Stella Falkner-Söderberg was an artist, illustrator and writer. She painted mainly portraits and did illustrations for newspapers and magazines. She was also engaged in working for the victims of the second world war.
Stella Falkner-Söderberg was born in Stockholm in 1904 as the seventh and youngest child of Danish-born Meta Falkner and her husband Frans Falkner. The name Falkner was taken by her father whose surname was originally Nilsson. From 1907 onwards, the family lived in what later became known as Blå Tornet (the Blue Tower), at Drottninggatan in Stockholm.
Stella Falkner-Söderberg was afflicted as a child by rickets, or the English sickness as it was often called. She was therefore small and plagued all her life by a crooked, weak back. Her parents ran a boarding-house on the fifth floor where they had boarders with full board and also guests who only ate there. Their economy was however bad. August Strindberg rented a flat in the building for a few years and ate at the Falkners’. He expected to be waited on by the whole family.
The youngest daughter felt great respect for Strindberg, and sometimes he read her stories. She was also allowed to plays shops with his alchemy scales and he gave her a little dachshund made of brown woolly material, called Paavo. She always took it with her, along with her worn and beloved doll Santussa when she went downstairs a floor to visit the author. Her older sister Fanny Falkner became the author’s secretary and illustrator when she was 18 years of age — she was later to move to Denmark, at least partly to escape from Strindberg-admirers’ speculations about whether or not she had been the author’s “last love”.
Along with her sisters Ada and Eva, Stella Falkner-Söderberg was allowed to attend the French School, run by nuns, free of charge. She later started at the Whitlockska coeducational school where she matriculated in 1921. She displayed an artistic temperament at an early age. When she was only seventeen, she was one of the winners of a competition intended for young people in the major daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter, to design the most beautiful Christmas or New Year’s card. In 1923–1926, she studied as a non-paying pupil at Carl Wilhelmson’s school of painting, and received a prize for drawing and an extra prize for life studies of models.
As an artist, Stella Falkner-Söderberg started by working on a small scale. She liked the airiness of watercolours and the unexpected dripping from the brush, and she got her inspiration from the soft inaccuracy and spontaneity of pastels. She used lead pencils or ink in her sketches and preferred charcoal in her portraits.
The artist Torsten Jovinge was also studying with Wilhelmson and attraction grew between them. The young couple travelled to Paris where they were married in 1926. Torsten devoted himself to his purist painting while Stella Falkner-Söderberg looked after the household in the old and shabby French houses they often moved between. She who had been the equal of her husband and her own classmates, was now treated as a housekeeper when they came to visit. Torsten Jovinge said on one occasion: “If you give up your career, nobody will notice, but if I do, it would be noticed”.
The classical conflict was thus established, between a woman’s own artistry and the demand that in a relationship, she must sacrifice her own career. The Jovinge couple were very poor, and they moved to Menton in the South of France where they lived in one uncomfortable, primitive, cold set of lodgings after the other.
Their first daughter died after only a month or so. Eventually, Lena was born and a few years later Marika, who was called Dudde. However, money problems and unsolved conflicts remained. Stella Falkner-Söderberg was unable to assert herself in the male-dominated cultural sphere and also motherhood meant an enormous amount to her. The couple separated in 1935, and she travelled to Paris with the two girls who were seven and four respectively, while Torsten Jovinge went to Spain, where the civil war was about to break out.
Not long after her divorce, Stella Falkner-Söderberg took contact with Tom Söderberg, a journalist, historian and anti-nazi, who had attended the Whitlockska coeducational school, just like herself and Torsten Jovinge. They fell in love. During the next period of her life, Stella Falkner-Söderberg lived some of the time at her sister’s home, some of the time at the home of Torsten Jovinge’s father Edvard, and in between times with Tom in Båstad. She travelled to Copenhagen to visit her sister Fanny and also spent time in Paris where she painted and kept in contact with Tom by letter.
In August 1936, via his work as the political editor of Morgontidningen in Gothenburg, Tom Söderberg received news that Torsten Jovinge had committed suicide in Seville. He immediately contacted Stella Falkner-Söderberg in Paris. In Sweden, rumour had it that Torsten’s death was her fault. The newspapers trumpeted out this idea as if it were the truth.
Stella Falkner-Söderberg was afflicted by depression, blamed herself and had repeated anxiety attacks throughout the rest of her life. However, neither Edvard Jovinge nor Tom Söderberg believed these rumours and supported her all the time. It was to take over 70 years to clarify, from his diary entries and drawings from the Spanish civil war, that Torsten Jovinge had fallen victim to the military junta.
In December 1936, Stella Falkner-Söderberg and Tom Söderberg were married, and Stella Falkner-Söderberg’s daughters were eventually adopted by Tom. A number of calm years followed during which Stella Falkner-Söderberg did illustrations for newspapers and magazines and painted portraits in oils on order. The family lived in Gothenburg, but those who placed the orders often came from Stockholm.
With the outbreak of war in 1939 and the following occupation of Denmark, Norway and later France, Stella Falkner-Söderberg and the children were at times evacuated inland to Mellerud. When she arrived back in Gothenburg, she was dismissed from her illustration work on the newspaper and Morgontidningen was closed down. Their next home was in Helsingborg where Tom Söderberg, despite being a Ph.D., was given an unpaid appointment as a teacher for a trial period of six months. Their anxiety for their economy was great, but Edvard Jovinge helped them with school fees and loans.
Deaths in the family did not make life any easier. Tom’s brother Mikael had died, and they were grieving over the death of their friend Karin Boye. She represented their youth, the 1930s, and she had been a beloved and admired midpoint from “the time when it was a joy to be alive”. In October 1941, Tom’s father, the author Hjalmar Söderberg died, after having lived for many years in Copenhagen.
Their next move was to Linköping, but there were still many people who wanted portraits in oils or pastels of their children, grandchildren or themselves, and the artist travelled back and forth to both Stockholm and Helsingborg. The final years of the war, and the years immediately after it were very productive for Stella Falkner-Söderberg who started doing illustrations and writing articles for Östergötlands aftonblad, also known as Östgöten. She covered authors’ evenings, lectures and theatre productions among other things. In the spring of 1946, she travelled to London for Östgöten and wrote letters about post-war England from there. Later she also undertook a trip to Italy to cover the situation there for the newspaper.
Back home in Sweden, Stella Falkner-Söderberg organised collections to help refugees and families to receive French children from bombed-out Rouen. She was given the assignment of illustrating a number of books for girls and children, took her daughters on a round trip in bombed-out Europe and made painting trips to Spain, Russia and Lofoten. Eventually, she bought a house on the island of Ven where she and the children had spent the summers since the 1950s. In 1970, her book Fanny Falkner och August Strindberg was published, and two years later she was able to rent an atelier in Blå Tornet, the building in which her parents had run their boarding-house. In an interview in Dagens Nyheter, she recounted that she had not really started painting in earnest until she retired.
When her daughter Marika Jovinge Cropper arranged an extensive exhibition in 1985 at the Landskrona Museum, first and foremost with watercolours from Ven, Stella Falkner-Söderberg was ill. In 1977, she had been taken into hospital where she spent the rest of her life. In the exhibition catalogue, her daughter had put together letters, drawings, photos, verses and words of wisdom from her mother’s “life under the jurisdiction of art”. The year after, Hallonbergen Library put on the exhibition Stella Falkner: artist – woman at the same time as her first husband’s pictures from Spain were on display at the Sundbyberg Library.
Stella Falkner-Söderberg died in 1991, a few months after her husband Tom. Her ashes rest in the Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm.