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Norway’s largest and most prestigious art gallery is the Nasjonalgalleriet (National Gallery). Housed in a whopping nineteenth-century building, the collection may be short on internationally famous painters – apart from a fine body of work by Edvard Munch – but there’s compensation in the oodles of Norwegian art, including work by all the leading figures up until the end of World War II. The only irritation is the way the museum is organized: the kernel of the collection is displayed on the first floor, which is convenient enough, but individual artists’ works tend to be displayed across several different rooms, which can be very frustrating. The free plan available at reception helps illuminate matters; the text below mentions room numbers where it may be helpful, but note that locations are regularly rotated.

Johan Christian Dahl and Thomas Fearnley

Near the top of the main staircase, rooms L and M feature the work of the country’s most important nineteenth-century landscape painters, Johan Christian Dahl (1788–1857) and his pupil Thomas Fearnley (1802–42). The Romantic Naturalism of their finely detailed canvases expressed Norway’s growing sense of nationhood after the break-up of the Dano–Norwegian union in 1814. In a clear rejection of Danish lowland civil-servant culture, Dahl and Fearnley asserted the beauty (and moral virtue) of Norway’s wild landscapes, which had previously been seen as uncouth and barbaric. This reassessment was clearly influenced by the ideas of the Swiss-born philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78), who believed that the peoples of mountain regions possessed an intrinsic nobility precisely because they were remote from the corrupting influences of (lowland) civilization. Dahl, who was a professor at the Academy of Art in Dresden for many years, wrote to a friend in 1841:

Like a true Poet, a Painter must not be led by the prevailing, often corrupt Taste, but attempt to create … a landscape [that] … exposes the characteristics of this Country and its Nature – often idyllic, often historical, melancholic – what they have been and are.

As for the paintings themselves, Dahl’s large 1842 canvas Stalheim is typical of his work, a mountain landscape rendered in soft and dappled hues, dotted with tiny figures and a sleepy village. His Hjelle in Valdres (1851) adopts the same approach, although here the artifice behind the Naturalism is easier to detect. Dahl had completed another painting of Hjelle the year before; returning to the subject, he widened the valley and heightened the mountains, sprinkling them with snow. Fearnley often lived and worked abroad, but he always returned to Norwegian themes, painting no fewer than five versions of the moody Labrofossen ved Kongsberg (The Labro Waterfall at Kongsberg); his 1837 version is displayed in Room M.

Adolph Tidemand and Hans Frederik Gude

A third Norwegian artist to seek out is Adolph Tidemand (1814–76), if not so much for the quality of his painting as for its content. Born in Mandal on the south coast, Tidemand went to art college in Denmark and taught art in Düsseldorf, but was firmly attached to his homeland, making a series of long research trips to study rural Norwegian folk customs and costumes. Tidemand’s drawings were so precise that they are still used as a reference by students of traditional Norwegian dress, but his paintings are absurdly Romantic, reflecting the bourgeois nationalism that swept Norway in the middle of the nineteenth century. The museum displays a whole batch of Tidemand’s paintings, but his most famous work is the Bridal Voyage on the Hardanger Fjord (Room N), in which Hans Frederik Gude (1825–1903) painted the landscape and Tidemand filled in the figures. Gude was a great friend of Tidemand, sharing his Romantic nationalism and being a fellow lecturer at the art academy in Düsseldorf.

Gerhard Munthe, Erik Werenskiold and Christian Krohg

In the 1880s, Norwegian landscape painting took on a mystical and spiritual dimension. Influenced by French painters such as Théodore Rousseau, Norwegian artists abandoned the Naturalism of an earlier generation for more symbolic representations. Gerhard Munthe (1849–1929), for one, dipped into lyrical renditions of the Norwegian countryside, and his cosy, folksy scenes were echoed in the paintings of Erik Werenskiold (1855–1938), who is well represented by Peasant Burial. Of a similar ilk was the work of the novelist, journalist and artist Christian Krohg (1852–1925), whose highly stylized paintings of the poor and destitute pricked many a middle-class conscience. It was, however, his sympathetic paintings of prostitutes that created the real brouhaha, as exemplified by his tongue-in-cheek Albertine at the Police Doctor’s Surgery.

