Dick Beer - Impressionist & Cubist

Dick Beer at his first exhibition in September 1913 in Stockholm.


Dick Beer was born in 1893 in London as Richard Beer, the youngest of five brothers. His father, John Beer (1853-1906), was a watercolourist who was born in Stockholm and had left Sweden at the age of 17. John Beer instructed his sons in drawing and painting, among other things. A number of sketchbooks bear testimony to the boys’ talent.
Dick Beer’s parents died in 1906 and 1907. Barely 15 years old, Beer arrived in Sweden as an orphan. First he lived with relatives and finally he ended up at Reverend Laurell in Västergötland.
Dick Beer began his artistic studies at the Althin School of Painting in Stockholm in 1908 and continued at the Royal Academy of Arts in the autumn of 1910, but in September 1912 he broke off his studies and travelled to Paris. He rented a studio and enrolled at the Colarossi and Grande Chaumière academies.
In the summer of 1913, Dick Beer travelled to Pont-Aven in Bretagne in order to paint. In September the same year, he held his first solo exhibition in Stockholm which he gave the French title Exposition des tableaux de Bretagne et autour de Paris. The exhibition proved a success. Many of the paintings were executed in a light palette in a style inspired by the impressionists.
In 1914, Dick Beer undertook an extensive study trip to Italy, Tunis, Morocco and Spain, which resulted in canvases overflowing with colours and light. When the French army mobilised, he volunteered and was enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. In 1915 Dick Beer sustained severe head injuries in a grenade attack, which resulted in deafness and a nervous condition that would plague him for the rest of his life. Two of his brothers died the following year, fighting for the English army.
Dick Beer was hospitalised and convalesced at Château de Rochefort. Here he started painting again, in an impressionist style, a painting dominated by blue and green hues.
In 1918, Dick Beer married Ruth Öhrling, a dentist, and their son John was born later in the year. During this time, Beer began experimenting with cubist painting and created several large compositions, including the painting “The Arab Café”.
In the years that followed, Dick Beer was based in Paris, where he often moved house. He was instructed by André Lhote, who encouraged his students to work freely in the studio and provided them with individual critique. Beer often travelled to Bretagne or Provence. His artist friends came from all over Europe and included Amedeo Modigliani. Dick Beer exhibited fairly regularly in Paris between 1919 and 1934 and made a name for himself in French artist circles.
In the summers, Ruth regularly rented a house in the countryside, often at Lake Mälaren. She kept a large house with many models and friends and there was a lot of painting and discussions. In 1933, the couple divorced but Ruth still loved Dick and continued to support him financially for the rest of his life.
Dick Beer also exhibited in Sweden, albeit irregularly due to his failing health. In the 1920s and 1930s, Beer continued to pursue an expressionist painting with intense colours and unexpected perspectives, but eventually he veered towards more naturalistic forms, including a large number of nudes. He also painted several portraits of artists, politicians and writers.
In 1938, Dick Beer sojourned in Arles. The budding photographer Christer Strömholm became a student of Dick Beer’s and they developed an intimate friendship. In June the same year, Dick Beer died in Stockholm following complications of pneumonia.


Dick Beer and Depictive Painting

The artist’s first works are from the time when he was living in London. His father and his older brother, Edward, worked in the studio and Dick Beer was inspired by the creative environment. One of the earliest works by Dick Beer is the watercolour “Still life with white napkin and jug” from 1907.

In his parents’ home, Dick Beer was surrounded by horse studies. Both his father’s and his older brother’s main motif was victorious racehorses or depictions of various moments of a race. Dick Beer also explored the horse motif in several of the artistic styles in which he experimented.

After studies at the Academy in Sweden, Beer arrived at Paris in 1912. Some of the first works from this time are delicate depictions of cityscapes in a classic style. His brushwork became gradually more dissolved with explicit light reflections.

From the beginning of 1913, Dick Beer travels in France and paints in towns and in the countryside. He was inspired by the impressionists, who painted their immediate impressions, that which the eye fastens on in the open air. Dick Beer often depicted nature; studies of trees, shrubbery, vistas or natural phenomena. Other motifs include streets lined with houses. The human figures are often relegated to the background. The vistas are predominantly represented in a range of clear colours in which the motif is accentuated by sharp contours. Here, Dick Beer has also garnered ideas from artists who challenged traditional impressionism, such as Paul Cézanne who, with his geometric landscapes, was a precursor of the cubists. Landscapes by Vincent van Gogh are also discernible in, for example, “Stormy weather in St. Arnoult”. Dick Beer was also influenced by pointillist painting, in which the motifs were constructed by juxtaposed dots of pure paint.


Paris Bohème

In the 1910s, young people from all over Europe and other continents with artistic ambitions flocked to Paris. The city was vibrant and Dick Beer, who had been raised in London, felt at home and France became his adopted country. His artist friends in Paris included the painters Gabriele Varese, who was Italian, and Manuel Ortiz de Zárate, who came from Chile, as well as the French sculptor Count Frédéric de Fréminville. The most successful of the artists was Ortiz de Zárate.

Amedeo Modigliani drew Dick Beer’s portrait in the autumn of 1919. Their paths probably crossed in a studio or in one of the cafés in Montparnasse, Rotonde or Dôme. They were most likely introduced by Ortiz de Zárate, who had befriended Modigliani in Italy.

