Sweden gets its first female Prime Minister

Today is a historic day in Sweden. Magdalena Andersson has been chosen by the Parliament as Prime Minister, and as such, is the first woman to have the post in the history of Swedish politics. A great day for equality, and not a day too soon. It seems rather odd that it took Sweden so long.

Around the world, women have been politically appointed as state head since the 1940’s. However, the first woman to be democratically elected as prime minister was Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) in 1960. The first woman democratically elected president of a country was Vigdis Finnbogadottir of Iceland in 1980.

The other Nordic countries have a better track record than Sweden. Norway has had two female Prime Ministers to date, the first being Gro Harlem Brundtland in 1981. Denmark has had two – Helle Thorning Schmidt was first elected in 2011. Finland has had three female Prime Ministers with the first, Anneli Tuulikki Jäätteenmäki, elected in 2003.

With the appointment of Magdalena Andersson, four of the five current leaders of the Nordic countries are female.

Provocative Swedish artist is killed

On Sunday, Lars Vilks, a controversial Swedish artist was killed in a car crash on a motorway in Sweden. Police are investigating the death for suspicious circumstances. It seems as if a tire exploded causing his car to break the central barrier and crash head on into an oncoming lorry. In the vehicle with him were two policemen – his protection.

Lars Vilks had 24-hour police protection as he was living under a fatwa issued by al Qaida. The price on his head was 100,000 USD and an extra 150, 000 if the perpetrator slit his throat.

The fatwa was a response to a series of drawings that Lars Vilks produced in 2007 in a local art show. His pictures depicted the prophet Muhammad, something that is considered blasphemous in anti-iconic Islamic tradition. To create double impact, Vilks depicted the prophet as a so-called ‘roundabout dog’ – a type of street art in Sweden. Depicting the prophet as a dog was deemed extra offensive. It caused such a local and international response that some newspapers in Sweden printed some of his drawings in articles about freedom of speech – causing even more fury.

The whole Lars Vilks case generated huge debate around issues of freedom of speech, respect, art, censorship, religious influence and terror. Throughout the years, he was the victim of many attacks and murder attempts, including bombing and arson.

The catalyst for Vilks’ work was the ‘Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy’ which began after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons in 2005. Most of the pictures showed Muhammad. The newspaper announced that this was a debate about criticism of Islam and self-censorship. Muslim groups in Denmark complained, and the issue eventually led to protests around the world, including violent demonstrations, deaths and riots in some Muslim countries.

Vilks saw the specific response to his cartoons as part of the artwork itself. All of the consequences, all the reactions, all of the outrage and all of the violence was an integral part of the art, and a political comment. By that definition, even this blog has become a part of the artwork.

One can, however, wonder if he thought it was worth it in the end.

Lars Vilks was 75 when he died, and he produced a great deal of other work during the decades. He was always conceptual and often controversial and the debate he contributed to will continue long after his death.

Swedish icons 21: Lasse-Maja, a legendary criminal

In my local park, there is a little urban zoo where you can see goats, sheep, rabbits, hens and two portly pigs. The hog is called Lasse and the sow is called Maja. They are named after a man called Lasse-Maja – a legendary name in Swedish culture.

It struck me, however, that I’ve only really heard his name – I didn’t really know who he was. So I researched him. And I was met by a story that was fascinating and tragic in equal measure.

Lars Larsson, later Molin, was born in 1785, and went on to become one of Sweden’s most notorious criminals. He wrote a sensational autobiography about his escapades in 1833 and this book was extremely popular because it contained adventure and, not least, explicit sex scenes. It still continues to fascinate Swedes, with the latest publication coming out in 2016.

So, why the nickname Lasse-Maja? Lasse is a man’s name, and Maja is a female name. Well, he was given this gender-combined name because he periodically lived as a woman. He often dressed as a man when he committed his crimes, as it was more comfortable. However, he lived long periods as a woman and supported himself as a maid, housekeeper and prostitute. By today’s terms, he probably would have identified as transgender. His book is one of the few 19th Century works to describe the transgender experience, which added to its mystique and popularity. In this article, I will use the pronoun ‘he’ for ease.

Lasse-Maja’s life was one of poverty and misery. He was a serial liar and petty thief who was arrested over 30 times and frequently escaped. He became notorious amongst citizens and was written about in newspapers. However, in 1812 he stole silver from a church in Järfälla, just outside of Stockholm. He was captured, sentenced to life and shipped off to the fortress prison on the west coast island of Marstrand. He even managed to escape from this military building on one occasion, but was later caught and returned.

