Central and Eastern Europe, International Journalism and PR

‘’My mission is simply to show the world my father’s works’’

Luncheon on the Grass by Carl Köhler

Interview with Henry Köhler son of a Swedish genius Carl Köhler, about three Swedish generations  with love for art, unlimited passion for discovering its depth, living life without conventional limitations. Carl Köhler made portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson Edith Piaf & Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, Maria Sklodowska Curie and many more. Henry and his sister Frida donated the works to many international organizations.

Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska: Henry, I have a feeling that you are on a mission and nothing can stop you. And if conventional methods of sharing your message do not work you turn into unconventional. Just like starting twitter actions and simply approaching people. What is your project about, what is your mission?

The reason I started this project was because my father did not have any good contacts during the last 10 years of his artlife. He needed help to get the recognition he deserved. I approched tradtional status artgalleries & museums , and that did not work out so I turned to other cultural institutions. First exhibition was a 4 month authorportraits exhibition at the August Strindberg Museum here in Stockholm/Sweden 2008 and after that a summer exhibition at the Stockholm Royal Concert Hall ( images of dance & sound). During these exhibitions I looked over the Atlantic Ocean and the ( Brooklyn Public Library ) in New York. The curator flew to Sweden and took the big suitcase with 30 Authorportraits back with her. These portraits stayed in US/Canada and were exhibited around major libraries & Universities between 2009-2014. All sorts of status media wrote about these exhibitions ( I wrote many many emails to get this happen). The reason I use Twitter is because it is a great place to show images and get connected with all sorts of people, journalists, institutions, authors, and some celebrities.

My mission is simply to show the world my father’s works, he did something special and that is worth promoting, spreading the word about.

Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by Carl Köhler

Your father painted portraits of many famous people he never met but felt inspired by. Who did he paint?

Yes, my father painted many portraits, just to mention a few:  Marilyn Monroe, Franz Kafka, Johann Sebastian Bach, Edith Piaf, Marie Sklodowska Curie, Virginia Woolf, Michael Jackson and many more.

Portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Carl Köhler
Portrait of Michael Jackson by Carl Köhler
Portrait of Franz Kafka by Carl Köhler

You have donated your father’s works to various institutions. Can you mention a few?

I have done several portrait donations. Marie Sklodowska Curie painting to the Maria Sklodowska Curie Museum in Warsaw. Six  portraits to the Library of Congress (USA): Henry Miller, Joseph Beuys, Anna Akhmatova, Brassai the photographer, Rosa Luxemburg & Jean Cocteau. Irish Cultural Center in Hammersmith ( London UK) received James Joyce, Samuel Beckett & Brendan Behan. 

And recently 2 portraits went to the Irish Embassy in Stockholm/Sweden. Samuel Beckett & Brendan Behan. These portraits will be sent to Ireland. Also recently I have donated my father’s portrait of Francois Mauruac to the Mauriac Museum at Domaine de Malagar in France.

Portrait of Maria Sklodowska-Curie by Carl Köhler

What reactions do you receive? What was the reaction of Sklodowska’s Museum?

The reactions when I offer to donate my father’s portraits have been really good. I think his neomodernistic style is something that they really enjoy. For example, the Marie Curie museum in Warsaw, Poland was truly delighted to receive my father’s painting.

Self-Portrait, 1945 by Carl Köhler
Self-portrait, 1982 by Carl Köhler

Before I delve into your father’s work please tell us more about yourself. In our contacts I noticed strong existentionalism, strong free will to determine the course of life in a positive, creative and contributing to the society way.

When I was in my early 20s I got ill, and got the diagnose ME/CFS , this happend after many infections/antibiotics and a possible tick bite that got me a mild TBE. So my life has been very different because of that illness. I have raised a family and taking care of ground control and resting/sleeping everyday I manage to be able  to cope.

This artproject is something I have been able to do, it feels great to contribute with something important. Just work when my head & body manage.

Since a couple of years I have been interested in landscape photography in my close surroundings. We lived 10 years up north in Sweden ( looks like a small Canada wilderness). Mayby that is something I after my artistic father.

Henry with his father Carl, family archives ©HenryKöhler

You had a very strong relation with your father. But as you said it was not a father-son-footbal relationship. It was something more. Can you elaborate on it?

Me & my father were good friends with the same sense of humor and a bit craziness. He was not a traditional soccer/football dad, but a very warm-hearted family man. 

Model drawing (ink) created by Carl Köhler in Paris in the early 1950s
Model drawing (ink) created by Carl Köhler in Paris in the early 1950s

Your father was pretty unconventional and did not really care about things which were not really relevant for the real purpose of life, the surface did not interest him, he went for the depths. So convenances were not his thing. Right?

