Kunst: Döderhultarn and the theatre of justice

Häradsrätten / The County court. Döderhultar & Søfartsmuseet Oscarshamn. Picture by Anne-Marie Rasmussen.


God has always been hard on the poor.

Jean-Paul Marat


Personality, technique and motifs

Statuette-carver Axel Robert Petersson, dubbed “Döderhultarn'' after his birthplace, lived most of his creative life from 1868 to 1925 in the town Oskarshamn, province Småland, south-eastern Sweden. He was a peasant’s son, and had some education in woodcarving, but according to himself this only did benefit his development, as it made him weary of wasting time hyper-polishing figures, and he soon ventured on in his own quiet, queer ways. 

An inspiration might have been local religious wood carving, i.e. figures on altars, pulpits, epitaphs and the like, an art form at the times almost forgotten in Sweden. In his formative years he had no connection with established artists and seems to have been a developed artist and craftsman by disposition.

The extraordinary thing is that he all by himself reshaped Nordic wood carving, both in form, by introducing the technique of flat-carving, and in subject-matter, as social commentary. In those projects he had no precursors or role-models, which makes him the emblematic village genius. 

He was not attracted to the lights of the big city and preferred quiet contemplations by his provincial fireside. If neighbours in Oskarshamn considered him an oddball, so be it. The self-confidence of this little eccentric man was rightfully substantial. His art is small in shape and great in significance.

Motifs were found in the rural life of his home county. Peasants and animals are gestaltet somewhere between rough naturalism and crass expressionism. These small sculptures are true caricatures, reporting from the poor man’s and poor animal’s world. Axel Petersson indeed had a keen eye and a sharp knife for weaknesses and injustices.

Among the common explanations of the causes of man’s suffering in this world is two, which have had the most success. We have inherited a preponderance to view the roots and seeds of suffering and evil as either 1) God-given and inherited from a wicked human nature, or 2) as man-made calamities. These viewpoints might be considered in this characterization of Döderhultarn’s art, or rather: as ways to open up an interpretation.

We may be fairly sure the artist didn’t have a reform program and was politically indifferent - or independent. Matching this independence, we have reasons to believe that he was neither religious nor a-religious. And we may come to agree, that his art is, underneath a somewhat cynical mask, motivated by a compassion with the meek and the weak, animals and humans alike.

I will not deal with his unspectacular life and somewhat odd opinions, nor his luck to have had recognition and success in the right time, as this is well documented.

I will proceed to take a closer look at one tableau of statuettes in order to characterize Döderhultarn’s vision of man in this Swedish province around 1900. I have chosen a piece named “Häradsrätten” i.e. The County Court; a scene which he has depicted at least two times.

But first a few impressions of Småland.


An unkind landscape

In the 1880-ties one of my great-grand fathers came to Denmark from Småland, where poor peasants, according to what my Mum told me, used to mix wood-bark in the flour – and this was not because of the good taste.

In the sweet and bright Smålandish summertime, and between consumption of coffee and kanelbullar in merry and tourist-friendly Astrid Lindgren-land, visitors might get a notion of how much sour sweat it once, before cheap oil and modern technology, took to make just a modest living around here.

A few hours’ travel through enormous - and I’m sorry to say: plain boring - wood-fields, where the Swedes cultivate timber, fire-wood, blueberries and moose;  blue lakes and picturesque red wooden cabins pass by, and one slowly gets aware of the dwarvish fields where grass is harvested, added by potatoes, barley and perhaps a little oat. On a full stomach one tends to forget that life for most people in the bad old days was unpleasant, short and unjust.

“Småland” means “small lands”, which probably refer to the scattered homesteads and villages of the province. This landscape is not really gay and friendly. There is a lot of unkind granite underneath.

At these sights I came to understand why my ancestor Hans Olsson fled from the thin soils around his home-village. No wonder that a very great number of peasants from these areas emigrated to more prosperous parts of the world in the years before World War 1, mostly the USA and Canada. The background for Döderhultarn’s art is the scarce resources of Småland’s past rural life, where social control was consequently harsh and soul and body not much more than puppets on the threads of law, religion and customs.

