Notes from Norway: A Weekend of Art in Bergen

Given that Bergen lived up to its impressive title as the rainiest city in Europe during my stay in mid-September this year, I was given the perfect excuse to spend my weekend immersed within the rich mass of art galleries. Here I aim to briefly explore some of the highlights of the Bergen art scene that stood out to me on my first visit to Norway’s second largest city. I will also briefly share my first impressions on three exhibitions I attended whilst there. These include two exhibitions at KODE 2, Forces – Dyrdal Kvasbø Tingleff and Edvard Munch – There Are Worlds Within Us, followed by my impressions on the Nikolai Astrup collection at KODE 4.

I feel somehow that for my first piece of writing from Norway I must start with the renowned Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. It is an exciting time for Munch enthusiasts in Oslo at the moment, as the primary Munch collection is currently being moved into a custom-built gallery space in Bjørvika, Oslo, which will open in Spring 2020. As a result of this, the exhibition I visited at the Munch Museum in Oslo in August focused on celebrating the history of the former gallery space. Thus, I was grateful to be able to attend the exhibition at KODE 2 in Bergen, which immersed me directly into the dizzying and vibrantly expressive world of Munch. Having previously limited knowledge on Munch’s work outside his iconic The Scream and Madonna, I have not been disappointed by diving deeper into Munch’s Modernism.

For me, Munch oscillates between expressionism and impressionism, replacing the third dimension with a pictorial flatness imbued with an intensity of colour and emotion that negates any craving for greater dimension or depth. It is Munch’s negation of visual detail in favour of bold, expressive shapes that allows emotive expressionism to dominate the narrative. Munch’s ability to externalise inner mental states pervaded this exhibition, with particular focus placed on his paintings depicting relationships between two individuals. Munch’s Cupid and Psyche from 1907 embodies the tension that Munch skilfully captures (Figure 1). In this piece, a darker figure stands over a pale, female nude, both constructed through abstracted vertical lines, disrupting the pictorial frame as the two figures stand as close to each other as possible without physically touching. The blurred face of the female figure and the hidden face of the marginally more masculine, but ultimately genderless figure, makes space for the viewer to construct their own narrative of what tensions lie between the two figures. This is one of my favourite aspects of Munch’s works, as he compels the viewer to react to his dynamic expressions of the human condition, hinting to the subject matter but always leaving enough space for the viewer to imprint their own emotional interpretation on the inner state of the subject. Another fascinating aspect of this exhibition was being able to see the progression of his figures and motifs in the form of woodcuts and prints as he refined and experimented with different colour schemes to achieve the images so familiar to us now. This is particularly evident in his variations on his piece The Lonely Ones, as shown in Figure 2. I hope to focus more on Munch at some point in the near future, but for now I will progress into looking at some more contemporary Norwegian artists I encountered while in Bergen.

Bergen celebrated the work of three contemporary artists across a number of exhibitions at their KODE galleries, textile artist Kari Dyrdal and ceramicists Torbjørn Kvasbø and Marit Tingleff. The three artists all started their studies at Bergen School of Applied Art, adding a satisfying dimension to the holistic nature of the exhibition that displays their works beautifully conversing with one another within the same space. Dyrdal, having moved from using a traditional handloom towards digital weaving, constructs pieces that connect the ceiling to the floor with textural patterning that draws on patterns, repetitions, structures and systems, with a particular focus on water and nature (Figure 3). Using metallic threads, Dyrdal captures the charm of water while using blues and reds, which translate to me as digitally woven re-figurations of the works of abstract expressionists such as Rothko. The ceramicists Tingleff and Kvasbø’s works perfectly complement the serenity of Dyrdal’s hung pieces, adding third and fourth dimensions to the space (Figure 4). Kvasbø primarily uses an extruder to form clay tubes, which he stacks to form horizontal or upright structures, reminiscent to me of foxgloves, vibrantly enhanced by bright red and blue coloured glazes (Figure 5). For me however, it is Tingleff who connects Dyrdal’s gigantic woven landscapes with Kvasbø’s tactile sculpture through her use of earthenware decorated with clay slips that drip down and run in layers over the partially cracked clay surface. By bridging the gap between the flatness of Dyrdal’s work and Kvasbø’s protruding sculpture the exhibition space is transformed into an intensely calming and satisfyingly tactile space. The curatorial decision to collate the works of three former students of the same institution within one of the renowned galleries of the same city was a novel and exciting concept to me, with the shared histories forging a narrative through the different artworks.

Finally, a painter whose work has been largely overlooked outside of Norway: Nikolai Astrup. As a contemporary of Munch, Astrup lived in western Norway and captured the Norwegian landscape enchantingly. Having now lived in Norway for three months and getting my first taste of autumnal Oslo, the power of Astrup’s Norwegian landscapes truly harnesses the specific vibrancy of a crisp blue autumnal sky illuminating the masses of woodland, lakes and fjords. The exhibition I attended at KODE 4 highlighted Astrup’s interest in the psychological character of colours, wishing to ‘convey an individual and subjective impression of the motif’, with the colour scheme also possessing symbolic significance. KODE 4 pinpointed a Kandinsky Exhibition shown in Oslo (formerly Kristiania) in 1916 claiming that this would have influenced Astrup’s works. Although Astrup maintains a proximity to realism his personal impression of the Norwegian landscape is compellingly fuelled by his command of colour, this is evident in Foxgloves from 1920 (Figure 6) and Milling Weather from 1916 (Figure 7). The latter portrays a greater element of Astrup’s attempts at abstraction as the landscape begins to merge and blur into indistinct shapes towards the top right of the frame. There is a neo-Romanticism to Astrup’s paintings as he meticulously studies his natural environment harnessing the overwhelming mass of the Norwegian mountains while intricately visually articulating the great details of flowers, a prime example is his ethereal depiction of the charmingly beautiful yet poisonous potential of the foxglove.

While I realise this has been a somewhat whistle stop tour of some of the Norwegian artists that have thus far piqued my interest, I hope to dive deeper into the history of Norwegian art as well as keeping up to date with the contemporary Norwegian art scene here in Oslo in my future “Notes from Norway”. Farvel for nå!

Figure 1 – Cupid and Psyche, Edvard Munch, 1907, on loan from The Munch Museum, Oslo, exhibited at KODE 2, Bergen.

Figure 2 – Series of prints showing the development into the third artwork titled Two Human Beings (The Lonely Ones), Edvard Munch, 1896, exhibited at KODE 2, Bergen.

Figure 3- Kari Dyrdal exhibited at KODE 2, Bergen.

Figure 4 – Kari Dyrdal, Torbjørn Kvasbø and Marit Tingleff exhibited at KODE 2, Bergen.

Figure 5 – Kari Dyrdal & Torbjørn Kvasbø exhibited at KODE 2, Bergen.

Figure 6 – Foxgloves, Nikolai Astrup, 1920, woodcut & oil on canvas, KODE, Bergen.

Figure 7 – Milling Weather, Nikolai Astrup, 1916, Oil on canvas, KODE, Bergen.


All photographs were taken by myself while visiting Bergen in September 2019.