Pin It

Sture Johannesson

The veteran Swedish artist Sture Johannesson has never been allowed to exhibit in his native country due to the provocative nature of his art. Francesca Gavin finds out why he has become a powerful symbol of refusal for a new generation

Can you be an artist if you cannot show your work? Almost every exhibition Sture Johannesson put on in his native Sweden has been closed down by the police and put him in conflict with the authorities. Yet as much as there is a vital connection between resistance and the underground ethos of this outsider’s work, his bad reputation has distracted from the fact that he has been one of the most innovative and progressive artists to emerge from Sweden in the past 50 years. 

The motivation behind Johannesson’s work goes back to his childhood. Born in 1935 and brought up in an orphanage from the age of eight, he experienced firsthand the dark abuse that grew out of the age that was obsessed with race biology. “Sweden was the first in the world to inaugurate a State Institute of Race Biology in Uppsala in 1921. This was a base model for the German Nazi ideology. These ideas continued long after the Nazi collapse – until 1976,” the artist explains from his home in Malmo. Swedish experiments with social engineering included forced sterilisation of 60,000 women between 1936 and 1976. Johannesson was kept in a fenced camp, while his food was spiked with experimental chemicals. It is no surprise he developed a serious mistrust of authority.

When he left he started channeling his experiences into art. “I had no school worth the name, so I had to flee into the art world,” he notes. Early influences included the abstract expressionist American painter Ad Reinhardt and in the late-50s he was involved in the Scandinavian wing of the Situationists (who were expelled from the movement by Guy Debord for not being faithful to the increasingly Marxist approach). In the style of the famous derives, they would drift around drunk or stoned at night in Copenhagen, creating spontaneous paintings on the walls of houses or scaffolding.

Johannesson and his wife Ann- Charlotte opened Galleri Cannabis, an art space in an old milk shop in Malmo in 1966. It was a meeting place for the city’s underground. There they would sell (and read) International Times and other underground papers from the Netherlands and UK. “In the big window we were growing hemp, which was legal in Sweden until 1970.” They would cut up hemp leaves and make tea. Marijuana was the ideological as well as social drug of choice. “It was common to smoke grass,” Johannesson explains. “The ideology was against hard stuff like cocaine, heroin, and for the soft stimulus like hashish.” Johannesson would exhibit his work in the gallery alongside friends working in paint or pencil such as the Danish artist Erik Hagens. The space was regularly raided by the police. 

It was here Johannesson notably started creating and selling his poster artworks. In the 60s many of his collages were graphic sheets in small editions, numbered and signed. The idea was to print posters and sell them very cheaply – for under $2. Eleven of his posters were printed by Permild & Rosengreen in Copenhagen between 1967 to 1969. The works were created to be seen at home rather than flypostered like their West Coast counterparts, and were on a much larger scale – psychedelic montages that resembled old newspapers or tongue in cheek advertisements.

For respected curator Lars Bang Larsen, who collaborated on a monograph of Johannesson’s work in 2002, the poster demonstrated Johannesson’s “nose for process”. The posters were technically years ahead of their time. “To use offset printing at that point was just unbelievably sophisticated,” Bang Larsen points out. “It was just mind blowing. You could produce images that were wiser and more obscene in terms of the impact of their colours than advertising or printed media. If you look at newspapers from the time, they were black and white.” Marshall McLuhan and his argument that print culture would lead to a visual culture – a global village – was a strong influence on the artist’s approach.

Johannesson’s poster pieces took a lot of the visual cues from the international psychedelic movement – the LSD palette, the counterculture politics, the sense of fluidity, but what made them unusual was they were made in an art context. Johannesson’s graphic works often appear closer to constructivism and Rodchenko than Fillmore-era rock posters. The artist’s style refused to be pinned down. “Johannesson is this funny mix between Situationist rage and Dandy-ish attitude – something that makes him unique,” Bang Larsen observes. “His posters were printed at the printing house in Copenhagen who printed posters for the Jubilee Gardens and Asger Jorn, the big Danish abstract expressionist. He worked with the best. It took him months to produce a poster.” 

Johannesson’s posters became emblematic of 1968 and the youth revolt in Sweden. Looking at the images today it is hard to imagine that there was such a dramatic reaction from the powers that be. “Graphic quality is the most important to me. And for my freedom I was forced to fight,” Johannesson notes. The one image that had the most dramatic effect was “Hash Girl”, originally entitled “Revolution Means Revolutionary Consciousness”. It depicted a pink naked girl smoking a hash pipe out of which blew many little Che Guevara heads, alongside a French revolutionary rosette. It was originally made to advertise the exhibition Underground, meant to take place in February 1969. Yet at the end of 1968, Folke Edwards, the director of progressive museum Lund Konsthall, was forced to leave his job due to its creation.

