Bruegel’s Winter Landscapes

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As part of a series of events to mark the 450th anniversary of death of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) (including the giant exhibition currently open at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), the Royal Museums of Fine Art of Belgium has published a wide-ranging study of two Bruegel paintings owned by the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. The two oil paintings are Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap (1565) and Census at Bethlehem (1566), paintings that were made when the artists lived in Brussels. This book is a follow-up to the excellent monograph on Bruegel’s Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562) by Tine Luk Meganck, one of the authors of the present volume. (For a discussion of that book, see my review, The Jackdaw, no. 121, May/June 2015, p.20.)

This book collects essays by art historians and historians, so we get a mixture of assessment of the paintings as art and an appreciation of the actual social circumstances of the Brabant people at the time. Anne-Laure Van Bruaene has an essay explaining the distribution, functions, taxation and regulation of taverns in Brabant. There is another essay by Erik Aerts covering the census-taking and taxes. Census and taxation go hand in hand, from Roman times to today. There are essays on politics, religion and climate data.

Overall, the interpretations of Bruegel’s paintings by the contributing art historians and historians are somewhat more benign than others. They consider Bruegel less political and his moral instruction obscure. The writers state that the complexity and ambiguity of the vignettes and the rich variety of contemporary Dutch proverbs mean that Bruegel’s intentions in these paintings is unclear. There is evident wit and didacticism about Bruegel’s tableaux but the interpretations vary so greatly that Bruegel’s political, religious and social outlooks remain only partially legible to us. Perhaps his contemporaries thought the same.
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[Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap (1565), oil on oak. RMFAB, Brussels, inv. 8724. © RMFAB, photo: J. Geleyns / Ro scan.]

Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap (1565) shows a snow-blanketed village tableau filled with human activity: people playing golf, skating, curling stones and other undertaking other seemingly unproductive activities. On leafless branches in the foreground, birds sit. To the right in the foreground is a bird trap – an old door propped up over a scattering of crumbs. The crumbs attract birds. A cord runs from the prop to the window of a nearby house where an unseen person waits to pull away the prop in order to trap birds under the falling door. This was a common and easy way of securing bird meat in inclement weather. The authors do not mention a viable interpretation: that the setter of the trap is actually absent and thereby negligent by failing to attend to the current opportunity.

At the time Bruegel lived Europe was undergoing the Little Ice Age, so severe it caused sea ice on the North Sea coast along the Low Countries, trapping and freezing to death sailors. Writers suggest that 1564-5 was the harshest winter for many years. Was Bruegel was representing the weather of that famed season in these two paintings or recreating typical scenes derived from the traditional Book of Hours illustrations? It seems that Winter Landscape was the oil painting that popularised the winter landscape in Dutch art. While there were a few earlier paintings of snow – especially in miniature illustrations of Books of Hours – it was Bruegel’s painting which proved the keystone to the genre. The workshop of Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638) produced many of the 131 known copies of the painting.

It is a perennial question as to how realistic this painting is. Our curiosity about the life of previous times leads us to seek out documentary proof. Bruegel would certainly have understood that his paintings used aspects of the real world without believing that the best art was realistic. The consensus is that Bruegel’s art described the real and used elements from reality without ever attempting to engage in what we would classify as Realism or Naturalism. His moral landscapes are didactic and satirical but also compassionate and generous in their depiction of the peasantry. They were not real but a reflection on the real. There are comparative images of hats, skates and mittens preserved in museums, so we can assess Bruegel’s veracity.
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[Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Census at Bethlehem (1566), oil on oak. RMFAB, Brussels, inv. 3637. © RMFAB, photo: J. Geleyns / Ro scan]

While Winter Landscape is a painting full of space, Census at Bethlehem (1566) is the reverse. It is altogether a more complex picture, full of incident and much trickier to interpret. Mary and Joseph arrive at Bethlehem, which is not in the Levant but the Spanish South Netherlands in Bruegel’s century. Local people gather to register for a census and pay their annual taxes. The village is deep in winter and bustling. Men are carrying sacks over the frozen river, people take part in snowball fights, sledding, curling and engage in commercial activity. Payment of taxes was done by coin and goods, including grain and animals.

