Munch and Sohlberg exhibitions

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.

Harald Sohlberg, Fisherman’s Cottage, 1906.

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.

Harald, Sohlberg, Winter Night in the Mountains, 1900.

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.

Edvard Munch, Puberty, etching.

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.

Edvard Munch, Madonna, lithograph, 1895.

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.

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Sorolla at the National Gallery

Yesterday Sotheby’s invited me to the National Gallery to a breakfast and private view of Sorolla, Spanish Master of Light, which opened on Monday. It’s a beautiful exhibition and indeed Sorolla’s use of light was phenomenal.

Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923) was extraordinarily prolific, producing around 3,000 paintings in his life time (that’s more than Picasso). Many of the paintings felt distinctly Spanish and the influences of Valazquez and Goya were evident but I also noted strong Scandinavian influences in some of the later works.

Two works in particular remind me of the Danish Skagen painter, Peder Severin Krøyer: Young Fisherman, Valencia (1904) and Strolling along the Shoreline (1901). Krøyer exhibited three beach scenes at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889 where he won the Grand Prix of which Sorolla would certainly have been aware. Six years later, in 1895, Sorolla and Krøyer both exhibited at the Exposition Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and again in the Exposition Universelle of 1900 where Sorolla admired Krøyer’s work.

Joaquin Sorolla, Young Fisherman, Valencia (1904)





Peder Severin Kroyer, Boys bathing on the beach, Skagen, 1892, Hirschsprung Collection
Joaquin Sorolla, Strolling along the Shoreline (1909)
Peder Severin Krøyer, A summer evening on the South Beach at Skagen, 1893.

The two Sorolla paintings in the National Gallery exhibition clearly show the influence of Krøyer not only in subject matter but also in his brush strokes and treatment of light. I enjoyed all of this exhibition but the beach scenes were my personal favourites.

Sorolla, Spanish Master of Light is on at the National Gallery, London until 7th July.

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Moominland Midwinter

I have just finished reading this book about the Moomintrolls. I am a big fan of the white, fluffy creatures created by Finnish/Swedish author and illustrator, Tove Jansson- I have been to Moomin World in Finland (twice and I live in London), I have lots of cups, glasses and cutlery with Moomin designs (ostensibly for my children but more for my own appreciation) and my children have Moomin puzzles, Moomin beach towels and abbreviated/small children’s versions of the Moomin books (the poor things are going to be Moomined out by the time they reach their teens). But despite all this, I had only ever read one proper complete edition of a Moomin book.

This book was ‘Trollkarlens hat’ ,’Finn Family Moomin Troll in English. I enjoyed it but not enough to go immediately on to to reading another one and it is now several years later that seeing ‘Trollvinter’ or ‘Moominland Midwinter’ in the book shop, I thought I would give the Moomin troll books another go.

I loved it! Finn Family Moomintroll was fun and fluffy and cuddly with a little bit of magic- just as you would expect from the cuddly Moomin family. ‘Moominland Midwinter’ is more melancholic, contemplative and brooding but also very beautiful.

Moomintroll wakes up one day to find himself in the middle of winter, when normally all Moomins are hibernating; he is unable to get back to sleep and gets up to experience snow and real cold for the first time, meeting all sorts of creatures whom he has never previously come across.

The writing is very Nordic in feel, quite lyrical in parts and extremely evocative of winters in the very north of Scandinavia and Finland. I loved the character of Too-Ticky, sitting calmly fishing beneath the ice and delivering wise words, for example, when a bitterly disappointed Moomintroll finally sees a glimmer of real sunlight in the long grey winter, only to almost immediately see it disappear again, Too-Ticky says ‘Well you wouldn’t expect it to come all at once would you?’

Given all the immigration and displaced people in the world just now, this story seems particularly apt. The Moomin winter is full of lost people, finding their way in a new land.

‘There are such a lot of things that have no place in summer and autumn and spring. Everything that’s a little shy and a little rum. Some kinds of night animals and people that don’t fit in with others and that nobody really believes in. They keep out of the way all the year. And then when everything’s quiet and white and the nights are long and most people are asleep—then they appear.’

Lots to think about in this book. I can really recommend it.

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The Wolf and the Watchman

Last night I headed to the Swedish Ambassador’s Residence (an absolutely exquisite Adam building), for a talk by Swedish author, Niklas Natt och Dag to celebrate the launch of the English language edition of his bestselling Swedish novel, 1793, called ‘The Wolf and the Watchman’ in English.

The book is set in 1793, the year after King Gustav III was famously assassinated. It tells the story of a watchman, living in a rough and gritty Stockholm, suffering after years of foreign wars, who discovers a body in a swamp and hands over the case to an investigator. The Swedish Academy of Crime Writers gave the book the award for best Crime Debut novel in 2017 even though Niklas Natt och Dag said in his talk that he had not in fact thought of the book as a crime novel. Barry Forshaw, the Nordic crime expert and commentator , was in the audience and commented that the book seemed to him a blend of Nordic Noir and serious historical fiction.

