Märta Afzelius was a painter and textile artist who primarily found fame as the latter. She was a skilful pattern-designer who was also an innovator within the sphere of sacred textile art.
Märta Afzelius was born in Stockholm. She was the daughter of Ivar Afzelius and Anna Sofia Gabriella Richert. Her father was a prominent lawyer and politician whose many roles included working as a professor of procedural law in Uppsala and serving as president of the Svea Court of Appeal, as well as a parliamentarian and Speaker of the Riksdag. Märta Afzelius was educated at Konstakademien (the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts) from 1911 to 1914. Her painting style was characterised by a certain naïve element and the use of simple ornamentation. Her proclivity for ornamentation was well-suited to a career within textile art. During the course of her professional life she produced textile designs for Elsa Gullbergs Textil och Inredningar AB from 1928 to 1939, for AB Licium from 1941 to 1952, and subsequently for Alice Lund Textilier AB.
Märta Afzelius’s first commission whilst working for Elsa Gullberg was to design pile rugs for use on Kungsholm, a passenger vessel owned by Svenska Amerikalinien (Swedish American Line). She created several rugs, including one in Chinese style which garnered a lot of attention, mainly due to its size; it was the largest rug ever woven in Sweden. Märta Afzelius also introduced changes and innovations to damask table linen designs. In 1932 she created several patterns, such as Svensk Flora and Gårdarna which depicted aeroplanes and cars, woven by Almedahl-Dalsjöfors AB. She also designed patterns for printed cloth, such as Skogen, which was displayed at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Further, Märta Afzelius designed embroidered patterns for period furniture in the rococo and Gustavian styles, as well as drapery decorated with motifs borrowed from ancient myths. An embroidered work called Odysseus återkomst was exhibited at the 1930 Stockholm exhibition. A woven altarpiece made using the ‘röllakan’ technique entitled Korsfästelsen, was also shown at the same exhibition within the sacred art section. The stylised human forms she painted generated a lot of attention given that they represented a visual contravention with the traditional approach to sacred art. The exhibition served as Märta Afzelius’s public breakthrough as a creator of sacred art. When the Norwegian artist Henrik Sörensen saw her altarpiece he became enchanted with its shape, colours, and its serious tone. Märta Afzelius was therefore commissioned, in 1935, to create a triptych for Linköping Cathedral to be placed in the choir ambulatory behind Sörensen’s altar paintings. This piece, called Skapelsen, became Märta Afzelius’s largest woven work and also her most famous creation. This piece is tightly composed of stylised foliage and animals in vibrant colours. Karin Boye mentions both the altar and the triptych in her poem “Linköpings domkyrka”, which can be found in the collection entitled De sju dödssynderna.
Märta Afzelius’s interest in sacred art led her to work for Licium, a studio for sacred and heraldic art. Her masterpiece from that period is the richly embroidered bishop’s chasuble which she created in conjunction with the establishment of Stockholm diocese in 1942. Licium continued to produce several bishops’ chasubles, made according to her sketches, for the likes of Karlstad and Linköping dioceses. She also created textiles for other sacred purposes, such as priests’ chasubles, antependia, and woven and printed wall-hangings with biblical motifs. A number of churches commissioned artwork by Märta Afzelius, including Skara cathedral in 1949 and St Olai church in Norrköping in 1950.
Märta Afzelius was also one of many artists to produce new patterns for Vadstena lace. Her sister Ellen Tiselius, who was married to the governor of Linköping, had initiated the modernisation — both in terms of appearance and purpose — of Vadstena lace. With regard to her paintings Märta Afzelius often created narrative works, such as her 1940 tempera painting Flykten från verkligheten, and her dramatic gouaches inspired by the Armasjärvi tragedy and the Winter War in Finland. Her most frequently used motifs were flowers and landscapes. Märta Afzelius also worked as an illustrator and supplier of drawings. She produced illustrations for vignettes in books, in telegrams and school posters, such as Det heliga landet from 1947. A number of her drawings were also purchased for the personal collection of King Gustav VI Adolf.
Märta Afzelius frequently exhibited her work, in Sweden as well as abroad. She held solo exhibitions in Linköping and Norrköping (1941), at the Stockholm galleries Färg och form (1946) and Konstnärshuset (1951), and at Malmö museum (1947). She received the royal medal Litteris et Artibus in 1941, in recognition of her artistic contribution.
Märta Afzelius died in 1961.