Harald Sohlberg: Painting Norway @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Harald Sohlberg

Harald Sohlberg (1869 to 1935) was one of Norway’s greatest painters. He is best known for works which evoke the wildness of the Nordic landscape, which show brooding scenery illuminated by midwinter light, and realistic depictions of the wood buildings of old Norwegian towns.

This is the first major UK exhibition of Sohlberg’s works, celebrating 150 years since the artist’s birth, and it reveals that there’s much more variety – in subject matter, treatment and quality – than a first glance would suggest.

Self Portrait (1896) by Harald Sohlberg. Private collection

Self Portrait (1896) by Harald Sohlberg. Private collection

Biography

The exhibition proceeds in straightforward chronological order. Born in 1869 the eighth of 12 children, Sohlberg early wanted to be a painter but his father insisted he learn a craft and apprenticed him to a master scene painter and decorator, Wilhelm Krogh. When he went on the National College of Art and Design, where he developed his printmaking skills, it was also to discover the great art trends of the day, namely symbolism and nationalism.

Nordic mystery

For me, these are founding facts for understanding Sohlberg’s style, because all of the 100 or so works in the six rooms of the exhibition display a tension between two poles or ends of a spectrum. At one end is a series of works which explore light and colour and capture the peculiar twilight mood of Scandinavia, a half light in which moon and stars appear in still glimmering skies, and are seen through spectral pine forests.

Fisherman's Cottage (1906) by Harald Sohlberg. Art Institute of Chicago

Fisherman’s Cottage (1906) by Harald Sohlberg. Art Institute of Chicago

Many of this type of painting stylise shapes and outlines in order to reveal strange gloopy patterns in the natural world, reminiscent of the style of his close contemporary Edvard Munch (b.1863).

Sun Gleam (1894) by Harald Sohlberg. Gard forsikring, Arendal

Sun Gleam (1894) by Harald Sohlberg. Gard forsikring, Arendal

The mermaid pictures

Most immediately Munch-like are the heavily stylised depictions of mermaids which Sohlberg made obsessively throughout his career. The wall labels tell us that he made scores of drawings, sketches, prints and paintings all reworking the same basic image of a ‘mermaid’ emerging from water, sometimes by the light of the moon, sometimes by the light of a blood red sun.

It is striking how blurry, shapeless and ill-defined these mermaids often are. The subject and treatment seemed to me to be Sohlberg’s closest approach to capturing the ominousness of Symbolism, with its terror-stricken image of the femme fatale who comes to us in dreams and visions, a devouring harpy, the herald of the new age – a portentous figure.

The Mermaid (1896) by Harald Sohlberg. Private collection

The Mermaid (1896) by Harald Sohlberg. Private collection

Life drawing and portraits

On the basis of the three variations on the mermaid subject in the first room I had drawn the conclusion that Sohlberg was poor at drawing people, which maybe helped to explain the predominance of people-less landscapes in his oeuvre.

But how wrong I was. The very next room is devoted to a profusion of drawings, sketches, drafts and prints which, among other things, show you that he was a portraitist and life artist of great skill and sensitivity.

Four portraits by Harald Sohlberg. Photo by the author

Four portraits by Harald Sohlberg. Photo by the author

These four portraits (apologies for my terrible photo) are works of tremendous draughtsmanship. The character and quirks of each of the four faces (one is a self portrait, at top right) are captured with a thoroughness and sweet lifelikeness which reminded me of Holbein.

Next to them is a series of drawings from life including one of a classical sculpture, a stunningly sensuous charcoal drawing of a female nude, and a set of sketches of a woman wearing a button-up coat, which are staggering in their skill and accuracy.

Homo absconditus

All of which makes it the more mysterious, or pointed, that so many of the finished oil paintings rigorously exclude human figures of any type, close up or even in the distance.

So much so that a chapter in the catalogue is titled ‘Homo absconditus’ i.e. absent humanity. Similarly the audioguide is at pains to emphasise the issue of absence in so many of his classic paintings.

Look at this rough-hewn road bumping towards the mountains in the distance behind which emanates a mysterious crepuscular glow. It is a man-made object, as are the telegraph poles lining it and yet… where have all the people gone?

Detailed draughtsmanship

Mention of the man-made brings me to the other pole of Sohlberg’s oeuvre: at the opposite end of the spectrum from Sohlberg’s people-less images of looming Nordic landscapes are his astonishingly detailed, draughtsmanlike depiction of buildings.

In fact this architectural approach is there, buried, in many of the landscapes. Even in these Sohlberg apparently didn’t begin painting until he had completely mapped out the motif in precise detail using graphite, pen and ink, in sketchbooks and drawings. (Many of these sketches are on show in the exhibition’s several display cases, alongside letters, maps and some contemporary photos of the locations he painted.)

