Helga Henschen was one of the most versatile Swedish artists – a painter, sculptor, drawer, writer, and an activist – who was active during the second half of the 1900s.
Helga Henschen was born in 1917 and grew up at Rosenvik on Djurgårdsslätten. She was the daughter of Folke Henschen, a professor of pathology, and his wife Signe, who was herself a daughter of Ernest Thiel, the banker and arts patron. Her 1981 autobiographical book Vägen till Rebella depicts Helga Henschen’s childhood environment of talented upper-class relatives who socialised with artists from the Djurgårdsslätt circus as well as the family summers spent in their island group called Mefjärd, which is part of the southern Stockholm archipelago.
After gaining her school-leaving certificate from the Wallin school Helga Henschen undertook art studies in Florence just before the outbreak of the Second World War and at Maj Bring’s and Otte sköld’s painting school in Stockholm. In 1940 she was admitted to the painting department at the Academy of Art in Stockholm, which was led by Isaac Grünewald at that time. Her 1991 painting Åren med Peter portrays the exhausting double affair she had with two of her fellow students, Per-Olov Zennström, a ‘communist’, and Peter Weiss, an exiled artist. In 1943 she married Peter Weiss and their daughter Randi was born the following year.
Helga Henschen’s first artistic success came through her small painted clay figures. According to her these were inspired by her childhood summers and by the mud at the bottom of the Mefjärd sea. They were sold at Svenskt Tenn from the mid-1940s onwards. Helga Henschen’s first solo exhibition was held in 1947 at Louise Hahne’s art salon in Stockholm, in which busts in polychrome terracotta dominated. These types of sculptures became somewhat of a trademark and a specialist area in which few other Swedish artists participated. Her figures can be recognised by their humorous and charming elements, in with the playfulness and folklore is tangible.
Initially her drawings mainly served as bread and butter for her. Helga Henschen had a part-time job at the so-called ‘drawing room’ at Åhlén & Åkerlund from the mid-1940s onwards, where she met professional illustrators for the weekly press such as Gobi (Margit Uppenberg) and Gerd Miller. She herself began by illustrating short stories in All världens berättare. Later she had a permanent job as an illustrator for articles and food columns in journals such as Vecko-journalen and Husmodern, and during the 1950s and 1960s for the ‘economics page’ in Svenska Arbetsgivareförening journal, Industria. She is best known for her congenial drawings in Gröna visboken, which was first published in 1949, followed by Gula visboken and Röda visboken.
Helga Henschen made her debut as an author in 1951, with her book Dårarna sjunger om natten. En resa till öar i Medelhavet. The book was one of the first to depict Europe after the Second World War. It was personal, adventurous, included her own illustrations, and it generated a lot of attention. It was released just as a revolution was occurring within the sphere of children’s literature. In 1951 Helga Henschen’s cousin Britt G. Hallqvist released her first children’s book, the absurd Rappens på Blåsopp, which Helga Henschen illustrated. Her illustrations for Gösta Knutsson’s cartoon books about Tuff and Tuss earned her a place in people’s hearts in the same way as the ballad-books had.
Her 1953 exhibition at Samlaren in Stockholm, entitled Polychrome sculpture, was the result of a major effort to produce sculpture. Her previously small clay figures had expanded in size and the desire to create shapes is prominent. Her main themes were still those of childhood and fairy tales, but her art retained its sense of playfulness and imagination. The impact was more forceful. The exhibition included the largescale and imposing Svart prinsessa and Röd prinsessa and she exhibited paintings and reliefs alongside the sculptures.
Helga Henschen’s marriage to Peter Weiss largely ended in 1948 and from 1954 onwards she lived with her daughter Randi at Malmskillnadsgatan in Stockholm. She married the Finnish-born critic, poet, and author Ralf Parland in 1961, and they moved into a newly-built artists’ commune in Turinge church school in Nykvarn. Elsa Munktell, a friend from her academy days, also lived there along with her husband Ulv Kylberg. During this period Helga Henschen, Elsa Munktell and another artist – Ingegärd Torhamn – all held exhibitions at Rudell’s gallery. Helga Henschen also held a solo exhibition at Färg och Form.
