These days, the Nordic Heritage Museum is full of bad art. All over the walls, from floor to ceiling. There are a total of 1,000 birch board pictures that are all manner of cheesy, kitschy and, in some cases, just plain terrible.
Or are they?
That’s the question posed by collectors and exhibit owners, Borghild Håkansson and Staffan Backlund, who are both from Sweden.
“There has always been an elite which has determined what is good culture and what is bad culture and what is good taste and bad taste,” said Backlund, who revealed something of an anti-elitist streak during our conversation. The exhibit, he said, is in small part a way to be subversive and give the art world a “kick in the butt.”
Typically, birch board pictures are made up of thin, oval, diagonally sliced pieces of tree trunk — in Sweden, most often from their national tree, the birch — with a postcard-styled image either painted or glued on. The images are mostly mundane in nature, often depicting bridges, town squares, waterfalls and other common scenes found in the countryside or no-name towns. Though mass produced to an extent, each birch board picture has enough handicraft involved in it to make each one slightly different.
The pictures were popular with working class families, Backlund and Håkansson said. The art functioned like the post cards or souvenirs one would buy at a gift shop.
“This birchwood was something to hang on walls to say, really, you’ve been somewhere. It could become something you were proud of,” Backlund said, adding, “Wealthy people would never have this in their home.”
Even now, the simple pictures can stir emotions. In fact, it was emotion that drove Håkkanson to buy her first one.
“For me, interest in the birch board pictures started with a picture of the Tjorn Bridge. It was lying there, fully exposed at a flea market. Birch tree trunks … vague memories ... I couldn’t escape, and after handing over a few Swedish crowns, it was mine. My decision to buy it had no rational explanation — it was completely emotional,” Håkkanson wrote in a translated essay, which can be found in a catalog accompanying the exhibit.
The pictures’ peak of popularity extended from the early 1900s to the 1970s, and they were crafted and sold in millions all over the world — prominently throughout Northern Europe, but also in Russia, Asia, Africa, the Americas and the Pacific. Then they disappeared, almost without a word. Few people had anything to do with them anymore ever again — at least until now.
The disappearing act caused Backlund to ponder: What happened?
Through research, he found that birch board pictures had gone out of style when mass tourism to the Mediterranean began during the 1970s. Traveling became less expensive and exhausting, with a 30-mile trip to places like Trollhaten, Sweden no longer being something to brag about.
At a Nordic Heritage Museum lecture, Backlund said: “The birch board picture was quickly replaced by Spanish bull fighting posters. It was exiled to the outhouse or the weekend cottage, where some of them can still be found. From this last refuge, the next stop for the birch board picture would most often be the garbage dump. Few antique dealers were interested in selling these insignificant objects, which would only bring in a few pennies at most. They were not even kitsch. The humiliation was complete.”
Though Backlund admitted that many birch board pictures were, indeed, simply (and sometimes incredibly) bad art, he said it raises the question of what qualifies it as such. When he asked people to place a finger on what, exactly, made it so bad, it became a challenge.
“Objective criteria for the quality of art seems very hard to nail down,” he said. He added, “Art Is a social construction. It’s something people make up. … I think everyone is an artist, the way I see it.”
Back in Sweden, the exhibit has captured polarizing reactions, Backlund and Håkansson said.
The birch board pictures are either met with delight, from working class people pleasantly surprised to see their type of art in an exhibit; shame, from those who have climbed up the social ladder and hoped to leave the pictures behind them; or disgust, from elitist artworld-types who would have nothing to do with such a lowly art form.
And others, who may never have had an encounter with the pictures, have expressed an earnest interest, either in the history or at the very least, in seeing so many together in the same room. Certainly, at the Nordic Heritage Museum’s exhibit, seeing 1,000 birch board pictures crammed into nearly every inch of wall space is quite a sight to behold.
“The birch board picture has a strange ability to encourage conversation about the meaning of art,” Backlund said. “Fine arts versus popular culture, ‘class specific’ culture, shame and pride, good taste versus bad, personal memories, poetry, dreams and longing.”
In other words, though the exhibit may at first appear unassuming, no one leaves the museum unaffected.
Suitably, both Backlund and Håkansson have led fairly unorthodox careers, at least for art exhibitors. Backlund has been a sound guy for television journalism, a digital animator, a translator of traditional Malaysian poetry, a wood carver and an artist. Håkansson is a social worker, interior designer and collector who works for the city of Gothenberg.
In a way, the “Bad Art?” exhibit is a one-trick pony. Once you’ve seen one birch board picture, really, you’ve seen them all. But the history and culture that they reveal, and the questions they raise about an art world that can be elitist and insular — well, it’s enough to make the author of this article run to the nearest Goodwill or flea market to try and snag one of his own.
That is, if Backlund and Håkansson don’t snatch them all for themselves. In an email, Håkansson said they found a large birch board picture with a replica of the “Last Supper” imprinted on it.
“Bad Art? 1,000 birch board pictures” can be viewed at the Nordic Heritage Museum 3014 NW 67th St. through March 3, 2013. For more information, visit www.nordicmuseum.org.