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Nordic Art: The Idea of North

The Phillips Collection surveys two centuries of Nordic art.

Nils Dardel, The Dying Dandy, 1918

Nils Dardel, The Dying Dandy, 1918, oil on canvas, 55 1/8 x 70 7/8 in.

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The Danish artist Per Kirkeby, who died last May at 79, warned in an essay titled “Nordic!” against overgeneralizing about the art of Scandinavia: “To write something about what is ‘Nordic’ in art is a tall order indeed. I would prefer not to bother. The easiest thing is to discharge the clichés, the accumulated annoyances. The complacent, homespun ‘Nordicness’ that is self-protective and lends legitimacy to what is only half done. Right down to the belief in peculiarly ‘Nordic’ materials as constituting the space of our art. … Occasionally underpinned by heady accounts of ‘Northern Light’ spreading out across the landscape like some sour unwashed dishcloth. All of which is pretty unwholesome, and certainly fatal for any artist to claim ownership of.”

The most prudent, and also the most intellectually rigorous thing to do, then, is not to generalize too much. That is the approach that the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., has wisely taken in organizing a survey exhibition dedicated to two centuries worth of art from five countries and their territories. “Nordic Impressions: Art from Aland, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, 1821–2018,” on view from October 13, 2018 through January 13, 2019, is the result of a years-long collaboration between the Phillips and the embassies in Washington of the Nordic countries. In addition to the fact that the show’s time period spans the early Romantic period to today, the cultural diversity is great enough that any effort to find an artistic common factor would devolve into the most simplistic kind of essentialism. Instead of falling victim to that, the organizers have placed 52 well-chosen works in front of the viewer, ranging from the purest of landscapes to contemporary video performances, and then stepped back in order to allow him or her to absorb the wild creativity of a region that has often been seen as remote or isolated but is actually nothing of the kind.

The earliest work in the show is a visionary work by Johan Christian Dahl, Norwegian Landscape with a Rainbow (1821). Dahl, who was famous for his ability to paint translucent rainbows, created this canvas as a memory piece while he was living and teaching in Dresden, Germany. Instead of working en plein air, he painted an idealized version of the natural surroundings he grew up with, imbuing it with a rather abstract sense of Norwegianness.

Helmer Osslund’s A Summer Evening at Lake Kallsjön (circa 1910) takes a different approach to landscape. A student of Gauguin, the Swedish painter rendered a real scene from direct observation, simplifying forms and textures. Osslund’s technique, like those of many Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters, was decisively influenced by Japanese printmaking. The green, wet lushness of the valley and the contrasting snow-capped rocky summit of the mountain give the unmistakable sense that this is a landscape of the far north.

Some of the works on view in “Nordic Impressions” are more inward-looking, mindscapes rather than landscapes. One of the most striking is The Dying Dandy (1918), by the expatriate Swedish artist Nils Dardel. The dandy in question, dressed in a green suit and with a complexion that almost matches, lies fainting on a pillow, attended by grieving friends dressed in other bright colors. The composition is obviously modeled on Annibale Carracci’s The Dead Christ Mourned (circa 1604). Dardel lived in Paris, where he associated with the Surrealists and Dadaists and created a style called “Dardelism,” which portrayed a fanciful dreamlike world in which the artist himself was the main character. Dardel had a heart condition and experienced several premonitions of his death, which actually occurred in 1943, a quarter-century after this picture was painted.

No exhibition of Nordic art would be complete without Edvard Munch, the dark prince of depression and ecstasy. His 1895 lithograph Self-Portrait is also a vision of death. The artist, aged only 32 at the time, floats as a ghostly, disembodied head and neck in a pitch-black background. At the bottom of the composition is a severed skeletal arm, a memento mori more befitting an artist than a skull, because it is the hand that draws, paints, and makes prints.

A very different type of visionary was the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela. His Defense of the Sampo (1896) illustrates a famous scene from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, in which the Sampo, a magical artifact, is stolen by the magician Vainamoinen. The witch of the dark north, Louhi, for whom the Sampo was made, turns herself into a griffin to menace Vainamoinen’s ship. The painting, while self-consciously Finnish in an archaicizing way, is also influenced by Japanese mythological ukiyo-e, both in its technique of squeezing space and deploying bold flat colors and in its use of monstrous grotesquerie. It was so grotesque that the wife of the man who commissioned it refused to allow it in the house, and it ended up being sold to a public arts society.

The Kalevala, a cycle of folk poems collected orally by the linguist Elias Lönrot in the 19th century, had a huge influence on the Finnish cultural revival. The photographer I.K. Inha made an albumen print in 1895 titled Sortavala, Rock of Kaarnesaari. It shows a scene in Karelia, the eastern portion of Finland which borders Russia, where Lönrot collected much of his material. Here the oldest traditions of Finland survived, and the people with the longest memories lived. Inha preserved a visual record of old-fashioned rural Finland, while Gallen-Kallela gave visual reality to the old legends. Both were associated with the movement known as Karelianism, which regarded Karelia as the source of aboriginal Finnishness.

Per Kirkeby himself is represented in the exhibition by a painting from 1992, Inferno V. The title is likely a reference to August Strindberg’s autobiographical novel Inferno, which makes particular sense because Strindberg was not only a writer but a painter of great skill and vision who strongly influenced Kirkeby. In addition to his painting, Kirkeby was also a trained geologist, and this oil on canvas is not only an abstracted landscape but a look beneath the surface of the northern landscape, into layers upon layers of rock and minerals.

By John Dorfman

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: October 2018

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