Torsten Billman

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Torsten Billman, Norbyvallda Sweden 1985

Torsten Edvard Billman (born May 6, 1909 in Kullavik near Kungsbacka ; † April 6, 1989 in Kungsbacka, Sweden ) was a Swedish graphic artist, painter and book illustrator.


Torsten Billman was born in 1909 in Kullavik, a coastal town south of Gothenburg . After school, which he finished at the age of 14, he tried different professions, including a. in the father's profession, as a tailor.


At the age of 17 (1926) he signed up on his first ship. It was a steam-powered fruit ship that sailed the Mediterranean. He worked on this ship for 14 months, first as deck crew, then as a coal trimmer . The route touched u. a. the ports of Barcelona , Marseille , Oran and Algiers . This first voyage was followed by numerous others, always on steamers. Billman visited Yokohama and Vladivostok with the s / s Nippon of the East Asian Company and ports in England and South Africa with other ships (s / s Nordic) before doing his 1929 military service on the ironclad HMS Sverige.

Until he went to sea, Torsten Billman had not come into contact with art. At school, however, his favorite subject was drawing, and to please his workmates, he drew their portraits in white chalk on the walls of the ships' fireplaces. Once, his workmates raised money to buy a book about art that Billman had seen in a shop window but couldn't afford. Through his sister Ingegerd, who was a teacher, and sent him magazines, he was confronted with individual reproductions of works of art, with poems and short stories by good writers. He was particularly impressed by some of the graphic works by Käthe Kollwitz , Frans Masereel and Honoré Daumier .

First woodcuts

He made his first woodcuts from the leafy wood of the margarine boxes and they were printed with quickly applied watercolor. He also tried to print with ink from a newspaper printer, but it was greasy and took months to dry. The woodcut Durst (1930) is one of these early attempts .


In 1931 Billman enrolled at the School of the Kunstgewerbevereins (Slöjdföreningens skola), an art school in Gothenburg. But after a year of study, where he mostly drew objects in abstract form, Billman left school disappointed and signed on as a stoker ( ship heater ) on a ship that went to the North Cape, Arkhangelsk and the Canary Islands. On these trips he always had a drawing pad and pencils with him and was busy drawing. In 1933, Torsten Billman dismissed forever. He was accepted at Valand Art School in Gothenburg, where he stayed for two years, which he found sufficient. Here he felt comfortable and was able to draw and paint models for the first time. His means of expression were ink drawings and woodcuts. Later, in the 1970s (1974–75), he returned as a graphic teacher at the Valands School of Art.

Grisaille woodcut

“The woodcut is my Jacob's battle with art” writes Torsten Billman in 1940. “The woodcut ... is incorruptible and honest in its demands. The road to the final result in black and white is long and full of hardship. The watchword is - carry on until the next goal! - It's a long way between the stations. "

In 1940 Torsten Billman made attempts to print the woodcuts with several plates, a process that he developed further in the years to come and that became his special technique.

The motif is transferred to a plate, the main printing plate. This is colored with black printing ink. The black and white print is completed by printing one to four plates, which are printed in different gray tones. The result is the so-called grisaille woodcuts. The process can be compared to the Japanese woodcut technique, but instead of colors, Billman chooses shades of gray. All woodblock prints are printed manually by the artist and are unique. Since Billman has a feeling for nuances, he can emphasize warmth and cold out of the gray scale.


Life at sea has shaped a large part of Billman's production. Constantly varied motifs are the hard work in the firebox of the ships, the camaraderie in the crew room, the visits to foreign ports and the interiors of the harbor bars. Landscapes are rarely depicted; they are encounters with people and representations of the characters of the people who occupy him. Interest in all human aspects of life. The writer Gunnar Ekelöf set out his attitude towards this relationship in an article from 1942:

“But his art is not 'social' art of the arrogant, bold kind that we know so well from the 20s and 30s. It is socially oriented, not through attitudes and tendencies, but through objectivity and a sharpness that reveals in the representation of people. This portrayal seems almost brutal at times - repulsive, but unfortunately true. Nevertheless, it is always accompanied by compassion, never by sentimentality. "

to travel

In 1939 Torsten Billman rode his bicycle through Denmark and Belgium to Paris and was brought back to Sweden by ship with a group of Swedish tourists at the last minute before the war began. This event and the feelings at the outbreak of war were summarized in the grisaille woodcut Sturtag, Dieppe, September 1939 (1944).

