Gentlemen's Agreement, 1996, by Felix Gmelin |
After Dick Bengtsson (1971) and Olle Carlström (1986) Oil on canvas, 195 x 195 cm
At a reception given by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, artist Olle Carlström pressed a plate of potato salad onto the swastika featured in Dick Bengtsson's (1936-1989) painting of the Kumla prison auditorium and its constructivist tapestry. Carlström, an expressionistic painter, could not raise his glass in the presence of a painting that included a swastika. He wanted to show that there were limits.
'He injured Dick more than he damaged the painting,' reßects the director of the museum, Olle Granath, who made Carlström apologise for what he did. Dick Bengtsson refused to accept the apology. Another artist who witnessed the incident says that one can punch another artist in the face, but to damage their work is unforgivable. 'That kind of thing deserves the death penalty!'
I receive ambiguous answers when I ask those who knew Dick Bengtsson why he painted swastikas. In this case it seems to have been a critical statement about an artist taking part in decorating a prison. But Bengtsson's work is rarely unambiguous. He uses the swastika over and over again in his pictures. There are two different kinds of swastikas. Sometimes it is the sun-cross used by the Nazis, sometimes it is the reversed swastika, a symbol of nirvana, perfection and the end of history.
A common interpretation is that Bengtsson wanted to empty two languages of content by bringing them into confrontation, thereby reaching a new, higher level. The symbolic value of the swastika supposedly dissolves in the encounter with other signs in the picture. Is it possible to create a collision so strong that it dissolves the meaning of a swastika? Carlström apparently did not think so.
Olle Granath thinks Carlström chose the most conventional of all interpretations. Dick knew where to draw the line.