During my Fulbright in Norway a couple of years ago, I have had the opportunity to visit countless museums in Norway, Poland, France, and Austria. Today, I want to take a moment and share with you some of my favorite pieces from Bergen, Norway. The KODE museums have a large collection of artworks from various ages, but the ones that stuck out to me are from the National Romantic, early-Modernist, and Modernist periods. Specifically, I was drawn to the works of Johan Christan Dahl (1788–1857), Nikolai Astrup (1880–1920) , and Edvard Munch (1863–1944). Before I arrived in Norway, the only one I had heard of, of course, was Munch. As Ian Dejardin notes in his lecture about Astrup, the 19th century in Norwegian art is a golden age, leading up to Munch. Dahl and Astrup are each firmly part of this.
Born in Bergen during Danish rule, Dahl painted landscapes in Norway, Denmark, and Italy, amongst other places. What drew me to Dahl’s work, initially, was his paintings of Bergen and the surrounding area. Specifically, I felt drawn to his pieces that show Bergen from a distance, looking from the harbor and through the surrounding mountains from the fields on the outskirts of the city, spaces that don’t differ much from the city center. Another one of my favorite pieces by Dahl has to be “From Bergen Harbor.” Here, we see Bergen from the harbor, viewing the Bryggen on the left with Mariaskirke and Bergenhus on the shore looking out towards the harbor. Further up from the Bryggen we can see the Korskirken and the Bergen Domkirke. Nykirken appears on the right bank. Along with these landmarks, the image also contains Fløyen, Sandviksfjellet, and clouds descending over Ulriken in the distance. Finally, the image highlights the historical period when Norway was part of Denmark, this can be seen in the flag on the ship that resides on the left hand side of the painting.
In “Bergen seen from Møllendalin,” we look towards Bergen not from the water but from the surrounding mountain area. Again, we see landmarks of the city such as the Korskirken and the Bergen Domkirke. This spot is only about 5.2 miles from the Bryggen, and today, it is close to where we spent the past year in Bergen. Seeing the space that I occupied as nothing but farmland with building dotting the landscape here and there makes me stop to think about how much the space we occupy has changed over the years, decades, centuries, and millennia. At this moment, a highway runs through this area and boats dock all along the shore of the small inlet. Houses run up the side of Fløyen, and buildings occupy the entire left side of the painting. In fact, our apartment would be way off in the distance on that side.
Seeing Dahl’s paintings of Bergen from the nineteenth century, as I have said before, causes me to contemplate the past, the present, and the future. He lived here, worked here, and depicted this region. I lived here, worked here, and through my photographs have depicted this region. We are inextricably intertwined due to the space we occupied, a space that we share across history. We may not know those who come after us, but they will know that people traversed these streets, hiked these mountains, and sailed these water before they came here. This, of course, is something I wrote about last post when looking at Lucy Knisely’s An Age of License.
Astrup was born in Sogn og Fjordane, an area north of Bergen. While he traveled extensively, he returned to his home area and painted its people and traditions. The first painting I saw by Astrup, “The Parsonage,” caught my attention because of its photo realism. While this painting grabbed me, the rest of his work drew me towards a deep appreciation for Astrup. Perhaps my favorite Astrup painting is “March Morning,” a painting that immediately made me think of Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. What I like about this painting is the way that the tree becomes a troll, a living being, yawning and stretching towards the sky as the sun arises and the snow begins to melt. It’s an awakening , a new birth in the spring. The leaves on the tree juxtaposed with the snow on the ground and on top of the mountains creates this moment of transition.
There are countless other paintings by Astrup that caught my eye, but his images of the midsummer bonfires really struck me. There are multiple paintings of the midsummer bonfires, and each is powerful. The one below, perhaps, is my favorite. Astrup was drawn to these bonfires because his pastor father denied him from going due to their links to pagan fertility rituals. June 21, of course, is midsummer eve, and here the sun does not set, if it sets at all, until early morning. Thus, the bonfires light up a still blue sky in this image. The couples dance, sit together, and take in the excitement. In the foreground, we see people gathered around one bonfire, yet right across the water, on another mountain, we see another bonfire. For me, the proximity of the bonfires points to the connections of people in Norway, but it also comments on the distance that separated them. Why have two bonfires in such close proximity? Traversing this landscape, before cars and tunnels, would have been difficult, so it makes sense to have multiple bonfires in a close area. Along with this aspect, the colors and motion of the painting exude a vibrancy of the event, a joyous celebration of life, love, and merriment.
While most people know Munch’s “The Scream,” I wonder how many know his other works. The KODE museums in Bergen have a large amount of his work, and my favorite has to be “Evening on Karl Johan.” Painted a year before “The Scream,” the image shows a crowd of people walking down Karl Johan Street at night. Some of the faces are obscured, or extremely abstract. Others, like those in the foreground, are not very detailed and exude feelings of anxiety. This is something we can see in a variety of his paintings from this period. The color of the sky, kind of a darker blue, mixed with the colors of the buildings, illuminated here and there by the yellow coming from windows, creates a feeling of alienation even while walking amongst other people. The silhouetted figure walking away from crowd adds another dimension. Is this person anxious? Alienated? Secure in himself to go against the flow? I’m not sure. What I am sure about, though, is that I connect with the feelings of anxiety and alienation that arises from this image. That is what draws me to this piece and Munch’s work in general.
I want to leave you with a video I did of Dahl’s, Astrup’s, and Munch’s work. I hope you enjoy it. Until next time, what are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.