Torsten Billman

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Torsten Edvard Billman, born 6 May 1909 in Kullavik in Sweden, died 6 April, 1989 in Kungsbacka, was a Swedish artist primarily working as a graphic artist, book illustrator and buon fresco painter. Torsten Billman is counted as one of the 1900's premier woodcut engravers.[1]

Through the Red Sea - Changing of the guard in the stokehole (1936) woodcut.

The poet Gunnar Ekelöf wrote about Torsten Billman: "For those who with art mean large, magnificent, 'striking' canvases Torsten Billman have not much to say. His art serves the simple, slighted, homeless exsitence. It is ship fellows from Nippon and other boats, marked by the hard life both in ports and on board, it is interiors of East End bars where you get acquainted with the dark side of life. His art is not any 'social' art of the arrogant, posters spirit character which we had so plenty of particularly in the 20-30's. It is social, not through attitude or tendency, but by an objectivity and a revealing sharpness in the human portrayal that sometimes seems almost brutal - repulsive, but unfortunately true. Yet it is always carried by compassion. Never by sentimentality. It involves a simple statement of: 'Such is man'. But from the ravaged feature, and the gout and labour broken limbs flowing yet against one a sense of how she should look like and could look like." [2]

Torsten Billman renovating his buon fresco Development of Society (1947) in Gävle 1983.


Early years[edit]

Torsten Billman disliked school, with the drawing lessons as the only exception. During a drawing lesson with a substitute teacher Torsten had on a piece of blotting paper drawn a detailed composition, which was supposed to represent an Indian with his tent and utensils. "After the teacher had inspected the pictures produced by the class, Torsten was called to his desk. He expected a sympathetic judgment from the teacher; yes, he also hoped that he might impress a certain girl in the class. So he stepped forward fearlessly. He had hardly reached the plattform when he received such a box on the ear that he fell to the floor. As he crestfallen rose to return to his own desk he was further rebuked by the teacher, who ordered him immediately to fling the drawing in the red-hot stove." [3] "It was my first vernissage", said Torsten Billman. [4]

The father, Frans Ludwig Billman (1862-1930), was born in Berg' parish near mesa Billingen. Here Torsten Billman's grandfather had worn himself out in the hell of a crofter's holding. Torsten's mother Maria (1870-1953), born Hultgren, came from Skövde. Both his parents had grown up under very poor conditions in Västergötland. Frans Billman's great talent for tailoring allowed him, despite only 14 days of elementary school, go to Copenhagen and London to train himself to become a fine tailor. In the 1890's Frans and Maria moved to workingclass suburb Haga, Gothenburg. 1909 they moved, with their three year old daughter Ingegerd (b. 1906), to Kullavik (south of Gothenburg). In Kullavik Frans Billman opened his own tailor shop. Frans wished that Torsten also should become a tailor; so for good reasons Torsten's artistic interest lay dorment after fishished school in 1924. But Torsten had no desire to become a tailor - he longed out, away! [5] What he looked for was both freedom and contact with human beings, work communion. [6]

Years at sea[edit]

Stokers and coal trimmers on SS Nippon in Santa Cruz de Tenerife 1928. Torsten Billman fifth from right and the stoker Otto Tjäder forth from left.

When Torsten Billman was seventeen years old he signed on a merchant ship in Stockholm 1926 (SS Valencia). He first worked as a deckhand; too young to sign up for a job in the engine department. In 1927 he became a coal trimmer. His artistic awakening was on an old steamer in 1928 (SS Nippon, built in 1909 in Newcastle). With white school chalk, he draws caricatures of fellow sailors and officers on the soot-blackened walls of the stokehole. Wall drawings that evoked encouragement from the men in the forecastle and also from the officers. [7] "That ship put my slumbering pictoral talent in motion. I documented and I stored images. This I understood afterwards", Torsten Billman recalls. [8] After the next ship SS Nordic, early in 1929, Torsten tells his sister Ingegerd that he wanted to become an artist. [9] Billman worked on five different merchant ships 1926-1929 and 1932 as a coal trimmer or stoker.

Rug Salesman, North Africa (1940´s) mixed media.

