Monday, June 29, 2015

A Touch of the Modernist Mystical in Bror Nordfeldt's Prints

Bror Julius Olsson Nordfeldt, better known as B.J.O. Nordfeldt, was a Swedish immigrant, who embraced the American Modernist artistic tradition. He was known for his still lives, landscapes, portraits and religious scenes, and made prints that exude a mystical quality often found in 19th c. Japanese relief printing.

The artist was born in Tullstrop, Skåne, Sweden in 1878, and his family immigrated to Chicago, Illinois in 1891. There, he worked as a typesetter at a Swedish-language newspaper until enrolling in the Art Institute of Chicago and moving into the 57th Street Artists’ Colony.

Nordfeldt was recruited to work on a mural commissioned by the McCormick Harvester Company with local artist Albert Herter. In 1900, Nordfeldt went to the Paris Exposition, then briefly enrolled in the Académie Julien with Jean Paul Laurens. He went to England where he studied wood-block printing at Oxford and displayed work at the Royal Academy of London. He returned to Chicago in 1903 where he opened a studio and made prints and paintings. He had two shows in Chicago in 1907.

The outbreak of World War I sent Nordfeldt to California, where he painted boat camouflage, and Europe, where he served in combat units. Military service temporarily took him away from his art just as he had won a silver medal award at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition.

After the war, Nordfeldt travelled from Europe to Massachusetts and New Mexico, mostly painting commissioned portraits. He moved to Santa Fe in 1917 and lived there until 1937. He was deeply involved in documenting Pueblo Indian tribes, but also was concerned to preserve their culture. He helped found the Indian Artists Fund, which attempted to foster and preserve the arts of the Pueblo.

While in New Mexico, Nordfeldt’s style changed to a brighter palette indicative of the colors found in the southwest. He painted Indian figures and ceremonies, as well as untraditional portraits and still lives which were more Modernist than his contemporaries.

In 1937 Nordfeldt moved to Lambertville, NJ where he lived for the rest of his life. He was interested in conveying the symbolic or emotional core of his subject, through flattened forms and distorted space. His late work mainly consisted of religious scenes in this same style. Nordfeldt died of a heart attack in 1955 while returning from a trip to Mexico.

Nordfeldt is known to have developed the white-line method of printmaking, which allowed for a more spontaneous way to apply color in relief printing. It was used by many printmakers working in the Provincetown area, most notably Blanche Lazelle. Some of Nordfeldt’s these Provincetown images are brightly colored, showing scenes of fishermen, but the prints that intrigue me moreso are his images of nature, and the sea. Here, Nordfeldt pays homage to the great work of the 19th century Japanese printmakers with their simplified images, cropped compositions and flattened areas of color. Here there is a similar interest in Nature and the peace one finds when engaging with it.

Nordfeldt’s lack of detail opens up these images and lets us fill in the gaps of what else may be a part of the scene he doesn’t portray. His light found in a wooded area is dark and eerie, like some of the work of Edvard Munch. As for his peaceful scenes of the sea and boats in their harbor, noticeably interrupted by a stream of fireworks, we visualize his affinity with the printed works of James Abbott McNeil Whistler. His ghostly dim, near-dark, and mist-filled evening air speaks to us in much the same way as do Whistler’s atmospheric prints.

Nordfeldt’s work resonates with those who have lived by the sea, or in the country. he understands the light that flickers and hides amongst dense brush, and he knows the glow seen at dusk as it is bounded by the low-hanging branch of a tree. The simplicity of some of his compositions are truly Japanese as he captures a single branch of a tree for us to savor its beauty. These are elegant works by an artist who loved his adopted country. Let us revisit his works and appreciate the peace we can find in our own environments.

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