Stockholm surprised and delighted me. The surprise was partly due to my ignorance. I had no idea that Sweden was made up of over 200,000 islands, and that getting around Stockholm often meant catching a ferry. The delight arose from Stockholm living up to its reputation as a super cool, bicycle-riding, muesli crunching, law-abiding city, but the delight was equally due to discovering that modern Swedish society is also quirky, eccentric, and not quite as straitlaced as expected.
A major retrospective at Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art underscores the collective move away from the rigid social constructs that defined Swedish society. It has taken decades, but Sweden’s native daughter, artist Marie Louise Ekman, whose work was for years shunned and ridiculed by the traditional art institutions, is finally getting her due.
Her crude, feminist, outsider art depicting acts of fellatio, defecating dogs, and all manner of images designed to provoke reaction to social and political issues, were not aligned with the more austere national character the Swedes prided themselves on.
Ekman began creating her naive gouache paintings in the late 1960’s and has been producing a prolific trove of visual social commentary ever since. The retrospective contains 350 works from 1967 to 2017. Her often outrageous imagery, painted without any attempt to obfuscate her message, leaves little to the imagination.
The tour guide at the museum was practically gloating as he pointed out the hilarious predicament in one of the larger canvases depicting a man performing cunnilingus on a breast-feeding woman, while a group of matronly guests comes rushing in through a doorway. Oops. Should have called first!
The wall colors of the extensive exhibition were designed to exaggerate the infantile style of painting, and the low benches for viewing made the viewer gaze up at the works in a child-like manner. But the content of Ekman’s work is definitely R rated.
Ekman has been a major influence on generations of young Swedish creatives and now takes her place as one of Sweden’s foremost painters, film-makers and playwrights. She is a professor of Art at the Royal University College of Fine Arts, Stockholm and since 2009 has been Managing Director of the Royal Dramatic Theater in Sweden.