Else-Maj Johansson in Lofoten
by Staffan Söderblom

The first time she painted Lofoten was in 1957. It was a picture from Svolvær, the whaling port, Vestfjord’s hub, about halfway between Narvik and Lofotodden. It is the work of a twentytwo year old, a youth, just arrived, in essence a pretty picture. And interesting as a record of a first encounter with this northern landscape. The painting shows a clutter of houses and Rorbu cabins, typically crammed together, an array of gables and rooftops. The rowan trees around the houses are red, autumn-coloured. There are boats, frames for hanging out fish to dry, telegraph poles; everything is shoehorned into the picture’s lofty perspective – a characteristic fishing village as they are found not only along the Norwegian coast.
However two things are almost entirely missing from the picture: the sea and the mountains. Two things which, more than anything else, signify Lofoten. The water in the picture is but a narrow channel, almost a canal, and the mountains, beginning where the town ends, are a mere suggestion. It was, perhaps, simply too vast, the craggy mountain edge and the ocean’s breadth, too overwhelming for her to take on, just after arriving – or even too inhuman.
Her first picture of Lofoten.
Since then she has spent long hours studying and painting these two entities: the sea, the mountains.

The landscape is unflinching, yet ceaselessly changeable. The sea in its every form, from dead calm to rag- ing storm, has no colour and every colour – the tides continuously rewrite the contours of the cliffs and islands, the coastal lines. And the light across the sea and the mountains shifts, minute by minute, with the changes in the weather and the seasons. Everything shifts, not seldom dramatically, while the people go on living their lives within. Yet during these restless transformations there is an immense stillness, a geologi- cal stillness, following the violent rumbles in the earth’s crust which once broke up what is now called the Lofoten Wall. It is this stillness she paints and has painted. Its legible expression through weather, light, atmosphere. And there is something almost paradoxical about her method of painting it: with a kind of impatience. Viewed up close the surfaces of her paintings are tumultuous. Everywhere, the dried oil paint has the signs of violent gestures, the brushstrokes test out every direction. Of course this comes from the painting’s actual creation, the act of capturing a view, reconstructing the momentary scene, the instant of light, the mood – the truth of the creative instant. However the vehement movements in the stiffened paint evoke the actual geology: the forces which have formed the landscape itself, and which echo through the brushstrokes, the mantle of paint, the scratched canvas, a deep memory. There is a sort of amalgamation taking place in her pictures – of the expression of the landscape and the expression of its people, a beautiful gesture of belonging, a knowledge of the stipulations of the land, like in a stanza from Tomas Tranströmer:
The ground is rough, no mirror.
Only the coarsest of spirits
Can reflect themselves there: the Moon And the Ice Age.
The Moon and the Ice Age; the sea and the mountains, vestiges of the coarsest of spirits in the landscape. And the person observing them.

The view from her house in Sørvågen, almost at the end of the road on Lofoten’s chain of islands, is characteristic: the narrow harbour, the fishing boats, the country road, the clutch of houses on the other side of the bay, and, over there: the mountains. People have clustered here, their houses facing each other, living on top of one another. The view overlooks a similar kind of disparate muddle of human existence that she painted more than half a century ago, in the first picture. But in addition, the outlying houses are in the landscape, the solitary ones – and it is these she seems to turn to in her painting: lonely houses silhouetted against the overwhelming prospect of rock and water. Of course there is realism in this, an authenticity – the individual houses are in the right places, squeezed up against a mountainous ascent, or deep down in a fjord, they have been seen. But the lonesome houses in her paintings signify the landscape is also an inner landscape, an existential condition of vulnerability and integrity. There is nothing in the pictures that is self-pitying, they are not tragic. Instead they are the carriers of a kind of tangible happiness, emerging from a fundamental sense of belonging. And they often take place in the ambiguous light, the constant summer light, when the day becomes a deep vibration of sun and the night never darkens, there is just dusk into sunrise. Like a much more northerly version of the existential light in Salvatore Quasimodo:
Each alone on the heart of the earth impaled upon a ray of sun -
and suddenly it’s evening.

