Communist Décor

Text: Thomas Millroth

Commentary: Patrik Haggren

 

Regarding Movements in Art of the 1940s, Folkdekor et al

Spending a few years researching and writing about the Swedish Concretist movement of the 1940s, which had misguidedly been labelled as The Men of 1947, I quickly realized that they were far from alone in the scene that they had made theirs. Many of their colleagues presented me with an image of a completely different art landscape. New names appeared. Most of them, despite their qualities, are still unknown. Many meetings, some old records and worn publications became puzzle pieces of a wider movement in art and culture: Realisterna, AKG, the Vitabergsklubben, Art For the People, Folkdekor (Peoples’ Decor), The Artists’ Peace Committee - it was mostly the same artists that took part. You will find many of them in the notes that follow. I also put together a manuscript, intended as the basis for a kind of alternative art history, which was supposed to be published by the art publisher Open Eyes, but for different reasons it never happened. Now I have leafed through thick notebooks and typewritten pages and cut out the following.

Folkdécor paintings for the Swedish Communist Party's congress in 1953.

Folkdécor paintings for the Swedish Communist Party's congress in 1953.

Two Movements – One International and one National

Many Swedish artists travelled to Paris after the war. The political climate there shook the visitors. People spoke about the Negritude movement, about peace, world citizenship, mondiality and Gary Davis. They spoke about what in Sweden would be called the third standpoint. The Swedish artists in Paris experienced the many thousands marching for peace, where one famous author after another would speak, hour after hour. They brought this enthusiasm home to Sweden.

Yet in Sweden, another movement was taking place, although perhaps less conspicuous. But it had drawn many from the antifascist struggle, and the artists who had participated in the legendary graphic portfolios Humanity 1 and 2 1934 were still active: Albin Amelin, Sven Erixson, Bror Hjorth, Sven Storm, Eric Gnista, Ruben Blomkvist, Ivar Andersson, et cetera.

And we must not forget one of the most monumental paintings for peace made in Sweden, that is Vera Nilsson’s Money Versus Lives. It was painted in 1938 exhibited twice during this time, first 1939 and then 1946 in conjunction with Clarté’s 25th jubilee. Several other artists participated in this as well: Lage Lindell, Egil Malmsten, Catharina Nilsson, Uno Vallman, Randi Fisher, Albin Amelin, Olle Gill, Sven Erixson, Peter Weiss, Lennart Rodhe and Pierre Olofsson. Clarté was a self-evident meeting place for radical culture.

Clarté used to ask artists to make paintings on Kraft paper for the May 1 celebration at the Students’ Union House at Holländaregatan in Stockholm. The following works were made for the jubilee, and all of them appear to be lost: Catharina Nilsson’s Blacks and Whites, Lage Lindell’s Liberty for the People of Spain and Nils Gehlin’s Boycott Spanish Oranges.

 

Prelude 1: Realisterna

Realiststerna (The Realists) were founded in 1940. Josef Öberg was chairman, and on the board were exiled German artist Hans Tombrock and Jerker Eriksson (really Erik Eriksson). They wanted to oppose kitsch and the graphic art racket business, among other things by editing graphics. They published so called subscription sheets, which were mainly drypoints, etchings, lithographs. The group organized exhibitions as well. Land and People in Esseltehallen was subject to some dispute. Critics of the press repudiated what they considered to be a programmatic realism. The most interesting exchange of views took place between Tombrock and Georg Rosén, the pseudonym of Per Olov Zennström, in the Communist Party paper New Day. Zennström vehemently criticized Tombrock’s “muddily drawn, pathological figures.” They were both on the board of Realisterna. An antagonism surfaced that on the continent had been noticeable above all in the discussion regarding realism between Bertolt Brecht and Georg Lukács or between Harald Rue and Erik Blomberg. Some of the realists, such as Tombrock, argued for the dogmatic, Stalinist course represented by both Lukács and Rue.

If we disregard the ideological battle, it is still interesting to note the members of Realisterna. There were more than a hundred of them and most had strong ties to the labour movement. Even August Lindberg, president of the Trade Union Confederation (LO), along with the local branch of The Workers’ Educational Association (ABF) in Lidköping, the Swedish Foundry Union, the Factory Workers’ Union, the Manual Labourers’ Association and, naturally, the Social Democratic Youth League and the Communist Party were members.

Tombrock’s uncompromising views on socialist realism (he later taught in the GDR at the Weissensee Art Academy in Berlin!) did not win the battle. Instead he broke away and formed the Free Art Front League in 1944. “Every practicing artist or friend of the arts who has a socialist world view and who celebrates realism should become a member...” The association was a ferocious enemy of “modern art.”