"In the 1960s all directors of commune Konsthalls and museums were governed by the reliable Social Domocrats  that had been in power in Sweden for more that 60 years. Folke Edwards was the liberal in Swedish art life because of his differents tanding," Johnnesson recalls. According to the artist, the Chairman of the konsthall Torsten Andrée (who was best friends wih then Swedish prime minister Tage Erlander), wrote to the police saying Johannesson was a psychopath and ordered his immediate hospitalisation. Lucily the head of the criminal police in Lund, Sigrid Cronquist as an art buff who had inetrviewed Johannesson about his work, so let him be. Andrée was so frustrated he decided the poster should be cut into strips and burned. "He thought that they would not be spread anymore. Forgettigng that I had copyright and could print more of them! The Lund konsthall was closed for one and a half years because of the protests from artists in favour of the konsthall director Folke Edwards. Not one of the artists was protesting against the harassment I had to fight, because no one was willing to take the risk of being stamped as drug liberals. Selling and spreading my posters was my defence weapon, a counter-strike.”

After 18 months of politics and protest, Johannesson changed his approach completely and started working with computers to make art. “I had read notes about computer graphics experiments done in the big institutions, like Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and became interested in new ways of making graphics. After the experience I had after the “Hash Girl” poster, I saw no possibilities to show my works anywhere in the present cultural climate in Sweden. I was blacklisted in all institutions and had a lot of time to try something new. But I did not know much about computer graphics and what that could mean.” 

At the end of 1969, he wrote a letter to the IBM head office in Stockholm and asked what equipment and possibilities they had to make drawings with computers. Programmer Sten Kallin responded, and they collaborated on the FIELDS Program, a study on composition and how picture elements with different parameters coexist in an image. A lot of the artworks they created drew on natural forms – leaves, in particular hash leaves. “I had good and bad experiences from the leaves, so it was natural for me to strike back,” Johannesson observes wryly. It is work that looks exceptionally contemporary – something that could easily have been made by Daniel Keller and Nik Kosmas of Aids-3D or Paul B Davis, who praised the artist’s innovations: “Mr Johannesson constructed the earliest digital representations of cannabis leaves, certainly the earliest that I’m aware of, and as a result 30 years later I feel hugely indebted to his practice and modes of artistic inquiry.”

In the 1970s, as he created these digital pieces while still creating poster works and controversy, every exhibition he attempted was closed down. His wife organised an exhibition for the Kulturhuset in 1976 about freedom of speech and violence. He created a slick photographic poster of a Nazi dagger cutting four pencils with the text “The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword?”. The show was seen as some kind of a dedication to the notorious revolutionaries Baader-Meinhof, who blew up the West German embassy in Stockholm among other things, and the exhibition was completely censored after two days.

He returned to technology again in the early 80s. Johannesson founded The Digital Theatre, a microcomputer studio, one of the first in Europe built up with Apple II computers. He imagined the space as a digital theatre with digital actors. In 1983 they began making pixelated portraits of David Bowie, Boy George and Bob Dylan. It’s an aesthetic echoed today in the print and sculptural work of Ben Jones or Paper Rad’s video pieces. The digital portraits were made by Johannesson’s wife. “In the Digital Theatre studio I worked mostly as a technician, while my wife Ann-Charlotte created the images,” remembers Johannesson. Later influenced by Professor Benoit Mandelbrot, the “father of fractals,” who published The Fractal Geometry of Nature in 1982, Johannesson created his own pulsating, fractured images.

In 1988 Johannesson presented a lecture about his and Kallin’s FIELDS program to the CERN physics lab – a link between science and art that seems wild today. The Italian particle physicist and inventor Carlo Rubbia (who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1984 with Simon van der Meer for work leading to the discovery of the W and Z particles at CERN) produced a picture of a bubble chamber that proved that a particle collision had taken place, and it resembled a graphic artwork. “The upcoming question was now, what should the next picture look like that can render a new Nobel Prize? Could it be an image from Sten Kallin’s and my FIELDS Program, visualising the power fields in colour?”

Johannesson was finally invited to exhibit his first solo show at the Lund konsthall in 2004, belatedly highlighting his creative impact after 35 years. The show was to include a hemp plant installation, but days before the opening the police came and cut it down. The museum had sought and received permission from the police and board of agriculture to borrow plants from a farmer who had permission to show them. It was proven there was nothing illegal about the work but it was never reinstated. “I think that Johannesson was a protopunk from the beginning,” Lars Bang Larsen notes. “His psychedelia was extrovert and conflictorientated, which may have been to the detriment of his reception in Sweden, as his provocation made a louder impact.”

Johannesson has always been an artist ahead of his time, which only makes his career more relevant today to contemporary artists, designers and even activists. For the new wave of digital art, to those reinventing ideas around the psychedelic, he’s an unsung innovator who paved the way.