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Näcken - Ernst Josephson

(Water Sprite)

“I want to be the Rembrandt of Sweden, or die.”

When Ernst Josephson uttered those fateful words early in his artistic career, he may have foreseen his significant place in the history of Swedish art. But Josephson was an artist who would come to experience a spiritual roller-coaster, with moments of the most amazing creativity, as well as melancholy and despair. “Näcken” is probably one of his most famous works, but at the time was also the most controversial. A version of the water sprite motif, “Strömkarlen”, was rejected at the spring Salon in Paris, and later the same year he faced scathing criticism at the “Opponents” exhibition in Stockholm, with the painting a regarded as a laughing stock. “He looks like he’s about to vomit,” said one onlooker. “Of course,” hissed Josephson, “he wants to vomit with you looking at him!”

Pontus Fürstenberg was given the painting as a gift by the artist Wilhelm von Gegerfelt. In addition to integrity when it came to his own art collecting, Pontus was thoroughly sensitive to public taste and harmony. Instead of exhibiting the painting in the gallery he had planned at Södra Hamngatan, he stored it in a wardrobe...

In this expressive room, we encounter a free and uninhibited creative spirit, reflected through the genius inherent in an artist’s soul that, occasionally, borders on madness. A space for temperament and creativity inspired by Ernst Josephson’s fantasy world and creative energy that has puzzled, annoyed and enchanted generations since 1882.

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For a number of years the motif of the water sprite was central to Josephson’s artistry and a regular source of inspiration and creativity for him. The subject came to him at a time when he was torn between his fantasy world, a stubborn creative urge and a fervent struggle for a new, freer style of painting.

“Näcken” can be seen as a symbol of the dangerous and seductive aspect of nature, while also reflecting the artist’s loneliness and vulnerability. The work was hugely significant for later developments in modernist art throughout the 20th century and today is regarded as a key work in Swedish art history.

At the time, the melancholy artist received strong support from the Fürstenbergs. Josephson enjoyed a special bond with the patrons thanks to being related to Göthilda Fürstenberg and was the only person within the Fürstenbergs’ circle who was on familiar terms with both of them. Letters to Pontus often begin “Dear Brother Pontus!” and end with the friendly signature “Joseph”. In 1883, he celebrated Christmas with Pontus and Göthilda in Gothenburg and described their close relationship in a letter to his sisters: “My hosts in Gothenburg have truly treated me as one might expect to be greeted and welcomed by strangers in a dream.”

He was depicted by his artist friends towards the end as a man suffering serious mental illness, with spiritual psychoses and a desire to isolate himself from the world. Friends and the Fürstenbergs were worried and took an interest in Josephson’s condition, but without being able to help him much as he withdrew more and more into himself. As early as 1872, Josephson had identified with the mythical water sprite. This obsession is revealed, it hardly needs saying, in the water sprite paintings that were so brutally criticised the first time they were exhibited. Perhaps, the bourgeois audience was not yet ready for such expressionist painting, characterised by an energy consisting of equal parts madness, imagination and genius. The contrast to Richard Bergh’s confident presence of mind and mood painting in “Nordisk sommarkväll” seems as deep as a forest.

Ernst Josephson was also an eloquent and enthusiastic advocate of the “Opponents” movement and fought for the new style of art. “Let us take a risk and gamble! Let us once again feel life pulsate and be free men and not slaves to a slave!” he said of the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in 1884.

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