Spanning fourteen islands linked by more than fifty bridges each braced by winds from the Baltic Sea, Stockholm is the most populous of all the Scandinavian cities, with a population of roughly 900,000. Lacking the art historical enamour of its Flemish and Dutch neighbours during their 17th century Golden Ages, which cemented their place in the European canon of art, the Scandinavian countries somewhat fell by the wayside.
Recent criticism and academia has helped bring both their historical and contemporary art importance to light however – a series on the BBC “Art of Scandavia”, presented by the ever-excited Andrew Graham Dixon, and several new coffee table books published recently, have inspired a new wave of public appreciation.
Stockholm doesn’t have anything that could touch the recently renovated Rijskmuseum of Amsterdam, stuffed to the brim with world famous old masters, and while Copenhagen has the Louisiana Museum of Contemporary art, known for its unique collections and setting that have helped reshape the model of how contemporary galleries should work, and feel, when you ask people about Stockholm, they tend to scratch their head. However, if you look under the surface, Stockholm has an important art scene – perhaps more matured than the edgier angle of Copenhagen, but still very contemporary, and with a history of proud design that often overshadows its fine art accomplishments. It is Stockholm should be re-evaluated as one of the best places in Northern Europe for Contemporary Art and Culture – not only for what it produces, but the special way it presents it.
Opened in 1958 is the Moderna Museet – the Swedish state modern art museum – the Tate of Stockholm (complete with its own outpost in Malmo, Sweden’s second city and home to IKEA) is the ideal place to start for art and culture lovers in the city. For Swedish standards, it is a fairly conventional contemporary public gallery, with a permenant collection of 6,000 paintings, 25,000 prints, 400 videos and 100,000 photographs, and a rotating calendar of world class exhibitions. Just finishing now is a fantastic multidisciplinary German artist Thomas Schütte, who is best known for his pastel coloured seem-to-be-melting gargoyle heads wrapped in blankets.
Their next show, carrying through the popular Christmas period is of works by the painter Georg Baselitz, from his nuanced ‘Heroes’ series. It’s a solid staple art gallery that doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves. Known amongst Stockholmites but little further afield, it’s putting in the work to help bolster its name, and hopefully soon, by association with the myriad of other galleries springing up, it will have the fame it deserves, and help push Swedish, and Scandinavian contemporary artists in line with their Western-European counterparts. A fascinating little gallery with great shop and cafe, the place is a must for art lovers, but yet it doesn't quite get under the skin of the country's unique approach to art.
In a large converted waterfront warehouse is Fotografiska; one of Europe’s foremost dedicated photography spaces. It has exhibitions upcoming including of adverts by the fashion brand Diesel and of work by the famous documenter of musicians Anton Corbijn.
They have four large and twenty small exhibitions a year, plus a permanent gallery, and one of the best roof top bars in the city. It’s one of the largest photographical institutions in the world, showcasing some of the best work by the best names – in a city that oddly doesn’t have a particular claim to the medium. But it proves Stockholm’s inventiveness, adopting a form of materiality known for taking itself seriously – perhaps speaking volume’s of the city’s inhabitants.
The Artipelag centre, which opened in 2012, and aims to expand on not only what an exhibition can be, but also how it can be experienced and is perhaps the most forward thinking gallery in the Nordic countries currently. Show's span everything from local historical arts and crafts, to fashion, how to use art to encounter nature, and Andy Warhol photos, while Edmund De Waal’s delicate and encharting ceramics are the subject of the next hows.
Each takes a traditional subject and turns it on its head, through reinterpretation and clever curation, using that Scandi-knack for rethinking traditional design to create something sleek, utilitarian yet discerning and innovative. It proposes a new model not yet adopted by the UK – an arts centre with no permanent collection, but an ever changing roster of exhibitions with events, 22 acres of surrounding countryside, two restaurants and a multitude of event areas covering all things art related. It’s a new proposal for how the public can interact with art, in a modern format that so far is well received, although still in its infancy.
It does create a slight problem for archivists, but offers scope for large touring exhibitions, set in a gallery that constantly evolves every visit. Its an exciting format that uses the space incredibly practically, and despite how it sounds on paper (and looks in flesh with its white and silver, modernist appearance) it is done with so much planning and precision it feels like a labour of love.
The cities collection of old master works are more likely to be found in the publicly opened royal palaces than public collections and galleries – perhaps another reason why Stockholm is lesser associated with them. There is no one grand national gallery to head for, but a good starting point is Prince Eugen’s Palace, which holds an impressive collection of 17th, 18th and 19th century Nordic masters (most of which you wont have heard of, but which are no less accomplished than the French, British, German, Spanish and Italian counterparts).
It is perhaps a refreshing change too, seeing them in their original complete collection and interiors, rather than a public gallery where the majority have been lent from the head of state and aristocrats with heavy tax bills. The works reflect a country deeply obsessed with natural beauty and rustic charms.
There are many more art treasures to uncover in Stockholm; Sven-Harry’s Museum that shows mainly contemporary Swedish Art, the Millesgarden sculpture park, Pascale Gallery design store, the self-explanatory Porcelain Museum, the ethnography museum, the antiquities museum, numerous castles – the list goes on and on. And Stockholm is paradise for cuture lovers, with some of the finest bars, shops, restaurants and hotels in the world.
Shops like Stockholm based ACNE is now famous for its slim shilouettes and bold colours, and restaurants like Frantzen with its two Michelin stars that serves up cheese with an iPod laden soundtrack and vegetables grown in its garden. For hotels, nothing beats the Haymarket by Scandic – only opened in 2016, it is a brand new art deco inspired masterpiece with most popular bar in town. Stunning rooms come in a palette of moss green and purple, with every metal inch in rose gold. It’s the only place to be seen for discerning culture and style lovers in Stockholm at the moment.
What makes both Stockholm, and its art unique, isn’t the city, or its art – it’s not particularly dissimilar to any of its neighbouring Scandinavian sisters. But what makes Stockholm a great city for culture and art is the effort it takes to uncover it, making it even more rewarding when you turn a corner and uncover a jewel. Stockholm lacks a cynicism or scepticism and its culture is treated with great respect and handle with fragility.
Perhaps in a country so cold, it has become domesticated and treated with a special tenderness, like a pet perhaps. Always as you would expect – liberal, attractive and with an eye for detail (like the city’s own inhabitants), it is a city that is modern with an old charm and pace, producing art that feels the same, in new models for how we interact with art that mirror these ideals. Just as Sweden changed the model for how the interiors of our houses look and work, they’re starting to change the model for how galleries look and work too, and we can’t wait for the current trend for all things Scandi to take effect on London more.
By Toby Morris
Visit Stockholm offers guides and access to all museums. Haymarket by Scandic has rooms from £150 per night.