Maj Arnell is considered to be one of the last painters working in the Gothenburg colourist tradition. Through the use of colour as her main mode of expression, her apparently simple everyday scenes appear as lustrous colour poems.
Maj Arnell was born on 30 April 1910 in Gothenburg, the daughter of Robert Valdemar Nilsson, an accountant and later works manager, and Vilhelmina Robinsson. She grew up at Stampgatan 62 in Gothenburg with her parents and older brother Sven Rolf Gunnar Nilsson. After leaving her girls’ school she moved to Stockholm to train as a cutter. Upon returning to Gothenburg, she became a cutter at the textile factory Gårda Fabriker, where she also designed clothing models.
At the beginning of the 1930s, she met her husband-to-be Helge Arnell, a civil engineer. She left her job when she married in 1933. The couple had three children: Marie Louise, Per Erik and Ann Elisabeth.
During a depression while her children were small, Maj Arnell started to paint. Her husband gave her his full support and organised a workroom outside their home as well as private lessons for the artists Folke Andréasson and Knut Irwe. Both were working in the Gothenburg colourist spirit, at least to start with. In 1939, Maj Arnell’s application was accepted to the art school in Gothenburg (Göteborgs Musei rit- och målarskola), now Valand Academy. Since she was the mother of three small children during her time at the art school, from 1940 to 1945, she was only able to complete her studies with the help of her husband and “Auntie Blenda”. When Maj Arnell was at the school, they looked after the children. Maj Arnell’s home has been described as the gathering place for her artist friends from Valand. Among her comrades were painters like Olle Skagerfors and Alf Lindberg, Bengt Kristensson, Gudrun Arninge, Tullan Fink, Carl-Erik Hammarén, Isabella Laurell, Bængt Dimming and Tore Ahnoff.
As for many other Gothenburg artists, the French collection at the Gothenburg Art Museum was an important source of inspiration for Maj Arnell. Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne and Maurice de Vlaminck were, according to her, her main inspirations, not least during the war years when Gothenburg became more isolated from the world around. She also studied at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen in 1953, and undertook study trips to Italy, France, Belgium and Holland.
When Maj Arnell studied at Valand, the informal group known as the Gothenburg Colourists barely existed any longer in practice. Nils Nilsson had however been appointed as teacher and principal at the art school in 1938 and was from 1940 until 1945 Maj Arnell’s teacher and thus her direct connection with the Gothenburg colourists. Maj Arnell has many times expressed her appreciation of Nils Nilsson and his teaching, as much for the criticism he gave as for the learning he imparted. Maj Arnell’s artistic production has often been described as following in the footsteps of the Gothenburg Colourists. She also used colour as an intrinsic mode of expression. At the same time, her artistic expression was not homogeneous, but changed character several times. She made her debut with bright works in the exhibition Unga Göteborgare (Young Gothenburgers) arranged by the gallery God Konst at the Lorensberg art salon. At the end of the 1940s, she changed to a darker palette to which her work Båtar på stranden from 1951 bears witness, for example. According to the artist herself, during the period after her examination, she had the desire to free herself from colour and to do something else. She later returned to brighter painting in which she composed her works with a light appearance and a clarity of composition and colouring.
Among the contemporary artists she found significant for her creativity, she mentioned Ragnar Sandberg, Evert Lundquist and Alf Lindberg. Especially Alf Lindberg remained an important friend from her student days at Valand and the two essentially different artists came to be very close during the 1960s and 1970s. The inspiration between them has however been described as mutual, although Maj Arnell mentioned that Alf Lindberg, to her annoyance, often used to be pointed out as the creative part when their artistic comradeship was thematised in exhibition contexts.
From the 1950s until the 1990s, Maj Arnell exhibited her art many times at various galleries around the country, for example Galleri Gummessons, Galerie Blanche, Lilla galleriet and Galleri Axlund in Stockholm, and Galerie Holm in Malmö. In her home town Gothenburg, her paintings were often shown at her son Per Arnell’s Galleri Aveny in Teatergatan, at which a memorial exhibition was also arranged in 2006. At the Göteborgs Konsthall, she participated in the exhibitions Fem målarinnor in 1957, and Maj Arnell, Frithiof Berglund, Olle Pettersson in 1990. In 1975, at the age of 65, the first separate exhibition with works by Maj Arnell was held by her friend Gustaf Engwall at Galerie Blanche in Stockholm. Her major national break-through came 20 years later, however, in 1995, when Maj Arnell’s painting from the 1980s and 1990s was exhibited at Prins Eugen’s Waldemarsudde, which made her work accessible to a wider Swedish public.
It is the expression in her later works from the 1980s and 1990s that is most associated with Maj Arnell’s artistry. These paintings are characterised by their bright, sometimes almost transparent colours, often in the form of distinctly separated fields of colour and the clear, thin brushwork that depicts the primary forms of the motif. The way in which she suggested objects and figures with the help of fragile and evanescent outlines and a delicate play with mild, kindly colours came to be her signature. She changed between a more expressive brushwork and translucent colour shadings that allow the underlying colours to glimmer through. The colour treatment and the fine play of lines in her compositions contribute to a dreamlike feeling, in which settings seem to be in a floating and ethereal state. Maj Arnell created recurrent art works within the genres still life, landscape and figure painting and their titles appear repetitive. In a straightforward and factual manner, the title tells the beholder what the work is showing: Interiör, Saker och ting, Mångt och mycket, Stolen, Komposition på bord, Gamla gårdar and Natur are typical titles when it comes to Maj Arnell’s works.
Maj Arnell had two home settings that were significant for her and that provided her with the well-being that was an essential need for her creativity. One was the family’s home at Teatergatan in central Gothenburg, and the other was an old croft that had been moved from the province of Västergötland to Brevik on the island of Tjörn, where she stayed on and off from the 1960s. While she mostly produced still life works and figure paintings in town, she painted many landscapes on Tjörn. These show nature and old farms based on a similar overarching idea as that she used for her still life works, in which she had for example arranged objects on a table.
Maj Arnell continued painting well up into her old age. From 1940 until her death in 2005, she created a multitude of still life works, landscapes, portraits and figure paintings. She worked industriously and renewed her artistic expression during the whole of her productive life. She died at the age of 95 and is buried at the Kviberg Cemetery in Gothenburg. Arnell is currently represented among other places at the National Museum and Moderna Museet in Stockholm as well as at the Gothenburg Museum of Art, the Malmö Art Museum and the Borås Art Museum.