Sweden and Latin America: possible dialogues around geometric abstraction

May 1, 2018

In the last decades, geometric abstraction in Latin America has been the focus of an intense theoretical and expository production that has allowed specialists in the field to establish a chronological trail, magnifying the different aspects generated mainly since the 1940s[1]. Within the framework of the Concrete Matters exhibition [February 24, 2018—May 13, 2018], which presents the concrete art of Uruguay, Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm exhibits works by Swedish artists Otto G. Carlsund, Elli Hemberg, Lennart Rodhe, Olle Bonniér, Olle Bærtling, and Eric H. Olson, who worked with a visual expression similar to that of Latin American artists during the same period.

As a starting point to establish a dialogue between Swedish and Latin American artists, it is interesting to note that the artistic productions of both regions were local developments, far from the centers of European modernism such as Paris. Among the artists presented by the Moderna Museet is Otto G. Carlsund.

Otto G. Carlsund, Hommage till Mondrian eller komposition med vit cirkel, c.1946, serigraph, 28.5 x 13 cm

Carlsund was a signatory member, with Theo Van Doesburg, Jean Hélion, Léon Tutundjian and Marcel Wantz, of the manifesto Basis of Concrete Painting that formally introduced the term "concrete art", coined by Van Doesburg in the only issue of the journal Art Concret in 1930.

Cover of Art Concrete, a. 1, April, 1930

That same year, the Swedish artist was contacted by Gunnar Asplund, the architect in charge of the Stockholm Exhibition, to make a mural decoration. During his visit to Sweden, Carlsund obtained an agreement for an exhibition of the new modernist painting. He managed to gather a large number of works among Swedish and international artists living in Paris, including Piet Mondrian, Fernand Léger, Georges Vantongerloo, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and Hans Arp, as well as members of the Art Concret group.

Installation view of work by Otto G. Carlsund in the Stockholm Exhibition of 1930 in Puck Restaurant

However, the exhibition organized by Carlsund that had fundamental exponents of the Parisian geometric abstraction did not have great acceptance among the Scandinavian public.

Fifteen years later, Latin American artists were supporting their proposal of a concrete art through collectives, manifestos, and publications that functioned as programmatic and distributing instruments for their aesthetic and theoretical position. Although in the late 1940s the influence of the Swiss Max Bill began to shape a concrete art centered more purely on universality and formal rationalism, the Latin American view also followed what was happening in Paris. The development of the Parisian geometric abstraction of the second postwar period counted among its key spaces the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, the Denise René Gallery, and the magazine Art d'aujourd'hui, which were constituted as central referents for Latin American artists.[2] Seeing these spaces as mechanisms of insertion in the abstract artistic circuit of the period was fundamental for both Latin Americans and Europeans. That was the case, for example, for Olle Bærtling, who from the 1950s was part of that circuit of exhibitions and publication.

Membership in these spaces—and specifically the Denise René Gallery—seems important for Bærtling's inclusion in the entries from Sweden to the São Paulo Biennial. In the fifth edition of the biennial in 1959, Bærtling participated with two paintings: Dynamic Space and Homage to Matisse. In the seventh edition of the biennial, he received an honorable mention, and the entries consisted of thirty-two works of paintings and sculptures.

In terms of visual correspondences with Latin American proposals, the way in which Bærtling's work Dynamique noir bleu (1954), presented in the framework of the Moderna Museet’s Concrete Matters exhibition with Willys de Castro’s Objeto ativo (amarelo) (1959-60) demonstrates points of contact.

Willys de Castro, Objeto ativo (amarelo), 1959-1960, oil on canvas mounted on composition board, 35 x 70 x 0,5 cm. The Museum of Modern Art. Promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros through the Latin American and Caribbean Fund in honor of Lord and Lady Foster


Olle Bærtling, Dynamique noir bleu, 1954, oil on canvas, 92 x 60 cm. Image: © Olle Bærtling/Bildupphovsrätt 2018

Both works present flat color surfaces with minimal alteration of shape and color in marginal sectors of the visual field. The work of de Castro comprises a yellow surface that, at one end, presents a blue line interrupted in the middle section revealing the underlying yellow background. The small square subtracted from the line is incorporated at the other end just at the height of the missing blue one. In Bærtling's work, a totally black flat surface is interrupted at one of the lower angles by a blue rectangle. Even with the differences in their proposals—de Castro incorporates Gestalt theories and Bærtling seems to reformulate proposals closer to neoplasticism—in both cases a dynamic moment is created, accentuated by the titles of the works and the approach to a spatial incident. While the Brazilian continued to explore ‘active objects’ in the following years, transferring them to three-dimensional compositions, the Swedish artist continued his spatial investigations in the two-dimensional plane.

