Imperfect storm

August Strindberg was a cultural colossus - a visionary artist and playwright whose work reflects the extraordinary upheavals of his life and times, says Tom Rosenthal. But behind the giant reputation lay a self-loathing, anti-Semitic misogynist. How do we square the two?
Click to follow

About 20 years ago I was in South Africa, then still under the iron heel of Apartheid. I went to see at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg a production of Strindberg's Miss Julie, the deadly, destructive play about the valet, engaged to the cook, who is fatally attracted to and seduced by the wilful, beautiful daughter of the absent master, the Count. Jean, the valet, was played by that great black actor John Kani. Miss Julie was played by the leading white, Afrikaner actress Sandra Prinsloo. Kani and Prinsloo kiss. It is clear in the play that they are going to make love. This being a 19th-century play, that can only take place off stage and the lights go down between the scenes. But Kani and Prinsloo remained on stage in a clinch, to be illuminated by flickering strobe lighting designed in such a way that what the audience sees is an act of violent copulation. (As Michael Meyer, Strindberg's finest biographer, puts it, Julie's tragedy is that she "does not want to make love with Jean ... she wants -

About 20 years ago I was in South Africa, then still under the iron heel of Apartheid. I went to see at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg a production of Strindberg's Miss Julie, the deadly, destructive play about the valet, engaged to the cook, who is fatally attracted to and seduced by the wilful, beautiful daughter of the absent master, the Count. Jean, the valet, was played by that great black actor John Kani. Miss Julie was played by the leading white, Afrikaner actress Sandra Prinsloo. Kani and Prinsloo kiss. It is clear in the play that they are going to make love. This being a 19th-century play, that can only take place off stage and the lights go down between the scenes. But Kani and Prinsloo remained on stage in a clinch, to be illuminated by flickering strobe lighting designed in such a way that what the audience sees is an act of violent copulation. (As Michael Meyer, Strindberg's finest biographer, puts it, Julie's tragedy is that she "does not want to make love with Jean ... she wants - there is no other word for it - to be fucked by him, like an animal.")

I can still hear the shocked gasps of the audience and the noise of seats being tipped up and still see, when the whole stage and the auditorium were again illuminated, the empty spaces from which about a quarter of the audience had left. Sex between different races was still a criminal offence in South Africa and even the sort of liberal minded citizens who would go to see such a play couldn't all cope with it. The fact that the play wasn't closed down was an indicator that Apartheid's grip was loosening.

This made me reflect on what a Stockholm audience must have made of such a play in the repressive atmosphere of Sweden in 1888. And of how appalling it must have seemed to them to contemplate a servant having sex with an aristocrat. While Miss Julie is not an autobiographical work it is certainly imbued with the hatred and guilt felt by its author about his own modest origins, a deep-seated resentment that made him call one of his autobiographical novels Son of a Servant. But, for Strindberg (born in 1849), exaggeration is an art form and, while his mother had indeed been a servant before her marriage, her union with Strindberg's father, a faintly feckless, not very lucky, shipping agent, was sufficiently solvent to be able to be able to afford a proper, working servant in their household.

In England Strindberg's major plays are well known but few people here have ever seen his paintings so that it's a neat idea for the National Theatre to put on a new production of A Dream Play simultaneously with Tate Modern's major exhibition of his paintings and photographs.

Perhaps the most important thing one should say about Strindberg the painter is that there is absolutely nothing about his art that can be dismissed with the derogatory phrase, the violon d'Ingres, that useful catch-all to describe any major artist's second string. Of course many geniuses have done something else as a sideline. Ingres was a keen violinist, Michelangelo wrote poetry, Victor Hugo drew and painted, as did Goethe. Other writers who did interesting paintings include DH Lawrence - his paintings were seized as obscene - Federico Garcia Lorca, who was actually very good, and Henry Miller who was pretty vulgar. But Strindberg is unique as a writer whose visual art is more than a curiosity, or is merely studied as thesis fodder. His first picture, alas long lost, is described in Son of a Servant. It was a painting, based on a newspaper photograph, of a ruined castle in Scotland. Strindberg described the process through his character: "When he saw how the blue paint turned into a clear sky, he was possessed by sentimentality; and when he went on to conjure forth green bushes and a lawn, he became indescribably happy - as if he'd just taken hashish." That was in 1872 and, in a way, even if we can't see the painting today, we can also recognise it as a paradigm of Strindberg's character as an artist, part deep romantic and part innovator. After all, to many people, copying a photograph in oil paint is seen as some sort of shameful act, reserved for those who do it wholesale and hang the results on fences in tourist resorts. Yet Strindberg was doing it in deadly earnest - as he did everything - and was doing it some 50 or so years before Sickert adopted the practice for some of his most interesting paintings.

