Signe Lund 1925–1937

Signe was often overawed by the life of her school friends in Stockholm. It was so different from the Lund’s frugal family life. The Lunds were close friends of the Paues family who as diplomats lived in Brazil. They wanted their three children to go to Swedish schools and arranged for Johan, Elin and Nisse to spend the school year with a housekeeper on Valhallavägen close to where the Lunds lived. Elin was two years ahead of the Swedish school children and took a year off in Brazil before starting school together with Signe in grade 5 at Margaretaskolan. Elin was 11 and Signe was 12 and they became life-long friends.

Signe and her sisters used to play for hours with Elin and Johan in the woods opposite their home on Valhallavägen on the island of Djurgården. During the summer the Paues family left for their little cottage, known as Stugan, by Nässundet near Kristinehamn in Värmland. The Lunds often rented a summer place close by and all the children spent their summers together in and around the lake. The Paues had made a float on pontoons which was perfect for diving, water fights and other swimming adventures. In August they put out crayfish nets in the evening and the older ones got up early next morning to empty them. Signe slept in the Paues barn with some younger cousins and didn’t want to wake them so they tied a string around her big toe and hung the string out through the window. Johan came and pulled the string in the morning so that she would know when to come and row out to the island to empty the nets

Signe was one of the best at school sports but she hated competition. Despite this she and Elin were both on the school netball team and won many competitions for their school. Signe preferred to be out in nature taking long walks with Elin and their friends. They would go out with a sandwich in one pocket and an apple in another chatting away or singing – often in harmony – as they walked, drinking in the beautiful natural surroundings of the Stockholm archipelago. They sang the old folk songs that were so “in” at the time. Songs by Evert Taube, Dan Andersson, Nils Herlin and others were part of their lives. Signe loved these times with her classmates and other friends but was wary of letting them get too close as she experienced a sort of double life which she didn’t understand. At times she just withdraw from her friends often using her friend Elin as a social shield.

Signe found something natural about the inner life of the trees and the roots. She wanted to be part of this naturalness and greatly preferred to spend time in the woods alone amongst the trees. She felt she could stretch up with them and try to feel their natural rhythm, their natural breathing and their nourishment. They give life to the birds and creepy crawlies and she wanted to be part of the natural cycle of life. She loved to be out on the rocks of Stockholm’s archipelago and find places where she could fit comfortably into the cracks and crevices between the rocks, smell the dry little mossy lava on the rocks and hear the water below. Or simply lie in the water and float around in the waves with her face towards the sun. Those were the times when she felt closest to grasping life’s unattanable – seeking a key to satisfaction or life’s solution.

When Signe was at home in the crowded apartment on Valhallavägen her double life took another form. In her teens the three older girls and one of the maids shared a bedroom. It was full of beds with little space to move in between. They lived there, did their homework there and life was full of noise and chatter. Signe couldn’t bear it. She became very critical and demanding. She made the others behave in ways that she felt made it possible for her to exist. She didn’t smile or laugh. She simply didn’t fit in. She couldn’t understand what was wrong with her but knew that she was unbearable to everyone else and yet she didn’t know what to do about it. She learnt later that her parents considered taking her to a psychiatrist but they didn’t.

Everyone was loving towards Signe but she was unable to love back, unable to receive love and absolutely miserable. She used to make herself a little den in the apartment hallway where she could close the doors and sit. If anyone disturbed her or wanted to pass her to go to the bathroom she would show her irritation. She hogged the family’s only crystal radio set which was very new in those days. She knew she was selfish and behaving atrociously which gave her a bad conscience but she acted out in desperation.

Although he made good money Kjell was frugal and rarely spent it on luxuries preferring to invest in their children’s education and their common family life.  During the summer of 1928 they rented rooms at an old vicarage close to the Paues cottage in Värmland. That summer there was a whole company of German boy scouts camping in three tents on the grounds of the vicarage. They sang catching German marching songs wherever they went and the scouts invited the Lund and Paues children to join them a couple of times. Once they went out on a ferry on the lake for a whole day and brought a picnic. Johan became good friends with Hans, one of the scouts, and he invited Hans to come again the following summer as an exchange student.

