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27 January 2021

The pared-back landscapes of Anna-Eva Bergman

In her quest to reveal the divine in nature, the Norwegian painter stripped back the landscape to its essential forms.  

By Michael Prodger

In 1904, in a letter to a friend, Paul Cézanne described his theory of composing from nature: the thing to do, he said, was to ignore particularities and “treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone”. By simplifying the elements of the landscape into geometrical shapes and lines, its essential form could be both captured and revealed as “the spectacle that the Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus [God the father, omnipotent and eternal] spreads out before our eyes”. Cézanne’s celebrated dictum was the foundation for the even more rigorous landscape pictures of the Norwegian artist Anna-Eva Bergman, although she did not explicitly acknowledge it.

When asked what she sought to express in her pared-back images of nature, Bergman (1909–87) eschewed explicit Christianity, but not the numinous. In an echo of Cézanne, she confessed: “I see the entire cosmic mystery through colours and geometry.” From the early 1950s, she worked and reworked a cluster of motifs called simply “Les Thèmes” – the themes – which meant mountains, fjords, rocks, menhirs, planets, boats and the line of the horizon. These simple-shaped archetypes defined each picture. “Every motif has its own rhythm,” she said. “The composition of a picture is a direct result of the motif’s rhythm and is individual for every image of painting.”

Bergman’s route to semi-abstract landscape painting was indirect, arriving at it only after dalliances with other styles and influences. She was born in Stockholm to a Swedish father and Norwegian mother, but six months after her birth her parents separated and she spent most of her childhood with her maternal aunts in Norway. Her initial artistic training was in Oslo, but in 1928 she moved to Vienna and then, after a serious digestive disorder, first to the Côte d’Azur to convalesce, and then to Paris to study. It was there that she met the German painter Hans Hartung, whom she married in late 1929, moving with him to Dresden. So, by the age of 20, she had already lived in and absorbed the art of four different countries.

Initially, Bergman subsidised her painting with illustrations for Viennese magazines. Although these were influenced by the work of Otto Dix and George Grosz, they remained closer to caricature than satire, and poked fun at the bourgeoisie without the German artists’ savagery and rage. She was, however, unable to remain apart from the politics of the time. Not long after moving once more, to Minorca, she and Hartung were suspected of being German spies and were put under surveillance, forcing them to leave the island. Her major achievement there was to write Kasseroller, a cookbook of recipes from around the world.

[see also: The fabric of nature]

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In the next few years the hurly-burly of her life intensified, with recurrent bouts of illness punctuating stays in Germany, Norway and Italy. They culminated in her divorce from Hartung in 1938 and, having reclaimed citizenship, her return to Norway.

Hartung spent the war in the French Foreign Legion, surviving imprisonment by the Gestapo, the loss of a leg during combat in France, and service in North Africa. Bergman, meanwhile, saw out the conflict in Norway as a book and magazine illustrator, while also producing drawings documenting the German occupation, and self-educating in philosophy, literature and architecture – filling notebook after notebook with reflections and musings. In 1944 she married an engineer and amateur painter called Frithjof Lange, but by 1952 she had taken up with Hartung again and in 1957 they remarried.

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By then Bergman had started painting once more, spurred, in part, by the landscapes of north Norway where, on a sea voyage in 1950, she was struck not just by the war damage but by the way “the mountains seem transparent, nothing is thick any more. It’s like a vision for the future, a possibility yet to be realised. If you want to paint this you have to find the expression that suggests the atmosphere, the effect of colours.”

Her way of doing this was by increasing abstraction and incorporating metal into her pictures – gold, silver and copper leaf that she would paste to the canvas and sometimes burnish, sometimes paint over, to reveal it through scratchings, rubbings and abrasions. In this painting of 1957, Grande Montagne D’Argent No 4, silver is the base metal for her Cézanne-approved conical mountain, rising at once adamantine and delicate against a background of scarified blue that could be sea, sky or land. There is no measure of scale, but its dominating mass is replete with philosophical, mystical and folkloric possibilities, and offers a timeless presence. It carries echoes of Japanese lacquerwork and older northern artists such as Peder Balke and Caspar David Friedrich as well as the colour field painters and abstract expressionists who were busy in the US in the 1950s (indeed, Bergman met Mark Rothko several times).

The minimalist style Bergman settled on was perhaps the distillation of her experimentation and theorising and her years of wandering, although these did not come to an end until 1973 when she and Hartung made their last move, to Antibes. But she never stopped worrying away at the landscape’s spiritual charge. “Nature is materialised divinity,” she wrote. “The concept of divine is abstraction that makes itself manifest – and materialises through nature.” Given this creed, her glistening magic mountain is most fittingly seen less as a sublimation of nature than as an altarpiece. 

[see also: How Pierre-Jacques Volaire perched his viewers on the rim of Vesuvius]

This article appears in the 27 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost