Culture / Editor's Own

Nationalism in the Landscapes of Harald Sohlberg

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Harald Sohlberg is frequently hailed as Norway’s ‘national artist’, but abroad his work is little-known. An exhibition at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery has gone some way to change this…


Alexander Brett

Norwegian folklorist Moltke Moe once stated that national identity and culture are ‘interdependent’ and that ‘without identity – individual and collective – there is no culture’. Under centuries of Danish rule Norway had lost its indigenous culture so, in the late nineteenth century, a unified national identity had to be constructed from scratch, bridging the temporal gulf between pre-Danified Norway and a postcolonial present. Composers such as Edvard Grieg constructed a ‘national musical identity’, while writers Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson built a ‘national literary language’ by founding the nationalist movement entitled ‘Det unge Norge’ or ‘New Norway’. Romantic Nationalist artists such as J.C. Dahl, Erik Werenshield and Frits Thaulow were major proponents in moves to build a ‘national visual language’ for Norway, believing landscape was the only sufficient medium to portray Norwegian pride and majesty, while artists such as Harriet Backer, Nikolai Astrup and Edvard Munch focused more acutely on social scenes to the same ends.

Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935) appears at first glance to belong to the latter group of artists as, in much of his work, he appears to be painting from an entirely social standpoint.  His depictions of the Norwegian landscape, however, challenge this assumption. His 1914 painting in a series entitled Winter Night in the Mountains (Vinternatt i Rondane), for example, is clearly a depiction of natural power though, unlike the works of the Nationalist Romantics, it is neither intimidating nor imposing. This painting was proclaimed Norway’s ‘national painting’ in 1995 after a vote organised by state broadcaster NRK, and has since become a visual manifestation of Norwegian national pride. During this essay I will question how Winter Night in the Mountains expresses ideas of Norwegian national identity, and how the treatment of its themes compare to Sohlberg’s works more generally, alongside those of his contemporaries in Norway and abroad. Harald Sohlberg enthusiastically embraced nature from the start of his career. Born in Oslo, he trained as a decorative painter, in line with his father’s wishes, and studied at art schools in Copenhagen and Oslo. In 1891 he joined the ‘Lysaker Circle’, a forum of artists led by Erik Werenskiold who were fundamental in securing support for art as a tool in constructing a national identity. Werenskiold took the international movements of Realism and Naturalism – in which national features were generally irrelevant – and asserted a national identity through them. It was Werenskiold who introduced Sohlberg to the idea of a Symbolist landscape, an interest Sohlberg developed further when studying abroad in Paris and Weimar.

Revisiting the Romantic tradition was particularly welcome in Norway as it provided a surrogate to visualise Norse mythology, and in turn salvage what remained of the ancient Norwegian identity. Johan Christian Dahl (painting in the early nineteenth century), along with his pupil Thomas Fearnley, evoked Norway’s Norse past by painting raised stones, burial mounds and ancient trees, while the writings of Andreas Aubert reintroduced the works of Casper David Friedrich to a Norwegian audience. The German Romantics were responsible for promoting depictions of landscape in the status of history painting, and Sohlberg would have come into contact with their work during his time at the Großherzoglich-Sächsische Kunstschule in Weimar between 1896 and 1897. Back home, Sohlberg was fascinated with the semi-Symbolist works of Theodor Kittlesen and Nikolai Astrup. Astrup’s painting of c.1920 March Morning (Marsmorgen) anthropomorphises a tree to suggest a troll-like figure, while Kittlesen’s 1878 painting The Pleasure of Having Children (Glede av barnene) presents a comic depiction of the god Pan playing the syrinx. Sohlberg sought to avoid the fantastic character of these artists’ work, referring instead to the human presence in landscape by use of more subtle ‘potential images’, though Sohlberg used Symbolism in a series of etchings in the style of Max Klinger. His use of Symbolist techniques is most clear in Winter Night in the Mountains, a poetic evocation of a literal subject, and thus a bridge between National Romanticism and Symbolism.


