Elsie Dahlberg was a sculptor who worked to create a place for art in society. She created public sculptures throughout Sweden.
Elsie Dahlberg was born in Stockholm in 1916. Her father, Lars Fredrik Dahlberg, was a wholesale merchant. The family, which lived in a seven-room apartment on Odengatan, comprised nine children who were strictly but lovingly brought up by their mother Anna Dahlberg. At the age of four Elsie Dahlberg underwent her first operation on her congenital clubfoot. This was later followed by further operations until she was able to walk, dance, and ski with specially made footwear.
In Ålsten on Åsbacken many soirées were held featuring music and song. 10-year-old Elsie Dahlberg saw images and shapes everywhere; she wanted to become an artist and she would use the playhouse as a “studio”. She was inspired by Allan Runefelt, her friend Aina Runefelt’s 8-year-old brother, who would create imaginary animals – he, too, would go on to become a sculptor. Through her classmate Tutta she came to the artist Mollie Faustman’s home. Elsie Dahlberg felt that going to school was “stultifying” and was greatly relieved when she finished. However, her parents did not permit her to attend Tekniska skolan (a design school); instead she was forced to undergo her last operation. Elsie Dahlberg spent her recuperation period at the Fjällbacka home of her 80-year-old paternal grandmother Fanny. Her home was beside the sea and always remained a place where Elsie Dahlberg found inner peace.
In 1937 Elsie Dahlberg reapplied to Tekniska skolan and enrolled in its evening classes. She also worked at Statistiska centralbyrån (Statistics Sweden) in order to fund herself. Her teacher Edvin Ollers taught her the importance of blackening and line work. The painters Nicke Nixon, Gösta Hilfon, Kaisa and Erland Melanton, and the sculptors Margit Landin and Arne Jones could be found amongst her colleagues. Elsie Dahlberg and Margit Landin rented a room next door to the Oscar Church. Arne Jones lived at the home of Lars Ahlin, an author who also became a friend of hers. One day, when she was officially on sick-leave, Elsie Dahlberg visited the sculpture class and discovered her affinity for working with clay. She abandoned painting and gave up her job at Statistiska centralbyrån. To help with her finances the principal of Tekniska skolan organised a scholarship of 150 Swedish kroner, which allowed her to complete the school term without working. In June 1939 Elsie Dahlberg was hired by a relative to work in their printing office and advertising agency in Halmstad. She subsequently worked for a time at Jordbruksbanken.
In the spring of 1940 Elsie Dahlberg was encouraged by Bengt Eklund, a promising young actor, to complete her training. He was at the same time applying to Dramaten. She borrowed money from her parents in order to fund a train ticket to Stockholm in May 1940. That same month she travelled to Lidingö Brevik in order to care for an elderly couple called Bess. Mrs. Bess was the sister of Anders Wissler, a sculptor who in 1903 had created Tors Fiske located at Mariatorget in Stockholm. Whilst caring for the Bess couple Elsie Dahlberg received training in sculpting and also met Per Sundberg, an air force cadet, whom she went on to marry.
From 1940 to 1941 Elsie Dahlberg continued attending Tekniska skolan. In the autumn of 1941 she was accepted at Konstakademin (the Royal Academy of Art). Elsie Dahlberg and Per Sundberg married in November 1941, just after Per had suffered the trauma of his mother’s pain and death from cancer. He missed his pilot’s exam as a result and this influenced his career. He started working with designing bank forms, never took on a share of the housework, developed an alcohol problem, and eventually died as a manic-depressive in 1993. Despite everything Elsie Dahlberg was unable to abandon him. Their daughter Helena was born in 1943, and she too later became an artist and sculptor in her own right. The couple hired a studio apartment in Per’s paternal aunt’s old building at Valhallavägen 54. Following the death of that aunt they were given the apartment and a temporary studio was erected behind a curtain. During the summer months Elsie Dahlberg and Helena lived at Lorensvik near Värtan in Viggbyholm, where she had a small studio beside the sea.
In 1951 the Sundberg family moved to Per’s family villa on Lidingö. When her husband got a job at ABA in Bromma Elsie Dahlberg got free flights, which allowed her to study in Copenhagen, Paris, Nice, and Rome. In 1952 she received a work scholarship to Axel Munthe’s Villa San Michele in Capri, and she later returned there.
Elsie Dahlberg was active in the Lidingö Konstnärerna (Lidingö artists) group, whose members included the painter Siri Derkert as well as the sculptors Björn Erling Evensen and Eva Lange. They all participated in exhibitions organised by the group. Elsie Dahlberg completed public commissions and was elected into the Nya Idun society in 1958. In 1968 the municipal council from Malmberget visited her at her studio to commission a sculpture for a new swimming and sports hall. The result was Snacket, a bronze sculpture portraying two boys, which was formed in Mendrisio in Switzerland and then erected in Malmberget.
