Kurbits painting –The history of "the
fancy flower decoration"
The Dala horse's colorful design, fancy oil painting, is a simplified
form of kurbits painting. This colorful painting distinguishes itself through exaggerated richness of
detail and was painted on walls, cupboards, chests and Mora clocks in the areas around Siljan.
The interest for this decoration increased when people began to brick in fireplaces in the small
one or two roomed wooden cottages. Earlier the fireplace was an open hearth, situated in the middle of
the room and this meant that the walls became rather sooty. It can actually be said that the fireplace
and chimney paved the way for the newly awakened taste for decoration and
increased the possibilities for a new market.
Masterpainter Klas Hanspers (1929-2013) from Nusnäs in front of his and his
daugther Anne-Maries wall painting "Ålderstrappan" (Stair of Ages).
|The Dutch kurbits
The magazine "Dalamyter" (Dalamyths), published by Dalarnas Museum,
has a very interesting text about possible sources that has inspired kurbitspainting.
The author Rune Bondjers writes in his article "Den holländska kurbitsen"
||Dutch tile from Holland 1650-1700, Dalarnas Museum
|(The Dutch kurbits), that the kurbits vase with its
rich bouquet of flowers, much reminds of the renaissance- and baroque flower-urns. These were, among
other things, often seen on Dutch tiles in the kitchens of richer families in Stockholm.
(See photo nearby)
Since we know for sure that men from Dalarna often went to the capital city to work for wealthy
people, delivering firewood to their kitchens, it is quite possible that these nice walls
have inspired the Dalamen to their own interpretation of the beautiful flowermotif.
We know that peasantry art has a capacity to move freely across borders and it seems as if
the kurbits is no exception from that rule. One could say that the roots of our cultural
heritage partly have found its nourishment from European sources of renaissance, a real
Kurbits painting by Winter Carl Hansson, Leksand, approximately 1820,
The kurbits paintings places of origin
The painting started in Leksand and Rättvik around 1780 and during the 19th
century it was even practised in Mora. The trade was carried out by church decorators, school teachers,
soldiers etc, but sometimes because of different kinds of disability, people chose painting as a way of
earning a living.
The typical kurbits looks like a vase which explodes into firework with flowers and petals.
The painters were self taught using a style which was both charmingly naïve and colorful.
The Dala painters and the church
People visited their parish church regularly because they had to by law.
Since the Middle Ages the churches were decorated with stories from the Old Testament on the walls and
the vaults. The language of pictures was a very important detail in preaching, since at this time the ability
to read was just about non-existent amongst the farming people. The Dala painters were extremely influenced
by the visual arts of the churches and often chose subjects from the bible when they decorated the country
people's homes – often the figures from the bible were dressed in the folk costumes of the area.
Once upon a time Jonas` adventure was one of the most enjoyed stories from the
Old Testament, probably because he had such an exciting life and amongst other things was swallowed by a
whale during a storm. After three days in the whale's stomach he was thrown out on to land and saved.
Jonas preached the gospel in the city of Nineve and while he was by his hut, God created a calabash for him
to protect him from the burning sun …. " and Jonas became very joyful over the calabash"
(Book of Jonas 4:6)
|The local people called this method of painting,
with the profusion of colorful fantasy flowers as "kurbiss" and even the last Dala painters
themselves used this name for their art.
Jonas and the kurbits
The word kurbits means calabash, pumpkin and is according to the author Svärdström,
taken from the Bible and the book of Jonas, chapter 4.
The symbolism in the story of Jonas makes room for several interpretations, some people thought that Jonas
was a kind of premature, very human Jesus, who doubted his own ability and would rather flee than follow
the demands of others. His stay in the whale's stomach for three days, is the same amount of time Jesus spent
in the Kingdom of the Dead before he rose again.
The amount of text in Jonas` book is only 1.5 thousandth of the whole Bible and yet the story is often
depicted on church walls and later even in Dala paintings.
The word kurbits in the Bible tradition
The word "kurbits" was changed in the 1903 Swedish translation of the
Bible to "castor oil "bush. In his book Svardström deplored that by doing this a tradition
of several centuries (1541 Wasa Bible) disappeared. That the word was changed depended on the fact that the
Hebrew documentation was used for a basis for translation instead of the Greek Septuagint.
In 1995 Liljegren at Grannas A Olsson exchanged correspondence with the Bible Commission and its secretary
Christer Åsberg about the change of word. Liljegren wondered if because of tradition the new version
could take in the word kurbits again. Among other things Åsberg answered …" in an official
Bible translation it's not so easy to choose the word that will sound the best.
What is against the word " kurbits" is not least that it has such a special meaning for the
Dala painting. It's no longer a botanical plant for the Swedish readers. But we'll think about it
was extraordinary. Around the turn of the 20th century the village
Vattnäs became the centre for the
Dala horse production mostly because of the Nisser family´s ability to vary form and design.
Six years later, in 2001, a letter arrived at Grannas A. Olsson in which
Christer Åsberg explained that the Bible Commission had decided to take in the word kurbits
again for the new translation. He finished his letter with: "Your care and interest in this has
thus led to that the old term has been reverted to in the Swedish Bible tradition."
We can thank Martin Luther for choosing the Greek Bible for his translation.
Just think if he had chosen the Hebrew – then we perhaps would have had a Dala painting called
"Castor oil bush" not particularly stimulating for the imagination!
How the Dala painters would have depicted that flower, is something we will never know.
Kurbits Painting becomes Dalahorse-pattern
Stikå Erik Hansson (1823 – 1897) from the village of Ryssa,
was the only Dala painter of class in Mora.
In 1837 it was noted in a parish catechetical meeting list that he had
become disabled because of a pelvis fracture. In spite of his difficult handicap Stickå
Erik was able to support himself and his family by painting kurbits.
The Risa painter was famous for painting very beautiful wooden horses with a fancy painting technique,
that is to say a simple form of kurbits. He has also been given the honour of being the first
to use the two color technique, that is to say two colors at the same time in one brush.
At the same time as Stikå Erik Hansson was Vik Olof Hansson who learnt the painting technique
from the Risa painter. Vik Olof was the maternal grandfather of Karin Nisser(1883 – 1947)
who after marriage moved to Vattnäs.
The family Nissers Dala horses are today coveted collectors´ items, and
Karin's talent with both the knife and paint brush
Phone boot in Nusnäs painted by Klas Hanspers
Eletric guitar painted by Gunilla Lindberg
Photo: Kalle Moraeus
Two color decoration
Tools and colors
Formerly the colors were bought in sticks which were then carefully broken down on
a "runner". The finely grated pigment was then mixed with oil. Eventually powder paint could be
bought and today ready mixed oil colors in tubes are used.
Further back in time the brushes were made by the painter himself. The absolute best brushes were
made from the bristles from squirrels' tails. The last squirrel brushes were used at Grannas A. Olsson
in the 1940s. After that marten hair brushes were used, today synthetic are most common.
A master painter of our time - Birgit Johansson
Birgit Johansson born in Nusnäs, May 1948, is a legendary painter who has been
working at Grannas A. Olsson more than 50 years. After finishing school, 13 years old, she got the
advice from her mother to ask Grannas if she could get a job there. The young girl applied for work
and started her career together with a friend in a room where the horses get their basic color,
“grunderiet ”. Their work was to sand the puttied horses with sandpaper and
to dip carved horses in color.
The talented young girl soon was asked to move upstairs to help the painters after a while.
Brigit’s work was at that time to paint the white color under the saddle- and ribbon- decoration of 7 cm
high horses. In the beginning of the day she got a huge paper sac with one color horses to paint, she still
remembers how many they were. She also remembers how the girl felt when she saw the bottom of the sac.
The happy feeling did not stay too long, though, since soon another full paper sac with horses
was placed beside her. Even if more than half a century has passed since, Birgit clearly remembers
the feeling of the teenager girl.
Birgit soon started to decorate the horses herself and eagerly studied the talented painters nearby.
The persons who inspired the most were Laila Bäckman and Fu Gunnel Andersson.
”I soon started to paint large horses.” When Grannas built the big separate shop in 1984, Brigit’s
working place was placed in the middle of the store, where all visitors could admire her skills.
Mostly she has painted all larger Dalahorses at Grannas and many visitors have taken her picture through
the years, doing this.
The largest horses Birgit has painted are approximately 170 cm high, but the sizes she likes the
most are around 20 cm. Synthetic brushes are the best and most used. They work best on the surface of
water based color, the horses have had last decades
The self-taught artist
Birgit has no special education for her work, life has given knowledge through
practice and she has learnt from skillful colleagues. Some things have changed over the years, quality of
painting for instance. ”Everything need to be more perfect today, with more details. But then again, we
were not allowed to change brushes as often as today” Would you have chosen the same profession if you
could re-live your life? “Yes, I would, I have liked it. I am a person who likes to work a lot”.
Someone has calculated that Birgit has painted over ½ a Million Dalahorses for Grannas, this figure
is probably even higher. From 1996 she started to sigh her horses with her initials under the stomach.
That was after she had painted the 75 cm high Dalahorse that was given to the President of US,
Bill Clinton, as an official gift from the Swedish people. Prime ministered Göran Persson delivered the
horse when he visited the White House.
The 6th of May 2013 Birgit was 65 years old, but still the master painter comes to work a few days
every week. She truly is a living legend of the Dalahorse history, the 13 year old girl who made it
her mission of life to create beautiful Dalahorses every day at work.
Klas paints a mailbox
Photo: Sofia Westman; Jenny and Johanna paints Kurbitz horse
Kurbits tradition today at Grannas.
Kurbits tradition is an important part of our everyday life, and
has been passed on from the older generation to the younger. Many of our staff members have been
educated by the best teacher of them all, Klas Hanspers (1929-2013) from Nusnäs. Klas was a teacher
and kurbits painter even after his 80th birthday. He and his wife Anna-Lisa, also painted mail boxes
and wooden clogs for Grannas A Olsson.
Johanna and Jenny from our 4th generation have taken lessons from Klas, and the winter 2008/2009 they
got the idea of a modern Dalahorse inspired of the old patterns, named ”Kurbitz”. The girls choose to
work on white or black ground and to make the one color pattern on one side only. The opposite side
they left unpainted so the customer could choose which side they wanted to display.
One color horses has also, for several years been very popular in both Sweden and abroad,
especially in Japan.
We also get a lot of orders to be painted with special patterns.
Different companies request unique patterns, sometimes along with their logos, often in combination
with our traditional Dalahorse pattern. Also private persons order horses with their own patterns,
for different special occations.
To the left you can see the jubilee horse of Svenska Ridsportförbundet from 2012,
celebrating 100 years.
We have painted almost everything – from fishing lures, electrical guitars, drums, trumpets to
cars and bicycles.
Under chapter “Special horses” you will find more photos from our rich production.