Gustavian style – a Swedish style?
Why has the neoclassical Gustavian style become so prominent in the Swedish self-image? A new dissertation from Uppsala University shows how researchers in art history, along with museums, commercial enterprises and the monarchy, have contributed to preserving and conveying the Gustavian style.
“An important reason for the extreme strength of the Gustavian style ideal,” says Hedvig Mårdh, doctoral student at the Department of Art History at Uppsala University, “is that it managed to unite a series of seemingly contradictory movements during the 1900s, such as tradition and modernity, and nationalism and internationalism, and that it has become part of various utopian visions.”
The Gustavian style, connected to the 18th century and Gustav III and Gustav IV Adolf, has been intimately associated with what has been designated as specific Swedish cultural heritage, linked to Swedish tastes and interior design. The style has generally been highly esteemed by both museums and art historians, who have produced national and international exhibitions and publications and have also contributed to successful furniture production from the late 19th century through today, including both IKEA’s line of 18th-century furniture as well as more small-scale production.
It’s about recurring re-use, in the form of copies, reconstructions and staging of the period. In her dissertation A Century of Swedish Gustavian Style: Art History, Cultural Heritage and Neoclassical Revivals from the 1890s to the 1990s, Hedvig Mårdh studied three periods that all illustrate the re-use of the Gustavian period in different ways:
- the 1890s, which saw the emergence of art history as a discipline, and of museums and cultural heritage
- the period 1930–1940, when the production of period furniture existed concurrently with functionalism
- the 1990s, a decade characterised by a cultural heritage boom, economic crisis and the search for a national identity in a European context.
There are a number of reasons behind the survival of the style as both cultural heritage and commercial product. Besides the fact that it has managed to incorporate contradictory social movements and forces through continuous recreation, art historians and museum curators have also played an important role by writing the style into the Swedish canon. But it’s not only academia, but also the monarchy, museums and commercial enterprises, as well as various state-financed initiatives such as international exhibitions, that have contributed to the strong position of the style and its importance for a Swedish self-image.
In her dissertation, Hedvig Mårdh examines the importance of the style concept for the discipline of art history and for cultural heritage processes.
“The concept of style can be problematic and is often ideologically charged, in that it conveys perceptions about things like changes over time and national identity,” says Hedvig Mårdh.
Style cannot be seen as a static concept, but rather as active, changeable and with agency, she says. Different uses of the Gustavian, such as artists’ interpretations or the activities of various historical societies, can enhance the understanding and interpretations of the Gustavian style. How we speak about, describe and stage cultural heritage is important because it affects how we act and how we identify and manage cultural heritage.
“There are limited resources and space for what can be displayed and preserved,” says Hedvig Mårdh. “Designating something as the best, the most Swedish or the most tasteful also means that something else is excluded. It is important to raise awareness of how cultural heritage is created, what processes lie behind it, what role the academic disciplines play in these processes and how research interacts with practice and thus stages cultural heritage.”
The dissertation is based on the research field of critical heritage studies, and researches the art historian’s role in the creation of cultural heritage and the connection to a national cultural heritage. This is a perspective that has only been partially examined previously.
The materials that are the focus of the dissertation have also not previously been put in relation to each other– how do textbooks, exhibitions, historical societies and furniture production affect one another and what role does art history research play in these contexts?