August Strindberg: Playwright, Artist, Author – and his “Celestographs” (Alchemical Shots of the Night Sky)

The Celestographs: August Strindberg’s Alchemical Shots of the Night Sky

Johan August Strindberg (January 1849 – 14 May 1912) was a Swedish playwright, novelist, poet, essayist and painter. In the 1890s, he photographed the night sky without a camera or even a lens. These “Celestographs,” as he called them, were both a folly and an innovative work of experimental art. The National Library of Sweden has recently shared a selection of these photographs online, displaying the gritty textures of the strange images.

celestograph1

“Today, in these days of x-rays, the miracle was that neither a camera nor a lens was used. For me this means a great opportunity to demonstrate the real circumstances by means of my photographs made without a camera and lens, recording the firmament in early spring 1894.” – August Strindberg

Sadly, the plates that Strindberg set out under the stars have been lost, but these well-worn prints remain.

A friend of Edvard Munch, who painted the image of him below, Strindberg is celebrated for his dozens of modernist plays and other works of naturalist fiction; when he hit a creative block he turned to visual art and produced paintings jabbed and slashed with the palette knife and brush.

August_Strindberg_by_Edvard_Munch
August Strindberg by Edvard Munch

A prolific writer who often drew directly on his personal experience, Strindberg’s career spanned four decades, during which time he wrote over sixty plays and more than thirty works of fiction, autobiography, history, cultural analysis, and politics.

During the 1890s he spent significant time abroad engaged in scientific experiments and studies of the occult. A series of psychotic attacks between 1894 and 1896 (referred to as his “Inferno crisis”) led to his hospitalization and return to Sweden. Under the influence of the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg, he resolved after his recovery to become “the Zola of the Occult”. In 1898 he returned to play-writing with To Damascus, which, like The Great Highway (1909), is a dream-play of spiritual pilgrimage. His A Dream Play (1902) – with its radical attempt to dramatize the workings of the unconscious by means of an abolition of conventional dramatic time and space and the splitting, doubling, merging, and multiplication of its characters – was an important precursor to both expressionism and surrealism. He also returned to writing historical drama, the genre with which he had begun his play-writing career. He helped to run the Intimate Theatre from 1907, a small-scale theatre, modeled on Max Reinhardt’s Kammerspielhaus, that staged his chamber plays (such as The Ghost Sonata).

“Strindberg distrusted camera lenses, since he considered them to give a distorted representation of reality.

Strindberg, something of a polymath, was also a telegrapher, theosophist, painter, photographer and alchemist. Alchemy, occultism, Swedenborgianism, and various other interests were pursued by Strindberg with some intensity for periods of his life. In the curious autobiographical work Inferno—a paranoid and confusing tale of his years in Paris, written in French—he claims to have successfully performed alchemical experiments and cast black magic spells on his daughter

inferno

Painting and photography offered vehicles for his belief that chance played a crucial part in the creative process.

The Town – painting by Strindberg from 1903
The Town – painting by August Strindberg from 1903

Strindberg’s paintings were unique for their time, and went beyond those of his contemporaries for their radical lack of adherence to visual reality. The 117 paintings that are acknowledged as his were mostly painted within the span of a few years, and are now seen by some as among the most original works of 19th-century art.

August Strindberg, The White Mare II, 1892
August Strindberg, The White Mare II, 1892

“The Powers” were central to Strindberg’s later work. He said that “the Powers” were an outside force that had caused him his physical and mental suffering because they were acting in retribution to humankind for their wrongdoings.

August Strindberg in 1897
August Strindberg in 1897

 

For more about this fascinating character, see the wiki entry August Strindberg

For more of his celestographs see The Celestographs: August Strindberg’s Alchemical Shots of the Night Sky.

and Celestographs on flickr

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