By Katharina Alsen and Anika Landmann

Prestel Publishing. 303 pages. £50. ISBN 978-3-7913-8131-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

How well-known is Nordic art in Britain? By Nordic art we’re essentially talking about paintings from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, and Iceland. And I suspect that most people, leaving aside art critics and academics, might be hard pushed to put forward more than a handful of names for consideration. Edvard Munch (Norway) would most likely be the obvious one, though I wonder which of his paintings, other than “The Scream,” might come to mind at the mention of his name?  Anders Zorn (Sweden), could be included in a list of Nordic artists who some people, at least, would know. And perhaps Vilhelm Hammershøi (Denmark) would receive a nod of recognition. August Strindberg (Sweden)? Yes, but would it be for his work as a painter rather than as a playwright?

I think it is true to say that there haven’t been a great many exhibitions devoted to Nordic art in recent years. I recall the excellent, Dreams of a Summer Night: Scandinavian Paintings at the Turn of the Century at the Hayward Gallery, but that was in 1986. Munch and Strindberg have both been exhibited at Tate Modern since the beginning of this century. There was Hammershøi: Poetry of Silence at the Royal Academy in 2008. I’m not claiming that what I’ve mentioned covers everything that has been available to British audiences, but compared to galleries on the Continent and in the USA (see the bibliography in Nordic Painting), we do seem to have been poorly served with what has generally been on offer over the years.

The same could well be true of books relating to the art of the countries concerned. Leaving aside the publication under review, I can think of Nordic Art: The Modern Breakthrough, 1860-1920 (Hirmer, 2012), edited by David Jackson, though that related to an exhibition of the same name shown in Groninger and Munich in 2012. We could buy the book, but not easily visit the exhibition. There is also Patricia G. Berman’s splendid In Another Light: Danish Painting in the Nineteenth Century (Thames & Hudson, 2007 and 2013). I can think of a few other books that help throw light on Nordic artists in the context of 19th and early-20th century painting generally. Michael Jacobs’ The Good and Simple Life: Artist Colonies in Europe and America (Phaidon, 1985) and Brian Dudley Barrett’s Artists on the Edge: The Rise of Coastal Artists’ Colonies, 1880-1920 (Amsterdam University Press, 2011) might be useful for what they say about Nordic painters.

Again, I make no claim to completeness in what I’ve said about literature relating to Nordic art. There are, no doubt, other books on the subject, though some of them may be relatively little-known, and I’ve been focusing on publications that are, or have been, fairly easy to access.

My purpose in spending a little time talking about the availability of material, or lack of it, is to welcome Nordic Painting as something that will surely help to broaden our knowledge of artists from Denmark, Sweden, and the other countries concerned. Obviously, it can’t cover the whole range of artistic activity over a wide period, and the emphasis is largely on the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. In other words its very title, Nordic Painting, indicates a degree of selectivity in what is involved. The thrust of the argument is to pick out certain paintings either from a specific artist’s career, or from a period, and often analyse them in some detail. What do they say, and how do they say it? And how do they represent certain tendencies in the development of art in the region?

Despite what I said about a possible lack of awareness of art from the Nordic countries, it may be true that, where some familiarity with the paintings does exist, it’s probable that it might rest on an assumption that among the chief characteristics of Nordic art are a propensity for works that involve open spaces, often in a coastal location, and plenty of natural light. “ Northern Light”,  in fact, is almost a kind of semi-substitute word for describing Scandinavian paintings. Or there are closely perceived interiors with what we think of typical Scandinavian furnishings. It may be worth quoting in full some comments that occur near the beginning of Nordic Painting, and which perhaps point to the direction much of the critical commentary in the book will take:

“This attribute follows a common interpretative schema of Nordic painting that has dominated (at least) international art history until the present day: climatic and geographic characteristics of the Nordic countries – such as light spectacle of the midnight sun – are combined with stereotyped ideas of naturalness, authenticity, and purity and are mythically or even magically charged. Idealising topoi of longing serve a kind of branding specific to the region (“region branding”). They are functionalised as self-images or public images to create a region-spanning identity of the North.”

It’s pointed out that, in contrast to the “region-spanning identity” certain people (critics, curators of exhibitions, etc.) are accused of fostering, the “cultural diversity of the North is reflected in the art production which participated in various ways in the avant-garde currents of modernism.” Nordic artists travelled to widen their awareness of modern trends. The Swedish artist, Sigfrid Hjerton, went to Paris, where she studied at the Matisse Academy. Her 1914 painting, Flag Parade, reproduced in the book, shows her to have been influenced by the Fauves. The Dane, Jais Nielsen’s Departure, dating from 1918, has obvious influences from Futurist and Cubist painting.