Time and again Strindberg's experiments became the accepted methods of other artists one or even two generations later. In his book Inferno he describes not only his scientific experiments, but also his fascination with the glowing coals in his Paris fireplace. Once cooled, they became for him the original objets trouvés, long before the technique was used by Picasso and Braque and, later, by Schwitters and the Dada-ists. He also invented frottage, the making of rubbings from other objects, half a century before Max Ernst incorporated them into his work.

Strindberg the scientist was also as committed to chemistry as to any of his other activities. However dotty it might now seem, in the late 19th-century in Paris, it was not considered to be a sign of madness or delusion obsessively to pursue the Philosopher's Stone, the alchemical goal of turning base metals into gold. Reputable professional scientists in Paris took his experiments seriously. Among the artists of Paris he had praise from Gauguin: "I read an article by Strindberg in Mercure [de France] and thought it was very good." The article was about a unified theory of chemistry. After Munch and the composer Frederick Delius visited him in his hotel, Delius reported that "We found him poring over his retorts, stirring strange and evil-smelling liquids..." Delius also wrote that "...I believed implicitly in his chemical discoveries at that time. He had such a convincing way of explaining them, and he really was very keen to be an inventive genius."

Strindberg attempted some sculpture but only two pieces survived, not sufficient to judge his talent, but suggestive at least of the sculptural influence of Gauguin. His relationship with Gauguin was, in its way, almost as interesting as that with Munch. It was, as we've seen, on Gauguin's part one of tremendous intellectual respect, although his views of the paintings are not known. On Strindberg's side the feelings were ambivalent, largely I believe, because the Swede, with all his Nordic repressions to struggle with, was jealous not so much of Gauguin's manifestly prodigious visual talent, but of his part Peruvian blood, his physical wild man image, his nickname of Sauvage and, most of all, what Strindberg perceived as Gauguin's unbridled sexual voracity with countless beautiful, dusky maidens in Tahiti. That the reality of Gauguin's mostly impoverished - even destitute and disease-ridden - life in the South Seas was appallingly squalid merely adds irony to Strindberg's views. But his letter to Gauguin, in which he declines to write a catalogue introduction for his forthcoming Paris sale in 1895 is one of the key documents in any understanding of the Swede's view of art. There is space here only for a brief extract: "You have set your heart on having the preface to your catalogue written by me ... I am replying at once to your request with an 'I cannot', or, more brutally still, with an 'I do not wish to.' At the same time I owe you an explanation of my refusal, which does not spring from a lack of friendly feeling, or from a lazy pen ... Here it is: I cannot understand your art and I cannot like it. I have no grasp of your art, which is now exclusively Tahitian. But I know that this confession will neither astonish nor wound you, for you always seem to me fortified especially by the hatred of others; your personality delights in the antipathy it arouses, anxious as it is to keep its own integrity. [My italics. Surely as good a case as you can find of the pot calling the kettle black.] And perhaps this is a good thing, for the moment you were approved and admired and had supporters, they would classify you, put you in your place and give your art a name which, five years later, the younger generation would be using as a tag for designating a superannuated art, an art they would do everything to render still more out of date..."

If the relationship to Gauguin was in fact, eventually, one of admiration so that Gauguin printed Strindberg's refusal to contribute as the tribute it actually was, his involvement with Munch was typically Strindbergian. I have never found a Strindberg painting or drawing of Munch but, to be fair, Strindberg was not a portraitist. Munch on the other hand produced not only several lithographs but also a fine oil painting of Strindberg. But, whether because they got drunk together too often in the Berlin tavern, Zum Schwartzen Ferkel (The Black Porker) or because they, it is alleged, once shared a woman, there was tremendous respect but little trust between them. This was doubtless exacerbated by their mutual paranoia. Once, when Munch, painting on a beach, was disturbed by a sudden gust of wind which blew over his easel, he gave up for the day, claiming that "the wind is Strindberg, trying to disrupt my work". Delius on the other hand reported that, on meeting Munch for lunch, the painter gave the composer a postcard he'd had from Strindberg reading: "Your attempt to assassinate me through the Müller-Schmidt method (I forget the real names) has failed. Tak for sidst [Thank you for that]."

One can see why it is virtually impossible to write about Strindberg without using the word turbulent. The turbulence is ever present in his personal life, his scientific pursuits, his fiction and autobiographies and, above all, in his plays and his paintings. It's as if the savage internecine warfare of the characters in his greatest plays, Miss Julie, Creditors, The Father, The Stronger and The Dance of Death all of which display emotions so raw you can almost feel them bleeding and, when well acted, leave the audience as drained as the performers, has been transferred almost whole to the paintings.

