The province of Dalarna, meaning the Dales, is held as being the heart of Sweden. Located in the central part of the country, it has been the economic backbone of Sweden, owing much to its copper and coal mining as well as the strong and free-minded people of Dalarna residing there since hedenhös, heathen days.
It was in these lands, primarily in the parishes of Rättvik and Leksand, where a distinct rural art form took root. Stricken by famine plaguing years, coupled with frequent crop failures, the people of Dalarna were forced to turn towards alternative forms of craftsmanship for income and survival. Different schools of techniques sprang forth and some came and went, and many melded together.
It was the decorating of furniture that would grant recognition in times to come. Their skill in decorating coffers and cupboards with myriads of florae and vines became popular. Soon after, they expanded their craft into the realm of tapestry paintings, adorning once again cottages with their peculiar, yet diverse art.
As time passed, this comprised community of itinerant and untrained artists from all walks of life – peasants, soldiers and village school teachers – were taking their art into a new realm. A spiritual realm. There, they infused their everyday struggles with the stories of the Bible. Prophets, Apostles and Kings became Dalkarlar or Dalecarlians, and the lands of the Dalecarlians became the lands of Egypt, Israel and Babylon.
Traveling and selling their work from village to village, it brought in a modest income, but the artists were not only driven by mere need for extra earnings. It is no surprise to find that many of the artists were village school teachers, a group close-knit with priests as educators in the ways of the Christian faith.
Later on, they would collectively become immortalized in the poetic works of fellow Dalecarlian poet Erik Axel Karlfeldt as Dalmålare, Dala painters, and their work would cement into public conscious as Dalmålningar, Dala paintings, a name given by the art enthusiasts and National Romanticists of their days. Another name given posthumously to their craft is Kurbitsmålningar, Kurbits paintings, from the recurring Kurbits motif of florae and vines as mentioned before.
The Kurbits, which derives from the Latin Cucurbita and the German Kürbis designation of gourd, was in the older Swedish translations of the Bible used to refer to ricin bush that God lets grow and shade Jonah from the scorching sun. Jonah 4:6-7. Despite its name, it is an ambiguous term for a fantastical plant.
One of the finest works of the Dala paintings and possibly even all Swedish folk art is Ålderstrappan, the Stairway of Age. No longer treating the Kurbits as a mere background decoration, Winter Carl Hansson goes for a depiction of the Kurbits as interwoven with the lives of the subjects.
It shows a man – later a man and a woman in arms – ascending the staircase of life from the age of 1 to the age of 100; from a rocking baby crib to a deathbed. On the left side, we see the Kurbits blossom and tower over the couple, reaching the skies – the frame of the picture. On the far right, we see a leafless tree tilting over from age and dying roots, just like the couple approaching the age of a 100.
Underneath the staircase, we see a different plane of existence. In the middle, underneath the 50 year old couple, stands a tree surrounded by two plants. In the same plane, on the left, a baby lies on the ground, and the right, Death is in plain sight in his skeleton shape with his scythe.
In contrast to the crudely portrayed and two-dimensional human subjects, the Kurbits stand out with its fine symmetry. One is compelled to think that it was all intentional and not a matter of coincidence on the part of the artists’ lack of higher art training. The fact that the Dala painters saw the Kurbits as symbolizing the transcental, that which does not die, can be summarized in the words of Winter Carl Hansson: “Här finns Både Rosur och Blåmmor Som Wäccsa Både Winter och Såmmar.”
Here are found both roses and flowers that grow both winter and summer.