Architectural accuracy

But the early and middle period of his work is threaded with astonishingly accurate paintings of buildings – of the kind of wood-framed houses which characterised the Norway of his time – which are done with fantastic graphic realism and attention to detail.

Thus, in the first room of the show there are several paintings of the view from a terrace or verandah of a wood-built building looking out over a fjord. The lake water and mountain on the other side are done with the rich colouring and sense of depth and mystery we are by now familiar with. What is striking is the highly detailed depiction of the wooden terrace, balustrading, walls and windows.

The exhibition includes an early example of this style which he never finished and so which allows us to see the immaculate grid of lines which Sohlberg had laid out across the canvas in order to create the image, and then the meticulous care with which he was painting in the fine detail, using the graph-paper-like grid to create a mathematically precise depiction of every element of the house – balcony, windows, eaves and all.

Winter on the Balcony by Harald Sohlberg

Winter on the Balcony by Harald Sohlberg

This love of the architectural detail came into its own when, in 1902, Sohlberg went to live in the 17th century copper-mining town of Røros up towards the Arctic Circle. Røros is today a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its heritage of evocative historic wooden buildings. A hundred years ago these were a subject perfect for Sohlberg in fine-draughtsman mode.

Street in Roros in Winter (1903) by Harald Sohlberg. The National Museum of Arts, Architecture and Design, Norway

Street in Røros in Winter (1903) by Harald Sohlberg. The National Museum of Arts, Architecture and Design, Norway

Later falling off

Not all of his works are good. A set of blue skyscapes and orange seascapes in the fourth and fifth rooms struck me as cheesy and badly executed. In fact I had the strong feeling that after about 1910 his paintings went off, meaning his best work comes from the 1890s and 1900s, a suspicion fuelled by the way the exhibition ends abruptly about 1914. Did he not paint during the First World War? Did he stop painting altogether? We are not told.

And my dislike of the later, bigger and more loosely executed works explains why I didn’t respond as I am supposed to, to Sohlberg’s single most famous work, the enormous painting titled Winter Night in the Mountains.

Winter Night in the Mountains (1914) by Harald Sohlberg. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway

Winter Night in the Mountains (1914) by Harald Sohlberg. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway

Apparently this has been voted Norway’s most favourite painting which is, I think, an interesting insight into how that country sees itself. The work dominates the sixth and final room and is hung next to three or four other alternative paintings of the same view, plus various preparatory pencil works and sketches. Sohlberg worked at it repeatedly and produced scores of versions of this view in various media.

But unlike motifs which other famous painters of the period worked on again and again (Monet and his lily pond, Cézanne and Mont St Victoire) the multiple versions do not, I think, take you any closer to the subject matter nor display new and exciting insights into the art of painting, itself.

I don’t like it because:

  1. The mountains have been childishly simplified, rounded and cartooned, like a so-so illustration from a children’s book.
  2. The star shining in the cleft of the mountains is not eerily symbolic, but as obvious and trite as the star on ten thousand cheap Christmas cards.
  3. I like trees, some of my favourite artworks are depictions of trees – but the trees in the foreground of this painting are badly drawn.

This final room really brings out the point I made earlier, that there are two strings to Sohlberg’s bow, two basic styles of painting he made – one the symbolic landscape and the other the minutely-detailed building.

This duality is made clear in the sixth and final room where, alongside the Night in the Mountains, there is a series of sketches, drawings and paintings he made of the huge church which dominated the town of Røros then as it does now.

He sketched and painted the church again and again, particularly  the view from the churchyard looking onto the church, and then across the town and down to the river. I much preferred the architectural precision and detail of these images to the silly rounded mountains of the mountain pictures.

Night, Røros Curch (1903) by Harald Solhberg

Night, Røros Church (1903) by Harald Solhberg

It’s hard to compare this and the night mountain paintings, and believe that they’re by the same artist, the same mind and eye and technique, but they very much are.

Conclusion

This is a fabulously enjoyable exhibition. Not all of it is great but what is good, is very very good. It introduces you to what you could call the Medici print world of Solhlberg, to his best known paintings of Nordic landscapes and snow-covered streets – but it also includes his little known sketches and drawings, to create a really well-rounded portrait of Norway’s favourite painter.

My personal favourite was the set of preparatory sketches and then the large finished drawing he made of ‘the girl from Schafterløkken’, wow, awesome draughtsmanship which took my breath away – but which I can’t show you because it doesn’t seem to exist anywhere on the internet.

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

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