In a duo exhibition on the sixth floor, Norrbotten artists Erling Johansson (b. 1932) and Olof Marsja (b 1986), both with their roots in the municipality of Gällivare albeit from different generations, share a generous and varied selection of works. Their cultural and linguistic affiliations find resonance in their art, illuminating also cultural complexity of the Norrbotten region. Meänkieli was Erling Johansson’s mother tongue, while he learned Swedish when attending elementary school. Growing up with the strong presence of laestadianism in his native village Sarvisvaara also influenced both person and work. Olof Marsja, likewise, is of a Sámi family, but is as well exposed to Swedish in schooling and in society-at-large, a dual heritage also identifiable in his art. Sharing as such both geographies and the experiences of multiple influences, Erling Johansson is a respected and much recognized veteran among visual artists from Norrbotten, with an artist career now extending across six decades, working in several media, including painting, film and public works. The much younger Olof Marsja – half a century between them – has in the last few years established himself as a resourceful and accomplished sculptor and object-maker.
For Erling Johansson, storytelling is essential. Growing up with the puritan laestadian beliefs, where images, music, flower arrangements or other beautiful things that may tempt humans were forbidden, words and stories gained great importance for the artist-to-be. He himself has reminisced the long winters of his childhood with many hours in front of the kitchen stove fire, where he could listen to the conversations of the adults, the stories they told and how they told them. Erling became skilled at imagining and picturing the stories he heard, translating them into images.
Arguably the most well-known element of Erling Johansson’s many-sided art is his expressive and colourful portrait paintings. Often produced in public sittings, the making of them is a performance in its own right, where the artist aims at capturing the essence and not only the outer appearance of his models. The exhibition includes several of these psychological and yet visually striking portrait paintings, including an illustrious self-portrait.
The exhibition, with a selection of works loaned from both public and private collections in Norrbotten, offers an account of Erling Johansson’s multifaceted art. A series of impressionistic pencil drawings that fine light-of-hand depict patients, staff and visitors at the re-opening of the former Sandträsk Sanatorium as it was reformed into a rehabilitation centre in 1984. There are several landscape works, often glowing with the characteristic neon or slightly surreal palette of the artist, painting the northern geography, such as the iconic Lapponian gate, Dundret, or illustrating seasonal events such as the return of the sun in the spring. A playful sculpture of an oversized Jumping Jack (previously placed at Gammelängsskolan in Boden), contrast with Erling Johansson’s experimental short films that blend animation and table top imagery with field footage, provide in the exhibition, a taste of the various techniques and thematics he has engaged with throughout the years.
Erling Johansson’s art, whether in paintings, drawings, sculptures or filmic works, is an art of flows, of energies, of motion and change, expressed through radiant colours, confident yet lively brushstrokes or pencil lines, or pregnant shapes. Erling speaks of his work as something that is never static, it is something that expresses and recreates time, even the cyclic and infinite time of cosmos, all in motion. This is where the essence of his portrayed subjects meet with a benevolent cosmovision, perhaps such as the large painting Girl Playing with Flute, where a precisely and strong felt character and person is interwoven with the mythological motif of the fluteplayer, all set in the characteristic colours of Erling Johansson.
Erling Johansson was born in 1934 in Sarvisvaara, in the municipality of Gällivare. He studied at the Academy of Arts in Stockholm from 1956 to 1960, and at the Ateneum Academy of Arts in Helsinki, Finland, from 1961 to 1963. Over more than 15 years he worked as portrait teacher at Gerlesborg art school. Erling Johansson has worked mainly with portraits in easel painting and drawings, but his practice also extends to public art works and artistic short films. Erling Johansson’s work has been widely exhibited in Sweden and France, and his work is represented in multiple public and private collections like the National Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm, The Governmental Portrait Collection at Gripsholm Castle, The city of Stockholm’s Portrait Collection, Gustav VI Adolf’s Collection and the collection of Region Norrbotten among others. He is also represented at museums in Finland and art collections in Europe and the USA. Over the years, Erling Johansson has received many artistic grants and awards, both in Sweden and in France. One of the most honourable recognitions he received was of being promoted to honorary doctor at Luleå University of Technology in 2007.