SCANDINAVIAN ART AROUND 1900
“I do not want to do without suffering; after all, doesn’t my art owe a great deal to suffering?” (Edvard Munch)
The name of Edvard Munch (1863-1944) outshines them all. Yet, modern Scandinavian painting produced a whole series of outstanding artists. However, outside of their homeland, many of them have been forgotten or only recently rediscovered. Among them are Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916), who was celebrated throughout Europe during his lifetime, and Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931), Finland’s most famous artist.
“My work causes me such torment that I will confess that to create is the same thing as to suffer. . . . Bit by bit my state of mind is becoming lighter and despite all of my torment I can say that I am not unfamiliar with the feeling of true joy in life.” (Akseli Gallen-Kallela)
Germany plays a special role in the development of Scandinavian painting. Many northern European artists were drawn to other places besides Paris. Hans Heyerdahl (1857-1913), Hans Fredrik Gude (1825-1903), Erik Theodor Werenskiold (1855-1938), and Frits Thaulow (1847-1906) studied, lived, and worked in German cities such as Munich, Karlsruhe, or Düsseldorf. Munch and Gallen-Kallela, considered great antipodes, had more success in their early careers in Germany than they did in their homelands.
Apart from folk art, there was no independent art movement of any note in Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark until the 19th century. Royal courts and aristocrats preferred to import paintings and sculptures from Central Europe.
However, in the 19th century a new national awareness appeared, and artists played a considerable part in this development. At first, landscape painting remained the definitive theme in Scandinavia. Norwegian painter Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1857), who settled in Dresden and became a close friend of Caspar David Friedrich’s, paved the way with his Romantic landscapes. In the 1880s, however, inspired by Impressionism and Naturalism, which they met with in France, a new generation of Norwegian artists, centered on Christian Krohg (1852-1925) and Frits Thaulow (1847-1906), introduced new ways of painting. The period was dominated by an almost euphoric sense of newness. Michael Ancher (1849-1927) and his wife, painter Anna Ancher (1859-1935), found the Impressionist Skagen School. One of their most famous members was the Norwegian-Danish painter Peder Severin Krøyer (1851-1909). Kroh, Thaulow, and Erik Werenskiold fought to establish a concept of art outside of the bourgeois ideal. There arose a younger artist who soon proved to be more radical and innovative, and eventually drew great attention to himself: Edvard Munch, a pupil of Krohg’s.
In 1886 Munch exhibited his painting The Sick Child for the first time. A provocation. Norwegian art was used to historical pictures, heroic landscapes, and quaint scenes of Norwegian folk life. Painting “real life” was considered gauche. Munch’s bold painting harvested laughter and ridicule. “No other painting,” commented Munch, looking back, “created so much outrage in Norway.”
In 1892 the sensitive artist exhibited 55 paintings in Berlin. Although pressure from conservative art circles led to the closure of the show after just one week, it made Munch famous at one blow, and it enjoyed a successful tour through several German cities. He created psychologically penetrant, key works such as The Scream and Madonna. At home, on the other hand, Munch continued to be misunderstood. His paintings were considered “paintings of a sick mind: and depicted “nightmares that are as sick as they are repulsive,” as one critic complained in 1895. Much later, Munch eventually found recognition in Norway. “As long as I have painted in this country, I have had to fight for every inch of my art with a clenched fist,” lamented the artist, who was one of the founders of Expressionism.
Anders Zorn (1860-1920) was not an artistic innovator like the profound Norwegian Munch. Nevertheless, the Swedish painter—a wunderkind who began studying art at the Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm when he was just 15 years old—was regarded by his contemporaries as the type of genius that only came along once a century. The play of shimmering lights in his Impressionist paintings is captivating. His favorite theme was the nude female body in an outdoors setting. In Zorn, German Secessionists saw a brilliant role model struggling against the outmoded academic style of painting, which was felt to be artificial and “unnatural.” Of special artistic quality are his sensitive portrait etchings, which Zorn distributed worldwide with great success.
While Zorn and Munch charged the stillness and drama of the northern landscape with human themes such as life and death, Carl Larsson (1853-1919) derived his inspiration from his immediate surroundings. In his albums of pictures, which are not just for children, the Swedish artist tells of his family life, depicting an idealized world in drawings, which made Larsson one of the most popular Scandinavian painters of the time. Bruno Andreas Liljefors (1860-1939), on the other hand, was admired mainly for his realist depictions of animals. Sven Richard Bergh, Alfred Wahlberg, and Olle Bærtling were part of a whole row of Swedish artists who had careers in Paris.
Swedish painting began to flower toward the end of the 19th century, with the rise of a generation of artists with an affinity for national romanticism. The Opponenterna, an independent band of artists who stood in opposition to academic art education, was founded in 1885. Nature and the simple country life served as sources of inspiration for these artists. Among their members were Larsson, and writers August Strindberg and Ernst Josephson (1851-1906).
The paintings of the artist, who later suffered from schizophrenia, mix elements of Symbolism and Expressionism. The works he produced after his illness manifested are among some of the most remarkable ever produced by a Scandinavian artist. A strong sense of melancholy emanates from the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøis (1864-1916). The interior and landscape paintings of the Danish Symbolist seem bleak and purist. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke and the painter Emil Nolde were among his admirers.
No other artist represents the sea change in Finland, which was part of Russia at the time, as Akseli Gallen-Kallela does. Gallen-Kallela had a kind of love-hate relationship with his homeland, dreaming of its independence while at the same time suffering from the incomprehension his paintings encountered there. In contrast, his paintings met with enthusiasm in Germany. He and Munch exhibited their paintings together. The contrast between Munch’s paintings and Gallen’s depictions of Finland’s untamed nature and its rural population could not have been greater. While Munch’s works reflected his state of mind and events in his life, Gallen-Kallela mainly painted pictures about the mythology, the history, and future of his people. Until his death he continued to prefer motifs from Finnish mythology. Using a method similar to Gerhard Munthe’s or Erik Theodor Werenskiold’s, the Norwegian illustrators of fairy tales and sages, Gallen-Kallela used stories from the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. In a stylistic manner, he created pictures that blended Art Nouveau and Symbolism.
In March 1907 Gallen-Kallela briefly joined the German artists group the Brücke, but quickly dropped out again due to differences of opinion. In 1923 he moved to the United States, settling in the artists’ colony of Taos, New Mexico, in 1924. Yet, even in the American desert he continued to work mostly on depictions of Finnish mythology. He finally returned to Finland in 1926.
Gallen-Kallela remained a nomad his whole life, vacillating between wanderlust and homesickness. Yet he was not the only Scandinavian artist to return home; many of his colleagues who enjoyed successes in France of Germany, also ultimately went back to their own countries. A remarkable number of them deliberately retreated to the isolation of simple country life, as Gallen-Kallela did. For him and other northern European artists, the decision to put some distance between themselves and the international art scene seemed to be thoroughly inspirational.
February 20, 2012 Florian Weiland-Pollerberg