Norwegian Blue (and Red)

Harald Sohlberg: Painting Norway (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

Everyone knows The Scream, but Norway’s favourite painting is a remarkable nighttime mountainscape, by Harald Sohlberg. I’d been struck by his incredible yellow skies in paintings either side of doorways in Kode 3, just before the French Impression era Munch room, and again by his work at the Oslo National Museum, but he was still at number five in my top five Norwegian artists. Dulwich — who made me take notice of Nikolai Astrup — now brings Sohlberg to the UK, making it two Norwegian exhibitions at once.

Sohlberg was born in Oslo (then Kristiana), the son of a fur trapper and a farmer’s daughter, and wanted to be an artist from an early age. His father wasn’t so convinced, and apprenticed him to Wilhelm Krogh, a scene painting and theatre decorator, which I suspect had an influence upon his strange mix of theatrical and naturalistic landscape and use of perspective. He left before he completed the apprenticeship, and started painting in the Valdres region, before studying with Harriet Backer, Erik Werenskiold and Eilif Petersson. At an art school in Copenhagen, he encountered the work of Paul Gauguin and thus the Symbolist and Synthetist schools of painting.

Evening Glow (1893) was his breakthrough canvas, an evening landscape with an orange tinged sky, and according to the gallery, imagined women behind the bushes — this was a location where Sohlberg had had assignations and so he imagines a sexual charge in the space. The painting was bought by the National Museum and Sohlberg then gained a scholarship to Paris and Weimar. But whilst he was gaining a language of painting, a language of colour (from Goethe’s theories) and possibly exposure to Caspar David Friedrich though art critic Andreas Albert, it was the Norwegian landscape that drew his interest.

Perhaps a brief diversion is needed, into his various paintings and drawings of mermaids. Dulwich has three paintings and a couple of drawings, where there are variants of hair tangling and the circle of moonlight on the water in which the mermaid sits — 1896 yellow, 1896 red 1897 silver. The Plough hangs in the night sky. I wonder if this echoes Munch’s Summer Night motifs, with a splash of reflected light in water, behind a female figure. As with the ambiguity of Munch’s female, it’s hard to read these mythic females which stand in for “the almighty passion, the meaning of life, upon whom all things depend, that which causes sorrow and happiness, life and death, wealth and destitution, brings life, brings murder, genius and idiots and fills the insane asylums”.

There is also a female figure in the various versions of The Girl and the Daisy (1894), a simplified Munchian figure pulling petals off a daisy — he loves me, he loves me not — tapping into a sense of sexual awakening (and one fears also death…) In the background of each version is a Norwegian church, offering various forms of phallic intervention.

But the bulk of his landscapes, as displayed here anyway, are unpopulated landscapes. There’s the clear northern light which lasts long into the evening, offering a bright or contrasting sky —- as likely yellow or orange as blue. Foreground vegetation plays with the perspective so we are drawn in. Whilst Munch and Astrup offer different forms of the uncanny in their adoption of Symbolism — the former distinct alienated and grotesque, the latter more heimlich in his unheimlich — Sohlberg seems to have a residue of romantic sublimity which could be traced back to Johan Dahl and Peder Balke.

Flower Meadow in the North (1905) is probably the closest here to Astrup’s work, reminding me of his Marsh marigold meadows (below left). Here, however, there are daisies across the landscape, from the Røros area, probably painted over a period of months, leading us back into a river valley. Is that a moon or an cloud covered sun in the background, the peak of a suggested triangle. We have buildings too, which I take to be part of a farm.

A couple of years earlier, he had painted two versions of Street in Røros — a portrait (1902) and a landscape (1903). The contrast between the red of the wood and the white of the snow is striking in the latter, as are the verticals of the water pump, telegraph poles and the church in both.

This might be a deserted landscape, but it is still touched by humanity. There is perhaps also a tension between the copper mining of the Norwegians in the area and the reindeer herding of the southern Sámi. I spent a lot of time looking at the church, trying to see whether he was playing fair with perspective or rewriting the composition. The same church appears in various depictions of the graveyard — Night, Røros Church (1903) and Night (1922) — where the format between pen and ink and sketch inevitably shifts the light levels from the church, but I suspect the factory chimney or smelting is exaggerated. The crosses offer an imagined grid pattern.

Clearly I must end with his Winter Night in the Mountains, a partly synthesised landscape north of Røros, which he worked on in varying formats across a decade or so. Sohlberg went on an Easter 1899 skiing trip in the Rondane mountains and for some reason was inspired to paint them. Between February 1900 and March 1902 he lived in the area, starting various studies and drawings and taking photographs. At one point, one canvas got wet and another layer of paint had to be added.
Sohlberg 4
Whilst he moved further into the mountains — the northern shore of lake Atnesjøen, the Nesset area and Langglup Valley — the compositions are never literal, nor indeed do the stars fit astronomical pedantry. He eventually settles on the Plough to the top left and the Evening Star or Venus in the centre. There is a balance between the Vs and ^s of the mountain peaks and the valleys, the rule of thirds of sky, mountain and valley, with not quite vertical trees breaking up the foreground. In the 1914 canvas he sticks to a narrower ranges of blues and whites, to unify the composition. And then, if you follow up the three parallel slopes to the right, and move to the highest of the peaks, you spot a crucifix.

It took me forever to see the first time, but once spotted it is hardly invisible. Is it from life? Is it human made? Supernatural? It is numinous in any case.

Øivind Storm Bjerke in the Dulwich catalogue suggests that “It is arguably the most compelling symbolic expression of the sublime by any Norwegian painter.” In a 1915 letter, Sohlberg said, “The longer I stood gazing at the scene, the more I seemed to feel what a solitary and pitiful atom I was in an endless universe.” This surely takes us back to the sublimity of Addison and Burke a century and more earlier.


Sohlberg photos taken in Oslo, Astrup in Bergen at Kode 4.

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