Olga Milles lived in the very depths. In her art, almost exclusively devoted to portrait painting, she sought to draw out the character from the depths of her models and to find the soul behind the façade. Using a variety of techniques including charcoal, crayon, pastel, watercolor, tempera, and oil in her work, Olga was considered an artistic prodigy and developed her talent from a young age, yet her art is largely unknown. In 1988, twenty-one years after her death, Cranbrook Art Museum hosted an exhibition in collaboration with Millesgården, Olga Milles Emerges, to exhibit examples of her art from both museums’ collections.
In the foreword to the exhibition catalog, Staffan Carlén, former Director of Millesgården, describes her as having an intuitive talent that produced factual character studies of extreme precision, with an “overwhelmingly melancholic” tone. In reading Inger Wahlöö’s account of Olga’s life, based on correspondence at Millesgården, Carlen’s interpretation of Olga’s artwork can almost be read as a profile of Olga herself:
“Sparseness of shadowed areas and stretched areas disrobe the faces and make them appear in a serious, introverted nakedness. Her efforts are primarily directed towards interpreting the character of the soul. This she did with great coloristic refinement, and with tenderness in the form. In her drawings, there is consistently a sensitive enlargement of the mouth, sometimes in interaction with the dreaming mood of the eyes, sometimes as a tension-filled contrast of unconscious sensuality.”Staffan Carlen, Olga Milles Emerges
Born Olga Granner in 1874 in Leibniz, Austria, she had two brothers and two sisters. She had a deep loyalty to her family, whom she visited for several months every year, except during World War II. Having been born and raised in the Catholic church, she initially aspired to become an art teacher in a convent. However, in early adulthood, Olga questioned what it meant to be disobedient to the church and broke away, while cultivating an increasingly ascetic life.
In 1886, she entered the Malerakademie in Graz, Austria, and shortly thereafter was granted scholarship to study in Munich. Olga began painting miniatures for the aristocracy in order to pay her own way. Thus, during her teenage years, she painted portraits of rulers in the Donau monarchy of the Habsburg palaces. She arrived in Paris in 1899 with her younger sister Lintschi, who was also a painter.
In Paris, Olga met 24-year-old Carl Milles, a waiter by day and sculptor by night. The following year, in 1900, they became engaged in a tower of Notre Dame Cathedral. While Carl was gaining recognition and exhibiting at various salons, Olga studied at Académie Colarossi (around the same time, Loja Gesellius, later Loja Saarinen, was studying at the same school). Despite Olga’s declaration that she didn’t love Carl and his intimation that it was a mutual feeling, they married in 1905 and began a lifelong friendship and “marriage of reason.”
After they married, Olga continued to paint but never exhibited again. Between 1906 and 1931, they built and developed Millesgården in Lidingö, Sweden, before moving to Cranbrook, where Milles was Head of the Sculpture Department from 1931 to 1951.
After moving back to Sweden in 1951, she became more withdrawn and silent as the grandeur of Millesgården conflicted with her asceticism. The archival materials created by Olga in the Cranbrook collections are few and are primarily from this latter part of her life, comprised of letters written back to Cranbrook friends.
In a letter to Hillis Arnold, in August 1955, Olga writes,
I always felt it a great privilege to go at Carl’s side the life through. I am so grateful I was able to appreciate this favour in time. … But I am 81 years old now and not very alert anymore — although my interest in art is as lively as ever.
After Carl’s death the following month, Olga returned to Austria, but after a lifetime of longing for home, she ironically lived ever more away from the world, not even allowing her closest friends to visit her. It is from this period that the greatest concentration of material is found in correspondence with her dear friend, Margueritte Kimball, who was financial secretary at the Academy of Art for twenty-six years.
In this series of correspondence, Olga expresses concern for her friends at Cranbrook yet always maintaining a distance by referring to her friends by their titles: “I was very glad to learn Mrs. Saarinen is well and extremely busy. To keep active is the only way to finding inner balance.” She also frequently emphasizes her regard for Kimball’s perseverance in finding time for art as well as her kindness to others.
Olga and Carl were inextricably bound to each other because they completed each other. What Olga sought in the depths, Carl created in external forms—from the human tragedy that shapes the essence of myth to the hand of God. Reserved and intellectual, “Little Olga,” as Carl would call her, was the only critic he respected. Carl, a Cranbrook giant, sociable and flamboyant, was her absolute and her extraversion. The sense of determination that took Olga into the Hapsburg palaces was eclipsed by her own self-criticism. An accomplished and prodigious artist, Olga never found quite enough faith to surrender her intellect and come out of the depths to reveal her own soul. She died in 1967, age 92, in Graz, Austria, and is buried next to Carl at Millesgården.
—Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research
Staffan Carlén, Director, and Inger Wahlöö
Olga Milles Emerges – Portraits 1894-1955, Exhibition at CAM, April 19-June 19, 1988
Editors Note: To learn more about Cranbrook’s Swedish Connections, join us for the May 22nd A Global House Party at Cranbrook and Millesgården! A fundraiser benefitting Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, including Cranbrook Archives, highlights include the premier of a film produced exclusively for the event. This transatlantic, behind-the-scenes cinematic production uses spectacular footage of Cranbrook and Millesgården Museum (Milles’s home, studio, and sculpture park near Stockholm, Sweden), alongside historic images from Cranbrook Archives and Millesgården, to tell the story of Carl and Olga Milles and Cranbrook as never before.