The light in her pictures, her picture of the landscape, is both meditative and ecstatic. The midsummer fires burn red in the dusk. People dance and drink with joy and anguish, hedonistic Bacchanalians under a sky inconducive to sleep. From a distance they can be seen, as if by a new arrival or someone leaving. The figures resemble people, they are people, but at the same time lifted into something mythical, their bodies with no confession other than the sharp scent of the herbs in the ground, or birds, never resting in this light – their cries piercing inaudibly through the dusk. It is true, the landscape where these figures move is solid, the hills with their rampant greenery, the sunken glens – but the light makes everything somewhat uncertain, nobody can be certain of what they see, almost like in Jalal al-din Rumi:
Beyond godlessness and religion
there is a meadow where we meet.
Souls tread on verdure and sense
that neither godlessness nor religion exist – yes, that indeed nothing real there exists.

If you visit Moskenesøya, the remotest island of the Lofoten chain, you will see all around you the motifs she has painted – exactly or approximately: the landscape’s countless revelations. It is her landscape. And she knows it, she has experienced its sheer existence – grandeur and bleakness, and the paradoxical intimacy. The motif is around you. Yet something in Else-Maj Johansson’s pictures of Lofoten cannot be found except in the pictures themselves. What this is, and how it should be described, is not easy to say. But it is connected to the inner landscape of the individual, the space others have no access to – except, possibly, through art.


Else-Maj Johansson’s landscape
by Lars Nygren

Is there such a thing as landscape?

The question may seem paradoxical or simply absurd. Of course there is landscape.
But consider the word! “Land” means earth, stone, water, air, plants: matter, something material. But what is the ending “-scape” in this context? A demarcation, a kind of frame?

I lived with Else-Maj Johansson for ten years. After several years in Paris we ended up in Kårsta Kyrkby, in Roslagen’s hinterland, north of Stockholm. We lived in the disused school between a stone church from the Middle Ages and the Falun-red clock tower on the hill. It was at a time when you could just “end up” in a disused school or some other great house in the country. An era in Sweden where a generation began moving from the cities to the countryside. The turbulent epoch around 1968 and several years after. Moreover, for us, privately, it was a bewildering time; we had a daughter who died as an infant.
One of our neighbours was called Farmer-Sven. There was nothing disparaging about the name. He was just called that. His sister Thyra lived in the old teacher’s digs in our schoolhouse. Their brother, Egg-Bertil, in a farm up by the clock tower.
Farmer-Sven was a simple man, as they say. He didn’t care about art. On the contrary. What’s that sort of thing good for!
However, he once told me that on a trip to the local shop he ended up sitting in the car. In the rear-view mirror he looked at the valley and the church village up there. It had surprised him the first time. But now he knew. It could be repeated. What he saw framed in the rear-view mirror was beautiful to him, a beautiful landscape. Something which he sat and observed, absorbed in the moment. The landscape as a conception.
He had lived his whole life within that landscape without having seen it in this way. But framed in the rearview mirror, with this shift in perspective, made him see it like this.

It was there, in Kårsta, Else-Maj began painting landscape pictures. Landscape portraits. Fields, blackish- brown earth beneath heavy skies from a low angle, sometimes strips of snow, red streaks on the horizon. For a long time she followed a kind of crop rotation. During the winters she worked in Kårsta, in the summers in Lofoten, where she had a house. Originally a primitive house, tethered to the mountain with steel cable to stand the autumn storms. The house was renovated, rebuilt, expanded. In the end she lived there full-time. Since 1986 Sørvågen near Lofotodden has been her permanent address. She built a studio. This original studio, designed by the architect Knut Gjernes, is both a landmark on the other side of the bay and, during the dark seasons, a beacon that many of the area’s inhabitants have used to guide them to her painting classes. The studio is a neighbourhood institution and her activities have also been officially recognised by Moskenes municipality. In 2004 she was awarded a cultural prize. In the prize statement, the inspiration of her own paintings was emphasised, as was her importance for children and young people who she has instructed at the art school, and her painting classes with closing exhibitions which have been, “social hubs during the dark autumn days, vital for those of us who live here. That is probably why al- most no other municipality has such a high percentage of its population enrolled in painting classes – she has cultivated a love of painting within many of the people here, and we think this is unique to Moskenes.”

