on the Archipelago (The Flying Dutchman) he applied the paint directly from the tube using a palette knife, but even this expression of the fury of a high sea did not statisfy him and in High Seas he not only added considerably more black paint but even held the painting over a burner and charred parts of the surface to make it darker and much more powerful in its impact.

This mixture of isolation and stormy seas reached a peak in The Town, a painting of Stockholm which has obviously been influenced by apintings of Venice. Framed by a stormy sea and stomy sky, the town positively glows.

There is much else of interest in the exhibition - one or two sculptures, some stage designs (very detailed - and some for plays he never actually wrote!), some self-portrait photographs and also some very experiemntal photography - but it is these paintings, especially the turbulent seascapes, which reflect Strindberg the playwright and give us an insight into his plays.

The exhibition runs at Tate Modern until 15th May, 2005

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©Peter Lathan 2005