This is the second article in in the series, where TCG Nordica every week introduce a famous Scandinavian artist’s life and work.
The Swedish sculptor Carl Milles [ˈmɪ̂lːɛs] has given generations to come and across the world a vast number of stunning and intriguing artworks to behold and enjoy. He invites the spectator to explore his universe if only we look closely and long enough to see it.
On Lidingö, one of the many islands on which Stockholm the beautiful capital of Sweden is built, the public is invited to visit Millesgården, the Milles mansion. After passing the marble portal, visitors arrive at a green gate and then a small courtyard, enclosed by an iron railing with large wrought-iron gates displaying Carl Milles’ motto: Pray, let me work while the day is bright (Låt mig verka medan dagen brinner) – which he borrowed from a poem by his older sister Ruth Milles.
Already when one flies into the Stockholm Arlanda airport, one is actually close to Carl Milles birthplace. He was born in what today is the municipality of Knivsta. There, by the Lagga church, one finds his statue Angel playing flute. The flute itself points at Carl Milles’ mother’s grave. Although the statue belongs to his later production, it is connected to one of his earliest experiences, that of losing his mother when being little more than a toddler.
Carl Milles is arguably Sweden’s greatest sculptor and dominated much of the Swedish sculptor scene for decades and was indeed very productive. As result we can enjoy his works in many Swedish cities, but also abroad. This essay intends to introduce its readers to but a fraction of Carl Milles’ vast production, and rather than doing so in a formal way of a chronological inventory, we will have a peek into Carl Milles worldview and passions as well as take note of some events and circumstances that appear to have had influence on him. Artistically, we will mainly focus on how he was intrigued by the interaction between hard matter like stone or metal, and the soft matter of water, a relationship he explored in his many fountains.
One of Milles’ strong influences comes from Auguste Rodin, under whom he studied at the Êcole des Beaux-Arts school in Paris, France. Milles moved to Paris in 1897 and he remained there until 1906. In Paris he also met his wife, the Austria-born Olga Granner. Already at this time Carl Milles begins to get internationally recognized and rewarded. Due to poverty and rough circumstances, he unfortunately contracted a lung disease, which forced him to slow down his creative production. However, in 1907 Carl and Olga managed to buy the first plot of land that became the early beginnings of what today is Millesgården. This was a period when his popularity kept increasing, making it financially possible for him and Olga to also realize their dreams and visions and to gradually increase the Milles mansion.
However, as they enjoy building their own private world, the world around them is about to change dramatically. The revolution in Russia took place in 1917, and soon after, World War I changed the world for good. The political and societal changes in Germany, Italy and Spain in the early 1900s, caught the interest of Carl Milles, who also appeared to express some admiration of the fascists. This made him controversial and he faced fierce criticism for it. His artwork also drew criticism from some artist quarters. He is said to have been a sensitive personality and he suffered in the situation. In 1931 he decided to leave a quite successful career in Sweden and settle at Cranbrook Academy of Art, outside of Detroit, USA. Another twenty productive and successful years followed, after which he and his wife returned to Sweden and the Milles mansion in 1951, although the winters were spent in Rome, Italy.
God, our Father, on the Rainbow
This is an artwork at Nacka Strand in the eastern suburbs of Stockholm. It stands more than 20 meters tall, made out of stainless steel. Carl Milles originally came up with the idea in 1946 for the newly created United Nations’ headquarters in New York. Although the project didn’t happen there, eventually, it was modelled in full scale by one of Milles’ American students, Marshall Fredericks, and inaugurated in Stockholm in 1995. Carl Milles was fascinated by astronomy throughout his entire life. Several of his works also depict a wrestling with existential questions, faith and the origin of the universe and mankind.
In this fountain God Father stands atop the arch, assisted by an angel at the foot of it handing new stars to God Father, who then places them on the heaven. A similar theme is explored in several other of his works, like The hand of God(1953) that is exhibited at the Milles mansion as well as in USA, Japan, Australia and Indonesia.
Poseidon (1931) is possibly Milles’ most famous fountain. It is made out of bronze and has the very prominent position in Sweden’s second largest city, Gothenburg, and is cherished by the city’s inhabitants. Poseidon stands on a square surrounded by the city theatre, the city art museum and city concert hall. From there he overviews the Avenue all the way down to the Gothenburg harbor.
In this sculpture we find the theme of Greek and Roman ancient mythology as well as astronomy. Poseidon is the god of the sea in Greek mythology. Originally, Milles had in mind to name the statue Neptune, which is the Roman mythological god of the sea. Neptune is also one of the planets in our solar system. The moons surrounding Neptune all have names of Roman mythological sea creatures such as Triton, Naiad and Nereid. And indeed, they are all found among the many details of the sculpture.
Fountain of Faith
In the early 1940s, Carl Milles started work on his largest fountain group yet, the Fountain of Faith, for the cemetery in Falls Church outside Washington. It is located in National Memorial Park, a large cemetery which also displays a colossal cast of Milles’ Sunsinger.
The theme for the fountain is the meeting of persons who have died. Here, mothers are reunited with their children, sisters with their brothers, and wives with their husbands. All the figures represent people who the artist knew and loved during his life.
Woman reunited with her child is one of the details in this fountain. Carl Milles had during his life several times experienced how death separated mothers from their children. He himself was only four years old when his mother Walborg died after giving birth to his younger brother Stig.
Carl and Olga never had any children of their own. However, at Milles mansion, they often were visited by the children and grandchildren of their siblings. It is an interesting detail to take note of that Carl Milles is buried at the Milles mansion. This is noteworthy as in Sweden burials by law take place on sacred ground. This exception was granted by the Swedish King at the time.
According to one source, Carl Milles had just finished a short poem to be read at the inauguration of a replica of Angel with flute, when he apparently peacefully passed away in his armchair.
For further reading please visit www.millesgarden.se from which site this essay has benefitted greatly.
Text: Stefan Rizell
Translation: Zhang Yu