My father was indeed unconventional, that is maby one thing that made it harder for him to mingle with the status art world and say & do the correct things to become more famous. Once for example he went to the local store ( we lived in Stockholm city in an old apartment) in just his bathroobe and slippers to buy the newspaper.

Another funny story is the following: we spent a summer in an Island just outside Helsinki/Finland back in 1984 and a Finnish family asked my father if I was the Swedish High jumper Patrik Sjöberg ( world record holder back then), it was some likeness. He admitted that I was him and that  we were there on a training camp, and they were very impressed!

Family photo, from left Carl Köhler, daughter Frida Köhler and Sinikka Köhler, Carl’s wife (1945-2011) family archives ©HenryKöhler
Portrait of the daughter Frida, by Carl Köhler
Portrait of Sinnika Köhler, Carl’s wife (1945-2011) by Carl Köhler

Your father worked in a neo-modernistic style. He searched inspiration in art: books, music, theater, ballet, faces, human body in movement. He contemplated them in his paintings. He was not just an artist, he was a philosopher who was translating his thoughts into paintings. Would you agree with me?

Yes, you are totally right. He was also a philosopher an avid reader and he could have been an author as well.

The Descent of the Cross by Carl Köhler
Model drawing (ink) created by Carl Köhler in Paris in the early 1950s

Your father’s works were so intense, so vivid, so involving. When I look at them I have a feeling that I am in dialogue with him. Like Franz Kafka’s portrait for example. Which paintings would you like to elaborate on today?

If I should elaborate on some of his works I take his Petrushka/ballet interpretations. The movement and the story of saga & play. He was so good at that.

Petrushka alone 1 Carl Köhler
Petrushka alone 2 by Carl Köhler
Petrushka alone 2 by Carl Köhler

Luncheon on the Grass is definitely one of my favourite ones, it is my father’s version of the classic Edouard Manet painting.

Some of my other favorite art pieces are: the portrait of Joyce Carol Oates, Marie Sklodowska Curie, Marilyn Monroe, Butoh Dancer, and several more. 

Joyce Carol Oates by Carl Köhler
Butoh by Carl Köhler

What materials was he using?

My father used several materials for his works, pen, ink, indian ink, oil, collages he glued, cut and could work with a painting for a long time.

Portrait of Michael Jackson by Carl Köhler
Model drawing (ink) created by Carl Köhler in Paris in the early 1950s
Guillaume Apollinaire. Original woodcut from 1960 by Carl Köhler

This intensity and passion for art is in genes in your family. Your grandparent’s, parents of your father’s were also artists. Can you tell us more about them?

My grandfather John Köhler ( 1864-1946) was a professor in chemistry and also a visual artist. My grandmother Elisabeth Köhler (1884-1969) was a concert hall pianist/singer.

So my father inherited quite a lot there. At first my father studied at law school for 2 years and then dropped out to take on his art education 1945-1951 at the Royal Swedish Art Academy. And after that he went to France & Spain to study more art, he got a major royal art scholarship so he could travel and study. His parents  were not at first happy about his choice.

Sign of the Ox by Carl Köhler
Model  drawing (ink) from Spain created by Carl Köhler around 1956
He lived & painted in Spain/Ibiza for 6 years in the 1950s.


Can you let us know when we can see more of your father’s works. Online and physically around the world?

Online there is a website carlkohler.com . However we do not have the same amount of art in our collection that we used to have when this website was created. Some art can be seen physically in London/UK at Irish Cultural Center in Hammersmith. In the US at Richard Hugo House in Seattle. In Poland at the Marie Sklodowska Curie Museum in Warsaw. Further 2 portraits will go to Ireland. At Sundsvalls Museum/Sweden .

My father’s art is represented at Swedish Modern Art Museum, The Swedish National Museum of art, Gothenburg Art Museum. The Swedish State Portrait Collection. However these pieces are stored there, not hanging on any walls. For the time being there is no exhibition planned.

Dance couple by Carl Köhler
Hamlet drawing late 90s by Carl Köhler

When will be your mission completed?

I do not do this art work so intense any more, however if I get an idea I try to implement it. We do not  (my sister Frida Köhler and myself ) have so many art pieces left. Maybe 15 portraits and 20 paintings and a bunch of drawings. I can consider to donate some more portraits and also sell pieces if there would be of interest somewhere. Also exhibit if I find someone to work with.

Author: Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska is an award-winning international journalist, TV correspondent, author, chief editor of international journalism centre, Central and Eastern Europe Centre, president of the European Institute on Communist Oppression and a sworn translator. She was born in Warsaw, Poland and has also Armenian blood and roots in Lvov, which is part of Ukraine. She has been living in Heerlen, the Netherlands since 2005.

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