Lena Börjeson was a sculptress and director of the Académie Scandinave Maison Watteau in Paris.
Lena Börjeson was born in 1879, the daughter of Johan Börjeson, a professor of sculpture at the art school Konstakademien in Stockholm, and Vitte Bartholin, a Danish aristocrat. Her childhood and youth at the old Sergel building were influenced by her parents’ hospitality and high-brow parties for the city’s cultural élite of artists, authors and musicians such as Edvard Grieg and Wilhelm Stenhammar. The cultural home environment led to her coming life choices. Of five siblings, two brothers became artists and one became a musician (their father had in his youth earnt his living as a tenor). She herself became a life-long friend of Erik Axel Karlfeldt and Albert Engström.
A trip to Italy in 1905–1906 with her parents was decisively important for Lena Börjeson’s decision to become a sculptress. Apart from guidance from her father, she had up to then been self-taught. In 1909, she made a combined debut with some statuettes with her painter brother Gunnar Börjeson. Several of her works, such as the figure Bortbytingen and the chandeliers decorated with starfish and bats were sold at Herman Bergman Konstgjuteri AB. She continued to produce easily sold art works and small sculptures. She participated in the women artists’ association’s (Föreningen Svenska konstnärinnors) first exhibition in 1911, and in 1916 she exhibited works in Bergen with her other artist brother, Börje Börjeson, who was also a sculptor. However, on Christmas Eve 1916 she managed to take herself to Paris, in the midst of the first world war. Her brothers were living there: Rolf Börjeson, a violinist, and Kaspar Börjeson, a clergyman at the Swedish legation. She remained in Paris for the duration of the war, perhaps mainly to be able to meet the Swedish artist Ivar Lönnberg, a volunteer in the French army. They planned to marry but he died tragically in April 1918. In her grief, she lost their unborn love child.
During the following year, 1919, Lena Börjeson received the assignment to investigate the possibilities of opening a meeting-place for visiting Swedish artists in Paris. The initiative came from the art dealer Gösta Olsson and Gunnar Cederschiöld, the director of the match company Tändstickbolaget, backed up by the Swedish ambassador Johan Ehrensvärd. Lena Börjeson succeeded in finding suitable premises in Montparnasse, which she christened Maison Watteau, since the eighteenth-century artist Antoine Watteau was supposed to have had his atelier in the building. Apart from being an artists’ club, it was to act as an art dealer. There was also to be the possibility of organising exhibitions, renting ateliers, and arranging parties and masquerades. Lena Börjeson became its unpaid factotum. When Ehrensvärd had bought the whole building and inaugurated L’Association des Artistes Scandinaves, Lena Börjeson was made “directrice” for a modest emolument. In 1923, the first exhibition took place and in 1924 an art school was started that attracted many Scandinavian artists, in particular since Lena Börjeson had succeeded in employing famous French teachers like Despiau, Dejean and Cornet for sculpture as well as Gromaire and Dufresne for painting. The enterprise was restructured to become L’Académie Scandinave. Its parties and exhibitions became famous, visited by among others Léger and Picasso. Her music soirées were visited by Evert Taube and Erik Satie with his own orchestra. In one of Maison Watteau’s ateliers lived Bertil Lybeck, an “extremely nervous” Swedish artist, according to Lena Börjeson. However, she looked after him and he became her great love for eight years.
Extremely little is known about Lena Börjeson’s own artistic work during the 20 years she was active in Paris. The administrative work at Maison Watteau probably took all her energy. She had been “the eternal artist girl, always the serving soul in a gang, … always full of laughter and stories but also of helpfulness and practical attention to her bohemian friends,” – to quote very pertinent words by Gustaf Näsström. It came as a shock to her when she discovered during her summer holiday in Sweden in 1935 that she would not be returning to Paris. The art school in Stockholm had withdrawn its support. Maison Watteau was to be closed. She considered it as her creation, and now she was left without a salary and without even having been given notice. Her possessions were sent half in bits to her in Stockholm. In her memoirs Mitt livs lapptäcke she has given her version of the event. The book also offers a vivacious description of the Swedish artists’ colony in Paris, in which Astrid Noack, Nils Dardel and Carl Frisendahl were among her most intimate friends, but she is rather silent about herself.
After her arrival back home, she earned her living by making models of the nativity, which she was the first to do in Sweden. She was able to vary her groups and make them look like oriental people or people from Dalarna, for example. This catholic practice was taken up by the Swedish church and her nativity groups were coveted. At an exhibition in the 1970s, the Nationalmuseum acquired a nativity scene in painted plaster of Paris from 1938. Storkyrkan (the Great Church) in Stockholm still exhibits her nativity scene at Christmas. These models were all produced at her kitchen table in Stockholm. From 1940 onwards, she ran a school of sculpture in her home, to the great joy of many refugees who had come to Sweden on account of the second world war. She maintained her altruistic attitude to life and her zeal for work even when very old.
Lena Börjeson died at the age of 96 in 1976 in Stockholm.