When I got to know Else-Maj in Paris in 1965 she painted abstract and nonfigurative paintings, striking colours, red, blue, yellow, green, spontaneous and broad and hastily painted – expressive! “A racket of colour” wrote one critic, as praise. Because they were rather aurally coloured paintings. Vibrant timbres. I own one of these paintings; an “internal portrait” of the jazz musician Charles Mingus. If it wasn’t him it was Billie Holiday or Lester Young, in particular, you heard constantly in Else-Maj’s studio, accompanied by the pleasant pervading smell of turpentine and Gaulois! A little stripy grey cat, also a fan of jazz, prowled around the canvases.

For Else-Maj, those years in Paris were a time of artistic searching. Using the nonfigurative to try and find an alternative point of departure, allowing the paint to decide, allowing the paint to form itself, under no pressure for the picture to portray anything. Motif does not just mean that something is depicted, some- thing the picture portrays. The motif is also “what sets in motion”. Following a red gesture of the brush on the white canvas comes, perhaps, something blue, and during this process the form emerges. That was the case with the picture of Mingus. It was indeed only after the picture was complete that we realised that you could see it as a kind of internal portrait of Mingus and his music. A retrospective insight.
However Else-Maj also sought motifs in the common meaning of what the painting depicts. She was inspired by painters such as Ensor and Soutine, by Goya and his etchings. There were still lifes with animal skulls, a lonely ragdoll, close studies of bone fragments, hanging animal corpses, portraits of mature and mouldy mushrooms – kinds of vanitas pictures; not to mention the folk in burlesque scenes, bacchanalia in which women and men whirl in a festive frenzy ostensibly beyond the bounds of our more usual laws of grav- ity. She built up a joyously erotic portfolio of lovemakers on swings and roundabouts. The lithographs were part of the Kronhausen couple’s groundbreaking exhibition Erotic Art when it was shown in Stockholm at Liljevachs and at Lund Konsthall in 1969.
I cannot remember a single time she painted a city scene, a city landscape, any pictures of Paris, where she actually lived.
It was intensive being in Paris, small in those days (!). Not a single skyscraper. Little towns in concentric circles, the arrondissements, and each their own small stomping ground. La Palette, La Coupole, Selecte and whatever the cafés were called and, in all likelihood, are still called. The companions, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, paradoxically, made the world not only bigger, but, in fact, smaller as well, as they invariably appeared in every context in that world. For Else-Maj, de Beauvoir’s now classic, The Second Sex, became an absorbing read, with consequences. I eventually took on the translation of two books by Sartre. Many artists from South America moved in Else-Maj’s circles. Although above all it was Danes, with the legendary Peter Bramsen’s lithograph studio as a cosmopolitan centre. His friend and mentor Asger Jorn was an exuberant Alcebiades figure. All at once eldest and youngest. And most famous. At a party hosted by Bramsen in Villiers-le-Bel he played violin and I accompanied him on a ukulele with a missing string. It was the morning after the party. All the other adults slept. The children came downstairs to where we sat and played Swedish and Danish folksongs. Gustaf Fröding was one of Jorn’s favourite authors. And he loved Alice Tegnér’s children’s rhymes, in particular, En sockerbagare här bor i staden (The Confectioner). He always wanted Else-Maj to sing it. Which could be very comic, for example, in an intellectual artist’s bar such as La Palette in Quartier Latin. She was called La fille qui danse toujours, the girl who’s always dancing.

