Jun 9, 2014

Ernst Josephson: A Water Sprite Disguised as a Boy

Ernst Josephson (1851-1906) was the "father of Swedish modernism," a painter who drew on folkloric and mythological themes and infused his work with private symbolism.

Sounds like a fertile place to find some gay subtexts.

Sure enough, at age 20, Ernst was taking a nature walk in Norway when he encountered a water sprite, or Näcke, disguised as a beautiful young man with a violin.  The sprite's music almost lured him to his death.

A water sprite?  Or maybe a real person who suggested an erotic encounter?

Ernst went home and painted the sprite -- actually, many different sprites over the years.  The image of the beautiful young man haunted him.

He was plagued by mental illness through his life.  In 1877 he transcribed his madness into David and Saul: the Biblical king is soothed by the sound of David's harp.  Ok, so this time the beautiful young man is a saviour, not a threat.

Ernst kept looking for his own beautiful young man.  Maybe he found one in the young art student Anders Zorn (1860-1920).  In 1879 they embarked on an artistic tour of Italy, Germany, France, and Spain.

Spanish Blacksmiths (1879) looks like a naturalistic depiction of two men in the style of Velazquez, naturalistic, but are they really Ernst and Zorn?  And who is the black-robed woman standing behind them, threatening their idyll?

Maybe it's heterosexual marriage: Zorn married in 1886, and could no longer keep Ernst calm.

He began to behave bizarrely: he claimed that he was God, and demanded a sacrifice, like Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac.  He was taken back to Sweden, where he spent the rest of his life under psychiatric supervision.

He produced many more paintings and drawings of nude men, some too risque to display here.

He suffered a devastating blow when his masterpiece, Strömkarlen (another water sprite disguised as a beautiful young man, top photo) was rejected by the National Museum as too risque (the water sprite's penis is visible).  But Prince Eugen, the Duke of Närke, saved the day by adding it to his personal collection.

Today it can still be seen in his home in Stockholm, Waldemarsudde, now a museum (a great place for beefcake aficionados, by the way).

There's a nude statue of Ernst Josephson in Stadhusparken, Stockholm, right next to the nude August Strindberg.

Wikipedia says that actor Erland Josephson is his grandson, but it's wrong.  Ernst never married and had no children.

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