Beda Stjernschantz - Pastoraali (1897)

Nordic international symbolists and the concept of androgyny

Research project
Inactive research
Project period
2017 - 2022
Project owner
Department of Cultural Sciences

Short description

I explore five internationally-based Nordic symbolists and their visual art from the turn of the 20th century in relation to the concept of androgyny.
By studying the Swedish graphic artist Tyra Kleen (1874-1951), the Swedish painter Olof Sager-Nelson (1868-1896) as well as the Finnish painters Magnus Enckell (1870-1925), Beda Stjernschantz (1867-1910) and Ellen Thesleff (1869-1954), I deal with a quite unexplored international stance of Nordic symbolism.
I focus on the visual exploration of gender-ambivalent accounts and alternatives to gender binary models in their art. I examine how cultural dimensions of androgyny and an androgynous beauty ideal might be expressed in the selected artworks and how this relates to contemporary intellectual, cultural, artistic, scientific and religious discourses.


This project explores an international stance of Nordic symbolism as an important parallel to Nordic national romantic symbolism.

By studying five internationally-based visual artists whose artistic expressions are closely related to symbolism while appearing to be timeless and quite ‘placeless’, I aim to disconnect the overall understanding of Nordic symbolism from being a means of national romanticist expressions. I consider Nordic visual artists who had been expatriates in the time of national romanticism as ‘non-exceptional’, in contrast to their dominant classification as ‘exceptional’ in the Nordic art histories. 

The art of the Swedish painter and graphic artist Tyra Kleen (1874-1951), the Swedish painter Olof Sager-Nelson (1868-1896) as well as of the Finnish painters Magnus Enckell (1870-1925), Ellen Thesleff (1869-1954) and Beda Stjernschantz (1867-1910) is ranging from being included quite well and being included as a mere example of an exception, like Olof Sager-Nelson’s art, to not being included at all in Nordic art history, like it is the case with Tyra Kleen’s art.

These five artists constitute the qualitative choice of this study based on the least common denominator, that is, their visual exploration of either alternatives to gender binary models or the concept of androgyny in their art from the turn of the 20th century.

This project studies a broad range of tropes that are characteristic for going beyond gender or for gender-ambivalent or gender-mixed accounts. Portrait paintings, mythological, biblical and literal tropes, as well as scenes of heterosexual love, are focused on. While the five different artists’ production, in general, are differently well explored (Magnus Enckell’s work is rather well than less explored, especially within Finnish literature, Kleen’s work is generally less explored), the impact of the concept of androgyny and its meaning-making in their art has rarely been studied in previous research. 


The androgynous beauty ideal was a central part of the symbolist movement, in particular for the Parisian symbolists. Androgyny as an ideal sexual union and totality stood also for a utopian aesthetic. This was for instance strongly promoted by Joséphin Sâr Péladan and his catholic symbolist brotherhood and their salons between 1892 and 1897. It goes back to Plato’s primordial myth of the dual primitive beings that is included in Plato’s Symposium as Aristophanes’ contribution to the discussion on the god of love Eros. According to this myth, a division into different sexes and a sexual desire first evolve after the splitting of the primitive dual beings by the gods.

Being expressed in the context of late 19th century-symbolist art, the image of the androgyne often functioned as a metaphor for spiritual or/and bodily union. It could reflect several forms of desired unions of polarities and ambiguities. By not merely going beyond gender, but also by going beyond time, the image of the androgyne also often was to be understood as an allusion to the golden age (before the Fall), as an Arcadian-like state of mind and place within late 19th-century symbolism.


By exploring how cultural dimensions of androgyny might be expressed in the selected artworks, an unexplored stance of Nordic symbolism is paid attention to.

To which extent can these accounts of Nordic symbolism be understood as expressions of an international aesthetic (within the European symbolism) or an alternative to the pursue of emphasizing regional or national particularities through art?

How is the androgynous beauty ideal related to the rediscovery and revival of the classic art (re-explored through Johann Joachim Winckelmann in the late 18th century and other neo-classical scholars)?

How do the chosen artists’ artmaking as well as their self-identification as visual artists in the male contemporary artworld – especially concerning the chosen women artists – relate to androgynous notions?

This study examines the impact of the concept of androgyny in the chosen artworks and how this might have reflected contemporary late 19th-century intellectual, artistic, scientific, religious and gender discourses.