Hertha Hillfon was a sculptor whose work predated freestyle ceramic art.
Hertha Hillfon was born near Härnösand in 1921. She was the fourth of 14 children born to Filip Forsberg, a master tailor, and his wife Märta Sedvall. Both of her parents were said to have been accomplished drawers. Her mother published a collection of poems entitled Sotade glas in 1965. Her brother Lars Lennart made an autobiographical documentary film about his mother in 2000 called Min mamma hade fjorton barn. It was awarded the Guldbagge. The Forsberg family moved to Stockholm in 1933 and it was there that Hertha Hillfon began her professional training. She – on her mother’s advice – began to train as a nurse with the Red Cross so that she could avoid “spending her life at the sink”. However, in 1939, just one year later, she enrolled at Edvin Oller’s painting school where she met the man she went on to marry, Gösta Hillfon. The following year she began attending Edward Berggren’s Målarskola (painting school).
Hertha Hillfon got married in 1942 and her son Curt was born in 1943, followed by her daughter Maria in 1945. In the meantime, in 1944, the family had moved into her parents-in-law’s summer cottage in Mälarhöjden. When her children had grown up a bit Hertha Hillfon, aged 32, applied to the Konstfackskola (school of art and design), where she was a student from 1953-1957. A few years earlier she had gone on study-trips to Italy, during which she had become fascinated by Etruscan terracotta artwork, and thus ceramics became her primary subject in school.
Having already exhibited as part of Unga tecknare (young drawers) at the National museum a few times, she made her debut as a ceramist in a collective exhibit called ‘Form i centrum’, organised by the Svenska Slöjdförening (Swedish arts and crafts association) in 1958. She gained attention for her ceramics and the following year Hertha Hillfon held her first solo exhibition at Galleri Artek. It was a success. Her work contradicted the reserved and stiff ceramics of the 1950s. Her powerful dishes and vases displaying faces as well as her abstract and expressive hand-crafted sculptures, in particular, were uniformly acclaimed by the critics.
During the 1960s popular art became interested in everyday items and so did Hertha Hillfon. Her everyday goods were not those of mass culture but items that belonged in private homes, including the likes of some fish and a knife on the cutting board, bread, a child’s jumper, a husband’s ‘Manchester’-style suit, an unmade bed, all created in clay. One of Hertha Hillfon’s classic pieces of work was a round hard loaf of bread. She created this and other sculpted items in her own studio. It was important to her to be in control of all aspects of her artistic production. Hertha Hillfon worked at home and in 1968 she had the Mälarhöjden house extended, according to her husband’s designs, to include a large studio. She needed a larger studio in order to be able to undertake major commissions which increased significantly over the coming years. In 1970 she completed a large wall relief for the Operaterass in Stockholm. The relief, which comprised 22 sections, includes a pink mouth. The voluptuous lips became one of Hertha Hillfon’s trademarks. The mouth was made in clay, in glass at Kosta glass-works, and in shaped plastic for Konstfrämjandets Multi Maxi Mini exhibition in 1970. An entire wall of a restaurant at the Nordic Pavilion of the Osako World’s Fair that year (Expo 1970) was covered in plastic red mouths. The sensual depiction of a mouth mainly reappeared in the giant masks she made in clay portraying female faces with closed or almond-shaped eyes in almost classical archaic style. These large pieces were sculpted in her studio, then cut into sections in order to be fired in an oven and then forged together again. She also used animal and plant motifs in her art.
From 1965 onwards Hertha Hillfon was given several commissions by the Statens konstråd (public art agency), who also purchased some of her exhibited works, which meant that her sculptures could be seen in public buildings at various locations nationwide. For example, around a dozen monumental sculptures were created in 1976 for the Karolinen area of Karlstad. This is Hertha Hillfon’s largest terracotta work and it includes large decorated urns, reliefs which portray her daughter Maria, and a 2-metre tall sculpture for which her niece Sara served as the model, along with a bull’s head complete with a curly-locked forehead. Before the sculptural group was raised in place at Karlstad it was displayed at Harriet Ljung’s at Doktor Glas in Stockholm. One of the reviewers commented that Hertha Hillfon’s “people are some of the most remarkable creations of Swedish art just now”.
She also received commissions from companies, municipalities, and local councils. Hertha Hillfon’s art can also be found in hotels, banks, hospitals, residential areas, libraries, and schools, as well as other public spaces. Hovsjö school in Södertälje acquired six bronze sculptures in 1978: Frida på kaninen, a baby’s head, a pigeon, masks, a cockerel, and a goat. Her sculpture Frida på kaninen had already been displayed in Rinkeby the previous year. For the Danderyds sjukhus metro station Hertha Hillfon created sculptures and reliefs in terracotta as well as mosaics based on the theme of healing plants and folklore symbols.
Hertha Hillfon also made portraits of family members and others, such as the financier Anders Wall, the artist Rune Jansson, and the author Astrid Lindgren. The sculpture of Astrid Lindgren can be seen at several places, including Junibacken, Filmstaden in Råsunda, and outside Astrid Lindgren’s children’s hospital.
Several of Hertha Hillfon’s sculptures bear poetical names, such as the blue-toned clay god Vindens dotter, from 1938, in the Berwaldhall, and Syster vatten and Broder vinden, both from 1998, in the Garnison area of Stockholm. Her final public sculpture group was tied to the everyday. Vardagens poesi was commissioned by Hyresgästernas sparkasse- och byggnadsförening (HSB) and raised at the Strandtorg in Tyresö in 2004. It consists of a black table made of highly polished diabase, with fish, bread and a towel, as well as a jug, amphora, and a cockerel on a pedestal, all in bronze.
Hertha Hillfon frequently exhibited her work throughout her professional life, both in solo and collective exhibitions, at galleries and at art and design museums in Sweden and elsewhere in the North. Her work was displayed internationally at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in New York, the Smithsonian Institution in Chicago, the World’s Fair in New York 1964, Expo 67 in Montreal, and Expo 70 in Osaka, as well as the Triennale in Milan. Hertha Hillfon’s last exhibition, entitled ‘Minnenas vind’, was held in 2008 in Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde in Stockholm. Hertha Hillfons was awarded the Lunning prize in 1962 and the Prins Eugen medal in 1991. She was elected into the Akademi för de fria konsterna (academy of arts) in 1971. Her ‘reception’ piece was a head-scarf in clay. In 1993 Hertha Hillfons was awarded the title of professor and in 1995 she was awarded a state income for life.
Her brother Lars Lennart made a celluloid portrait of her in the film Hertha Hillfon – keramiker, from 1961, and Sveriges Television made a children’s programme entitled Baka och dreja med Hertha och Freja in 1983.
Hertha Hillfon died in 2013 and is buried at The Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm.
In March 2017, Hertha Hillfon c/o Skeppsholmen opened in Stockholm, and the capital had its first institution dedicated to a female artist and run by the association Hertha Hillfons vänner (friends of Hertha Hillfon). However, it was closed in September 2018, due to lack of funding.