The characters with broad circular hats are gypsies, with descriptions so detailed and lifelike that the painter must have recalled them from life, if not from sketches made at the time. Gypsies were considered connected to the Near East and – by extension – the Holy Lands at the time of Christ. They were also considered dangerous and untrustworthy. There official proclamations in Brabant warning the populace against the interacting with gypsies and declaring that individuals who were swindled by gypsy fortune tellers had no legal recourse. In Census a gypsy steals vegetables from the garden of a leper.

Highly placed city residents with strong connections to authority seem to have been customers for Bruegel’s paintings, whereas his prints would have been affordable for merchants and artisans. The first owner of Census was Jan Vleminck Sebastiaenszoon, Lord of Wijnegem. He was a Brabantine landowner and merchant banker, described as a Catholic and royalist, which is enlightening. One line of interpretation among art historians is that Bruegel was sympathetic to Protestant peasantry’s opposition to occupation by the Spanish crown and its Catholic supporters. While there is much to support this view, this connection with Vleminck shows that Bruegel was at least on good terms with Catholic gentry, who would have had the money to purchase large panel paintings. Interestingly, Bruegel collectors Vleminck, Granvelle, Jongelinck and Ortelius were all Catholics but reformists and political moderates who urged clemency and tolerance of the Spanish. Sadly, the Spanish did not choose this course; the Duke of Alba began a campaign of terror and repression that led to war.

The census of Bethlehem is a fascinating choice for a subject as the commissioner was a tax collector himself. That meant that the very money Bruegel received for this painting came ultimately from the taxation of the peasantry. Bruegel’s view of the census is by no means as critical as it could have been. He shows the annual tax collection as a time of communal activity, including commerce and celebration connected to the mid-winter feast. So the paying taxes is both a time of loss of money and acquisition of money, an inevitable onerous burden which must be borne with fortitude, as one endures a winter or a bereavement. Likewise, the inn had a dual function; it was the place of tax collection and of drunken conviviality.

Meganck suggests that the famous Massacre of the Innocents is not the trenchant criticism of the Spanish it is discussed as. He points out that the uniforms of the officers and soldiers in the painting are dressed archaically, so viewers of Bruegel’s day would have understood the painting referred to the past rather commenting directly on the political crisis in Brabant in 1666. Meganck’s inference is that Bruegel was making a more general statement about the abuse of power and the savagery of military force unleashed upon civilians. This reading seems fair but it will be hard to shake the political anti-Spanish interpretation as the latter has the force of undiluted moral narrative and historically satisfying collocation.

The book illustrates the drawing of a farmhouse in Brabant that Bruegel included in the Census. This drawing (at the Louvre) is apparently a copy of a lost Bruegel original. The building is a farmhouse in Wijnegem that was most likely owned by Vleminck, thus including the patron’s home in the Census painting. Other drawings, prints and paintings by Bruegel show how these two featured paintings fit into his oeuvre. There are many illustrations of details which are necessary. Bruegel trained as a miniaturist and he included a lot of detail in his oil paintings. The illustrations show us incidents that we may have previously overlooked. Other images are of rare prints, illuminations and paintings by lesser-known artists help us place Bruegel’s art in a continuum of Christian devotional image making.

Technical analysis reveals a consistency in method that indicates Bruegel had no assistants, unlike his son and grandsons who had pupils and assistants. It is notable that in this book, contrary to the catalogue for the current Vienna exhibition, there is an absence of technical scientific analysis. It would have given us a broader understanding of the two paintings if we could have seen a technical description of them, which would at least tell us if they have been trimmed, restored, altered or damaged.