 

AKG – A Politically more open and Humanistic art

A few members of Realisterna joined this programmatic formation. Most had a more general humanistic, while very politically aware stance. An important person in this context was Sven Storm, who organized Realisterna’s courses in plein air painting. In conversations with students, Storm and Jerker Eriksson thought about how to broaden the ideas of Realisterna, since the association had now fractured anyway. This led to the idea of a Worker Artist Group, AKG. Storm and Eriksson got it started and were joined by Ruben Blomkvist, one of the artists behind Humanity. The artists were acquainted with editor and politician Fredrik Ström, chairman of the city council, who was able to arrange a space for them in the old Dihlströmska work house for the unemployed on Glasbrukargatan, known has Gubbhuset. Life-drawing courses and lectures were held in the old church hall. And plenty of artists went through AKG, such as Björn Berg and Hans Ekvall.

Gubbhuset became a meeting place and discussions led to a new cultural organisation being formed, one that could encompass the different tendencies in art and culture and much more. The objective of the association The Arts and The People was, like that of Realisterna, to provide qualitative art to the public. AKG joined the association and in October 1945 the magazine Art and Culture was founded, which was to appear every month. As of 1946 the association was called Art to the People, a fitting name change since a major part of its work was distributing graphics and good quality art. They established contacts with ABF, the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (TCO), LO and the magazine Images of the People (FiB). Their assiduous work was one of the reasons why the People’s Movements for Art Promotion was founded in 1947.

 

Art to the People

Art to the People organized several successful exhibitions. In Art and Culture, editor Per Olof Zennström initiated a debate in 1949 that there should be space for art in Stockholm’s planned subway system. As everybody knows it is now commonplace to see art in underground transit routes. This debate certainly contributed.

Over three years, twenty odd issues of Art and Culture were published that made an immense impact on its time. Among the artists featured on the cover, I will mention Lage Lidell.

Art to the People stood by the ideas of collective modes of working. They sought new possibilities for artistic work and understanding art. Now and then different examples appeared in the journal. In issue 1/1948 is a report on Vitabergsklubben, which has been described by one of its members, author Per Anders Fogelström; Stig Claesson was a member too. “Our members have joined the club to seek community in the group. To be part of the group has been enough to start with. They have followed anywhere - for the sake of the group. At table tennis shows, art exhibitions, architecture et cetera and discussions...”

Here amateurs and artists and writers mixed and soon the club had over 100 members.

 

Folkdekor – The Collective as an Ideal

Collective activity was important, a new way opposed to the individualistic traditional artist role. Within Art to The People there was a movement called Folkdekor led by Egil Malmsten. It had started in October 1948 from the experiences described above. Around thirty amateurs and artists participated from the beginning. Besides the ones I have already mentioned, Eriksson, Ekvall, Malmsten, Storm there was also Erik Svensson, Stig Claesson, Birgitta Liljebladh and Jörgen Fogelqvist. Naturally none of them had any works left when I asked them, they were destroyed, forgotten.

The program for Folkdekor was simple and directly aimed at establishing contact between artists and the peoples’ movements.

“Folkdekor gives every organization the opportunity for an artist’s help in colouring gloomy meeting spaces for a campaign or party.”

Folkdekor was not some kind of decoration or art agency. Folkdekor saw as their task to “give the image its rightful place next to the spoken and written word, which is to make colour a given at assemblies the same as music and song, and in this way enriching living popular culture as a force of continued democratization.”

The Folkdekor artists made posters, banderoles and large paintings on Kraft paper. This was done in the spirit of Clarté’s May 1st celebrations, which were attended by many of the artists of Folkdekor.

Different kinds of paintings were made to be stored and rented to interested organisations or they worked directly on commission. In conjunction with this work different courses were arranged as well - not to educate artists and amateur painters, but to solve the kind of monumental task the organisation had set for itself. In short it was a matter of mostly large scale temporary public art. And it was made in direct relation to the labour movement. No permanent decorations were made.

One guiding ideological notion was that this was art for community and not for the home. It was not a question of socialist realism, yet neither abstract or Concretist painting. However, political convictions could become apparent. For Sweden’s Communist Party they made portraits of both Josef Stalin and its chairman Hilding Hagberg. Usually the motifs were ordinary. Common.

Egil Malmsten shows his painting of chairmanHilding Hagberg.

Egil Malmsten shows his painting of chairmanHilding Hagberg.

Folkdekor was an artists’ organization and therefore no one working on an assignment should do it for free. No non-profit labour that is. The artists received an hourly wage and donated 15% to support Art to the People. In this way, Folkdekor had a double function, to enrich culture within the labour movement and to give recognition and foundation to the work of making art.