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HARALD SOHLBERG

Norwegian, Oslo, 1869  – Oslo, 1935 

Vinternatt i Rondane / Winter Night in the Mountains (1914)

Nasjonalmuseet for Kunst, Arkitektur og Design, Oslo


Sohlberg first encountered the area of the Rondane Mountains depicted in Winter Night in the Mountains during a skiing trip in 1899. Between February 1900 and March 1902 he moved full-time to Rondane, returning for shorter visits in 1911 and 1913, and the three paintings he produced of its locale (in 1901, 1914 and 1933) are therefore a series of ruminations and reflections rather than accurate depictions, explaining why Sohlberg needed to live in such close proximity to his subject, and why he took time to complete each rendering. In 1914 Jens Thiis, then director of the Nasjonalmuseet in Oslo, described Winter Night in the Mountains as ‘shining architecture’. This is a justified metaphor, particularly when one compares Winter Night in the Mountains to the work of Sohlberg’s European contemporaries, such as the Swiss artist Buno Taut. The schematic drawings printed on the cover of Taut’s 1919 manifesto Alpine Architektur use a composition similar to Winter Night in the Mountains, associating the round forms of Monte Rosa and the crystalline forms of the Matterhorn with female and male figures respectively. Similarly, though he did not take architecture as his starting point, the Swiss artist Emil Nolde launched his artistic career with a series of renderings of the Swiss Alps in human form.

Norwegian artists fit into a tradition of exploring mountain landscapes in European art during the late eighteenth century, a tradition that began with a fascination with the forms of the Swiss Alps. Norwegian artists depicted mountains through vedute, with artists setting out to paint en plein air from the 1820s onwards. Sohlberg intended to humanise his landscape, using Symbolism to this end. He hoped that by making imposing visions comforting, Norwegians would begin to see their landscape as something to be respected rather than feared. By including such potential images as the giants he moulded from the mountains, Sohlberg revisited ancient Norwegian folk tales. Though mystery abounds in Winter Night in the Mountains, it is Sohlberg’s other paintings in which it is most apparent. His painting of 1894 Sun Gleam (Solglans) is of particular note. In Sun Gleam animated latticework is complemented by a bush blocking the forest path, at the end of which the symmetrical arrangements of windows on a house appear through trees. The latent eeriness of the work reaches a climax in the grotesque patterns of light displayed on the path, creating a sense of unease and trepidation. The idea of a path running into the unknown is a theme Sohlberg repeats in his 1895 work Evening Sun (Kveldsson) and his 1906 work Fisherman’s Cottage (Fra Værvågen) in which, though human infrastructure is clearly visible, the mood is distinctly unsettling. The inclusion of huts and houses in these works may complement the idea of the folkloric sublime as comforting – reminding Norwegians of such concepts as koselig (cosiness) – but it may also scare his audience into a false sense of security, perhaps so far as they may not view nature as something to be trusted, but instead to be wary of; not a symbol of national pride, but of danger.

The rhetoric of shared identity formed the fundamental legitimation of nationalist movements by securing the idea of a transcendent primal identity. In 1900 the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen defined nationalism as ‘the love that binds us to our family, home, farms and rural areas’. By asserting genealogy as a form of collective kinship, Norwegian nationalism negotiated the possibility that individuals were microcosms of the great national family. Norwegian nationalism in the late nineteenth century took the form of two battles: the first was waged against Danish hegemonic structures, while the second was waged against Swedish domination of the economy and foreign affairs. Both nationalist campaigns, however, invoked the notion of an ethically and culturally unified nation that needed to retrieve its old identity, eclipsed by colonialism. The idea of a homogenous extended family was, perhaps, what Sohlberg hoped to portray through his depictions of the folkloric.

In his 1916 painting The Country Road (Landeveien), which follows on from a 1905 painting of the same name, Sohlberg depicts a house, road, fence and gatepost entirely devoid of actual human presence. Norwegian landscape artists were generally encouraged to include a few figures for the viewer to relate to, but when we consider the reviews of both of these paintings, it becomes clear that an exclusion of human figures does not necessarily mean a categorical rejection of their presence, with the products of human activity replacing, in a sense, the humans themselves. As Mai Britt Guleng describes it, the 1916 version is so ‘gloriously colourful’ that it seems nature ‘looks back on the viewer with a twinkling eye’. Most landscape painters of his time sought out expanses of unspoilt nature, or farmsteads surrounded and protected by nature, but Sohlberg made use of modern elements. The roads can be seen as symbols of passing life, while telegraph poles indicate a new era of national technological progress. For Sohlberg and other Symbolist artists, man-made artefacts could allude to deeper truths as well as natural objects, and these touches of realism invite the viewer to a realm where stories arise. Indeed, Sohlberg was equally happy depicting human figures, having eagerly embraced life drawing (rather than landscape) during his time in Weimar.