We are living in a time when Bruegel studies are being pushed to new levels; based on scientific analysis, new imaging technology and archival research, our understanding of one of the founders of post-renaissance painters – a critical figure in Western art – is becoming deeper and fuller. This absorbing book is a valuable part of the research. This book is warmly recommended for art historians, Bruegel fans, painters and anyone interested in 16th Century life.

Tine Luk Meganck & Sabine van Sprang (eds.), Bruegel’s Winter Scenes. Historians and Art Historians in Dialogue, RMFAB/Mercatorfonds (distr. Yale University Press), 2018, hardback, 248pp, fully illus., €54.95, ISBN 978 9462 302235

© 2018 Alexander Adams
See my art and books here: http://www.alexanderadams.art

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Remedios Varo: Letters, Dreams & Other Writings

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A new book gathers the private writings of Spanish Surrealist Remedios Varo (1908-63). The Mexico-resident artist has gained a supportive following for her paintings and this book brings her writings to new foreign audiences. The publisher is Wakefield Press, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is a specialist publishing house producing literary texts in translation, including some rarities of Surrealism. This small-format paperback edition is attractive and comfortable in the hands, with a few transcriptions of text and images. It is the first English translation of the Spanish language edition published in Mexico in 1994.

The artist was born in Anglès, Girona. She studied in the Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, graduating in 1930, just a few years after the golden generation of Dalí, Lorca and Buñuel. In the mid-1930s Varo became engaged by the art and ideas of the Surrealist movement. She was friendly with Óscar Dominguez and had a relationship with Esteban Francés, both Spanish Surrealist painters. In 1937, concerned about the Spanish Civil War and the progress of the Falangists, Varo left her homeland and moved to Paris to join the Surrealists officially. Her art was published in journals and she exhibited at a number of major displays of Surrealist art.

In 1941 Varo fled Europe for Mexico, where she would spend the rest of her life. During her time in Mexico City she became close to Leonora Carrington. Varo’s painting and literary fantasies share much with Carrington. Although they came from different backgrounds, their outlooks largely converged and found common ground in Surrealism, fantasy, dreams, allegories and fables. Carrington appears in some of Varo’s recorded dreams and Varo is a character (Carmella Velasquez) in Carrington’s novella The Hearing Trumpet.

The texts in this collection seem to have been private writings not intended for publication. Some were found in Varo’s daily notebooks, surrounded with mundane lists and calculations, and published posthumously. There are letters to identified or unidentified recipients, logs of dreams and unpublished written interviews. Few are dated; the translator suggests that they were written in the last years of the artist’s life. Varo’s papers and art were preserved and promoted by her last partner, Walter Gruen, whose efforts have contributed to Varo’s sustained reputation. The translator’s introduction will help newcomers to Varo’s art and writing; notes identify some individuals mentioned in the texts.

Varo’s writing is full of playful wit. She sends ciphers to a painter colleague and reminds him of shared paellas past. In a letter to a stranger picked at random, she invites him to spend New Year’s Eve at another random stranger’s house. The amusing and disarmingly self-deprecating letter recalls the acts of arbitrary mischief that Surrealists advocated; the combination of precision, pointlessness and whimsicality has charm. In other letters she comments to supporters about her art.

One of Varo’s most notable art works is Homo Rodans, a skeletal construction of a fantastical creature with a wheel-like lower portion, presented as a museum specimen. Varo wrote a parodic scientific paper on the Homo Rodans, complete with Latin quotations and pseudonymous author name. Project for a Theater Piece is a story of theatrical quality and dreamlike interactions. It is regrettably short and its potential seems unfulfilled. It shares a fragmentary quality with the other pieces here. There is some automatic writing (Surrealist practice of writing images or words in free association, as derived from psychoanalytic practice) and fantastical recipes including one with ingredients of horseradish, garlic, honey, a brick and two false moustaches.

Ten dreams are described. There’s certainly more than a little curiosity value to a personal friend of Carrington and Wolfgang Paalen who records their appearances in her dream logs.

