Norway is known for its mountains and fjords, but its long coastline has had perhaps the biggest impact on its people, culture, livelihoods, transport and communication for centuries. Now the Norwegian coast is the highlight of a new exhibit at the National Gallery in Oslo, as it still plays a huge role in the country’s economy and politics.
The exhibit is called Langs kysten (Along the coast), and it opened over the weekend as a celebration of not only the coast and Norwegian maritime art but also the work of the legendary artist Hans Gude and his students around 1870. Gude is also best known for his mountain and fjord landscapes, not least the iconic Brudeferden i Hardanger (Bridal procession on the Hardangerfjord) from 1848 that he painted in cooperation with fellow artist at the time, Adolph Tidemand. “But he (Gude) was so much more than that,” curator Frode Haverkamp said during a press preview of the exhibit late last week.
“We wanted to present a completely different side of Gude,” Haverkamp continued, referring to his seascapes and maritime paintings that are highlights of an art segment that’s part of the national heritage in Norway. With its long shipping history and scenic coastline, martime art is prevalent and still popular in Norway.
The art now on display also features a treasure trove of works done by several of Gude’s students who went on to become well-regarded Norwegian painters in their own right, including Amaldus Nielsen, Eilif Peterssen, Frits Thaulow, Christian Krohg and Kitty Kielland. They all studied under Gude, who became a professor at various art academies in Germany but continued to travel home to Norway, to paint.
Gude “came down from the mountains” to paint the coast and the sea, and made a breakthrough in his maritime art in 1860 after wanting “to show a new side of himself as well,” said Haverkamp, who wrote his doctoral thesis on Gude. The exhibit he’s mounted with National Gallery colleague Frithjof Bringager and project leader Rikke Lundgreen also shows how realism in maritime painting established itself in Norway, through Gude’s work and that of his students.
It’s carefully organized, starting with a time-line history of Gude’s life and work in an “orientation” room designed by Gordon Ryan, an Irish exhibit designer now living and working in Norway. “It’s meant to help make people think about the art,” Ryan said, through the use of what he called “educational window panes” tied to a few key paintings that raise questions about them without answering. “Once the mind is in an examining mode, they may look at the exhibit a bit differently.”
The art in the main rooms is then grouped thematically, based on central locations, the weather and not least the people living and working along the coast who are referred to as “everyday heroes.” They include fishermen, their hard-working families, people mending nets, or having survived shipwrecks. The exhibit also illustrates the transition in Norway from national romanticism to realism in art.
“We do view it as a celebration of the coast, the role of the coast, the importance of shipping and the workers along the coast,” said Lundgreen, the project leader. “When these were painted, it was a discovery of the coast (by artists).”
Norway’s coast and maritime heritage continues to play a huge role in politics and the economy, with the new government minister in charge of fishing and coastal issues spending the past two months traveling along the coast and concluding that things are generally going well. Plans announced Tuesday to build a huge wind energy project were blowing up controversy, but the Norwegian fishing and seafood industries are surfing on a boom that began several years ago and makes their revenues second only to oil, and clearly with more growth potential at present given the dive in oil prices. Demand for salmon, cod, shellfish and other products from Norwegian seas has never been so high.
Fisheries Minister Per Sandberg, an outspoken politician from the Progress Party, nonetheless notes that challenges remain. “There are those who want everything to remain the same, who don’t want development and are critical to anything involving change,” Sandberg told newspaper Aftenposten over the weekend. There’s conflict over his government’s attempts to deregulate the delivery of fish to local processing plants, for example, and there has long been conflict between fishing interests and those tied to oil exploration and production, because of drilling and pollution concerns.
Just like in Gude’s time, realism breaks through the spectacular scenery, in both storms and the brilliant light along the coast, which remains a huge resource to be preserved. The exhibit at the National Gallery in Oslo runs until May 8.