Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg was an artist who through her socio-critical work sought to influence and alter society.
Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg was born in Jämtland in 1928. She was the eldest of five daughters born to Elov Ståhl and Ida Jonsson. She grew up in a small town near Hammerdal. Her father, who was a member of the Social Democratic party and a member of the Good Templars, had been involved in the setting up of the first local trade union, the Svenska skogs- och flottningsarbetareförbundet (Swedish forestry and log-driving workers’ association). He later trained as a professional painter and was an accomplished fiddler and amateur painter. The local workers’ movement gave rise to a lively cultural life involving theatre groups and musical groups and years later Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg expressed that she had never felt unusual in becoming an artist. She felt a part of the local tradition.
Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg’s desire to become an artist was supported by her parents. They financed a correspondence course in drawing and painting through Nordiska korrespondensinstitutet (NKI) (Nordic correspondence-course institute). Once she completed her schooling at the local public school Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg worked at a grocery store in Hammerdal in order to save up enough money to study in Stockholm. After three years of putting money aside she was able to begin attending the Otte Sköld school of painting in 1949. After four months she ran out of money and was forced to return to Hammerdal and to continue her studies by correspondence.
Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg was encouraged to continue her artistic efforts by fellow artist Berta Hansson, who used to spend her summers in Hammerdal. She also arranged a part-time job for Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg as home help for a diplomat’s family based in Danderyd. During her spare time Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg would attend Lennart Rohde’s classes at the Académie Libre in Stockholm. She was accepted into Konsthögskolan (the college of art) on her second attempt in 1952. One of her teachers was Ragnar Sandberg, a colourist from Gothenburg. Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg completed her studies in the spring of 1958 and she then undertook study trips to France and Mexico. She also met the man she went on to marry, Hendrik Nyberg, at Konsthögskolan. They had three children together.
Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg’s first exhibition was held in 1961 at Lilla Paviljongen in Stockholm. She displayed playful city-themed images painted in light colour schemes. The following year the both Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg’s and her husband’s work was shown at the exhibition entitled Fem målare i Östersund. Her pieces included Grön sommar and Blommande vas. She held a second exhibition in Östersund in 1969, this time jointly with Ingegerd Möller. She painted contemporary themes and content, such as Veckans affärer, Woman Power, and Rulltrappa.
However, Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg’s choice of themes changed. The tube, bank headquarters, department stores, and the suburbs all became focal points. She depicted alienation, anonymity, and the class divide. Many of her paintings included people on their way to and from the tube on escalators or individuals travelling on tube carriages. Sometimes – as in Tunnelbana from 1972 – she portrayed something she had really seen, such as a tired worker with their young son, sitting opposite a well-dressed woman whom she had come across in a woman’s magazine, both in the same tube carriage. She described her creative process thus: first, choose a real person, find their opposite in a woman’s magazine or in advertising, study old art and then create several drawings before actually producing the final painting. She believed that the difficulty lay in portraying individuality in people who were simultaneously examples of types.
Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg particularly enjoyed working with opposites both in terms of form and content. Her artistic idiom was primarily influenced by the Frenchman Fernand Léger, a cubist and a revolutionary. Her human figures are muscular, with black contours, and her paintings often contain
more than one perspective in the same picture. Sometimes her male figures seem to be hurtling at dangerously fast speeds towards the viewer, as in her 1973 work Happy boys. The male figures in her paintings are active: competing, striving to attain goals whether as sportsmen, workers, or bureaucrats. She depicts these figures with their tools, such as balls, safety helmets, or briefcases.
The advertising and fashion worlds are often contrasted against the everyday world of people going home after a day’s work, as in Det nya modet, from 1972. Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg’s 1981 painting called Skyltfönster i Berlin portrays two women drawn Picasso-like, wearing simple white dresses, dancing towards the manmade brightly-coloured and clearly-defined mannequins.
Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg’s work also took the form of social commentary. For example, her 1974 painting entitled Sverige portrays a fictional meeting on a tube-carriage. A young woman wearing the FNL trademark meets a wig-wearing IB business prosecutor who is seen as a reflection in the window.
Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg also portrayed the depopulation of Norrland in several paintings, representing the desolate “Vi flytt int” (we won’t be moved) protest cry emitted between the late 1960s and early 1970s by the people impacted. Her paintings – such as Erik Escha, Resta, and Logen Ede skans finns inte längre – depict deserted houses against dramatic cloud formations with no human presence.
In 1975 Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg was appointed to provide the artwork for the new tube station at Akalla. She spent two years working on her vision for the station: six large ceramic images in stone entitled Arbetsgemenskap, Dans, Kvinnans ideal, Kvinnans vardag, Mannens ideal, and Mannesns vardag, all portrayed against an ochre-yellow background.
Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg was also a teacher, initially at the ABF painting school and from 1971 she was a painting instructor at Teckningslärarinstitutet (the department of drawing instruction) at Konstfack (the school of arts, crafts, and design). She and her colleagues collaboratively produced an anthology entitled Bildanalys, of which three editions were printed. This book analysed and discussed all sorts of images from a societal perspective. She also published pieces in Konstrevy and Paletten. Indeed, in a particular issue of the latter, which only dealt with female artists, the readers were confronted by both written and drawn contributions by Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg in which she emphasised opposites – such as Reklambildens kvinna möter arbeterska på porslinsfabrik and Idrottsman-yrkesman.
During the 1971–1975 period Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg portrayed the working world through drawings, including images of the Gustavsbergs Porslinsfabrik (porcelain factory). In 1974 she and four other artists were tasked by Konstfrämjandet (the society for the promotion of art) and Arbetarskyddsnämnden (the department of the protection of workers) to produce posters on the working environment and issues of safety. Her contribution was entitled Sätt fart, gör något åt stressen. She was one of several artists who supplied election posters for Vänsterpartiet kommunisterna (VPK) (left-wing party communists) in 1979.
Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg held solo exhibitions and also participated in group displays. These included the Svenska Konstnärinnor (Swedish female artists’) exhibition at the Liljevalchs gallery in 1970, Svenskt Prisma at Kulturhuset in Stockholm in 1974, Kvinnfolk at Malmö Konsthall in 1975, and Konstfrämjandet’s exhibition called Vi slåss för livet held in both Stockholm and Örebro in 1978. Her last solo exhibition was held in 1982 at Galleri Doktor Glas in Stockholm. A memorial display called Rusningstid at Stockholms Kulturhus in 1992 toured further to Sundsvalls museum, Sandvikens konsthall, and Skellefteå museum. Her work was included in the 1998 Hjärtat sitter till vänster display at Gothenburg museum of art. During the 2003–2004 period Jamtli in Östersund ran an
exhibition of her work and in 2010 a solo exhibition called Vägmärken was held at the Lars Bolin Gallery in Östersund.
Birgit Ståhl-Nyberg died in Lidingö in 1982. She was aged 53. She is buried at the Hammerdal cemetery.