The Art of Scandinavia: Dark Night of the Soul

Art of Scandinavia 1

Often overlooked in the annals of European art, Scandinavia has a wealth of hidden riches, which are revealed in this major new 3-part series, looking at Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Andrew Graham-Dixon presents, and brings a real storyteller’s ear to the narrative, picking disparate works of art, from paintings to novels, scattered with snatches of philosophy and historical background from across the centuries to create a vivid picture of the region.

The first episode focuses on Norway. From the intense, austere and god-fearing art of early Viking societies, we journey through the ages, seeing how Christianity, in both its growth and later decline, and the shock of the industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th century affected this once simple and agrarian land.

Graham-Dixon neatly weaves the art into its historical context. The 19th century Romantic Nationalists, who depicted Norway as a land of untamed wilderness, of simple farmers and fishermen living out a grand, noble life against the elements, belied the truth of the period, which in fact saw rural areas decline in population by up to 50%, as thousands flocked to the cities to find work, or indeed left Norway altogether. Adolf Tidemand’s The Grandfather’s Blessing is a more realistic picture, a scene of separation, as a young woman prepares to leave her grandparents and simple country life behind, her husband impatiently carrying their things out the door.

Meanwhile, an examination of Olauf Magnus History of the Northern Peoples gives a clear image of the Scandinavia’s position throughout much of history as a distant bastion of savage, otherworldly remoteness.

Scandinavian art is enjoying a small moment in the sun, what with last year’s exhibition at the National Gallery of Peder Balke’s black and white depictions of the brutality of the landscape, and Dulwich Picture Gallery’s current exhibition (the very first outside of Norway) of Nikolai Astrup’s magical, fairytale imaginings of his homeland of Jølster.

This series, then, has come along at the perfect time, and is the ideal vehicle to familarise oneself with the wonderfully varied work of Scandinavia’s innumerous forgotten masters. Andrew Graham-Dixon’s programme is a fantastic overview and introduction for the initiate.

Next week’s programme explores the elegant and deceptively European art of Denmark, before the final episode looks to the surrealist, romantic works of Sweden.

The Art of Scandinavia is on BBC Four on Monday nights at 21.00.