Lasse-Maja was an inventive and guileful person and quickly gained a position of privilege in the prison. He made sure that his reputation spread to the outside world, and convinced the authorities to arrange for tourists to visit him and hear his elaborate stories. His celebrity became so large that he was even given an audience by Crown Prince Oscar.

In 1839 he was pardoned, probably because of the popularity of his book. He traveled the country telling his stories and died in Arboga in 1845, where he is buried today. Several books and films depict his life, and in the fortress prison there is a plaque to commemorate him. He also has a walking trail, a skerry, a tv show, a pre-school and a hotel named after him.

Lasse-Maja would probably never have been remembered in Swedish culture if it wasn’t for the autobiography, the female clothing and his skill for self promotion. Popular culture depicts him as a happy-go-lucky, cheeky, lovable rogue. However, Lasse-Maja was no Robin Hood – the truth is that his life was extremely tough and without much joy. He lived a life of crime, deceit and despair.

Today, it is hard to really know Lasse-Maja’s truth. He was a first class liar, manipulator and fabulator. However, one thing is certain; Lasse-Maja holds the position of the most famous transperson in Swedish history.

Swedish icons 20: Julia Caesar

The legendary actress Julia Caesar was born in 1885 in Stockholm. And yes, that was her real name – Julia Maria Vilhelmina Caesar.

From a young age, she became typecast in the roles she was given, and frequently played the opinionated but loveable, old woman – often in comedies. They could be a mother in law, a cook, a nosy neighbour or a housekeeper – but they were always a battleax who were outspoken and candid. They weren’t always two dimensional characters, however. In many cases, she depicted strong feminist views and railed against the patriarchy.

You might not have heard of Julia Caesar, but she was a very popular and prolific actor with a career that spanned over 60 decades. In fact, she holds the record for the Swedish actress who has appeared in most films – 136 of them. In addition to this, she played many classic theatre roles and performed in reviews and cabaret.

Julia Caesar was enormously loved and had a huge following – she was an institution in Swedish theatre and film. In the Stockholm park area of Tanto, where she frequently performed in the outdoor theatre, there is a street named after her.

She died in Stockholm in 1971, aged 86. Privately, she lived a discrete life together with opera singer Frida Falk. Although Frida died 23 years prior to Julia Caesar, they are buried together in Caesar’s family grave in the cemetery of Bromma Church.

Swedish icons 19: Nils Dardel

Nils von Dardel was born in 1888 in Bettna, Södermannland. He is considered one of Sweden’s most important post impressionist artists and his painting ‘Vattenfall’ is the most expensive modernistic Swedish painting ever to be sold at auction.

Born into a wealthy, cultural elite, Nils Dardel was able to spend his life as a nomad. On his travels around Europe, USA, Peru, Mexico, Asia, he painted people from varying backgrounds and all types of situations. He lived a self-destructive hedonistic lifestyle, which is apparent in several of his works , especially those from his pre-war burlesque Paris era.

His paintings are often very colourful and depict eccentricity and ambiguous sexuality. One of his famous paintings is ‘The Dying Dandy’ which today hangs in Stockholm’s Modern Museum, and is perhaps one of the most recognisable pieces of art from Sweden. Some of his other paintings are today on display around Sweden as well as in Paris, Oslo and Hamburg.

For 12 years, Nils Dardel was married to painter and author Thora Dardel although, given his hectic and bohemian lifestyle, he had affairs with both men and women. Together, they had one child – Ingrid – also herself an artist. She, in turn, became mother to two contemporary and acclaimed artists Henry Unger and Nils Ekwall.

Nils Dardel died of a heart attack in 1953 in the artist hotel The Beaux Arts on 44th Street in New York. He is buried on the island of Ekerö outside Stockholm.

Shakespeare in Sweden

Today 23 April is the anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. The literary giant died this day in 1616, aged 52. Shakespeare was world-famous for his many plays and sonnets – one of his most noted works being based in Denmark. But what about Sweden’s relationship to the Bard of Avon?

The Swedes were initiated into the poetic musings of Shakespeare in 1592, but he didn’t gain popularity until some 150 years later. The first translation into Swedish came in 1813 and was of the macabre Macbeth. Today, Shakespeare is the second-most frequently produced playwright in Sweden. Not surprisingly August Strindberg is in first place. Romeo and Juliet seems to be the most popular play to produce, followed by Twelfth Night and Hamlet.