Nostalgia means longing for a past. And this often means a false and idealised past. Else-Maj does not suffer from this kind of homesickness. She seems always to be at the start of a process! If life feels sluggish she goes elsewhere for a couple of months, or half a year, to work, collecting new impressions: London, Ibiza, Formentera, Crete, Israel, Hungary, New Zealand, Tenerife... You can – like Else-Maj did – stand in a rented room in Soviet Budapest and paint a picture of Lofoten! She has never been an outdoor painter. Her easel always stands in a studio, in a room. But there are times she simply has to travel in order to come home to her figurative world; relocate to place herself at the start of a process.
The first time she placed herself at the start of a process, and a life-changing one at that, was when she at the age of sixteen – she was born in 1935 – without the slightest grasp of English, travelled to London to work as a maid. After leaving school she had worked as a cycle telegram courier with the intention of advancing to telephonist. Yet instead, of her own volition, she travelled to London. Then, by coincidence, for the first time in her life she came into contact with people who were interested in something called art.
In the evenings, after work, she went to Chelsea School of Art. And when after two years she returned to Sweden she applied to the Swedish Society of Art and Design School in Gothenburg where she trained for four years. Since then she has lived as a fine artist with a series of exhibitions in, mainly, Stockholm and Gothenburg. But also in Norway and Paris, where in 1982 she had a major exhibition at the Centre Culturel Suédois where she exhibited mostly pictures from Lofoten. Her colour lithographs, especially her Lofoten motifs, can be found extensively in Sweden’s counties, in hospitals, schools, government agencies and institutions. She is represented, among other places, at the National Museum, Moderna museet in Stockholm and the Royal Collection.

Olle Granath, then leading critic in Dagens Nyheter, once aptly circled three important motifs in Else-Maj’s later paintings, the paintings after the Paris era of the 60s. Namely, pictures of the Roslagen and Lofoten landscapes and the bacchanalia she allows to take place in them.
“The pictures from Roslagen construct a formidable and unpopulated perspective of the landscape,” writes Granath.
And in her paintings of Lofoten, “the mist creeps out of the actual paint and consumes Lofoten’s desolate and majestic landscape. The painting summarises rather than provides detailed descriptions. The paint in the sky glows with large, sweeping strokes while the mountains are coldly blue-black, and right up next to them the houses huddle uneasily, awaiting the imminent attacks from the North Atlantic. It is painting which, lacking human figures, says a great deal about people’s place in nature and the cosmos.”

But when these people do take to the stage in some of the paintings they “don’t do so with humble insight about their smallness or in ardent awe in the presence of the scenery’s grandeur. Aging and playful figures appear with laughter, noise and lunacy, with a decisiveness to make the midsummer night wild with help of dance, liquor and lovemaking. These people hold midsummer night in their domain in a way that is far from the delicate sentimentality that our national conventions proscribe to the subject. Instead these festivities are portrayed as the Nordic equivalent of the classic Greek Dionysian orgies. During the dances and the course of the night the invisible, differentiating lines between human and nature are erased, and the “chthonic” forces which were the Dionysian mystery’s driving force take over and ensure that man and nature become one.
Else-Maj Johansson’s paint also participates in this “mystery”. It whirls and crackles across the surface of the picture, and the ecstatic climax draws near, causes the human figures to melt together with the lush greenery and the pale morning mist” (Dagens Nyheter 8.11 1978).

Else-Maj Johansson was born and grew up by the sea, one of five children in a working class family in the little town Varberg, south of Gothenburg. There was a genuine artistic streak in the family. Her mother enjoyed painting flowers; one of the three brothers made wooden sculptures, a hobby; her little sister Ingela (1944-2004) followed in Else-Maj’s footsteps and also became an artist, trained in Stockholm at the Royal Institute of Art. At long last Else-Maj had – at that time a well-established artist – together with her mother and siblings a couple of joint exhibitions in Varberg.

At home, during her childhood, she never heard talk of anything in the ilk of “the Varberg School”, three painters who settled in Varberg in the 1890s and have their own chapter in Sweden’s modern history of art. Richard Berg, one of the artists, once wrote:

“Does nature have a spirit? Yes, supposing the person observing her, has one. People instinctively assign an inner life, like their own, behind the fluctuating contours of nature’s appearance. The atmospheric painter instinctively searches for an answer, a habitat, a clime, behind which he can assign a spirit, which takes ownership of his own soul’s torments and delights, its bright and dark dreams.”

It crosses my mind that Else-Maj Johansson could have made those words her own today.