Thursday, January 24, 2008

Man Bites Dog

“I hate people who own dogs,” the playwright and painter August Strindberg once said. “They should have the courage to bite people themselves.” Born January 22, 1849, Strindberg created groundbreaking plays such as Miss Julie that called into question all authority, both of God and man. Politically, Strindberg verged on the edge of anarchy with a foothold in the world of socialism. A powerful, charismatic personality, Strindberg attracted friends in all the arts, including the unconventional painters Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin. Munch painted Strindberg in oils and later created a woodblock portrait (above, from 1896). Strindberg’s relationship with Munch was often strained, as the younger artist always seemed too needy of Strindberg’s approval. As Munch began painting his personal, expressive works that would haunt generations, Strindberg already had been painting works born of his own personal anguish.

Strindberg approached painting as a release, a drug to ease his pain. Painting made Strindberg 'indescribably happy—as if he'd just taken hashish,' he wrote. Works such as Storm in the Skerries (aka, The Flying Dutchman) (above, from 1892) exhibit all the turmoil of Strindberg’s soul. Using palette knives, Strindberg slathered on the paint to create a thick, swirling mass of color and texture that recreates the turbulent seas of Richard Wagner’s operatic vision. Strindberg also painted more calmer scenes, as was seen in a 2005 Tate Britain exhibition, but it in is these wild, symbolic snapshots of his psyche that Strindberg holds the most interest for viewers today. Such technique and wild abandon remind me of the works of Albert Pinkham Ryder, Strindberg’s equally eccentric fellow visionary across the Atlantic in America. Ryder and Strindberg most certainly never met, but would have had a fascinating conversation if they had.

Strindberg once claimed that he painted the first truly symbolic landscapes, such as his The City (above, from 1903). Such a claim depends on how you define the symbolic landscape, but Strindberg certainly worked on the cutting edge of art. If he had devoted more time to painting, he might be known primarily as an artist than as a writer. Of course, Strindberg required such a heightened state of emotion to create his works that he most likely would have burned out if he’d worked exclusively as a painter. Strindberg later experimented with photography, exposing photographic plates to the clear night sky and believing that he’d captured impressions of the stars themselves. (Most experts today suspect that earthbound dust really created the pinpoint marks.) Like Alfred Jarry, Strindberg’s mind and spirit spilled forth into every medium available, including the visual arts, offering an enticing morsel of what could have been so much more.

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