Willys de Castro, Objeto ativo (cubo vermelho/branco), 1962, oil on canvas mounted on wood, 25 x 25 x 25 cm. The Museum of Modern Art. Promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros through the LACF in honor of Tomás Orinoco Griffin-Cisneros


Olle Bærtling, Rudra, 1955, oil on canvas, 135 x 350 cm. © Olle Bærtling/Bildupphovsrätt 2018

In the mid-fifties, Bærtling takes the geometric form of the triangle and works on different planimetric compositions contained within the traditional orthogonal format. The triangles are presented in an alternation of complementary flat colors, planes of color alternated with black planes or in a color surface divided by intensely highlighted black diagonal lines. However, even though we can mentally reconstruct the triangles in their entirety, the angles insinuate themselves within the frame, but shoot beyond the limits of the work. These compositions gave shape to the concept of "open form" (or öppen form). Initially expressed as planar, the artist began to transfer the forms to sculptures from continuous linear structures deployed in space.

Olle Bærtling, Asamk, 1961, metal, iron and steel, 170,8 x 117,5 x 40 cm. Image: © Olle Bærtling/Bildupphovsrätt 2018

At this point we can also refer to the path that the work of Lygia Clark follows. From her planar "modulated surfaces" in the 1950s, through her folded sculptures attached to the wall, to her freestanding folded bichos (critters) objects of the early 60s, the evolution of her work shows a process similar to the Swedish artist's in relation to the unfolding of forms in space.[3]

Lygia Clark, Casulo No. 2, 1959, nitrocellulose on sheet metal, 30 x 30 x 11 cm. The Museum of Modern Art. Promised gift of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros through the LACF in honor of Kathy Halbreich 


Lygia Clark, Bicho Radar, 1960/1984, aluminum, 12,7 x 45,7 x 33 cm

Based on the similarities exhibited in the works of Willys de Castro, Lygia Clark, and Olle Bærtling, we can reaffirm that the reinterpretations of the constructivist and concrete vanguards proposed in the 1940s, whether from Latin America or from Europe, proposed problems related to the interaction of the work and the surrounding space.

[1] Exhibitions such as: Geometric Abstraction: Latin American Art in the Collection of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard, 2001); Abstract Art from the Río de la Plata 1933-1953 (Americas Society, New York, 2001); Geo-metrías. Abstracción geométrica latinoamericana en la Colección Cisneros (Malba, Buenos Aires, 2003); Argentine Abstract Art (Proa, Buenos Aires, 2003); Concreta 56. A raiz da forma, (Museu de Arte Moderna, São Paulo, 2006); The Geometry of Hope (Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, 2007); América fría: abstracción geométrica en América Latina, 1934-1973 (Fundación Juan March, Madrid, 2011); La invención concreta: reflexiones en torno a la abstracción geométrica latinoamericana y sus legados, Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (Reina Sofía National Art Center Museum, Madrid, 2013); and authors who have elaborated on these topics such as Aracy Amaral, Guy Brett, Maria Amalia Garcia, Andrea Giunta, Paulo Herkenhoff, Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, Luis Pérez-Oramas, Mari Carmen Ramírez, María Cristina Rossi, among others.

[2] María Amalia García, El arte abstracto: intercambios culturales entre Argentina y Brasil, Buenos Aires, Siglo XXI, 2011.

[3] The artistic production of Lygia Clark has been considered in depth by authors such as Guy Brett and Paulo Herkenhoff in publications such as Lygia Clark, Barcelona, Fundació Antoni Tàpies, 1997; Lygia Clark, Museum of Modern Art São Paulo, 1999, among others.