Johan was 16, Elin was 14 and Signe and Hans who were 15 years old became close friend. Hans was very good at running and jumping and won nearly all their competitions! Signe was very shyly in love with Hans. In those days you didn’t talk about those things but she got the feeling that Hans was in love with her too.

The Paues had a little boat with an outboard motor that they creatively named Baksmälla – literally translated – the Hangover! The Paues and Lund children spent their days around the lake and one day they planned a picnic on the two nearby small islands that they called England and America. Hans refused to go. The others couldn’t understand why he refused but Hans remained in the cottage all day while everyone else was out having fun on the islands. All he did was polish his shoes and smarten his clothes with a military precision that was so different from the one he normally portrayed when he was having fun with the others.

Hans was violently against America and England because they traded with the Jews and allowed Jewish business. The First World War was over and Hans was already ideologically trained. The other children couldn’t understand why but Hans flatly refused to visit thse islands. And Signe and Elin couldn’t understand how this very nice young man who was such fun to be with could harbour this hard attitude and hatred towards the Jews? Hans’ face would become stony and impenetrable whenever the subject was broached?

Signe struggled to keep up with other children in school. She often froze and felt unable to respond. When she reached her teens, and became more aware, this was combined with an effort to understand the meaning of life. She felt as though there was a continual fumbling inside which she was unable to express in words – untill much later when she found ways to express herself in her writings and paintings. Looking back Signe would say, ”As a child I fumbled and experienced a kind of frozen tundra within. The tundra continued to develop and was so big and frightening that I could neither understand it or express it. I felt like I was leading a double life which I felt deeply even if I couldn’t express.”

The Lunds’ prioritized their children’s education. They encouraged their gifts and wanted to provide an education that would prepare each of them to be able to take care of themselves in the future. It must have been a particular challenge for them to see how Signe lagged in school despite her natural gifts and intelligence.

Signe’s teachers realised that she was unable to concentrate unless she combined learning with drawing and they turned a blind eye to the little caricatures and portraits that she drew in class because they were necessary means for Signe to learn. Elin kept many of these drawings! It wasn’t till Signe was an adult that she could understand that it was through drawing, painting and short poems that she could stay sane and express all that she was unable to say in words. But Signe’s father Kjell kept a watchful eye and began to figure it out even when Signe was a child.

The Lunds never hesitated to spend money on their family or their education. The purpose of education was to give as deep and broad a view of life as possible. Their goal was to first provide the girls with a general education and then a further education of quality that was as expert as possible. So Kjell patiently helped Signe with her school work.
She remembered how, ”I would stand by his large desk while he patiently explained a mathematical equation that I just didn’t understand. I stood blinking back the tears of hopeless desperation. I felt like a disappointment to both of us. I had a deep feeling of shame and inadequacy.” There were many compulsory subjects in those days and Signe simply didn’t have the head for studying. Then one day towards the end of the second year of Gymnasiet – Swedish High School, Kjell stood at the dining room window and made a suggestion to Signe.
“I think you should go to art school!” Signe was initially horrified. She felt that she didn’t have the ability or mentality to make use of an art education either nor would she be able to earn a living by it. She felt that she would certainly fail in art school too. But Kjell believed in her and worked it out and Signe was accepted at an art school in Stockholm.

It was in fact a great relief to Signe to be offered to go to art school and she was ultimately thrilled at the offer. She was aware that she had been given many gifts and recognized them as sheer gifts. She had done nothing to achieve them and it was a continual surprise every time these gifts manifested themselves in spite of her. Years later she realised that her father had recognized how subjects like history, geography, mathematics, geometry and physics weren’t necessary for Signe to make her way in life. And so his idea was that Signe would learn commercial art and advertising. The fact was that as the eldest of four girls should anything happen to their parents the responsibility would fall on Signe to see that her sisters would be taken care of.