You know, when watching the plays, not least because he tells you, that the characters who practice hatred and sadistic mental cruelty as if they were art forms, were once normal, decent, loving, even occasionally happy people, whose now enforced co-habitation has become war, in some cases to the death.

Something similar occurs, I believe, in his finest paintings. Strindberg loved nature and in what one might call his most "normal" books, those devoted to the Swedish countryside, the multitudinous little islands of the archipelago and the sea that surrounds them, is an almost tender, lyrical side to his writing in which nature rather than mutual domestic destruction is celebrated.

This is reflected in his delicate drawings of trees and some of his pencil sketches for landscapes but, in a way, these are misleading because they don't really relate to the bulk of the oil paintings. If, as in so much of what he did, he was a tremendous innovator who produced remarkable inkblot pictures long before Hermann Rorschach taught us about their significance, in his oil paintings he looked to the past even if the results are in fact a vital contribution to Modernism.

His look to the past was not to the arch-Romantic, his near contemporary the Swiss Arnold Böcklin whose morbidly Romantic The Isle of the Dead was his favourite picture of all time, but to Turner. Turner was his exemplar and his idol and one can easily imagine the turbulent Strindberg emulating Turner in having himself tied to the mast of a ship, the better to observe a violent storm at sea, although there is, alas, no biographical evidence for this, no matter how authentically Strindbergian it would have been.

But, like Turner, he understood the violent side of nature, of storm clouds, of tempests on land and sea, of the blotting out of all peace and tranquillity by a sudden blizzard. One of his finest pictures is called, simply, Blizzard and anything less like the tabloid headline of White Hell would be hard to imagine. It's true that he uses some dirty white paint, but the overwhelming impression is of a savage mountain of blacks and purples and greys blotting out the sky and striking the horizon where it meets an uncompromisingly dark sea.

Time and again he concentrates, as in the two pictures of Stormy Sea with different buoys afloat, on the turbulent upheaval of rough water and storm cloud laden sky, using as he mostly did, not brushes - he once claimed, though I doubt him, not to own a single brush - but palette knife, fingers and the end of the paint tube.

Another of his best paintings bears out in its title the confluence of the turbulence and psychological violence found in his drama and in his art. Done in 1893 it is called Night of Jealousy and you can just see this tormented man lying awake at night, cuckolded by his paranoia if not by a wife, observing a sinister, lowering sky as hyperactive meteorologically as his temporarily disordered mind.

There are some more conventional, dare one say, peaceful land- and sea-scapes where nothing terrible is happening, but you can also see that it might soon get nasty as the wind rises. But the painterly mastery of Strindberg is seen to much greater effect in a painting like Storm in the Archipelago (The Flying Dutchman) or the almost magical The Town in which the town, or city, of the title is distant and tiny, perhaps only two inches high. It is probably Venice but it might be Stockholm and since he liked neither city, the slender townscape is dwarfed by foreshore and sea occupying about a quarter of the height of the painting and yet another, turbulent, threatening sky takes up the rest of the space so that the town is rendered insignificant, surrounded by unknowable and un-tameable nature.

Further along the Thames from Tate Modern's revelatory exhibition next month is the National Theatre's new production of A Dream Play, one of Strindberg's relatively less destructive works and his favourite, "my most beloved play, child of my greatest pain". The play was inspired by his third wife, the beautiful actress Harriet Bosse. Strindberg was fascinated by - and frequently motivated by - dreams all his life. A few days after his engagement to Harriet he wrote: "In what land of dreams I am living I know not, but I dread descending again to reality." Just before he finished the play he wrote: "Life becomes more and more dreamlike and inexplicable to me. Perhaps death is the real awakening." It will be interesting to see how the National's new version - written by Caryl Churchill, directed by Katie Mitchell - will relate the play to Strindberg's own life and character.

But no matter how much one admires Strindberg as a kind of universal genius, one has to face the fact that, to put it mildly, he had his dark side. One can't forebear from pointing out that, even by the standards of the second half of the 19th-century, he was a rabid anti-Semite. His publisher Albert Bonnier, who was always advancing him money when he was broke and who was ostracised by his Christian competitors when one of Strindberg's books proved too controversial for the staid Stockholm Establishment, was a Jew. Strindberg wrote to his brother Axel:

"If only you knew what a net the Jews have spun round the whole of Europe ... In Germany they have divided up the country so that 80 per cent of it belongs to them. It is their right, since they have the power, but then we too have the right - to flee from them, since we cannot beat them. Alb. B's tactic is to suck blood (ie money), slowly, and so 'torment me to death'. ... His waiving of that 8,000 crowns [Strindberg's debt to Bonnier of the previous year] was to preclude my writing further articles about him in the press ... Jews do not believe in friendship or gratitude ... Read my play The Father! For Laura read Albert Bonnier and you will understand what a devilish fight I have on my hands."

