Brief history

Karsten Thurfjell in an interview with Oscar Reutersvärd

In the summer of 1939 the young Swedish art historian Oscar Reutersvärd went to Paris. Like many others he embarked on this journey in order to see as much art as possible, before the threatening outbreak of the war. His professor in Art History, Henrik Cornell, had also instructed him to look up the art dealer Georges Wildenstein, immeasurably rich of both money and influence on galleries in Paris, London and New York, but also publisher of the important art historical magazine Gazette des beaux-arts.

Wildenstein lived in his great palace in the heart of Paris, where an attendant in livery and white gloves answered the door. Oscar’s commission concerned the most important art historical forum, the regularly recurring art historical congresses, which at that time only included art history up until the middle of the 19th century. The aim was that these congresses would expand their territory to include the impressionists and all modern art. Wildenstein shared Reutersvärd’s and Cornell’s opinions on that there should be a section within the congress that would engage in modern art. However, Wildenstein was packing, he was just about to move away from the war to the United States. He took his magazine with him and published it over there in English.

The war broke out a few weeks later, and everything was put on hold for ten years, when Oscar returned to Paris in order to carry on research at Bibliothéque Nationale. The manager of the library’s illustration and art department, Jean Adhémar – the next editor for Gazette des beaux-arts – , was also anxious to have impressionism included in the congresses, and the two of them were invited to a meeting with Wildenstein. At the meeting, half a dozen art historians were gathered to discuss two different alternatives: either to form a section for modern art within the art historical congresses, or to form a special section with continuous meetings of its own.

The discussion went on for a year, then they decided on forming a special section. It was named AICA, Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art, an international association that would have national subdivisions and a common secretariat in Paris. Oscar was chosen to be representative of Scandinavia.

The name was intriguing. In France the term critique d’art is ambiguous: it can on one hand mean art theorist who treats art historically and in terms of value, i.e. classifies what lies within and outside of the art concept, and on the other it can mean art reviewer, a much discussed professional category, whose practicians went cycling around to the different galleries in Paris and wrote about current exhibitions in the newspapers. According to the art historians the art reviewers rode their bikes because they were severely underpaid, and they could be bought – for a reasonable amount of money an extraordinarily positive review was written. The scholars strove after entirely different ethics.

The national subdivisions were problematic since the different countries agreed on different organizations – in some countries there were congregations of scholars only, in others art reviewers were also included, who also wrote about fires and accidents in the newspapers. It was a heterogeneous association, and this became apparent at the meetings. Sten Karling in Stockholm was an expert at fortification architecture and an art reviewer in Göteborgs-Posten (the Gothenburg Post). 1947 he became professor in Art History in Stockholm and the constant secretary at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts. When a Swedish AICA section was about to form in 1955 Sten Karling asked to be its leader, since he belonged to both sides – he was an art reviewer and a scholar.

His request was granted and the organization was called Svenska Konstkritikersamfundet (Swedish Art Critics Association). Sten Karling was replaced by another Art History professor, Sven Sandström in Lund. This resulted in that the association archives were, and still are, collected in Sandström’s creation Dokumenteringsarkiv för modern konst (Documentation Archives for Modern Art) in Lund.

Oscar Reutersvärd participated in the international board meetings in Paris at several occasions when organizational problems were discussed, among other things the establishing of a section for art nomenclature, what to call different new phenomena, and if they were to be recognized within the frame of modern art. At one particular board meeting the discussion concerned what non representative art would be called. The Englishmen wanted to call it ”inobjective art”, others ”non representative art”, but eventually it was decided on calling it ”non figurative art”. At another occasion there was a very intense debate concerning what was concrete and abstract art respectively. The points of view were divided along a razor’s edge. Many thought that concrete art was synonymous with non figurative – it didn’t depict recognizable objects or reality, but concretized aesthetic ideas, proportions, nuances etc. Abstract art was concerned with manipulation of the depicted world on a graded scale, from absolute representation to an increasingly abstract image.

These discussions were held during regular board meetings, not at a congress. But the board wished to consolidate AICA’s position and have clear directives for its future existence. Then, of course, it was finally going to be decided when and where modern art was born, if it was with realism and Courbet in the 1830’s, or around either of the two world wars. Jean Adhémar maintained that modernism originated in the rise of impressionism in France, and so it was agreed. Later impressionism was the topic of a congress. For Svenska Konstkritikersamfundet the connection with Art History – having a professor at the head of the association –, gave the entire association a more academic air.

However, one didn’t wish to exclude the art critics in the other end of the spectrum. There was a catch concerning the international membership, as the international rules were more strict than the Swedish ones. Today Svenska Konstkritikersamfundet applies a wide interpretation of the rules and has about 250 members, a large number in comparison to the population. This also means that the organization has become increasingly meaningful, that most of the people who write about art can take part in AICA activities, and that the whole of the country is represented with tentacles in all provinces, which is important in a country like ours.

During the first ten years of the association the international art historical congresses were the only important things that happened. Then the association discovered that there were tasks within the country, that it could also function as a forum for aesthetic matters. With the rise of new artistic expressions in the 60’s, the question concerning the establishing of boundaries was carried to an extreme, with concepts like objet trouvé and performance. Earlier there were no professional aspects of the artistic practise, since one had only engaged in more easily defined aspects of e.g. baroque and renaissance principles. The 20th century art has canalized immensely many more phenomena within the art concept. The contemporary art is growing continuously, and hopefully the amount of art critics will grow accordingly.

The interview with Oscar Reutersvärd took place in Lund, in the autumn of 1999.
Translator: Ylva Hillström