Agnes Cleve was one of the early Swedish modernists.
Agnes Cleve was born in 1876. She grew up in Uppsala in an intellectual bourgeois family as the second daughter of three. Her parents were Per Teoder Cleve, professor of chemistry at Uppsala University, and Alma Öhbom, a writer. It was a given that their daughters would be educated and the girls also accompanied their parents on several study trips to Europe.
In 1901 Agnes Cleve married the lawyer Ernst Lindesjöö. They had two children together. The marriage was dissolved in 1911. Agnes Cleve remarried in 1915 to the artist John Jon-And who was thirteen years her junior. They had a son together that year.
When Agnes Cleve was 16 years old she graduated from Uppsala högre elementarläroverket för flickor (an advanced school for girls). She then attended the Tekniska skolan (Konstfack) in Stockholm from 1892 to 1894. During the mid-1890s she worked as a laboratory assistant, which included making illustrative drawings. In 1897 she began to attend Göteborgs Musei rit- och målarskola (Konsthögskolan Valand), where she periodically attended classes until 1913. Her fellow students included Maj Bring, Mollie Faustman, Tora Vega Holmström, Vera Nilsson, and Ellen Trotzig.
One of her teachers in Gothenburg was the artist Carl Wilhemson. He practised gender equality when apportioning the available spots at the school and this played a significant role in opportunities for female Swedish artists. Wilhelmson’s impact on Agnes Cleve’s early paintings can clearly be seen, both in terms of technique and motifs. Her restful but serious self-portrait from 1911, called Kvinna vid staffli, was made by the application of small dots of paint which sometimes left the canvas bare. Agnes Cleve and Carl Wilhelmson began a relationship, which eventually led to her divorce and to Carl Wilhelmson’s move to Stockholm.
Agnes Cleve spent a few months studying cubism at the Académie de La Palette in Paris in 1914, along with the man who became her second husband. The pair became friends with Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, who was an abstract expressionist painter and was part of the German artists’ group Der Blaue Reiter. The couple were exposed to another form of cubism in the works of Robert and Sonja Delauny. Agnes Cleve and Joh Jon-And returned to Sweden before the outbreak of the First World War. They bought a croft at Hurdan near Gullmarsfjorden in Bohuslän and erected a studio there. Both Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky visited them at their Bohuslän home in 1917.
In early 1915 Agnes Cleve and John Jon-And got married. They moved into an apartment with a large studio on Sankt Eriksgatan in Stockholm. During 1915 Agnes Cleve created several cubist paintings, such as Kvinna. She created her own combination of cubism and expressionism. The studio window looked out across the Sankt Erik Bridge and she used the bridge as a motif in several works. One of her paintings called Sankt Eriksbron is dominated by fierce smoke which emanates in fast-moving blue circular clouds out of the factory chimneys of the nearby industrial area. Movement is tangible in Agnes Cleve’s paintings, as exemplified in the cacophonous painting called Brand i New York, with skyscrapers, people, fire engines, fire, and water. Agnes Cleve had spent three months in New York during 1916 with John Jon-And, where modern city life inspired her to create several paintings.
Agnes Cleve was a frequent traveller and went abroad almost every year. In addition to numerous journeys to European cities, she also visited Tunis, Algiers, and Istanbul. She frequently returned to Italy. Motifs and titles inspired by Italy include Nunnekloster i Assisi, and Gränd i Napoli from 1922. These are light and relatively peaceful images.
Agnes Cleve approved of the energy and power of modern society and a frequently recurring motif in her work is the factory building. During the 1930s she painted the Sandvik factory buildings with their chimneys and workers beside the glowing furnaces. She was still using expressive colours but more restricted shapes. The paintings were displayed at Sandviken and Gefle art hall.
Agnes Cleve also painted many portraits, still lifes, and landscapes in addition to her inner city and factory paintings. She made a portrait of her son Per-Erik, and of Ingegerd Thorhamn, whom she painted in profile, with a bobbed haircut and a cigarette in her hand. They exhibited their work together at Konstnärhuset in Stockholm in 1932.
Agnes Cleve’s good use of colours had already been remarked upon at the 1911 Christmas exhibition held at Göteborgs Musei rit- och målarskola. She and John Jon-And held a joint exhibition in 1917 at the Gummeson art gallery in Stockholm. Reviewers acclaimed Agnes Cleve’s work as the more interesting of the two artists. Although her eye for colour was highlighted, it was commented that her paintings lacked clarity and focus. That same year Agnes Cleve exhibited as part of the Förening Svenska Konstnärinnor (Swedish female artists’ association) exhibition at the Liljevalch art gallery in Stockholm. Reviewers again lauded Agnes Cleve’s work more highly than that of her husband in 1919 when she exhibited at Den Frie in Copenhagen. That year she also displayed her work along with Martin Åberg and Waldemar Bernhard at the Nya art gallery in Stockholm, and once again her fine use of colours was noted although her paintings in the new ismic style were considered to be superficial. As with many other female artists she was judged on the basis of her gender and in relation to male norms.
From 1922 to 1927 Agnes Cleve and John Jon-And live in Gothenburg, during which period they exhibited their work at the Röhsska museum and Agnes Cleve participated in a display at Göteborgs Musei rit- och målarskola. In collaboration with her husband – who was a scenographer at the Lorensberg theatre – she did the interior decoration of the theatre restaurant.
Once Agnes Cleve returned to Stockholm she held her first solo exhibition at the Gummeson art gallery there in 1929 and this became her major public breakthrough. The critics had certain difficulties in relating to her radical oil paintings, but her water colours of Bohuslän and Skagen were highly acclaimed. The journal Idun published an illustrated report of the exhibition.
In 1931 Agnes Cleve managed to almost entirely fill the Gothenburg art gallery with her work, dating from 1913 onwards. Her husband and Gösta Chatham also contributed. According to the reviewers she had now achieved a greater integrity and individualism in the majority of her paintings, having moved on from her period of following in the cubists’ and expressionists’ footsteps. Once again, her watercolours of Skagen and Bohuslän were acclaimed.
Agnes Cleve also gained international recognition; during the 1930s she participated in two international exhibitions, the 1933 Exposition d’oeuvres des femmes artistes held at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and the 1937 exhibition entitled Les femmes artistes d’Europe held at Jeu de Paume in Paris – which included works by Maj Bring, Mollie Faustman, Sigrid Hjertén and Tora Vega Holmström.
Although Agnes Cleve was an established artist none of her work was acquired by any of the major art museum collections during her lifetime, apart from the Nationalmuseum’s purchase of a single drawing in 1924. This could be because she followed the German form of expressionism rather than the French which was dominant in the North at this time. Her artwork found a new audience when a memorial exhibition was mounted at Norrköpings Konstmusem in 1988 and this newfound interest continued with the Gabriele Münters svenska vänner exhibition held at the Liljevalch art gallery in 1992. Since then Agnes Cleve’s work has been included in several exhibitions which have sought to bring forgotten female artists into the public gaze. In 2014 Mjellby art museum ran an exhibition entitled Agnes Cleve: Svensk modernist i världen.
Agnes Cleve died in 1951 and is buried at Uppsala old cemetery.