Greta Knutson-Tzara was a Swedish modernist artist who, like others, discovered her painting style in Paris. In the guise of a painter, an author, and a translator, she served as a significant lifelong link between France and Sweden.
Greta Knutson-Tzara was born in Stockholm in 1899. She was the second child of Knut and Signe Andersson. Despite coming from a home where culture was valued her father was set against allowing his linguistically talented daughter to study linguistics. She instead registered at Carl Wilhelmson’s painting school and later attended Konstakademin (the academy of art) for a time before leaving Sweden. She moved to Paris in 1920 and spent a year there studying with André Lhote, and others. It was through socialising with the Swedish artistic circles in Paris and through Thora Dardel, that she came to know the Romanian Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara in 1924. They got married the following year and had a son called Christophe, born in 1927. Greta Knutson-Tzara was a wealthy woman and the couple used her inheritance to build a house, which had been designed for them by the Austrian avant-garde architect Adolf Loos, in Montmartre, in Paris.
The Knutson-Tzara household became a gathering place for French surrealists. Greta Knutson-Tzara’s surviving works which date from that period include the so-called cadavres exquis, in which the likes of André Breton, Valentine Hugo, and Greta Knutson-Tzara collaborated playfully, each responsible for drawing their own section. Greta Knutson-Tzara herself sought greater independence and peace to work in order to concentrate on her painting, which at this point was not tied to the surrealist style. Instead, she exhibited through the Optimisterna group in Stockholm in 1928. Her paintings were influenced by a modernist, almost post-cubist, style. In the main her themes are recognisable, albeit faceted and synthetic, resembling the method Paul Cézanne had introduced and which was later streamlined by the cubists.
Greta Knutson-Tzara’s marriage took an unhappy turn and was formally dissolved in 1942. By the outbreak of the Second World War she and her son had left Paris to seek safety in Aix-en-Provence. She began a long relationship with the French poet René Char. Both of them served in the resistance and Greta Knutson-Tzara assisted refugees in their flight to Spain. She remained in southern France after the end of the war and mostly lived at a variety of different farms. She retained an address in Paris but rarely returned to Sweden. Nevertheless, she regularly exhibited in both France and Sweden. Her final exhibition travelled from the Institut suédois in Paris to Thielska Galleriet in Stockholm in 1980.
Greta Knutson-Tzara’s painting style did not develop in parallel with the wider modernist movement. She stayed loyal to painting in oils throughout her life and devoted a lot of her time to drawing. In her style the decorative – especially in her sweeping and confident lines – was combined with post-cubism, marked by faceted, broken-up shapes. Her output is largely dominated by classical themes such as portraits, interiors, and still-lifes. During the latter part of her life she began to approach surrealism in a tangible manner – she herself described her work as “oneiric paintings”. Dark drawings convey dream-like scenes; her later imagery is dominated by imaginary shapes and encounters between animals and humans.
Throughout her career as an author Greta Knutson-Tzara’s work more closely resembled surrealism, and she undertook this in parallel to her painting. Apart from individual articles she also published a collection of texts in German, later on in life in 1980, entitled Bestien. In addition to Swedish and French she spoke German fluently. She used her linguistic talents to translate between French, German and Swedish. This made her an important purveyor of German romanticism to the surrealists, and of phenomenological philosophy to Char. She also conveyed French lyricism through her translations into Swedish, produced in collaboration with Gunnar Ekelöf.
Greta Knutson-Tzara spent her final years alone in Paris, where she committed suicide in 1983. Her work is included in the collections of the National museum, the Modern museum, Norrköpings Konstmuseum, and the Musée national d’art moderne/Centre Pompidou.