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Swedish Culture

Collections Spotlight: Axel Petersson

April 14, 2023 By Darby Johnson

The American Swedish Institute is fortunate to have within its collections more than thirty carvings by recognized woodcarving master Axel Petersson, hailed as ‘Döderhultarn’ (the man from Döderhult). Born in 1868, Petersson began woodcarving for fun as a child. He became popular with his classmates for carving caricatures of his teachers at school. His natural artistic talent was never encouraged by his family, and they decided it would be better for him to emigrate to America like other Swedes were doing at the time. However, he didn’t make it further than Malmö, Sweden before he spent his travel money on lottery tickets and partying.   

Though he was trained in a highly refined ornamental style, Petersson soon abandoned his newfound skills and preferred to go his own way and is known widely for his Scandinavian flat-planed wood carvings. In Scandinavian flat-plane woodcarving, figures are carved in large flat planes with a carving knife. He favored carving alder wood with normal carpentry tools, carving his figures in a rough-hewn, unrefined style distinctive within this technique. This style is fitting of his preferred subject–the daily life of the Swedish peasant. Drawing inspiration from his life growing up in a poor farming village in Småland, Sweden, his carvings depict the burden of harsh reality faced by many Swedes. 

Petersson’s work went unappreciated for most of his life; but, at 44 years old in 1909, one of his carvings was placed on exhibition in Stockholm and went on to exhibit his work throughout Europe and America, quickly rising to become one of Sweden’s most recognized and skilled artisans. 

While Petersson’s work appeared rather simplistic, it communicated so much more. His carvings celebrate both the craft of flat-plane figure carving and the necessary traditions for survival. Petersson often drew attention the materials and possessions that became synonymous with Swedish immigrants in the 1800s. These rural Swedes brought with them belongings that asserted their identity in their passage to the new world.