Art in Scandinavia — The Old Stuff

The Scandinavians are relative newcomers to European art, arriving during the early nineteenth century. The museums have paintings older than that, but not many of those works are by locals.

That suits me fine. I don’t much care for art earlier than the seventeenth century. With exceptions, paintings pre-dating the Dutch Masters strike me as stiff and moralistic. I pass them quickly, stopping only if something catches my eye. At the National Gallery of Norway, something did: “Christ and the Woman Taken into Adultery” from the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1531:

Can’t help but think the guy on the left holding the rock was the most fun to paint.

It’s as stiff and moralistic as the other paintings of its time, but I like the faces of the accusers, and I also like the larger message. It’s from the Gospel of John (8:3–11) and depicts the moment Jesus says “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (King James version). It explains why I sometimes hear Jesus described as the first feminist.

It also shows how dogmas can change over time. Cranach the Elder was a close friend of Martin Luther. His choice of this subject so early in the Reformation (just fourteen years after Luther posted his 95 Theses) suggests the early Protestants were more accepting of female sexuality than modern evangelical Protestants, whose politicians resemble the accusers more than the adultress’s protector.

The National Gallery of Norway also had a picture by the most underrated Dutch Master, Bartholomeus van der Helst. I was thrilled to see it, because I haven’t had much luck finding van der Helsts outside the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. But like most early paintings in Scandinavian museums, this one was second-tier, so no photo.

Once the Scandinavians did get into art, they became expert landscapists. No wonder, because they live in such a beautiful place! This one, called “View of Lake Sortedam from Dosseingen” (Christen Købke, 1838) hangs at the Statens Museum for Kunst, i.e. the National Gallery of Denmark. We stayed near the site of this painting, and I can assure you the area looks completely different today.

Remember when I talked about “The Luggage House” (Lagkagehuset) in Travelogue: Copenhagen? That’s what’s on the west bank of the Sortedam Sø today.

Here’s one from the National Gallery of Norway, “Grindelwald Glacier,” also from 1838, by Thomas Fearnley. (He died at 39. Købke died at 38. What losses to the art world!)

I like the solitary human against the white of the glacier.

The Scandinavians picked up on Impressionism quickly. The big museums include a number of paintings by the French greats, including Van Gogh’s “Landscape from Saint-Remy” (1889) at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen:

I tried to capture the impasto. Tough to do in low light, so I brightened the photo.

Although they borrowed techniques from the French for outdoor scenes, late nineteenth century Scandinavian artists grew sufficiently confident to confront emotions in a darker, more realistic manner. Here are a couple of evocative works from the National Gallery of Norway, Hans Heyerdahl’s “At Asgardstrand” (1887) and Erik Werenskiold’s “Peasant Burial” (1883–85).

You can feel the chill.
The landscape, the clothing, the facial expressions — at the risk of stereotyping, this strikes me as quintessentially Norwegian.

Erik Henningsen’s “Evicted Tenants” (1892) at the National Gallery of Denmark bears some resemblance to the work of Gustave Caillebotte, an underrated Impressionist, but is more explicitly political:

Don’t know about you, but I’m ready to start the revolution.

And then we get to Edvard Munch, Scandinavia’s best-known painter. He dabbled in Impressionism, as evidenced by “Rue Lafayette” (1891):

Perhaps this image of a man looking upon humanity from a distance prefigures the isolated subjects to come.

But his work soon turned terrifyingly intense. One painting, called “Puberty,” features a naked underage girl and is so disturbing in its portrayal of vulnerability that I declined to take a photo of it lest US Customs inspect my phone and jail me for smuggling child porn. His best-known work is the centerpiece of the National Gallery of Norway, shielded by bulletproof glass just like the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre. But like the “Mona Lisa,” “The Scream” is too well-known to provoke much reaction anymore.

If you look closely at the fence on the bottom right, you’ll see minor damage. That likely occurred in 1994, when the painting was stolen. It was recovered three months later, at Asgardstrand.

If it seems I’ve focused most on Norwegian artists and least on Swedish artists, you’re right. One of my co-workers is the great-great-grandson of an early Norwegian artist whose work is on display at the National Gallery of Norway, so I was especially attentive there. And though we would have liked to visit Sweden’s Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, it was closed for extensive repairs.

Adolph Tidemand and Hans Gude, “Bridal Procession on the Hardangerfjord,” 1848. National Gallery, Oslo, Norway.

Modern art in the next post!

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.