A DIFFERENT ICONOGRAPHY
Text: Jan Myrdal, writer. From the book; Fire! Manifest 2000
TO SAY THAT this major exhibition of Torsten Jurels work is interesting is an understatement. And not only because it effectively summarises what for him has now almost become a life-work - several decades of work with form and materials. By all means it can - and should - be discussed in this light. But it is also interesting in another ≠way than merely marking a stage in the development of an individual artist. The exhibition is (at least I hope and believe it is) symptomatic. It provides us with an opportunity to discuss questions of art here and now: trends, background and possibilities. That is how I intend to discuss his work.
THIS ART EXHIBITION, in the biggest building in the most central location in Stockholm, is more than a mere exhibition: it marks an open break with a way of looking at art that has now endured for more than forty years. Something different from official art is now stepping out into the limelight in this highly public location at the heart of one of Stockholms busiest meeting places. This is an exhibition by an artist who makes pictures. Torsten Jurell is a narrative, figurative artist. Something amazing is taking place. Art is beginning liberate itself from its ideological straitjacket.
Two generations have now passed since the CIA employed Museum of Modern Art as their medium and committed enormous resources to transforming the politics of art into ideological warfare. Those of us who were around in those days remember it well.
We were already well aware of the CIA¥s strategy and its direct role in events even if this was hushed up in the official media. The figurative and narrative currents in art were to be combated. That was the mission, and, you have to admit, they made quite a success of it. It did a lot of damage.
There is a great deal written about that, but there should be even more - not only in general terms, but in particular about those individuals who masterminded the campaigns and those who became its victims. Names should be named. It would only be right and proper after all, since each person has a right to be properly treated.
PLEASE NOTE, HOWEVER: I am not trying to replace one ideological campaign with another≠. I am not writing that non-figurative art was a load of trash. A lot of it was, but thats always the case: the less gifted are always eager to latch onto new trends (in the west and the east, south and north) - and especially when the trend has money and museum-keepers to back it up. But there was plenty of good stuff that came out of it as well: just the same as a lot of the social realism in the Soviet Union (the heritage of Repin) was good painting.
Any discussion of art worth its name, any well informed, intellectual discussion ought to be able to sort all this out at this time of transition.
Torsten Jurells exhibition is one of seve≠ral signs that the way of looking at art that has been, in every sense of the word, the ruling view in the western world (and in those countries economically and culturally dependent on the west) for forty years is in a process of dissolution. Art is being given back its narrative funktion.
It is well worth noting in this connection that Torsten Jurell not only stands for a different tradition in art in general, but, moreover and more specifically for that artistic tradition which accords great emphasis to knowledge, materials and craftsmanship. There has been a time when - in accordance with the prevailing view of art - it has been possible to neglect knowledge and craftsmanship. Diego Rivera was of the opinion that an artist should practice sketching plaster models for a few years to train the hand to become intelligent, to make it an instrument for the artists thoughts.
We have now had a period when many artists have not been able to draw much more than their breath. That is why, as a young man, Torsten Jurell chose to sketch models until he could master the techniques of the broad, energetic line. Knowing how to do that is the basis for everything else. Only then is it possible to transform those lines - or to transcend them if necessary.
THERE IS NO DOUBT that Torsten Jurell has made use of his karate training and his brute strength when working with the most recalcitrant of woods in the largest of formats. But the strength within him that has counted for most is the fact that he has been able to attain his free creativity by consciously assuming and affirming his place as a practitioner in the ranks of arts strong tradition of craftsmanship.
No one looking closely at Jurells reliefs can fail to see the shadow of his older colleagues behind them: stonemasons from the Romanesque period, who sought to solve the same tasks of explaining serious issues to the people - the spectators - in a limited space within a given frame in figurative and narrative capitals. Here too is the fleeting shadow of the Gothic wood-carvers working with their altar-screens, generations of whittlers with their market-stall wares, and the peasant painters with their wall-hangings.
Another thing that all these craftsman had in common was their love of colour. The Romanesque capitals were as gaudily embellished as the Gothic altar-screens and the peasant painters - wall-hangings. Nor were the marble sculptures of classical Rome and Greece white as chalk. For all of these artists, form and colour were part of a unity. All the more interesting then to note that, while the pictures produced en masse for public consumption in the nineteenth century (Gill!) were often coloured, the same images were sold to the upper classes in black and white - at a higher price! The fear of colour is rooted in class. Just like Jurells love of it.
There is no doubt that he is affected (cons≠ciously) by the great traditions of art. But there is also another feature of his pictorial style which is worthy of comment.
Romanesque, Gothic, the folk art of yesteryear have all now become art with a capital A (although we are able to pinpoint exactly when in the history of art each and every one of these epochs was elevated to this level: in the case of European twelfth century works, for example, it was the late 1800s).
But, just like classical sculpture in its own bygone era, all of these pictorial styles were, in their own time, - popular - in the true sense of the word - they belonged to the people.
Here the interests of the upper classes over the past two centuries (Winckelmann!) have distorted and restricted our opportunity to observe. Thats why anyone seriously interested in peoples attitude to pictures in the 1800s can hardly make a better start than by searching through the libraries - archives of nineteenth-century caricatures and illustrated magazines. There, in art for the masses, was where peoples way of looking at pictures assumed a new form. And it is the same today: it is the mass-produced images that lead the way.
On the whole, this is the way art should be viewed - from below, as it is revealed in the images produced for the masses. Only then, does it become intelligible - although not all the critics understand that. Take the following example from literature:
LITERATURE RESEARCERS LONG pondered and brooded about which great writers in≠fluenced Strindbergs "The Red Room ". Dickens, of course. But who else? No doubt, Mark Twain, whom he translated. But what about Zola? Never read him! The Goncourt Brothers? Never read them! The question seems a difficult one, until you do what the famous Swedish literary critic Gunnar Brandell did and start to thumb through the newspaper archives.
It is in the popular reading of the time - the radical, rabble-rousing tales in Fäderneslandet ("The Fatherland ") - that the original ideas behind the story of "The Red Room" are to be found. But that is hardly the standard fare of your ordinary researchers. That kind of literature is below them.
No one with eyes to see should be in the least doubt about the fact that what we see reflected in the pictures of Torsten Jurell is the world of the comic strip. Look, theres Dragos, the Phantom! But, what do you expect? Anything else would be mere affectation. After all, what do you see as a child? What makes us what we are? But, even so, this is not a straightforward reflection, but a (half - though only a half!) subconscious reflex from childhood.
To take another literary example: How would it be possible to describe contemporary Swedish literature without taking into account the effect that pulp literature such as True Life Crimes, Sports Illustrated, science fiction magazines (and the "gentlemens magazines" too for that matter) has had on male writers, or celebrity magazines and True Life Romances on female ones? It would be as impossible as overlooking, at the other end of the scale, the significance that the Bible has had for their imagery.
And yet, as a rule, both are equally neglected.
There is no doubt about it, Torsten Jurells exhibition and his iconography open the floodgates for a multitude of questions.