Exhibiting Art in a European Periphery? International Art in Sweden during the Cold War


Swedish Research Council

Project type


This project investigates the meaning of international in a Swedish art context during the Cold War era. It was a period characterised by political tensions internationally; a rapid establishment of museums and publicly funded art galleries of modern and contemporary art and cultural institutions; and intense exchanges and collaborations between artists and institutions across Europe.

The aim with this project is to investigate what constitutes international in a Swedish art context during the Cold War era 1945-1989. According to the Longman Concise English Dictionary international means “affecting or involving 2 or more nations” or someone “known, recognized or renowned in more than 1 country”. Yet, in art history there is a tendency to underpin the idea of international with (Western) Eurocentric and Anglo-American connotations. For example should an American pop-artist like Robert Rauschenberg exhibiting at Moderna museet be considered more international than Lotte Laserstin, a refugee realist artist who came to Sweden from East Prussia (born 1898 in Pasłęk, died 1993 in Kalmar), worked as a local artist in Blekinge, Sweden, and is now held as a national icon in Germany? Starting out from such critical and historiographical questions this project strives to unfold the political dimensions and establish to what extent international artistic exchanges were suspended between the Eastern and Western European art worlds and how collaborations existed despite the iron curtain.

The overall purpose is to investigate this heterogeneity of international in art in Sweden in order to present a more complex history on the relations, the exchanges and dependencies that support the presence of international art in Sweden. Our hypothesis is that Nice-Lund, Warsaw-Gothenburg or Zakopane-Södertälje will be revealed to be just as important an axis as Stockholm-New York.

In a mediated history the introduction of modernism and international art after 1945 is equated with a movement from international centres such as New York in a one-way direction to a Northern periphery. (Werner 2000, Öhrner 2010). This “American story” follows a structure with four distinct components; first, the Second World War as a turning point, second, in the mid 1950s the transfer of the art world’s “centre” from Paris to New York, then the predominant position of American art in the following decades and last the reappearance of a European avant-garde in the 1980s (Dossin 2008). The tacit political dimension in this “American story” and its implicit west-east hierarchy is present also in Swedish art history.

The title of this project Exhibiting in a European Periphery? International Art in Sweden During the Cold War refers to key concepts for how art has been narrated. First, in what sense was an exhibition peripheral in other regions than the major capitals such as Paris or New York? For the artists and curators involved in the project? For the bodies distributing financial support? When revisiting documents in the archives of museum and public art galleries a much more heterogenic history unfolds where the seemingly self-evident hierarchy of the Western/Eastern Europe or centre/periphery dichotomies disappear. We find galleries across Sweden that were not just “the periphery” in the far north but in some cases a platform for international experimental art such as Fluxus events in 1965 at Lunds Konsthall and frequent cultural exchanges during the 1970s with Polish artists through exhibitions and art journals.

Sweden’s combination of geographical position and political neutrality enabled it to maintain good trade and cultural relations on both sides of the iron curtain. Ambitious new arts institutions were created outside of the main cities, particularly in the 1960s and early 1970s, with a mandate to challenge the status quo and these took advantage of the political landscape to create international artistic collaborations. This project will reveal how during this important period in Swedish Art history during, through this unique set of circumstances, things became possible in the “periphery” which may not have happened in the “centres”. It is a story that has not previously been told.

The Cold War era is characterised by the idea of division. But this is contradicted by the striking presence of artists from Eastern Europe and the Baltic sea area in Sweden. These relations often show more than mere influence and one-way effects, instead we often find mutual dependence and exchange between centres (as e.g. Stockholm or Warsaw), regions, or artists. Such archival evidence reveals the biased position from which art history has been written. We suspect that peripheral is an art historical post-construction.

The different sub-projects strive to investigate how central, regional and local art scenes in Sweden interacted with art scenes in other countries in terms of exhibitions of artists from abroad. We have selected three major areas with thriving art scenes, but with uneven representation in art history: Skåne with focus on Malmö/Lund; Gothenburg and the west coast; and the larger Stockholm area including for example Södertälje.

We will focus mainly on documentation from exhibitions during the period, and cover major venues such as museums, public art galleries (konsthallar & kulturhus), cultural institutes and organisations, as well as a selection of the larger commercial galleries. It is of importance to this study to investigate exhibitions and collaborations that had outreach, locally, nationally or internationally. We will also make use of articles and reviews in the art magazines of the period. The project will start out by using this material to make overall surveys, charting the period, and then in a second phase, use the research problems stated below in order to analyse the data.

The sub-studies are organized chronologically, since preliminary studies indicate that different periods will give different results. In the aftermath of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War; international collaborations and exchanges differed from projects of the 1960s; and yet again of the 1970s and 1980s. The project is a collaboration between art historians Marta Edling, Katarina MacLeod and a PhD student (position to be announced).

Marta Edling
School of Culture and Education, Södertörn University

Pella Myrstener
Doctoral Student
School of Culture and Education, Södertörns University

Research area / geographic area

Culture and Education Art History Critical and Cultural Theory Art & culture Baltic Europe

Project time

2018 — 2022


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