Theodor Kittelsen

Also during the late nineteenth century, Theodor Kittelsen (1857–1914) defined the appearance of the country’s trolls, sprites and sirens in his illustrations for Asbjørnsen and Moe’s Norwegian Folk Tales, published in 1883. Four of Kittelsen’s original paintings are displayed in Room U – and a splendid sample they are too, especially the one of a princess delousing a troll, a time-consuming job if ever there was one. Here as well are examples of Kittelsen’s other work: a self-portrait and a landscape; a wooden cabinet whose shelves hold several dozen Kittelsen sketches; and several panels illustrating a traditional folk song, completed in an ersatz medieval style by Gerhard Munthe.

Harald Sohlberg and Halfdan Egedius

In Room S, you encounter the works of Harald Sohlberg (1869–1935), who clarified the rather hazy vision of many of his Norwegian contemporaries, painting a series of sharply observed Røros streetscapes and expanding into more elemental themes with such stunning works as En blomstereng nordpå (A Northern Flower Meadow) and Sommernatt (Summer Night). These paintings are comparable with those of Halfdan Egedius (1877–99), as in Opptrekkende uvaer (The Approaching Storm), again in Room S, though Egedius also touched on darker, gloomier themes as in his unsettling Spill og dans (Play and Dance).

Edvard Munch

The Nasjonalgalleriet’s star turn is its Munch collection, with representative works from the 1880s up to 1916 gathered together in Room T. His early work is very much in the Naturalist tradition of his mentor Christian Krohg, though by 1885 Munch was already pushing back the boundaries in The Sick Child, a heart-wrenching evocation of his sister Sophie’s death from tuberculosis. Other works displaying this same sense of pain include The Dance of Life, Madonna and The Scream, a seminal canvas of 1893 whose swirling lines and rhythmic colours were to inspire the Expressionists. Munch painted several versions of The Scream, but this is the original, so it is hard to exaggerate the embarrassment felt by the museum when, in 1994, someone climbed in through the window and stole it. The painting was eventually recovered, but the thief was never caught. Consider Munch’s words as you view it:

I was walking along a road with two friends. The sun set. I felt a tinge of melancholy. Suddenly the sky became blood red. I stopped and leaned against a railing feeling exhausted, and I looked at the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends walked on. I stood there trembling with fright. And I felt a loud unending scream piercing nature.

The gallery’s sample of Munch’s work serves as a good introduction to the artist, but for a more detailed appraisal – and a more comprehensive selection of his work – check out the Munch Museum.

Norwegian paintings from 1910 to the 1940s

Munch aside, the general flow of Norwegian art was reinvigorated in the 1910s by a new band of artists who had trained in Paris under Matisse, whose emancipation of colour from Naturalist constraints inspired his Norwegian students. Among this group, Henrik Sørensen (1882–1962) is the outstanding figure. Sørensen summed up the Frenchman’s influence on him thirty years later: “From Matisse, I learned more in fifteen minutes than from all the other teachers I have listened to” – lessons that inspired Sørensen’s surging, earthy landscapes of the lowlands of eastern Norway. Axel Revold (1887–1962) was trained by Matisse too, but also assimilated Cubist influences as in The Fishing Fleet leaves the Harbour, while Erling Enger (1899–1990) maintained a gently lyrical, slightly whimsical approach to the landscape and its seasons. Look out also for the work of Arne Ekeland (1908–94), whose various World War II paintings are bleak and powerful in equal measure – as evidenced by the fractured, mosaic-like composition of The Last Shots.

International art

Finally, the museum holds an enjoyable sample of work by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, with assorted bursts of colour from Manet, Monet, Degas and Cézanne, as well as a distant, piercing Van Gogh self-portrait. There is also a light scattering of early twentieth-century paintings by the likes of Picasso and Braque, but it must be said that for a national gallery there are few works of international significance, reflecting Norway’s past poverty and its lack of an earlier royal or aristocratic collection to build upon.

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