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Norwegian realism

For a few years in the late 1870s Munich briefly became the base of a group of young Norwegian artists who were to make an important contribution as Realists – these included Hans Heyerdahl (1857-1913), Kitty L Kielland (1843-1924), Harriet Backer (1845-1932), Erik Werenskiold (1855-1938), Christian Skredsvig (1854-1924), Theodor Kittelsen (1857-1914) and Gerhard Munthe (1849-1929). During the 1880s these artists moved to Paris, which became the new centre for Norwegian artists. Here they were joined by two other important figures, Christian Krogh (1852-1925) and Fritz Thaulow (1847-1906), both of whom had studied with Gude in Karlsruhe in the 1870s. Another important Realist painter, Eilif Peterssen (1852-1928), did not initially travel to Paris to study, but rather to Italy.

Several of these artists later chose to move back to Norway, where in 1882 they created the Høstutstillingen (‘Exhibition of the Fall’), a collection of contemporary Norwegian art which was publicly funded from 1884 and today forms the National Art Exhibition. At the same time they established a new system in which the artists themselves sold their art, decided what should be included in exhibitions and even made selections for public art commissions. Amongst the group of artists who returned home there were several great personalities who strongly opposed the values of their predecessors. Although they stuck together on such issues of tradition, these young artists were strikingly different in attitude and temperament. There was also a conflict between two groups. One group, led by Christian Krohg, was very radical, individualistic and internationalist, whilst the other, led by Erik Werenskiold, was more nationalistic and liberal in a political sense, but also somewhat moralising and high-principled.

Werenskiold painted simple but characteristic situations placed in closely-studied landscape surroundings. Alongside Werenskiold was newnationalist Theodor Kittlesen who, though always a better draughtsman than painter, made a significant contribution towards nationalism by illustrating the standard edition of Norwegian Folk Tales. Other followers of Werenskiold included Christian Skredsvig, who was nonetheless more inclined to stress the literary and symbolic overtones of his subject-matter, and Eilif Peterssen, whose ambitious style of historical painting was vaguely committed to the example of the old masters. Kitty L Kielland, one of the few consistent landscape painters of this period, worked mostly en plain air in Jæren on the western coast of Norway. Gerhard Munthe, also a nationalist, had close contact with the adventurer and scientist Fridjof Nansen, and together they formed the Lysakerkretsen (Lysaker Society) to promote Norwegian nationalist values.

This society met strong opponents in Christian Krogh, the leader of the Oslo Bohemians, who believed writing to be as important as painting, and claimed that ‘all national art is bad and all good art is national’. He insisted that the artistic focus should concentrate on life as lived and experienced by the individual human being. Fritz Thaulow, on the other hand, wanted art simply to focus on art, arguing that more artists should concentrate their energies on the actual process of painting, never attempting to treat social or human problems themselves. Meanwhile Harriet Backer was slightly estranged from the debate, concentrating more on interior scenes, though in a slightly more abstract way than the early nationalistic painters.

Krogh was the forerunner to Norway’s perhaps most widely-known artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Munch never received much training, and in Krogh he found what was the closest anyone could call a teacher. Although he started painting during the 1880s under the influence of Realism, he soon abandoned this method of focusing on concrete reality. Munch wished to paint what he considered to be the essentially human, saying ‘I shall paint living people who breath and feel and suffer and love’. Munch radically took on board new trends from Europe, including late Impressionism, Fauvism, Art Noveau and Jugend, all with his own interpretation of form, line and colour. He travelled extensively throughout Europe, which inspired an international style of simplistic landscapes and abstract lines, simple colouring and strong contrasts in lighting. Contemporaries of Munch included Arne Kavli (1878-1970) and Thorvald Erichsen (1868-1939), plus Halfdan Egdius (1877-1899), Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935) and Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928), who united the tendencies of the 1890s by developing the ambience of Realism into a more abstract expression.

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"Svartedauden" by KittelsenPhoto: O. Væring

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