As a conqueror rather than the conquered, Sweden developed strong cultural traditions, particularly in theatre, music and dance. Diplomatic and commercial links with Europe allowed new ideas to travel into the country.
Prosperous Swedish monarchs were patrons of culture, and their private collections became the basis for national art museums.
King Gustav III (1746-92), the “Theatre King”, took many of his cues from the royal court of France and patronized drama and the arts. In 1775, construction began on the Kungliga Teatern (Royal Theatre, known today as the Royal Opera), and on the Kungliga Dramatiska Teatern (Royal Dramatic Theatre or Dramaten) in 1788. He hired Swedish actors and singers, forming the basis for a tradition of opera and drama performed in Swedish, instead of French or Italian.
The most noptable Swedish venue is Drottningholms Slottsteater (Drottningholm Court Theatre), in the grounds of Drottningholm Palace outside Stockholm. Built in 1766 and restored in the mid-20th century, every summer this intimate stage draws spectators from all over the world eager to see Baroque and rococo operas original backdrops and stage machinery.
One of the best-known (at least among Swedes) and still popular writers of the past is Carl Bellman (1740-95), a troubadour, whose lyrics and poems immortalized 18th-century daily life.
Works such as The Red Room by August Strindberg (1849-1912) and Gösta Berlings Saga by Selma Lagerlöf, whose personal life was marked by a series of failed marriages, alcoholism and instability, produced books, stories, plays and screenplays that often featured social criticism, satire and emotional angst. The creative output of Lagerlöf, the first woman to win a Nobel-Prize in Literature (1909), is distinct from Strindberg, depending more on legend, history and childhood memories (Jerusalem, 1901-2, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, 1906).
Other Swedes have wond Nobel Literature prizes, most recently Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, in 1974. A fascinating read, particularly for US visitors with Swedish ancestors, is Vilhelm Moberg’s four-volume epic novel, beginning with The Emigrants. The book inspired the musical Kristina from Duvemäla, written by former ABBA members, Benny Andresson and Björn Ulvaeus.
One of the most read Swedish writers is Astrid Lindgren, the indefatigable creative mind behind Pippi Longstocking, Emil of Lönneberga and other free-spirited child heroes, heroines and anti-heroes and heroines. Currently taking the world bystorm is Stieg Larsson’s posthumely published Millenium trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, which have sold over 50 million copies to date.
We can only guess what Astrid Lindgren might have made of Lisbeth Salander, the books’ violent, antisocial, computer-backing heroine – created partly through Stieg Larsson imagining Pippi Longstockings as an adult.
The well-known “Swedish look” is greatly indebted to the graphic work and paintings of Carl Larsson (1853-1919), as well as to the design of his home at Sundborn. Larsson’s images are marked by strong outline, subdued colors and a gentle curvilinear quality. Today, however, Swedish visual arts are extraordinarily multifaceted. Artists such as Ann-Sofi Sidén, Elin Wikström and Carl Michael von Hausswolff work in a variety of media, addressing complex contemporary issues. These trends can be seen at Moderna Museet in Stockholm, which reopened in 1998 in a new building by Rafael Moneo, and at its sister museum in Malmö, inaugurated in late 2009.
Art and Culture in Sweden, written by Tor Kjolberg
Feature image (on top): Rectangle Big Retina at Moderna Museet, Stockholm