It can, of course, be argued that by spending time in Paris, and picking up on the new ideas then being circulated in the city, artists were possibly losing their individual identities. And some would say their national identities, too. The counter-argument could be that, in actual fact, it was only when the artists liberated himself or herself from the bonds of nationality that they could truly express themselves as individuals. It might all depend on what one wanted from art, and there may have been a divergence of expectations between the artist and the audience. Some people might desire an art that has evident links to national ideas of what it can express. And they might view modern art, especially of the abstract kind, as losing that sense of identity and becoming almost bland in its willingness to give up representation and take on international characteristics.

There is an interesting discussion of the work of the Finnish painter, Tyko Sallinen, who had visited France and the United States. Claims were made to the effect that Sallinen had taken little from anything he encountered on his travels. But Sallinen got into trouble when his paintings, particularly one called The Tradesman’s Daughters, seemed to suggest that there were allusions to “a `racial classification of the Finns as Mongolians”. This did not fit in with a need among the general populace for “membership in the `Indo-German race’, so as to achieve a higher place in the racial hierarchy. Sallinen’s painting appeared to present a “threat to the young nation’s narrative of identity formation,” as the Finns freed themselves from Russian influences and also fought a bloody civil war to defeat a communist attempt at a coup. As the authors of Nordic Paintings point out: “The reception of Sallinen’s paintings shows how strongly ideological and political convictions could come to the fore.”

Something significant that comes across when reading Nordic Painting is the number of women involved in the production of works of art. The point is made more than once that women ran into difficulties in terms of the reaction of bourgeois society in Stockholm, Copenhagen, and other cities where there was a concentration of respectable middle-class families. Women were expected to stay at home, carry out their domestic duties, and look after the children. When they instead turned to painting and went off to Paris and elsewhere they defied the conventions of the time. Cora Sandel (real name, Sara Fabricus) wrote three novels, largely autobiographical, which told the story of a young Norwegian woman from a provincial town in Norway who dares to first of all head for Oslo and art school, and then goes to Paris. These books (Alberta and Jacob, Alberta and Freedom, Alberta Alone) may at least give an idea of what it must have been like for a woman to take the decision to strike out on her own. Other women were luckier and encouraged to become artists with grants to study abroad. 

A painting by Elin Danielson-Gambogi, The Finished Breakfast, is interesting from the point of view of what it says in terms of portraying a woman (the sister of the painter) and her attitude, as expressed in the painting, towards conventional notions of domesticity. She’s leaning on the table, cigarette in one hand, and clearly not in any rush to start clearing the pots away. There has presumably been someone else at the table, and what appears to be a still-lit cigarette looks like it could easily burn the tablecloth. There is a wine glass on the table (did it have wine? At breakfast?) and some paintings tacked on the wall. All in all, it would suggest bohemianism to any sober-minded citizen. It’s an interesting painting, too, in that it doesn’t fit into the accepted notions of Nordic paintings by not focusing on a landscape with light, or a tidily organised interior scene.

Other paintings likewise play up the idea of the artist as someone who, if not antagonistic towards convention, is certainly mocking it. Gustav Wentzel’s The Day After has a figure lying in bed with a nearby table full of empty bottles and glasses. A small statue, a drawing pinned to an otherwise bare wall, and one or two other items, leave the viewer in no doubt that it’s an artist’s room. Hanna Hirsch Pauli’s The Artist Venny Soldan-Brofeldt has the subject of the painting sitting on the paint-stained floor of a studio, and the accompanying commentary asserts that: “The painting presents the studio as a space in which middle-class conventions are suspended, which goes hand in hand with the topos of the studio in general.”  Hirsch-Pauli and Soldan-Brofeldt shared a studio in Paris. It’s relevant to note that the painting was shown at the Paris Salon, and favourably commented on, but when put on display in the Nordic countries, “reception of the work was not uniformly positive”.

A chapter on the painters who came together in Skagen is particularly valuable, though in saying that I have to admit to an interest in the subject of artists’ colonies. They appear to have been a feature of late-19th century artistic life – there’s a reference to them being a “Europe-wide phenomenon” – and soon spread widely to Newlyn and St Ives in Britain, Pont-Aven and Concarneau in France, Worpswede in Germany, and numerous other places, including Skagen in Denmark. The attractions of such locations tended to be similar. There was the light, of course, and the relatively low cost of food and housing. But most of all, there was the opportunity to paint people and their way of life which hadn’t yet been touched (tainted?) by modern ideas and appliances. Painters thought that they could, perhaps, capture something before it was lost forever.