Painting by Jerker Eriksson (middle).

Painting by Jerker Eriksson (middle).

The years after the war were marked by a strong will for democratization. Art and culture was to have great room in society and the everyday of people. Yet the peace movement became important as well, unsurprisingly considering the Cold War and the atomic threat. In the last issues of Art and Culture the peace question was given increasing attention and a special peace issue was published. And from the circle within Art and Culture and Folkdekor arose - yet again by the initiative of Egil Malmsten – the Artists’ Peace Committee at the end of the 1940s. Not strange, since the World Peace Congress had been held in Paris in 1949 and Picasso’s Dove of Peace had been spread across the world. Art and Culture published a salute from Sweden to the World Peace Congress and the signatures presents an image of the wide support for peace: Albin Amelin, Torsten Billman, Siri Derkert till Pierre Olofsson, Ninnan Santesson and Peter Weiss.

 

The Artists’ Peace Committee

By 1950 the Artists’ Peace Committee was established and its members were largely the same that we have already encountered in Art to the People and Folkdekor. For its very first meeting Jerker Eriksson made the poster that became the emblem of the peace movement, a dove in a hand against a green backdrop. It was pasted all over the city and given attention by the press. Feverish artistic activity broke out. Assemblies were decorated, postcards were made with graphic techniques by among others Anna Klein, Sven Storm, Egil Malmsten, Hans Ekvall. Some Christmas greetings from the artists 1950: Mr. Marshall wishes all children a very Merry Christmas, Christmas Peace, Merry Atomic Holidays Made in USA”. They published a graphic portfolio as well, 11 sheets for Peace, with contributions by Adelyne Cross Eriksson, Lage Lindell, Torsten Billman and Eva Haglund among others.

The Artists’ Peace Committee worked in pararlel with Folkdekor. Decorations for the Nordic peace conference in Stockhom 1951 were made by ven Olov Ehrén and Birgitta Liljebladh. Lage Lindell and Stig Claesson assisted from time to time. And for the world peace assembly in Helsinki 1955, Hans Ekvall was the artist delegate who made a large wall decoration with figureheads: “We in Stockholm are with you for peace.”

The decorations disappeared, the organizers viewed them as ephemeral works, the materials were fragile. By a coincidence in the late 1970s, however, Egil Malmsten found a number of forgotten works in an attic, which had been made for the Communist Party congress in 1953. The party was committed to culture, probably largely thanks to Per Olov Zennström, and played an active role in the struggle for peace. Here we can get a sense of what was made by Folkdekor – and the Artists’ Peace Committee. Egil Malmsten has portrayed Hilding Hagberg at the rostrum and a petitioning against atomic weapons. Jerker Eriksson painted light, thick-lined everyday images from shops that betray his French schooling, in detailed realism Adelyne Cross Eriksson rendered both Josef Stalin and a magnificent peace demonstration with some of the then notorious peace protagonists as well as a painting of the death-sentenced Rosenberg, and Sven Olov Ehrén schematically depicted the construction of Stalinallee (presently Karl Marx Allee) in East Berlin.

 

Dissolution

Both the peace movement and Folkdekor slowly fizzled out during the 1950s, the increasingly grim Cold War surely contributed, yet several of the artists continued working collectively with art. Jerker Eriksson was active in the Kärrtorp group until 1972, and succeeded in organizing a number of other artists over the years such as Hans Ekvall, Chenia Ekström, Gudrun Arninge and even the peculiar former sailor Ture Jörgensson, a master graphic artist. Eriksson and his friends fought for municipal art spaces and better working conditions for artists.

Jerker Eriksson is one of the unjustly forgotten, not even Bengt Olvång mentions him in his alternative art history, Dare to See. The everyday, labour, this was his subject. And he never abandoned his interest in politics. And he was one of the artists who early on opposed the Vietnam War, actually the first. In June 1965 a small group from Clarté protested outside at Hötorget in Stockholm. The brutal arrest by the police of Sköld Peter Mathis and Åsa Hallström was a wake up call. And Eriksson responded to the political brutality - of the USA and Swedish states - with the graphic work The Disobedient.

I give the last words, found in one of my notebooks, to Jerker Eriksson (1911 – 1995): “Art - that is in any case what we are fighting for.”

 

Translation from Swedish: Patrik Haggren


Commentary: Transitory Monumentalism – a Brief History of Socialist Colors, Folkdekor, Aesthetic Education in Social Democracy, the Sensibility of Community Enclaves etc.