The Lidingö villa was sold in 1970. With the help of her brother Olle, a construction engineer, Elsie Dahlberg had a large house built that had been designed by Johan Thomé. Half of the house served as an active studio. In 1970 Elsie Dahlberg was invited to enter a sculpture competition in Mjölby for the square next to the bridge across Svartå. At the last minute the competition stipulated that the legend of the first miller who came to the town, in life-size “with a tension in both its shape and soul”, as well as a woman reading the legend to children was to be portrayed. Elsie Dahlberg won the competition with her sculptural group.
Elsie Dahlberg was active in Stockholm’s cultural agencies, and those in Österåker municipality, which sought to improve cultural and artistic life. She also served as vice-chair of Stiftelsen Konstnärernas Hjälpfond, working with various chairs including the builder Jonny Mattsson, Stig Ramel of the Nobel trust, and the art auctioneer Carl af Petersén. In 1973 she became the first female chair of Konstnärhuset and had the entire building renovated. In 1975 the Skulptörförbund (sculpturers’ association) was set up with Björn Selder, Bengt Helleberg, Torsten Frid, Puck Hultgren, Gunnel Friberg as well as Elsie Dahlberg on the board. In an attempt to promote public sculpture 25 sculptors travelled around Sweden by car, transporting mobile exhibitions, and public commissions began to trickle in.
Elsie Dahlberg won the 1975 Åkersberga cultural agency’s competition to create artwork for Margretelund schoolyard. In memory of games she had played in the Ålsten hills she constructed a palisade of worked wooden trunks of different heights, with openings and stones placed around a stone table, several figures, a three metre tall male with a boat in his lap, and a fence, which could be clambered upon.
In 1975 AB Sporrong in Norrtälje tasked Elsie Dahlberg with making Sveriges och dess regenter under 1000 år. She created five sculptures depicting regents of the Folkunga family. She made five medals for the medal series entitled Stora Svenska Författare in 1978 and created a medal in honour of Crown Princess Victoria’s birth on 14 July 1977. Elsie Dahlberg also created the 1978 Stockholm medal for the series of Nordic capital city medals. These medals were required to clearly depict entire cities, including their founders, within an 8 cm diameter. Her medal turned out to be the most popular, and sold the highest number of copies. In 1979 Elsie Dahlberg won the competition to create a medal depicting Nordenskiöld’s voyage with Vega across the Northeast Passage. It was produced by AB Sporrong in the jubilee year of 1980.
Elsie Dahlberg created a large number of sculptures, mainly in bronze, which served to decorate public places across Sweden. Finn Malmgrens Plan in Hammarbyhöjden houses Avskedet på polarisen, 1979; Åsunda church in Scania contains Den förlorade sonen. In 1981 she decorated the wall of Domänverkets hus in Falun, which was moved to Stockholm a few years later. Stora torget in Vetlanda is home to Ljugarbänken, which depicts a couple of old fishermen boasting to each other. In 1987 she was commissioned by Stockholm county council to deliver the bronze statue entitled Pojke med säljpipa for the Löwenstrom hospital. Several of her pieces are on display in Hallsberg, including Lena, 1962, placed outside the station building. Further, the square also houses a sculpture and fountain by Elsie Dahlberg, which date from 1991. There is even a copy of Lena in Kristianstad.
In addition to her bronze sculptures Elsie Dahlberg also created public works of art in wood. Lugnetgymnasiet in Falun contains a large painted wooden relief, which was unveiled in 1984. It depicts Odysseus bound to a ship’s mast, and surrounded by sirens. Lyckelse vårdcentral has another painted wooden relief called Sommar, 1982. Elsie Dahlberg embellished a brick wall at Åkersberg swimming and sports hall with a painted wooden relief entitled Ishockyspelare. In 1984 she was commissioned to create a figurehead for the Silja Lines vessel Wellamo. She created this piece by taking an electric saw to a large block of wood, which was then carved and painted in 1985. The following year she created another figure, which was more abstract and severe, for the gourmet restaurant on board the vessel Svea. She also created other pieces on commission from Silja Line.
Elsie Dahlberg’s study trips to Egypt, Mexico and New York formed an important part of her life. Towards the end of the 1960s she travelled twice to the Soviet Union by bus, in the company of fellow artists. When her daughter Helena moved to Gotland in 1980 Elsie Dahlberg became a frequent visitor to the island, which she would tour and draw in new ways and using new techniques.
Elsie Dahlberg died in 2005. She is buried in the Dahlberg family grave at the Norra cemetery in Solna.