Olle Bærtling, Stockholm 1951. Foto: Lennart Olson © Hallands Konstmuseum
Olle Bærtling, Stockholm 1951. Foto: Lennart Olson © Hallands Konstmuseum

Olle Bærtling is one of Sweden’s most important artists of the 20th century. He more clearly than anyone else has come to represent the abstract geometric art that is one of the most central expressions of the post-war era. He is known for his paintings with a unique language of triangular color fields that seem to extend beyond the edge of the canvas. He developed this language in sculptures whose expression can be closely compared to the contour lines in his paintings. Bærtling also presented several proposals for monumental sculptures and sketches for architectural buildings, often in collaboration with architects.

Bærtling was a visionary who saw his art as an expression of something greater. For this, he received recognition both nationally and internationally, but he also faced a lot of resistance at times, not least in his home country. However, this did not concern him significantly; he remained committed to his chosen path.

Olle Bærtling was born in 1911 in Halmstad, where he completed his secondary education at Halmstad’s grammar school in 1928. The family then moved to Stockholm, where, after completing a commercial training in 1929, he was employed at the bank Skandinaviska Kreditaktiebolaget (later renamed Skandinaviska Banken). Bærtling would stay with the bank until 1956, when he decided to fully commit to art.

In 1934, Bærtling began painting in his spare time and sought ways to develop his artistry. Bærtling was self-taught but participated several times in various artists’ private training programs. Besides attending Otte Skiöld’s painting school in Stockholm, Bærtling sought out the Académie André Lhote and Atelier Fernand Léger in Paris after the war. The artist August Herbin also became an important precursor for him.

Olle Bærtling (mitten till höger) på Académie André Lhote med mästaren i mitten, Paris 1948. Foto: Studio Rosie Rey
Olle Bærtling (mitten till höger) på Académie André Lhote med mästaren i mitten, Paris 1948. Foto: Studio Rosie Rey

The French influence on Bærtling’s art may seem obvious today, but during his search for his own artistic identity, it’s also possible to see other artistic influences. At times, he was influenced by expressionism and later by other expressive artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Carl Kylberg. He also traveled to England shortly after the war to study contemporary English art.

The French influences began as early as 1938 when the exhibition “Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Laurens” at Liljevalchs Konsthall in Stockholm made a strong impression on him, especially French Fauvism and Henri Matisse. After this, Bærtling sought simpler and more direct expressions in his paintings and also began to be interested in a freer spatial construction. In April 1939, Bærtling married a bank colleague named Lisa von Roxendorff, whom he first met in 1934. During their honeymoon to Paris in May 1939, he became even more strongly influenced by the École de Paris in general and Henri Matisse in particular. By the mid-1940s, Bærtling began experimenting with abstract forms in painting and also used increasingly strong and clear contour lines around his motifs.

Bærtling made his debut at the Galleri Samlaren in Stockholm in 1949, but had not yet found the abstract painting style he would become known for. However, after the debut, his development clearly moved in that direction. From 1950, he exclusively painted in abstract and returned to Paris where he met Auguste Herbin. Herbin was one of the initiators of the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, an annual salon for abstract art in Paris, and he invited Bærtling to participate in this event. At the salon, Bærtling met the Swedish photographer Lennart Olson, who over a decade would document the artist and thus contribute to some of the most significant images we associate with Bærtling today.

Olle Bærtling tillsammans med hustrun Lisa von Roxendorff-Bærtling under sin debututställning på Samlaren i Stockholm 1949. Foto: Sallstedts Bildbyrå
Olle Bærtling tillsammans med hustrun Lisa von Roxendorff-Bærtling under sin debututställning på Samlaren i Stockholm 1949. Foto: Sallstedts Bildbyrå

As a self-taught artist, Bærtling had difficulty entering Stockholm’s art scene, where most established artists had backgrounds from the Royal Institute of Art. He managed to position himself by forging connections with key theorists and museum curators. Art historians Teddy Brunius and Oscar Reutersvärd (also an artist) were early supporters, as was the future director of the Modern Museum in Stockholm, Pontus Hultén. However, a significant part of Bærtling’s path to success went through Paris, where he early on participated in exhibitions at Galerie Denise René. This gallery was one of the few that exclusively showcased abstract art and played a central role in this art form across Europe.

In Paris, there was also the aforementioned Salon des Réalités Nouvelles and the breakaway group, led by André Bloc and Félix del Marle, known as Groupe Espace. Groupe Espace was formed in 1951, and Bærtling was one of the artists who signed its manifesto. The question of the synthesis of the arts and how they can contribute together to the construction of both new buildings and urban planning was important during the 1950s. Bærtling became engaged in this issue and saw how his art could belong to this new future that he later would call the “space age.”

