Olle Baertling - On The Way: Paintings 1949 - 1954

He was born in 1911 and died in 1981 shortly before his 70’s birthday. He spent almost 30 years developing his own unique style within his paintings, the open form style. It consists of diagonal compositions. The diagonals are attacked with rich black color, in not totally straight lines. They can have a slight curvature. The diagonals enclose homogeneous designed colored areas. It appears that the compositions consist of triangles, however the pointed ends of the triangles are usually outside the painting and are added by the onlooker. Through this illusion of movement is added to he onlookers experience.

The colors have what Baertling calls a special temperature. The black is often reappearing. The white has a slight tinge of blue. The selection of colors often came from the areas between the prismatic color schemes where there were no specific names for the colors. In this way the viewer would not associate to any particular happening in nature – grass, sea, sand, sky etc. Paintings were carried over into textile compositions. The black contours were also passed onto the sculptures, however here the angles and corners had to be carried through in the metal. This style, which was developed scientifically by Olle Baertling, he named the open form. There is one rule for this form system – everything that is seen on the painted surface is carried out into the frame edge.

It was not easy to achieve this style. Olle Baertling had not attended any art school or academy. It was not until after the Second World War, when he went to Paris that he started to paint for André Lhote who was rather turned off by that which Olle produced. For this reason he did, as did many Swedes at the time, look up Fernand Léger, who welcomed him with respect.

In the beginning Olle was painting in his spare time. He had full up with serious responsibilities as a banker. His work took most of his time and energy. Olle was painting on weekends and on holidays, eventually taken longer and longer time off from work. When he started to show his works, the established artists considered him naïve. As success grew, views were that it was influenced by humbug and bluff. Ever since his student time Olle had struggled with conventional painting – portraits, figure studies, still life, landscape and town pictures. But the actual way of painting with the rich contours, the brutal color combinations, the expelling forces between the colors, nonchalance with anatomy and the perspective appeared primitive. The deciding period in his artistic expression that led him to the open form in the paintings was the years around 1950. At this point he left the figurative painting behind him and instead strived towards the unknown territory, the non-figurative art, that which Otto G. Carlsund called l’art concret, the concrete art. The abstract art had originated in the figurative but had successively estranged itself in parts, so that it came to be called formal purism. The concrete art concretized the imaginary picture, which was independent of reality. These were usually geometrically impressions, with squares and circles.

Olle Baertling found an excellent model in Auguste Herbins paintings. The same mixed circles and squares in a rich form play.  So did Olle in the beginning, but sometimes he would, in the Mondrian spirit, isolate the compositions with only vertical and horizontal lines. It is obvious that the geometrical forms are figurative in the sense that they will be recognized, given the geometrical knowledge we have from school.

What is it then that is non figurative? The answer would be a restructuring of the plane surface, which becomes three-dimensional by adding a line of horizon, this is perceived as distant with an over part and an under part leaning towards the observer. Without the horizon, the work leaves a totally arbitrary three-dimensional feeling in the onlookers mind. Olle Baertling abstained from using a horizontal line, thereby leaving his compositions without space effect or volume.
With the carefully painted designated areas in varying colors he could create colorful contrasts and alliances. On top of this he could add small squares or circles, which with good lighting would leave after images with the observer. This after image would leave an experience of continues movement with the observer. A row of compositions anticipated in this way the OP-art, which Victor Vasarely and Josef Albers succeeded in creating with methodical etude. Albers became the great theorist much later.

Around 1950 there was a wealth of new discoveries and bearings in the non-figurative art. In the gallery of Denise René in Paris artists from around the world gathered. Of the Swedish artists, Eric H Olson and Olle Baertling were prominent in the group together with the Danes Robert Jacobsen and Richard Mortensen. During these years they surged in different directions and finally succeeded in reducing their works to an effective minimum. If one views Baertlings works between the years 1949 and 1952, it becomes obvious that he moves within an array of different creating compositions. Every painting became like an experiment in a series. Each experiment was a solution to a situation of choice that led to what would become the open form.

With this he left the very successful ways of expression that made him the predecessor of the OP-artists of the 60-s. He abstained from curvature, horizontal and vertical lines this made him for a while get close to the plane-plastic painting, which was Mondrian’s and Doesburg’s. More and more he cleaned up by removing small pieces from the picture so as to find, that which would be the ultimate formula for his painting. During the four years that he experimented in that direction he accomplished a wealth of form experiments that could have lured him as an artist in other productive directions. But this did not happen. Eventually he could create the open form of painting.

During the summer one can occasionally observe a bird take flight from an almost hidden nest, to go for short distances in one and then another direction, until it suddenly flies off far into the distant, in a straight line. In this way we can also view Olle Baertlings early paintings, that which was figurative and it was also here that he created his early non-figurative works around 1950. He tested his way. If his artistic endeavor had come to an end in 1952, he would still have come out as a pioneer for Swedish non-figurative painting. He still used the rich contour lines – something that also marked some of Gauguins and Légers compositions. When he introduced this element to the more elaborate produced monochrome colored pictures, the homogeneous colored areas got a vibrato. The black added a contrast effect that was perceived as a homogeneous colored area with two different shades.

When the paintings became non-figurative, the problem of naming them came up. Sometimes he differentiated them by making it tribute, homage, to some friend. He could also through a title indicate how the picture was perceived: Mouvement optique, Tension cosmique, Effets cinétiques, Force noir blanc rouge and so on. He strived to reproduce the illusory movement. Later the titles became more mysterious. I have never been able to decipher titles like KSEK, Stroba, Ruba, Atar, Rubim and so forth. Maybe he had a code system. Titles of the latter kind he used for his paintings for more than thirty years, however so far nobody has been able to understand what they stand for or what it might be in the paintings that could be described this way. It will have to be for the researchers of the future to fathom.

Olle Baertling’s early non-figurative paintings show that early on he gained a command of the execution. Artists that he admired and generously co-worked with for group exhibitions and socializing did not influence him. He surged for a uniform formula and he found it in the beginning of the 50’s. This he refined until his death. He never distanced himself from his early works. He could show them in his exhibitions. He liked to talk about these works and regarded them as complete beginnings of conquering an unknown world of form. He regarded them as necessary prerequisites for the open forms style, that which his work carried for three decades.

Uppsala Aug. 2007
Teddy Brunius
Fil.dr. Professor emeritus

Translated by Anette Lindegaard