In 1981 Paletten’s editor Gertrud Gustavsson promised an article by Thomas Millroth about the communist artist collective Folkdekor (Peoples’ Décor) and its context of the 1940’s and 50’s in Sweden. In 2016 Millroth submitted his text, 35 years late, consisting of fragments from a book that due to the Cold War was left unfinished along with other research into the autonomy of artist cooperatives in GDR. Folkdekor had presented a similar kind of organization. By collectivizing artistic labour and associating it with the labour movement, the group attempted to break individual artistic production for market circulation. This lonely work remained the premise for art’s ongoing inclusion into the social democratic nation state, which meant that artists seeking such an inclusion risked idealizing the division between undemocratized labour and liberal arts, between production and the visible forms of community. Folkdekor’s ephemeral paintings on kraft paper that decorated protests and assemblies were a refusal to celebrate this division of labour and sensations defining the common. Instead their purpose was to organize community enclaves and alternative publics. Despite its ephemeral quality, they called this art monumental and it was to give colour its rightful place in the socialist movement.

Eric Gnista, The New Oracle, as reproduced in Art and Culture from the graphic portfolio Humanity!

Eric Gnista, The New Oracle, as reproduced in Art and Culture from the graphic portfolio Humanity!

The transitory status of their art and its political implications both contributed to the loss and destruction of all of these works. A few photographs of works made for the Communist Party in 1953, taken by Millroth when they surfaced temporarily at the end of the 1970s, is the only known documentation. If this was the price of attempting to exist outside market relations and the nation state, these categories today increasingly dominate political representations of subjectivity and belonging. According to a logic that pits welfare against solidarity, the social democratic government’s decision to close Sweden’s borders at the beginning of last year could be viewed as guaranteeing the quality of rights. Meanwhile this new stance on immigration seemingly ensured the potential productivity of desires and ways of living, that equation of citizenship with work made more problematic by nostalgia for a white working class and echoed, as well, by animosities expressed by municipal boards across the country against the production of useless and absurd objects, relations and affects in contemporary art.

Against this situation, we can read Folkdekor member Egil Malmsten’s nomadic description of the organization he belonged to: “It is an art for those who are on their way, having not yet built anything of their own, hence its form: the banner that you roll up and take with you, and its function: to light the way and offer rest at the stopping place.” This was supposed to be proletarian art, meaning art without origin, without a people in any given sense. Neither was it associated with any specific aesthetic expression but, as Millroth writes, with everyday, common renditions that failed to match either side of the debate between socialist realism and abstract art.

Folkdekor presented their program to colour the socialist movement in the magazine Art and Culture, where a debate on realism presented conflicting uses of colour in rendering the world objectively. In this debate décor signified art reproducing the fragmented experience of alienated subjectivity as opposed to art demonstrating the social contradictions under capitalism and their imminent resolution in socialism. Editor Per Olov Zensström argued that décor was the ultimate fate of abstraction. To Harald Rue, a Lukácsian critic, abstracting colour from its purpose of lighting and shadowing the position of bodies and their relations, of exposing the exploitation and the real power of the working class, meant risking a passionate, reactionary aesthetic. Unless specifically functioning to support the totality of an organic work of art, colour acted like a hallucinogen on the supposedly depraved sensibility of workers. To this enlightenmentalist art that subjected every sensuous detail to a cognitive whole, Folkdekor might have presented the threat of splitting aesthetic experience and resistance from prefigured meaning and community.

The socialist realist position that art must help workers identify with their work, however, was shared by the official report Suggested Measures to Promote Swedish Aesthetic Education (1948). The report’s fundamental problem was that the need for art in social democracy stems from the brutalization of sensibility in mechanical labour, while increases in productivity serve as the necessary precondition for profits redistributed to art making and disinterested visual experience. Art’s democratization therefore has to take place without disturbing this nexus of art and work, foremost by relating aesthetic experience to products of artistic technique and installing the sense that there is not enough free time for workers to make good art. The authors recommend a hierarchized learning starting from the line and ending, possibly, with colour. Additionally destroying student works would prevent these enemies of good taste that circulated among friends and at bazaars from perverting the people’s desire for colour and threatening the economic value of art as well as aesthetic judgement.

Whereas in social democracy this barbaric art making was to be a private affair, not shared or potentially grounding any common experience, Folkdekor organized the distribution of its sensibilities against art’s edifying function, by making art for loan to different labour movement associations or providing basic instructions to their members on how to make the art themselves. They specifically opposed the distinction between amateurs and professional artists, as well as paternalistic instruction at the Workers’ Educational Association (ABF), which was premised on the idea of civilizing the workforce. Lighting the way meant not so much the critical exposure of capitalist society as effectively displacing this society’s distribution of time - for manual labour and art practice, sensuous reaction and reflection, production and evaluation etcetera.

