He is known as a radical and portrayer of women and men in opposition, bitter relationships hammered out in public on the anvil of the stage.
Strindberg at Tate Modern is a passionate and convincing painter who is yet in uproar; truly a man ‘rolled round in earth's diurnal course', as Wordsworth had written a century earlier.
Indeed, when students of the time were observing plaster casts of figures, themselves models of the real thing, Strindberg went out into nature. Fascinated by science, he wanted to study ‘rocks and stones and trees', determined to create as nature creates; out of chance and cataclysm and supremacy. The connections which were found out of such chaos excited him. It is reminiscent of D H Lawrence with his sound and fury and pursuit of the ‘instincts' for life and death. There is a painting entitled ‘Inferno' – a word Strindberg used to describe a period of his own intense mental psychosis – and another, ‘The Child's First Cradle', a womb-like vision: both are meditations through some same mysterious tunnel.
Tuning all his senses, talented as he was, Strindberg's painting seems to be the outlet for a boiling inner world. Here are landscapes of intensely personal symbolism. The storm can as easily revert to calm, with paintings irradiated with some blissful content; a duality reflecting the artist's own nature. The favourite place was the Stockholm Archipelago – a coastline of islets and bays. Strindberg himself described this stretch of his native land as ‘a country only previously seen in dreams, or in some past life'. An idyll indeed.
At a time when the Impressionists held gracious sway, Strindberg forced his way – ‘look, we have come through!' – to early Expressionism whose certainties were his weaknesses as well as his strengths. The recurring motif of a breaking wave, seen in one room in the exhibition, shows brooding volcanic seas with skies still heavier which must be apt for him: the social isolation from Sweden as iconaclast and blasphemist determining the work he produces yet paradoxically suspended; a anticipant upon the response of others.
Turner was a favourite English painter and the palette of ethereal tranquillities is certainly inspired; but Constable laid on with a palette knife is present too in the scumbled seas. Instead of Constable's Hadleigh Castle, Strindberg shows a lighthouse, standing sentinel, some definition of his own defiant nature. ‘I never signed a canvas where I've applied paint' he boasted, as if he took possession of the subject by depicting it; was become the subject, no justification needed. When he attempted to demote, by critical summary, his fellow-totem, Paul Gaugin however, he failed, concluding with some wistful rivalry for that superlative artist: ‘I too am beginning to feel an immense need to become a savage and create a new world'.
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