Gun Kessle was an artist, a photographer, and an author.
Gun Kessle was born in Haparanda in Tornedalen. Her mother was a single parent and worked as a childminder and as an office-worker. Gun Kessle never found out who her father was. Although she was brought up bilingual she became Swedish-speaking at school. Her maternal grandfather was a Laestadian. Her godfather was very important to her during her childhood, and was astonished that she taught herself to read Haparandabladet before she had started school. Gun Kessle was 13 years old when her mother died. She was then sent to Stockholm as an orphan and was taken in by her relatives. She, along with sixteen other students, became infected with tuberculosis by a teacher at her school, and this led to her spending long periods at various sanatoria over the ensuing decade.
It was during these spells at the sanatoria that she met a number of artists and musicians, as they too suffered from what was then a widespread illness in Sweden. At Söderby sanatorium Charlie Norman took her under his wing and introduced her to the sculptor and drawer Arne Sandström and his associates. Gun Kessle became known as Pinocchio, which her friends’ children shortened to Pinnen, and this became her nickname. Towards the end of the 1940s she was at Österåsen sanatorium in Ed. The chief physician there, Helge Dahlstedt, had created an environment which helped many to not only survive their illness but also to develop their artistic and literary talents. It was at Österåsen that Gun Kessle met artists such as Stig Åkervall and Torsten Renqvist and began to paint.
Gun Kessle married three times. In 1947 she entered into a marriage of convenience with Nils Oskar Evert Kessle. The reason behind it was that she was being told she would have to be sent to a hospital in her hometown of Norrbotten from the Stockholm hospital she was currently in given that she had no dependents there. Her second marriage, which lasted from 1952–1956, was to the artist Torsten Renqvist. Her third and final marriage was to Jan Myrdal, and lasted from 1963 until her death.
Once Gun Kessle had been released from the sanatorium in 1943 she spent six months working as a telephone operator at Sonora, sold lottery tickets, and sewed and mended clothes in order to earn her living. She trained as an artist, initially at Konsthögskolan (college of art) and then at Signe Barth’s painting school. She also studied in England. Her first public breakthrough occurred in 1953 when she exhibited her work at Galleri Aesthetica.
Gun Kessle’s work fits into several genres – oils, gouache, graphic art, and photography – and she always had a sure eye of the strikingly concentrated, the drastic, and the expressive. As a photographer she produced notable travelogues, descriptions of daily life in book format, and documented art and monuments – Buddhist art in central Asia, Roman stone sculptures in France, Mexican baroque and murals. Her images are informative, clear, respectful of those she is depicting. They are also strikingly powerfully present.
Although Gun Kessle produced extensive artwork, today (2018) she is best remembered for her collaborative efforts with her husband Jan Myrdal. During their many travels together Gun Kessle did the driving and took photographs whilst Jan Myrdal later produced texts for their books. The reports they published from places such as China and Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s were much discussed and well-received at the time but have subsequently been subject to doubt. Their first joint travel account was their 1960 work Kulturens korsväg, which has been released in many editions with the title Resa i Afghanistan. However, their major breakthrough in the travel documentary genre was Rapport från kinesisk by in which they reported on life in the town of Liu Lin in northwest China. In this book Gun Kessle illustrated Jan Myrdal’s text with a number of graphic drawings. Later, in 1983, she producd her own book on this town and the women who lived there, entitled Kvinnoliv i kinesisk by. Her book also noted the radical changes which had taken place in the town during the two decades that she had been documenting it. Her book is liberally illustrated with her own photographs. The fundamental view expressed in her work was that she could not see major differences between the women of Liu Lin and those of her childhood home in Tornedalen.
Although she had largely worked with graphic art, Gun Kessle increasingly began to work with photography. She generated a lot of admiration on the release of her photographs of architecture and sculptural art in Ondskan tar form, from 1976, Kampucheas heliga Angkor, and the 1983 book Bortom bergen, all jointly produced with her husband. These books portray Western and Eastern stone sculptures in black-and-white closeup photography in a manner emphasising their beauty and cultural value as well as their meaning. Her art was expressed in a personal and naïve style whilst her aim as a photographer was to portray realism: she tended to photograph sculptures in natural light to show them as they really were. She believed that respect for the stoneworkers and ancient sculptors required the works to be portrayed as they would have wanted them to be seen and in the light for which they were created.
Gun Kessle also served as editor of the Förr och nu. Tidskrift för en folkets kultur och historia journal and for Folket i Bild/Kulturfront, in which her photographs often illustrated the articles. She worked right up until her death. The same year that she died she exhibited her photography in Karlshamn, in the Afghanistan i mitt hjärta display, and in Örebro in the anSikte display.
Gun Kessle died in 2007. She is buried at the Gustafs cemetery in Säter.