The Swedish playwright August Strindberg was, amongst other things, a mercurial talent, artist, occultist, husband and father. He is also frequently accused of, amongst other things, misogyny, anti-Semitism and insanity. In this exclusive article, published to coincide with the paperback publication of Yale’s acclaimed biography of Strindberg, author Sue Prideuax responds to queries submitted by followers of the Yale Books Twitter account.
The questions and answers that follow focus on Strindberg’s friends and relationships, including the much debated issue of his sometimes ambivalent dealings with women. Strindberg shared a close association with fellow Scandinavian firebrand Edvard Munch, and Sue’s responses are supported here by a specially selected extract from her biography Strindberg: A Life, which chronicles the start of that crucial relationship.
To what extent did Strindberg’s relationships with other artists (of all disciplines) affect his work?
Strindberg knew an awful lot of artists. I’ll confine my answer to a few. Strindberg and Edvard Munch were inseparable friends during the time Munch was planning and painting the Scream. Strindberg’s then-revolutionary idea that Chance should be allowed to play a role in artistic creation loosened up Munch’s work to embrace random happenings. You can see a bird dropping on the Scream torso and the splatter-pattern of candlewax in the right-hand bottom corner that suggests Munch painted the picture at night, blew out the candle carelessly and never bothered to try to remove the wax. In Strindberg’s words, these physical traces ‘bind chance with creation in a metamorphosis surpassing Ovid’ in creating a dynamic interaction between the artwork and the real world. How did Munch affect Strindberg’s work? Munch features, very thinly disguised, as the character Beautiful Henrik in Inferno and in Crimes and Crimes. When Paul Gauguin was selling his paintings to fund his last trip to Tahiti, he asked Strindberg to write the foreword to the auction catalogue. Strindberg didn’t like Gauguin’s pictures and his 1895 foreword begins; “I cannot grasp your art and I cannot like it…Who is this Gauguin?…Jealous of his creator, he creates a new world, preferring to see the heavens red rather than blue as other people do.” The foreword progresses until Strindberg confesses that thinking about Gauguin’s art has given him the courage to be equally daring; “I too am beginning to feel a profound need to become a savage and to create a new world”, which is exactly what he did in the book he started next, Inferno. For the purpose of this question, I think we must call Nietzsche an artist because there’s so much of Nietzsche in many of the plays but particularly in Miss Julie which Strindberg wrote while he was corresponding with Nietzsche. Finally, Ibsen: the two giants never met but were desperately aware of each other, and jealous. Strindberg greatly admired Ghosts. Ibsen bought a huge portrait of Strindberg and hung it over his desk, saying; “He is my mortal enemy and shall hang there and watch while I write.”
How would you describe Strindberg’s views on women?
Fluctuating. Aged thirty-five and happily married to his first wife Siri, he was an ardent feminist and published a political manifesto of Women’s Rights which ran to 24 points and enraged the feminists of the time who thought he’d gone too far in suggesting,among other things, that women should have an equal right to sexual promiscuity. After his beloved Siri had an affair and left him for another woman, he became virulently and preposterously misogynistic. He calmed down, married again twice and encouraged both wives in their chosen careers. All three wives adored him to the end so he can’t have been too bad to live with. Extract from Strindberg: A Life by Sue Prideaux:
Edvard Munch had arrived in Berlin a little after Strindberg and he lost no time in seeking him out. They became firm friends. Munch was highly intelligent, a mathematician, linguist and a gifted writer, who, like Strindberg, wrote a running autobiography throughout his life. He had grown up in a home that was cold and disapproving, steeped in poverty, misery and grim Pietism. Munch’s mother, like Strindberg’s, had died when he was young. Both men had nearly died in their infancy (Strindberg of cholera, Munch of tuberculosis) and Munch’s childhood had been dominated by his father who did not spare the whip. When he arrived in Berlin he was a spiritual Puritan who had endured years of loneliness, destitution and vilification for the sake of his art which was then so radical that, like Strindberg, people said he was mad, so that when he painted The Scream he wrote the words ‘Can only have been painted by a madman’ along one of the painted striations in the sunset sky.
Munch had been invited to mount a one-man exhibition by the Berlin Society of Artists, the Verein Berliner Kunstler. Its traditionalist leaders had not yet caught up with Impressionism and when, on 5 November, Munch’s strong Expressionist works were unveiled they caused such panic that a vote was held to close down the exhibition immediately. The Kaiser himself was moved to make a speech against modern art; now Munch had even more in common with Strindberg as his art, like Strindberg’s literature, became the target of violent antagonism of all respectable people. The art gallery where Munch’s shocking show had been safely shut up behind locked doors became the battleground between conservatives and progressives. There was fighting in the streets and the young artists formed a human battering ram and charged the locked doors. By midnight the progressives had broken away from the Verein and formed themselves into the Berliner Secession. A new location was found to re-open the exhibition, by which time Munch had quickly painted Strindberg’s portrait and sat it on an easel at the entrance so it was the first thing you saw: Cerberus at the gates of Hell.
Munch’s portrayal of extreme psychological states was understood and appreciated by the Berlin intelligentsia as the pictorial equivalent of Strindberg’s psychological naturalism. Munch was considered to ‘paint souls’ and Strindberg to write about them; together they slaked the great thirst for the acknowledgement of the metaphysical. They found themselves for the first time in their lives understood, lionised and making money. In a coming together of minds they began to paint together, something Munch never allowed to happen before or after. Munch was producing his best-known masterpieces during this time – Vampire, Madonna, Self-portrait with Cigarette, Dagny Juel – and he was building up to The Scream which he painted when he went back to Norway in the summer. In terms of painting styles, Munch and Strindberg agreed on finding Impressionist technique too careful and the subject matter too domestic. Strindberg, who had enjoyed painting since university, had already exhibited his paintings the year before in Sweden to critical incomprehension: one critic likened a canvas to dirty bed sheets hung out to dry. He had sold eight canvases, unfortunately all to the same purchaser who failed to pay. He was painting semi-abstract landscapes which are completely original and often compared to Turner, though they are rougher, less misty and more muscular, the paint often being applied with a palette knife. Skilful mood paintings, they show the powerful rhythms and patterns of nature: trees, waves, clouds, coastlines and seas either hectically stormy or radiantly tranquil. The heightened mood and narrative drive of the paintings relate to the dramas of his plays and stories, though only one painting shows a human figure. While Munch and Strindberg enjoyed painting in each other’s company, each retained a strong independence within the companionable relationship. Munch seems to have brought surprisingly little to Stindberg’s paintings. Strindberg’s influence was stronger on Munch as he convinced Munch of the role that chance can play in artistic creation if the artist is willing to relinquish total control and allow fortuitous events to intervene. One can see this very clearly in two great pictures of Munch’s. First, the portrait Stanislaw Przybyszewski which shows the watermarks from a leak in the studio. Munch allowed the watermarks to remain across the portrait which would not be half so powerful, haunting or other-worldly if he had painted them out. The second triumph of fortuitous chance and irrational impulse is described by Adolf Paul who entered Munch’s studio while Munch was painting a red-headed model: ‘Kneel down in front of her and put your head in her lap!’ he [Munch] called to be. She bent over and pressed her lips against the back of my neck, her red hair falling about me. Munch painted on and in a short time he had finished his picture Vampire.