Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen was an artist and an author.
Peter Magnus (Per) Bergstrand, Elisabeth’s father, was a farmer’s son from the farm Bergagård in the parish of Tävelsås. Elisabeth’s paternal grandfather was forced to sell the family farm on account of insolvency, and later went to America. His son contacted an uncle who helped economically so that he could educate himself as an elementary school teacher and organist. In connection with this, he changed his surname from Månsson to Bergstrand. When he took up his appointment as teacher in the parish of Långasjö in 1885, he had recently married Anna Hammargren, the daughter of the works bailiff at Klavreström’s works. Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen’s roots in Värend were therefore very deep, and her parents lived there for the rest of their lives. Her father was the teacher and organist in Långasjö, and the family lived in the teacher’s house opposite the church.
Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen was the next eldest among six siblings. The family enjoyed making music, reading and conversing. Their spiritual cornerstones were laid down by their mother’s religiosity and their father’s musicality. He taught his daughter her school subjects and to play the piano. Early on, Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen displayed a gift for drawing. The eldest son was allowed to attend the grammar school in Växjö. However, the family could not afford to allow the gifted daughter to continue her studies, which gave her feelings of inferiority at the beginning of her artistic career. Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen stayed at home and helped out, reading a good deal nonetheless and socialising with her contemporary Gertrud Lilja, who was also to become an author. Both girls sketched and exchanged thoughts in an extensive correspondence.
In 1907, Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen attended the Technical College in Karlskrona together with Gertrud Lilja, and the year after she studied at Althin’s art school. After one unsuccessful attempt, Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen was admitted to the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, in autumn 1909. Another student in her class was Harriet Löwenhjelm. After her time at the Academy, Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen travelled on study trips in 1913–1916 to Paris, Algiers, Florence, Rome and Naples. During these formative years, her social circle included among others Ninnan Santesson, Siri Derkert, Elsa Björkman-Goldschmidt, Anna Lenah Elgström and Mollie Faustman.
Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen came home from Italy in the autumn 1916 and the year after that she organised her first art exhibition in Sweden. It consisted of both paintings and sculptures. On account of lack of funds, it had to be held in modest premises near Birger Jarl’s Passage in Stockholm. The year after, Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen succeeded in getting hold of a more established exhibition hall in the Artists’ House (Konstnärshuset) in Stockholm. However, her art received a rather miserly reception. She did not really make a breakthrough as an artist.
While in Rome, Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen had met her future husband, the Danish sculptor Axel Poulsen. They were married on her thirtieth birthday, in 1918. They had two sons. In Charlottenlund, north of Copenhagen, Axel Poulsen started to build their artists’ home, called The Cloisters. Axel Poulsen himself created this original home with his own two hands, with its churchlike ateliers and inner courtyard surrounded by buildings. Visitors were amazed by the magnificent building that took nine years to complete and that demanded such a lot of work and sacrifices. Noteworthy were the many ecclesiastical influences that characterised the home in which both spouses worked on their artistic assignments.
Despite all the difficulties with The Cloisters and raising two small sons, Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen did not give up hope of continuing her career as an artist. Her husband was a sculptor who took up a good deal of space with his ideas. Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen realised that her originality benefitted from creating suites of illustrations that portrayed people in the province of Småland. Her great breakthrough came in 1926. At Gummesson’s art shop in Stockholm, about 60 paintings from her home province were shown, of country folk and their culture. The comprehensive exhibition was greeted generously. Professor Ragnar Josephson in Svenska Dagbladet expressed his opinion in lyrical terms in which the Swedish Madonna in peasant surroundings seemed to be embraced by the young renaissance. The same autumn, the book Värendskvinnor från Långasjö socken i bilder och ord was published, with 10 illustrations taking up 21 pages. Fredrik Böök’s review under the heading ”Elegi över det förflutna” (Elegy over the past) lifts up the worshipful aspect of everyday objects – a kind of moral harmony.
When Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen finally made her breakthrough it depended on the fact that she had found her personal style which made an impression on critics and the general public. Her debut book was really a slim folder of pictures and very sparing with text. Her success with Värendskvinnor was followed up in 1927 by Värendsmän från Långasjö socken i bilder och ord. The critics appreciated her loving empathy and the pictures were interpreted as being devotional. As an author, Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen was strongly influenced by the provincialism of the 1890s generation. However, her creations using pictures combined with texts in a lyrical-pathetic style were experienced as quaint and even now and then called into question as being far too sentimental and preaching. Her texts gradually grew in length and in 1930 her Historier om gamla männsikor och unga appeared with its 217 pages and including illustrations. In it, faithful, hard-working people were praised in a moralising tone. In 1931, she published Den rika vardagen in the same style. Untiringly, Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen continued to spread her gospel of contentedness, patience and work satisfaction. She did not hesitate to go against the spirit of the times. Like Elin Wägner and Gertrud Lilja, she warned and worried about a superficial and mechanised age.
Her authorship continued in 1933 with Hjältar och hjältedåd in which she idealised the country of her childhood. In 1934, Glad och god skall människan vara – och stark was published, a book that once again emphasised the importance of moral values. Lovsång till träorkester from 1935 dealt with the sounds made by different wooden tools. Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen won more obvious success with Väven in 1936, a mixture of story-telling and devotional elements. Her tenth book, Kronan from 1937 has been to a great degree romanticised. At the age of 50, she stood at the apex of her career, and in 1937 a big retrospective exhibition was organised at Småland’s Museum in Växjö. The altarpiece and carton to Kvinnans årstider were shown there. The exhibition was a great success and the people of Småland had now taken her to their hearts. However, certain critics had reservations about the fact that symbolic rather than aesthetic values were given priority in her use of colours. The year after, the exhibition continued on to Gothenburg and Lund.
Människan och klockorna came out in 1939 and relates how the pealing of bells accompanies the life experiences of the oppressed and underprivileged. In the midst of the German occupation of Denmark, where the family was living, she published the autobiographical work Hök, får jag låna dina vingar? in 1940. In it, the author looks back at all she has accomplished in the shadow of the threat of war. Criticism was not mild from certain quarters, but Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen had gotten used to living with that. During the war years, the Bergstrand-Poulsen family lived in terror of the blackout and house-searches by the Germans. Their sons were members of the Danish resistance movement. During the war, Se, människan! Livsfragment came out in 1943 and Tre högtider in 1945. The secure Småland theme perhaps felt extra important in the uncertain situation in which the family found themselves.
During the post-war period, Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen continued to hold lectures at various places in the Nordic countries, with her voluminous baggage of cultural history. She got involved in the welfare and woes of her home parish and continued to paint portraits. These assignments were significant for her economy in times of hardship. Her books, boasting almost 20 titles, had also sold more than 100,000 copies and were translated into several languages. Her last book in 1951 was given the title Hustru. Ett minnesmärke and it portrayed a peasant woman from Småland.
Most prominent in Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen’s art are the religious motifs that showed the path of life in connection with the church. The motif Bedjande brud is one of her most beloved. She painted altar pieces and composed tapestries. The best known are Gudmodern and Kvinnans årstider. She had worked on the latter since the 1930s but it was first in 1953 that the valuable tapestry was finished after a collection in the county of Småland. The tapestry was inaugurated at an extensive retrospective exhibition at Småland’s Museum in Växjö the same year. About one hundred works were shown and the opening day drew crowds of people. The centre of all the attention was of course Kvinnans årstider, that was a unique piece of craftsmanship woven at Barbro Nilsson’s atelier in Stockholm with a woman weaver from Långasjö who wove the church. After various excursions, the tapestry is now once again in a room at Småland’s Museum.
Elisabeth Bergstrand-Poulsen completed the altarpiece for Långasjö Church in 1950. It shows schoolchildren singing Christmas psalms. However, it was first inaugurated in 1957, two years after Elisabet Bergstrand-Poulsen’s death. She is buried in Ordrup Cemetary in Denmark.