John Bauer (1882-1918)
21-May-2007 Filed in: Swedish painters
John Bauer is without any doubt the Scandinavian artist who defined the modern fairytale troll that separates us from the trolls of rural superstition or folklore. Through his delicate eyes and gentle brush stroke the troll became a sympathetic and often misunderstood creature, uncivilised in an innocent way and thus a perfect companion for the modern child in the town or city who would rarely have the chance to get lost in a real forest and therefore sees it as an idyllic stage of rural fantasy unlike the modern urban landscape of factories and apartments that was just emerging at the time of Bauer with the great immigration of farm labour to the cities. The Bauer troll lives in a distinct world that is consistent from picture to picture, from fairytale to fairytale and is often telling a much more interesting story that the actual stories Bauer was commissioned to illustrate. The picture below called "Root Trolls" is a good example of Bauer's sympathy with both the child and the troll. It could have been a scene of horrible abduction by ugly ogres, but rather evokes safety and friendship. These trolls are curious about the human child, maybe even admiring its beauty, but they pose no threat. Bauer, like Tove Jansson many years later, thus invites the child to explore the world, to seek the unknown, to challenge its own fear.
Bauer's world is always set up as at stage with a clearly separated foreground and background and often framed by trees. His style is very decorative as seen above. Below is a typical example with the motif of a beautiful human being led into the troll's world. In Bauer's work it is always the humans who enter the troll's domain, never the opposite, seeking or being forced to encounter some mind- or life-changing experience.
Here is an old troll woman with hairy arms welcoming you inside her cave. Notice Bauer's custom palette of greyish earth colours reminding us that we are now entering the world of the subterraneans, far from our enlightened daylight world. Unlike the witches of the Grimm Brothers this troll woman does not seem to pose any threat. It is more likely that she will invite you in for a cup of root tea and some freshly baked bark bread.
The following two sketches give a good idea about how he developed his troll characters. Notice how soft and organic his line is.
And finally a drawing of a Saami boy, indicating Bauer's interest for more 'natural' peoples which is also reflected in the Trolls' clothes and other artifacts like hand-carved knives. Often neighbouring peoples, eg. Saami, Finns, Gypsies or even the Scanians in Skåne, have been attributed with certain magical powers:
Bauer lived and worked during the age that has later been called the age of National Romanticism, a period until the beginning of World War I when some Scandinavian artists, inspired by the movement of Symbolism, sought the soul of the Nation in the people's own voices, eg. old fairy tales or epic poems as the Finnish Kalevala. In Bauer's case the trolls represented what modern man had lost, an originality and naturalness that was magic. Obviously World War I killed any belief in this project.
Bauer also did a few sculptures, like the following of a trollboy that appears in many of his paintings and may be some alterego:
Let's also meet Bauer's favourite troll Vill - Vallareman who "was a small troll with human features. He was a fine musician and good at playing the bark horn. It could be heard all over the forest when he played. The big trolls were fighting about who should become the next king. But in the end it was Will with his mediating personality who became king. You don't have to be physically big and strong to get far. Even someone small can become king. Vill-Vallareman was "big" inside."
(From H. Schiller, John Bauer Sagotecknaren, Stockholm 1935).
In 1982 Bauer's fairy tale world was celebrated with a series of four stamps:
Finally the classic myth that some Scandinavians still are tempted to believe: John Bauer, tired of painting trolls and eager to develop his art, decided in 1918 to return to Stockholm with his family from their house Björkudden in Småland where he had lived and worked for years, but according to legend the trolls did not want him to leave and therefore created an autumn storm on the generally very peaceful lake Vättern causing the steam ship Per Brahe to sink with all its crew and passengers, including John Bauer, his wife Ester and their son Putte.
It has been discussed whether John and Ester were falling out of love with each other at the time of their untimely and tragic death. Ester felt alone while he was busy pursuing his career as an artist slowly building an international reputation. Whatever the truth was, Bauer's paintings are characterised by a very ephemeral, platonic love between princesses and knights. Women are decorative beauties in his fairytale world whose only role is to be abducted by trolls and saved by knights. In fact, Bauer's trolls are his most human characters - shy, curious, helpful, different, awkward (and as big-nosed as Bauer himself - maybe another reason for his attraction?).