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Scandinavian Chiaroscuro : NORTHERN LIGHT Nordic Art at the Turn of the Century edited and introduced by Kirk Varnedoe (Yale University Press: $50; 288 pp., illustrated)

June 05, 1988|Mary Kay Norseng | Norseng is associate professor of Scandinavian literature at UCLA and writes, in particular, about the literature, art and culture of the late 19th Century. and

At the turn of the century, the Nordic countries--Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden--experienced a golden age both in art and letters. A good number of the writers achieved international recognition. Few of the painters did or have. In this country, the major exceptions are the Norwegian Expressionist, Edvard Munch, and more recently, the Swede, Carl Larsson, whose paintings of idyllic family scenes have been popularized through the greeting card industry. Between Munch's "screams" and Larsson's pacific smiles, what must one imagine of Nordic art?

"Northern Light," encompassing works of 43 artists between 1880 and roughly 1910, opens up the doors to a treasure house. Here are Vilhelm Hammershoi's empty rooms, studies in light, space and silence; Christian Krohg's aggressive portraits of society's victims; Prins Eugen's seductive fin de siecle woods; Harriet Backer's self-contained blue interiors; Akseli Gallen-Kallela's mythic peasants and unmasked bohemians; Thorarinn B. Thorlaksson's "lunar" landscapes; Bruno Liljeforss's primitive, powerful birds; Peder Severin Kroyer's women in white walking close to the shore. Overall, the techniques tend toward a provocative, potentially unnerving blend of realism and an even greater symbolism, at the same time as the mood is meditative, often melancholic.

The editor of "Northern Light" is Kirk Varnedoe, professor of fine arts at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and adjunct curator in the department of painting and sculpture of the Museum of Modern Art. As he explains, "The origins of the present book lie in a publication prepared to accompany the exhibition 'Northern Light: Realism and Symbolism in Scandinavian Painting, 1880-1910,' " which was shown in Washington, Brooklyn, Minneapolis and Goteborg (Sweden) in 1982-83. Aimed at a broader public, "Northern Light: Nordic Art at the Turn of the Century" is an elaboration in scope, format and color reproductions of the original exhibition publication.

"Northern Light" is a welcome, immediately impressive introduction to some of the finest Nordic art from the turn of the century. But what it so graciously gives with one hand, it unwittingly takes back with the other. Symptomatically, the reproductions seem beautiful at first glance, but upon further scrutiny, many reveal themselves simply to be washed out in comparison with their originals. In a collection so concerned with "light," this is significant. (And Eilif Peterssen's "Summer Night" (Catalogue No. 86) appears backwards.) The printing was done in Norway by Stenersens Forlag.

The majority of the bibliographical and descriptive texts were written for the original 1982 publication by Varnedoe's students, assimilating information provided by the Nordic experts involved in the exhibition. The texts are wonderfully informative about the artists and their works in specifically Nordic as well as broader European contexts. But they are not stylistically uniform, and at times, they contain curious, subjective value judgments. Munch and Hammershoi were "neurasthenic." Hammershoi and his wife "remained childless, a condition that undoubtedly contributed to the pervasive stillness, the lack of youth and vigor, so characteristic of (his) painted interiors." Ernst Josephsen "suffered prolonged attacks of melancholy and self-pity. . . ." Since several new entries were written by the students for the present volume, I do not understand why, at the same time, the original catalogue entries were not made to conform to more rigorous, uniform standards.

Varnedoe introduces "Northern Light" with an essay entitled, "Elements of a New History." The core of the essay appeared in the exhibition publication. In it, he sets the stage for giving Nordic art greater legitimacy in the development of modern art. It is a multi-pronged study of the intrinsic differences and similarities in the traditions of the Nordic countries themselves; of the dynamic interaction between Nordic artists and their Continental counterparts, and of the Nordic artists' shift--in its universal and its unique aspects--from realism to symbolism. "Scandinavian artists," Varnedoe says, "took a different path to modernity." He focuses on their delayed, but often innovative responses to realism, and on their peculiarly inspirational manipulation of symbolist goals and techniques and nationalist impulses. ". . . So many artists and works show the possibility of progress toward modern art by independent, directly spliced linkages between disparate--Realist and Symbolist, retarded and advanced--modes of painting."

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