The Embarrassing Portraits of the Past
The tenderhearted story of the humble birch board begins when workers first got vacation time, and families took what now seem like exceedingly modest vacations, trips that now might be considered more errands. They'd pack up, travel a few towns over, and stuff souvenirs in their bags to prove they'd gone: paintings bearing the names and scenery of the towns, made on oval slabs of diagonally sawed-off birch tree trunks with the bark still on. We have been to see the waterfalls, the locks, the red barns, the moose, the stands of birches, the boards pronounced from living-room walls. Where have you been?
But no matter how nicely executed, and some are—while others are majestic in their kitsch—the proud birch board did not become a valuable work of art to be passed from one generation to the next. Instead, it was passed from the living room to the outhouse or the attic, and then to the trash or the flea market. When more exotic travel became the norm, a portrait of the next town over was just embarrassing. Birch boards today are nostalgia bombs that sell for a buck or two, or you might come across one moldering in a summer cabin.
No one seems to know exactly where the tradition originated; turn-of-the-20th-century Germany is a candidate. (Early boards were painted, but soon bore glued-on postcards instead, often with painting and collage over the top.) At Seattle's Nordic Heritage Museum last week, two hours before an opening reception for an exhibition of one thousand birch boards, assistants were rushing to mount the final dozens of the miniature worlds. They vary wildly, forming a crazy buffet.
Heaps of boards bloat the walls in the most wonderful way. Paint is glopped and caked on; birches have been squirted into place in, let's say, nonnative locations. Plastic animals are glued in place, howling. The boards have been mass-produced or lovingly handmade, hawked by traveling salesmen, hoboes, franchises, and folk artists alike. A slick new glittery crop is from Russia. The earliest, from the 1900s, wear only sparse bone-dry brushstrokes and could slide into a coat pocket.
All the visiting boards are from Sweden, but not all depict Swedish scenery. Location names are painted or printed on. Bangladesh is there. One gallery is a tour of Europe as depicted on birch boards. In another gallery, the boards with barometers huddle around the museum's climate-control box. Another series is gathered inside the outline of a Swedish gift horse painted on the wall, a Trojan horse full of the warriors of tourism.
Credit for the installation goes to Nordic Heritage Museum chief curator Lizette Gradén. In the final hours, boards were scattered, slapdash, across tables. As the exhibition catalog points out, birch boards never were the property of the wealthy, but they weren't traditional folk art, either—so they never became precious. Even at a museum, they are anthropological curiosities living in limbo.
The exhibition is called Bad Art? and the Swedes who amassed the collection, Borghild Håkansson and Staffan Backlund, are part of a group called the Postfuturist Society that's interested in "nonrespectable art." At various times throughout the 20th century, the Swedish government and media carried out reeducation campaigns eradicating "bad" art in favor of clean modernism, including, at one time, an importation ban on simpleton imagery of the kind found on birch boards. Not being respectable is another kind of respectability, of course. "Today a birch board picture is a 'conversation piece' and a way to thumb one's nose at those who believed that quality was determined by objective measures," Per Dahlström, a museum director remembering the birch boards of his youth, writes. Each board is nothing much, but all together, is there any part of life, the world, and art that's not found somewhere in this exhibition?