“I sat down to write two very important letters and left them (before putting them into their envelopes) on a table, and when I went back to retrieve them, I saw with annoyance that Eva’s gentlemen friends had dunked one of the letters in the oil-and-vinegar dressing of a salad they were eating and the other letter was soaking in the juices from some pieces of stewed meat on another plate.”

The most pleasing dream story is one where a condemned Varo metaphorically weaves a man into material of herself, making a woven egg-like structure, allowing her to die satisfied.

There is a compilation of allusive and short comments on the personal meaning of her paintings had for her. All of the paintings are late recently made paintings. The references Varo makes indicate the significance she attached to astrology, science, cooking, mythology, literature and history. While her literary style is not ornate or sophisticated, the writings have the appeal of being made for her own pleasure rather than being produced for an audience. They have lightness and humour without striving too hard for comic effect. This enjoyable collection will spur some readers to investigate Varo’s art and it gives us a glimpse of Varo’s character and the frames of reference for her as a creator.

 

Remedios Varo, Margaret Carson (trans.), Letters, Dreams & Other Writings, Wakefield Press, November 2018, paperback, 128pp, mono illus., $14.95, ISBN 978 1 939663 39 9

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

See my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

Ayn Rand: Atlas Shrugged

“Ayn Rand (1905-82) is now more famous as a philosopher and ardent proponent of laissez-faire capitalism than as a writer of fiction. As such she is known for advocating rationalism and pure self-interest as bases for ethical and political action and as a bulwark against collectivist ideologies and government influence. According to this approach, which she called objectivism, the most virtuous man is one who makes money; the most depraved is one without purpose. Wealth, therefore, is a sign of success and a motivator for ambitious capable men. (Rand’s attitude to feminism was ambivalent – personally ambitious, she was opposed to the intrusion of feminine virtues into traditional masculine public spaces of politics, commerce and science.) Although objectivism has furnished American libertarianism with (disputed) intellectual seriousness, a worldview that considers all taxation as theft has had little appeal in Europe. Objectivism has largely been seen by philosophers as a political position rather than a coherent system of ethics and logic.

“Rand’s belief in the great-man theory of history (positing that social and technological progress is made through the achievements of exceptional individuals) translated in artistic terms into a strand of heroic individualism. That is nowhere better exemplified than in her giant novel, Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957. An elegant new edition, published by the Folio Society, captures the grand scale and epic themes in its illustrations and pictorial hardcover designs….”

Read the full review online here:

https://www.spiked-online.com/2018/11/22/atlas-shrugged-ayn-rand-novel-of-ideas/

Sylvia Plath: The Poetry & the Pain

“When we first encounter Sylvia Plath (1932-63) in The Letters of Sylvia Plath Vol 2: 1956-1963, she and Ted Hughes are in Cambridge, living as newlywed young poets. She has set aside youthful pursuits and is determined to make a good wife and mother, while seeking recognition as a writer of stories and poems.

“In the summer of 1957, after graduating from Cambridge University, Plath and Hughes had moved to Massachusetts where Plath was appointed as an English teacher. Hughes had his first book accepted for publication by Faber & Faber, and Plath was publishing stories and poems regularly. There is business correspondence in this volume, which shows Plath navigating her many literary markets: women’s magazines, poetry quarterlies and American glossies, with occasional recording sessions at the BBC studios.

The starry-eyed Plath described her husband as ‘the most wonderful man who ever lived’ – a veritable hunting-fishing, tarot-reading, verse-writing, Chaucer-declaiming six-foot-two superman. Their relationship was always volatile; passionate outbursts, resentment and bitterness on both sides tempered the love, attraction and admiration they felt for one another. Although Plath’s esteem for Hughes as a man and husband changed, her admiration for him as a writer was never less than adulatory. Her labours typing and retyping his manuscripts in a pre-photocopier era must have reduced her own personal output. In 1957, Plath began working at Smith College…”

