ABOUT THE ARTIST JURELL
Text: Laure Barbizet-Namer. Assistant curator in charge of the painting and print department at Musée d'histoire Contemporaine, (the Museum of Contemporary History), Paris
IT HAS BEEN said that if Torsten ought to meet anyone in France, it should be me. By that I'm neither saying that it would be pure chance, nor that I am totally irresistible. Far from it. It's not me as a person, but rather my job that would attract Torsten. Let me tell you about how we met.
I work at the Musée d'Histoire Contemporaine (the Museum of Contemporary History) in Paris. It's in the centre of the city, close to the Hôtel des Invalides and is devoted to all manner of pictorial documentation.
The collections are made up of three sections: posters, photographs, and then the section that I am in charge of, namely paintings, graphic art and historical objects. The works - mostly French even though the collection is international in nature - illustrate and bear witness to historical, political and social events from 1871 to our own times.
In 1991 the Swedish writer and collector Jan Myrdal suggested to me that we arrange an exhibition of Chinese woodcuts from the period 1937-48, comprising works that he himself had collected and works from the Musée d'Histoire Contemporaine, in Stockholm's Kulturhus. Myrdal entrusted the task of selecting which woodcuts would be exhibited to Torsten Jurell, and that is how I got to know him - not as an artist, but as a director, an arranger. And I was impressed!
For Torsten, it wasn't the act of creating per se that was important, but the way in which the products of this act of creation made it possible to communicate with the general public. It was like a speech, one person's contribution to a conversation illustrated with pictures.
The woodcuts which were put on show in the Chinese exhibition, and which he himself had discovered in a book in 1975, have become important as a kind of fixed point in Torsten Jurell's existence, a milestone along his route through life as an artist. But what, actually, were these woodcuts?
In the 1930s artists in China abandoned their time-honoured motifs of mountain landscapes shrouded in mist, to describe the wretched conditions in which the great masses of uneducated peasant farmers were living.
One of the driving forces behind this shift was the author Lu Hsün, 'China's Maksim Gorky', but the artists were also inspired by Käthe Kollwitz and Frans Masereel's pictures, and in Shanghai and southern China they created black-and-white woodcuts in an expressionistic-realistic style. The political movement they heralded took shape under the Long March, and in the 'liberated areas' in the north the woodcuts assumed a different character.
Like his Chinese predecessors, Torsten Jurell commenced his career as an artist by carving woodcuts and organising small travelling exhibitions in libraries, factories, offices and art galleries. That brought him freedom and economic independence and, ultimately, the opportunity to tackle larger and more demanding projects.
Not that Jurell's woodcuts should ever simply be seen as a meal ticket: they reflect the social and political feeling that was at the very core of his weltanschauung. (He comes from a fairly poor background: his father was a policeman who built the family's house himself.)
He was brought up in a very strict and stifling Reformist atmosphere; this background led him to rebel against all forms of injustice. In adolescence, his sensitivity became politically oriented when he discovered, in the plethora of paperbacks that were by then available, a number of writings by Marxist authors. From 1973 to the end of the seventies, he supported Maoist ideas and became a sympathizer of that group.
It was not, however, in his character to mouth political slogans; his independent spirit and need for action were channelled into artistic creativity. Though Jurell may argue that politics plays a only small part in his work, it in fact underpins the whole of his creative art.
From 1974 to 1977 Torsten Jurell made a series of woodcuts about the socialist movement and the revolution in Finland, which he compares with the Paris Commune. In these he described first how conditions for the peasant farmers grew ever worse under the Czarist regime, then Finland's independence in 1917 and finally the confrontation between the Reds (the smallholders and workers) and the Whites (the gentleman-farmers and the bourgeoisie).
At the outbreak of the Revolution on 27 January 1927, a People's Council was created in Helsinki and all public services were put into the hands of workers' soviets. However, as early as the following March, the White Army, with soldiers well-trained in Germany fighting under the orders of General Gustav Mannerheim, beat off the Reds, whose officers lacked experience; the whole country was "liberated" by the end of April.
Though our artist's heart favoured the Reds, he refused to take sides, other than to say he was "on the side of the masses". He tried to show how men were being used by the Great Powers (USSR, Germany).
In his exhibitions, Torsten Jurell habitually comments on his work and dialogues with the public. In 1984, an anthology of his engravings were published in a book called Red Blood, White Frost, published by "Mannerheim and Mannerheim", nephew of the White Army chief of staff. The captions and other comments on the pictures are bilingual (Swedish and Finnish).
In 1979 Jurell's reaction against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was swift. With a series of caustically humorous woodcuts he attacked Brezhnev, lampooned the Soviet Union as a vulture releasing gas at the foot of the mountains and showed the irony of Soviet leaders, who claimed they wanted to enlighten the country, going about their task by chopping off the heads of illiterates. In the same way he criticised the Christian churches which stood by silently as Muslims were massacred.
And finally he painted a large oil painting on canvas in the style of a fifteenth-century fresco, in which he pitted the Soviet giant Goliath against the Afghan David. The legend on the painting, 'Goliath is dangerous only if David is a coward' was a condemnation of the silence of Swedish politicians and intellectuals in the face of the dictates of their 'mighty' neighbour to the east. Despite pressure from the Soviet consul, who found the exhibition 'unacceptable', these works were put on public display in a cultural centre in Göteborg.
They were shown again in Stockholm's Kulturhus in 1981, although on this occasion the threats from the Soviet cultural attaché were so intimidating that the Cultural Affairs Committee provided no support for the exhibition apart from placing the empty premises at the disposal of the artist. Services such as transportation, information to the public, installation, janitoring and supervision all had to be paid for out of the artist's own pocket.
This attitude from the Swedish authorities, treating an art exhibition as if it were a manifestation for some political party, was nothing short of scandalous. Having thus been provided with a golden opportunity to demonstrate how ready the Swedish elite was to dance to the Soviet Union's tune, the artist then went on to condemn the superpowers' politics-by-dictate and compared this approach with that of the Nazis in the 1930s.
In much the same way, Jurell took sides with the ordinary people under attack during the Gulf War in 1991.
The woodcut makes it possible for an artist to print his or her own pictures quickly, pictures which have a political point to make and which describe current events. For this reason the woodcut is often an artistic medium which takes sides, which stands in direct contact with social reality. In his sculpted reliefs, however, these unique large-format works with their multitude of details, Torsten Jurell works in another dimension, forsaking narrative technique to step into the world of myth.
'Mister K - a Passion Story', a suite of four oak reliefs produced over a period of four years and exhibited in Paris in March 1989, can today be found in Göteborg. In the new version, 'The Accusation 1-4' from 1999, the victim is under attack from mechanical and masked judges who protect themselves with shields in the shape of paragraphs.
These works tell the story of a man who was fined for a parking offence even though he did not own a car. Trapped in a mixture of red tape and judicial harassment, the man has to fight alone to prove his good faith - yet he ends up a victim, convicted and sentenced.
A tribute to Kafka, this story is an allegory of the indiscriminate workings of the administrative and judicial systems, and is illustrated in the bas-reliefs which take the classic form of a Descent from the Cross with the main character as the centrepiece.
to understand their message fully, they have to be looked at both as a
whole and in their myriad details, reminding us of the ceaseless bustle
typical of the surrealist paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.
In 1992 Torsten Jurell turned his attention to the Ossietzky affair, in which Germany time and time again has trampled rough-shod over justice to protect the interests of the state. Carl von Ossietzky, at the time the editor of the newspaper, Die Weltbühne, was sentenced for high treason on 23rd November 1931.
Ossietzky, who had exposed how the Weimar Republic had been clandestinely arming for war in contravention both of the constitution and the Treaty of Versailles, was imprisoned and sent to Pappenburg-Esterwegen concentration camp, where he was tortured horribly. In1936 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and under intense international pressure, the Germans were forced to transfer him to a hospital in Berlin where he died soon afterwards as a result of the brutal treatment he had suffered at their hands.
In 1991 his daughter, Rosalinda von Ossietzky-Palm requested a review of the trial, but her request was rejected by the German courts, and in 1992 the high-treason verdict against Carl von Ossietzky was confirmed in the highest legal instance in the country.
Jurell's relief, made originally for a travelling exhibition in France but later also shown in Sweden, soon became a rallying point for all those who condemned the verdict against Ossietzky and the Nazis' treatment of the man. The work was later purchased by the City of Hamburg whose mayor presented it to the Carl von Ossietzky City and University Library, where it hangs today, a symbol of the greater struggle against all kinds of injustice.
In Sweden Jurell's triptych about 'The Dialysis Case' aroused even greater interest and tells the story of a nurse who was made to take all the blame for an accident which occurred during dialysis in a hospital.
Bought by the Swedish Nurses' Union, the bas-relief was exhibited to the public, commented on and shown on television. This story turned out to be a milestone in popular opinion, and the law concerning hospital responsibilities has since been modified.
That pictures like this have such a profound effect owes much to the fact that they appeal to our imagination by exploiting classical and religious references to point out the absurdities and shortcomings of our society.
The triptych composition of 'The Dialysis Case' calls to mind Christ's Road to Calvary in a medieval church painting, but, in contrast to that bygone era's 'picture book for believers', Torsten Jurell's pictures seek to encourage reflection in the observer, inspiring a stubborn refusal to be subjugated. In the ultimate analysis, his pictures affect us because they are beautiful and because they arouse our emotions.
It is no coincidence that this abrasive provocateur (Straight in your face! - satirical electioneering poster, 1988) has now been given due recognition as a great artist in his home country with the opportunity to welcome the world to a new millennium with his exhibition at Kulturhuset.
In the same way, it is no coincidence that the meeting between 'the artist who tells history through pictures' and 'the woman who exhibits them' proved to be a fruitful one. Thanks to that, the Musée d'Histoire Contemporaine has been able to enrich its collections with numerous works by Torsten Jurell.