Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Strindberg portrait at Ibsen's studio

The fight between Realism and Supernaturalism (Symbolism) that becomes evident at the end of the 19th century in many aspects of art, though particularly in theatre, has an evident parallelism, I’m convinced, in the fight between their two major exponents in modern theatre: Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. Their theatrical currents are an encounter between conscious and unconscious, between the idea of personality and the inner self or the unconscious.

Nevertheless, the personal relationship between Ibsen and Strindberg is somewhat unknown by the readers of either authors, and in turn is a curious chapter in the history of theatre and of art in general (1). Two geniuses who never met in person but who had an intimate and dramatic relationship. Two opposing visions of theatre, of literature and of the world they lived in, with just one point in common during Strindberg’s attempt, in his first years in his writing career, to imitate Ibsen’s work

Strindberg lived a real obsession about Ibsen’s work and person, he went from being, first, an emulator and admirer of the Norwegian writer, to becoming later one of his sharpest critics. His attacks were direct, continuous and went from deep analyses of the Ibsenian work to simple and plain offenses to his social behaviour.

Ibsen never understood those attacks, or he never wanted to keep an open (nor closed) fight with Strindberg; his standing in Europe’s intellectual society was, anyhow, much higher and, when it came to comparisons at the time, he was undoubtedly the winner; he didn’t need to write a single word against the work or person of Strindberg.

Nevertheless, that indifference to the Swedish writer’s attacks didn’t mean at all that Ibsen didn’t stop to contemplate the great man and artist that Strindberg was.

When Henrik Ibsen was in Stockholm, on April 13th 1898, celebrating his 70th birthday (yes, it wasn’t his birthplace, but the Swedish government offered homages in his honour), a Swedish journalist asked his opinion on Strindberg. Ibsen described the Swedish writer, 27 years younger, as “A great talent”, adding “I don’t know him personally - our paths have never crossed - but I’ve read his work with great interest. In fact, his last play, Inferno, has left a deep impression on me.(2)

The impression that Strindberg caused on Ibsen was such that, years before that declaration, Ibsen had, in his own studio in Oslo, a portrait painting of the Swedish artist. He didn’t know him personally, but he was taken by his image, his personality and the strength of his literary work.

In 1893, while he lived in Berlin, August Strindberg posed many times for the Norwegian painter Christian Krogh, who painted seven portraits of him; one of those paintings was acquired by Henrik Ibsen, according to himself, “for the, relatively speaking, ridiculous sum of 500 crowns.” Ibsen’s studio (and his whole apartment) is kept in the Ibsensmuseet (Ibsen's Museum) in Oslo (3), but Krogh’s painting is not there anymore, as it hangs at the Museum of Popular Art of Norway.

Ibsen saw in Strindberg a powerful figure, almost mythical; the portrait by Krogh not only was hanging in his studio, but had a primary place in it, exactly in front of his workplace. He used to say that he liked to look at it while he wrote, and that it seemed the man in the portrait would look straight at him like a “madman approaching him with demented eyes”. He particularly enjoyed looking at those “demonic eyes” and, at some point in his life, he commented “He is my mortal enemy; he must hang there and observe everything I write.” (4)

Ibsen’s quotations, from his own mouth, are manifestly clear, that strong impression can’t be concealed.

Ibsen’s personality, reserved as he was and profoundly correct (even during his most famous scandals) didn’t leave room to recognise in him his great personal fears, obsessions and passions, but he undoubtedly struggled with the forces that August Strindberg and his work represented; the hanging portrait in his studio is proof to the presence of the “other” in his creative life, of his struggle and, of course, of his admiration.

The theatre director August Lindberg, a friend of Strindberg’s, tells of how, when visiting Ibsen’s studio, Ibsen asked him if the portrait on his wall resembled the real Strindberg. Then, and without waiting for an answer, Ibsen got close to him and, almost whispering, maybe trying not be heard, he affirmed “A remarkable man!”.

(1) In a curious and interesting essay Barbara Lide, from the Technical University of Michigan exposes the “admiration-hate-fear” relationship between two of the greatest writers and dramaturgs of modern theatre, a strange relationship that has all the characteristics of the currents each of the belongs to in theatre.
(2) Most of my citations have been taken from the book “Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism” by Toril Moi (Oxford University Press. London, UK 2006), as well as from the article: “Strindberg’s Ibsen: Admired, emulated, scorned, and parodied” by Barbara Lide (Michigan Technological University which, in turn, is based on Strindberg’s basic biography by Meyer.
(3) The presence of Strindberg’s portrait by Krogh in Ibsen’s studio is known through direct citations from the Norwegian author, as well as from friends and acquaintances of his. The information was taken from Toril Moi’s book as well as from Barbara Lide’s essay.

Ibsen's studio. Ibsenmuseet, Oslo.

(4) One of Ibsen’s phrases (translated into English) that remain as his appreciation of the portrait is "Insanity Emergent".

Author's note: This is a personally revised translation (made by Tadeo Berjón) from my original post in Spanish..


  1. Gustavo:
    Gracias por difundir la obra de mi tio en Bali.
    Arqlgo. Miguel Covarrubias Reyna
    Merida, Yucatan

  2. You can find a podcast of Toril Moi's lecture 'A New Genealogy of Modernism: Idealism/Realism/Symbolism' from 4 March 2009 at Royal Holloway University of London at the following URL:

  3. Gustavo:
    May I use your image of Ibsen at the top of your page in my PhD on Mathilde Blind (Exeter University)?
    Ulrike (

    1. The photograph is common rights today. It was published in a French magazine at the beginning of XX century.


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