Read the full review online on Spiked here:

https://www.spiked-online.com/2018/11/13/the-poetry-and-the-pain/

Read my review of volume 1 here: https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2018/08/26/sylvia-plath-alive-in-letters/

Harald Sohlberg: Infinite Landscapes

Fig. 96 (1)

[Image: Harald Sohlberg, Fisherman’s Cottage (1906), oil on canvas, 109 x 94cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edward Byron Smith. Photo copyright: Art Institute of Chicago/Art Resource, NY/Scala Firenze]

A new exhibition in Oslo showcases the evocative Symbolist landscapes of Norwegian painter Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935) (National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo (28 September 2018-13 January 2019); touring to Dulwich Picture Gallery, London (13 February-2 June 2019) and Museum Wiesbaden (12 July-27 October 2019)). Any visitor to Norwegian art museums will have had his/her eye caught by Sohlberg’s striking landscapes. This selection shows the depth of the painter’s achievement and the arc of his career. (This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.)

Sohlberg was working in an era when the artists of Nordic nations (especially the newly independent Norway and Finland) were looking to establish truly national schools of art whilst not restricting themselves to parochial isolation. Artists (and other creative figures, along with politicians) had often studied, worked and travelled outside of their homelands due to the restricted opportunities they had faced at home. They therefore well understood their positions as pioneers of new national cultures with deep roots but shallow institutions and that their courses had to be steered between their nations’ adoption of certain international allegiances and the strong desire to distinguish themselves as independent – most especially independent of their former colonial rulers’ cultures.

Sohlberg’s course showed itself most obviously through his decision to paint Norwegian landscapes and rural townscapes. The latter featured typical vernacular Norwegian architecture of wooden buildings, strongly coloured exteriors and rough agricultural structures. It is no surprise that when the newly independent Norway organised exhibitions of its art at home and overseas, Sohlberg’s landscapes and townscapes proved suitable and popular inclusions. Norway’s conservative taste regarding Modernism in the visual arts meant that Sohlberg’s cautious Symbolism was ideal.

Sohlberg trained professionally extensively. He was first apprenticed to decorative painter Wilhelm Krogh (1885) then studied fine art, first at Kristiania (Oslo) (1889-90), then in Copenhagen under Kristian Zahrtmann (1892) (where he visited the home of Gauguin’s wife) and Kristiania under Harriet Backer and Elilif Peterssen (1894); he undertook a study trip to Paris (1895-6) and finally took classes in Weimar under Norwegian Frithjof Smith (1897-8). However, this is misleading, as Sohlberg was already a professional artist by the end of his studies and was widely exhibited, with works in museum collections. He was a skilled draughtsman of the figure and an adept portraitist. Sohlberg’s later eschewing of figures in his paintings was a choice not of necessity; he clearly had the capacity to portray people accurately. In Weimar, Sohlberg must have come into contact with the Symbolist art of Arnold Böcklin and Max Klinger. Klinger’s prints especially provided a template for the sort of graphic art Sohlberg made. The drawings of fantasy characters in rural settings have grotesque and weird aspects, similar to illustrations for fairy stories.

This peculiarity comes to the fore in versions of Mermaid (1893). It shows a woman emerging from water, with her head thrown back, a mocking smile on her face, seen under a full moon which casts an elongated reflection on the water. In various versions, the mermaid’s face and torso ranges in appearance from coarse slattern and semi-piscine hybrid to beautiful adolescent. The pose of this dreamy temptress parallels Edvard Munch’s Madonna (1892-5) and the moon reflection is a motif commonly seen in Munch’s fjord views. The pair knew each personally and there are areas of overlap between their oeuvres. Some critics considered them rivals. This relationship would make a fascinating subject for extensive research and a book-length publication in English.