During the same period, Bærtling participated in several important exhibitions in Paris and Stockholm, including “Swedish Art 1913-1953” at Galerie Denise René (the exhibition was also shown at Galerie Apollo in Brussels). Pontus Hultén and Oscar Reutersvärd organized this exhibition, which also involved several of Bærtling’s competitors in Stockholm. It was the first exhibition about Swedish abstract art in the concrete, geometric tradition, and it positioned Bærtling as one of the central figures of the movement.

Around 1954, Bærtling developed his characteristic style with triangular compositions, thereby beginning his exploration of what he called “open form.” The open form is a system of sharp open angles that create an optical illusion of movement in the art, making the forms appear to continue beyond the surface of the picture.

Bærtling is now an integral part of Swedish art life, which is evident, among other things, in that he is one of the artists commissioned to design fabrics for the Nordiska Kompaniet department store in Stockholm. In 1956, he participated along with the Danish artists Robert Jacobsen and Richard Mortensen in the exhibition “Concrete Realism” at Liljevalchs Konsthall in Stockholm and began experimenting with steel tube sculptures that same year.

Installationsbild från utställningen ”Konkret realism”, Liljevalchs konsthall, Stockholm 1956. Foto: Lennart Olson © Hallands Konstmuseum
Installationsbild från utställningen ”Konkret realism”, Liljevalchs konsthall, Stockholm 1956. Foto: Lennart Olson © Hallands Konstmuseum

In the mid-20th century, the collaboration between architecture and art was highly topical. In Sweden during the 1950s, similar discussions about the public environment and art connected to buildings were taking place as those occurring on the continent. Bærtling got to know the architect David Helldén, who was working on the construction of the new Hötorget City in Stockholm and had the assignment to design the first Hötorget skyscraper. Through Helldén, Bærtling became engaged to perform mural paintings in the high-rise’s entrance hall, and together with Helldén, they realized their joint vision of “the aesthetic room” in 1959-1960 – a space where the expressions of architecture and painting have been integrated into a whole. The interior is seen as a good example of the synthesis between architecture and visual art.

Bærtling was involved in the issue of cross-disciplinary cooperation on many fronts, including his role in forming Aspect – an association for the collaboration of the arts. At Aspect’s exhibition at Liljevalchs in 1961, Bærtling showed the 7.7-meter tall sculpture Asamk, which the artist considered a scale 1:10 sketch for the work he proposed to be placed in the roundabout at the forthcoming Sergels Torg in Stockholm. In 1962, the City of Stockholm decided to announce a sculpture competition for the roundabout, but Bærtling was never invited to participate in the competition. He would continue for the rest of his career to work with the public space alongside gallery and museum exhibitions, ranging from large draperies to projects with monumental sculptures and even architecture.

Olle Bærtling betraktar Asamk, 1961 på Liljevalchs konsthall i Stockholm inför utställningen
Olle Bærtling betraktar Asamk, 1961 på Liljevalchs konsthall i Stockholm inför utställningen "Aspect 61", 1961. Foto: Lennart Olson © Hallands Konstmuseum

During the 1960s, Bærtling held numerous exhibitions abroad. In 1963, he participated in the São Paulo Biennial and received an award. He also established himself on the American art scene through a retrospective exhibition at Columbia University in New York in 1964 and at the Rose Fried Gallery in New York in 1965. He also participated in a group exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where his work is represented, and in 1968 he was one of five artists included in NUNSKU’s (The Committee for Exhibitions of Contemporary Swedish Art Abroad) initiative “Pentacle,” where the Swedish state presented contemporary Swedish art in Paris. In 1964, he was also one of the first artists to receive the Swedish state’s income guarantee. In Sweden, he received the commission to decorate Celsiusskolan, a secondary school in Uppsala completed in 1967, where he contributed to the school’s design.

Olle Bærtling was now an established artist with international recognition. During the 1970s, he had several important solo exhibitions on the European continent such as in London, Rome, Milan, and Zurich, as well as in the USA and Canada. His painting evolved so that the tips of the triangles increasingly extended beyond the canvas, a clear expansion of the open form.

In the 1970s, Bærtling returned to Sergels Torg in Stockholm: not with a sculpture but with a huge window curtain for the new cultural center by Peter Celsing, completed in 1974. In the spirit of the sculpture Asamk, he projected several monumental sculptures, such as the 45-meter-high Yayao, which was to stand on the roof of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. The work was not realized, but Pompidou acquired the sculpture that served as a sketch. Bærtling also continued his collaboration with David Helldén, installing a number of paintings and a sculpture at the newly built university area at Frescati in Stockholm. They also designed an auditorium that bore clear references to Bærtling’s triangular compositions, a theme the artist also brought into his collaboration with the German architect Gerd Fesel. Among their most ambitious projects was a never-realized 300-meter-high TV tower for Abu Dhabi in 1978.

In 1980, a major retrospective was prepared at Malmö Konsthall, but since Bærtling passed away in 1981, it instead became a memorial exhibition, which was also shown at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Since then, he has been honored with several exhibitions, not least the retrospective shown in 2007-2008 at the Nasjonalmuseet in Oslo, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas.