We are remembering Anders Wester

He was an artist, Pia Forsgren says. Yes; an artist’s artist

“The very word ‘erotic’ is surely erotic”, it says on the poster. You have to look a good distance up the lamppost to see this. But the white letters on a black background are like magnets. The gaze is drawn to it whether you want it or not. “This pen, this completely innocent pen”, on another poster attracts you. And on another poster, right next to it, there is a huge “J” with a Star of David on the top of it. It is 2002 and Judiska Teatern (The Jewish Theatre) will soon premiere the Lars Norén play Stilla Vatten (Still Water).

The posters for Stilla Vatten were not just a fluke. They were part of a long series of works, created by art director Anders Wester, who died after a period of illness in 2018, only 62 years old. At the beginning of the history of the Jewish Theater, the founder Robert Weil and the artistic director Pia Forsgren sat down with Anders Wester to discuss ways in which the theater could communicate with a wider public. Weil and Wester had got to know each other already in the ’eighties. Together, they had turned the annual reports for Weil’s Proventus into desired collectibles. These became a series of books that not only reported the company’s finances, but also had high artistic value.

“Proventus’s was the only Annual Report that the Minister of Culture had on his bookshelf”, claims Robert Weil. But the main focus of their partnership was the Jewish theater. Weil’s role model came from ancient Europe, where there was no boundary between the Jewish and other cultures. This was a time when Jewish theater was not a minority theater, but part of the common cultural landscape.

“Anders quickly decided that we would use a ‘J’. In addition, he wanted to put a Star of David in it.” Both the founder and the artistic director understood that this could be provocative. The star, of course; but also the J, with its clear allusion to the stamps that used to be put in Jewish passports, also in Sweden. But Wester was sure. For him, there was no doubt that the symbols must be “reclaimed”. “Both Anders and Robert had lived in New York for a long time. They had lived and been formed by a city where multiculturalism is a normal state. Words like ‘schmuck’ are, for example, a completely natural part of the city’s melting pot dialect, the one that everyone speaks”, says Pia Forsgren.

The use of the J and the Star also matched the theatre’s programme, which it was determined should tell about the Jewish group in an inclusive way, and show how exciting it is to live within several cultures. Wester’s sketches showed that the symbols could be used in a way that not only attracted attention, but also invited dialogue. Once the foundation was decided, Robert Weil did not interfere with Wester’s ideas. The principle was exactly the same as for Pia Forsgren’s work with the theater.

“Pia and I never had a conversation about what she would do artistically. However, we talked all the time about society. It was the same with Anders. There was an ongoing conversation between us, that was enough. He knew he had my support.” In the Jewish Theater’s archive, everything is gathered together. And when you look through it, it becomes clear how everything is closely connected. The posters are as much a part of the work as what happens on stage. “One of Anders’s great role models was the art director John Melin, who, among other things, had an enormous significance for the Modern Museum’s early successes. Everyone remembers Pontus Hultén; but without the educator Carlo Derkert, the communicator John Melin and a few others, it would never have become what it became”, says Weil.

Wester began his career as an art director at the age of seventeen. After a short time in Helsingborg, he got a job with John Melin at Arbmans in Malmö. He later joined Hall & Cederquist in Stockholm, where he was also Executive Director (CEO) for several years, but without stepping down from his role as creator. He made a number of successful and award-winning campaigns for, among others, Expressen, the petrol company Norsk Hydro and Ericsson’s mobile phones. In 2009 he was elected to the Platinum Academy, an honorary nomination that placed him in the same company as not only John Melin but also several other of his role models, including Art Director Lars Hall and photographer Georg Oddner.

Among Wester’s works, it can be seen that he gladly ‘stuck out his chin’. Perhaps it is most clear when he acts as an interpreter for Expressen, a newspaper that at the time liked to criticize those in power. With the Expressen Wasp as a symbol he criticized Birgit Friggebo, then Minister of Culture, for her trying to ‘sing’ Sweden out of the national trauma caused by the so-called ‘Lasermannen’, who had shot eleven immigrants in 1991-92. She had tried to make the people exposed to the shootings – all immigrants – sing together: ‘We shall overcome’. The naïvity of this effort was made clear when Wester, in one of the campaigns, proposed that the song should be followed by the children’s song ‘The little frogs’.

Provocation is easy. But not many people can do it with fingertip feeling and precision. The Jewish Theater’s posters show that Anders Wester could do it again and again. How did it happen? Robert Weil believes it was because Wester was always a prolific reader. “He considered himself to be dyslexic, but read all the time. In front of a stage set, he had not only skimmed the content quickly; he had really delved deeply into the work and the subject and understood what it was all about.”

This did not only apply to current assignments. When he lived in New York, for example, he was a regular visitor to ‘92nd Street Y’, a Jewish cultural center. There he went to lectures, readings and conversations on every conceivable subject. “Anders had grown up in an academic family. But he started his career as an art director at the age of seventeen. After that he did not have time for any academic education”, explains Robert Weil. Annika Rehn, who ran the advertising agency ‘Voice’ together with Wester from 2003 to 2007, remembers that he used to say that it had gone well for him even though he “had only had an elementary school education”.

“He did not have a complex about his lack of education, but liked to make fun of people who he thought were highly educated but also stupid. He had every right to do so, because he himself was admittedly poorly educated but astonishingly smart and constantly well-read.” When the Jewish Theater was to stage The Dogs in Prague, a play based on Marguerite Dura’s novel Abahn Sabana David, Wester came up with the idea to make an entire book in connection with the stage set.

“The book MD was really his magnum opus”, says Pia Forsgren. “I do not know how much time and energy he must have put into it. And everyone involved noticed that. When he came down to Paris to scan pictures of Dura’s son Jean Mascolo, he got access to a lot of material that no one had seen and used before. Anders could bring out that side in people. He was obsessed and they wanted to do their best for him.”

Today, the book about Duras is sold on the auction site Ebay. Collectors pay between five and six thousand for an unused copy. And you can understand that. The content is unique, both text and images. The design is almost unbelievably elaborate. Together with the designer Fredrik Axell, Wester twisted and turned everything around. “The cover has a pattern on it reminiscent of worn leather. We found the design on the back of Dura’s old student ID from 1934. We took the opportunity to scan it in when we sat in the archive in Paris,” says Axell.

The cover also has another feature, which many have never discovered. There is a dust cover around the cover. It can be removed and unfolded like a poster. On the inside, printed in its entirety, is Pia Forsgren’s script for The Dogs in Prague, the play that was the source of the entire book. “He was an artist”, Pia Forsgren says. Yes; an artist’s artist.

Mattias Jersild