Atti Johansson was an artist. Her greatest impact came through her monumental murals painted to convey her message that humans and nature must be protected against the destructive forces of modern technology.
Atti Johansson was born into the Kiruna mining community in 1917. She was the eighth child of ten born to miner Anton Lundgren and his wife Anna. Her parents were culturally and politically active. One of her brothers died in 1920. Her father died in 1928 and this led her mother to move – with the surviving nine children who were still at home – to Edefors, near Boden. Atti Johansson’s desire to become an artist apparently emerged at an early stage but nothing indicates that she undertook artistic studies. In 1939 Atti Johansson moved from Edefors to Sollefteå near Ångermanälven. There she worked as an office clerk at a legal office in the town. Olle Johansson, a young wholesale merchant whom she had met previously, was also working in Sollefteå. The couple got married in 1941 and Atti Johansson made her husband swear that he would not stop her from further training within the arts.
Sollefteå lies an area which evidently appeals to artists. For many years the tall mountains, the Ångerman river and its tributaries, the steep sandy banks, rock carvings, and all the free-flowing rapids had attracted artists such as Pelle Molin, Helmer Osslund, and others. During the summers of the Second World War, when travel to mainland Europe became impossible, several artists made their way to Sollefteå. The chief physician at the Österås sanatorium from 1919-1951 was Helge Dahlstedt and he, just like his wife, was interested in art, literature, and music. The sanatorium patients during the 1940s included the artists Torsten Renqvist, Gun Kessle, Rune Sigvard, and Karl-Eric Häggblad. The sculptor Bror Marklund also made his way to Sollefteå. He like Atti Johansson had been a working-class child from Norrland who decided early on to become an artist and he became a lifelong good friend of Atti Johansson and her family. Helge Dahlstedt also became a friend as well as an artistic mentor. In addition Sollefteå had the Sollefteå Konstförening (artists’ association) in which Atti Johansson served as secretary. She held her first solo exhibition in the town in 1954 at Hotell Appelberg under the auspices of Konstföreningen.
In 1954, several years after Atti Johansson and her husband adopted their son Hans, she was accepted into the Copenhagen art academy. Atti Johansson’s teachers at the Danish academy were Olaf Rude and Nils Lergaard. She also studied drawing with Erling Frederiksen in Copenhagen. It was during this Danish period that Atti Johansson was exposed to artistic life on the continent where the Cobra group had just had their breakthrough. She had already been fascinated by the magic of the rock carvings back home in Nämforsen. Now she also travelled to see the cave drawings in Dordogne in France, and to Paris.
After her studies in Copenhagen – and up to the 1970s – Atti Johansson belonged to the Swedish avant garde. She exhibited at De Unga and at Galleri Hedenius in Stockholm, Court Gallery in Copenhagen, Salon Comparasion in Paris, Europa Arte in Ancona, Galleri F15 in Norway, Biennale de Menton in France, and at museums in Sundsvall, Östersund, Luleå, and with Sollefteå Konstförening. In 1967 she was selected to be part of the Kritikernas val exhibition of current Nordic art, which was held at Lund konsthall. Her co-exhibitors included Hans Wigert, P O Ultvedt, Enno Hallek, and Bengt Lindström. Of a total of 35 artists only three were women: Atti Johansson, Barbro Bäckström from Sweden, and Inger Sitter from Norway. In 1969 Atti Johansson was awarded the Olof Högberg plaque by Norrlandsförbundet (the Norrland association).
Her 1960s artwork initially consisted of what she called Förbytta ting or Järnvägsvagnar. Within one or several combined ‘boxframes’ she would mount magical items that she had found (so-called objets trouvés) on the ground, at the beach, on her studio floor, or in some old house. These constructed assemblages were, despite their three-dimensionality, in the main paintings as she would cover them and their background in oil paints, more or less completely, and often including chalk white additions. One must assume that Atti Johansson was aware of the history of assemblage as an art form, from Curt Schwitters and Pablo Picasso right through to the American Louise Nevelson and other contemporary artists. During the second half of the 1960s Atti Johansson began creating ‘boxes’ containing items which were opposites such as soft shapes made from wadded canvases and hard mechanical items such as pipes and machine parts, all of which was covered in acrylic paints in bright colours. She called these ‘boxes’ Organiskt/Mekaniskt.
