Go & See Bursary - Helen Acklam


Harald Sohlberg: Painting Norway - Dulwich Picture Gallery, South London

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The Mermaid, 1855, Harald Sohlberg
The Mermaid, 1855, Harald Sohlberg

Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935) is a household name in Norway, his native country. After first seeing Sohlberg’s captivating works in the National Museum in Oslo last year, this was a must-see exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, South London. This is the first time his work has been shown in the UK and marks the 150th centenary of his birth.

Born in 1869 in Kristiania (now Oslo) Sohlberg’s career spanned 35 years. This exhibition of over 90 paintings is chronologically hung taking us from his earliest student artworks, through the landscapes that established his reputation to his majestic luminous blue landscapes.

While seen as a symbolist painter, Sohlberg tried to distance himself from any art history predecessors. Influences however, can be seen from Munch in earlier works, particularly his mermaids and lonely figures standing on bleak shores.

Gauguin’s legacy can also be seen however where Gauguin used a bright tropical palette, Sohlberg used local colour and northern light in similar ways that charge the landscapes with mood and emotion.

Summer Night, 1899

A section containing drawings, prints and sketchbooks suggest he mapped compositions with extreme accuracy and his attention to detail can be seen in his paintings –particularly the bare twigs of trees and flower petals. His use of paint, layering translucent glaze upon translucent glaze suffuses his landscapes with a luminous glow.

Winter Evening, 1909

In 1902 Sohlberg moved to the 17th century copper mining town of Røros with his new wife, Lilli Hennum. He made detailed images of the streets with snow creeping up the sides of crooked houses lined up under oppressive skies. The scenes are empty of people- and this became a common theme in his work.

Street in Røros in winter, 1903

This exhibition culminates with Sohlberg’s obsession with a single view that he first experienced while skiing in the Rondane mountains. He wrote  “The longer I stood gazing at the scene, the more I seemed to feel what a solitary and pitiful atom I was in an endless universe … The scene was the grandest and most full of fantastic quiet that I have ever witnessed.”

The richest version (Sohlberg painted several) is regarded as Norway’s national painting. It depicts a bright star shining between two glowing blue peaks, framed in the foreground by silhouettes of twisted pines.

It is one of the most compelling symbolist expressions of the sublime by any Norwegian painter that captures the spiritual in art.

 Winter Night in the Mountains, 1901

 Jessie Thompson of ‘Go London’ sums up the exhibition perfectly-

‘There is a great human warmth to Harald Sohlberg’s paintings despite the lack of human presence in them. His paintings are joyful revelations in colour and quintessentially Norwegian scenes, revelling in the specific Nordic light and mood that Norway provides, be it the blue tones of dusk or the yellows and oranges of sunset”.

The exhibition gives Sohlberg the long overdue recognition outside of Norway that his work deserves.

Helen Acklam, May 2019

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