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Remarkable Swedish art at 1915 Fair

Unless you learn about your past, personal or communal, you lose it. But if you can discover it and pass it on, then you can take pride in what your people accomplished. And that can inspire or encourage you to change the world in your time.


Charlotte Bernstrom provides a rare, personal view of this through Swedish art.

This year, as the City of San Francisco celebrates the centennial of its second of three world’s fairs, the California Historical Society is leading an effort to celebrate all aspects of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. Many lectures, performances and exhibits are representing some of the transformative designs and technologies of the various ethnic communities that participated in this fair 100 years ago.

Later this year the DeYoung Museum will hold a retrospective of the fair's fine art, housed in the Palace of Fine Arts, the only building in the city remaining from that fair. Unfortunately, if reports are correct, the exhibit will include few or no examples of Swedish art from that period. So, to find out there were some examples being shown elsewhere was a rare opportunity for discovery. Several dozen people packed into the Archives (Svea) room in the historic Swedish American Hall on June 4 to hear an illustrated presentation on Sweden’s contribution to San Francisco’s 1915 world’s fair. Given the beauty of the design of the talk, this article will follow its path.

“Memories & Memorabilia: Sweden’s Exhibits at PPIE1915”
No better authority could have been chosen for this task than Charlotte Bernstrom, an artist. Her paternal great grand uncle, Richard Bernström, was Sweden’s Commissioner General to the world’s fair, in charge of Sweden’s Pavilion and all of Sweden’s participation at the fair. Her maternal great grandfather, Anshelm Schultzberg, a distinguished Swedish painter and curator of national and international art exhibits, was appointed Commissioner of Fine Art. Sweden’s appointment of these two commissioners was a sign of how the country regarded this fair and the local Swedish-Americans. This was especially important to the local Bay Area Swedish community, which had urged its homeland to participate and had raised $20,000 toward the project and dedicated itself to staffing all aspects of Sweden’s participation.

What set apart the evening’s talk from other comments on Sweden’s art at this fair was that it was not academic. Charlotte began by remarking on her gratefulness to her grandfather for tutoring her in art as a means of not only seeing nature but understanding and appreciating the world. He gave to her a first set of watercolors and canvas then he took her along to paint a picture while he would capture his own plein-aire painting. He taught her to “look at the trees and to paint them as you see them, not as your mind thinks they should look.”

Art lessons, both natural and in nature
“My grandfather taught me about seeing, listening, feeling and how to translate that with paint,” said Charlotte. “It was knowledge he had received from his father, which he was now passing down to me. My grandfather and I developed a very close and special relationship and spent about 20 years painting out in nature together. He gave me an invaluable gift that I will be forever grateful for.”

Her grandfather’s home was filled with art, paintings by his father and by his grandfather as well as many others. Wherever they looked there were stories and lessons. There she learned not merely techniques but family history, about Anselm’s “many adventures both as painter and curator in Sweden, Europe and the U.S., in the late 1800s and early 1900s.” That’s not academic education, that’s apprenticeship. And it’s from this perspective that Charlotte brought such insights to her talk.

Anshelm’s education
By age 7, Anshelm Schutzberg knew he wanted to be a painter of nature. Coming from a modest background, his parents were concerned by this risky decision for his economic future. Yet he studied painting and when he got permission to paint at the National Museum in Stockholm, he was able to sell his reproductions and prove to his family that he could support himself. Those paintings were also his portfolio for entrance to the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm in 1882. At the Academy, he was again able to sell his work for increased sums, beginning at 200 Swedish crowns.

For his distinguished accomplishments in school, the Royal Academy awarded him the top prize for landscape painting together with a sizable grant. By now one of his paintings earned him 1,500 crowns ($11,000 today, not accounting for the difference in the cost of living then). He was doing what he loved, earning excellent money, and still in his 20s. As Charlotte showed us some of his early paintings there were gasps of admiration throughout the audience. The paintings were gorgeous in their detail and in capturing the mood and the weather, whatever the subject.

