Bard Graduate Center Gallery’s Swedish Wooden Toys exhibition, representing the first in-depth study of the history of wooden playthings in Sweden from the 17th to the 21st century, has been extended through Feb. 28.
Curated by Bard Graduate Center founder/director Susan Weber and former center professor and current professor of art history at the University of Southern California Amy F. Ogata, the three-floor exhibition features everything from dolls and doll houses to puzzles and games, pull toys, trains, planes and automobiles. It extends from the most basic handmade playthings to sophisticated mass-produced items, all breaking down into thematic sections showing the development of popular forms in Swedish toys and toy industries.
“There’s a strong focus on handicraft, or slöjd,” says the Upper West Side center’s associate curator Earl Martin, noting that research on the Swedish Wooden Toys exhibition, which is accompanied by a scholarly catalog published in collaboration with Yale University Press that is the ﬁrst substantial publication in English on the history and meaning of Swedish toys, began in 2011.
“Sweden is heavily forested—and was late to industrialize,” says Martin, noting that unlike Germany, for example, it lacked the resources for making metal toys. So the Bard exhibition begins with examples of Sweden’s folk wooden toy tradition, which evolved out of its poor rural farmsteads in the 18th and 19th centuries, when plain wooden toys were the ordinary amusements and are exemplified in the exhibit by handmade cows with nails for horns, a goat with horns made from crawfish claws, and the most basic pine cone animals with twigs for legs. There’s even a toy wooden doll made from a stick garbed in doll clothes.
Also included here are a boat made out of birch bark, a woodpile bank, and a more modern model bridge bookshelf.
A study of Sweden’s beloved Dala painted horse as a toy and as an emblem of Sweden itself includes one which showed a burnt decoration representing its mane. There is a toy stable, wagon, rocking horse (also a rocking rabbit), horse tricycle, hobby horse, and more modern mechanical rocking horse and a Trojan Horse with a storage compartment.
Other objects displayed nearby include a workbench and tools for wood cutting and carving jigsaw-type toys and a jointed horse and rider. There are carts, sleds, furniture, wooden erector-type sets and a skull-like storage box—the Kranium—which was made in 2011 and is sold in the U.S. exclusively at the museum, for $75.
On display in the dollhouse section is the oldest known dollhouse from Scandinavia–a late 17th century cabinet commissioned by Queen Mother Ulrika Eleonora for her daughter. An elaborate early 20th century four-story doll house is electrified, even including a working elevator. Other more recent houses show the progression to mass manufacturing, with modern bathrooms and kitchens.
The transportation section features miniature train sets—one made out of matchboxes, as the safety match originated in Sweden. With all the lakes and ocean front in Sweden, there are boats, of course—sailboats (including a prize-winning 1923 one built by a father and son), rowboats and canoes. Also a scooter, tricycles, buses, motorcycles, fire trucks, planes, and stylized modern cars, though a toy version of a Volvo from just after World War II was available before the actual car since there was no metal then for the real thing.
Although Sweden is essentially neutral, war toys and weapons have been made, here including a homemade submarine, submarine game, swords (one of the earliest wooden toys discovered in Sweden was a sword), a battleship, cork gun, forts and wooden soldiers.
The winter toys section has sleds, skis, wooden ice skates, doll skis, a kick sled and a hockey table game. Puzzles and games are represented by games of chance, yo-yos, tops, pickup sticks, dominoes, various puzzles (some with multi-sided pieces that form different scenes when matched with others), croquet, table tennis, bowling, ring toss and target games, the old Scandinavian game of Rävspel and the familiar marble motor skills box game Labyrinth, introduced in Sweden in the 1940s.
Educational toys include a pounding bench and stacking clown, both for teaching motor skills and hand-eye coordination. There are letter blocks, a counting frame, a Noah’s ark, construction toys and domestic toys (a miniature weaving loom and laundry and cooking implements), and building kits–one for creating a cottage where a Swedish king hid from the Danes in the 17th century.
Mass manufactured and marketed toys and displays are explored in a popular culture in Swedish toys section devoted to toy retailers and consumer toys found in mail-order catalogs and in shops and department stores. These include various pull toys (dogs on wheels) and springy toys like the popular dog Sampo, who frolics about when a button beneath the toy’s base is pushed. Also featured are licensed characters from Disney films and other pop culture sources including Thomas the Tank, Pippi Longstocking, and a 1959 Floyd Patterson-Ingemar Johansson push-up action boxing toy from the year of the boxers’ first of three heavyweight title fights.
While the products of the major Swedish toy manufacturers Gemla, Micki, and BRIO are prominent throughout the exhibition, so are many handmade traditional and amateur-made items, which altogether portray the evolution of the country’s toy production from the rural farmstead to urban mass-production while mirroring Sweden’s changing social and cultural values.
Founded in 1993, Bard Graduate Center is an academic unit of Bard College decorative arts, design history, and material culture.