Sunday, 5 February 2012

Barbro Östlihn's urban geometry

Maria Magdalena - painting by Barbro Östlihn 1966
by Ann Kroon

One of the first ever paintings  I wanted to buy at an auction here in Stockholm was one of Barbro Östlihn’s geometrical wonders. The painting was of course far too expensive for my student pockets and I forgot about it, with time not even remembering the painter’s name. Years later, however, I found a note where I had scribbled down her name and so I was able to find out more through an exhibition catalogue made by Norrköping’s museum. Again, I was totally awestruck and this time what hit me the most was how Östlihn in her paintings reworked and redesigned urban geometrical patterns that she found and captured with her camera on her Manhattan strolls in the early 1960s.

Photos by Barbro Östlihn,
(reproduced in  Öhrner 2010, see below)
Living in New York City with her husband on a working stipend from Sweden and walking around middle and lower Manhattan – they had their artist's loft on Front Street, close to Wall Street – what developed into her specialty was photographing the huge urban renewal taking place, capturing the last remains of a built environment almost already gone, seemingly drawn to the unintentional patterns emerging from the actual physical breakdown involved. Academically trained, mastering perfectly the necessary techniques, she then transformed her photographs of various emerging urban patterns (from manholes, walls, steam pipes, signs, street views) through  sketches onto large scale paintings.

costa rica 
When I started to use a digital camera in 2009 while living in Central America, I soon noticed that I was passionately drawn to the patterns of concrete blocks, walls, windows, gates and fences. On a visit back home to Stockholm, I took out the book about Östlihn and boom! I understood the great inspiration she had been to me. 

backside abf  
I often think about her when I am out walking the city and capturing whatever my eyes fancy, uncomfortably often trying to wean off feelings of “this is nothing to shoot”. Through Östlihn I have permission to see the beauty and urgency in these urban patterns, through her work, and not least through her creative work process, it is like she gives me the go-ahead, urging me “please see this as important, if it is important to you, it is important”. She makes me feel like I am not alone in entering into conversations with these urban material stills. She gives me an alternative to the fancy high style architectural shots that I secretly always found boring, and instead she points me to the inherently lost beauty of the unintentional geometrical stunners, the abjected and abandoned, here today, perhaps gone tomorrow.

demolition dollhouse 
demolition dollhouse (detail) 

All photos  © Ann Kroon when not stated otherwise


Swedish art historian Annika Öhrner has made two fantastic books about Barbro Östlihn. They are written in Swedish with English summaries and both books contain many reproductions of Östlihn’s work and photography.

Barbro Östlihn, Liv och konst (Life and art), Norrköpings konstmuseum, 2003.
Barbro Östlihn & New York. Makadam, 2010.


  1. What an illuminating and well-written text, Ann! I hadn't heard about Östlihn before, and now, knowing more about your sources of inspiration, I can see your photographs of urban details more clearly. Thank you!