First and last[edit]

Torsten Billman's first signed image (an ink drawing) was published in the November 1930 issue of the union magazine Eldaren ("The Stoker"). A few times he made the cover to the union magazine Sjömannen ("The Sailor"). His very last work of art was the Christmas 1988 issue cover. Rug Salesman, North Africa, watercolour and tempera mixed, is the painting that became the cover model for the Christmas 1944 issue. [10]

First woodcuts[edit]

Torsten Billman's cousin on his mother's side, Nils Svahn (1890-1936), who was a cartoonist at Social-Demokraten in Stockholm, had during Torsten's visit in the autumn of 1929, explained a little about the woodcut for Torsten. Returned from military service in the Navy in Karlskrona, as a stoker on HMS Sverige 1929-30, he made his first woodcuts Hands (1930) and Thirst (1930) as an unemployed stoker. [11] Billman had not been to any art museum or anything like that, and he know nothing about woodcut technique so his first wood engravings was cut out of the wood of a margarine case with an ordinary carpenter's knife. [12]

Art studies[edit]

Upon the recommendation of a German woman, in Kullavik, he 1931 gained admittance to the The Industrial Arts School in Gothenburg, with Hjalmar Eldh as a teacher. Billman's education at the school was book illustration. A good example of woodcut making from this period is A Fiddlers Burial (1931), inspired by a poem from collection of verse Black Ballades by the Swedish poet Dan Andersson. He also made five linoleum cuts with which he illustrated Upton Sinclair's novel Jimmie Higgins (unpublished illustrations). A sympathy for the little fellow and the underprivileged is a prevading characteristic of all his graphic work from that time on. [13]

When Frans Billman died in 1930 the family had gotten out some money on Frans life insurance. During the second term at The Industrial Arts School Billman had no money left for the studies. One morning in the spring of 1932, on the train from Kullavik to art school, Billman writes to his sister Ingegerd about expensive water colours, and so on, he can't afford to buy. [14]

Billman tried to get work on a ship again. When he in the summer of 1932 signed on his last ship, SS Marie, he had bought some sketchbooks so that he could draw during the trip. With these drawings he was accepted, in 1933, as a student at Valand School of Fine Arts in Gothenburg. Under the teacher Sigfrid Ullman's direction he was able to work according to his own intuition, and here he came on an even keel again. Sigfrid Ullman early discovered that here he had a promising pupil who would go far. Torsten Billman left Valand 1934, after only three terms.

Woodcuts made after the trip to Antwerp 1936[edit]

In the spring of 1936 the swedish composer Gösta Nystroem, that was curator at Göteborgs Konsthall 1934-36, organizes a scholarship to Billman. Billman was given the opportunity to study art for two months in Antwerp. The journey gave naturally inspiration for new motifs, but above all had the habour environments strongly reminded him of his years as a sailor. Within a year after the trip he make some of his classic black and white woodcuts with sailor motifs such as: Through the Red Sea - Changing of the guard in the stokehole (1936) (see above). The newly signed on (1936) which is perhaps one of Billman's most famous woodcuts. About the woodcut Stoker watch goes over deck in the storm (1936/37) the artist said: "I remember the first scene I got inspiration from. It was when the watch came up and the boat was filled with water and there they stood up to their necks in water, so to speak. That I thought, I would try to portray. But it took many years. I had stored such motifs." [15] "I've experienced all my images myself", Torsten Billman often underlined. [16]

Anti Nazi Images[edit]

After the Valand-period Billman worked sporadically as a drawer for Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning 1934-40. The newspaper was led by the legendary editor-in-chief Torgny Segerstedt (1876-1945), which made the newspaper internationally known for his uncompromising anti-Nazi stance. Billman also, on his own, during the period 1937-1945, makes some anti-nazi inkdrawings and woodcuts. Only a few newspapers dared to publish them. [17] See: Satirarkivet, note 1.

Free grisaille woodcuts 1940-45[edit]

Tropical Harbour (1945) grisaille woodcut.

In a letter of November 1937, to art historian Gunnar Jungmarker (1902-1983) at Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, Billman reveals that he is in an artistic crisis. The black and white woodcut restricts his expression - too brutal contrasts between black and white surfaces. [18] But it was not until 1940 he was able to present a woodcut with several grey tones, developed from the ordinary black printing ink. Gunnar Jungmarker called this type of woodcut: grisaille woodcut. [19] A time-consuming printing process, exclusively for handprinting, with several grey-wood blocks aside from the black and white key block. The first grisaille woodcut was made 1940-45 (before the work with Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment). Some shining examples, resulting from his grisaille technique are French Restaurant (1940), Artist Family (1941), Wilderness Kitchen (1942), Around a Guitar Player (1942), Stairway in the South (1942), Stormy Day, Dieppe sept. 1939 (1944) or Tropical Habour (1945). These prints are based on self-perceived events from Billman's sailor years 1926-32 and European travels 1936, 1938-1939, or trips around Sweden during the war years.

Book illustrator[edit]

Torsten Billman made a name for himself when he, 1941-43, illustrated Harry Martinson's poetry collection Nomad (1931) with ink drawings. [20] [21] Martinson, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1974, like Billman had been through the mill and worked as a seaman. The illustrated edition, with some new poems, was published in 1943 at Albert Bonniers förlag in Stockholm.

Most impressive are his penetrating studies of the characters in Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment. Billman's illustrations was published by Bonniers in 1948 and 1980. This consist of some 40 grisaille woodcuts. Art critic Tord Baeckström in Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning wrote about the woodcuts: "Billman concentrates the expression of a picture with remarkable assurance - with a few jabs of his iron he can summerize a face which speaks the poet's own language, an interior that breathes a hopeless misery, or a suggestion of a wintry street scene so that one feels the pull of Dostoevsky's prose." [22] The publisher and art collector Gerard Bonnier said about Billman's Dostoevsky-images: "I find them to be some of the best book illustrations made in Sweden during the 1900's." [23]

Buon fresco painter[edit]

Between 1943-49 Torsten Billman made his largest buon fresco paintings, in scope and artistic quality. When Billman 1943 was asked by the ombudsman Knut Ring at Swedish Seafarers' Union and the art historian Carl Nordenfalk at Gothenburg Museum of Art, if he wanted to carry out a buon fresco on two walls of 20 metres in the New Seamen Homes cermonial room, Billman had just worked with woodcuts and small ink illustrations. [24] But 1943 Billman start to work on his first buon fresco painting To Sailors - Workers at Sea (1944) in Seamen's Home in Gothenburg. Billman depicts coal trimmer and stoker down in coal bunkers and stokeholes with self-perceived realism, which has not been previously seen in buon frescoes. [25] There are also events from World War II, for example when Nazi aircraft attacking a merchant ship etc.

Torsten Billman's fresco sketches for Development of Society was awarded first price in Nationalmuseums major competition for public art in conjunction with the exhibition Good Art in Homes and Assembly Halls in Stockholm 1945. In 1947 the buon fresco was completed in Community Hall of Gävle. The buon fresco portrays key processes in Swedish history, from 1870's to the end of World War II. Billman have placed the socialist agitator August Palm (1849-1922) in the center of the fresco as a criticism to the labour movement's establishment about their forgotten history and heritage. The two other main figures in the Gävle-fresco is the author August Strindberg and the publicist Torgny Segerstedt.

The buon fresco In Front of Smålands Taberg (1949) in Community Hall of Norrahammar (outside Jönköping/Sweden) is Torsten Billman's work to the honour of labour. With realism, poetry and local colour Billman portrays a recognizable everyday work among the foundry workers in Norrahammar.

Free grisaille woodcuts after 1963[edit]

In 1963 Billman returns with his political satires Time Images. Billman had not made any "political" woodcuts since World War II. Billman use his developed grisaille-technique in prints such as: The Murder of Lee Oswald (1964), The Warren Commission (1964), Indian Appeals to Lincoln (1965), Party (1967) and Tear Gas in Paris (1968).

The Murder of Lee Oswald (1964) grisaille woodcut and The Warren Commission (1964) grisaille woodcut.

In The Murder of Lee Oswald and The Warren Commission Torsten Billman incisively commented events in the wake of the assassination of president John F. Kennedy. The Murder of Lee Oswald uncovers, in the condensed black satire, complex links people only could sense but, then, couldn't put into words. Two pictures - from the chaotic flow of news 1963-64 - that today have a prophectic force. [26] Bertrand Russell wrote appreciatively to Torsten Billman about these two grisaille woodcuts. [27]

Major literary illustrations by the artist[edit]


Ink drawings:

Grisaille woodcut:



  • Gunnar Jungmarker, Torsten Billman. Folket i Bilds Konstklubb, Svenska Mästargrafiker IV, Stockholm 1956.
  • Dan Lennervald, Torsten Billman - Bildmakaren (Torsten Billman - The Image Maker). Published by Halland Art Museum and The Workers' Educational Association in Sweden. Kungsbacka/Sweden 2010. ISBN 978-91-633-7644-3.
  • Küllike Montgomery, Torsten Billman. Bildförlaget Öppna Ögon, Stockholm 1986. ISBN 9185906433.
  • Leif Sjöberg, Torsten Billman and the Wood Engraver's Art. The American Scandinavian Review, Summer 1973, p. 163-171, Vol. LXI, No. 2, June 1973, New York, N.Y. The American-Scandinavian Foundation.