In 1948 choreographer Birgit Cullberg authored an article in Art and Culture that complements the undercurrent of hallucinatory colours and nonhuman sensuousness in the magazine with a vision of metamorphosis caused by the intoxicating movements of wind, electrical wires, traffic and perceptions taking place in the city. In one passage, the propulsion of arms swimming in water turns them into fish fins, making them already the wings of a bird flying high over a landscape of seaweed; a possible commentary on the centralized political representations of a civilized and reasonable class struggle.

In 1948 choreographer Birgit Cullberg authored an article in Art and Culture that complements the undercurrent of hallucinatory colours and nonhuman sensuousness in the magazine with a vision of metamorphosis caused by the intoxicating movements of wind, electrical wires, traffic and perceptions taking place in the city. In one passage, the propulsion of arms swimming in water turns them into fish fins, making them already the wings of a bird flying high over a landscape of seaweed; a possible commentary on the centralized political representations of a civilized and reasonable class struggle.

According to the periodizations of struggle by Endnotes among others, this image of resistance as dissolving the relations between people and things that emanate from work was established in the period after the Second World War, when different kinds of crafts became increasingly generalized into a specifically capitalist production. At the same time labour unions accepted rationalizations of labour as a way of negotiating demands, further sedimenting work and the division of labour within the social fabric. This real subsumption of labour under capital made it harder to envision struggle as that of a productive class of workers against the external constraints of capital, along with any origin and destiny beyond capital for workers as workers, as in socialist realism. Folkdekor’s nomadic model arguably struggled against such politics of faciality and representational logic.

Organizing aesthetic resistance without defining a specific artistic expression or professionalizing artists seemingly stood for politicizing art without seeking to turn artists into a new class of engineers of the soul (such as the constructivists and later socialist realists). Today Folkdekor’s at least partial correspondence with the movement from a struggle of labour to a struggle against labour can also be read in relation to overproduction and capital’s accelerated inability to valorize labour, and its failure to mediate the reproduction of the working classes that animates the nationalist agenda. Increases in productivity that according to the official report on art from 1948 established both the workers’ need for art and their possibility of experiencing it, now make it impossible to imagine aesthetic experience as promising anything but community unfounded by work.

In retrospect Folkdekor appear rather to share aspects with other singular contributions to the socialist debate in Art and Culture after the Second World War. In 1947 painter Asger Jorn called for a new realism based on the formative qualities of paint. Rather than expressing artistic technique, colours had to be unstrained from linear restrictions to gain their true extension. By abandoning artistic technique, Jorn undermined the founding criteria for aesthetic education in the social democratic state that was to be established the year after. Apparently Jorn’s avantgardism had in common with the painter dilettantes that both used colour to eradicate art’s refining qualities. Meanwhile in Art and Culture, critic Gunnar Gunnarsson argued against Jorn that it was impossible for workers to understand these colours without perspective. This art would rather reinforce the social division of labour, which forces the workers “to develop certain aptitudes and shrivel others, causing extensive deformations to the soul.” While Gunnarsson wanted art to render the poverty of the work process mutilated by machines and affirm the collective powers of the producers, Jorn’s colour vitalism had nothing to do with demonstrating dispositions within present society or staging the true destiny of labour. The realism implied by unbound colours did not unveil anything. Rather it was like putting on a mask which, as Jorn points out, is something completely different than the human face that has been taught to view nature and the human organism from the viewpoint of central perspective. “The result is a new being, neither human or animal, created by the artistic imagination and in correspondence with human lewdness.” The imaginating phantom of the mask is associated with an autonomous sensuous experience, whose projections are political in that they deform and reshape given determinations for relating possible sensations, feelings and thoughts to others.

Jorn and the socialist realist critics were both in opposition to the analytical mannerism of cubism and geometric reductions of the visible world. These critics, however, accused Jorn’s non-reductive abstractions of mixing essential and arbitrary elements; a poor understanding of a possible aesthetic model for the sociality that Marx described as a rich totality of many determinations and relations, and to which Folkdekor might be said to have presented the organizational counterpart. These two separate fractions of the arts in the 1940’s - painting colour abstractions and everyday events – can in hindsight be read as different responses to the tendency of state capitalism to define its communities by exclusion. Folkdekor’s strategy of refusing to commemorate anything but the fleeting movements toward a different constitution of sensible community, was perhaps that kind of art which relates to the excluded by ceasing to reproduce the desire for inclusion with representations of enlightened subjectivity.