Bodil Güntzel. An artist’s life in the shadow of mental illness
Larissa Borck
Jun 14 · 7 min read
How can museums use their digitised collections to highlight individual stories that have been neglected in history? Sörmlands museum shares the story of Bodil Güntzel as part of the Digital Storytelling Festival.
Elin Loord, Josefine Svensson and Larissa Borck, curators at Sörmlands museum
Stroll in a carriage (Promenad i vagn), Bodil Güntzel. Sörmlands museum, CC BY-SA.
There are different layers of social history entangled with Bodil Güntzel’s life. She was a female artist with great talent, but because of the social norms of her time and her mental health issues, she could not work as an artist throughout her life. Her work was neglected the potential attention it deserved — and still does.
In Sörmlands museum’s collections, we preserve different objects and works that tell her story. There are photographs of her, some of her artworks and sketches, and a few personal objects.
At Sörmlands museum, we place the human being and their stories at the centre of our work. It is not the single object, but rather the human story that we focus on. This is also how we use our digital channels, where we focus on storytelling with the digitised collections at heart.
In the case of Bodil Güntzel’s story, we use different digital channels to give our audiences a chance to learn more about her life and the circumstances of her work and mental illness. Her story gives people a chance to get a grasp of the difficulties she faced both as a female artist and as a patient in psychiatric institutions for most of her life.
How do we use the museum’s different digital platforms to tell her story?
On Instagram, we publish stories from our collection in five chapters, one for each weekday. We always chose a theme and a member of staff prepares the texts and images from our digitised collections.
From 7 to 11 June 2021, we published the story of Bodil Güntzel on our Instagram channel. Each of the five chapters focuses on an episode of her life and work as an artist, as well as her mental illness. As our audience is mostly Swedish-speaking, we post in Swedish, but here’s an English translation of the different chapters, the corresponding objects and photographs from our collections.
Monday, 7 June: Introduction
Photograph: Bodil Güntzel, 1928. Sörmlands museum, CC BY-SA. Link to the post on Instagram.
English translation: The Strängnäs-based artist Bodil Güntzel (1903–1998) in riding clothes in 1928. Bodil lived a creative artistic life, attended art academies, had exhibitions, and went on study trips. Although she left behind a wealth of paintings, sketches, and drawings, only a few know today who she was. Perhaps this is because she spent the second half of her life within the walls of institutional care, living with mental illness. Her mental health issues brought her work as an artist to a halt.
In our collections, we have several of her paintings and sketches, as well as some photographs that belonged to her. This week’s topic is the life and work of Bodil Güntzel.
2. Tuesday, 8 June: Bodil Güntzel’s childhood
Photograph: Bodil Güntzel as a child, around 1912. Sörmlands museum, CC BY-SA. Link to the post on Instagram.
English translation: Bodil Märta Güntzel was born on 4 June 1903 in Snöstorp in Halland, Sweden. In the picture, she is about 10 years old. When she was five years old, her parents divorced. At the beginning of the 20th century, divorce was still rare, especially in rural areas. Bodil reportedly said later in life that the divorce was a very dramatic experience for her. She moved with her mother Emma to her grandparents’ farm outside Halmstad. Contact with her father was probably limited.
Bodil grew up without siblings and was a rather lonely and withdrawn child. She began drawing at an early age and enjoyed horseback riding. Later in life, horses became a common motif in her art. When Bodil finished the girls’ school after eight years, she and her mother moved to Stockholm.
3. Wednesday, 9 June: Education as an artist
Photograph: A photograph of one of Bodil Güntzel’s paintings depicting a horse. Sörmlands museum, CC BY-SA. Link to the post on Instagram.
English translation: After girls’ school, Bodil studied at various art schools in Stockholm, including Carl Wilhelmson’s, and was admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts in 1928. After her time at the academy, Bodil attended a housekeeping course at her mother’s request. In the late 1930s, Bodil had the opportunity to make study trips to England and Italy. Some of her works were inspired by these trips. She probably lived with her mother during these years.
Her work was characterised by simple motifs, pastel colours, and elements of naïve art and surrealism. Mythological elements are not uncommon in her paintings. Horses are also a regular motif in Bodil’s art. In the picture, we see a photograph of one of her paintings depicting a horse. Her grandparents’ farm, where she lived as a child, held horses, and it was probably then that she first became fascinated by these animals.
