Bertil Vallien was born in 1938, in the small suburb of Sollentuna, to the north of Stockholm. He and his siblings were raised in a strict, religious atmosphere, grounded in the fervent precepts of the pentecostal movement, to which their parents belonged. But there were also other influences – he came into contact with people of different backgrounds and different sets of values, among them a journalist and an artist.
After finishing elementary schooling, Bertil worked for a while as an apprentice in his father’s decorating firm; until, one day, a need to express his artistic leaning found an outlet in covering the un-papered walls with drawings; when it was discovered that his figures showed through the wallpaper, he was sacked! Later, however, a schoolteacher, who also ran a business-school, encouraged him to attend for half a year; and then he went on to Borgarskolan polytechnic, where he did a commercial course. At the same time he worked as a window-dresser; and also attended evening classes in Life Drawing at the Konstfack School of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm.
In 1955, he was accepted by the Ceramics department at Konstfack for a two-year foundation course, which was followed up by two years at the School for advanced Industrial Design (HKS/SAID). At the end of these years he was undecided about his future career, trying to choose between becoming a preacher, a pilot or a potter. An interim year of military service gave him some breathing-space before making a final decision. In 1959 he finally decided to continue at Konstfack. For long periods he practically lived at Konstfack, working day and night.
Bertil delighted in throwing off pots, and the larger the better – finding important expression in the texture of the clay itself. Apart from loving his work he also fell in love with Ulrica Hydman, a student of ceramics, a grade or two below him, whom he eventually married.
Bertil Vallien’s sand-casted glass boat stirs up elements of the subconscious. If you pause to analyze them, they will become slippery and slip away. Like dreams. These silent, slender boats have glided over the world’s seas with their messages and raised eyebrows for nearly 30 years. Loaded with frozen symbols and secrets, they speak to us of the existential.
Every day begins with a dip in the river. In the winter he cuts a hole in the ice and the bitter cold gets the endorphins rushing through the body.
- It is like starting over every morning! Says Bertil Vallien.
The existential questions were awakened early. He is the second oldest of seven children and in their home in Sollentuna, abided by the Lord’s will and discipline. His father was a very strict Nonconformist. One must live according to the Bible. To the letter.
- I’m sure that he wanted the best for his children, but I felt constant guilt. There was a fear for what could happen to boys who did the same things that I did.
His artistic talent evoked early joys for him.
He loved horses and to ride. There were nearly only girls at the stable.
- I was a pro at drawing horses, he says, and it impressed all the girls.
He drew horses like there was no tomorrow.
It cannot be explained
His sculptures are often frequented by horses. What do they stand for? What do they mean? He wishes that we did not strain to analyze the symbolism so much.
There is a world that does not allow itself to be explained, that will simply break if you try. He compares it to music.
- What is it that makes the tears run when you hear a special song? It cannot be explained, the music goes directly into the heart. It does not go through the filter of reason.
He wants us to dare to listen to his art in the same way. Without intellectualizing.
In one of his sculptures called “Högspänning" (High Voltage), there is a massive cylinder, which is broken by a white feather. The cylinder represents strength and foundation. The feather is the emotions.
- Poetry, real emotions and intuition can crush reason and strength, he says.
Sometimes Bertil Valllien uses his left hand rather than his right. This is to prevent the sketches from becoming routine. It is not good to always be proficient. By allowing his left hand to do the work, he triggers new creativity.
In the late forties, Bertil worked as an errand boy in a fish shop. He was around twelve years old. One of the customers was an eccentric artist named Bo Notini, who aroused Bertil’s curiosity. He was nothing like what Bertil was used to.
The yard was overgrown, the home was messy and the furniture was worn. There were loads of books. Mr Notini would sometimes go out to shoot crows, which in turn he would cook and eat.
That’s what I want to be
- It was a whole new world for me, says Bertil. That’s what I want to be, I thought to myself.
As though he had seen himself in the future. Something like that.
Sometimes Bertil would sit at Bo’s home, draw and be encouraged. Not everyone in the world was burdened with shame and guilt. There were alternatives to the strict religious life at home. A freedom. This realisation led to Bertil daring to leave home when he was merely fifteen years old.
Other mentors have been instrumental in Bertil Vallien’s development as an artist. One of them is Stig Lindberg, who was the head professor of ceramics at Konstfack (a Swedish college for arts, crafts and design).
- He was a great teacher! He was incredibly verbal and could give constructive critisism. Mean sometimes, but more often than not in a funny way.
Stig Lindberg also got Bertil Vallien to understand the importance of the broad scope an artist in the industry must have. To be both an artist and a designer. You can be experimental, but at the same time you must understand how a tea kettle that doesn’t drip should look.
The next mentor was Erik Höglund at Kosta Boda. Bertil did his internship there and was invited to stay. Höglund had noticed his qualities. As a matter of fact, Bertil got a whole glassworks to himself – Åfors which was a part of the Kosta Boda group. Åfors has since been discontinued and Orrefors and Kosta Boda have become the same company.
A few years ago a new avenue opened up for Bertil Vallien. It appeared as a black sludge. He was supposed to cast some of his sculptures as a landscape, a city and a ship. However, the molten glass, which should have been a light icy blue, turned out a mucky asphalt black instead. A month’s worth of hard work completely thrown away. Bertil Vallien was angry and disappointed. One could only guess what the assistant who had read the instructions incorrectly felt.
They had produced a ton of it. A thousand kilos of sluggish, black and expensive sludge. What are the alternatives?
- We press on, decided Bertil and poured the molds.
During the two weeks that the glass lay in the cooling oven, Bertil Vallien sinks into dejection.
- I didn’t even want to open the oven. It felt completely meaningless.
Glass eats light
Glass artists often speak of glass’s ability to mirror and reflect light. Bertil Vallien does not. What fascinates him, rather, is glass’s ability to absorb it. “Glass eats light" is one of his most famous quotes.
The black molded sculptures are washed clean, free of sand and polished.
It is at this moment that everyone is to witness a metamorphosis. The mucky black asphalt has transformed to metal. To a dark sheet metal or maybe cast iron. Lead? A hint of blue. All light has imploded and no figures or symbols can be seen inside. It has been eaten up by an, until now, unknown material. It is glass – yet metal – but really glass.
- I got a kick out of it! It was a whole new design world and I understood immediately that I had to continue.
The assistant who had interpreted 20 grams for 2 kilos triumphed. It proved to be one of the best mistakes ever made in the glassworks.
- But at the same time I was venturing into unknown territory, says Bertil.
He had been quite secure with his sculptures and used the fact that glass was transparent to his advantage under a thirty year period. He could control it. Decide how and where the absorbed light should be released or held back. Now he had been deprived of this and had to think in a whole new manner.
-There is always the risk that the glass’s cosmetic quality stands in the way of expression. That it simply becomes too beautiful.
A sunken German destroyer
The new sculpture had nothing cosmetic about it.
The landscape is abandoned and charred like after a war. The ship reminds Bertil of the sunken German destroyer from the Second World War, which is clearly visible through the clear waters of the Norwegian Rombaksbotn The sculpture of a city looks like it was gassed. Or the victim of destructive cold or heat. It is dystopian.
- I have never been particularly political as an artist, says Bertil Vallien.
However, when he puts out the black sculptures in New York and dubs the collection to “Desert Snow", he becomes eminently political. The US’ bombing of Iraq during the Kuwait war in 1991 was codenamed Desert Storm.
The critics revel in Valllien’s new language. The reviews are enthusiastic.
In some of the sculptures he adds really small colorful details, often bright red, which despite their small size, become a strong focal point in the black surroundings. Some critics interpret it as a small glimmer of hope in light of the darkness.
The American critic and art historian, Robert Morgan, writes about his experience after a show:
When we awaken from the experience, we realize that we have been on a journey that has restored our sense of hope and well-being. Only the best art can achieve this task. Vallien’s art does this.
Sweden’s most famous glass artist has won most of the prizes and awards that one can win, and is represented all over the world. A few examples: at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the National Museum of Art in Tokyo and The Museum of Fine Art in Montreal.
After fifty years in the glassworks there are no thoughts of slowing down or going into retirement. Bertil Vallien will continue to take us on his voyages and discover new languages.
- Now I’m going to become a minimalist, he says.
He will begin by taking a dip in the river.
By Eva-Pia Worland (translated by Kosta Boda Art Gallery)