I was touched to hear Niklas Natt och Dag had been quite a solitary child and books for him were like companions, as he escaped into an imaginary world. Now as an adult, he has published his own novel providing companionship to others.

The author belongs to the oldest surviving noble family in Sweden dating back to the thirteenth century; his surname, Natt och Dag translates as Night and Day- the origin being his family crest, a shield split into gold and blue. He signed books after his talk and had a wax seal so everyone who took home a copy literally had a signed and sealed book.

The author signing copies of his book. A bust of Gustav III behind him

The Wolf and the Watchman is by all accounts is beautifully written. It is out in UK book shops today.

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Stockholm’s renovated National Museum

Stockholm’s National Gallery re-opened in October after a huge renovation supervised by Swedish architects, Gert Wingard and Erik Wikerstal; the gallery had been closed to the public since 2013 and the cost of the refurb was 1.2 billion Swedish crowns around £100 million sterling. I was fond of the old gallery but it was definitely starting to look a little dated and tired around the edges and I was curious to see what had been  done.   I was in Stockholm last month for a weekend visit and popped in.

Wow, what a breath of fresh air!    The sweeping staircase, with the Carl Larsson memorials, leading to the entrance hall, looks much the same but fresher but otherwise what a change.  The ground floor has evolved with the introduction of a new lecture hall and a sculpture garden reminiscent of that at the Louvre (albeit a little smaller); light pours in through the new ceiling comprised of small glass pyramids.

Upstairs, the walls in many of the exhibition rooms are brightly painted with vibrant blues, yellows and reds but this works well set against the elegant whitish greys of the marble columns and the vaulted ceilings.  The hanging is chronological but also thematic- so you have Swedish National Romantic painters in area and Napoleonic art in another.  Furniture and objets d’art art effectively mixed with paintings.

The first floor exhibition space

After or before your museum visit you can relax an exceptionally beautifully designed restaurant with sleek wooden dining tables, exquisite parquet floors and fabulous lighting (10 designers designed glass globes for a splendid chandelier)- a great place to have an open sandwich and a coffee in the morning or a glass of wine in the evening.  

The Atelje restuarant

The museum can now exhibit 5,200 objects around three times as many as they could before the renovation.  It is lighter, more spacious and airy, beautifully designed and is a museum of the twenty first century to compete on a world scale.  I will be back and soon.

Carl Larsson ‘Ett Hem’ watercolours exhibited with furniture of the same period.
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Aster

Last week I had dinner at Aster, a Nordic restaurant in Victoria that I have been meaning to try ever since it opened, coming up for 2 years ago now. The chef is Finnish and I had been informed the food was Finnish but the menu felt more Scandinavian/Baltic with a modern European twist than pure Finnish.

The rye bread which we were served shortly after our arrival was delicious- warm and with salty butter, I could easily have eaten the whole bowl. It was also available for sale in their delicatessen, adjoining the restaurant, although, being evening, this was closed when we were there. My cured salmon was not the best I have eaten but tasty enough and the seabream I had to follow was perfectly cooked with a delicious fennel and dill salad. My Finnish mother loved her North Atlantic fish pie.

The restaurant felt a little bit cold and lacking in atmosphere and slightly corporate hotel like to me, although to be fair we were there on a Monday evening which is their quietest day of the week. The staff on the other hand were exceptionally friendly and also appeared genuinely interested in the restaurant and the food that they were serving (which doesn’t always happen). One of the waiters showed me round and I very much liked the 2 private rooms with their sleek wooden panelling and low ambient lighting.

I wouldn’t make a journey back especially but certainly if I am in the area (and I am hoping to see hit musical, Hamilton) just round the corner, I would pop in for a drink or dinner.

Aster restaurant, Victoria

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Swedish Church Christmas Fair

It was the opening of the Swedish Church’s Christmas Fair on Wednesday night.  This is the start of the Christmas season for me, and I really enjoyed wandering around with a glass of warm glögg, chatting to familiar faces and picking up some Advent candles, Advent calendars and quite a few items of Swedish Christmas food.  Everything is beautifully displayed and the sales ladies wear the pretty traditional costumes from different regions in Sweden.  There are gorgeous hand-knitted items and beautiful woven textiles.

Fancy a tomte?

I went back again yesterday to meet some friends for lunch and have an open sandwich and a saffron bun and it was packed.  I imagine it will be even more packed at the weekend but there is a very warm, happy atmosphere and it is a great spot for Christmas gifts and decorations.  There are also lots of chidren’s books by Swedish favourite, Elsa Beskow- the illustrations are wonderful.