However, as is pointed out in Nordic Painting, “Ethnological precision is not central to these depictions of rural life. The stylistic execution also contributes to the impression of a domesticated reality, which was intended to satisfy the aesthetic demands of a well-off middle-class”.  It was highly doubtful that someone living comfortably in Copenhagen would want a picture which really portrayed the poverty and hard lives of many fishermen, and others, hanging on their wall. But a painting which might have been acceptable, is Michael Ancher’s Will he Round the Point? With its hint of a possible problem (not seen), albeit all the people shown look healthy and well-fed, it’s a canvas that could probably find a buyer. I’m not criticising the Skagen artists when I refer to their wanting to sell their work. The same applied to similar paintings I’ve seen in Penzance and elsewhere. The rough edges have mostly been removed to make palatable what’s portrayed. Most artists are not innovators or experimentalists and have to take note of the market in order make a living.

Not all artists went to the coastal art colonies, and some stayed in the cities where they felt “an attunement to the urban night, which was established at the time through the emergence of electrical street lighting”. Eugene Jansson’s Dawn over Riddafjarden, with its skyline tinged with red,  the buildings below it having a string of lights along the seafront, and the overall scene framed with blue, might be a classic example of what some artists were seeing in towns and cities. Others, however, were less inclined to be “colourful,” and in Vilhelm Hammershøi’s Christianbourg Palace, Late Autumn, the effect is primarily what the book describes as “monochromatic.” And the painting is further said to have, “gray shrouded colouration and almost dystopian, uninhabited atmosphere.”

Hammershøi is a particularly interesting artist, and it’s possibly significant that he’s one of the few from the Nordic countries to have had a major British exhibition in recent times (the Royal Academy show in 2008 referred to earlier). He had visited London during his lifetime and painted cityscapes there. I have a postcard of one of his London paintings, Street in London, which I think may be in Bloomsbury, near the British Museum. Perhaps it’s just my imagination, and I’m projecting too much onto the painting, but whenever I look at it I think of George Gissing’s novel, New Grub Street, and its cast of often slightly shabby and depressed characters scurrying to their places in “the valley of the shadow of books.” The scene doesn’t have any such people in it, but it’s as if they’re about to appear at any moment.

I recall that some people found the Hammershøi exhibition at the Royal Academy dull, even boring, but it didn’t strike me as lacking substance. His interior scenes suggested a great deal, even when they were devoid of human figures. And when they did have someone in them it was often noticeable that the women, which they mostly were, always seemed to be viewed from behind. One painting was even called, Interior with Young Woman Seen from Behind. And the painting on the back cover of Nordic Paintings, Interior with Woman at Piano, again shows the woman from behind. I wasn’t the only visitor to the exhibition to notice how often the women were, in a sense, “faceless.”

I’m conscious of having moved quickly around the contents of Nordic Painting, and it may be that in doing so I’ve neglected certain aspects of what is covered. The book does look at those artists who pushed the boundaries of art in the Nordic countries to take in influences from Cubism, Surrealism, and other modern movements, though surprisingly there is little about what I would think of as social/political art, which must have existed in the region. There is one painting, Christian Krohg’s Tired, which the commentary says refers to “the growing poverty in the increasingly industrialised cities”. Krohg is an interesting person and wrote a novel, Albertine, about an impoverished seamstress sliding into prostitution, which fell foul of the censors. In the book, Nordic Art: The Modern Breakthrough, 1860-1920, mentioned earlier, there is a painting by Krohg entitled Albertine, which shows a woman being arrested by a policeman while some other better-dressed women appear to be looking at her disapprovingly. And there is also H.A. Brendekilde’s Worn Out, a bleak comment on the hard lives of the rural poor. It could be useful to look at this book in conjunction with Nordic Painting.   

I don’t want to be seen as criticising Nordic Painting for not including something that I’m personally curious about. The book does offer a wide view of the range of forms of painting that took place in the countries concerned. There is a great deal of insight and information to be gleaned from the various short chapters which look at numerous painters and their work. Extensive notes and a decent bibliography provide for the usefulness of the book. Added to which there is the pleasure of being introduced to paintings that aren’t known in Britain. They certainly ought to be.