Three of my most memorable theatre experiences in Sweden were in fact Shakespeare. The first was at Drottningholm Palace Theatre outside of Stockholm. This amazing theatre, built in 1766 is the world’s oldest preserved theatre. Still in its original condition, with its original mechanical stage, it is a wonder to behold. In the lush gardens of the theatre I watched a performance of Macbeth – around Midsummer time. The Scandinavian blue lit background and the (luckily) balmy weather contributed to a magical evening.

The second experience was Richard III, starring the charismatic actor Rikard Wolff. The play was performed at Stockholm’s Stadsteater where we, the audience, sat in a rotating auditorium, like a fairground ride. As the play progressed, we spun around to witness scenes that were gruesome and beautiful in equal measure.

The most memorable, however, was when I was visiting the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi in Swedish Lappland. The year I was there, they had built a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre completely in ice, on the edge of the Torneå river. Like the original, it was open to the heavens. There I sat, wrapped in thermal clothes in minus temperatures, on a block of ice covered in reindeer skin, and watched a performance of Hamlet in Sami. As the play progressed, the sky shifted colour and fat flakes of snow fell down onto the proceedings. It was one of the most remarkable and memorable experiences I’ve ever had. During the interval, we retreated to the ice bar, and drank vodka shots from ice glasses. A few months later and the theatre ceased to exist – it melted back into the river.

What is your most memorable experience of a Shakespeare performance?

Swedish icons 22: Carina Ari

Carina Ari was born Maria Karina Viktoria Jansson in Stockholm in 1897. She went on to become one of Sweden’s most successful dancers and choreographers throughout history. For most Swedes, she may be unknown, but she certainly made a lasting mark on Swedish and international cultural life.

Carina Ari started dancing at a young age to support her infirm mother, who died when Ari was 16. Shortly afterwards, she was employed as a dancer at the Royal Theatre and within two years was promoted to solo dancer. During the 1920’s, she danced and choreographed many acclaimed performances in Stockholm, Copenhagen and in Paris for a variety of institutions and companies. In Paris, she was the prima ballerina at the controversial and experimental Swedish Ballet. In 1924, she toured Europe with her highly successful Scènes dansées. In 1927, she choreographed a much talked-about performance for the French President Loubet at the Élysée Palace. In 1930, she was appointed Director of Ballet at the Algiers Opera, where she created for many years before returning to the Opera Comique in Paris. During her active years, she was the darling of dance, a somewhat controversial prima donna and a sought-after choreographer. Married to French composer Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht, they were a power couple on the cultural scene.

In the late 1930’s, mid divorce, Ari was holidaying in the south of France when she met, and fell in love with, a Dutch businessman. When the Second World War approached, they moved to Argentina, where they married and lived the rest of their lives. Upon his death, she inherited a great fortune and was able to maintain a residence in Stockholm and studio in Paris, both of which she frequently visited. In Argentina, she became a grand old dame, living a life of culture, entertainment and fine dining. She frequently visited the Teatro Colón and watched their dance performances. Although considered one of the best opera houses in the world, she was apparently vocally critical of the quality of their dancers.

As part of her legacy, the Carina Ari Foundation gives financial support to young, promising dancers and to older dancers who have fallen on hard times. On Holländargatan in Stockholm is the Carina Ari Library, which is the largest library of dance in Northern Europe. Additionally, the Carina Ari Medal is occasionally awarded to people who have contributed to the art of dance in Sweden.

However, her legacy is not only in dance. Carina Ari was also an accomplished sculptor. She specialized in portrait busts and some of her works are displayed at Sweden’s National Museum. Her bust of Birgit Nilsson is at the Opera House in Stockholm and her bust of Dag Hammarskjöld is located in New York in the square that bears his name.

Carina Ari died in 1970 in Buenos Aries after complications from breaking her leg, and is buried with her husband in Haarlem in the Netherlands.

The legendary philosopher who died in Sweden

Yesterday, I learned something I didn’t know. Every day, as they say, is a school day. I learned that the iconic French philosopher, scientist and mathematician René Descartes died, and was buried, in Stockholm.

When I studied philosophy at university, I was fascinated by Descartes. Said to be the father of modern Western philosophy, his list of notable ideas is long. Radically, Descartes shifted the debate from God to Man by asking ‘of what can I be certain?’ rather than ‘what is true?’ The latter question relies on belief in an external authority, whereas Descartes instead relied on the judgement of the individual. This was an extreme, and dangerous, thought as it emancipated the individual from religious doctrine and equipped mankind with autonomous reasoning.

