Passions – Five Centuries of Art and the Emotions

Interpreting emotions is a universal and essential human ability. The exhibition Passions is all about how the emotions have been interpreted and portrayed in art from the 16th century to the present day.

Images: Bill Viola, Detail from the video work Dolorosa, 2000. Photo: Kira Perov. Private lender. Rembrandt van Rijn, Self portrait (cropped), Carlo Dolci, The Penitent Magdalen (cropped).

Bill Viola, Detail from the video work Dolorosa, 2000. Photo: Kira Perov. Private lender. Rembrandt van Rijn, Self portrait (cropped), Carlo Dolci, The Penitent Magdalen (cropped).

8 March–12 augusti 2012

Artists have been interested in the emotions, and how they are expressed, since ancient times, depicting gestures, facial expressions and body language in their works to convey sorrow, suffering, fear, melancholy, tenderness and joy.

Interpretation is key

Our views on the emotions and on the relationship between reason and emotion have varied over time. Calmness and self-control have been presented as the ideal alternative to passion. Views on the emotions also vary between cultures. Interpretation, both by the creator of an artwork and by the audience, is therefore critically important. What does the artist wish to convey, and what do we feel as the audience?
We all need the ability to interpret emotions. It’s an essential life skill, but not an easy one. As a result, at various times in art history, standardized depictions of the emotions have emerged. One example is Le Brun, a 17th-century French artist, who created “templates” for depicting emotions such as anger, fear, suffering and joy. These were used by artists for many years to aid comprehension of works portraying emotions.

Medical causes

The science of physiognomy believed that what happened inside the body and a person's inner life manifested itself externally. Modern neuroscience has developed methods of showing how the brain works in various emotional states and the visible effects on facial and other muscles.

Appropriate body language

Over the ages there has been constant interest in understanding body language and emotional expression. The modern manifestation of this is the abundance of self-help books and courses offering guidance on appropriate – and inappropriate – body language for various situations.

Laughing with or at?

The exhibition encourages us to reflect on our own emotions. Do we always show our feelings, or do we hide them? How do we show what we feel? Are we laughing with or at someone? Mirrors on the gallery walls confront exhibition visitors with their own and their fellow visitors’ reactions to the artworks and the emotions conveyed.

Wide-ranging exhibition

The exhibition features almost 200 works from the 16th century to the present day – a mix of painting, sculpture, video, drawing and graphic art. The artists include Albrecht Dürer, Edvard Munch, Rembrandt, Tony Oursler, Rineke Dijkstra and Bill Viola. The exhibition also includes a collection of illustrated books on physiognomy from the Hagströmer Library at Karolinska Institutet and drama books from the Music and Theatre Library of Sweden.


Buy the exhibition catalogue, SEK 195, from our Bookshop.

Introduction, guided tours, audiovisual presentation

Introduction in Swedish in the Auditorium, 45 minutes, Tuesday–Friday at 1 pm, 13 March–27 April. In May, Tuesdays at 1 pm, presentation in the exhibition hall. Audiovisual presentation at other times. A short presentaton of The Art of Exaggeration is included.


A series of lectures, concerts and drama productions will be presented on a stage in the exhibition. Please check the website further on for event listings.

Sunday 25 March at 1–3 pm



Nationalmuseum Design
@ Kulturhuset Stadsteatern
Sergels torg, Stockholm 

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