Crisp bread and ginger snaps

The Swedish Church Christmas Fair is open from 11am-7pm on Saturday and from 12-5pm on Sunday

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Rasmussen Auction

Went to the Danish Embassy in London for a talk on Scandinavian design combined with a viewing of highlights of Danish auction house, Rasmussen‘s autumn sale.  The talk was mainly about chairs (this may sound weird but the Danes are famous for their beautiful furniture design and Danish mid twentieth century furniture is now highly collectable); it is fascinating how the politics of the twentieth century influenced art- Sweden who had a Socialist government from the 1930s right up until 1976 were producing industrial produced furniture for the masses, Denmark by contrast were creating exquisite hand crafted chairs that were expensive but made to last.  Finland, independent from Russia since 1917, were creating wonderful free-flowing curved designs in their furniture (think of Alvaro Aalto).

Rasmussen had a few items of furniture and several paintings on display including quite a few abstract oil paintings by artists belonging to the Danish CoBrA movement founded after World War II.  I  however, leaned towards the earlier works particularly one beautiful eighteenth century drawing.  Maybe it will be a Christmas present to myself….

Finn Juel ‘Spade Chair’

 

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Copenhagen

I am just back from a couple of days visiting Copenhagen.  The weather was bleak and dreary; the skies the colour of Hammershøi’s paintings but the city was anything but dull.  I crammed in lots of art galleries revisiting the enchanting Hirschsprung Collection,  crammed with works by the Skagen painters, who, at the close of the nineteenth century, congregated at Skagen, on the tip of Jutland, the northern most point of continental Europe, creating an artists’ colony.  The painters went to Skagen for the exceptional light; it is worth visiting the Hirschsprung just to see the works of Peder Severin Krøyer who captures the light and beauty of the Skagen beaches exquisitely.

Peder Severin Krøyer, Boys bathing, sunshine, Skagen.

Another highlight was the David Collection, an elegant eighteenth century townhouse, formally the home of the prolific collector and wealthy and successful lawyer, Christian Ludvig David.  He began collecting Danish Golden Age paintings and branched out first to European porcelain and furniture and then Islamic art.  The Islamic Collection is world class and contains some exquisite jewellery and porcelain.  The highlight for me was a room devoted to the work of Denmarks arguably most famous painter, Vilhelm Hammershøi.  I love the calm quiet interiors, the clean lines and the soft grey palette that is so very northern.

I also visited the Renaissance Castle, Rosenborg- beautiful but dark, and I found the collection of Royal treasures slightly overwhelming.  The rooms were a chronology of the riches of Danish kings- I realised don’t know my Frederiks and Christians well enough.  Someone told me to read Rose Tremain’s novel, Music and Silence, to get a real feeling for the court of Christian IV.

I stayed in a relatively new hotel, 71, Nyhavn: a large warehouse that has been converted to a substantial sized hotel.  The service and food were good and the design sleek and minimal although I missed out on a room with a view. The harbour at Nyhavn is very pretty-lined with colourful eighteenth century houses, all now listed buildings.  Hans Christian Andersen lived at number 20.  The Nyhavn of today, is alive with restaurants, bars and stalls selling souvenirs, food and mulled wine: a delightful place to wander down.

Nyhavn

The Opera House, Copenhagen.

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Elmgreen and Dragset, Whitechapel Gallery

‘Wow did there used to be a public swimming pool here?’ my friend asked. A whiff of chlorine hit us as we entered the spacious white room with stained walls and tiled floors- an abandoned swimming pool stood before us, empty aside from bits of dust and debris. On the wall is a sign relating the history of the pool, beginning with its founding in 1901 thanks to generous funding from a Victorian philanthropist, through to its closing during Thatcher’s time and ultimately  its sale for ‘luxury redevelopment.’ The pool was apparently where David Hockney got the inspiration for his first drawings of swimming pools and it had even featured in a novel.  It all sounded fascinating (perhaps a little too fascinating).  Indeed it was all fiction.  The pool is the creation of Danish/Norwegian art duo, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, most well known in the UK for their sculpture of the Boy on the Rocking Horse for the forth plinth in Trafalgar Square.

The Whitechapel Pool

Their swimming pool, in common with many exhibits in the exhibition is a social commentary.  This is not the glamorous, inviting pool of Hockney’s work but a pool that used to be for the people but has been closed down and privatised.  Rising gentrification has led to a loss of public places of enjoyment and indeed general welfare.  Lying by the side of the pool is the abandoned carseat of a luxury car (the work is beautifully cast in bronze- it is very tactile and hard to believe that it is not covered in soft leather).

Pregnant White Maid, Aluminium, stainless steel, clothes.

Other works in the exhibition include a sculpture of a young boy staring at a gun and even more eerily one of a boy in school uniform sitting crouched by the fireplace; nearby stands a maid hands behind her back and heavily pregnant.  The viewer can weave a whole story here.  Not all is misery and sadness though-there are touches of humour throughout, notably in the double pair of Levi jeans and Calvin Klein underpants left hurriedly on the floor.  There is plenty to explore and think about here and the craftsmanship is highly skilled and beautiful.

This is How we Bite Our Tongue is at Whitechapel Art Gallery until 13th January 2019.

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