A nyone who has experienced the grandeur of the Norwegian landscape – its humbling scale and sharp-edged beauty – will understand Harald Sohlberg’s approach to painting. A contemporary of Munch and Ibsen, this master of the Scandinavian landscape managed to avoid the clichés of Nordic melancholia. His vistas are as joyous as they are dramatic, as intimate as they are awe-inspiring.
The artist’s exhaustive approach to landscape painting is showcased in Harald Sohlberg: Painting Norway, a new exhibition at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery. In his homeland, Sohlberg is famed for his stylised views of the snowy peaks of Rondane – his blue-toned nocturne Winter Night in the Mountains is considered Norway’s national painting – and the clapboard houses of Røros, a 17th-century copper-mining town and UNESCO World Heritage site.
Norway values its landscape. Residents of Oslo use the Nordmarka, its vast forest of spruce, like New Yorker’s use Central Park. Sohlberg’s paintings rhapsodise on its splendour, in both micro and macro fashion, from the petals of daisies to sweeping panoramas of pines. His pictures often whittle the relationship between man and nature down to a single element, a cabin in the woods or a jetty on the fjord. In Night (1904) a lone light in a remote church becomes the only evidence of humanity in the wilderness.
For me, Sohlberg’s genius lay in his meticulous handling of flora and how he juxtaposed such intricate detail – one critic claimed that his work “makes you believe you could see the world in a dewdrop” – with the vast horizons. He could silhouette a latticework of branches against a vast expanse of sky or water, like fixing butterfly wings to a jumbo jet.
Sohlberg was born in 1869 in Kristiania – now Oslo – the son of a furrier. He trained as a decorative painter and would later bring his draughtsman’s sensibility to his paintings. He followed his own path, and although many saw the shadow of Munch in his more Symbolist paintings he always denied the influence.
Although moored to a tradition of Scandinavian painting, Sohlberg was a modern man. He had an electric gaze and a handlebar moustache, and he liked to experiment. His studio technique involved layering thin transparent glazes on his paint surface to create ethereal sheens. And he embraced photography as an aide memoire when working up his compositions. To the contemporary eye, these photographs, with their unusual perspectives and enigmatic subjects, are artworks as much as documentary pieces.
The artist’s meticulous approach resulted in a small body of work. “Collectors have jealously guarded their Sohlbergs. Great paintings by him are hardly ever seen at auction,” notes Richard Lowkes, specialist in 19th century European paintings at Sotheby’s London. “Each time one is offered there has been an enthusiastic response from collectors, and a price which broke the last auction record.” Sotheby’s created the current record in 2016, with the sale of From Værvågen, The Fisherman’s Cottage for £1.2 million.
Following its success at the National Gallery in Oslo, the Sohlberg retrospective at Dulwich allows viewers a rare opportunity to see the work of an idiosyncratic spirit. One that was – to borrow the Norwegian tourist board’s slogan – “powered by nature”.
Harald Sohlberg: Painting Norway
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
13 February – 2 June