Ninnan Santesson was one of the early female Swedish sculptors, who became famous not only for her monumental sculptures but also for her intimate portraits of her friends.
Ninnan Santesson was born at Tjolöholm manor, now Tjolöholm castle, but grew up at the Mälby estate in Södermanland. Her father died when she was twelve years old. Her mother moved her and her siblings to Stockholm, and there Ninnan Santesson got her first lessons in modelling from her mother’s sculptor friend Sigrid Blomberg. In 1911 she enrolled in the sculpture department of Konstakademien (the Royal Academy of Fine Arts), but she was critical of the academic style of teaching and completed her studies in Paris. There she visited the free Russian academy, did sketching at the Académie Colarossi, and attended the monumental sculptor Antoine Bourdelle’s school la Grande Chaumière. Ninnan Santesson, Siri Derkert, Anna Petrus-Lyttkens, and Lisa Bergstrand formed a band of gutsy women who trusted their abilities: “perhaps a particular female art will emerge […] This is a time of development for female artists”, Ninnan Santesson wrote to her mother from Paris.
The one and a half months Ninnan Santesson spent in Algeria had a major impact on her development as an artist. It was there she completed the magnificent portrait Mr Iffa. Upon her return to Sweden she displayed the portrait and other pieces at Konstnärshuset in Stockholm, alongside the work of the Finnish painter Engelbert Bertel-Nordström. They married in 1917 and the following year their daughter Lena was born.
All of Ninnan Santesson’s monumental works were completed in the period leading up to 1930, and each one had a connection to Gothenburg. Her mother had moved to there and had distant family ties to the influential brothers Hans and Henrik Hedlund. This may be the explanation for Ninnan Santesson’s first commission in the city, which was to decorate the consul Forsberg’s villa in Lorensberg. Her work comprised four figures in carved oak for the fireplace in the living room, 14 caryatids for the library, and a painted ceiling in the wine cellar. In 1916 she created a commemorative relief of Erik Dahlberg using roughly hewn granite, which was placed in the stairway between Erik Dahlbergsgatan and Aschebergsgatan. That same year she began to work on a monumental statue of Viktor Rydberg. The initiative had come from the student body who wanted to unveil the monument on the 25th anniversary of the poet’s death in 1920. As Rydberg was connected to the founding of Gothenburg College it was believed that the monument would be placed at Vasaplatsen close to the College building. However, when the monument was finally erected ten years later it was in a much less significant spot, namely in the hollow behind what was then the regional archives. Ninnan Santesson named the monument Genius på högt postament, by which she meant that Viktor Rydberg’s “genius” was portrayed by the young man on bent knees. She wanted to portray the dual nature of a poet, his idealism versus his realism, by having the figure’s left arm outstretched toward the skies and the world of ideas, and the right arm holding a sword grounding him on earth and in reality. She used the same kind of heroic classical style when she created the relief Kunskapens träd for Västerhöjdgymnasiet in Skövde, also in 1930. This was the last piece of classical artwork she created.
Before this Ninnan Santesson had also completed another large piece of work, namely the decoration of Masthugg church in Gothenburg. The church had been completed in 1912, but the original altar piece had been withdrawn by the artist Ole Kruse as he didn’t feel that it suited the existing baroque frame. In 1923 the new altar piece by Ninnan Santesson was unveiled: Himmelsfärden in the middle, flanked by Kristus i Getsemane and Korsfästelsen on either side with 70cm high figures carved in oak, painted by her husband Engelbert Bertel-Nordström. As a consequence of the success of the altar piece and the fact that the artist’s fee had been “suprisingly cheap”, another order was placed for a two metre high figure of Christ for a triumphal cross. The central figure is flanked by a grieving Mary and John on each side. The ornamentation of Masthugg church is considered to be Ninnan Santesson’s masterpiece.
Ninnan Santesson suffered a major artistic setback in 1933. Klas Fåhraeus claimed, in an article in Konstrevy, that she had copied a figure from Nils Möllerberg’s sculptural group Dexippos for her Rydberg monument. Santesson took this criticism very badly and withdrew from public life. At this point her artistic endeavour took another direction. She began to work on a much smaller scale and with softer materials such as clay, terracotta and bronze. She stuck to her close circle of artistic friends and family and made intimate portraits of them, particularly of her daughter Lena. One of her favourite models was Naima Wifstrand, and another was Marianne Frestadius, who served as a model for 48 busts. The old friends gathered in Ninnan Santesson’s studio: Berta Hansson did drawings, Siri Derkert did the modelling, and Maj Bring served as a model after having lost her sight. Ninnan Santesson’s full-body sculpture of Maj is a masterpiece, as is her portrait of Hanna Rydh, 1962. The portraits are built up using small lumps of clay, working from the inside outwards. The uneven exterior breathes movement and pulsating life.
Ninnan Santesson divorced Bertel-Nordström in the 1930s and then spent five years living in London, together with Naima Wifstrand. She became politically active in 1940s. She took care of refugees from Nazi-Germany, including Berthold Brecht and his family, who came to live with her. She also worked for the Norwegian resistance movement and spent two years in a Swedish prison for spying. In 1951 she and Siri Derkert went on a propaganda visit to the Soviet Union, organised by Svenska Kvinnors Vänsterförbund (the Swedish women’s left-wing association). It was not until 1960 that she once again exhibited her artwork, at Färg och Form in Stockholm, along with Ann Margret Dahlqvist-Ljungberg and Maja Braathen. Ulf Linde was lyrical in his review: “Ninnan Santesson’s sculptures and drawings have an incredible vibrato on all of the form’s surfaces. […] She reveals the sensitive nature of things in the utmost sense of the word. It is never banal.” Her last sculpture Flicka med hund was created in her new, freer style and was erected posthumously on a large scale at Mälarhöjden.
Ninnan Santesson died in Stockholm in 1969. Her ashes were strewn at a memorial garden.