By the turn of the century Schultzberg also found another profession that suited his talents - curating exhibitions. This would become his dominant profession throughout the 20th century, leaving him time to pursue his love of nature paintings for his own delight rather than merely for income. It was quite natural for King Gustav V to appoint Anshelm Schultzberg as his Commissioner of Fine Art to San Francisco’s PPIE, for by this time the artist had gained a tremendous reputation for his discernment and arrangements throughout Sweden and Europe. He had also been Sweden’s Commissioner for Fine Art at the world’s fairs in St. Louis in 1904 and Rome in 1911.

Holding a world’s fair in time of war
The audience was reminded of Sweden’s audacious commitment to this world’s fair (600,000 SEK) when World War I had already begun in Europe. Which artists were willing to sacrifice their hard-earned art to be exhibited in San Francisco? Who would insure the art, let alone the passengers, sailing across the mine-infested North Atlantic Ocean? In the end, Swedish Foreign Secretary Knut Wallenberg privately donated an additional 50,000 SEK to cover the art insurance.

This was not merely an esthetic question. While Schultzberg and his wife, Ingrid, were sailing across the Atlantic with the art, from Norway to New York, they also had to ensure that their young sons were cared for in Sweden during their long absence. There were days of rough weather and exploding mines during their two-week sail. And then it took another week to cross the U.S. by train. When they arrived in San Francisco, they quickly came to feel at home as they immersed themselves in preparing Sweden’s exhibit at the Palace of Fine Arts.

It was here that Schultzberg exhibited his superb curatorial powers in redesigning the nine galleries at the Palace of Fine Arts assigned to Sweden. He resurfaced and painted the walls to best display each gallery’s art, and used fabric to diffuse light.

Anshelm Schultzberg was commended for his own art, his selection of the best works of his colleagues and for his curatorial acumen. So attractive was his artistic framing of Swedish art, that other nations copied his idea to present their own art.

Schultzberg’s curating was best demonstrated in the gallery dedicated to Carl Larsson’s art, with its huge picture of “Breakfast in the Open, 1913” at the far end, surrounded on either side wall by 20 watercolors from the Solsidan series. Visitors not merely appreciated the beauty of the paintings but were charmed, as we are today, with the idyllic domesticity.

“I cannot help expressing my personal conviction that it is the best national section in the whole exhibition,” said Eugene Neuhaus, The Galleries of the Exposition, 1915; UC Berkeley assistant professor; Fine Art Judge, PPIE1915.

Swedish Art at the Palace of Fine Arts
Charlotte’s family photos of the art and galleries allowed all to appreciate how distinctive Sweden’s exhibition really was. The initial gallery in Sweden’s series, dedicated to Fjaestad, contained not only additional canvases and tapestries but also the artist-designed table and chairs, modern furniture yet today. A wall of John Bauer paintings — natural yet mysterious, with isolated figures seen from a whimsical perspective — were not merely unique and Swedish but also appreciated by many American observers. Indeed it was Bauer who sold one of his paintings on the first day of the fair.

All the galleries would have been considered beautiful and modern today. Atop the display area of the walls, the galleries were identified with “Sweden” posted on the long walls. Each room also featured the three crowns.

Unlike many other nations, Sweden, in its egalitarian spirit even then, featured Anna Boberg, as one of several women among its prominent artists. She was the wife of Ferdinand Boberg, another distinguished Swedish artist and architect of Sweden’s Pavilion at the fair.

And that’s only four of the galleries! What was remarkable about Sweden’s exhibit in its nine galleries taken as a whole, remarked upon by numerous contemporary writers, was that the art showed the strong feeling for nature and the world-class talent represented by a wide range of artists, all giving a unified impression of Swedish character and spirit. “No country that is represented here, displays any such fresh, buoyant manifestation of art, as does Sweden,” wrote M. Wilson of the San Francisco Examiner in 1915.

