- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 27, 2001

This is one in an occasional series about the cultural programs of embassies in Washington.

Filmmaker Ingmar Bergman personifies Swedish culture for many Americans. Who hasn't seen a spoof on the Grim Reaper playing chess with a knight in Mr. Bergman's "The Seventh Seal"? Most recently, NBC's "Scrubs" showed an insecure intern playing the Connect Four game with death as the knight does in "The Seventh Seal."
But Mr. Bergman alone does not encompass Swedish culture. The country has plenty of young, bright stars in film, design, visual arts, music, dance and theater, says Nancy Westman, cultural counselor at the Swedish Embassy.
Ms. Westman, whose responsibility is to bring Swedish culture to Americans, says she's hopeful Americans will develop a growing appetite for uncharted territory.
"I think we're about to break through the Ingmar Bergman barrier," Ms. Westman says. "We have wonderful contemporary artists. Just look at Lukas Moodysson and Lasse Hallstrom."
Mr. Moodysson directed "Together," a film depicting life in a Swedish commune in the 1970s. It opened yesterday at Visions Cinema and Bistro Lounge, 1927 Florida Ave. NW. Visions also has shown the Swedish film "Under the Sun," by English expatriate Colin Nutley.
"With Lasse Hallstrom, the director of 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape?' 'The Cider House Rules,' and 'Chocolat,' some people don't know he's Swedish," Ms. Westman says.
But he is. In fact, Mr. Hallstrom rose to fame in the mid-1980s with "My Life as a Dog," a warm story about a young boy in rural Sweden coping with an absent father and an ill mother. Ms. Westman is planning a reception and seminar for Mr. Hallstrom in January, with the Smithsonian Associates.
Another Swedish film production "A Song for Martin," directed by a Dane, Bille August, but featuring a 100 percent Swedish cast will open at the American Film Institute Theater at the Kennedy Center during its EU Film Showcase Nov. 10 to 11.

Ms. Westman not only preaches contemporary Swedish culture, but does her utmost to bring it to this country. She has furnished her Georgetown home almost exclusively with items by young Swedish designers, such as Mats Theselius and Mattias Ljunggren.
"I buy the 'here-and-now' furniture and art," Ms. Westman says.
To get a glimpse of contemporary Swedish designers, take a look at "Strictly Swedish," a design exhibit that Ms. Westman helped bring to the Inter-American Development Bank, 1300 New York Ave. NW.
The exhibit confirms the idea of Swedish design as "beautiful things for everyday use," Ms. Westman says. It features 19 designers and about 50 items, most of them remarkably frill-less. Many of them are made of wood and leather, steel or glass.
"What I like about Swedish design is the perfect combination of function and excellence in design," exhibit curator Felix Angel says. "Nothing is superfluous. Everything has a function. And that balance has always impressed me."
One of the most simplistic items is called "Spring," by Ake Axelsson. It's a collapsible daybed in beech covered by a thin red felt mattress. It looks like a tilted diving board, but Mr. Angel swears it's comfortable to nap on.
When he went to Stockholm to pick out the items, Mr. Angel says he sat in every chair, held each glass in his hand and even tried "The Joystick of Magis," by Bjorn Dahlstrom. The joysticks are canes equipped with lights for people with disabilities to steady themselves and see better in the dark.
Mr. Angel says everyone can learn something from Swedish design, from the poor in Colombia, his home country, to the wealthy in the United States.
"It's saying the most with the least," Mr. Angel says. "Sweden has been a relatively poor country, and it is very interesting to see how the Swedish have taken advantage of that and developed a very sophisticated design." In the late 1800s, about one-third of Sweden's population immigrated to the United States after several years of bad harvests. Sweden's economic upturn began after World War II.
Asked why he wanted to showcase Swedish design, rather than painting or sculpture, Mr. Angel's response comes without a moment's hesitation.
"You think food in France, Italy you think about the Renaissance and when you think about Sweden, you think about design because that's where they have excelled."
Certainly, most people have heard of the furniture chain Ikea and the expensive glassware by Kosta Boda and Orrefors.

However, Swedish mainstream pop music may have played an even more prominent role on the world scene ever since ABBA broke through with tunes such as "Mamma Mia" and "Waterloo" in the 1970s. Roxette, Ace of Bace, the Cardigans and Robyn are a few of the many successful pop stars that have made it big around the globe.
"Popular music does not need any help. The artists are so successful on their own," Ms. Westman says.
Instead, she promotes Swedish folk and classical music, as well as jazz. One of the most successful performances that Ms. Westman helped bring to the Kennedy Center in February was Verdi's "Requiem," played by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Swedish Radio Choir and the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir. The performance was attended by Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia.
Another popular event was the exhibition "Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga," last year at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. The exhibit is bound for the West Coast, where it opens at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County Nov. 17, and will end its tour in Minneapolis in 2003.
"I think the Vikings are appealing since Americans lack roots that go that far back," Ms. Westman says.
On a smaller scale, Ms. Westman showcases the work of a half-dozen contemporary visual artists in the embassy's hallway, which is free and open to the public. She's currently showing Eva Zettervall's provocative portraits and naked studies, which in a few weeks will be traded out for 80-year-old Karl Axel Pehrson's dreamy landscapes with oversized, over-colored flowers and make-believe creatures.
While working sometimes seven-day weeks to promote culture, Ms. Westman's goal in educating Americans goes even further.
"Sweden is still known for 'sex, suicide and socialism.' The notion of high suicide rates in Sweden is completely false. In fact, the United States is much higher," she says.
Also, Sweden is not a purely socialistic country. It has had several coalition goverments in the last decades and still is a monarchy.
Ms. Westman would like to share with Americans those core values of equality, life quality, education and accessibility to culture that Swedes hold sacred.
"Everyone can go to the opera in Sweden," Ms. Westman says. "It's affordable there here, not everyone can afford it. Sweden is a welfare state that may have its limitations, but it has great benefits for its people, too."
For Ms. Westman, the best method of teaching Americans about Sweden is to introduce them to artists such as Mr. Moodysson, Miss Zettervall, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Mr. Axelsson.
"I want the picture of Sweden [among Americans] to become updated," Ms. Westman says. "There is no better way to promote Sweden than by culture. We have no better ambassadors than our artists."

WHAT: "Strictly Swedish"
WHERE: Inter-American Development Bank, 1300 New York Ave. NW
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday, through Nov. 30
PHONE: 202/623-3774
WHAT: Art exhibits
WHERE: Swedish Embassy, 1501 M St. NW
PHONE: 202/467-2600

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide