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Nordic Painting: Re-establishing the Importance of Nordic Art

August 19, 2016

ArtsBooks | by Harry Seymour


Two female art historians have made it their mission to help raise the profile of Nordic art to its rightful place alongside the long-lauded paintings and sculpture coming from France, Italy, Spain and Britain during the 19th and 20th centuries. Katherina Alsen, a visiting research fellow at Copenhagen University, and Annika Landman, a visiting research fellow at the University of Turku in Finland, have created a comprehensive survey book of the modernist art of Scandinavia and its neighbours in the hope of promoting it to a more Southernly-European audience.

Nordic art has never been regarded as second rate in comparison to its European contemporaries, but has been somewhat ignored. Ask anyone to name three famous painters from Scandinavia, and they’ll probably struggle. Yet they produced many masterpieces that are rival to those from any other artistically proud country. Their prices may not command the same at auctions, and their names can’t pull the crowds at institutions like those from their Southern counterparts – but why? Perhaps the clever marketers and dealers of the 19th and 20th centuries couldn’t see the money in the names, or perhaps global collectors didn’t have access to the works as readily due to less frequent trade, or perhaps people just found them dull and dingy. Whatever the reason, a disposition evolved to assume that Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands couldn’t rival what the rest of Europe was producing. A rather unstudied area of art outside of its geographical boundaries, the subject is perhaps better explained and explored through the contextual history of these countries. Being slower than the rest of Europe to industrialise, colder climates, darker days and longer winters, strong orthodox principles and remote vast landscapes were all previously were considered as “inhibitors” of the country’s art from progressing. However in recent generations the absurdity of such thoughts has come to light – Nordic art has gradually crept in to the wider consciousness and is often now appreciated for its vivid colours, outdoor scenes and beautiful control of light by the artists, as well an often underlying sense of unease that isn’t found outside of Scandinavia. Works that at first appear cheerful often have an underlying anxiety. The most famous Scandinavian work of art – Edvard Munch’s Scream (1893) is a belting sentiment of depersonalisation order. Munch famously quoted “I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.” The setting for the image was between a mental asylum and a slaughterhouse – also inspiring the image’s unease. It’s am audible shriek of anxiousness regarding a rapidly modernising society.  Bright colours, rather than suggest joy, instead tease at unease and melancholy and vast landscapes hint at feeling lost. Yet the Scandinavian artists from the period  were some of the foremost colourists, symbolists, romantics and expressionists in Europe, and often some of the most successful in creating alluring and original masterpieces.

Edvard Munch Vision, 1892 Oil on canvas, 72 x 45 cm Munchmuseet, Oslo, Photo copyright Munch Museum
Edvard Munch Vision, 1892 Oil on canvas, 72 x 45 cm Munchmuseet, Oslo, Photo copyright Munch Museum

This book charts the protagonists of these movements, exploring the impact that their history, geography, national identity and socio-economics had on their art. Organised thematically, the authors chart the key movements and movers alongside contemporary scholarship re-evaluating the importance of the works and their effects.

Pórarinn B. Porláksson Pingvellir, 1900 Oil on canvas, 57.5 x 81.5 cm Listasafn Íslands, Reykjavík, Copyright Gallery of Iceland
Pórarinn B. Porláksson Pingvellir, 1900 Oil on canvas, 57.5 x 81.5 cm Listasafn Íslands, Reykjavík, Copyright Gallery of Iceland

It covers themes including body images, topography, inner spaces and modern life, and includes artists such as Edvard Munch, Vilhelm Hammershøi, Helene Schjerfbeck and Sigrid Hijertén. The book highlights the Nordic Avant-Gard curiosity with Modernism that they so delicately displayed, while remaining enamoured with nature and tradition.

Vilhelm Hammershoi Interior. Artificial Light (Interiør. Kunstigt lys), 1909. Oil on canvas, 60 x 82.2 cm Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, National Gallery Copenhagen, Denmark, copyright SMK Photo
Vilhelm Hammershoi Interior. Artificial Light (Interiør. Kunstigt lys), 1909. Oil on canvas, 60 x 82.2 cm Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, National Gallery Copenhagen, Denmark, copyright SMK Photo

Carefully raising questions about the interactions between Northern and Central European art, the books tentatively aims to reassess the these works in a modern world – highlighted with the final chapter dedicated to the significance of Nordic art today. Looking at artists such as Olafur Eliasson within this historical context, it quickly becomes clear that these Nordic motifs, concepts and questions still remain at the forefront of its contemporary artist’s consciousness.

Ólafur Eliasson Riverbed, 2014 Installation Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, copyright Galerie neugerriemschneider Photo Anders Sune Berg
Ólafur Eliasson Riverbed, 2014 Installation Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, copyright Galerie neugerriemschneider Photo Anders Sune Berg

Beautifully illustrated with 225 colour images, this large format book is a welcome addition to anyone with an interest in European 19th and 20th century art, and will no doubt open the doorway for much more vigorous scholarship on the topic, as well as the establishing the attention these artists deserve.

By Harry Seymour

Nordic Painting, published 3 October 2016, through Prestel Publishing.