The puppet-master and his tools

Axel Petersson was a sort of puppet-master and we are spectators to his little theatre, where he displays folksy scenes, well-known to contemporaries. They are tableaux which depicts both real life and collective notions of how people treated each other in days gone by. 

Weather Mr. Petersson really has witnessed the different situations he shows, we cannot know. As an artist he is both embedded in and transcends the milieu. As an eccentric or individualist, he was (not without some costs) able to distance himself from society and thereby establish an aesthetical space where he could record, as it seems, some lasting truths about human life.

The artist carves (and paints) wood in shape of bodies in movement and position. A certain space and time is made manifest by reducing the raw material. This local space-time made out of wood is visible in texture, proportions and colour. Movements and interactions are simulated in mimic, gestures, positions, stability etc. which communicate emotions, status-relations and intentions.

The statuettes are able to express something about life’s qualities because they operate within a certain set of conventions. These conventions are presupposed mental frames for production and reception of the portraits and genre-pictures. Thus the wooden statuettes refer to actual situations and characters, and make social and cultural topics, manifest in a distinctive personal style.  

Please scroll up and take a closer look on the tableaux in Häradsrätten (Ca.1910)


Description of Häradsrätten

A group of people are gathered around a long table, upon which are placed two books, two pieces of paper (sketched on the table), and an ink-bottle to the right of the person in the foreground. The nine of them are sitting on long-banks. The only woman in the group has a baby wrapped in blankets in her arms, which makes the number of persons 13. She is looking at the man standing beside her, who stares somewhere out in the distance over the heads of the sitting men. He has placed two fingers on the open book. The persons at the long sides are positioned rather casually and relaxed and do not directly perceive the standing couple. The only person looking directly at them is the man at the opposite end of the table. As the only one he wears a pair of spectacles and has his own chair. He is definitely the chairman. The two persons beside him are turned somewhat towards the far end of the table.


Until a few decades ago a man was unable to know for certain whether he really was the father of his children, or not. This general disadvantage was an advantage for crooks who wanted to get away from the responsibility of raising a child. A question of paternity was – at least between unmarried couples – to a proportion determined by the (lack of) conscience and selfishness of the man. The Swedish state’s remedies and enthusiasm for proving right from wrong in paternity cases was probably in those days as insufficient as in biblical times. We witness the moment before a not-so Solomonic verdict is cast and put down in binding words.



By showing 13 people situated around a long table the artist probably alludes to the tale of The last Supper. The standing man, with a determinate expression of the mouth, takes an oath upon the holy bible, and swears by his soul, that he is not the father of the child. He obviously is a traitor and liar, a Judas. As he performs this speech-act, he stares out in the open space behind the committee, to freedom or despair in something or nothing.The young (ex-) couple’s eyes are the ones whose direction of looking is made most explicit.



Respect is a relation between persons. The term is derived from Latin ``re-spes” – to look back. A respectful relation is a practising of mutual acknowledgement by looking at each other. The young male doesn’t look at anybody, which shows lack of respect for this court – or that he doesn’t dare to look at anybody, as he is lying. He probably knows he isn’t worth the court’s respect either, which it consequently doesn’t give him by not looking at him in the defining moment. 

The young woman stares at him with disbelief and sadness. Now she is losing her respect for him, betrayed by the one she once loved, and she knows she is to be sacrificed. 

Consequently she can be placed into Jesus’ position in the drama. She is sacrificed because the man according to procedure must and will be salvaged, by his peers. The child, hidden in a shawl, is the burden - the cross - she has to bear beside the name whore, denounced as she is by her former love and the state. Her future will most likely be a fight for the necessities of life and self-respect, as she has lost the others’. The court and its law adds injustice to injury.


A magical ritual

Summum jus, summa injuria: the highest justice is the highest injustice. Except for the presiding person, the judge, who by his position can’t and mustn’t turn away from the sight, nobody in the group looks directly at the couple, although the secretaries (with the paper-work before them) are turning half-heartedly in the direction of the oath-taking young man, his ex-fiancée – and their child. The fate of these three individuals, who from now on never will be a family, is determined by a magical ritual involving the Bible, but is in a puzzling way also determined by the lay judges’ power of indifference or un-engagement.

The seven laymen in the court (acting as a parenthood committee) partakes a judicial proceeding, which they are likely to have some reservations about. But it is their dilemma to exercise this fateful power, set by the state. Maybe their concealed uneasiness, visible as indifference or suppression of emotions, is directed against the state, represented by the judge, who rightfully and by his position acts upon them. The seven laymen may, in their mysterious indifference, represent Döderhultarn’s own, or a popular attitude, to the proceedings of the court. The number 7 is interesting, but we have no way to determine whether it alludes to notions about e.g. “The seven sages'' or “Seven wise men” of antiquity.

The court more or less unhappily acts as a body of Pontius Pilatus’s, faced by the dilemmas to judge rightful under un-rightful conditions. The judge is the über-Pilatus who by position and pondus dominates the laymen and the now dismembered family. His spectacles are status-signs, showing him as a learned man, and having the state’s rightful judging eyes, but the spectacles (Swedish: glassögon – literally: glass-eyes) together with the juridical gown, function as a facade, distancing him from the scenery. This distance and lack of engagement may be interpreted as a parallel to the attitude of the “real” Pilatus, who, as the roman state’s representative, did not dare to engage in the case of Jesus vs. the Jewish priesthood.

There is a spectacular, almost freezing coolness in the scenery. Although the group of lay judges in the court-scene are shaped as highly distinctive individuals, they act – or rather: do not act – as a body, and show no signs of mercy or compassion. As mentioned, this is the power of un-engagement, of indifference.

But exercise of unjust power may take a toll: the laymen turn their faces away from the injustice they partake, and by that gesture also make an inner turn away from their own conscience, as if they know they are legitimizing a mean man’s easy escape from the consequences of his acts, just by uttering a few cheap words with his hand upon a bible. 

They are trying to escape – themselves…

We are perhaps at first glance invited to think these gentlemen frankly don’t give a damn about the misery of young women. This may or may not be the case. Personal inclinations aside, all the participants are actors in an absurd tragedy, where positions, gestures, relations &c, are elements and artefacts of a social structure, which gets into the day, the moment we’re witnessing it, by our own imaginative participation. The depiction (and deception!) of this court is the actual social power-structure made manifest.

Women are in this case something which can be dispensed of.


A parable in wood

According to this strategy of reading, the Häradsrätten statuettes express an approach to power-relations in contemporary Sweden, especially between the sexes, channelled through a legal, but inhuman procedure. The Häradsrätten scene is Döderhultarn’s vision of and testimony on the rules and ideology of his society, and what women may expect of the male sex and its law. 

A society may be judged by the way it treats its weakest members. Mercilessness is indifference; mischief and coolness in human relations are shaped by and codified in the cool and rigid procedures of this provincial court. The misery and façade of public morale and justice is for all to see - through. Water, soap and a smorgasbord at the local public house will be most handy when the court raises.

Döderhultarn’s rather un-agitated vision of man’s capabilities concerning judgement is most likely a parable in wood, made upon a parable – and probably modelled on religious pieces of art with the motif shown above - as it seems to be a general rule that art (to an extend) is created on art. 

Two structural elements from the olden form have been used: the number of persons and the long-table. Concerning the subject matter Axel Petersson, as a modern artist, undisturbed by tradition, has abstracted the male parable away by actualizing and inverting it. It is the woman, not the man who goes to Golgotha. She is betrayed and sacrificed, not as a sort of redeemer, but evidently as a victim of male justice. And there seems to be no hope for redemption for any of the involved after the verdict of the court. Thus a closer look on the unpretentious group of statuettes in Häradsrätten reveals a powerful miniature version of, or commentary upon an - at the times still well-known - grand old story about traitors and victims, lukewarmness and suffering. A tale told not in words, but in wood, concerning the human condition of yesterday, today and possibly also tomorrow.

I have tried to explicit the probability that Döderhultarn created a social commentary which may be interpreted on the basis of a central Christian myth or parable - of The last Supper, a scene depicted in countless Christian churches.  


Serious Mockery

The mentioned negative human (dis) qualities are not interpreted as a God’s punishment of sinful Man. Au contraire! By inviting the spectator to use religious allusions in reading a material (and maternal) tale of everyday evil, Döderhultarn also indirectly criticises church and religion. To criticise something is taking it seriously, eventually by mocking it.

The central themes in Christianity is God’s universal love and mutual forgiving of trespassing, symbolized in the blessing in the Mass and the communion of believers. The scenery in Häradsrätten may be viewed as an inverted mass, or rather: a most unholy Communion of unbelievers. 

Nobody trusts anybody in this scenery as the proceeding is solely based upon power and control of emotions. The superimposition of the mythical 13 people around a long table, upon a trivial everyday tale of betrayal, expresses perhaps a veiled religious critique of man’s lack of love and forgivingness. We are invited to ask: where is the love of God in this place? Where are the sacraments and the hope for the future? But there is no bread and wine upon the table, only ink and paper. This may be the body and soul of the court, but not really healthy spiritual food for ordinary people.

A mundane juridical affair is, by its outward appearance, deliberately moved into a religious symbolic sphere, which consequently is made profane. In this profanity God appears, or rather: does not appear, only as a negation – he “is” in the scene, virtually, as a possibility, something we might wish for. But if ever there was a God in this particular juridical machinery, he must have been out to lunch for a very long time.

By showing The Last Supper as an ordinary Country Court the artist in a way excludes God’s qualities – compassion, wisdom, mercy &c. from the sacred appearance or form. And the mockery goes both ways. The young couple, the laymen, clerks, and the judge really aren’t saviours, a Judas, apostles or Pilatus’s, but everyday men – and a woman.

The religious structure puts a greater burden upon their shoulders than they can bear. The grand form demands way too much of the small persons in their crumpling suits and shrewdly negates the court’s qualities – foremost jurisprudence; knowledge of how to tell right from wrong. The Häradsrätten court obviously lacks spirit and is left to act as a sort of rubber-stamp machine, exercising man-made laws and practices in a godforsaken Swedish province.

Some possible good news to come forth from this negativity might be that we, the spectators, get aware about social injustices by this specific commentary, which in a clear-cut and masterly carving to a spot depicts character. Recognition of character does the entertaining and fascinating trick in Häradsretten’s aesthetic flickering between religious and secular spheres.



Whether man is a sinful creature per se, by creation - there is no hint of this ideology in Döderhultarns wooden statuettes.

But they might do evil, wilfully and driven by conditions.

They are neither devils nor angels but realistic, tragic-comical and damned dangerous creatures. They are humans, and shaped according to the lot in the world they occupy The figures got their natural and symbolic form in the hands of Axel Petersson. The whole scenery of Häradsrätten is symbolic, as it probably is modelled upon a parable. That is the form. But the content is realistic.

Swindlers get their way out of a marriage in court, and people know that.

If we define symbolism as a praxis which points to something other-worldly or eternal, as were the case in much literature and art around the year 1900, then there is, according to this interpretation, no place for God’s weighing in and no fair judgement in this case of parenthood. The artist might well have agreed, that when we experience bad luck or malheur - the last seems to be most probable if we look at Petersons whole oeuvre! - or eventually the joys of life - the conditions are shaped by Men and their surroundings.

With such discomforting visions of life in contemporary Småland, with no route of escape either to heaven or by political struggle, it’s no wonder Mr. Petersson for his part came to prefer independence in provincial solitude, fulfilment in hard labour, lots of strong coffee and sips of opium-tincture for acquaintance, conformity, marriage, politics and religion. 

As he by luck and tenacity got famous and comfortable, he cherished renting a flying machine with pilot and criss-cross the skies. It might have been religion in these early days of aviation.


About Axel Petersson Döderhultarn: