Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Exhibit “Memories of Lapland” at the Nordiska Museet, Stockholm

Sami Working with Reindeer, 1943. Emilie Demant Hatt, Nordiska Museet
It was about ten years ago that I first saw Emilie Demant Hatt’s paintings of Sápmi, over a dozen of which are now on display at a new exhibit at the Nordiska Museet in Stockholm. I’d been interested in this artist, writer, and ethnographer for a couple of years by then and had begun researching her life. I’d also sought out what I could of her artwork.

Mette Dyrberg at the Skive Art Museum in Denmark was one of the first to welcome me to the world of this relatively unknown artist. This museum, near where Demant Hatt (1873-1958) had grown up by the Limfjord, had been given a number of oil paintings from Demant Hatt’s own collection, as well as watercolors and sketchbooks. I understood from an illustrated catalog, published in 1983 by the Skive Art Museum, that Demant Hatt’s style changed radically in the mid-1920s and that most of the finely painted but more realistic work owned by Skive didn’t always represent her mature, Expressionist style, which was more dramatic and whose subject was often landscapes of the far north. Some of these Sápmi landscapes, privately owned in Denmark, were reproduced in the catalog. Others were said to belong to the Nordiska Museet in Stockholm.

Nordiska museets huvudbyggnad
Nordiska Museet, Stockholm
The story went that, near the end of her life, finding no public institution in Denmark that would take her many paintings of Sápmi, Demant Hatt sent around fifty of them to the relatively new “Lapp Department” of Nordiska Museet. I was tantalized by the thought of those paintings which, according to all accounts, had only been displayed once at the Swedish museum, in 1953, along with those of six other Swedish painters who also used Sápmi as a motif.  After this exhibit the paintings went into storage and there, apparently, they’d remained ever since. 

The Nordiska has Sweden’s largest collection of Swedish cultural-historical artifacts. Designed to look like a Danish Renaissance palace, one of the museum’s most striking features is the massive interior hall, with a marble floor and many marble columns. It was finished in 1907, the same year that Emilie Demant Hatt began her long stay among the Swedish Sami at Lake Tornesträsk. Artur Hazelius, its founder, began collecting everything to do with Sweden’s pre-industrial, vanishing culture—from handmade furniture to folk art, from regional dress to actual buildings––back in the 1870s. The popular open-air museum near the Nordiska, Skansen, is where many of the buildings were reassembled.

The Sami Exhibit, Lapparna, opened 1947. Nordiska Museet
Before the Nordiska was built, Hazelius had displayed some of his treasures in the Scandinavian Ethnographic Collection in the city center. This included many objects from Sápmi—sleds, tents, and all things to do with reindeer, as well as domestic utensils and sacred drums. The Sami collection has had a long, fascinating, and sometimes contentious history at the Nordiska, with the permanent Sami exhibits reflecting the fashions and prejudices of the time. The current exhibit is short on objects and uses more multimedia to allow the Sami themselves to speak about their varied lives and memories. Some of the Nordiska’s artifacts have been transferred to Áttje, the Sami museum in Jokkmokk, Sweden.
In 1939 the anthropologist, journalist, and photographer Ernst Manker became the director of the museum’s first attempt at a more scholarly and organized “Lapp Department. ” A strong proponent of the Sami, Manker wrote a number of books about the herding culture, edited an academic imprint, Acta Lapponia, continued to collect artefacts, and rearranged the Sami permanent exhibit into what was, for the time, a more progressive display. Manker invited  Emilie Demant Hatt to Stockholm in 1940 to receive the Hazelius Award for her work with the Sami and particularly for her collaborative translation of Muitalus sámiid birra/An Account of the Sami by Johan Turi. The original event, an ambitious “Lappish Evening” at the museum, which would include a speech by Demant Hatt, was scheduled for April of 1940­­—but had to be postponed, when the Germans invaded Denmark. Later that year Emilie Demant Hatt did manage to get to the Nordiska, to give a much admired speech in praise of Johan Turi. Karl Tirén, who had collected Sami joiks on wax cylinders early in the century, and Israel Ruong, a Sami ethnographer and linguist, who was also a joiker, appeared with her that evening.
From this evening, a friendship between Manker and Demant Hatt grew up, and it was Manker who invited her to donate photographs, unpublished manuscripts, letters, and field notebooks about her Sami ethnography to the Nordiska. He also welcomed the gift of the paintings, though the Nordiska was not properly an art museum, but one of cultural history. The paintings, while preserved as part of the substantial Sami collection at the museum, were likely destined never to be exhibited after that first show in 1953.
Some ten years ago, I was doing some journalism and working on my book The Palace of the Snow Queen and had various occasions to be in Stockholm. I decided to see if one of the curators at the Nordiska would let me have a look at Demant Hatt’s paintings. I was invited to meet an art curator, Maria Maxen, at the entrance hall; she led me downstairs and along a corridor. Through the doors of cage-like storage rooms I glimpsed swords and pewter tankards and painted chairs, multitudes of objects from Swedish culture that had come to rest here. One of these small storage rooms held the paintings of Emilie Demant Hatt. They were upright in storage shelves and we took them out one by one and leaned them against the walls and shelving so that I could take digital photographs.