Another distinction was that Sweden designated its last gallery to graphic arts and sculpture. Interestingly, Prince Eugen and others, including Anders Zorn — whose retrospective here last year was an overwhelming sensation — fearing transporting their art through the war zone, did not submit art for the fair, though some of Zorn’s etchings from American owners were displayed in Sweden’s Pavilion.

At this point Charlotte displayed a picture of a group of people sitting at a table. She identified Anshelm and Ingrid on the right, and in front seated at the table were two distinguished ladies: Mrs. Phoebe Apperson Hearst, Honorary Chairwoman of PPIE’s Women’s Auxillary and Mrs. Ida Olson Hanson, Chairlady of the Swedish Women’s Auxiliary. This was the first fair at which women were recognized for their prominent roles; they even had their own Women’s Building. Hanson was so instrumental during this period that she was thrice decorated by the Swedish government.

As Schultzberg’s final contribution, and to protect it from the ravages of the war, he arranged with his colleague of other international exhibitions, William Fox of Brooklyn’s Art Museum, to have a tour of the Swedish Art through 10 U.S. cities. It would travel through Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Toledo. This not merely preserved the art during the war and brought it to the attention of many Americans, but it also resulted in the sale of most of the Swedish art in America.

Richard Bernström
At this point in the evening, Charlotte turned to tell the story of Richard Bernström, the eldest son of an illustrious industrialist, John Bernström, head of Alfa-Laval and famous for the centrifugal cream separator and turbines. His father was a very religious, ultra-conservative, extremely wealthy and adamantly authoritarian, a proud self-made man of his times. And Richard was of a different constitution with fragile health but hidden talents and strengths, not appreciated by his father.

It was in San Francisco that Richard Bernström discovered and proved himself; here he was fully appreciated. He arrived early in the year with his wife and a Swedish architect, but the local architect, August Nordin, understood not merely the design but the local crews and codes.

The imposing Swedish Pavilion, with its dominating 100-foot tower, affording an unrivaled view of the fairgrounds and the bay. It was distinctive apart from its architecture, too. While many countries displayed their wares in the fair’s imposing main palaces — Food Products, Agriculture, Transportation, Mines & Metallurgy, Machinery, Varied Industries, Manufactures, Liberal Arts, Education and Social Economy, Horticulture, and the Palace of Fine Arts — their distinctiveness was lost or dominated by the U.S. exhibits. Instead, except for its fine arts, Sweden retained all its accomplishments and distinctions within its own pavilion, so that visitors could be continually impressed by their totality.

As she had done with Sweden’s galleries at the Palace of Fine Arts, Charlotte was now able to picture the distinctive features of the various rooms in Sweden’s Pavilion. The entry hall was distinctive: display cases at the far end were aligned along either side of an aisle bordered by two tall pyramids, each topped by a crown with half a dozen sets of triple crowns ascending each face. Flanking the aisle were pedestals were busts of famous Swedes, giving visitors a sense that for such a small country, Sweden had a disproportionately large quantity of geniuses with international impact.

The Iron and Steel Exhibit room demonstrated why Sweden excelled in the arts of mining and metallurgy, and likewise in forestry, paper and matchsticks, hydraulic power, shipbuilding and marine navigation as well as railways, electricity, turbines, and transmission; also represented in the Pavilion were the Swedish government’s social accomplishments, Swedish culture and crafts, and sports.

The Pavilion also had rooms for large social gatherings. There were weekly free film showings, rooms for lectures, receptions, parties and even grand banquets. Here were masterpieces of glass and porcelain as well as craftsmanship in wood, weaving, embroidery, lace, folk art and painting plus contemporary furniture, which remains modern even today. These latter examples were in rooms staged like large living rooms, which put the arts in an appropriate setting while making the visitors feel comfortable.

At this point Charlotte reintroduced the photo of Hearst and Hanson, for it was taken in one of these homelike social parlors. But this time she drew our attention to the background, where one could see individual cases surrounding the room in which stood 3-feet-tall dolls, each dressed in typical Swedish provincial costumes. Hearst, the noted philanthropist, wife of California Senator Hearst and mother of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, was so impressed with these dolls as a unique treasure trove that at the end of the fair she purchased them. She subsequently donated them with her many collections to the Hearst Museum at the University of California. They will be the featured exhibit when the museum reopens in February 2016.

Persistence of the past vitalizing the present
This was a triumphant period in Richard Bernström’s life. Although his wife returned to Sweden during the middle of his stay, they had memorable times with the Schultzbergs, cementeding a strong friendship. On one journey together, Anshelm painted a picture of the Golden Gate Strait (the bridge wouldn’t be built for another 20 years) for Richard. It actually came on the market a couple decades ago, and Charlotte’s father, Peter, who was in the audience this night, regretted that he had not purchased it then; if you find this painting, let us know.

After their successes here, Schultzberg stopped in Brooklyn for the inauguration of the “Swedish Art Exhibition” there, which had 8,000 visitors on its opening day alone! Bernström returned to Sweden with a new Cadillac convertible, a gramophone and the high regard of all the Swedes in the San Francisco Bay Area. He turned in his report to the king, showing the tremendous recognition and appreciation by world visitors of Sweden’s accomplishments and urging that the kingdom continue such investments. The report was well received and he was royally praised and publicly noted for the success of his efforts. This recognition was short lived, for Richard fell ill after he returned to Sweden and died a few years later at age 44.

Personal experience after researching the fair
Charlotte concluded her talk by considering what brought her to this moment. The odd thing was that after Richard’s death there was evidently no interaction between the two families until half a century later her when her own parents, Peter Bernström and Catharina Schultzberg, unwittingly met at a party in Stockholm and fell in love - without any particular appreciation for the earlier linkage of their families. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Or is it fate? Charlotte was born Sweden, related to both commissioners, came to America and San Francisco, for no reason connected with that fair long ago. Here she is happily married, lives in Marin with her husband and their 2-year-old son. Here she attended formal art school, worked in graphic design and then at a contemporary art gallery. She continues to paint and had her first solo exhibit in 2010. Now painting is her main focus.

Charlotte showed a few of her own paintings, noting that while she now paints in oils, hers are very different, both highly personal and abstact. While she began with plein-aire painting following the family tradition, she has chosen a less realistic but personally more satisfying approach by embodying the emotional aspect of nature. She is still capturing what she sees, smells, senses in nature, but the landscapes evolved into something “both more abstract and more autobiographical, emphasizing color and texture.”

PPIE: TNT—Then, Now, Tomorrow
The presentation concluded with thanks to Astrid Olsson for showing her the 1915 world’s fair commemorative edition of Vestkusten. Throughout Charlotte’s talk, and since I met her at a Lucia party last year, I too have often wondered at the fate that brought us together. I am so grateful for her friendship but also that she accepted my challenge to present her personal perspective on Sweden’s remarkable contribution to the 1915 fair which revitalized the entire local Swedish “colony” here.

As we prepared for this lecture and chatted about her great-grandfather and my grandfather, I pointed to the illustrated cover on that Midsummer 1915 commemorative edition of Vestkusten. “Did you notice who the artist is?” I asked. In the lower right corner she discovered the signature: “A.Schultzberg, San Francisco, 1915.” Following the San Francisco Earthquake of ‘06, Farfar was still publishing the newspaper out of the converted basement of our home. So, our relatives were sitting in this same dining room when they commissioned the painting, and I imagine on other occasions.

It has been so impressive to actually see both the art and the artistic display of Swedish art at this world’s fair. What an achievement by Swedes and Swedish-Americans in 1915! It will be an instructive standard by which to judge the DeYoung’s PPIE retrospective of fine art.

San Francisco


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