In many drawings and woodcuts from the war years, Billman expressed an anti-Nazi stance and tried to publish it again and again in the daily newspapers. Few were accepted, but when the same images were shown at exhibitions, they were accepted by newspaper editors as illustrations for art reviews. When he was called up for military service in 1941, he hung up some of the political drawings in the crew room, but was asked by the commander to remove them: Sweden was neutral!

After the war Billman saw the ruins of Europe, u. a. during a visit to Poland (1949). In Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp , he drew and wrote the poem Heimatmuseum .

Torsten Billman has repeatedly presented woodcuts in the press with which he comments on current political events. One of them is The Murder of Lee Oswald (1964). The murder accused is portrayed as a martyr at the moment of death, while members of the Ku Klux Klan keep discreetly in the background.

In 1968 Torsten Billman went to Paris to experience the student revolt that was current at the time. Thirty years had passed since he had to flee Paris via Dieppe . He sums up his impressions in a woodcut, Tear Gas in Paris (1968), which shows a confrontation between students and the police on Boulevard Saint-Michel. The demonstrators felled trees along the boulevard to use them to erect barricades. On the right of the picture, a crowd is advancing with shields held up. The demonstrators standing in rows, whose heads stand out against the shields, convey associations to the procession of saints in Ravenna to the viewer.

Book illustrator

In 1930 Torsten Billman wrote many poems for journals such as Der Heizer (Eldaren) and Der Seeman (Sjömannen) , which he illustrated himself. He also began to illustrate works by other writers. This happened with the illustrations published in 1948 for Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Guilt and Atonement , as well as with the drawings for Georg Büchner's Woyzeck published in 1970 . Both series of illustrations are shown in full in the exhibition. Billman experiences each book so intensely that he can express the respective atmosphere in his works. The many shades of gray gave the woodcuts to Guilt and Atonement a dreamlike atmosphere. The representation of the milieu is perceived as typically Russian and each person is individually characterized. The memories of the visits to Russian port cities were of great help to Billman. Since the artist continued to occupy himself with the novel ( Schuld und Atonement ), he cut further woodcuts that were published together with the older ones in a 1980 edition. When he illustrated Woyzeck , he cut each picture from a single plate and only used the black and white contrast. He renounced to give the illustrations a sense of depth, but achieved a stronger impression through burlesque features, corresponding to the text.


In 1943 Torsten Billman was commissioned to paint (two) frescoes in a seaman's home in Gothenburg, each almost 10 meters wide and 3.5 meters high. The frescoes became a great homage to The Seamen - The Workers of the Sea (1944). The master of the otherwise small black and white formats surprised everyone with a powerful composition in color. On the walls he depicted all the categories of staff on the coal-fired steamers. Most convincing, however, are the depictions of the hard work in the furnace and in the coal boxes as well as the interiors of the crew room, where the artist himself has had the most vivid experiences. The wall surfaces framed by doors show scenes from visits to foreign countries. In China, seafarers who went ashore are confronted with the abuse of opium and child prostitution, in Russia with political propaganda, while in Spain they visit a port pub. The last motif was varied in the gouache bar in Barcelona . Above the doors, the work of the ship's officers is depicted, interspersed with air raids and the encounter of a coal trimmer with a swarm of bottlenose dolphins during a break from work.


  • Gunnar Jungmarker, Torsten Billman . Svenska Mästargrafiker IV. Folket i Bilds Konstklubb, Stockholm 1956.
  • Dan Lennervald, Torsten Billman, Bildmakaren . Arbetarnas Bildningsförbund / Hallands Konstmuseum, Kungsbacka 2010, Sweden.
  • Küllike Montgomery, Torsten Billman. Graphic . City Museum Düsseldorf 1984.
  • Küllike Montgomery, Torsten Billman . Bildförlaget Öppna Ögon, Stockholm 1986, Sweden.

Web links

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