At the end of the 1930s, Bodil and her mother moved to Strängnäs. Bodil knew several artists in Strängnäs from her student days and this was probably the reason for her choice of residence. It was also much cheaper to live there than in Stockholm. Inspired by her study trips and her artist friends in Strängnäs, the 1940s became the most active period in Bodil’s life as an artist. She participated in various collective exhibitions in Sörmland and was also included in the National museum’s Biografica collection during this time.
4. Thursday, 10 June: Mental illness
Photograph: Four portraits of Bodil Güntzel in the 1940s. Sörmlands museum, CC BY-SA. Link to the post on Instagram.
English translation: The 1940s were a good time for Bodil Güntzel as an artist, but she also went through the first signs of mental illness. In 1941, she was admitted to a psychiatric ward for the first time. She was treated at Karolinska Hospital’s psychiatric clinic and diagnosed with schizophrenia. She suffered from hallucinations and thoughts of compulsion and persecution, as well as feelings of abandonment, isolation, and hopelessness. However, she was discharged a few months later, doing well and with a great desire to work. Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, she was admitted and discharged from psychiatric care on several occasions.
The periods of illness affected Bodil’s artistic development and ability to work, and it prevented her from participating in the artistic community in Strängnäs. At times she was completely unable to work creatively. During other periods she regained her desire to work and in 1950, her first solo exhibition was opened at Welamson’s art gallery in Stockholm.
In the picture, you see four studio portraits of Bodil. The photographer is unknown. Bodil is shown from the side, in a dark dress with jewellery around her neck, probably during the 1940s.
5. Friday, 11 June: Psychiatric care and the second half of her life
Photograph: Ward at Sundby Hospital in 1966. Sörmlands museum, CC BY-SA. Link to the post on Instagram.
English translation: In 1956, Bodil is admitted to Sundby Hospital on Tosterön island outside Strängnäs. She never left the institution again and there is no evidence of her continuing to exhibit her work. At the hospital’s therapy centre, however, she had the opportunity to draw and paint. When she felt better, she took part in the different activities at the hospital. She went on excursions to museums in Stockholm, borrowed art books from the library, and took a course in porcelain painting. She also went for walks in nature to get inspiration for her subjects. In 1965, she moved from Sundby’s central hospital to Rosöga, which was a smaller ward in scenic surroundings. Bodil reportedly enjoyed her life there and she stayed there until Sundby closed down in 1985. After that, she lived in a retirement home and died in 1998, aged 95.
In the article “Bodil Güntzel — one of many life stories at Sundby Hospital” in Sörmlandsbygden from 2017 you can read more about Bodil’s life. The article ends with a quote from Ingegerd Lindström, one of the therapists at Sundby Hospital:
“She had very strong integrity. She was tall and thin, almost a bit skinny. And she had a pretty good posture. There was pride in her walk. I felt that she lived quite isolated. But she went her way proudly anyway. She didn’t allow herself to be cowed in any way.”
The picture shows a ward at Sundby Hospital in 1966.
The curated deep dive into our collections
Gouache, Bodil Güntzel. Sörmlands museum, CC BY-SA.
Apart from social media, we also curate our collection in different formats on our website. One of the formats is our page Utforska (Explore): We produce video clips about single objects or collections, write articles or publish online exhibitions related to the themes in our collections.
Bodil Güntzel and her life are also represented on this page, in an article about the hospital and psychiatric ward where she spent a significant part of her life.
The article “Sundby sjukhus” (Sundby hospital) on Sörmlands museum’s website.
The article uses the methodology of scrollytelling, letting the reader explore the history of this psychiatric hospital in Sörmland.
Explore the collection yourself
The collection on Bodil Güntzel life and art on Sörmland museum’s collection online.
Apart from curating the collection about Bodil Güntzel on social media, we also offer possibilities to explore her art and personal belongings yourself in our collections database online. All the digitised objects are openly licensed.
You can have a look at the whole digital collection introducing Bodil Güntzel, her life and oeuvre as well as objects related to her life on our collections website.
This blog post is part of the Digital Storytelling Festival of Europeana and The Heritage Lab. #DigiStoryFest
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Open cultural heritage institutions by digital means. Open GLAM enthusiast.
An online event inviting cultural heritage professionals to discover resources and tools to create digital content, explore ways to boost audience engagement online and discover the value of Open GLAM
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