This controversial thought sparked the Age of Enlightenment – the fascinating intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. How we reason today in the western world is profoundly based on this period – our embrace of doubt and our attitudes towards pursuit of happiness, sovereignty of reason, search for liberty, progress and secularism are all based on Descartes initial ponderings. On top of this, his scientific and mathematical theories later inspired the works of Leibniz and Newton.

Perhaps his most known legacy is a famous quote. In his ‘Discourse on the Method’, he wrote ‘je pense, donc je suis’. This appeared later in the Latin form it is today famous for – ‘cogito, ergo sum’ – ‘I think, therefore I am’. As Descartes explained it, “we cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt.” He was the father of doubt – challenging the blind faith that was the norm of his time.

Descartes was active when Queen Christina was the ruler in Sweden. Intrigued by his philosophies, she invited him to visit her in Stockholm. The idea was that Descartes would organise a new scientific academy in Sweden and tutor the Queen in science, philosophy and love.

Descartes moved to the Swedish capital in the middle of winter, and lived in a cold and draughty building near the palace. It became clear after a couple of visits that he and Queen Christina did not like each other, and on February 11 1650, Descartes died from pneumonia. Another theory is, however, that he was poisoned by a Catholic missionary who opposed his controversial views.

He was buried in the cemetery of Adolf Fredrik’s Church in Stockholm, where there is today a memorial to him. In 1666, his corpse was transferred to France and his skull is on display in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

It was surprising to learn that this giant of intellectual thinking died in Sweden. It makes me wonder what other non-Swedish, internationally-noted people spent their last days in this frozen country of the north. If you know of any, please share your insights with me and the rest of the readers.

Swedish icons 15: Anna Q Nilsson

In 1907, Anna Q Nilsson was named the most beautiful woman in America. Born in 1888 in Ystad, Southern Sweden, Anna Quirentia Nilsson emigrated to the USA and became one of the most famous actresses of her time.

Her era was the golden era of the silent movies. During her career, she appeared in almost 200 films, but she didn’t successfully make the transition into the talkies. Her most important films are considered to be Adam’s Rib, They Died with their Boots On, The Luck of the Irish and The Thirteenth Commandment. A qualified pilot, she was well known for being daring and she carried out her stunts herself. Consequently she was burned, broken and bruised throughout her career. She was also the first woman to smoke and wear trousers on camera.

She broke the record in fan mail, and was the first Swedish actor to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard. She appeared opposite legendary actors such as John Barrymore, Loretta Young, Errol Flynn and a young Elisabeth Taylor.

Her final credited appearance was with Buster Keaton and other contemporaries playing themselves in cameo parts in the classic ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ After this, she appeared uncredited in movies such as Showboat, An American in Paris and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Her final movie appearance was in 1954.

Aged 85, Anna Q Nilsson died in 1974 in Sun City, California. When she died, tv channels in the US interrupted their broadcasting to make the announcement. Her ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean.

Swedish icons 14: The Swedish Chef

I can’t write a series about Swedish icons without mentioning the Swedish chef. He was probably my second introduction to the Swedish culture when he appeared on the Muppet Show in 1975. Abba winning Eurovision in 1974 was my first. And in my ears when the members of Abba spoke – they sounded just like the Swedish chef!

The Swedish chef character is a puppet that was invented by Jim Henson and Frank Oz. The puppet’s live hands where performed by Oz, while Henson controlled the head and did the classic voice. The gobbledygook that the character spoke was supposed to be Swedish, and had the occasional English word thrown in. It was basically gibberish and sounded like ‘hurdy gurdy’ and ‘bork, bork, bork’. He was known for his ridiculous cooking methods, his accident prone nature and the fact that he almost always tried to cook living animals that, in the end, attacked him.

As a kid, I thought that the Swedish chef was hilarious. I don’t know if my love affair with Sweden began there but I certainly found him entertaining and intriguing. To date, he has been seen in over 100 countries, and in some places he might be all they know about Sweden. Interestingly in Germany, he’s known as the Danish Chef.

Real-life Swedish chef Lars Bäckman claims that he is the inspiration for the character. Allegedly he performed catastrophic screen test in the USA in the 70’s which Henson saw and imitated. Bäckman’s claim has however never been corroborated by the Muppet Show.

So, does he sound like a Swede? Well, most Swedes would say absolutely not. To them, he sounds more Norwegian. I can say that in all the years I’ve lived in Sweden, I’ve only heard a handful of people speak in the ‘hurdy gurdy’ style of the Swedish chef when speaking English. It is so unusual that it is almost a shock when you encounter it. So, the answer is no – the Swedish chef is not accurate, but he is a comedy icon in his own way.