Symbolism was a movement that embodied a reaction against the idealism of Victorian salon painters and the quasi-scientific optical investigations of the Impressionists, Neo-Impressionists and Divisionists. The Symbolists – who to degree overlapped with Post-Impressionists, particularly Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis and others – asserted that the true function of art was to manifest the underlying reality of human existence by heightening the symbolic significance of images and using those images in ways that explored the underlying drives and archetypes of the human psyche. In relation to Sohlberg’s Symbolist landscapes, we should consider in particular the Belgian Symbolists Leon Spilliaert, Fernande Khnopff and Xavier Mellery, who are close in imagery, technique and mood to Sohlberg’s early work. Of Scandinavian painters, Munch is an obvious parallel (discussed below) and – less obviously – the brooding domestic scenes of Wilhelm Hammershøi have the mysterious quality of Sohlberg’s scenes. The Hammershøi’s landscapes have an air of idealised reality and pared-down appearance that Sohlberg’s share. Symbolism is an extension of Romanticism and it is right to consider Sohlberg’s landscapes as being close to those of JCC Dahl, Thomas Fearnley and Caspar David Friedrich. Sohlberg’s magical landscapes could be classed as the last flourishing of the Northern Romantic tradition. A clear example of this is the late-period sunset paintings, which are Friedrichian in their bright yellow and orange skies dominating tranquil terrains.

The early oil paintings are like coloured drawings – lacking impasto or prominent brushwork. Squaring was used to transfer designs from drawings to canvas, with the pencil underdrawing often visible. From Gullikstad (1904) is an example of this coloured-drawing approach, where the colour is applied by staining. This extreme dilution of paint (with glaze medium, in Sohlberg’s case) is something that Schiele would do a decade later. The artificiality of the blue foliage in Sohlberg’s painting would also be echoed in Schiele’s landscapes. Sohlberg exhibited four paintings in the Künstlerbund Hagen exhibition in Vienna in 1912. Schiele very likely saw this exhibition and this may have led to Sohlberg’s style influencing the young Austrian.

Although the early Sohlberg paintings are detailed, the impression of naturalism is false. While many aspects are faithful descriptions of the sources, Sohlberg also made numerous and strong deviations from reality for the sake of emphasis or emotion. This effective blend of exaggeration and naturalism adds to the dreamlike feeling of the best pictures. As in dreams, we note the startling details but the whole adds up to something odd and unnatural. Variants of Winter Night in the Mountains, based on the Rondane Mountains, show how Sohlberg created this magic.

NOR Vinternatt i Rondane, ENG Winter Night in the Mountains

[Image: Harald Sohlberg, Winter Night in the Mountains (1914), oil on canvas, 160 x 180.5 cm, Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo. Photo: Nasjonalmuseet, Oslo/Børre Høstland]

Over a number of years, Sohlberg developed his motif of the twin peaks of the Rondane Mountains. This composition became Sohlberg’s best loved image. Under a night sky, the snowclad peaks of Rondane soar over the horizontal landscape in the foreground, which is studded by leafless trees. The artist exaggerated the shapes of the mountains for artistic effect. This is in line with the practice of Romantic landscapists and Symbolists. The versions with dark glaze applied at the bottom of the later paintings in oil paint are reminiscent of Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea (c. 1808-10). Although much is made of the Symbolist limitation of the palette to blue and white, this is largely accurate to the effect of moonlight in clear air on snowy landscapes. The centrally positioned heavenly light is apparently the planet Venus, symbolic of the goddess of love. The essay writer who treats this subject (Øvind Storm Bjerk) mentions that Sohlberg probably associated this picture with his marriage to Lilli Hennum because of her joining him to live in the Rondane region while he worked on the painting, however Storm Bjerk does not suggest that Sohlberg may have also conceived of the twin peaks of Rondane as symbolising man and woman linked by the planet of love. This exhibition includes a number of full versions in oil alongside early painted and drawn sketches and studies.

