Anna Casparsson was a pioneer of freestyle textile art. Her creations comprised freestyle needlework art and narrative work.
Anna Casparsson was born in 1861. She grew up on Lövingsborg farm near Linköping. Her father was Urban von Feilitzen, who was a literary man, a philosopher and an officer. He wrote literary criticism using the pseudonym of Robinson. Anna Casparsson’s mother, Lotten von Feilitzen, was a member of the Musikaliska akademi (academy of music) and was considered to be one of the most eminent pianists in Sweden, despite her father – the composer Adolf Fredrik Lindblad – having forbad his daughter from becoming a professional pianist. Her father had received support in this view from Jenny Lind, who would often stay with the Lindblad family. Thus Anna Casparsson’s mother had become a piano teacher instead. Anna Casparsson grew up in an artistic, creative and educated environment and she maintained this cultured existence in her adult life. She was a self-taught visual artist, but had learned to play the piano and read music from her mother.
Anna Casparsson got married in 1889. Her husband was Edvard Casparsson, who had grown up on a nearby farm in Östergötland. He was a foreign correspondent for the Skandia insurance company. The couple had four children together and in 1896 they moved into their newly-built house at Saltsjöbaden called Villa Snäcken. They enjoyed an extensive circle of friends which included artists, musicians, and neighbours. They often held big parties at their villa. The artist Ernst Josephson was one of their closest friends. Edvard Casparsson defended the artist when his painting Strömkarlen was criticised. Ernst Josephson would often visit the Casparssons, staying for several days at a time. During his last summer, in 1905, he stayed for two weeks. He was so moved when listening to Anna Casparsson playing Beethoven sonatas that he later sent a drawing depicting Beethoven cutting his own heart out. Josephson explained that Beethoven pulled the notes out of his heart when Anna Casparsson played the music. Josephson and Anna Casparsson shared similar types of imagination and approaches and he became a major source of inspiration for her artwork. She was also inspired by her friend Per Ekström’s glistening images of sunshine.
Anna Casparsson quickly established herself as a piano teacher in Saltsjöbaden. She also sewed clothes for all her children. In 1901 she wrote in a letter: ‘I spend my days devising and sewing beautiful pieces of work.’ She described her artistic creations later by saying that she was never really able to freely use her sewing needles and brushes until after her husband died. She was scared of his potential criticism. It was not until 1922-23, after she had lost both her husband and her son, that she really began her needlework in earnest. Because she had never trained as an artist she refused to call herself an artist.
She did freestyle needlework on piano covers, cushions, and cloths. Sometimes she would sew animals, or a crane, or flowers. Her similarly freestyle narrative imagery was sometimes based in travel memories, such as Minne från Amalfi, or representations of fairytales such as H.C. Andersen’s Snödrottningen, or de Laboulaye’s Blå sagor. She also took inspiration for her imagery from literary sources such as Du går inte ensam from Almquist’s Songes, from 1936, or from Bellman in Träd fram du nattens Gud, from 1949, or from Atterbom in Lycksalighetens ö, from 1950. Her needlework also took inspiration from music, such as Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ symphony, from 1947. Sometimes she sewed pictures with related stories onto folding panels in three or four sections such as ‘Yvon och Finette’ from Blå sagor by Laboulaye.
The base layer of material which she sewed on usually consisted of several pieces of cloth sewn together to form one picture. The sky might be a light-blue piece of silk, whilst the earth and mountains were in dark velvet, a castle in lace. She would mix pieces of material that she felt worked well together and used the different colours of the cloths in her designs. When she sewed she would use various types of threads: gold- or silverthread or yarn. She would also sew on pearls, sequins, seashells, jewels, sculptures, buttons and pieces of mirrors. Sometimes she would paint directly onto the cloth. These richly bejewelled images would shine and glimmer and were somewhat Eastern in appearance. She sewed freely, following no rules, breaking with convention and according to her own volition. Thus her first exhibition of her work at the women’s association called Sällskapet Nya Idun, which her friend Maj Bring had organised, was somewhat of a fiasco. The textile artists who attended made fun of her freestyle needlework and were unimpressed that she disregarded all the rules of textile art.
In contrast, Anna Casparsson’s first major exhibition of her art at the Saltsjöbaden summer exhibit in 1945 was a success. Oscar Bergman, a fellow artist, wanted Anna Casparsson to be invited and convinced the jury – which consisted of the artists Isaac Grünewald and Nils Sjögren – to do so. Anna Casparsson displayed 50 of her works and they were particularly well-received by younger artists. She also gained positive press reviews which noted this ‘newly-discovered’ artist, by then 83 years old, and she sold almost all of her display pieces. One was acquired by the National museum, while Isaac Grünewald purchased six others. A couple of years later she was invited to exhibit at Den Frie’s autumn exhibition in Copenhagen by a group of young Danish artists, including Asger Jorn and Henry Heerup, who both knew of her work. The press reported that Anna Casparsson’s needlework images were the greatest attraction of the exhibit. This attention in Copenhagen led to her holding her first solo exhibit at the Skånska konstmuseum at Lund university in 1948.
Anna Casparsson participated in two exhibitions at Liljevalch art gallery, namely the exhibition of Nordic women’s art held by the Förening Svenska konstnärinnor (association of Swedish female artists) in 1948 and 1951 and at Hyresgästernas sparkasse- och byggnadsförening exhibition entitled ‘God konst i alla hem’ at which she was given one of the larger rooms. In 1959 she was one of six Swedish women to exhibit at the Musée national d’Art modern in Paris in the international exhibition of female artists. Her biggest exhibition was held at the newly-opened Moderna museet in 1960, when she was 99 years old. This made her one of the first Swedish artists to exhibit at the otherwise internationally-focused museum. The display toured several art galleries and museums, including Norrköping and Eskilstuna art museums.
Anna Casparsson died in 1961, just two weeks before her 100th birthday. A few years after her death her works were displayed at Gothenburg Konsthall in 1966. They were not shown at the Röhsska handicrafts museum as they were considered to be visual art. It was not until 1978 that one of her pieces was acquired by the Röhsska museum, and now they own several of her works. Anna Casparsson’s work was displayed at Prins Eugens Waldermarsudde in 1994 at an exhibition called ‘Den Otroliga Verkligheten’, which included pieces by 13 pioneering female artists of the 1900s.
Anna Casparsson’s poetic art with its unconventional relationship to materials and rules came to represent a freedom from enforced rules within textile artwork and served as a role model for many, particularly younger, visual artists especially within the textile sphere.