Published  16/03/2005

August Strindberg: a writer paints


The effect of the present exhibition at Tate Modern, 'August Strindberg: painter, photographer, writer', is to most cultural enthusiasts, simply and profoundly stimulating. Here was a famous writer (for the most part) and participant in the intellectual ferment which at that time was centred upon Stockholm, as well as other Northern cities. Strindberg is best understood, by his own token, as a visual writer, who actually described writing as 'painting with words'. Of his inspiration, he wrote, 'bits from books and newspapers, scraps of humanity, rags and tatters of fine clothing, patched together as is the human soul.' Such sentiments were widely at variance with the highly prescriptive culture of the late 19th century which he inhabited. We can find a much greater compatibility of Strindberg's paintings with the second half of the 20th century. It is a tantalising experience to see the fragmentary works of Joseph Beuys, also shown at Tate Modern and to be made aware of the compatibility of the work of the two artists. Beuys, of course, obtained a deep spirituality, underpinned by a remarkable optimism in his later works, while Strindberg was always prey to the ravages of a deep and recurrent pessimism. Strindberg's paintings such as 'The Wave VII' (1901) testify to this sombre yet brilliant inclination.

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