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Men and machines: the queer art of Gösta Adrian-Nilsson

Exploring the queer artistic legacy of GAN

Jolan Wuyts (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

Gösta Adrian-Nilsson was a Swedish modernist artist, better known by the acronym GAN. He was highly influential in Swedish modernist art, flitting between Art Nouveau, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism and Surrealism. How did GAN progress through this multitude of artistic styles, and how did he get his mysterious acronym GAN?

a geometric futurist work by Gösta Adrian Nilsson, depicting sailors and cannons on a boat.

Born and raised in Lund, Gösta states in his diary that at a young age he first found out about his artistic and sexual interests through his brother's geography book. The geometrical shapes and patterns of the maps intrigued him almost as much as the variety of drawings of nude tattooed 'men of the Marquesas Islands' depicted in the book.

This duality of geometry and the male figure would feature heavily in Gösta's artwork throughout his life.

Gösta Adrian-Nilsson first publicly showed his artworks at an exhibition at Lund University Museum in 1907, as well as in a publication of his poems. He presented his work under the acronym 'GAN' - a name he would continue to use for the rest of his career. In the first years of Gösta's artistic development, he stuck mainly to the Art Nouveau style - he had become interested in this through his fascination with Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. His early works include drawings of Oscar Wilde, depictions of nude men lovingly holding hands and accentuated luscious lips, which, in his diaries, GAN described as a potent erotic symbol.

In 1910 GAN went to study in Copenhagen, learning more about post-impressionist art styles. The most radical influences on his artistic style came from his time in Berlin, where he arrived in January 1913.

GAN befriended the artists leading the Der Sturm movement and art gallery. He experienced and learned from the art of Kandinsky, Franz Marc, and Picasso. Recurring motifs started to be seen in his work at this time: a love for strong masculine forms - sportsmen, soldiers and workers - reflecting modern technology and industrialisation.

At the time, GAN's partner was Karl Edvard Holmström, a metal worker who GAN had met in Lund in 1908. Karl and Gösta had moved to Berlin together and lived happily together until the end of 1913, when Karl got recalled to work in an armaments factory in Sweden.

In the summer of 1914, at the start of World War I, GAN received news that Karl had suddenly died of pneumonia. Devastated, Gösta returned to Lund and soon after moved to Stockholm. GAN's work in Stockholm features depictions of industrial progress, but focuses more and more on paintings of sailors, reflecting his frequent late-night cruising activities at the Stockholm docks.

Art historian dr. Richard G. Mann writes about the artwork below:

a pen and crayon drawing entitled Två Sjöjmän på Berns (Two Sailors at Berns) depicts muscular seamen, who clearly seem to be waiting for clients at the Berns Café, well known as a homosexual meeting place. Seated at a table in provocative poses, the two smoking men gaze intently in opposite directions. The widespread legs of the foreground sailor emphasizes his bulging crotch area. The inscription "Berns 18/10 16" suggests that GAN may have intended the drawing as a record of his observations at the café on a particular date.

Richard G. Mann, the glbtq Archive, 2013.

In 1918, GAN mounted a full exhibition called 'Sjömanskompositioner' (Sailor Compositions) in Stockholm. The exhibition was dedicated to his new partner, Edvin Andersson who was a sailor in the Swedish army.

GAN's wholly original mix of Cubist and Futurist styles was not well received by art critics or the public. Most critics deemed his work too 'chaotic'; others condemned his homoerotic subject matter. In that time, homosexuality was illegal and taboo in Sweden, leading to GAN and his work being ostracised by the Swedish public and art scene.

Even though the Swedish press condemned GAN for his homosexuality and artworks, GAN could count on critical acclaim in progressive artist and intellectual circles. From 1920 to 1925 he lived in Paris, exploring new mediums inspired by the Dadaist movement.

GAN's artworks fostered the development of geometric abstraction in Scandinavian art, with younger Swedish artists being deeply influenced by his modernism. Even though his influence was clearly felt and appreciated by Swedish artists, critics continued to ridicule GAN when he introduced Surrealist art into Sweden after returning from France.

Gösta spent the last decades of his life soured by under-appreciation, living in bitter voluntary isolation from 1940 onwards, despite continued encouragement by his partner Edvin. GAN died in Stockholm in 1965.

Only in the past few decades has GAN's art been appreciated for its impact on Swedish modernism. He is now considered one of the most important pioneers of Swedish modern art. He also boldly stood at the forefront of queer visual expression, publicly exhibiting his art in defiance of homophobia.