The Carl Larsson House, home to Sweden’s national painter from 1888 to 1919, is Sweden’s cultural heart. It sits in a county that claims to be its spiritual heart…
I pick up a leaflet. It informs me I’ll discover ‘Sweden in miniature’. Dalarna’s central location makes it home to Pressbyråns, snow, moose, cinnamon buns and even the most southerly Sami village. So far, so Swedish. I read on. Dalarna, apparently, is also the ‘capital of Midsommar’ (who knew there was such a thing), with the highest variety of national costumes in Sweden. ‘Falun red’ dictates the official colour of Swedish houses. Kurbits painting originated here, as did much of Swedish folk music and, of course, Dala horses: now an image of Sweden worldwide.
I’m waiting at the Carl Larsson-gården in Sundborn (just outside Falun, the county capital) for Catharina Enhörning, my guide. This was the home of Carl Larsson, Sweden’s national painter, in the run up to his death in 1919. Nearby, in Mora (the county’s ‘second city’), I’ll find the home of Sweden’s ‘second painter’, Anders Zorn. I’m picked up by car from the station, travelling along a road lined with large Swedish flags. The leaflet wasn’t joking when it told me I’ve come to Sweden’s spiritual heart. Adolf Birger, Larsson’s father-in-law, gave Lilla Hyttnäs to Carl and Karin Larsson in 1888, and they converted the tiny timbered cottage to a farmstead that has remained in the family ever since. I’m shown the family’s private wing, used to this day for get-togethers, and I’m told they also have access to the visited areas, turfed out when the guided tours start up again in the morning.
Stockholm, 1853 – Falun, 1919
Larsson’s grave is in the village churchyard, but it deserves but a glance. His influence on Swedish life is so vast, it’s as if he’s still alive. Sitting down for fika, I’m told that once a year, designers from IKEA visit the house for inspiration. “When the catalogue arrives, we have a look at what’s ours. It proves how modern Carl and Karin were.” This house inspired IKEA, who then inspired the world to be Swedish. Enhörning agrees that it’s the ground zero of Swedishness.
Stockholm, 1853 – Falun, 1919
The Yard and the Washhouse / Gården och brygghuset (1897)
Larsson was born in 1853. He lived in Stockholm with his mother and grandmother, so poor they rented out half his bed to strangers each night. His father, a drunk and casual labourer, told a young Larsson he cursed the day he was born. They never properly forgave each other. Thankfully, however, one of Larsson’s teachers noticed he had a talent for drawing. She encouraged him to apply for the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts, where he was admitted, and promptly moved to Paris. In 1882, on the advice of fellow Swedish artist Karl Nordström, he travelled to an artists’ colony in Grez-sur-Loing. Here, he met Karin. They fell quickly and deeply in love, Larsson sold his first two paintings for years, and he was rescued from his near suicidal state. They married the year after, moving back to Sweden to start a family, creating the childhood Larsson never had. Soon he was famous, and rich enough to afford servants.
Larsson cemented the idea of the Swedish family idyll. With eight children, he certainly had the chance. Sweet blonde girls in traditional dress, standing under silver birches, looking across a crystal-clear lake. To the outside eye, it’s a shmaltzy imagination of a country long-since vanished. But that’s not true. To Swedes, who make the pilgrimage to their cultural heart, this is still the real Sweden. It’s like Skansen, the open air ‘flat-pack’ museum in Stockholm, showing dwellings from across the country accompanied by guides in folkloric costume. Fake? Not at all. Both Sundborn and Skansen are patriotic encapsulations of a country still as perfectly colourful as a Larsson watercolour.
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