When Harald Sohlberg visited Norway’s Rondane mountains in 1899 on a skiing trip he suddenly felt something quite unexpected. “I was almost overcome by a rush of emotion greater than I had ever experienced before,” he recalled. “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.” He felt, in other words, something utterly conventional to certain sensibilities: insignificance in the face of nature was an artistic staple that had been notably expressed by Romantics such as Wordsworth in poetry, and Caspar David Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge in paint, and innumerable lesser talents too.
Sohlberg acted on his sensation in a striking way, however. So small did he feel, he excised people from his paintings altogether: there are buildings and worked fields, telegraph poles and gravestones – sign after sign of human presence but almost never the people themselves. He was an accomplished artist of the human figure and at one point thought of portraiture as a career, but in his paintings he simply preferred people’s absence. Breath still hangs in the air in his works but the bodies that emitted it have moved off, leaving balconies with a table laid for a meal that has just been eaten, houses tucked among the trees with the inhabitants safely inside, and churchyards where the people are underground and the tumbling gravestones seal them in. Instead he let nature carry meaning.
Sun Gleam (1894)
Sohlberg (1869-1935) is barely known outside his native Norway but a selection of his paintings, full of colour, mystery and an indefinable intensity, is now on show in a lovely and revealing exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. He will inevitably be compared to his contemporary Munch since both are anti-hygge artists, eschewing cosiness, but Sohlberg himself was always keen to stress that his gifts and vision owed nothing to anyone else. He studied as a theatrical scene painter in Oslo and as an artist in Paris and Weimar and although he knew Munch, Sohlberg set out to express the emotions stirred by the outside world rather than the mental tortures played out in claustrophobic rooms that drew his friend.
What gives Sohlberg’s art its potency is that he mixed realism with imagination in a distinctive, graphic way. In Sun Gleam (1894), he shows a forest path leading through the trees to a cottage overlooking a lake beyond. In some senses it is a traditional painting: the trees and ivy are minutely observed, the path leads the viewer’s eye into the scene, the horizon has the purple-blue of far distance. But the vista is closed off by branches, the cottage camouflaged by tree trunks, and on the path are a series of dancing patches of light. These shifting shapes are the real subject of the painting, impossible to view without the sprites and forest creatures of folk tales coming to mind.
Summer night (1899)
He also painted some ten versions of Winter Night in the Mountains, the revelatory scene that had impressed his own smallness on him in 1899. Usually saturated in blue, they show moonlit peaks rising up beyond a plain dotted with twisted trees, with the planet Venus at the centre of the dark sky. The mountains are not craggy put pillowy under the snow and suggestive of pulsing human shapes in their profiles, while the barren foreground is a wasteland that must be crossed first. In some of the pictures the highest of the peaks has two crevasses that form a cross in the snow. Although the picture is clearly allegorical, just what this mixture of the sublime, love, Christianity, anxiety and human insignificance means Sohlberg never vouchsafed. Perhaps he couldn’t separate the emotions he felt so folded them all into one image.
He could be explicit, especially when it involved technology encroaching on nature, as in The Country Road (1905), a dusk landscape in which a winding track leads into uncharted territory fringed with telegraph poles, as yet unstrung with wires. The Oak (1908) is really a portrait of a tree silhouetted against a rich blue sky, its leafless branches alive with wispy twig ends that dance like flames. He contrasts it with another telegraph pole, inert and empty of life force. And in the many detailed paintings he made of the small rural town of Røros, nearly 400 kilometres north of Oslo, time and nature are involved in a war of attrition: snow banks up against the houses like waves breaking against cliffs, red paint peels from the woodwork, and the church, in a remarkable image called Night (1904), sits in a moment of calm like a space rocket ready to fly from this embattled place.
Sohlberg recalled the church as “a division between the homes of the living and the homes of the dead”. His work can be sweetly beautiful but that “division”, not so much sinister as inevitable, imbues his work. His was a vision of landscape as an endlessly unfurling memento mori.
Harald Sohlberg: Painting Norway
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21
ALL PICTURES COURTESY OF THE DULWICH PICTURE GALLERY
This article appears in the 20 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Islamic State