North Swell

Tracing the surf connection in the expressionist paintings of nineteenth-century polymath August Strindberg.

Light / Dark

Pulled Into Focus

My mother is from Sweden, and when I was 12, we lived in Stockholm briefly. I have cousins and aunts and uncles there still, and my mother invokes the old country in almost every sentence. She’s kept up with the tabloids and the national news—the Olympics, the Sámi in Lapland, and the royals in Gamla Stan—examining the nation’s foibles and miracles ever since she left in 1961. Aunt Lotta has been sending current-events and fashion magazines, rolled up and wrapped in kraft paper, to my mother without interruption for 50 years. My mother has always been quick to point out that in most things righteous and noble, the Swedes got there first:“Did you know that the Vikings could row from Sweden to the New World in about 14 days? So that’s about 492 years ago, minus 14 days before Columbus. And in an open boat!” 

My father is a Memphis-born professor of comparative literature. His work on the writings of Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and William Faulkner is groundbreaking and acreage he cultivated on his own. But he was also taken in hand and shown the Northern Lights for all of their splendor by my mother, the Swede. She turned his attention from the Mississippi mud to the Scandinavian constellations rippling overhead, inspiring in him both books and university courses on the influence of what he calls “the Northern Arts.” 

Strindberg at home in Stockholm, 1895. Photograph by Ullstein Bild via Getty Images.

Shining brightest in that firmament of creative all-stars is August Strindberg, the impossibly prolific and deeply manic Swedish polymath who rubbed shoulders and guzzled absinthe with Europe’s top culture-makers at the very end of the nineteenth century. In a way, I’ve always thought of Strindberg and his two Norwegian contemporaries, playwright Henrik Ibsen and painter Edvard Munch, as the three weird übermensch uncles I’ve never met.

Strindberg is best known as a literary powerhouse who delivered modernism to the theater, forever changing it. But he had a kind of whirlpool effect on both the culture at large and the shapers of it. He drew writers, actors, artists, and musicians—many at the top of their game—into his vortex, shaking their bones a bit before spinning them back out again. He was an extraordinarily astute and outspoken character who continually expressed his loves and hates to the world. The world hated and loved him right back for his trouble.

What little money he made in his lifetime came from his written work, and he published copiously as a journalist, critic, playwright, and novelist, often to significant and lasting acclaim. He left behind a library’s worth of personal correspondence with lovers and haters across the continent. He was considered a genius then and still is today. 

Oil on canvas
39 x 28 inches
Artwork courtesy of Nodiska Museet

When he wasn’t writing, he often turned to painting, and his painting is so far ahead of his time as to feel like it’s coming from the future while also seeming, somehow, irreducibly prehistoric.

Strindberg worked without brushes—eschewed them, in fact—using his palette knife to scoop, mush, smear, and blend his oils like a child might frost a cake. Colors bleed in and out, and curlicues of material accumulate in thick gobs of arcing goo. Up close, the paintings are viscous and crude-looking, almost manic, and ultra busy with texture and mass. They look tossed off with inaccuracy and lunkheaded muscle instead of brain grace, finesse, and intention. They seem clumsy and bereft of compositional focus. Pull back a little, though, and the eye massages the mess a bit and the paintings begin to congeal into starkly effusive portraits of the ocean—the kind that punch right at the core of anyone who has spent real time looking at the sea.

Brave New World

Strindberg’s paintings are grave in their aspect, brooding with smoldering chaos. They appear less like the sea looks and more like the sea actually is: restless and ruthless. Strindberg captures these power sites by frequently mashing dark into darker colors and then flecking them with brightness here and there to create a high-tension but rotten-odds scenario that smacks of doom. But that is the truth running through his output, and it’s a truth that surfers know so well. In the ocean, we feel grand, but we are small. 

Many of his works depict the sea alone, frothing and flexing. No boats. No land. Just low pressure and looming waves. He brings the savagery of the sea as it is: omnipotent and unconcerned with human presence. Nowhere is the cottony soft snuggle of bucolic French vistas wrapped in gauzy shades of pink, as depicted by Claude Monet and the other Impressionists. Strindberg’s pictures look more like they were cleaved together of molten ore by Hephaestus himself before being fire-vomited onto the Earth’s surface.

Oil on panel
16 × 12 inches
Artwork courtesy of Musée d’Orsay

In these pictures is naturalist truth. The hero is the sea, not the seaman. When, on occasion, Strindberg includes compositional elements that are clearly man-made, they are typically and woefully under-gunned as the ocean coils and lurches around them. In 1894’s Golgotha, three scrawny white crosses, leaning over like brittle twigs, anchor a composition that is otherwise just boiling, asphalt-colored sea. The sag of the crosses is like a whimper, their tiny scale and fragile demeanor suggesting the frailty of man’s beliefs in the face of an all-powerful Nature. Strindberg later brilliantly suggested that the crosses might not be crosses at all, but rather the three masts of a doomed schooner. No matter. Either way, man shall be smote. 

Scratching harder, Strindberg’s paintings begin to exfoliate the callous salt-skin that man has gristled for himself in a life at sea.

This cut deepens when examined. Naturalism was a nascent philosophical concept in Strindberg’s day and it casts a pretty hopeless gloom over man’s place in the world. Put simply: You don’t have a prayer. Gone is the Bible-given concept of man’s dominion. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Nature is running the show completely and man is just another small player who has zero effect on the big picture. Deflating man’s arrogance and exposing his weakness in the face of a cruelly indifferent Nature is the new normal here. 

Oil on canvas
39 × 28 inches
Artwork courtesy of De Agostini via Getty Images

In a contemporary context, think of it this way: It’s the antithesis of big-wave surfing, training, and confidence-building regimens that are currently so stock strong. In the Naturalist world, all that training and deep breathing, sponsorship dollars, and filmer efforts are simply unnoticed. Feel ready? Fine. Go out there and charge it, see if I care. Back in Strindberg’s time, American writer Stephen Crane published his masterpiece short story, “The Open Boat,” and it reads like a manual on the bummer that is Naturalism. It also brings to Strindberg’s paintings a glorious companion text:

“As each slaty wall of water approached,” one section reads, “it shut all else from view of the men in the boat, and it was not difficult to imagine that this particular wave was the final outburst of the ocean, the last effort of the grim water. There was a terrible grace in the move of the waves, and they came in silence, save for the snarling of the crests.”

He Paints What We See 

Strindberg’s ocean pictures have a tactile quality that surfers should intrinsically understand. His palette knife drives and slurs oily Payne’s grey against a bulge of sooty black, casually defining the trough and crest of a swell, exactly how surfers run their eyes over the lurching and violent facets of dusky, onshore surf. Have a look at 1894’s Seascape With Rock and tell me you don’t recognize this image as the disastrous view from inside a closeout. It’s no wonder this work is referred to in French as Marine Avec Récif, or Sea With Reef

Similarly, Strindberg seems to tap into something that’s fundamental with surfers: the deep, longing, exploratory stare. Surfers spend an extraordinary amount of their lives simply staring at the ocean. The eyes caress it and the mind races over wave faces and through collapsing sections that we observe with a wanton but clinical focus. Our observation from shore is akin to touch, and we project ourselves constantly to sea. Once there, the immersion is complete and the relationship is almost carnal, driven more by instinct and reaction than anything resembling forethought. Strindberg adopted a directness of painting that is strikingly similar in process. 

Strindberg seems to tap into something that’s fundamental with surfers: the deep, longing, exploratory stare.

In 1894 Strindberg published “New Directions in Art! Or the Role of Chance in Artistic Creation,” an essay wherein he describes his practice in third person: “His hand keeps moving the palette knife at random, never losing sight of the model provided by nature, who reveals itself as a wonderful mixture of the conscious and unconscious. This is natural art, where the artist works in the same capricious way as nature, without a set goal.” 

In layman’s terms, his hands move the paint in direct, obedient response to his observation. This type of engagement, sometimes called “blind contour,” where the eye stays on the subject while the hands make the artwork, is just how we as surfers plunge into our medium and embrace it fully immersed and committed.

Many of Strindberg’s paintings reveal just how sharp his mind’s eye really was. 

In The Wave VIII, from 1901/1902, the tang and blade of his palette-knife technique is laid thick to view. The painting is flayed in two: The top half is sky and the bottom is ocean. Clumps of leaden paint, the color of ash and steel, rain down from above while cresting swathes of greenish-black water rear up like fists to fight the heavens. At the center of the composition, the horizon line seems to be literally tearing itself apart under the atmospheric friction, and a spasm of sunlight is bleeding through. Strindberg’s action painting is the visceral truth of the natural spectacle at work here, and it should slap the face of any surfer who has ever beheld a pumping swell ravaged by storm in wintertime.

Oil on cardboard
12 × 8 inches
Artwork courtesy of DEA/E. LESSING/De Agostini via Getty Images

Studying swell means studying storms and learning that atmospheric pressure makes waves. In 1982’s Stormy Sea, Strindberg’s palette knife thrusts the leaden cloud cover down at the sea surface, literally hurling pressure, rain, and fury at the water below. You can see the speed and trajectory in the tracks of thick paint. Yes, the picture is of the ocean, like a portrait of rage, but the textural frenzy that’s sculpting the paint and guiding the eye is the picture too. It is a painting whose parts define the whole in a distinctly corporeal and inventive way. It is nearly sculptural and it’s a picture generations ahead of itself. 

This harmony of mind, muse, and muscle is something the art world wouldn’t really digest for another 60 years, when artists like Jackson Pollock, Joan Mitchell, and Willem de Kooning gave rise to American Abstract Expressionism, a school of painting that puts the calisthenics of painting and the artists who pump that iron at the center of the new modern conversation. 

Meanwhile, back in Sweden and back in time, August Strindberg perched himself on a rocky knoll overlooking the Baltic and foretold it. Then my mother foretold it to me.

[Feature artwork: MYSINGEN, 1892, oil on cardboard, 18 × 14 inches. Courtesy of Nodiska Museet]