I loved the paintings from the start. They were much larger than I expected, most of them, and the colors hadn’t faded, but glowed through a light dust of time in hues of vivid scarlet, warm topaz, and an icy northern palette of blues and grays and greens. I tried to grasp the immensity of what I was seeing: over fifty landscapes of jagged mountains with the swirling Northern Lights behind and women in red koftes boating around a deep blue, glacier-powdered mountain lake. Firelight spilled like molten lava from tents shaped like small brown volcanos and reindeer herders stood around bonfires warming their hands during a coffee break in the middle of a vast winter wilderness. Reindeer trudged over ice bridges and grazed in the midst of snowfields. And in many paintings were small scruffy dogs, sometimes staring up at the sky, witnesses and working companions.
Later I was glad I had spent more time photographing than simply staring, open-mouthed, at the unexpected riches in storage. The digital pictures I took that day have long been friends to me and I’ve called them up regularly on my computer screen to admire them and to describe them in my writing about Demant Hatt. 

Emilie Demant Hatt, 1910
I remember saying to Maria Maxen that day, wouldn’t it be wonderful if these paintings could be displayed? It was a question I was to put with some wistful regularity to curators at the Nordiska in years to come. I was able to visit the physical paintings twice more; by 2013 when I was there last, Emilie Demant Hatt’s paintings, along with thousands of other objects, had been moved to a vast state-of-the-art, off-site building in a Stockholm suburb. All the canvases had been mounted on huge, heavy screens, so it was possible to see them all and all at once. I had an hour or more of communion with the work I’d come to know so well over the years and it was heaven.

On February 6, the Nordiska opened an exhibit titled Minnen av Lapland, “The Memory of Lapland,” which shows fifteen of these paintings. I’m honored that I’ve been asked to come to Stockholm and speak at the museum March19 about Emilie Demant Hatt’s life as an artist and ethnographer among the Sami of northern Sweden. My old friend Hugh Beach, a professor of anthropology at the University of Uppsala, will introduce me and say a few words in Swedish about Demant Hatt’s importance as an early woman anthropologist, and curator Cecilia Hammarslund-Larsen will speak about the exhibit. I’ll show slides, too, and give thanks. It is always an occasion for joy and gratitude when something you wish for—in my case the chance for a larger public to see some these marvelous, vivid paintings—actually comes true.

Most of the links in this post are to Swedish language sites, but Google Translate (on the Nordiska's site) will give an approximation of the content. A version of this blog post, along with more reproductions of Emilie Demant Hatt’s art, appears on the website

I’ll also be giving a talk about Emilie Demant Hatt at Kvinfo, the women’s library, in Copenhagen, March 24. Both my talks will include slides of Demant Hatt's photographs and paintings.

“The Art of Recalling,” an article about the influence of Johan Turi and Sápmi on Emilie Demant Hatt’s art will appear in Feminist Studies, summer 2014.

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