by Larissa Anderson
If you’re looking for a way to celebrate the holiday season outside of packed parking lots and crowded shopping centers, the American Swedish Institute (ASI) at 26th Street and Park Avenue offers some respite.
ASI’s current exhibit Jenny Nyström: The Mother of Swedish Christmas highlights, among other work, her illustrations of tompten, the Swedish Santa Claus. Nyström’s images of tompten depict cheery, helpful elves who deliver Christmas gifts and dance around the Christmas tree with a string of smiling children. Her illustrations have graced postcards, covers of Christmas magazines and several children’s books—earning her a reputation as one of Sweden's most beloved artists for defining the image of Scandinavian Christmas.
she is most known for her illustrations of tompten and childhood innocence,
this exhibit reveals a more complex and complete picture of the artist. Nyström
flourished as a classically trained artist who defied cultural expectations
and classical traditions. As a student at Stockholm's prestigious Royal Academy
of Fine Art, Nyström won Sweden's Royal Medal for her historical painting
“Gustav Vasa som barn inför Kung Hans” (“Gustav Vasa
as a child before King Hans”). Her depiction of Danish King Hans meeting
the future threat to his kingdom, young Gustav Vasa, is distinctive in that
it places Gustav Vasa, young and defiant, in the center of the painting. This
defiance in the face of authority marks the heart of Nyström’s work
in fine arts, which, as the exhibit reveals, blossomed during her time in Paris.
Nyström was taken with the Social Realism movement, which demanded that
art more honestly reflect everyday life experiences. Her desire to show life
as it existed is clear in her riveting Paris pieces. In “Nude Model,”
she depicts the classical female form, but steals attention from the model's
full hips, bathed in light, with a pair of dirty feet in the lower corner. Nyström’s
“Self-Portrait” shows a strong, confident woman in assertive oils
with an unwavering gaze directed at the viewer, no doubt an expression of Nyström’s
experience as a female artist in a male-dominated and uninviting arts community.
Nyström challenges the traditional image of dreamy and passive woman that
were so common at the time. Using soft and airy pastels, Nyström’s
“Gråtande Flicka” (“Weeping Girl”) is a daring
woman with emotional depth and strength, revealed through her puffy and pink
Although her work in Paris won her critical acclaim, it did not, as is true
for so many talented and visionary artists, pay the bills. Nyström’s
work with illustrations in children’s books and annual Christmas magazines
began as a way to support her family and burgeoned into a national phenomenon.
Her paintings of idealized images of childhood, while contrary in content and
style to her work in fine arts, define her career as much as her strong, defiant
earlier works. The exhibit at the American Swedish Institute complements any
Christmas celebration, and is compelling because it reveals Nyström's capacity
to capture a vision of the world from two opposing approaches—idealism
and realism—with equal power and grace. ||
Jenny Nyström: Mother of Swedish Chistmas is on display through
Jan. 15 at the American Swedish Institute, Park Ave. S., Mpls., 612-871-4907.
Gallery hours are Tue., Thu., Fri. & Sat. noon–4 p.m.; Wed. noon–8
p.m.; Sun. 1–5 p.m. Closed Mondays.