He said: "I will become a Swedish Rembrandt or die!" He was not destined to become a Swedish Rembrandt - but he was not destined to die in obscurity either. And it was destined to remain in history the initiator of a new trend in art, which will receive its name much later. And be on the pages of psychiatry textbooks …
From an early age, Josephson was distinguished by an extraordinary pictorial talent, bright temperament and healthy ambition. He was multilaterally gifted - he was fond of music, wrote poetry, played in an amateur theater. He entered the Stockholm Academy of Arts as a sixteen-year-old boy. However, the path that began with early glory turned out to be overshadowed by a series of losses. At the age of seventeen, he lost his beloved sister Gella, two years later his father passed away … Ernst endured everything stoically, never ceasing to comprehend the secrets of painting. They say that during the years of his apprenticeship, he shocked everyone with a loud statement: "I will become a Swedish Rembrandt or die!" The first major work of his student years - "Sten Stur the Elder frees Queen Christina of Denmark from the prison of Wadsten Abbey" - was awarded the royal medal. After completing his studies at the Academy, Josephson traveled a lot, visited France, Italy and Spain, took painting lessons from local masters, painted ancient castles and palace interiors.
In addition, he copied ancient paintings. Like his great predecessor, Ernst Josephson wrote many canvases on biblical and historical themes. Dramatic angles, dull shimmer of gold in the light of torches, deep dark shadows …
Once in France, the artist unexpectedly became interested in impressionism, imbued with deep respect for Courbet and other rebellious painters, who denied everything that he had studied for many years, made friends with Manet and headed the "Swedish art colony" in Paris. Returning to Sweden, according to biographers, Josephson, who was not yet thirty years old, gathered around him a whole army of artists opposing academism. He achieved success as a portrait painter - the best of his generation, but he was drawn to another painting.
However, the impressionistic landscapes, where the Swedish nature appeared to be filled with deep mysticism and high spiritual feeling, was received coldly by the public, and museums refused to exhibit them.
One of his works, "Spirit of the Sea," Josefson rewrote a dozen times, but the National Museum in Stockholm, to which he offered to purchase this canvas, refused every time. In the end, the painting was acquired by Prince Eugene, who strictly forbade it to be resold or transferred to any museum collections in the future.
Rejection, the death of his mother, the consequences of syphilis suffered in his youth, unrequited love - all this gradually undermined the artist's mental health. And his work became more and more strange.By the end of the eighties, he found himself almost without a livelihood, was carried away by the occult and spiritualism … A trip to Brittany, undertaken for the sake of recuperating his strength and financial situation, did not bring the expected results. In 1888, Ernst Josephson fell into a trance state, in which he was for about a year. He was admitted to the Uppsala Psychiatric Hospital. Doctors diagnosed the artist with dementia praecox - schizophrenia. He suffered from vivid religious hallucinations, called himself now Christ, now God, now the Apostle Peter … and did not stop painting. He spoke with the spirits and artists of the past, he signed his works with the names of Velazquez and Rembrandt, claiming that he was only a tool, only a guide for their talent … facets of their talent. After experiencing a mental crisis, Josephson wrote two poetic cycles - "Black Rose" and "Yellow Rose". And when a retrospective exhibition of the artist was opened in Stockholm in 1903, the audience was confused, simultaneously imbued with horror and delight.
It seemed that two different people presented their work at the exhibition. One is a strong academic who despised the canons of his school for the sake of creative experiments, but still plays by the rules. And the second … a madman, a medium or a prophet who threw out in the face of the public a chaotic whirlwind of lines, spots, colors, the faces of the inhabitants of another world, images and symbols that cannot be deciphered.
The works of Ernst Josephson, who was then in seclusion and solitude, became a real breakthrough in the eyes of young artists. In Sweden, he was recognized as the spokesman for a truly popular, deep national spirit. In Germany, where Josephson of the "normal" period was not known, he was considered a nugget, whose gift is the product of madness. Josephson's interest in modernist art was obvious, but the illness seemed to have ripped off all restrictions, destroyed the dam in the way of his stormy feelings. From a follower of the Impressionists, from an attentive student, he turned into a guru. He had imitators, the future fathers and mothers of Expressionism were inspired by his spiritualistic canvases - for example, Emil Nolde. It was with the works of Josephson that a general interest in the work of people with mental illnesses began.
Josephson was no longer interested in his new fame. The last years of his life he spent in Stockholm in the care of some "two ladies" and died at the age of fifty-five. The first publications about Josephson's insane painting appeared even before this sensational exhibition, and five years after the artist's death, his detailed, richly illustrated biography was published. His story has posed many questions for art critics and psychiatrists, to which there are no unequivocal answers to this day.
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