Scandinavia at the Barbican

By Muinzer, Louis | Contemporary Review, February 1993 | Go to article overview

Scandinavia at the Barbican

Muinzer, Louis, Contemporary Review

A fin de siecle cynic might aptly suggest that culture as we know it is being replaced by festivals. Among the shapeless giants and tourist rip-offs, however, there are still some specimens of the kind that combine theme, coherence, respectable subject matter and genuine excitement -- festivals in which the individual events interact, strike sparks and create a larger experience than the sum total of their parts.

Fortunately, Tender Is the North, the London Barbican Centre's Festival of Scandinavian Arts, was a festival of that experience-enhancing kind. Despite its rather limiting name (a quotation from Tennyson), it had both point and focus, and if its programme was generous, it was within the grasp of those prepared to explore it in detail during the month of its existence (10 November-13 December, 1992). Most of its events took place in or near the Barbican, but there were also concerts at Wigmore Hall and The Place Theatre and an appropriate exhibition at the Design Museum.

Despite the festival's extensive programme, Artistic Director Humphrey Burton and his associates wisely made no attempt to cover every major feature and figure of the Nordic world. The treatment of film, the most modern of the arts, was remarkably deep and detailed, with more than a score of Ingmar Bergman films alone on the programme, but otherwise the offerings were thoughtfully selective. Thus, the Barbican's central art exhibition, 'Border Crossings: Fourteen Scandinavian Artists', presented a select group of modern artists, all born between 1849 and 1956, whose challenging and varied work has crossed geographical, creative and spiritual frontiers. In music, Sibelius and Nielsen were highlighted, while Nordic theatre was most prominently represented by rehearsed readings of two contemporary Swedish plays, arranged by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and an Ibsen production by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Within the boundaries of this selective programme, there were riches in abundance. Besides works by Edvard Munch and the multi-talented August Strindberg, 'Border Crossings' presented a considerable array of drawings and paintings by that gifted, unbalanced, precursor of Surrealism, Carl Fredrik Hill. The Guildhall's 'Ibsen' was also of special interest, for it was the dramatist's middle-period comedy The League of Youth -- a work so seldom performed today that Ibsen's own admirable Stage Festival in Oslo has yet to feature it. Sibelius and Nielsen, on the other hand, were presented in depth, with the complete symphonies of each being featured in an independent concert series. And for those who wanted to broaden the programme, there were a certain number of 'associated events', which included an independent Munch exhibition at the National Gallery and a contemporary Icelandic play.

Nor did Tender Is the North fail in its festival duty to spice its coverage with adventure and surprise. For me, at least, the Barbican's most exciting living contributor, aside from Ingmar Bergman, was Norway's Frans Widerberg, the only painter who received the accolade of a personal exhibition. The festival, of course, by no means discovered Widerberg, for he has been exhibited internationally now for some years. Nevertheless, his striking presence in Tender Is the North suggested his importance: with his awkward horses and featureless riders, his bright, indefinite terrains and vast, galaxy-filled skies, he is at once a visual poet of extraordinary power and one of the most creative of contemporary Scandinavians.

With its effective blend of range, surprises and selectivity, the Barbican programme could be experienced on a variety of levels. Those with a limited acquaintance with Scandinavian life and art were able to sample it at its best. They could listen to some Nielsen, attend an Ibsen play, see a few Bergman films and feast their eyes on two long walls laden with Widerberg's visual magic. Between times, they could browse among Nordic handcraft exhibits or build up their literary background by pondering library displays devoted to Knut Hamsun and Hans Christian Andersen. …

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