Maja Braathen was an artist who became famous for her dreamy and narrative paintings.
Maja Braathen was born in Sundsvall. She was brought up on Hovid manor house on Alnön. Both of her parents had emigrated from Norway. Her father, Gustaf Peter Braathen, had moved from Drammen to Sundsvall in 1874. He established himself within the timber goods trade and built up an enterprise as a forward-thinking owner of Hovid sawmill and part-owner of Svartvik AB. Her mother, Anna Lous Braathen, came from a musical and religious home. The ties to family and friends in Norway remained strong and Hovid manor house became a significant meeting place for reunions. Maja Braathen later depicted her memories of these happy times in her paintings.
Maja Braathen was very musical and revealed an interest in painting and drawing from an early age. When the family moved to Stockholm in the early 1910s, following the death of her father, she took organ lessons. During the second half of the 1910s she studied with Birger Simonsson at Göteborgs Musei rit- och målarskola (today Valand Academy) in Gothenburg, along with the likes of Siri Rathsman. At the same time she shared a studio in Oslo with her cousin Hugo Lous Mohr and Hallvard Blekastad, while studying with Henrik Sörensen.
During the midsummer weekend of 1920 Maja Braathen married Gunnar Johansson, the son of a wholesale merchant and a childhood friend from her days in Sundsvall. In 1924, as a result of the sawmill crisis, which particularly hit the Sundsvall region, the couple moved to Helsinki, where Gunnar Johansson became a managing director. During their time in Helsinki Maja Braathen worked for the Arabia company for a time, creating ceramic figurines in her own firing kiln. She lost her husband in early 1929, following a brief illness. Maja Braathen then returned to Sweden, initially to Sundsvall, but then to Stockholm, where her mother, her younger brother Gustaf, and her parents-in-law were living.
The 1930s became a significant period in Maja Braathen’s life. She decided to seriously set out on the artist’s path. She applied to Maj Bring’s painting school, tried various picture formats and developed her technique in order to find her own expression. Her friendships with Maj Bring and Vera Nilsson became decisive for her. She joined the circle of artists and cultural celebrities who gathered at Maj Bring’s home or in Siri Derkert’s studio on Lidingö, including Ninnan Santesson, Ellen Isefjär, Mollie Faustman, Naima Wifstrand and Anna Casparsson. At the same time she began to look around for a place to settle outside of town. In 1934 she accompanied Ebba Hellström to Edsåsen in Jämtland in order to paint there. Ebba was a drawing teacher and had been a very good friend of Vera Nilsson since they had studied together at Tekniska skolan (today University College of Arts, Crafts and Design). She shared Maja Braathen’s interest in anthroposophy and Rudolf Steiner’s theories. Maja Braathen became very taken by the location and returned there every summer until the end of the 1940s when she built Ararat, a Norwegian-style house which she had designed herself. Ararat became her base, where she would paint mountains, cattle, goats and people.
Maja Braathen undertook many journeys across Europe. She also travelled to Norway where she had relatives and friends. One of her frequent destinations was Paris and in the 1960s she spent her winters in Rome. Her first study trip was to Haapsalu and Vormsö in Estonia in 1937, where she travelled with Vera Nilsson and her daughter Catharina Nilsson. The autumn of the following year she travelled to Paris for a longer period of studying.
During the year she had helped Vera with painting the children’s faces to be included in Penning kontra liv, a massive piece of work intended to be a demonstration of support for the women and children of Spain. Maja Braathen’s period in Paris became an important break. She lived at the Hotel d’Odessa in Montparnasse, and did life drawing at the Académie Colarossi. She visited museums and made notes on the Louvre, Musée Rodin and the Musée Guimet, where she was deeply moved by the Asiatic collection of religious history materials. This was a politically difficult time and the so-called race issue was being openly discussed. Maja Braathen was interested in sufism and read Inayat Khan. Vera Nilsson’s arrival in early March 1939 was a welcome break. Maja Braathen returned to Paris in the late autumn of 1946, and this time the atmosphere was completely different. Along with her colleagues she enjoyed going to the theatre, attending discussion evenings, and going to exhibitions. It was not Sartre or abstract art that caught her attention, however, instead she enjoyed the sculptures of Germanie Richier and Picasso’s drawings.
Maja Braathen’s artistic debut came late in her life. She was a slow painter and tended to rework her pieces. She held her first exhibition in 1941 at a newly opened gallery in Oxtorgsgatan near Hötorget called Lilla Ateljén. It is probable that she displayed paintings and drawings from her journey to Estonia and her time in Paris, and possibly a few paintings with motifs from Jämtland. In 1948 she participated in the Nordiska konstnärinnor exhibition held at Liljevalch’s art gallery by Föreningen Svenska konstnärinnor (association of Swedish female artists) and for the first time her paintings from her time at Hotel d’Odessa were shown. Her actual artistic breakthrough did not happen until 1949 when she held a solo exhibition at Konstnärhuset which included paintings and drawings from Edsåsen, Hovid and Paris. Her work was very well received by the press.
During the 1950s and 1960s Maja Braathen held several exhibitions. Of particular note was the 1954 retrospective display at Kunstnerforbundet in Oslo and at Bergens Kunstforening. On 2 February 1974 an exhibition in memoriam was held at Konstnärhuset which included more than 150 pieces of Maja Braathen’s work, collated by Catharina Gingan Nilsson and Nils Gehlin. Maja Braathen and her paintings came to have a great significance for a younger generation of artists, such as Ellinor Taube and Berta Hansson.
Maja Braathen died in Stockholm in 1973.