Agda Holst was an artist. She described herself as a modified modernist and she painted several much-noted portraits and still lifes.
Agda Holst was born in Kristianstad in 1886. She was the second daughter of Nils Holst and his wife Elna. When Agda Holst was one year old the family moved to Nosaby, just north of Kristianstad. Her father traded in the locally-grown Scanian rustic tobacco. In 1895 the family moved back to Kristianstad, to Cardellsgatan, where her father opened a wool and weaving shop, which was subsequently taken over by her mother after her father died. Her older sister, Frida, died in 1896 at the tender age of eleven. The Holst couple later had a son called Walfrid, but known as Wasa. He held a very important place in Agda Holst’s life.
Agda Holst attended junior school in Nosaby from 1892-1894. She then did a year at public school. She gained good marks in Biblical history and handicrafts but was otherwise scholastically undistinguished. She joined KFUK at a young age which encouraged the development of Christian spirit. Agda Holst received a box of paints as a Christmas present when she was eight years old and was then encouraged to develop her skills by her drawing instructor, Emilia Lönblad, who was herself a painter. Agda Holst also took lessons from Axel Kleimer, who gave lessons in her hometown during the holidays.
After spending a couple of years attending Tekniska skolan (technical college) in Kristianstad Agda Holst packed her bags and travelled alone by train to Paris. There she studied at Académie Colarassi, the fashionable art school of the day at which the Norwegian Christian Krogh taught. The young Scanian woman quickly became the focus of a group of friends called Ligan (the league), within which she was the sole woman. Other members included Gösta Sandels, Gunnar Cederschiöld, Torsten Holmström, and Gunnar Friesendahl. Agda Holst, as a female artist, was always treated well and respected by her male colleagues. The Norwegian artist Ludvig Karsten courted Agda Holst, sending her passionate letters. However, she remained cool and collected and this temperament, along with her refined artistry, came to define the majority of her artistic output.
Following a lengthy break in her artistic studies Agda Holst once again travelled abroad. This time she went to Münich to the old-fashioned academy of art there which was known for its instruction in figure, portrait, and genre painting. Her teacher, Julius Exter, gave Agda Holst thorough training in drawing during the 1910-1911 period, something that she considered necessary but not particularly inspiring. Whilst she was in Münich she also began to work in graphic art. Her woodcuts were particularly influenced by the expressive simplicity of the Jugend style. During this period she maintained contact with home by writing letters to her mother and a more light-hearted correspondence with her brother, whom she addressed as her “beloved Wasa child”.
On her ensuing visit to Paris she visited different art schools. On discovering the popular school run by Dutchman Kees van Dongen she settled in well and was inspired to create remarkably sharp figure drawings.
Agda Holst then spent some years staying at home. She helped her mother run the shop and painted as a hobby. Her first-ever art display occurred in 1916 when some of her smaller paintings depicting aspects of Kristianstad were hung in the Littorin bookshop windows. She then entered her first ever formal exhibition by submitting work to the Scanian art association’s exhibition in Malmö.
Agda Holst rented a studio in Copenhagen for a while, to which she would go in order to get peace to paint. With the outbreak of the First World War many artists found it difficult to travel across Europe and thus many of them gathered in the Danish capital. During this period Agda Holst created the majority of her graphic works, influenced by German expressionism and Danish graphic art. She returned to Paris in the ensuing years, this time taking lessons with André Lhote, who “clarified concepts” and gave his students “a sort of spine”, according to Agda Holst. She had come to understand how to construct her images with geometrical accuracy and it was during this time that many of her highly-accomplished portraits were created.
During the 1920s Agda Holst completed not just a painting of her brother as a typical dandy of the era and her mother sitting in profile beside a window but also a series of self-portraits. One of these, dated 1925 and painted in a new secular spirit, gained much attention at Malmö Museum. Gustav Thomaeus, the reviewer for the Skånska Dagbladet newspaper wrote these complimentary words: “It is truly rare that one sees as fresh a painting as Agda Holst’s self-portrait”. He then added that he bowed deeply before Miss Holst. The day afterwards the artist was phoned up by Ernst Fischer, Malmö Museum’s curator, who purchased the painting for the museum’s collection.
In 1927 Agda Holst returned yet again to Paris, where she painted portraits, still lifes, and enjoyed life. On her return to Sweden she was ready to hold her first solo exhibition, which was held at Lund university art museum. When Agda Holst was looking for something new to display at the Scanian art association vernissage her brother, Wasa, suggested that she paint his friend Hjalmar Gullberg. The latter had just released his first poetry collection that year, entitled I en främmande stad. This profile portrait of Gullberg eventually became part of the portrait collection at Gripsholm castle.
