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carl fredrik hill

Paranoid schizophrenic and artist inspired Modernists

Published tisdag 8 november 2011 kl 16.14
"Illness...opened up much of his inner life"
(4:35 min)
A drawing made sometime between 1883 and 1911, by Carl Fredrik Hill after mental illness became his reality. Photo: Creative Commons, Malmö Art Museum

This year marks a century since the Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Hill died. Halfway through his life, the onset of a terrible illness completely changed the art he made, signaling the beginning of a new era.

"Later on, Modernism has been very interested to see what did he do to liberate himself," retired psychiatry professor Johan Cullberg tells Radio Sweden during a conference that the National Museum in the Swedish capital hosted about the artist Tuesday.

Hill was born back in 1849 and grew up in Lund, southern Sweden. As Karin Sidén, director of research at the Museum, and Cullberg describe, he was an introvert and liked to draw and paint as a boy. While his father cautioned him against going into art because it was a "dangerous" career in terms of bringing financial uncertainty, he undertook studies to become a fine artist in Stockholm. Then, he moved to the capital of art, which at the time was Paris, and he painted landscapes.

"As I see it, he's one of the most important landscape painters that we have had - ever," says Sidén.

But in his late 20s, everything changed, when he developed full-fledged paranoid schizophrenia. He was institutionalized and he kept making art, but now it looked completely different. Instead of those romantic landscape paintings, he made drawings and watercolors of naked figures in a totally different style -- a little like Picasso, but it was before Picasso's time.

Cullberg explains that while his illness broke down his possibilities to be socially accepted, it also freed him from inhibitions and allowed him to access "his inner life of sexuality, of aggression and also beauty."

This begs the question, does being mentally disturbed actually help one to be a great artist?

"At that time, 1870, 1880, then it was necessary, because it was not accepted to paint like he did. Some 30, 40 years later, when Modernism had come in, it was highly accepted and you need not be ill today to paint in such an open way ... and that's fantastic," says Cullberg as Sidén laughs.

He explains that later on, Picasso and Matisse, for example, actually wanted to paint like the insane just to be able to get closer to "what is really reality" and what it is to be human.

Outro: An exhibit of Hill's work, both before and after he developed schizophrenia, is on display at Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde in Stockholm til the end of January.

Our journalism is based on credibility and impartiality. Swedish Radio is independent and not affiliated to any political, religious, financial, public or private interests.
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