The work of Swedish artist Dick Bengtsson (1936–1989) has fascinated and troubled art lovers since the 1960s. Although he had a small coterie of admirers in his day, he was not “discovered” until 1983 when a large exhibition of his work was held at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Self-taught, art was for Bengtsson not about skill or special ability, and because he wanted to be an outsider he chose to paint at home instead of a studio. In his view, close involvement with society threatened both an artist’s autonomy and one’s ability to remain critical. He also denounced the idea of creative artistic work as a profession.
All Bengtsson’s paintings are based on pre-existing images instead of imagination. He searched for interesting pictures in encyclopaedias, magazines and art books, and using pencil traced them onto translucent paper laid over the image. He then enlarged the picture to its final size, often by simply converting millimetres into centimetres. Bengtsson liked to despoil the surface of his paintings, seemingly in an attempt to shun everything traditional, beautiful and polished. Before the painting dried, he treated its surface with a hot iron.
Bengtsson’s works have been interpreted as a form of social criticism. Their marred surface and vaguely threatening mood invites us to consider the dark side of the Swedish welfare state and question all external idylls. Symbols and signs were an essential part of Bengtsson’s art. The most conspicuous and controversial of them was the swastika, an ancient symbol with positive connotations that appears in many of his works. Perhaps Bengtsson included it in his pictures to remind us that how we perceive things is altered by the passage of time; good can turn into absolute evil. On the other hand, the swastika is effective in making us pause and truly focus on the picture. It is also possible that Bengtsson used the symbol to allude to unpleasant aspects inherent in humans, such as our evil side, which are concealed by the veneer of society.
Dick Bengtsson once said that “much of my work has to do with art”. Many of his pictures borrow elements from art history, from the work of such artists as Piet Mondrian, Edward Hopper, Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich. Bengtsson also said that he did not depict reality directly. Instead, he focused on the power of art to express things. This approach fitted perfectly the postmodernist conception of art in the 1980s and 1990s wherein the proper task of painting was to explore its own ideological and aesthetic rhetoric.