Anna Sjödahl was an artist and a prominent figure of the 1970s. Her artwork often adopts an artistically political form.
Anna Sjödahl was born in 1934. She grew up in a bourgeois environment in Gothenburg. Initially she trained at the teckningslärarinstitutet (drawing instruction department) of Konstfackskolan (the school of art). Subsequently, from 1959–1964, she studied at Kungliga konsthögskolan (the royal college of art) in its painting department for monumental artwork. Meanwhile, in 1958 Anna Sjödahl was one of the founders of Aktionsgruppen mot svensk atombomb (AMSA) (action group against Swedish atom bombs).
Whilst she was training as an artist Anna Sjödahl also had four children. Following her divorce from her first husband Bernt Gustaf Sjödahl, she gained sole custody of her children. Despite this she held her first solo exhibition just a few years after she had left Kungliga konsthögskolan. Her debut exhibition, entitled Genom instrumenten, was shown at Lilla Galleriet in Stockholm in 1966 and included paintings such as Utsikt i rymden and Rapport utifrån reflecting her experiences of a hectic life as a married mother of four.
Anna Sjödahl’s artwork was closely related to her personal reality. She drew everyday items such as soup spoons, forks, or a pair of scissors flying through the air in drawings which she labelled Vision och möda. She turned cutlery into holy icons. These were displayed at the Blad, blänk, bohag exhibition held at Galleri Doktor Glas in Stockholm in 1968 and at Galleri Prisma II in 1970, where the central piece was a beautifully set table with ten place-settings crowned by white napkins made of solid acrylic plastic: the bourgeois table-setting presented in petrified form. In 1972 she and Kerstin Abram-Nilsson and Boï Edberg jointly rented advertising placards on which they drew alternative messages for their own advertising imagery, as part of the project Bilder på stan – Alternativ till reklam. At the 1973 Var Dags Liv – Mitt alternativ exhibition held at Konstfrämjandet she exhibited an unmade bed along with a chest of drawers out of which clothes had been thrown onto a pile on the floor. She sought, as she herself described it, to “dirty the premises a bit”. Several paintings hung on the surrounding walls: Kyssen, Prinsessdrömmar, and Vår i Hallonbergen in which she had freely lifted her inspiration from Edvard Munch’s Livsfris. Vår i Hallonbergen shows a single child playing on the floor of a suburban apartment whilst its mother stands in the foreground screaming anxiously in a tribute to Munch’s The Scream. The artwork brings up feelings of being trapped and alone in a barren suburban apartment. Another of her paintings on display, called Död beslutas, showing an empty meeting-room table and eight similarly unoccupied chairs in a lake. Much further out on the lake a red heart slowly sinks into the water whilst in the lower foreground a cleaning lady with a bucket and mop is just visible, crawling out of the picture. It is as though death has already happened. The table has become a sarcophagus and the cleaning lady is doing her job after powerful men have made their decisions. Anna Sjödahl has noted that it was after this much-discussed exhibition on the chaotic life of a vulnerable mother that she began to engage with the women’s movement. She also became involved in setting up a women’s exhibition at Kulturhuset in Stockholm which resulted in the 1975 exhibition called Kvinnfolk.
Anna Sjödahl received a lot of recognition for her artwork and was awarded Statens stora arbetsstipendium (large work stipend from the state) two years in a row. She submitted an installation called Kretslopp and a painting called Tonårsmorsan to the women’s group exhibition at Liljevalchs konsthall in 1980 entitled Vi arbetar för livet. By this time her children were beginning to take care of themselves a bit more and her artwork began to head in a new direction.
In 1977 Anna Sjödahl was invited to participate in a research project run by the newly-established Arbetslivscentrum. The project involved researching the impact of digitalisation in the workplace. Her father was a civil engineer who had also undertaken research and had been appointed professor in thermodynamics, amongst other things. Anna Sjödahl’s contributions to the three-year research project included producing reports and images, as well as exhibitions called Konst och vetenskap and Arbetets ära held at Arbetslivscentrum and at the Tekniska museum in Stockholm. Her paintings bore titles such as Teknikerna i datorhallen and Referensramarna. Her work, Modellerna mot naturen, where a cube, a cone, and a compass are displayed on easels in contrast to the greenery and luxuriance of nature, reveals the otherworldly alien nature of the technical tools. Gammal och ny kunskap portrays Martin Luther occupying a seat of honour with a little girl on a chair directly opposite him. On the left there is a giant calculator floating in the air. Luther is shown dominated by new technology. Anna Sjödahl also produced a series of large pencil drawings inspired by French tapestries of the 1400s, Jungfrun med enhörningen, depicting the human senses. Her drawings show the virgin and the unicorn and portray the senses of hearing, sight, smell, and touch in modern 1900s-style environments amongst high-rises and computers.
From this point on nature takes an increasingly significant place in Anna Sjödahl’s paintings, particularly the Edsbruk landscape of southern Östergötland where she often spent time with her life companion Thomas Tempte, a carpenter. Her landscapes bear titles from The Iliad and The Odyssey such as Itaka from 1985–1986, a painting where the room she has painted has an underlying landscape within it. Hemkomsten II portrays a greenhouse with two trees which have grown out through the glass roof or been captured within the narrow space of the building.
During the 1990s Anna Sjödahl began researching her family history. Her mother was of British heritage and four of her aunts had become nuns who entered different convents. One of these was no longer a nun but a suffragette when she died. Nuns have a place in Anna Sjödahl’s imagery – the white whimple inserted into pictures of women, sometimes as a portrait, otherwise as sphinxes. Sometimes the woman’s face is almost completely hidden and covered by a thin layer of paper. The hidden element intermittently appears in her imagery through these delicate portraits of women. Her 1995 memoires, Civilisationens pris, include her description of what led to her research into her mother’s family’s past.
In 1992 Anna Sjödahl was awarded the Stockholm city cultural committee’s major prize. The following year she was appointed adjunct professor of painting at Konsthögskolan in Umeå. In 1999 Liljevalch konsthall in Stockholm invited her to hold a major solo exhibition which filled the entire hall. She was able to display, for the first time, the entirety of her wide-ranging artistry spanning nearly four decades. She fell ill a few years later and died in 2001, just aged 66. Her grave lies at the Brunskog cemetery in Värmland.