Atti Johansson’s 65 metre long mural at Dragonskolan in Umeå, created during the 1968–1972 period, was her first step into a period during which she created several hundred meters of mural art all by herself. The wall was provocatively entitled Ska tekniken ta makten? Ska datorerna styra oss? ("Shall technology take power? Shall computers rule us?"). This art form represented a development from Organiskt/Mekaniskt. Human organs such as hands, eyes, mouths, hearts, brains, and ears are all coloured blue. Technology was represented in the form of painted electrical circuit diagrams as well as three-dimensional pipes and other things which were painted red, green, yellow and orange, outlined and marked in black. She carried on with this theme in her 1971–1973 work for Gudlav Bilderskolan in Sollefteå, a 10-metre long mural on panels entitled Vårt medvetande ligger långt efter teknikens framsteg ("Our consciousness lies far behind the progress of technology"). This work was of a denser composition and more dynamic than her Umeå piece. The title is taken from a piece of writing by the German Marxist and art-historian Ernst Fischer. Atti Johansson had always read up thoroughly on the contents of her murals. For the Gudlav Bilderskola yard she also created a brilliant sculptured group based on an Ivar Lo-Johansson quote from En journalists död: “Although the pencil is the lightest of all tools, it is with a pencil that the most difficult things can be achieved”. Atti Johansson set up five and monumental pencils in various colours leaning against the backdrop of an orange-red wall at the Sollefteå school yard.
Atti Johansson’s mural entitled Ska skogens källa sina? on the ground floor of the long hallway in the new hospital in Sundsvall was painted during 1973–1975 and comprises a 180 metre-long frieze which depicts the threatening spraying plans of modern forestry and its felling machines whilst simultaneously paying homage to nature with her portrayals of shiny lingonberries, dewy blueberries, plump raspberries, light-green birch leaves, and beautiful pine cones in vastly enlarged formats. The images are accompanied by didactical questions in text format such as Ska bär besprutas?, Ska skog kalhuggas?. The machines are factually and fascinatingly depicted. In 1976 Atti Johansson was tasked by the highly computerised Riksförsäkringsverket (national insurance agency) in Sundsvall to paint a 4 metre high stairwell wall. This became Datorer och kvinnor i skogslän where the large cellared tape drives were at the bottom, followed by female hands on keyboards and feminine figures picking berries and using clearing saws. At the top there were large solar and wind turbines. A single lush pine stretches up past every floor. During the 1980–1981 period Atti Johansson created her painting entitled Fred med jorden? for a school in Staffanstorp which puts Scanian agricultural methods under the spotlight while enormous poppies and ears of wheat serve as tributes to nature. In the mid-1980s she created murals of outsized blueberries and a river teeming with leaping salmon for Sollefteå hospital. In 1985 she created the foundation layer for the wall-hanging entitled Byggstenar ur växtvärlden for Kemicentrum at Lund university. This wall-hanging, woven by Handarbetets Vänner (friends of handicrafts), became her final public commission. Skissernas museum in Lund contains a rich source of paintings and drawings for her public works.
Atti Johansson worked on the themes of her public murals as she was painting them and had colour lithographs printed by Peter Johansen in Copenhagen. She also produced a number of canvases which were connected to the murals and were exhibited in Stockholm, Lund, Umeå, Sollefteå, and Sundsvall and became part of official art collections. During the radical 1970s Atti Johansson also engaged in radio debates on environmental issues and contributed to journals such as Rallarros and Kvinnoventenskaplig tidskrift.
Her artistic mural activities came to a stop initially in reaction to the Swedish nuclear power referendum and then to the nuclear reactor accidents which occurred in the USA and at Chernobyl. She turned Cervantes’ story of Don Quixote into a fruitful model for working out contemporary dilemmas on an easel. Her Don Quixote images depict human limbs struggling to free themselves from “sub-par reality” in the form of piles of rubbish, sharp building blocks and traps. During the 1990s she continued the existential drama evoked by her Don Quixote pictures by making paintings of human bodies which were fragile, mangled, bore exposed veins and organs. These works bear titles such as Den sårbara kroppen, Sarajevo, and Vad utmärker en kvinna?. Following the death of her husband in 1996 Atti Johansson moved away from Sollefteå and into an apartment in the doctor’s house at the former sanatorium in Österås. She carried on developing her paintings until her death in 2003.