  1. ^ Torsten Billman,, retrieved 28 June 2014
  2. ^ Ekelöf, Gunnar, Torsten Billman, Konstrevy No. 5-6, Stockholm, 1942, p. 227.
  3. ^ Sjöberg, Leif, Torsten Billman and the Wood Engraver's Art, The American Scandinavian Review, Vol. LXI, No. 2, June 1973, New York, N.Y., p. 163.
  4. ^ Montgomery, Küllike, Torsten Billman, Bildförlaget Öppna Ögon, Stockholm, 1986, p. 9.
  5. ^ Lennervald, Dan, Torsten Billman - Bildmakaren, published by Halland Art Museum and The Workers' Educational Association in Sweden, Kungsbacka, 2010, p. 12.
  6. ^ Jungmarker, Gunnar, Torsten Billman, Folket i Bilds Konstklubb, Svenska Mästargrafiker IV, Stockholm, 1956, p. 6.
  7. ^ Lennervald, Dan, Kungsbacka, 2010, p. 19.
  8. ^ Sjöberg, Leif, New York, 1973, p. 164.
  9. ^ Lennervald, Dan, Kungsbacka, 2010, p. 21.
  10. ^ Ibid., 2010, p. 104, 108, 111.
  11. ^ List of Torsten Billman's graphic artwork 1930-1988, has been made by the author and curator at Nationalmuseum:s graphics department Küllike Montgomery. The list is published in: Lennervald, Dan, Kungsbacka, 2010, s. 424 - 431.
  12. ^ Ibid., p. 23.
  13. ^ Sjöberg, Leif, New York, 1973, p. 164.
  14. ^ Lennervald, Dan, Kungsbacka, 2010, p. 28, 438. Letter to Ingegerd Billman from Torsten Billman 1932-04-19 (Torsten Billman estate).
  15. ^ Ryndel, Nils & Röhlander, Bengt (editors), Bilder med sälta/Pictures with Saltiness. Nils Ryndel, art historian, author and curator at Gothenburg Museum of Art, interviewing Torsten Billman in his studio in Norbyvallda, outside Kungsnacka. Film by Sveriges Television (SVT), Stockholm, 1974.
  16. ^ Romare, Kristian (editor), Tidsbilder/Time Images. Kristian Romare, art critic and art-program producer at SVT, interviewing Torsten Billman in his studio. Film by Sveriges Television (SVT), Stockholm 1984.
  17. ^ Lennervald, Dan, Kungsbacka, 2010, p. 66, 71.
  18. ^ Ibid., p. 436, 132. Letter to Gunnar Jungmarker from Torsten Billman 1937-10-27 and 1937-11-03. (Nationalmuseum).
  19. ^ Jungmarker, Gunnar, Stockholm, 1956, p. 26.
  20. ^ Jaensson, Knut, Nya illustrerade böcker (New illustrated books), Konstrevy, No. 1-2, Stockholm, 1944, pp. 59 - 60.
  21. ^ Lennervald, Dan, Kungsbacka, 2010, pp. 162 - 167.
  22. ^ Leif, Sjöberg, New York, 1973, p. 168.
  23. ^ Lennervald, Dan, Kungsbacka, 2010, p. 443. Letter to Torsten Billman from Gerard Bonnier 1946-10-02 (Torsten Billman estate).
  24. ^ Nordenfalk, Carl, Torsten Billman, monumentalmålare och illustratör, Konstrevy No. 5-6, Stockholm, 1944, pp. 227 - 232.
  25. ^ Ibid., p. 230, 232.
  26. ^ Lennervald, Dan, Kungsbacka, 2010, pp. 286 - 287.
  27. ^ Ryndel, Nils & Röhlander, Bengt, Sveriges Television (SVT), Stockholm, 1974.
  28. ^ Lennervald, Dan, Kungsbacka, 2010, List of Book Illustrations, pp. 412 - 419.
  29. ^ Sjöberg, Leif, New York, 1973, p. 168. "In 1967 the writer sent a number of Billman's illustrations to Traven's wife, and received in return a letter of appreciation. 'Mr. Traven', she wrote, 'found Mr. Billman's illustrations of his, The Death Ship, highly artistic and realistically projecting the true essence of the book.'" See also: Leif Sjöberg's Afterword - B. Traven and T. Billman, in Bokförlaget Atlantis Swedish illustrated edition (1978), p. 415.
  30. ^ Torsten Billman's illustrations to B. Traven's novel The Death Ship is also published in Dutch: Traven, B., Het dodenschip: de geschiedenis van een Amerikaanse zeeman. Translated by Peter Kaaij. Meulenhoff Editie 523, Amsterdam, 1978. ISBN 9789029008976. Second edition, Amsterdam, 1983 ISBN 9029008970.