Each year the Gripsholm Castle Association commissions “portraits of honour" of prominent Swedes to add to the collection. The subject this year is Göran Persson, the Social Democrat politician and former prime minister. The portrait is the work of Olle Hamngren, who has created a dignified painting in an illusionistic style with many levels.
The National Portrait Collection at Gripsholm Castle, the world’s oldest national portrait gallery, was founded in 1822 and is managed by Nationalmuseum. A number of works are added to the collection each year, including an annual Portrait of Honour, donated by Gripsholmsföreningen, depicting a distinguished Swedish citizen.
Göran Persson is a widely respected Social Democrat politician whose career took him from municipal to national and eventually international level. In the 1970s he was elected as a councillor in the town of Katrineholm, serving as chairman of the education committee and later as mayor. He left municipal politics in 1989 to become Sweden’s schools minister and served as finance minister 1994-96. Persson’s political motto became “Those in debt are not free”. In 1996 he was elected leader of the Social Democrats and succeeded Carlsson as prime minister. His decade at the helm of government was the culmination of his career. After the Social Democrats lost the 2006 election, Persson stood down as party leader in 2007.
Even before he became prime minister, Göran Persson was a controversial political figure. According to many political scientists, no previous head of government had used the full scope of the powers available under the 1974 constitution. This “presidentialisation” of the system of government, with greater concentration of power in the office of prime minister, was evident in the expansion of the Prime Minister’s Office and limits on the authority of departmental ministers. However, it should be noted that there were explanations other than a desire for increased personal power. One key factor was EU membership, which required greater coordination across all areas of policy, so that Sweden could speak with a single voice. A notable consequence of this was that Persson played a bigger role in foreign policy, a field in which he eventually won great respect, especially for his handling of Sweden’s EU presidency.
Göran Persson remains active as a much sought-after consultant and seminar presenter. He also continues to speak out on political issues. He is a gifted speaker with great rhetorical skills. Persson is likely to be remembered as much for his dominant leadership style as for his political achievements, in particular the restoration of the national finances. What no-one of any political persuasion would dispute, however, is that Göran Persson ranks among the more prominent Swedish statesmen of modern times.
The portrait is the work of Olle Hamngren, who was born in 1960 and studied at the Royal Institute of Art under Professor Nils G Stenqvist. As a student, Hamngren stood out for his mastery of the art of classical painting in an era when the importance of understanding artistic materials and tradition was often played down. When he made his debut in the 1980s, naturalism was still a dirty word and portraiture was not highly valued. In those days, the stereotypical perception persisted that commissioned works ran counter to the notion of creative freedom.
The art world has come a long way since painting, and portraiture in particular, seemed to come under threat from photography. For a long time, though, the relationship was so sensitive that most painters deliberately concealed any evidence of having used photography as an aid. Now, 180 years later, Olle Hamngren has no problem with openly combining conventional artistic methods with digital image manipulation. Hamngren’s work is often compared to photorealism, but his goal is that his portraits should resemble pure paintings rather than photographs. In this respect, Hamngren’s game of illusion is ambivalent.
According to Hamngren, “Many people believe the face is the most difficult thing to paint. But it isn’t. Rather, it’s the areas where nothing much happens, such as a resting hand, that are much more difficult to bring to life.” In his portrait of Göran Persson, the artist has put as much work into depicting the leather upholstery of the Mats Theselius chair as into the subject’s domed forehead. By subtly including features such as the blacksmith sculpture and a bookend in the shape of a kneeling Dala horse, the artist shows that the subject is a Swedish Social Democrat statesman. Anyone who does not recognise the subject can read his name on the spine of a book, which also states his age (68). Göran Persson meets our gaze with a serious expression, as if we have walked in on him while he was engrossed in reading. The portrayal is both simple and dignified. Olle Hamngren has the rare ability among contemporary artists to strike a balance between the seemingly lofty and the trivial.