Great Works: Wonderland, 1894, by August Strindberg

Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

There was a terrible, lifelong restlessness about August Strindberg. He was perpetually in conflict with Swedish society. In fact, his condition seemed to be that of a natural and habitual transgressor. Best known for his plays, he was also a memoirist, essayist, novelist, poet, actor, and a ceaseless, amateurish dabbler in the sciences.

He was also a painter of real distinction, and as with all his other endeavours, his paintings feel, always, not only like fragments ripped out of the pages of his own autobiography – do not his lonely trees on the shoreline generally feel like portraits of their painter in his habitual mood of testy, haunted isolation? – but also ways of fighting his way through to the essential truth of things.

In 1894, he proclaimed in a letter to a friend that he had discovered a way of making art that would be both a mirror of the artist's mind and a genuine attempt to frame a window on a common world. It would be both esoteric and exoteric, inward-looking and outward-looking. The word he uses to describe this new art is "double-bottomed", which means that it will comprehend an aspect that everyone can make out, and an esoteric one reserved for the painter and "the chosen few". This way of making would also involve chance, he announced, decades before the Surrealists embraced the idea of automatic writing and the aleatory impulse as things peculiar to themselves.

And so what we have here is a form of landscape, and it might even be described as idealised landscape, an Arcadian scene, though a thoroughly unspecific and indefinite one. Not indefinite, though, in the way that one of Turner's late scenes of Venice were indefinite. In spite of the fact that Turner's Venice of the 1840s is dissolving away into nothingness, we still feel the pull of the actuality in which it is ultimately grounded. We also understand that part of Turner's intention in painting in this way may have been to record the terrible, oppressive melancholia of a place in terminal decline from its centuries of greatness and political potency.

With Strindberg, the matter is quite different. There is a less sure underpinning of reality here. This is both place and idea of place, landscape as actuality and landscape as symbolic representation. It is, as he would have known, delicately poised between an inner world of pure fantasy and an outer world. It is the very centre of the painting to which our eyes are most readily drawn.

It sucks us in, this hole with its promise of light, and all that such a light might mean, this blaze of illumination at its centre, which appears to be opening out to us, as if in invitation. The greennesses that encircle it – they look in part like wind-whipped foliage – help to transform the hole itself into a maelstrom.

Much is deeply troubling here, though, because our ability to read the scene is very limited. Are we looking out from a rocky forest floor? Are we, having climbed this far – the lower half of the painting could be rocks up which we have been clambering – about to emerge in full face of a glorious view of... what? The sea? The sky? And what are these flowers that seem to be positively urging us to identify them? One critic of this painting has called them mallow worts, wallowing in a pool of stagnant water.

Is that accurate though? Might it not be truer to argue that this garlanding or strewing of white and red flowers in the path of the climber is yet another fantastical touch in a painting whose shape looks like a whirling green wreath offered up to the ever elusive gods of the spirit realms?

About the artist: August Strindberg (1849-1912)

In addition to his achievements in the other arts, the Swede August Strindberg (1849-1912) also made paintings, drawings and photographs. Post-Impressionist in inspiration and restlessly eclectic, his work also has links with Symbolism, and his ideas look forward to Dadaism and Surrealism. His favourite motifs – a tree, a lighthouse, a turbulent shoreline – often look lonely and beleaguered. Somewhat akin, therefore, to Strindberg himself.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick