Turn-of-the-Century Treasures

Travel --


WHEN I visited Stockholm, late last summer, I was prepared to keep my eye on design. Blond Scandinavian furniture, after all, defined forward-thinking sophistication when I was growing up, and big floral Marimekko prints in a living room meant that its occupant wanted to make the world a better place. More recently sophistication in design has meant taking inspiration from the blond neoclassical furniture named for King Gustav III, the eighteenth-century Swedish aesthete; the Swedish company Ikea is among the leaders of a revival of a style that looks like delicate, sun-bleached French Provincial.

I was happily surprised to find that Stockholm is filled with echoes and expressions of two of my favorite styles--Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts, which co-existed in the 1890s and the first decades of this century. Every city has a defining era. Stockholm's was the Belle Epoque, when Alfred Nobel was amassing the explosives-based fortune that would allow him to establish his prizes, and when the profits of industrialization were changing the face of the city. The streets the guidebooks will tell you to wander are the preserved medieval ones of Gamla Stan, Stockholm's old town, with their imposing baroque palaces. They are indeed charming, but the streets that delighted me most were those of Ostermalm, a fashionable residential neighborhood in the center, where I saw everywhere perfectly maintained examples of the restrained, elegant Swedish versions of both Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts architecture. Ostermalm's indoor market, for instance, which houses the city's best victuallers, has the Edwardian grandness, the wrought-iron flourishes and polished mahogany counters, of Harrods Food Halls--not to mention the silkiest herring I've ever tasted, and little cartons of tiny wild strawberries and juicy, pillow-soft cloudberries picked in the Swedish countryside.

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I would return to Vienna, Barcelona, or Budapest simply to walk at liberty through its Art Nouveau neighborhoods, and now Stockholm, too, is on my list. Given Sweden's fierce and long-standing love of nature, its artists and craftsmen found special resonance in the sinuous natural forms of Art Nouveau. The new wealth of the period helped them to further Sweden's first internationally recognized painting style, called National Romantic for its Barbizon-influenced landscapes. Nobel wanted to be the eternal patron of the world's intellectual heritage; his fellow industrialists were content to glorify themselves and their friends, and those friends were often architects and artists.

In the course of my wandering I devised an Art Nouveau itinerary, which includes a stop for herring or pastries at that carriage-trade market. The main attractions are three house museums that distill the creative ferment that transformed Stockholm from 1890 to 1910. Touring the three, to which guidebooks puzzlingly give short shrift, will also surround a visitor with the city's most appealing landscapes--both urban and parklike.

THE tone of the tour is ideally set by a stop at the Royal Dramatic Theater, a white-and-gold Art Nouveau monument, built from 1901 to 1908, that seems to be a vision from Vienna. The building stands out like a beacon, facing both a major intersection and a busy canal; its bas reliefs, of a commedia dell'arte troupe and a Dionysian procession, are visible from as far away as the next islands. (Stockholm is built on fourteen islands, and is situated in an archipelago of about 25,000 of them.) I bought a ticket to a Molière play performed in Swedish in order to have a better look at the marble-and-gilt interior and to sit on the plush red seats. No, I didn't make it to the end, but I did feel as if I had spent time in the Gilded Age.

Two buildings down the canal, which forms one border of Ostermalm, is the 1910 Hotel Esplanade, whose curvaceous Art Nouveau façade and interior furnishings are largely intact. I can't vouch for the service: I stayed at the aptly named Grand Hotel, where I had to content myself with a beautiful gray-and-silver Gustavian room. Also near the theater is the first of the house museums, the Hallwyl, a palace designed by Isak Gustaf Clason and built in the 1890s for the Countess Wilhelmina von Hallwyl and her Swiss-born army-captain husband. The countess, a timber heiress, collected seemingly everything in sight--armor and swords and scabbards, French and Belgian tapestries, furniture, Chinese porcelain from uninteresting periods. Some of her acquisitions merited the money she doubtless doled out: superb early Meissen ceramics and, in an upstairs gallery next to a private gymnasium, a stunning Cranach of a nude Venus. I was most drawn, though, to the building itself, a concoction of Venetian arches and Spanish Gothic and Renaissance themes (and vast bathrooms), all expressed in an unmistakable Art Nouveau vocabulary.

A sympathetic guard told me that if I liked the house and wanted to see really good art, I should go to his favorite museum in Stockholm, one that few people know--the Thiel Gallery, another large house built at the turn of the century by a rich collector. This collector, though, Ernest Thiel, befriended the best artists of the time. Just take the bus outside, the guard said, to the end of Djurgården. He didn't know that the bus would leave me at the bridge, blocked by a women's marathon, and that I would spend the next hour getting to the museum by foot --the only choice that day.

The unplanned excursion turned out to be the pleasantest of my stay. Djurgården ("Animal Park") is the greenest of the city's islands, and one of the largest; residents treat the whole of it as their park. Swedish friends explained to me that every Stockholmer's goal is to leave the city as often as possible for a rustic retreat; they didn't tell me how easy it is for Stockholmers to fulfill their rural desires in the city--fishing for salmon just outside their office buildings (the city spends a fortune to keep the water clean), taking city hikes as a matter of course. Visitors will find renting a bicycle to be an easy alternative to the efficient public transportation; for someone unfamiliar with the streets and bridges, a car would be inconvenient, and would miss the point--Stockholmers seem to rely on foot and boat.

After mistaking several other Belle Epoque mansions for it, I reached the house, dramatically set on a far hill overlooking the water. The Thiel Gallery has cleaner lines than its neighboring mansions, as is logical: Thiel was a robber baron with avant-garde tastes. After making a fortune as a banker who speculated in railroads and shipbuilding, he married his children's governess; the couple ran an artistic salon in the house they built together. The sunniest room is Mrs. Thiel's white-and-yellow sewing room, with its many watercolors by Carl Larsson. Today Sweden's most popular artist, Larsson celebrated domestic life working in an Art Nouveau style that just skirts the saccharine.

The less sunny rooms are more interesting. The gallery that makes the Thiel worth a hike (on most days a bus does stop nearby) houses noteworthy pictures by Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, and Vuillard. These are, however, rendered almost incidental by twelve big and important paintings by Edvard Munch. The artist picked the canvases especially for Thiel, his close friend, and the group--the largest assembly of Munch paintings in Sweden--is of special interest for its reflection of the friendship between artist and patron. One painting, Despair, is a precursor to The Scream; the only difference between them is the central figure on the hellish bridge, in this painting a hatted man seen in profile. There are also several works by August Strindberg, who painted throughout his writing career. His canvases, not surprisingly, are dark and stormy. A somber room at the top of the house's tower is filled with black-and-white etchings and drawings by Munch, and contains Friedrich Nietzsche's death mask as well.

The Thiels collected works by many other artists, including the most famous local painter of the time, Anders Zorn, and also by the makers of the Arts and Crafts furniture that is placed throughout the house. Some of the furniture is domestic and elegant, and some massive and deliberately primitive, as if copied from a Gauguin painting of Tahiti. The couple's fortunes and thus their patronage waned; by the 1920s Thiel was bankrupt, and his wife had divorced him. In 1924 he was forced to sell the house and his art to the state.

Thiel had originally wanted to buy a similarly dramatic site on Djurgården, closer to town. But Prince Eugen, the youngest son of King Oscar II, commissioned the same architect Thiel used, Ferdinand Boberg, to build a mansion on a site near the parcel Thiel had eyed. Prince Eugen was an accomplished painter of the National Romantic school, of which he was also a patron (he continued to collect Swedish art until the 1940s). His house, furnished with pretty Swedish rococo furniture and still filled with large fresh flower arrangements, as stipulated in his will, is more opulent than Thiel's, and in better taste; if the large adjoining gallery of art contains paintings that are less distinguished, the architecture is finer. Waldemarsudde, as the house is called, is especially lovely for its English-style gardens, which are adjacent to a big red-shingled eighteenth-century windmill. The garden benches face brick Arts and Crafts factories across the water.

WALKING along the embankment, I looked into the gardens of many houses from the same period, by turns grand and cottagelike. Returning toward town, I came to Skansen, a living museum encompassing more than a hundred farms, houses, churches, and shops from all over the country, reconstructed on site; a marketplace; and a zoo with aquarium. Tourists come to Djurgården to visit Skansen and to see the Vasa, a warship that sank about twenty minutes into its maiden voyage, in 1628. I was unmoved by the Vasa, despite its spectacular state of preservation, but enchanted by Skansen. Its founder, Artur Hazelius, began creating a miniature Sweden in the 1890s. Like all early ethnographers, Hazelius worried that the rise of industry would obliterate folk traditions. He wanted to preserve not just old buildings, costumes, tools, and artifacts but animals and plants, too, and so he stocked the old log barns with breeds from their places of origin.

As at Colonial Williamsburg and Old Sturbridge Village, people of all ages wearing period costumes suddenly come alongside one, acting out a scene. When I was there, young boys in nineteenth-century dress whisked off visitors to join them on a trip to America; at the grocer's, children in period dress who didn't have to playact their greed pushed in front of me to buy hard candies in paper cones. I didn't mind a bit--perhaps because before going to the grocer I had visited the period bakery and sampled nearly everything available, which that day included pretzels and puffy apricot turnovers, both made from the same strongly cardamom-scented yeast dough, and marvelous fresh vanilla-custard tarts in a star shape. (When I asked for some of the dark seeded bread, the white-suited baker rapped a loaf against a shelf: it was a painted rock.) These were the best pastries I tried in Stockholm--and I tried a lot.

Djurgården is its own island escape, but with thousands of islands for a visitor to choose from, the archipelago provides many other possible excursions. Of the several islands I visited, the one that left the strongest impression and seemed most in keeping with my itinerary was Fjaderholmen, an artists' colony twenty minutes by ferry from the terminal across from the Royal Dramatic Theater. The village, only a bit self-consciously quaint, offers paintings and various crafts, including blown glass, by local artisans--the successors to the nature-intoxicated artists who made the city look as it does. A big, pretty restaurant on the water, Fjaderholmarnas Krog, offers updated Swedish cuisine.

My dinner there, one of the last of my trip, was the meal I liked best. Even though I usually frown on modernized cuisine, preferring to sample the originals, I didn't mind the lightened fish and game dishes, given how stodgy the real thing could be. The several kinds of herring, fresh and brined and smoked, were luxuriously oily and powerfully flavored, and the wheaty crispbread was homemade. Before supper I walked around the island, with its rustic houses like modern log cabins, to watch the sunset. It couldn't have been much more than a mile around. By then that felt like nothing.

The Atlantic Monthly; June 1996; Turn-of-the-Century Treasures; Volume 277, No. 6; pages 44-50.