Norway is one of the best countries in the world to be outdoors—strolling through Oslo’s Vigeland Park, wandering around the outdoor Norwegian Folk Museum in Bygdøy, hiking the hills around Bergen before crashing the annual Constitution Day parade, aboard a boat cruising through dramatic fjords. Having thoroughly enjoyed each of those, it was now time to head indoors, so I set aside a few hours to admire the country’s largest collection of drawings, engravings, paintings, and sculptures.
At the time of my visit, the National Gallery (Nasjonalgalleriet) was housed in a gorgeous building from 1882, following its move from its original location in the Royal Palace. Now part of the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, the gallery is moving in 2022 to a far less interesting or appealing structure that will become the largest art museum in the Nordic countries.
The collection, however, remains uncompromised, with works by El Greco, Monet, Picasso, Renoir, and Cézanne, among many other European masters, as well as a healthy concentration of works by Scandinavian artists. It was works of three Norwegian artists that truly stood out from all the rest and that make a visit to this gallery a delightful necessity.
The Grindelwald Glacier, created in 1883 by Thomas Fearnley, a prolific Norwegian artist (the gallery’s collection holds 65 of his paintings, plus 27 etchings and more than 800 drawings) whose death, from typhoid fever, came far too early, before he hit 40, leaving behind a widow and nine-month-old son. One of the very first paintings to be acquired by the gallery, The Grindelwald Glacier grew out of Fearnley’s wide-ranging travels around Europe. Although Fearnley chose, or was chosen, to paint other subjects (he was commissioned for portraits by Sweden’s royal family, for instance), he always preferred nature, and in this work he effectually brings the viewer closer to it. His treatment of this Swiss glacier is slightly exaggerated. The steepness of the mountainsides exceeds that of the real ones, and Fearnley accentuates their slope through light and shadow. The beautifully treated rippled folds of ice peaks rising from the green valley provides a distinct collision between cold and warmth, a contrast symbolizing death and life in the era of romanticism. Perhaps that’s what the artist intended. Here, a lone shepherd, with his little flock scattered in the foreground, appears to have reached the end of the road and is confronting the daunting glacier, a transition stage between life and death. But, perhaps it’s not, and this is just a gorgeous landscape, its darker message nullified by Fearnley’s playfulness: He added a patch of fern next to his signature in an English-based pun on his name. The Grindelwald Glacier is not only a beautiful piece of art; it’s also a critical one: Thanks to global climate change, the glacier has retreated at an alarming pace, and Fearnley’s painting may soon be a historical record of what once was.
The second landscape to leave a lasting impression on me was Harald Sohlberg’s Winter Night in the Mountains, a major work of Norwegian neo-romanticism. Although he made his first sketch of the scene during an Easter skiing trip in 1899, Sohlberg didn’t complete this painting until 1914. Donated to the National Gallery in 1918, Sohlberg’s most significant work was named “Norway’s national painting” in 1995. In the foreground of this wintry nocturnal scene set in Norway’s Rondane National Park, naked trees in deep silhouette lean outward, toward the frame, parting to reveal the gorgeous landscape under a cold blue-black sky, pinholed with a few stars, the brightest dead center. The mountains, like giant white mounds, stretch across the entire horizon, forbidding and practically daring anyone to enter them and survive. It’s starkly beautiful, lonesome, with no signs of human or animal life. Standing before it, I could almost hear the silence. Standing before it a little longer, and I could almost feel the chill of nature’s coldest season. Standing before it longer still, and I noticed the almost imperceptible cross so very subtly highlighted at the mountain peak second from the right and wondered why it was there.
Without a doubt, the collection’s highlight is Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893), acquired by the National Gallery in 1910. One of the world’s most famous paintings is also one of its most enigmatic. Prior to creating his masterpiece, Munch wrote in his journal that he was walking down a fjord-side road with a couple of friends when the sun sank, turning the sky blood-red. He says he felt “a breath of melancholy—an exhausting pain under my heart.” His friends continued on their way, but he remained and “stood there trembling with anxiety—and I felt a great infinite scream went through nature.” Indeed, the distraught figure in the painting could easily represent Munch’s mental condition at the time, weakened by the early death of both his mother (when he was five) and his beloved older sister (when he was 13), his father’s emotional detachment and subsequent agitated psychotic depression, the family’s poverty, and his own bout with tuberculosis. Given all that, I’d scream, too. In fact, I have screamed like that, over far more trivial things than what afflicted Munch.
Although some facets of the painting are apodictic (two figures in the background clearly refer to those in Munch’s journal entry, and the unrealistic colors of the sky and the location, along the Oslo Fjord, are straight out of the journal), others remain ambiguous. Is the figure a male wearing a blue-black coat, or a female wearing a blue-black dress? Why is the figure bald? Munch’s choices make the figure’s gender unclear. Was it, indeed, a pallid face that I was looking at, or was it a skull? And why is the androgynous figure screaming at all, mouth agape, hands pressed against buccal concavities, eyes wide open? Have his/her internal demons and struggles finally reached the boiling point, when there’s simply no other choice but to release a primal scream? Or has he/she finally surpassed his/her tolerance of all the world’s external madness and just needed to rage against it? Regardless of the provocation, this troubled figure has morphed into a widespread popular visual icon in our culture today. It has inspired, among others, the mask worn by the cloaked slasher Ghostface in the Scream movie franchise and the “face screaming in fear” emoji. Universally tapped to express anxiety and alienation, The Scream may very well make you feel those emotions, but it will also make you very happy to have seen it at this outstanding gallery.
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