Furthermore Strindberg has invariably been convicted of misogyny and it's not a charge one can deny. One can certainly see why he and Nietzsche were such staunch allies. But as with other aspects of his character it was utterly paradoxical. All his life he worshipped, loved and adored women, whether they were brief mistresses or whether they were his three wives. The trouble is that he tended to go for strong women, with careers and minds of their own, who were not prepared to be the 19th-century equivalent of Stepford Wives. Thus the marital and lovers' disputes were volcanic, fed inevitably by his jealousy and his paranoia. No one who was not a party in such a relationship could possibly judge between him and his inevitable, eventual opponent. It reminds one of the line in Clifford Odets' play The Country Girl when the alcoholic actor with girl trouble complains that all women "start out as Juliet and end up as Lady Macbeth". Strindberg was, of course, profoundly self-aware on this score. He wrote to a friend: "where sex is concerned I am an aristocrat ... If I fuck once I shall have to pay the slut a hundred fold. And I don't want to sow my seed in bad soil ... My Aryan sense of honour forbids me to steal other men's wives. Can you understand my misogyny? Which is only the reverse image of a terrible desire for the other sex." [My italics.]

Perhaps it's idle to speculate about non-existent paintings but I can't help wondering, if Strindberg had painted his wives and lovers, whether his palette knife and fingers would have been dipped into the same vitriol as he used when writing about them. Would the paintings of first passionate love have recorded them as the Madonnas he worshipped and, would they, like female Nordic Dorian Grays, have become corrupted and vile as their relationships inevitably deteriorated. At the very least he would, in the paintings, have learned from, and been influenced by, his friend Edvard Munch who so frequently rendered women as either Madonnas or as deeply scary, vampiric creatures. It's not without interest that the first state of Munch's wonderful lithographic portrait of Strindberg has in its elaborately drawn border of wavy, sinuous lines, the upright figure of a naked woman. (Later stages of that lithograph omit the woman from the border.)

All of Strindberg's wives were beautiful, which is unsurprising since Strindberg was not only a genius but, when not crossed, a stimulating companion and brilliant talker and of quite compelling appearance. Not conventionally handsome he had amazing, deep set, penetrating eyes, once described by his friend Ola Hansson as "shining and smiling like sunshine through the mist, then threatening like a pair of pistol barrels". He nearly always sported a well barbered moustache and a small chin beard but, above all, he had until he died an immense thicket of hair that always stood up and seemed to bristle permanently with static electricity. He was frequently drawn or painted not only by Munch but by other artists of note including the Swede Carl Larsson. Probably the most beautiful portrait of Strindberg, and surely the one he would most have treasured, is by the young Swedish painter Fanny Falkner who was the last woman Strindberg loved and who did a pastel of him in 1911, the year before he died. Ironically Strindberg had, when he first met her as a 17 year old, seen her instantly as Eleonora, the young girl in Easter. That turned out badly since she simply could not act and, in any case, wanted to be a painter. But she admired Strindberg, had a chaste, daughterly love for him and was in effect his secretary for his two last years. Her portrait of him which, like all the others, is pretty scary, is also the only one painted with love and gives him the aura of an ageing seer; which he was.

As a painter Strindberg was sui generis. His vision was unique and, doubtless because he did not paint in the mainstream of his time, but continually sought novelty and invention in a completely personal way, he has no rivals, no real forerunner except Turner and no obvious heirs. What he has had is influence, particularly in the use of thick impasto paint as in the work of Jack Yeats, Kokoschka, Frank Auerbach, etc.

As a dramatist he had a virtually lifelong rival in Ibsen and only a fool would try in a few words to compare them. So perhaps on Strindberg the dramatist one should leave the last word to another great playwright. Sean O'Casey wrote in one of his letters: "Strindberg, Strindberg, Strindberg, the greatest of them all ... Barrie sits mumbling as he silvers his little model stars and gilds his little model suns, while Strindberg shakes flame from the living planets and the fixed stars. Ibsen can sit serenely in his Doll's House, while Strindberg is battling with his heaven and his hell." *

'August Strindberg': Tate Modern, London SE1 (020 7887 8008), 17 Feb to 15 May; 'A Dream Play', NT Cottesloe, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), previews from Friday, in rep to May