Bengt Lindström came to Chicago in 1946 as a young Swedish art student, and left the following year for Paris. Surprisingly, two of the pieces that he made while studying at the Art Institute of Chicago are in this show. They reflect the social realism of that era in a dry, academic way. Far removed from his later work, they suggest he spent time in the ethnographic galleries of the Field Museum. Similar to Chicago’s “Monster Roster” who were discovering those galleries at around the same time, Lindström would eventually represent how human figures felt from within rather than how they appeared from a distance. Like premodern wood carvers from villages in almost every part of the world, these postwar artists would prioritize an inner, spiritual reality over the technical structures and optics of appearance.
Lindström, as well as the “Monster Roster,” would also prioritize dysfunction, alienation and dismay rather than joy, peace, fulfillment or enlightenment. The exploding mummy depicted in “Roman Personage” (1962) and the lost soul depicted in “The Scream” (1967) both chronicle hopeless despair. A self-portrait from the 1970s exhibits static ferocity. It has plenty of energy with nowhere to go—a condition that also seems to afflict the four variations of “Girls on the Champs-Élysées” (1980). Yet the inner life of these girls is as beautiful as it is destructive, which segues nicely into the later triumphs of Lindström’s career: his depiction of Nordic gods, warriors and folklore.
Nordic lore is a frequent theme in the popular entertainment of today (my favorite being the Norwegian sitcom, “Norsemen.”) Love those crazy-ass Vikings! They would have been much less entertaining, however, back when they were pillaging and raping their way south to Sicily and Constantinople. Their legacy of predatory commerce probably inspired the great European empires that came centuries later, as well as America’s tragic conflation of freedom with slavery and ongoing cultivation of sociopathic violence and greed.
Perhaps it’s a legacy that ought to be firmly rejected—but not until you’ve experienced the uninhibited joy of Lindström’s mythic paintings. Twentieth-century painters are usually complaining or trying to teach us something. Lindström is neither self-expressive nor didactic. He’s more like a shaman, in touch with those formative powers of the universe that inspired epic poetry in ancient times and are now studied by modern science. To stand in front of his wall-size paintings from the 1980s or 1990s is like discovering a rainbow while facing a towering waterfall on a sunny day. They feel fresh, thrilling and magical, with high voltage streaking through heavy lines of thick, bright paint. Pictorial space, as well as rationality, is crunched by the onslaught.
The work feels spontaneous yet there is nothing careless about it. You can appreciate the density of detail by comparing it to an adjacent wall-size tapestry that a French atelier derived from one of his designs. Even its tiny threads feel coarse and clumsy in comparison with the streaks in Lindström’s sweeping brushstrokes.
Much of the credit for this exhibition has to go to Curt Aspelin who loaned all of the pieces. As the artist candidly put it: “Good lord, what a lot of shit I produced. But you have to do a lot if anything is going to be good.” And that’s why the role of collector is so very important. One can hope that American art museums will eventually follow Aspelin’s lead in presenting these brilliant and unique mythopoetic variations on modern abstract expression. (Chris Miller)
“Bengt Lindström: The Master of Ancient Mythology,” at the Swedish American Museum, 5211 North Clark, through September 22.