Stockholm syndrome*

*a proposed condition in which hostages (visitors) develop a psychological bond with their captors (host city)

Stockholm’s art museums can boast seven centuries of art, from the country’s biggest museum of 16th to 21st century art and design to one of Europe’s finest collections of modern and contemporary art. The top two museums are just a few hundred yards apart on adjoining islands near the city centre. (Stockholm is built on a patchwork of 14 islands, each with its own character. You won’t walk far without crossing a short bridge here, a monumental one there – almost 60 altogether.)

Opened in 1866, the National Museum is the country’s biggest museum of art and design. The grand building was designed to resemble a northern Italian Renaissance palace. Particularly engrossing are the frescoes on the central staircase by Carl Larsson.

The grand staircase in the National Museum

While most national museums tend to be largely historical or ethnographic in nature, Stockholm’s has a huge collection of paintings, sculpture, drawings, graphics and decorative arts – over 5,000 works in all – from the 16th century to the present day.

Nordic artists such as Anders Zorn and Carl Larsson are joined by mainland European counterparts such as Cranach, Rembrandt, Goya, Degas, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Poussin, Canaletto, Guardi and Gauguin. There is also a splendid section on craft and design 1920-1965.

The sculpture court in the National Museum

Further on over one of those bridges, the Moderna Museet has one of Europe’s finest collections of modern and contemporary art from the early 20th century to the present day, with nearly 150,000 paintings, sculptures, installations, films, videos, drawings, prints and photographs by Swedish and international artists. In the 1960s and 1970s it was the first museum to introduce artists such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle to Swedish audiences.

Displays are spread through 24 galleries on two levels. A walk along one particular wall is like a stroll through modern art history with works by the likes of Picasso, Dali, Warhol, Matisse, Arp, Pollock, Dubuffet, di Chirico, Klee, Miro, Nauman, Duchamp, de Kooning and others.

Designed by the Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, who was also responsible for the 2007 extension of the Prado Museum in Madrid, the building also houses ArtDes, Sweden’s national centre for architecture and design. The surrounding grounds are dotted with large scale sculptures such as Picasso’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe, Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely’s The Fantastic Paradise and Alexander Calder’s The Four Elements.

Reached on a short bus ride through wooded suburbs past fine, turn of the century villas, many with sweeping views over an inlet, the Thiel Gallery sits atop a hill on a promontory. Visiting it is a good opportunity to escape the city bustle and experience some Nordic calm.

Built in the 190os, the dazzling white building with its geometric, art nouveau design was home-cum-gallery to the banker and art collector Ernest Thiel (1859-1947), one of Sweden’s richest men. Elegant yet homely, the house was a lively social forum for actors, writers and artists of the day.

Thiel’s second marriage changed his approach to life and collecting. He declared: “Love liberated me from conventionalism and the imprisoning effect of prejudice…and gave my spirit the freedom for its new growth.” Thereafter he began assembling works he thought best encapsulated the new spirit of contemporary Nordic art, building a fine collection by painters such as Edvard Munch, Carl Larsson, Bruno Liljefors and Anders Zorn. He also collected works by Gauguin, Daumier, Cranach, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh and others.

The surrounding sculpture garden includes works by Auguste Rodin (Thiel’s urn is interred in rock beneath The Shadow) and the great Norwegian sculptor Guslav Vigeland. Thiel lost almost his entire fortune in the post-WWI stock market crash. The house, including the furnishings and art collection, was bought by the Swedish state and opened as a museum in 1925.

One of Stockholm’s finest exhibition settings is Liljevalchs, which opened in 1916 as Sweden’s first contemporary art gallery. The pink exterior, considered radical at the time, earned it the nickname “the salmon box”. Named for the merchant and donor Carl Fredrik Liljevalchs, it was the first art museum in Sweden to be free of royal influence and marked an exciting new era for Stockholm artists with limited exhibition opportunities.

A recurring feature is the popular Spring Salon, a juried show of several hundred works in a variety of media. Otherwise there is a changing exhibition programme in the spacious original galleries, which were augmented in 2021 by Liljevalchs+, a six-floor modern extension with a large sculpture hall. The tessellated stone roof design fills the top floor with natural light.

The “salmon box” and the modern extension, Liljevalchs+

Enter the opulent world of Count and Countess Walther and Wilhelmina von Hallwyl (of extensive sawmill interests) in the urban palace that is the Hallwyl Museum, one of Stockholm’s more eccentric museums. Built between 1893 and 1898 as a private residence, the facade is inspired by Spanish and Italian buildings of the late Gothic and Renaissance, while the lavish, 40-room interior is stuffed with paintings, furniture, silverware and objets d’art. The house has been left exactly as it was when the original occupiers were home.

The dining room in the Hallwyl Museum

Like its sister galleries in Tallinn, Berlin and New York, Fotografiska is a leading venue for fine art photography, with regular exhibitions by international artists. Bonus: A sweeping view of Stockholm over the inlet.

Fotografiska is dedicated to photography as fine art.

The Konstakademien, or Royal Academy of the Liberal Arts, occupies a renovated 1670s palace. As well as shows in the main exhibition hall, there are almost 800 sculptures on display, most of them plaster casts used in the past in art teaching. The terrace bar is a popular summer hang-out.

Konstakademien, or Royal Academy of the Liberal Arts

Built by the modernist Swedish architect Peter Celsin, the Kulturhuset (House of Culture) is a kind of art and entertainment multiplex combining a live theatre, libraries, a cinema, cafes and restaurants, a puppet theatre, an art and craft studio and even a communal chess-playing area. Amid the family-friendly buzz, Galerie 3 and Galerie 5 host seriesly interesting film and photography exhibitions.

Galerie 5 in the Kulturhuset during an exhibition of Japanese photographer Masayoshi Sukita’s work with David Bowie

Taking up the pointy bit of a slick, wedge-shaped building, the Bonniers Konsthall presents established and emerging Swedish and international contemporary art.

Bonniers Konsthall

Following the Europe-wide trend of former industrial sites becoming arts centres, Färgfabriken, meaning ‘the color factory’, refers to the history of the building, which in the late 1800s and early 1900s produced paint, soap and other materials. Today it is a platform for contemporary art, architecture, urban planning and design.

In the green retreat of Vasaparken, in its sleek building clad in a copper-aluminium-zinc alloy, Sven-Harry’s Art Museum combines an art gallery, museum, restaurant, rooftop sculpture terrace and – founder/realtor/art collector Sven-Harry Karlsson being an entrepreneurial kind of guy – apartments. The gallery shows selections from Sven-Harry’s own collection and stages diverse exhibitions by primarily Swedish contemporary artists.

Sven-Harry’s Art Museum

Art in the Subway

There’s even art underfoot in Stockhom. At 110 kilometres long, the city’s subway system is said to be the world’s longest art gallery, with each of its 100 stations displaying art on platforms and walls, from ‘primitive’ painting to hi-tech light shows. Since the 1950s artists have played a key role when new subway stations have been built in Stockholm and over time the metro’s older stations, built without any art, have been spruced up with statues, murals and installations. It’s all in the name of democratising art.

Kungsträdgården subway station (pictured) is named after one of Stockholm’s oldest public parks (roughly meaning “The King’s Garden”). Almost everything in the station tells the story of the site above ground. The colour scheme – red, white and green – is a reference to the old French formal garden which previously covered the site, and statues around the station are replicas of the exterior art of the Makalös Palace which once stood there.