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11 December 2019

Dreams of the North

How a journey into the Arctic Circle left the painter Peder Balke with ice in his soul. 

By Michael Prodger

Peder Balke was the artist of the end of the world. In 1832 he sailed to Finnmark, Norway’s northernmost county, hundreds of miles into the Arctic Circle, bordered by Finland and Russia, and pounded by the icy Barents Sea. At the North Cape he went ashore, and was assaulted by nature. “I had positioned myself on a rocky plateau some 100 feet above the sea,” he recalled, “and I felt I had to hold on tight to the cliff when the backwash hurled itself against the rock face and with a deafening sound like thunder rolled out again into the heaving sea.”

Other artists of the period, such as Turner and Caspar David Friedrich, painted the sublime, but Balke experienced it. It was only in 1814 that Norway separated from Denmark and discovered in the far north its own national realm of myth. Balke was one of very few Norwegians who ventured there, and the experience was to reappear in his art over and over again. Immersed in his country’s wild lands, he wrote that “I hardly knew whether what surrounded me was real or supernatural”. He set about painting this dream state in pictures of isolation that though tiny in scale are nevertheless epic, all churned seas, aqueous light, cliffs and peaks of unfeasible height and fatal sheerness.

Balke very rarely painted people, so Sami with Reindeer under the Midnight Sun (1850), from the Northern Norway Art Museum, Tromsø, is an oddity. It does not record a real scene but is a remembrance: a poetic distillation of scenes and atmosphere experienced 18 years earlier on that Finnmark voyage.

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It is also a picture that teeters on the very edge of cliché, containing as it does a nap hand of Romanticism’s favourite motifs, by 1850 already worn smooth. Into this small picture he managed to fit the noble savage, the vastness of nature, Wordsworth’s sense of “something far more deeply interfused,/ Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns”, and human insignificance.

The Sami people, he suggests – a race of semi-nomadic reindeer herders as old as the Norse sagas – might have a place in this implacable realm, but inhabitants of the so-called civilised world did not. And what other mysteries might lie, forever undiscovered, at the end of that haunted valley?

Balke’s debt to Caspar David Friedrich, who he had met in Dresden, is obvious. The painting is a reworking of the older artist’s celebrated Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818), the icon of Romantic existentialism. But if Friedrich’s figure seen from behind – the rückenfigur – is Everyman, Balke’s trinity of herder and beasts stand apart, as alien to us as the landscape around them.

Something of the painting’s emotional compression can be traced back to Balke’s roots. He was a farmer’s son, born into such poverty that his neighbours paid for him to train as a house painter, stencilling motifs in nearby homesteads. When he raised his sights it was Johan Christian Dahl, the pre-eminent Norwegian artist of the time, who told him to look to nature. Balke never forgot the tricks of the decorator’s trade, however, and his later works – seascapes and desolate islands rising from the Arctic sea – were fashioned with swipes of the palette knife, dabs of his fingers and scratches of his brush handle. It is this experimentation that makes some of his pictures seem so modern.

Although Balke could number both the Swedish king Karl Johan and the French king Louis-Philippe as patrons, he fell out of favour. He abandoned painting as a commercial enterprise, although he continued to paint Finnmark scenes for himself, an itch he could never scratch away.

Instead he devoted himself to politics, property and social justice, buying farmland north of Oslo and selling plots to the capital’s workers (they paid with money he lent them). The new suburb was named Balkeby and by 1878, 1,100 people lived there. He campaigned too for grants for artists and pensions for both men and women.

In 1887 Balke had a stroke: he died in Norway’s most populous city, still obsessed by the unpopulated wilderness of the north.