Many people related Helga Henschen with her speech bubbles. At this time male cartoonists and political satire cartoons were mainly a male-dominated sphere. The signatures which immediately come to mind are MEM (Mats Erik Molander), EWK (Ewert Karlsson), and Staffans Stollar (Staffan Lindén). Helga Henschen joined the fray by the backdoor through her illustrations for recipes in Husmodern. All the elements which came to characterise her political drawings can already be found there. For example, to illustrate an autumn soup, which the text described as rich in nutrients, she drew a picture of a man seated at a dining table with his tired head drooping to one side and his wife pushing his soup bowl towards him, with a speech bubble declaring: “Have some soup, Filip – it is full of so many things”. It was no great leap from there to the political cartoon, such as the one where a worried husband waves to his wife, saying: “ Take care, dear Gullan – there is such a terribly strong wind from the right today.”
Helga Henschen began her political activism in 1967. She viewed her engagement with the workers’ movement and her entry into Social-Democracy as her ‘homecoming. A course she attended at Bommersvik had a lasting impact. She always seemed to hit the nail on the head when she expressed herself. As she herself put it in the self-biographical book, Vägen till Rebella, “At last I could use my own work, my own drawings, and speech bubbles in the campaign”. Helga Henschen became the mouthpiece and a source of ideas for the workers’ movement. Her inventive creations could be seen everywhere, in papers and journals, on posters for movements like BRIS or Kommissionen mot rasism och främlingsfientlighet (anti-racism and anti-xenophobia committee), on brochures, and within political campaigns. The 1973 election campaign saw the publication of the book Min gröna dröm är röd which included the precursor to the riot figurehead Rebella, the girl with the large flat cap, wild hair and the motto: “Art and politics belong together! If I did not draw old men then no-one would bother themselves with what I am saying.”
Her exhibitions were also influenced by the new holistic view, they became ‘collages’, namely mixtures of texts, drawings, sculptures, feathers, and all kinds of objects. The first of these was in Helga Henschen’s section of Svenska Konstnärinnors jubilee exhibition at Liljevalch art gallery in 1970, entitled Samla ihop dina röda fjädrar. Her work Kärleksbrev was an even larger sized version of the concept, which was part of an exhibition at the same art gallery in the winter of 1972-1973.
The Vietnam War concerned Helga Henschen. She was active on the Svenska kommitté för Vietnam (Swedish committee for Vietnam). She designed posters and make sculptures and with a delegation from the committee she visited North Vietnam and Laos in 1974. Upon her return to Sweden she straightaway began working on the Tensta subway station, which served one of the most multi-cultural residential areas of Sweden. Her work was entitled En ros till invandrarna (A rose for the immigrants) and one of the two walls contains a flaming pink rose. The walls adjacent to the tracks are adorned with enamelled signs bearing the words for sisterhood in 19 languages, whilst the bowels of the station are embellished with plants and animals – birds, lions, horse, foxes, mammoths, cows and elk. The station was opened in 1975. Three years later Helga Henschen completed her 2-metre tall porcelain fountain in the Lunagalleri in Södertälje.
Helga Henschen published a poetry collection in 1969, entitled Kom älva kom skälva kom häxa, complete with her own illustrations. The final poem can be interpreted as a description of her life path which led to her own positive outlook on life, using material from her own dreams. One section of Vägen till Rebella reprises many of these dreams.
In 1976 Helga Henschen moved to Duvbo in Sundbyberg. She continued to paint and sculpt in her garden studio and her works are generously displayed in public places such as hospitals and premises used by various associations. Sundbyberg library contains a sizable selection and in Brussels one can see one of her large sculptures at the European Council building. She also wrote further books in Duvbo. Flygblad, Uppviglingar, and Uppstudsingar, in which she mixes speech bubbles with images and poems. Her ABC-book called Från Assar till Örjan and Sagan om den konstiga soppan (in collaboration with Karin Olelind) were both aimed at children. Meanwhile, Åren med Peter, and Kvinna, konstnär, alltid Rebella can all be seen as continuations for her autobiographical book Vägen till Rebella.
Helga Henschen died in Sundbyberg in 2002.