The colourful and mystical landscapes of Harald Sohlberg will be enlightening us in 2019 as Dulwich Picture Gallery uncovers another brilliant Norwegian painter
When Dulwich picture Gallery introduced Nikolai Astrup to British audiences in 2016, for many it uncovered a hitherto unknown world of magical landscape painting from the wilds of Norway.
Now the south London gallery is about to do it all again with a first major British retrospective of another Norwegian genius of colour and mythical landscapes , Harald Sohlberg (1869–1935), who like Astrop is a household name in his native Norway but less well known beyond the Nordic world.
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Yet in the history of Norwegian art Sohlberg is one of the greatest masters of landscape painting and this exhibition, timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of his birth, features 90 of Sohlberg’s works to reveal the importance of colour and symbolism in his art and his unwavering passion for the Nordic landscape.
A contemporary and colleague of Edvard Munch (who is ‘appearing’ in Love and Angst at the British Museum in April 2019) Sohlberg was born in Kristiania (modern day Oslo), and originally trained as a decorative painter, before studying for short periods under fellow Norwegian artists including Harriet Backer, Erik Werenskiold and Eilif Peterssen.
He then went on to attend the art school of Kristian Zahrtmann in Copenhagen, where he encountered the work of Paul Gauguin and other Symbolist and Synthetist artists.
This may well account for his vibrant colour palette, but there is something uniquely Norwegian in the ambience of Sohlberg’s paintings, whether they be sun-dappled forests, glistening mountains or the colourful wooden houses of rural Norway where he painted and lived in his formative years.
Although Sohlberg studied and travelled abroad, it was in these villages and in the nature of Norway that he truly found his voice and the exhibition gives particular focus to the paintings in and around the small mining town of Røros, now a UNESCO World Heritage site that sits high on the mountain plains of central Norway.
Sohlberg lived there with his wife from 1902-1905 and the town’s colourful wooden houses – in stark contrast to the bright, white snow – inspired a large body of his paintings and studies including Street in Røros in Winter (1903).
The Dulwich exhibition is also, rather handily, chronological, charting the development of Sohlberg’s art. It begins with two accomplished self-portraits from this early period and considers Sohlberg’s identity and early progress and how he quickly found his subject in the Norwegian landscape.
From an early stage, it seems, he had a quite distinctive sense of colour and began weaving in a love of myths and the mysterious.
There is a mysterious element in all of Sohlberg’s canvasses – the best of them masterworks in brooding low horizons that brilliantly capture the sunrise and sunset as it settles across the land, or the glow of moonlight through woodlands, icy lakes and snow covered mountains.
And beyond the self portraits and early symbolist evocations of mermaids and lonely maidens, there is a marked absence of human figures – yet his fans always point to the paintings’ sense of drama and narrative. Works such as Summer Night (1899) Sun Gleam (1894) and Fishermans Cottage reveal Sohlberg’s characteristic ability to eerily allude to human activities.
The exhibition culminates with a room dedicated to Sohlberg’s time in the Rondane mountains. His most famous work, Winter Night in the Mountains, finished in 1914, takes centre stage. It took 14 years to complete, and several studies on display offer a rare insight into his creative process, revealing his near life-long obsession with the subject and the physical extremes of his approach to painting.
It’s a fitting end to this most fascinating narrative of over nearly 100 works, including archival material, that will, for many of us beyond Norway, be a revelation.
“We’re bringing Norway to London through Sohlberg’s sun-drenched fjords, moonlit mountains, and picturesque towns blanketed in snow,” says Dulwich Director Jennifer Scott. “This unprecedented opportunity to enjoy Sohlberg’s greatest works together means that audiences in the UK can discover Norway’s best-loved artist and – until now – their best-kept secret.”
The exhibition will also feature a newly commissioned installation by German-born, Bristol-based artist, Mariele Neudecker. Breathing Yellow: And then the World Changed Colour is the latest in her series of tank works and is inspired by the Norwegian landscape and Sohlberg’s work. It can be experienced in the unique setting of the Gallery’s mausoleum throughout the running of the exhibition.
Harald Sohlberg: Painting Norway is at Dulwich Picture Gallery from February 13 – June 2 2019
Dulwich Picture Gallery
London, Greater London
Dulwich Picture Gallery, founded in 1811, was England's very first public gallery. The stunning collection houses masterpieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, Watteau, Gainsborough and Van Dyck amongst many others. The gallery also runs a world class exhibition programme. The entire collection of this gallery is a Designated Collection of national importance.