Johan Knutsson, Swedish folk art exhibition at Stockholm’s Nordic Museum

Johan Knutsson, Swedish folk art exhibition at Stockholm’s Nordic Museum
Johan Knutsson, photo by Jessika Wallin

Johan Knutsson, photo by Jessika Wallin

Johan Knutsson is Professor of Furniture Culture at Linkoping University and curator of the Swedish folk art exhibition at Nordiska Museet,  or Nordic Museum, in Stockholm. The Nordic Museum is located on Djurgården, an island in central Stockholm, and is dedicated to the cultural history and ethnography of Sweden from about 1520 until the contemporary period. The museum was founded in the late 19th century by Artur Hazelius, who also founded the open-air museum Skansen, long part of the museum, until the institutions were made independent of each other in 1963.

Through his selection of the folk art pieces displayed, as well as the narrative that accompanies them, Johan welcomes visitors into the day-to-day lives of rural Swedish craftsmen and their customers. The Swedish folk art exhibit brings to life the sources of inspiration for these untrained but talented craftsmen--such as the proportions and shape of the human body, nature and biblical stories. Through different facets of the exhibit, Johan also introduces visitors to the artisan’s clients and provides insight into the challenges they faced as well as the milestones they celebrated. As Johan explains, folk art patterns, colors, motifs and designs continue to be a rich source of inspiration today—the exhibit certainly invigorated my creative juices!  

Meg: Why you were drawn to a career focused on Sweden's folk art?

Johan: As I have always been interested in creating, painting, sketching, drawing and working with my own hands I gradually developed my own thoughts about the way other artists in the past  have acted to solve their tasks. Folk art was not an issue for me in my early career. For ten years I made much research and wrote books and articles on the applied art of the renaissance and baroque style. Then I became more interested in how people on the country side, far from manor houses and homes in the cities, had taken the design one step further in their own way. It was this new aspect that drew my attention to the folk art and it still attracts me as a true source of inspiration although – or perhaps I should say since – my role as a professor in furniture culture is to help my students to find new paths in the field of furniture design for the needs of today.

One example of the way in which the folk art painter invented new artistic conventions is the way in which he treated the concept of reality. Instead of depicting what they actually saw they transferred what they saw into imaginary patterns beyond the naturalistic views. Instead of painting a surface to look like real marble they made a decorative pattern out of it.

Meg: Folk art is typically associated with rural areas—why is that?

Johan: In folk art there are patterns, motives and techniques contributing to what is often described as local character, which is not normally the case when speaking of objects from bourgeoise homes or in manor houses of upper class families.  The difference between bourgoise and countryside people´s taste when it comes to fashion is an issue often discussed among dress fashion scholars. In short: People in rural homes were less inclined to adopt international fashion, than the upper class families on manor estates and in towns where connections across borders were more frequent.

Considering the facts more closely and widening your perspective you will probably find that much of the principles governing the design are global: two-dimensional ornamentation, the all covering patterns, the symmetrical order of the composition are to be observed in all kinds of folk art all over the world.

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Meg: The Nordiska museet exhibit made the point that the practice of recycling has been around for quite some time.

Johan: The handicraft tradition in which most folk art in the preindustrial society was made heralded and took advantage of the recycling of material and objects in a way that is most relevant today when the issue of sustainability is currently discussed.

The issue of sustainability and environmental  pollution was not discussed in the same manner among people in the 18th and 19th century. It was the poor circumstances and since long established customs that encouraged people to save resources. Textiles were extremely expensive and every outworn clothing piece was preserved and recycled into new clothing pieces or other objects – and finally upcycled into paper.

Meg: The exhibit also focused on the human shape as a source of inspiration.

Johan: The art of depicting men and women anatomically correct was not part of the peasant painter´s education, or within his intentions as an artist. Nevertheless the need for narrative and biblical illustrations on the walls made him do this in the way he found most decorative and within his concept of design: geometrically simplified, ornamentally composed.

Examples of the transforming of motives into geometrically, symmetrically and two-dimensionally designed patterns are the image of men and women, easy to find in the woven textiles were the warp and weft have settled the restrictions.

Can a floor clock be described as female? Or a chair as male? People have often seen their own image in these objects, and every age has its own perception of what is feminine and what is masculine. But in fact shapes are governed by practical considerations and often follow fashion. The curvaceousness of the grandfather clock gave room for the swinging pendulum and at the same time fitted in with the language of the Rococo design.

The horse handle of the mangle board and the pair of birds on the distaff can be interpreted as sybols of fertility and togetherness but also as pure decoration. In folk art, the borderline between decoration and symbol is often vague. Are the pentagram on the flaxcomb and the cruciform hole in the milk strainer protection againts fire in the linen and curdled milk? Are or they just decoration?

Meg: The exhibit made the point that religion was a main focus of the folk art.

Johan: Religion was part of most peoples´lives--much more than what is normal in Sweden today. Illustrations from the bible and its instructive stories as guidelines in everyday behavior were to be found on both objects and painted textiles attached to the walls in the farmer´s house. Instructive, moralizing and decorative at the same time.

The motives for the painted interior decorations were most often collected from the Holy Bible. Religious issues were closely integrated in people´s life and everyone were conscious about the meaning behind the scenes depicted.

Meg:  The exhibit also related how nature was another huge influence in Sweden’s folk art.

Johan: Nature, flowers, birds and animals were always close at hand, to inspire without being copied. In the world of folk art the artist´s mission was not to depict nature naturalistically but to transform and expand reality into something artistically quite advanced. Therefore flowering motives, the image of men and animals, were deliberately developed and stylized into patterns.

The most typical and most well-known of all stylized flower motives within the Swedish folk art tradition is the so called Kurbits. The concept “Kurbits” refers to the name of a vegetable and in the world of folk art  it was first included as a detail in the illustrations of the prophet Jona to symbolize the tree protecting him from the heat of the desert sun after having given his speech to the inhabitants of Nineve. In the art of furniture painting it became more and more abstract, finally ending up in a motive where all naturalistic traits have disappeared.

Meg:  I learned from the exhibit that folk art had a role in displaying "wealth and power.”

Johan: Textiles were the most expensive belongings in a farmer’s household. The process from sheep-rearing and flax-growing to the finished woven clothe was long and arduous. To display them generously was a way to perform and display economic status – and hence power. Chairs were not frequent in farmers´ homes before the 19th century. Solitary sitting furniture were made for festive occasions, for selected purposes and were intended for persons considered to be of a certain importance.

Among the most important textiles representing the economic status of a farmers house was the equipment of the bed. It was normally part of the bridal gift, meant to follow the bride from her parents´ house to her new home.

Meg: What kind of folk art the different areas of Sweden are known for?

Johan: It is rather easy to identify and describe what is distinctly typical of varying regions in Sweden. The so-called kurbits flower motive of Dalecarlia, the richly decorated textiles of Scania and the intense red color of bride chests in the northern part of Sweden are among those. But then it is very hard to single out one or two ingredients which all Swedish folk art share, something they all have in common. If you dare doing so you will instinctively return to what I described in my answer to the second question above – that there are certain ways of handling the motives that are common to all folk art all over the world.

Dalecarlia is a province, famous for its well preserved small villages, folk music and folk art. It has ever since the 19th century played an important part in the creation of the national concept “Sweden” and was heavily promoted as a symbol of “typical Swedish”. It is not always easy to offer a simply explanation to the question why folk art objects look like they do, why some kind of patterns or colors were favored in some regions and not in other. Partly this was the outcome of locally found and locally processed materials, partly it was caused by connections between people from varying regions. But this is a complicated issue, that requires more space than we have here.