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Zorn in America (review)

From: Scandinavian Studies
Volume 83, Number 3, Fall 2011
pp. 445-449 | 10.1353/scd.2011.0035

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This book's primary impetus is the seven trips to America made by the Swedish artist Anders Zorn between 1893 and 1911. Instead of focusing on this brief span, however, the authors expand the scope of their chronological narrative to his entire life and legacy, beginning with his birth in 1860 and concluding in 1920 with his death. A more appropriate title would be "Zorn and America," since his relationship to America consisted in large part of contacts with Americans living abroad in Paris, Venice, Berlin, London, and St. Ives. Zorn's interest in America and his friendships with Americans were important long before he ever planned or made his first trip to the United States, as the authors convincingly demonstrate. Zorn's fluency in English also played a significant role in establishing and strengthening his network of American patrons as Birgitta Sandström, the former director of the Zorn Collections, underscores in her foreword. In short, America and his extensive circle of American friends, supporters and patrons played a pivotal role in his career. Zorn's American commissions provided extraordinary financial and critical success, as well as celebrity and notoriety. The authors claim that their book is the result of two decades of work and that it provides "the first comprehensive study of the artist's seven trips to the United States" (xiii). They are enthusiastic collectors of Zorn's etchings and the majority of the book's illustrations are from their private collection.

Zorn's peripatetic lifestyle came at a cost. Physical and emotional exhaustion appear to have plagued him throughout his career, as the authors almost constantly note. Chronic health issues marked the last two decades of his life, yet even while on his honeymoon in 1885 he contracted typhoid fever and, according to the Hagans, he "hovered near death" (28). In each of this book's twenty chapters there is scarcely a paragraph in which the artist is not described as "overworked," "tired," "fatigued," "exhausted," "weary," "depressed," "seriously ill," "showing signs of physical decline," or "not feeling well." There is something tragic about this, and Zorn's accomplishments struck this reviewer as all the more noteworthy in light of these difficulties.

The artist's complex marriage is another recurring theme. According to the authors, "Zorn's appetite for life was prodigious, and his various escapades with models and chamber maids became an unhappy feature of the Zorn's relationship" (132). The Hagans especially note his wife's jealousy of the American Emily Bartlett, whom they describe as a real threat, since she was refined and cultivated, unlike the majority of his models, who were mostly peasants or from the lower class.

The Hagans produce no "smoking gun," nor do they uncover any surprising new revelations. Their actual descriptions, interpretations, and analyses of specific works of art are very scant, and they rarely move beyond a simple, straightforward hagiography. Enthusiasm aside, Zorn's formidable character and prodigious artistic career largely eludes them. In several instances, Zorn and his imagery are almost eclipsed by the ample descriptions and biographical details of his many subjects and personal contacts. Their writing is prosaic, formulaic, repetitive, and, all too frequently, uninspired. Poor copy-editing mars much of the text and such problems are even more rampant and egregious in the notes, bibliography, and indices.

There are also a number of factual errors. Charles Deering's marriage to Marion Denison Whipple in 1883 occurred seven years after the death of his first wife, and not five as they state (70). Zorn was included in the famous 1912-1913 touring exhibition organized by Christian Brinton under the auspices of the newly established American Scandinavian Foundation. The catalogue lists seven paintings by Zorn. The Hagans argue that it "did not include Zorn, who was a member of the Artists' Association" (285). In fact, Zorn, Carl Larsson and Bruno Liljefors had severed their ties to the group by 1912, and their participation only seems to have strengthened the antagonism and rivalry shown toward them by other Swedish artists, as Ingela Lind has argued. The authors claim that "As the Gustav Vasa statue was unveiled in Mora, a very different unveiling occurred in New York" (203...

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