Tora Vega Holmström was a prominent modernist artist.
Tora Vega Holmström was born in 1880. She was the daughter of the public educator Leonard Holmström and grew up at Folkhögskolan (adult college) Hvilan in Scania. Her mother Hedvig was musically and literarily accomplished. Tora Vega Holmström gained an extensive education in the humanities during her childhood years but found it very difficult to gain acceptance for her desire to be an artist. Her parents prioritised her brothers’ vocational training.
When Tora Vega Holmström was 16 years old she enrolled in a course at the ‘Gipsskola’ (drawing and sculpting school) in Copenhagen, where she learned to draw, followed by anatomy classes in Lund. In 1900 she began to attend the Valand art school in Gothenburg under Carl Wilhelmson. The two years she spent studying with Wilhelmson had a definitive impact on her artistry, as did her visit to the colour-theorist Adolf Hölzel in Dachau. Tora Vega Holmström then returned to Folkhögskolan Hvilan and took up the role as a daughter ‘living at home’ that was expected of her. She assisted her mother and helped out at the school in all sorts of practical tasks. It was only in 1907 that she was able to travel to Paris in order to paint, thanks to a financial contribution from Adelheid von Schmitterlöw, one of her contemporaries from the Valand school. She spent six months attending the Académie Colarossi. She met the poet Anders Österling in Paris, and supplied vignettes for his 1907 Årets visor despite rejecting his romantic advances. Tora Vega Holmström seems to have been an impenetrable fortress when it came to love – or, as she put it to a friend: “I have never come across Eros in any particular individual”. She instead focused on her creativity and guarded her integrity. She could not conceive of being tied to another person or to be permanently settled.
Tora Vega Holmström never had her own home. She preferred to rent a room at her older sister’s house, whilst keeping a workshop for a while in the home of one of her brothers, who lived nearby. She would often spend half the year in Norrland, where her sister Ingeborg lived and was married to the principal of the folkhögskola in Vindeln/Degefors. Her experience of Norrland awoke an interest in Finland and the paintings of Akseli Gallen-Kallelas. His work differed from her own, which almost solely consisted of neo-impressionist portraits of family members and close friends, in a style resembling Wilhelmson’s. A cousin who was at the folkhögskola in Ingå, Nyland, enabled her to spend five months in Tavastland, once again through a financial contribution from Adelheid von Schmitterlöw. Whilst there Tora Vega Holmström met a man who “was a magnificent God-made model”, the lumberjack rafter Matti Korhonen. The portrait she made of him in 1912, in a powerful mosaic-type style, became a turning point in her artistry. She had finally found her inner talent. She spent the years between 1913–1915 working in an empty apartment at Södra Varvet (the southern dockyard) in Stockholm, and those between 1916–1919 at Christian Eriksson’s studio. She spent the intervening period at her brother Torsten’s house during his military conscription. She spent two winters in Visby. In 1918 she held her first solo exhibition in Stockholm. The reviews were striking: “Den monumentala uppbyggnaden och den sprudlande kraften i uppfattningen av modellerna äro ju drag av maskulin art” (the monumental construction and the exuberant force behind the interpretation of the models are however masculine features). Her “energi i manéret” (creative energy) did not appear “entirely natural”, and she displayed evidence of a “restrained manliness”. On another occasion her paintings were described as “kvinnligt morbida” (morbidly feminine).
Following her first trip to Paris in 1907 Tora Vega Holmström had noted: “I long to go everywhere in the world …” However, it was not until after her father’s death that she was able to return to Paris, in 1920. Thus began her nomadic period. She regularly returned to Paris. She studied Cézanne and became acquainted with Marie Blanchard, whom she made a portrait of in 1921. For a time Beauvallon in southern France became her second home. There Pierre Chollet served as the model for her most famous painting Ryttaren, painted whilst he was convalescing after a gas-attack in France. Chollet’s family were major land-owners in Algeria, and she visited their holdings. The background scenery of Ryttaren (also known as Den rika ynglingen) comprised the Atlas Mountains. The painting depicts a broad-shouldered, dandy of a young man, with a riding whip in the foreground; he is presented both as a victim of war and as an oppressor. This was the only painting which Tora Vega Holmström exhibited in Paris. She herself said that she had “never created anything like it”.
From 1924 onwards Tora Vega Holmström travelled between Stockholm, Norrland, Scania, and southern France. Tora Vega Holmström preferred to portray colourful people with unusual features. She spent a few weeks in Estonia during the winter of 1935. From 1937–1962 she bunked at her summerstudio at Kåseberga in Scania. Her landscape paintings are epically cubist in style, often using the colours of purple, violet, and a yellow-green. Just before the outbreak of war in 1939 she hired three rooms from the Herrlin ladies in Lund. She kept these throughout her life.
Tora Vera Holmström continued travelling, even when she was almost 70 years old. She went to Paris, Marseilles, Tunis, and Carthage. These journeys resulted in a series of delicate still-lives comprising snails, fish, and vases. During the 1950s the rheumatoid arthritis she had suffered since 1904 worsened markedly, leaving her bedridden for long periods. She then turned to using pastel crayons, as they were lighter to hold, and painted abstract colour compositions in the spirit of Adolf Hözel. Or she would read Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and write letters. Tora Vega Holmström’s correspondence – in addition to those to her family and many friends – included letters to the Swedish philosopher Hans Larsson and the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, which has gained some attention despite the survival of only one of her letters. The 28 letters from Rilke reference their brief meetings – three days in 1904 at Borgeby in Scania, where Tora Vera Holmström had been summoned to interpret, as well as an evening meeting in Paris in 1907. The subject of the letters tended to be Goethe and his chromatics which had formed the basis of Adolf Hölzel’s colour preferences.
Tora Vera Holmström was a member of the Skåne konstförening (Scanian art society) and exhibited through them for 50 years, the last time being in 1965. A commemorative exhibition was held at Malmö Konstmuseum in 1967, the year that she died. The urn with her remains is buried at Vomb cemetery in Scania.