An exhibition entitled “Faces of the Balkans” by Olaf Jordan has opened in the Ethnographic Museum Rupe in Dubrovnik and features a series of portraits by this Swedish painter. Olaf Jordan (1902 – 1968) spent time in Dubrovnik and the region in the 1930s and through his paintings captured the essence of the diversity of the region.
The Dubrovnik Times caught up with his daughter, Sybille Göthe from Sweden, who has donated 72 reproductions of her father’s work to the Ethnographic Museum. These drawings feature people in national costumes from the Dubrovnik region. And thanks to this very donation the Ethnographic Museum was able to organize this exhibition. “Faces of the Balkans.” The exhibition includes paintings from 1935 to 1938, during which time Olaf Jordan was staying in the area. The exhibition will continue until the 14th of May.
Olaf Jordan was born in 1902 in Decin in Bohemia in the Czech Republic. He studied art at the Dresden Academy 1920-25 and then made study trips throughout southern Europe. He stayed for longer periods in France and Holland and lived in Yugoslavia between 1935 and 1938. After the German annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 Jordan had to return to Decin. He was eventually conscripted by the German army and was assigned to a Cossack Division in 1942 as an army artist. He lived with these Cossacks on the Balkan front till May, 1945. In 1947 he could reunite with his family in Sweden. He gradually established himself as a portrait and landscape painter in the town of Linköping, where he died in 1968.
Your father lived for some time in Dubrovnik. Do you consider Dubrovnik as a second home? What does the city mean to you?
Dubrovnik has never been my second home, although my parents lived there in the 1930’s. My elder sister spent her childhood in Dubrovnik, but I was born in Bohemia in 1941, after my parents had to return there when it was attached to the German Reich by Hitler and Olaf was conscripted to the German Army. I live in Sweden and visited Dubrovnik for the first time in 1965 with my mother Helfrid. Dubrovnik had always been mentioned with such affection in my family, so to me it was like a fairy- tale place, a place to long back to, with unparalleled beauty and friendliness, to live a happy life in, but at the same time beyond reach behind the iron curtain. We followed with great emotions the war in the 1990s, the struggle for freedom and independence versus the destruction and horror when the region tried to come back to its feet. The feeling of almost having had Dubrovnik as my home has given me a certain bond to the town.
Did your father have a desire to return to Dubrovnik or to the Balkans after World War II? What were his thoughts and opinions on the Balkans, Croatia and Yugoslavia after the war?
After WWII my father´s world was broken up. As a German soldier he was not allowed to leave Germany until 1947. Having lost his two homes, his parental in Bohemia and his own house in Dubrovnik, both now behind the Iron curtain, he could only hope to join his family in Sweden, where they had managed to go, his wife being Swedish. It was not a situation for desiring to return to either Bohemia or Dalmatia. – I never heard him discuss the Balkans etc, it was lost and beyond reach anyway. Finding foothold in Sweden took all his energy.
Many original works of your father have been lost. How did this happen? You have donated 72 reproductions to the Ethnographic Museum in Dubrovnik, what happened to the originals?
We have always wondered. The collection with the 15 colour portraits, meant for publication, disappeared in Prague during WWII. My parents tried to get in contact with the publisher but with no result. All the black and white photos were sent to my father in Sweden, when he finally had an address to send things to, by his brothers and friends on the continent who had got them from him earlier. Olaf seems to have sent them around in the peace time between the wars to show what he was doing. Four originals have turned up to our knowledge, three in the Decin museum (Czech Rep.) and one in Austria.
What is the perception of your father’s work in Sweden?
My father established himself as a portrait and landscape painter in the town of Linköping, Sweden. He did not become much known outside that region, as only modernity counted on the art scene. His style of exact rendering of what he saw was against him. This is not generally what people want today either.
He started making his living in Sweden in 1947 with child portraits in a very delicate manner primarily with pencil. Finding that official portraits in oil were better paid he began with that and did quite well, though with ups and downs, for twelve years, until he was hit by a stroke in 1960 and could no longer write his name. Today only some few people who knew him and his art appreciate him, but then very much so.
Some of the works that your father created whilst he was a member of the Wehrmacht are kept in Washington. Do you think these works will ever come back to Sweden and why it is so difficult to reach them and return them to their homeland?
The history of this ‘war art’ is this: Artists who were enrolled in the special staff of war artists thanked their lucky stars that they did not have to serve as soldiers. They were employed by the Propaganda Ministry, so their work belonged to the state of Germany. Some artists who adopted the ideas got their work published, whilst others saw the true side of war and illustrated that.
After the war the Allies got hold of thousands of these German war paintings, they were stored and meant never again to be returned to Germany. A number were stored in the Pentagon, among them pictures by Olaf Jordan. There they were discovered as true images of individuals who are victims of war and circumstances, and an exhibition was shown in 1975 in USA that drew much attention and praise.
However, the storing of all this ‘war art’ was a costly problem, but what to do with it? In the 1990s they were returned to Germany. Some of it reached The German History Museum in Berlin, among them about 40 of Olaf Jordan´s portraits and sketches. In the collection in Berlin his art stands out, and when I came there in 2009, just as they were busy registering them, the plan was to make an exhibit of his war-time art. Finances became tight, however, so the plan was put to rest.
A few years after the war after my parents had found out that these sheets were in the USA, they had tried to get them back. It could not happen then, and we do not want them anymore. They are best kept where they are now.
What perception of Dubrovnik or the Balkans in general do the Swedes have?
My impression is that people in Sweden now rediscover it as a fine tourist goal. There is in Sweden also bonds created by immigrants and refugees. Many refugees came to Sweden following the conflict in the 1990s and some of them have done extremely well and made themselves at home in this country. Now people return to the new nations that have been created in Yugoslavia´s place, and especially Croatia is popular to visit, and more and more Swedes are discovering Croatia and Dubrovnik for all it offers.