Friday, 18 February 2011

The painter, Harald Sohlberg: one of Norway’s best-kept secrets

Southern Man, in a comment on my “Would I have enjoyed growing up in Norway?” post, pointed out that I’d missed Munch off my list of what Norway means to me. I admitted that I don’t much care for Munch - as a half-Norwegian, I can supply my own febrile gloom, thanks very much. 

I also mentioned that I preferred the Neo-romantic painter, Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935), who was pretty much a contemporary of Munch’s, but who, because he was essentially a realist painter, and because his paintings don’t tend to make you feel like slitting your wrists, didn’t have the whole world swooning at his feet. In fact, as far as I can tell, he’s almost unknown outside Norway. Which is odd, because, to my untutored eye, he’s quite brilliant.

Here are my three favourite works by Sohlberg:

After the Snowstorm 1903
Flower Meadow in the North 1905
Winter Night in Rondane, 1911-14

Sohlberg was born in Christiania (as Oslo was then called)  and studied in Copenhagen and Paris. He was mainly concerned with his own emotional reactions to the Norwegian landscape, and in capturing Nordic colours and light. Sohlberg didn’t really do people - apart from the self-portrait at the top of the page. He refused to acknowledge the influence of other artists or to place himself in the context of any artistic movement - in other words, a difficult bugger. Sadly, an obituary written just after his death tells us he died alone and forgotten. Nevertheless, his paintings are now held in great esteem by Norwegians - little wonder, given how powerfully he captures the spirit of the land. (Perhaps the very geographic specificity of his work has contributed to a lack of appreciation abroad - that and the absence of morbidity.)

I have no idea how religious he was, but he had a definite mystical streak - in the last of the paintings reproduced above, there is a faint, glowing cross discernible in the snow near the top of the mountain just under the star to the right (you can see it in the actual painting itself and it’s just visible in the reproduction at the top of the stairs leading to the study where I’m writing this - you’ll just have to take my word for it!). 

All three of these paintings are in the National Gallery in Oslo (altogether, a marvellous collection).Perhaps if Sohlberg had stuck in a few screaming women, despairing men and dying children, he’d be as well known as Munch: but I’m extremely pleased he didn’t.

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