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Literary Impressionisms

Camilla Storskog

Part III: Fictional impressionists

4. Summary

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  • 1   When tracing the myth of the artist in French prose, Émilie Sitzia concludes that the French nove (...)

1The characters encountered above have allowed us yet another access to the reflection on the impact of impressionism on Swedish fiction written in the late nineteenth century. To justify the introduction of a painter among the underprivileged characters populating Fattigt folk, Geijerstam chooses a misunderstood avant-garde artist. Although it is likely that any ‘-ism’ in opposition to the official taste would have served the purpose, the adoption of impressionism makes its representative, Ivar Melin, come across as the emblematic misfit – at least initially. Here, the angst-ridden impressionist plays with the thought of abandoning his artistic principles in order to earn a living, knowing that painting according to the taste of art dealers and the public would feed him. However, fidelity to the aesthetic religion recompenses Melin in the end as he manages to sell a painting. Impressionism is thus presented as an ideal worth suffering for1.

2If Sven Richert, in Nordensvan’s short story, finally enjoys success, it is certainly not because of a faithful observance of impressionism; Richert meets approval only because of the direction towards symbolism that his artistic vision has taken after his nit-picked impressionist phase.

3In the company of worthy, non-conformist, painters such as Ivar Melin and Sven Richert, Nordensvan’s other two artists, Aja Borgström and Nisse Linder, seem to feign adherence to a fashionable trend in painting, while Mathilda Roos’s Harry Wijkler and Gustaf Larsson stand out almost as caricatures of the impressionist. Tavaststjerna’s portrait of the hypersensitive Marck completes the picture adding a touch of the doomed genius and furnishing the impressionist with almost supernatural qualities, while implanting the movement into a cultural context thriving on spiritism, mysticism, and symbolism – the latter thus not set in opposition to impressionism.

4The investigation of the literary life of the Swedish impressionist has resulted in a many-sided portrait: the most convinced impressionist by far is Ivar Melin, who proves willing to sacrifice his life for art; the most uncommitted one is the otiose Harry Wijkler, while the most typical, true-to-life impressionist is Sven Richert, who lives his radical impressionist moment only as a brief stage in his evolution as a painter, before being crowned as a symbolist at the end of the century.

5In the above I have also looked at how fiction is used to convey a critical discussion of the means and methods of impressionism, perhaps with the aim, in the case of Geijerstam and Nordensvan, of informing a broader readership than the one these writers were likely to reach with their art criticism. According to Torsten Gunnarsson, the «conceptual uncertainty» characterizing the observations on impressionism supplied by the Scandinavian painters and art critics involved in the debate on modern art, lasted through the 1880s (Gunnarsson 2002: 20). Through the examination of fiction, and in Nordensvan’s case also of art criticism published in periodicals, I have been able to prove that, by the end of this decade, writers such as Geijerstam and Nordensvan had clearly come to terms with the ambitions of impressionism, although their impressionist characters may not always have (Nisse Linder), or seem to keep fluctuating between impressionist experiments commercially not viable and the representation of obsolete, though marketable, subjects, winning the favour of art critics and buyers (Aja Borgström, Ivar Melin). As Per Hedström points out (2002: 100), the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm first acquired a French impressionist painting in 1911; before the turn of the century the Swedish public could become acquainted with the movement only through temporary exhibitions in Sweden or during travels abroad.

6Understanding is not necessarily synonymous with appreciation, as August Strindberg’s approach to impressionism has taught us, and although these texts present discussions on aesthetic ad technical questions, not one of these short stories suggests that the author’s motivation lies in broad sympathy with the movement or in the desire to defend impressionist art. In Georg Nordensvan’s art criticism, however, it is possible to note a turn towards appreciation in this writer’s view on impressionism.

7Given the nature of the prose of the two art connoisseurs Geijerstam and Nordensvan, Utan pängar and Aja have also called for an account of how the visual arts are used in the texts. A central concern has therefore been to understand the function of an explicit use of the visual arts through ekphrasis and an implicit use, through the exhibition of descriptive passages that stimulate the impressionist’s visual imagination.

8An issue that could be pursued further is the one concerning form. Of the four texts I have sought to analyze in this part of the present study only one is a novel. Herbert Marcuse has argued that the formal dimensions make a difference in the depiction of artists: the short story, he claims, cannot but represent isolated scenes from the life of an artist and must therefore disassociate from anchoring these episodes to an individual and social context (Marcuse 1978: 18-19). However, he adds, when the narrated episode assumes symbolic value and proves capable of instantly revealing the character of the artist, even the novella can raise questions about artistic vocation (Marcuse 1978: 19). As I have pointed out, through the metanarrative discourse of the narrator in Aja, Nordensvan reminds us twice of the fact that his short story, which «kunde ha utvecklat sig till en hel roman» (37; «could have developed into an entire novel») has got what it takes to approach the-portrait-of-an-artist genre. Indeed, in Defining the Short Story: Impressionism and Form, Suzanne Ferguson suggests that the narrative strategies of the short story are particularly apt for impressionist fiction (Ferguson 1994).


1   When tracing the myth of the artist in French prose, Émilie Sitzia concludes that the French novel of the nineteenth century resorts to the ‘Promethean’ model of the artist in conflict with power, whose destiny is tragic when it comes to identifying the ‘true’ artist as opposed to the fraud, i.e., the ‘Pygmalion’ artist, who honours his masters and is therefore rewarded by them (Sitzia 2004: 30-31). She writes: «Le XIXe siècle recite donc essentiellement des mythes la révolte, le pouvoir créateur et la fin tragique de Prométhée, et l’amour fou de Pygmalion pour son œuvre. Mais le XIXe siècle reste le siècle de l’échec de Pygmalion» (33; «The nineteenth century recites essentially the myths of revolt, creative power, and tragic ending of Prometheus, and Pygmalion’s mad love for his oeuvre. But the nineteenth century still remains the century of Pygmalion’s failure»).


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