Vera Frisén was a much-loved artist from Norrland who was active during the twentieth century.
Vera Frisén was born in Umeå in 1910. She was the second-oldest child born to Gottfrid Frisén, managing director of Umeå Brewery, and his wife Jenny. The surname of Frisén had been adopted by her father, whose original family name was Olofsson. The family included another four children.
Vera Frisén began attending Otte Sköld’s painting school in 1928 but, the following summer, she fell ill with tuberculosis and was admitted to Sävsjö Sanatorium. Once she had regained her health she returned to the art school and continued her training until 1931. She remained in poor health throughout the rest of the 1930s and intermittently had to be admitted to sanatoria in Sävsjö and in Hällnäs in Västerbotten.
Vera Frisén travelled across Europe in order to further develop her painting skills. She spent time in Denmark and then six months in Cagnes-sur-Mer in southern France and in northern Italy. When the Second World War broke out she travelled home again to her parents in Umeå. At this point she was painting all the time, both portraits and landscapes, as well as producing graphite drawings, and the canvases were piling up under her bed.
Vera Frisén socialised with other young artists in Umeå and also with visiting artists. She participated in group exhibitions which were held by Västerbottens Art society as well as in some international group exhibitions, at places like Århus and Gothenburg. When she exhibited some work at the Swedish-French art gallery in Stockholm in 1938 she gained attention for her “outstanding pencil drawings”. Her fellow exhibitors were Lennart Gram, Curt Clemens, Curt Carendi, and Tage Hedqvist, all of whom were friends from her time at Otte Sköld’s painting school.
Vera Frisén held her first solo exhibition at the Galleri Färg och Form in Stockholm in April 1941. Her debut was sensational, with positive reviews in several newspapers as well as commendations from Gustaf Näsström. He called her one of the most talented female painters he had met, penning these words about her landscapes: “Norrland has rarely been represented in such lyrical form in our art”. He was also fascinated by her portraits:
“Just like Schjerfbek Frisén reduces her treatment of the human form to its most simple aspect and sometimes uses scratching to emphasise the highlit areas of faces. A deep knowledge lies behind this clever simplification, finding clear expression in some drawn portraits where the lines are both sensitive and accurate, whilst the models are often surrounded by an atmosphere of corruption and mortality which can be explained by the artists’ own failing health in her youth.”
The weekly press also noted her successful debut; Vera Frisén’s portrait was shown on the cover of Husmodern and articles were written about her in the likes of Svensk Damtidning. Almost all of the works displayed in the exhibition were sold.
Vera Frisén met the man she went on to marry, Olof (Olle) Stroh, at her parents’ home. He was seven years her junior and had been invited to the house by her brother Gustaf as they were fellow officers. The couple got engaged in September 1942 and by 28 November they were married. They settled down in Stockholm. Vera Frisén had been terrified by all the attention her debut exhibition had generated. Further she was saddened to have those works she had produced with much love and effort ‘taken away’ from her by those who purchased them. She thus decided she would neither exhibit nor sell her canvases.
Vera Frisén was constantly painting, both mentally and physically. Although she did not want to exhibit her work one could still read in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper on 28 February 1959 about a spring exhibition which included works by not just Vera Frisén but Siri Derkert, Eva Bagge, and Esther Kjerner as well.
Vera Frisén wrote in a letter to her husband: “Dearest one, I have lost a canvas again and feel completely hot and clammy. It was the pink skies over the flatlands, the one I was most concerned about of those he borrowed. It is true, Olle. I don’t think you liked it but I did. It had the new red tone in it. Olle, help me to forget the ones I like and don’t let them take it and help me to push the prices up. (…) I will henceforth let it be known that ‘the spirits’ forbid me from selling them.”
Nevertheless she continued painting. Every year Vera Frisén travelled from Stockholm up to Västerbotten and painted the boglands, the flatlands, the Ume river’s journey through the valleys and bits of forest. She painted the same landscapes, the same pines, over and over, but it was not in an attempt to represent nature. She sought to capture the innumerable nuances of light which appeared at dusk, night, and dawn. Vera Frisén painted so that she could be at peace and in Kolksele she took a rented room with a family where she finally could work at peace. She was self-critical and sometimes confused but she continued to paint throughout the ensuing decades. She eventually found her way to a strongly minimalistic style.
In 1971 Eva Frisén and her husband purchased a summer house in Stöcksjö, south of Umeå, where she had spent the summers of her childhood and youth. There she sat in the boglands, beside the Ume river, and waited for sunrise. When she was dissatisfied with a painting she would destroy it and when she was happy with one she was loathe to show it to anyone other than her beloved husband with whom “she had everything in common”. Sometimes he would carry her out to the boglands to a solid tuft where she could stand and paint whilst he fought off the mosquitoes.
Vera Frisén was a frequent letter-writer and often picked up her pen when she and Olof Stroh were parted. Following his stint within the military forces he was appointed secretary-general of the Swedish Red Cross. Although he would sometimes go away travelling, working on international relief efforts, he still received word from his wife through letters and cards.
Vera Frisén carried on painting until her body no longer obeyed her will. By 1985 her health had become increasingly fragile and she was forced to lay her paintbrushes aside. Her husband was eventually able to convince her to exhibit her work one more time. In fact, she held three exhibitions, the first on 14 October 1989 at Färg och Form in Stockholm, where she had so successfully held her debut show. The next was the following year at Galleri Monica Bensabat in Norrköping, and the third was on 19 May at Galleri Ahnlund in her hometown of Umeå. By that time Vera Frisén was so ill that she was physically unable to attend.
Vera Frisén died in Stockholm on 6 June 1990, just a few months after her husband had died. Her obituary noted: “Her prayers to be swiftly reunited with Olof were heard” and “To our comfort she lives on in her art”. She had actually wanted all of her surviving works and letters to be burnt on her death but her relatives had persuaded her to change her mind and now her letters are archived at Umeå university. Through the years her art was on display at Thielska Galleriet and is still held at Moderna Museet, Borås Konstmuseum and the Västerbotten museum in Umeå.