Notes from Norway: The Natural World as Muse & Frame

The prevalence of the natural world in Norway’s art history embodies their pride in their natural environment that underlies the country’s national identity. From Ibsen’s use of fjords which instil a sense of foreboding to his social realist critiques of the Norwegian bourgeoisie, to the Norwegian romantic painters Johan Christian Dahl and Hans Gude who capture the immensity of the country’s landscape through a sense of the sublime, depicting the magnificence of the Scandinavian mountains broken by fertile valleys, arctic tundra and a coastline of fjords which defines this country. Thus it makes sense that a number of Norway’s finest art collections are located away from the city and amidst this mass of natural phenomena. Being used to a country’s art scene that congregates in the city centre, I have thoroughly enjoyed the excuse for whole day trips focused around seeking out the treasure chests of the Norwegian art world by getting out of the city.

Kistefos museum and Sculpture Park beautifully fuses the forests of Hadeland with contemporary architecture and art. Bjarke Ingels Group’s ‘The Twist’ (Figure 1), a gallery bridging the two sides of the Randselva river, provides a focal point within the larger Kistefos space. This gallery space also doubles as a bridge and a sculpture in itself, with the whole structure contorting into a twist in the middle, providing varying light sources across the inner space and views of the river from inside the gallery. The exhibition that I attended (the first held in this new gallery space) was Hodgkin and Creed – Inside Out. This exhibition was a celebratory curation of the artist Martin Creed’s minimalism and conceptualism amongst the emotive energy of Howard Hodgkin’s bold expressionism (Figure 2). These two artists were brought together by a performance piece executed at regular intervals during the exhibition involving dancers, dressed in, what is to me, Creed’s iconic camp take on formal wear with garments made entirely of ties, celebrating and harnessing the potential of the new gallery space (Figure 3). The dancers’ physical interaction with the artworks directly forges a relationship between Martin Creed’s quirky concept art and Hodgkin’s emotive expressionism, as their actions react and recreate the forms, shapes and directions followed by Hodgkin’s paintbrush.

This harnessing of the landscape through ‘The Twist’ gallery space embodies the sentiment of the other sculptures displayed throughout the Kistefos sculpture park. Danish artist Jeppe Hein’s Veien til Stillhet (‘The Path to Silence’) positions a vast number of long thin mirrors in the sculpture park, outside in the open air. These are aligned to guide the viewer through the sculpture in the form of a traditional path, yet the mirrored effects disorientate and delude the viewer to mistrust the given path (Figure 4). The mirrors reflect the viewer as well as the surrounding flora, asserting human presence in congruence with the surrounding natural environment, as Hein’s manmade sculpture enhances the sense of sublime experienced when entering vast woodland. Danish-Icelandic Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Viewing Machine’ from 2001 (Figure 5) extends Hein’s use of reflective effects to enhance the surrounding nature. Eliasson provides a modern take on Nordic pride in portraying its impressive natural environment through artwork by constructing a kaleidoscopic viewing mechanism allowing the visitor to distort and multiply the surrounding nature.

The use of Norway’s landscape as an artistic stimulus to artists outside of Norway is particularly celebrated at the Henie Onstad Art Centre, another of Norway’s impressive art collections located away from the city. The most striking of the exhibitions to me was Claude Monet and Bærum: 125 Year Anniversary (Figure 6). This exhibition displays Monet’s enchantment with Norway’s winter landscapes fostered during his visit to the country in 1895. Monet’s paintings of Mount Kolsås and the Christiania Fjord possess the almost luminous, pearlescent quality of Monet’s depictions of water, evident in his iconic Water Lilies series. To see the Norwegian landscape through the eyes of French impressionism captures the charming quality of the light of the Nordic atmosphere, and positions Norway on the map of European modernism. The Henie Onstad Art Centre also features an immersive room by Yayoi Kusama (Figure 7), and an exhibition of Picasso’s graphic works (Figure 8), and it was exciting to see such iconic artists exhibited in the depths of the Norwegian countryside. Additionally, the Henie Onstad Art centre utilises its position on the headland looking over the Oslofjord with a series of sculptures surrounding the grounds of the gallery by the likes of Henry Moore, Tony Cragg and Norwegian Per Inge Bjørlo.

My increasing exposure to the Norwegian art world has illuminated how, for art composed in and inspired by Norway, the natural world has become both muse and frame. This celebration and worship of the Norwegian landscape both artistically and culturally embodies the charm of the country, and shows no slowing down of the natural world acting as a key stimulus to artists going forward, evident in current art projects continuing to turn to the natural world as artistic stimulus.




Figure 1 – ‘The Twist’ by BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group, Kistefos, Jevnaker, Norway, November 2019.

Figure 2 – Howard Hodgkin, As Time Goes By (Blue), exhibited at ‘The Twist’ 2019, Kistefos.

Figure 3 – Howard Hodgkin, Talking About Art, at Hodgkin and Creed – Inside Out, 2019, ‘The Twist’, Kistefos, Jevnaker Norway.

Figure 4 – Jeppe Hein’s Veien til Stillhet, 2016, Kistefos, Jevnaker Norway.

Figure 5 – Olafur Eliasson, Viewing Machine, 2001, Kistefos, Jevnaker Norway.

Figure 6 – Claude Monet, Kolsåstoppen, 1895, at Claude Monet and Bærum: 125 Year Anniversary, at Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Høvikodden, Bærum, Norway.

Figure 7 – Yayoi Kusama, Hymn of Life, 2016, Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Høvikodden, Bærum, Norway.

Figure 8 – Picasso 347 exhibition, 2019, Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Høvikodden, Bærum, Norway.

(All images taken by Bronwen Roberts, except for Figure 3 taken by Malte Grew)


Recommended Reading

Bode, C. (2006) “Europe” in Romanticism: An Oxford Guide, ed. by N. Roe, Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp.126-136.

Gunnarsson, T. (1998) Nordic landscape painting in the nineteenth century, New Haven, Conn.; London : Yale University Press.

Jackson, D. (2012) Nordic art: the modern breakthrough 1860-1920, Hirmer Verlag.