The hardship and endurance involved in Anna Boberg’s art were poetically encapsulated by the anthropologist and translator Hanna Astrup Larsen in 1913. Writing in the American periodical The Craftsman, Larsen described how: “For several months of each year this delicately nurtured woman of gay Stockholm braves such hardships as men endure in order to put a new dot on the map or plant the flag of their country where flag never waved before.” This was the era of Roald Amundsen and Captain Scott’s polar expeditions, but the flag Boberg planted was that of women painters and their fortitude in the pursuit of art.
By then, courtesy of an article in the Boston Daily Globe entitled – for effect rather than accuracy – “Barefoot in Polar Snow: Swedish Woman Artist Braves Cold for Arctic Effects”, Boberg (1864-1935) was already hailed as “Sweden’s greatest artist”. Although her reputation subsequently slipped behind contemporaries such as Anders Zorn, Carl Larsson and Hilma af Klint, she was undoubtedly the hardiest of the lot. For more than 30 years Boberg was more at home on the Lofoten archipelago, a group of isolated islands off the coast of Norway and more than 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, than in Stockholm or any of the capitals of Europe.
Boberg’s early career did not mark her out for a life among the fishing communities who inhabited the fringes of these snowy and mountainous islands. She was the daughter of a distinguished architect, Fredrik Wilhelm Scholander, and married another, Ferdinand Boberg, and she looked set for a more genteel career. Little is known of Boberg’s early life. She was, however, largely self-taught, apart from the benefit of a few weeks’ tuition at the Académie Julian in Paris, a place that attracted female artists from across Europe. She met her husband in Paris too.
Initially, Boberg worked in the applied arts. She created art nouveau pieces for the Swedish Rörstrand porcelain manufactory, as well as glass and textiles; she designed opera sets and painted wall hangings that resembled tapestries; and she was a decorative painter for both private homes and hotels. By the late 1880s she was exhibiting watercolours as well.
What changed the course of her career, however, was a trip to Lofoten with her husband in 1901 (until 1905, Norway was ruled by Sweden). When the visit came to an end she refused to leave and sent Ferdinand back without her: “I was so taken with the Lofoten nature,” she wrote in her 1934 autobiography, Envar sitt ödes lekboll (which roughly translates as “Everyone is destiny’s plaything”), “that I simply refused to travel home. I wanted to stay and paint, paint, paint.” The difficulties of being a lone woman in the Arctic did not deter her: “I was my own master and my own help.”
What impressed her first as she approached the islands was the Lofoten Wall, a range of mountains that, seen in the distance from a boat, formed an impenetrable barrier across the horizon. After her first summer visit she returned with greater frequency and especially in winter when, as she wrote dreamily, “the full moon, like a sun made of ice, disperses the night of noon, when the aurora borealis flares among the stars and storm clouds and waves chase each other, when the Lofoten Wall forms a wondrous stronghold with bastions and towers of alabaster…” Then, she said, visions appear and “the sea becomes dotted with armadas of Viking ships”.
As Larsen wrote: “In the beginning she took pot luck with the fishermen. She slept wherever a bed was to be had and did not inquire too squeamishly.” Then her husband designed a small wooden studio-home for her on the cliffs above the fishing port of Svolvær. It was put up in just 74 hours and became their holiday home, work space and the base from which they ventured into the islands’ hinterland. She bought a small boat, the Fru Boberg, so that she could both fish and paint the views from the sea, and also designed a wearable easel – a series of wooden struts that attached to her waist and were braced by her shins – that allowed her to paint anywhere. In the coldest weather she strapped her brushes to her fingers and wore high-waisted fur trousers and a fur coat, hat and boots. “The fishermen laugh at her uniform,” said Larsen, “and never tire of their joke: ‘Are you man or woman?’”
Boberg was not the first artist to head this far north – Johan Christian Dahl and Peder Balke had travelled there in the first half of the 19th century – and nor was Boberg the only woman painter in the Arctic. Others included Emilie Demant Hatt from Denmark and a fellow Swede, Anna Nordlander. There were also pioneering female mountaineers and travel writers beginning to explore the region. None, however, was as embedded in the landscape and scattered communities as Boberg.
Indeed, Boberg’s intense examinations of the coasts, mountains and glaciers of Lofoten were, in her own mind, almost as scientific as they were artistic. She imagined herself “as giving an illusory glimpse of a respectable polar researcher!” – and she was partly correct. Her paintings of glaciers and the photographs taken by both her and her husband, are now used to compare the health of the area’s glaciers then and now.
This painting, Silent Evening – Scene from Lofoten, circa 1910-14, now in the Malmö Art Museum, is typical of her Arctic views. Boberg worked in a variety of styles and finishes and the paint here varies from thick in the distant mountains to thin in the flickering water. Her manner divided the critics: she was slow to win acclaim in Sweden but her work was better appreciated when it was shown in America. There, reviewers noted how “the colours seeming to have been squeezed on out of the tubes” and that she was a “strong, but somewhat crude colourist”. Her paint, however, was also a physical response to the landscape. She could depict the diaphanous when she wanted but also emulate the tactile properties of snow, rock and water. As a plein air painter she needed to work quickly and immaculate finish was neither possible nor emotionally desirable.
What she wanted to transmit was the mood of the bay and its delicate light effects – the low sun that casts the scene in a yellow-green hue that manages to be ethereal rather than sickly. In many Lofoten paintings she showed boats and the fishermen’s huts, in others the drama of the aurora borealis, and in one strange image the vision she claimed to have had when a ghost boat, “the Flying Dutchman of the Polar Seas glided past me in all its terrifying glory and disappeared in the fog”. But here she sets out to depict a gentle nature emptied of both mankind and spirits. The result is a timeless scene that could just as easily be imagined as real. As one critic noted, Boberg had a particular gift for capturing “the opalescent effects of the long sun rays glinting across the glacial expanses”. What Boberg arrived at independently was a Nordic version of Monet’s pictures of the Normandy cliff coast at Etretat of 1883.
Boberg’s success in Paris and America helped win over her fellow Swedes and she became both friend and art tutor to Crown Princess Margareta, while in 1926 she and Ferdinand accompanied Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf and Lady Louise Mountbatten on a state visit to India. The couple travelled widely in Europe too, as well as to Palestine and Egypt, and they also devised a project to record Sweden’s most notable sights. Over the course of several years they hired a bus to tour the country, drawing and note-taking.
Although she painted wherever she went, it was to Lofoten that Boberg kept returning until shortly before her death in 1935. She once described the ice breaking in the mountains as if “the glacier had just fired off a salvo”. Nowhere else she had ever visited could match that.
Translations from Anna Boberg’s autobiography courtesy of Eva-Charlotta Mebius and “A Woman in the Far North: Anna Boberg and the Norwegian Glacial Landscape” (Kunst og Kultur, 2021) by Dr Isabelle Gapp
This article appears in the 13 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Selfish Giant