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HARALD SOHLBERG

Norwegian, Oslo, 1869  – Oslo, 1935 

Landeveien / Country Road (1916)

Nasjonalmuseet for Kunst, Arkitektur og Design, Oslo


Many of Sohlberg’s contemporaries – namely Edvard Munch – embraced calls by urban intellectuals to depict peasant progenitors and idealised domestic spaces in attempt to obscure class stratification and bind urban Norwegians to their rural counterparts. Strongly influenced by the German Romantics, whose model of a nation was a kinship system, these intellectuals invented the idea a vast pan-Norwegian peasant family and by the end of the nineteenth century Norwegian nationalism had been almost entirely confined to bridging the gap between the urban and rural; the dividing line being language, with the urban bourgeoisie speaking neo-Danish Riksmål (now Bokmål) and the rural population speaking a variety of dialects known collectively as Landsmål (since unified into Nynorsk). Aside from his landscapes of Oslo from Akershus (painted towards the end of his life), Sohlberg rarely depicts urban environments. An exception to this are his depictions of the mining town of Røros, near which he lived with his wife and three sons between 1902 and 1910.

Sohlberg’s 1903 painting Street in Røros in Winter (Gate i Røros) may be classed as an urban landscape, though its subject is certainly not a metropolis. One could say that Sohlberg has followed Munch’s depictions of peasant life in this scene as, though the landscape is characterised by its lack of human figures, human infrastructure abounds, with pumps, houses and churches all present. The logo of the mining company is even emblazoned on the church spire. The clock hands of the church warn of the transience of life, while the crooked houses seem to lean on one another for mutual support. But, though it may be a depiction of domestic, rural peasant harmony, the painting may not fit into the category of nationalist painting mentioned above. Importantly, too, it is a profoundly realistic – almost Natural Realistic – painting, and thus entirely different in complexion to the more Impressionistic works of Munch, though both Munch and Sohlberg helped establish a trend towards simplified palettes and the inclusion of synaesthesia in Norwegian art. Sohlberg’s critics were fascinated by his combination of detail and visual lyricism in this painting, with one even saying that it appears the entire town was created ‘as if in a miniature or still life’. It is this genre of painting, rather than his more nebulous Symbolist works, that would have endeared Sohlberg to the Romantic Nationalists, though it is of course his Symbolist painting Winter Night in the Mountains that endeared him to the Norwegian public.


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HARALD SOHLBERG

Norwegian, Oslo, 1869  – Oslo, 1935 

Gate i Røros Street in Røros in Winter (1913)

Nasjonalmuseet for Kunst, Arkitektur og Design, Oslo


Perhaps much of the appeal of Winter Night in the Mountains lies in the inclusion of the Rondane Mountains in previous works of Norwegian literature and music. The well-known author Olavson Vinje wrote his 1864 poem At Rondane (Vid Rondane) during a stay there, and the poem fast became a national icon via Grieg’s 1880 musical setting of it. Given that art and poetry had already conceptualised the view, Sohlberg’s treatment of his subject is startlingly original, and it is interesting that it his visual representation of the landscape, rather than Grieg’s musical setting or Vinje’s poetic setting, that particularly appealed to the Norwegian public. Certainly, given its treatment in other mediums, it could be said that Winter Night in the Mountains is perhaps not so much a national painting as a national view; a quintessential Norwegian view that has simply been brought to life by these creatives.

Together with his Norwegian contemporaries, Sohlberg was represented in an impressive array of exhibitions during his lifetime, and he made a particularly strong impression in the United States, where his art formed part of a touring exhibition of Scandinavian art between 1912 and 1913. The American public were captivated by the vivid intensity of Sohlberg’s paintings and praised them for their sense of mystery.  Sohlberg was frequently cited as representative of Norwegian and Nordic painting, and it must have been gratifying for him, hoping to succeed internationally, to see that when Norwegian critics reviewed exhibitions abroad, it was almost always he and Edvard Munch who received the greatest praise.

Jens Thiis believed that the Norwegian character typically combined conflicting qualities of lyricism, violence and morbid fantasy with an ‘alert and sensitive appreciation of reality’. Sohlberg magnificently portrays these characteristics in his work. His visual universe was greeted with wonder and fascination at exhibitions across Europe and the United States, with the general public and critics alike captivated by the intensity of his colour palette. In Norway, he stood alongside his contemporaries in following his own path in the promotion of Norwegian nationalist ideals. Despite years of study in foreign countries, Sohlberg devoted himself to the landscapes of his native Norway. He visited areas of the country that had previously been of little interest to other artists – the windswept streets of Røros and the desolate mountains of Rondane – and gave these locales distinct artistic identities; at once real places and eternal vistas of the mind. Sohlberg’s landscapes are mythical, mysterious and thought provoking and they depict, through subtle social commentaries, a tension between the modern and traditional that make his work enduringly relevant to this day. That, in 1995, his most famous landscape, Winter Night in the Mountains, was awarded the title of Norway’s national painting, only confirms his endearment to the Norwegian people, past and present.


Harald Sohlberg: Painting Norway is on at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 2nd June 2019.


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