Agda Holst’s debut in Lund was a major success. Hakon Hedemann-Gade, considered to be the leading art critic, wrote in Sydsvenska Dagbladet newspaper that: “The artist’s talent for creating a decorative unity on rather sizable canvases is impressive – in addition, her ability to capture so much of a portrait’s character within a stylistically simplified form must be admired”. Now as Agda Holst began to receive commissions for portraits she realised that she could make a living as an artist. That same year she exhibited her work at Tekniska skolan in her hometown. A large crowd attended, the local press were exuberant, and the artist was happy.
The art society and artists’ group called Aura was established in February 1928. Initially there were twelve members, all of whom were men apart from Agda Holst. In May 1930 Agda Holst’s mother, Elna, passed away, and she went into mourning. She buried herself in work, completing portrait commissions, selling her paintings, and working in the shop which had been her mother’s pride and joy. She was painting rapidly and efficiently, aware that she was creating a load of “poor canvases for retail”. She frequently felt pressurised by the need to provide for Wasa until he completed his studies and gained his doctorate in May 1931.
Agda Holst’s first solo exhibition held outside of Scania was at Värmlands Museum in Karlstad. She and her male colleagues displayed their works in Copenhagen and Malmö. At this point she felt secure in her artistry and so she held a major solo exhibition at Malmö city hall in 1931. Hakon Hedemann-Gade once again lauded her work in the Sydsvenska Dagbladet newspaper, in a richly illustrated article. For many years afterwards Agda Holst exhibited her work through Aura and in 1932 an exhibition was organised for Konsthallen in Gothenburg. Once again the reviews were positive and Agda Holst’s self-portrait, entitled Vid staffliet, was particularly commended. It was also shown to positive reviews at Salon des Indépendants in Bordeaux.
Agda Holst, as the sole female member of Aura, generated attention in Copenhagen, Norrköping, and at Liljevalchs. She continued to also exhibit through the Scanian art society and took every available opportunity to display her work, always considering her financial needs. During the 1930s she produced many of her still lifes. Walfrid Holst was appointed as lecturer and was now able to contribute towards paying the shop’s staff salaries. This allowed Agda Holst to travel again, and she went to Paris, southern France, and to Münich.
During the Second World War Agda Holst’s friendship with her colleague Tora Vega Holmström deepened. In order to get a change of scene they would sometimes swap homes and commented on each other’s work. They were both greatly distressed about the war and were actively engaged in running holiday camps for children. As Agda Holst’s brother now had a steady income she decided to drop the shop business.
Many exhibitions were held, one after the other. In Skövde arthall a retrospective exhibition was held, spanning two decades of Agda Holst’s work. Her later pieces, such as Symfoni i grönt, reflected that Agda Holst had placed a new importance on the use of colour. In 1945, the year of peace, 40 years’ worth of her paintings were displayed at her hometown museum, and subsequently in Malmö, to enthusiastic reviews. Finally the artist was able to paint what she really wanted to paint without considering her income. Her paintings took on a more serious tone, she began to use knives when painting and her motifs were often Biblical and more sketchlike in nature.
Health problems forced Agda Holst to intermittently spend time at Hultafors sanatorium. She celebrated Christmas 1958 together with Wasa, but when, in the following February, he died suddenly of a myocardial infarction. Agda Holst was paralysed with sorrow. Hjalmar Gullberg, who was seriously ill himself and was breathing through a respirator, sent her a laboriously-composed hand-written letter. Right up until his death in 1961 Gullberg, through his partner Greta Thott, maintained a correspondence with Agda Holst.
When Kristianstad awarded its first ever cultural prize in 1964 Agda Holst was the obvious candidate to receive it. The next year she was invited to hold a retrospective exhibition at the museum, where she displayed around 60 oil and pastel works and linoleum cuts dating from 1912 to the 1960s. As Agda Holst’s eyesight gradually worsened, working with pastel chalks became a more significant element of her output.
Agda Holst died in 1976 at her home at Cardellsgatan where she had spent the majority of her life. A street has been named after her in her hometown and her work has been exhibited in several posthumous group exhibitions and solo memorial exhibitions.
Agda Holst lived to be 90. Her remains lie in the family grave at Östra kyrkogården (the Eastern cemetery) in Kristianstad.