There are currently two exhibitions on Norwegian artists at major London museums- Harald Sohlberg at Dulwich Picture Gallery and Edvard Munch at the British Museum. I have now seen them both and enjoyed each in different ways.
Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935) is little known outside Norway even in the other Scandinavian countries and although I have long loved Dulwich Picture Gallery (England’s first public built gallery) I went to the exhibition almost with a sense of duty than with particularly high expectations.
I was struck by how beautiful the works were; full of colour and highly intricate detail, they vividly capture the raw beauty of the stark Norwegian landscape. Clearly influenced by the German romantics and the Symbolist style pervading Europe at the turn of the century, Sohlberg moves from Naturalism to an evident Symbolist style.
I was delighted to see several sketches and letters in the exhibition, which were full of humour and give you a strong idea of Sohlberg the man, not just the artist.
My favourite room was the last room filled with blue winter landscapes depicting the Rondane mountains in northern Norway. The Rondane mountains apparently do have a blueish sheen and this vibrant blue resonates from the paintings; Sohlberg expresses the sublimity of nature in a manner in which few artists succeed.
Moving back to central London the British Museum is showing an exhibition of pictures by Norway’s most famous artist, Edvard Munch (1863-1944). The exhibition concentrates on his prints with the bulk of the graphic works on loan from the Munch Museum in Oslo. The exhibition is extremely comprehensive; prints of all his famous works are on show- the Scream, the Madonna, Melancholy, Puberty.
Before seeing the exhibition, I heard a talk by the curator, Giulia Bartam, who explained the various and complicated printing techniques that Munch used. Learning from sophisticated, skilled printmakers in Berlin, Munch apparently took to the process very quickly, mastering lithography and the dramatic effects that can be achieved with print making.
One of the joys of seeing the prints as opposed to his oil paintings with which I am more familiar is to see the creatively decorated borders (often in the Art Nouveau style) which occasionally include hand coloured sketches.
This is not a happy exhibition- we are constantly reminded of the sadness and death in Munch’s life; both his mother and sister died when he was a boy. Munch had serious psychological problems and difficulties at forming relationships with women who are generally portrayed as temptresses or adulterers. Even young girls who at first glance look pretty and innocent always seem to have an ominous shadow beside them bringing an eeriness to the completed work.
Munch conveys the anxieties and fears of a fast changing, angst ridden society; Solhlberg shows us the purity and magnitude of the exquisite beauty of the Norwegian landscape. I came out of Dulwich Picture Gallery feeling spiritually uplifted and with an urge to visit the Norwegian mountains; I came out of the British Museum saddened by Munch’s difficult life but simultaneously in awe of his skill as an artist and printmaker.
Harald Sohlberg runs at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 19th June. Edvard Munch, Love and Angst is on at the British Museum until 21st July.