Dick Beer’s Swedish friends included Bertil Bull Hedlund, his constant companion and fellow traveller, as well as Axel Fridell, Bertil Damm, Olle Ågren and the sculptor Ragnar Gellerstedt. With the latter, Dick Beer shared a studio in Stockholm in 1921. Otto G. Carlsund was sometimes part of the circle and in late spring 1934 they spent two months together in Björnlunda in Sörmland. In a letter to Ruth Öhrling, Carlsund wrote: “I had another gang but I saw him [Dick] at the bars and sometimes drank with him and the small Frenchman, who was always in his company, whatever his name was” [Frédéric de Fréminville]. According to the actor Axel Bergman, Beer had several close friends among the Russian expatriates, particularly the master singer Feodor Chaliapin, whose home the musical Dick Beer often frequented.

Some of his friends had their portraits painted by Dick Beer, including Varese, de Fréminville, Bull Hedlund and Gellerstedt. Of Carlsund there is a pencil drawing preserved.

In Paris there were many cabaret and dance hall artists who made extra money modelling for artists. One of them was the dark and the exotic Aysha, or Aïcha Goblet, who was very popular. Her father came from Martinique, but she was born in northern France. Aysha was often depicted wearing a turban.


The Journey South

In spring 1914, Dick Beer embarked on a long study trip, beginning with Italy. He visited famous artistic sites such as Venice and Florence but appears to have taken a liking to Sicily. Here he produced watercolours as well as oils, possibly with the city of Taormina as his point of departure. His paintings “Fountain” and “The Church in Taormina” where made there. 

From Sicily, Dick Beer continued to Tunis. He painted cityscapes with sun-drenched rooftops and domes and an almost tangible sense of oppressive heat in the alleys. In Street Alley in Tunis“ the alley is in shade under an expressive sky, in which the blue has been applied with swift zigzag strokes and the bright clouds have a blue lining.

 “Bazaar in Tunis” depicts the shadow play under the roof of the covered marketplace. Through the holes in the roof, one glimpses the bright blue sky and light streaming in, forming reflections on the walls and ground. Men and women appear along the street and the tradesmen are seated in front of their stalls among fabric, rugs and flags.

These North African compositions are painted in intense colours, which govern the interplay between light and shade. The brush seems to have moved quickly across the canvas and paper. Every individual paint dot contributes to the pictorial construction.

Again, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and other impressionist masters have inspired Dick Beer. The French artist Paul Signac further developed impressionist painting and allowed the colour to appear through small, meticulously executed dots. Dick Beer had experimented with a similar manner of applying paint already in 1913. The result, however, was a unique mixture of styles.


Cubistic vision

In the period following the First World War, the artist’s painting underwent a fundamental transformation. Dick Beer was influenced by various modernistic expressions. In Paris, the first wave of cubism, led by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, was established. It was a controversial artistic style. There was a heated debate about cubism, in which the artist broke up the motif into smaller components, sometimes called facets, in order to rebuild it on the flat surface of the pictorial plane. This manner of painting represented a complete break with preceding pictorial conventions and naturalistic painting.

Cubism was governed by theory, not practice, and critics claimed that the style was too intellectual for the general public and they predicted that it would disappear and that artists would return to a rather more classic expression.

The theories surrounding cubism and its various expressions opened up for a number of reinterpretations in the 1910s. Dick Beer was well aware of the cubist discussions. He embraced the ideas but created a varied, personal and emotive cubism in the years around 1918. His painting was often an explosive discharge with playful characteristics and a futuristic dynamism which accentuated the painting’s inherent speed and movement, as for example his works “Dancer” and “The Toy Box”. He also experimented with geometric compositions of buildings and landscapes, which were reminiscent of Paul Cézanne’s more cubic landscapes. Here, Beer’s colours were often muted, in blue, brown and red hues. He frequently returned to earlier motifs and reworked his canvases into a cubist style, as in “Dancer tying her shoes” and “Seated dancer“.

Contemporary art critics were appalled and Beer had to endure severe criticism. At one point, the artist published a reply in the daily Politiken, 1919, where he described his view on art:

“... because love for and understanding of art, ‘l’art pour l’art’, is not easy to achieve, and neither is it easy to comprehend the different movements’ or schools’ origin, goals, characteristic endeavours, etc. – These international phenomena require not only theoretical and art historical knowledge but (...) the ability to empathise with and feel for art, as its practitioners do”.


Nude painting

“Most important are the nudes. Beer applies a consistent technique with only his palette-knife and has attained great skill in making a surface alive and varied […]”. (Karl Asplund in Dagens Nyheter, 22 March 1932)

From the end of the 1920s, Beer embarked on a period in which he painted a great deal of nudes, often in beautiful summery settings in Sweden, near the water, in the greenery or next to a light-flowing opening. An example is “Nude by the window with a view over Stockholm” with motifs from his studio on Bergsgatan, facing the leafy Kronoberg Park.

His favourite Swedish model was the redhead Helny. Other models included Lisa and Saga. His wife Ruth also posed in nature. He also depicted models indoors, seated or lying down, always with their skin shimmering of sunlight, shade or lamplight. The sensualism was expressed. “Reclining nude” depicts a woman with her arm behind her head, with her hair falling down over her face and with her mouth painted red. This work of art was painted in France and the model with necklace recurred in several compositions. The French models were generally more anonymous than the Swedish ones. An exception is the famous Aysha of Paris.