Fig. 12

[Image: Harald Sohlberg, Night (1904), oil on canvas, 113 x 134 cm, Trondheim kunstmuseum MiST. Photo: Trondheim kunstmuseum]

One trait peculiar to Sohlberg is a strong proclivity for rigid – even fierce – symmetry, as seen in Night (1904; multiple versions). There a technical drawing of the church at Røros which is as much architectural elevation as painter’s preparatory study. Flower Meadow in the North (1905), the Rondane paintings and the late etching From Akershus Fortress, Evening (1926) (among many others) also display this artificiality and symmetry.

Despite the heights of his best works (described above) Sohlberg was not an artist with a consistent quality of output. There are minor pieces which – on this showing – seem somewhat aimless, as if they are detached from some illustration project. How is one supposed to interpret a scene of Christ preaching, in very simplified form, or a standing figure in a city alleyway? There are some paintings that are distinctly naïve (cats. 42 and 43). One aspect of naïve art is a certain muddiness, which comes from attempting to reproduce local colours without enough tonal variation to differentiate separate forms. Without more context, one gets the impression from these awkward pictures that Sohlberg could be an undisciplined (or, more generously, an unfocused) artist. Are these works abandoned experiments, diversions, commissions, parts of projects or otherwise explicable?

Sohlberg’s best work is his early mature art (roughly before 1915). The later work – especially when it is not a reiteration of an earlier composition – shows a marked softening in handling. Forms become repellently soft, colour cloying, compositions more diffuse. The late paintings are less forceful and memorable. The absence of a cool palette and lack of dryness in execution are detrimental to the quality of the pictures. The air of precision gives the best early work pictorial acuity and the coldness of hue gives it emotional veracity. There is a sense, in that early phase, of Sohlberg witnessing and recording things as they are; in the late work, Sohlberg is making things as he wishes them to be. There is a naïve quality to the simplified forms and pungent colour that is actively unpleasant compared to the astringency of the early period. Wisely, the curators have selected only a handful of late pieces, lest the decline dilute the impact of the early work. Only in the late prints does Sohlberg’s compositional toughness and asperity remain.

Printmaking was a supplementary activity for the artist. The prints prove his skill as a graphic artist and one wishes he had made more than 13 etchings and one colour lithograph (of the Rondane motif). He used dense cross-hatching to build tone and his approach was heavily stylised, influenced by contemporary book illustration. The scope of Sohlberg’s drawing practice is harder to assess on the basis of such a limited selection of images. The very detailed ink drawing of Røros at night stands as an independent work of art, as does the fairy-tale scene of a woman walking a country lane menaced by an ogre. The academies of his training in Weimar are in charcoal and are not related to his later work.

The exhibition includes 125 paintings (in oil or watercolour), drawings and prints. Sohlberg was also a skilful photographer of landscapes and towns; although these photographs are not exhibited, a selection is illustrated in the catalogue. The catalogue includes a useful chronology and index. From memory, I judge the illustrations accurate to life. The catalogue is generally very good, though not always thorough: catalogue entries list aquatints as “etchings” rather than giving a more complete description. Essays cover Sohlberg’s Rondane paintings, his training in Weimar, graphics, photography and a technical study of his painting style. This catalogue will be a prime English-language reference work on Sohlberg’s art, an enjoyable addition to literature on Symbolist art and another contribution to the expanding field of international engagement with Nordic art.

 

Mai Britt Guleng, et al., Harald Sohlberg: Infinite Landscapes, Hirmer, 2018, paperback, 240pp, 200 col. illus., £36, ISBN 978 82 8154 129 0 (English version; Norwegian and German versions also available)

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my books and art here: www.alexanderadams.art

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Much of my critical writing, discursive pieces and journalism is produced for the British newsletter The Jackdaw. The Jackdaw is published 6 times per year and contains reviews, news, profiles, journalism, polemic, letters and satirical humour, all centred on fine art mainly in Great Britain but also international. Many of its subjects (small exhibitions, obscure artists, controversial views, neglected news) are not covered elsewhere in print media, making The Jackdaw a valuable journal of record. Visit the website www.thejackdaw.co.uk to view typical content.

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Alexander Adams