Before leaving Gymnasiet after the second year Signe had to pass 2 school exams. One would provide her with a document to show the level of education that she had achieved. The other was the yearly high school exam that allowed you to move up to the next grade. This became a serious partition in Signe’s life and she was so stressed that her nerves were in a frazzle and her sleep deteriorated. But Signe was above average and despite the nerves she made it in the end.

Signe was sent to Stockholm’s best art school, which was run by Otte Sköld, a wellknown artist. His studio was in one part of a big flat and he personally taught a handful of students in another part of the flat. It was a great privilege but she was scared stiff! She had no experience of real art or how to achieve it. Signe describes…
“I had never painted with oil or charcoal. All these things were new to me and so I felt very frightened when I stepped into that studio. I can’t remember all the details exactly but the other six students were all male. I immediately realised that they thought of me as their amusement, a “toy” rather than a serious student. That didn’t worry me so much as I thought I could probably handle that part of it as I had done before.

“What really got to me was that I was assigned to do a drawing in charcoal without being instructed on how to do it. I was to draw a bust of a Greek god and make it look like a Greek god. I later learnt that there are methods to get the proportions right without struggling too hard. The right relationship between the eyes, nose and mouth in a face, and the right relationship between the face and the rest of the head and ears is not as hard as it seems. But with no instructions I struggled and struggled and struggled.
“I remember that the teacher came by and looked at my work and said, ‘No that isn’t the way!’ But he just pointed out what was wrong and still didn’t give me any specific instruction. When the rest of the students went out to lunch, I thought, ‘No, I’m going to lick this somehow or other!’ “

So Signe stayed on and worked. She wasn’t going to give up until she succeeded and that was all there was to it. And then she noticed that she had swollen. Her watchstrap was too tight so she took it off. Her shoes were too tight so she took them off. A glance in the mirror showed her swollen tongue and face. It was diagnosed as hives which was probably the result of long, drawn out strain. When she rested the rash went away but left her feeling weak at the knees and “gone” for a couple of days. This happened every time she exerted herself but the doctor had no solution and simply told her to rest.
Due to lack of sleep and stress in her daily life, Signe easily became overstressed, got hives often and felt sick. This was the beginning of a development that lasted all her life.

Eventually she became more tolerant, learnt how to deal with it and was able to increase her ability to engage as the years went by. But when Signe exceeded the limits of her strength she often developed a sensation of  restless legs much like an inner panic, as if she had to catch a train. Her muscles were tense, she couldn’t relax, couldn’t lie still and it took at least 24 hours of rest before she could get back to an ordinary pace, and feel herself.

Signes first art school experience had a sudden start and came to a sudden stop. Kjell and Signe spent a few days together at home at the apartment on Vallhallavägen while the rest of the family was on Djurö in the Stockholm archipelago. Signe tried her hand at cooking for her father and he took her out to eat at one of Djurgårdens old restaurants. She felt so proud of her efforts in what became special days for them both as she gradually recuperated and was able to join the family on Djurö.

After that summer Signe started at a very good art school which was very well known, slightly bigger and also run privately by an active artist. And yet the same thing happened. They put up a still life that they were supposed to paint in oils. Signe had never painted in oils before. She didn’t know how to mix or treat the mediums. She didn’t know how to use the oil paint or the turpentine or how to make the colours come to their full right. But all she was required to do was to copy what she saw and she learnt a lot.

In the evenings they had still life classes. “We learnt to observe a figure running and see at what angle he leans forward, how far the ankle on the foot that touches the ground, is removed from the bottom of his Adam’s apple in the little hollow. This is complicated to describe, but we learnt how to make a figure come alive in a movement. These models moved, they didn’t just stand still. We were supposed to catch the peak of the movement – just by observation. We were then told to do a drawing as we remembered it. The drawings were then judged for their accuracy when the model made the movement again and the teacher came around. What I learnt was very useful and has been the base of my ability to observe and somehow to reproduce the essence of life as I saw it and recorded it.”

It soon became clear to Signe that art classes weren’t going to give her a way of earning a living and so Kjell somehow got her into Konstfach, Stockholms Art College, based at Hötorget in Stockholm at the time. This provided a two-year basic course in techniques, accuracy, and different degrees of mastery needed in the commercial world.

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