Two Norwegian Artists Delve into Symbolism from Different Angles A New York Exhibit Contrasts Angst of Edvard Munch with His Contemporary Harald Sohlberg's Love of Nature

By Carol Strickland, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 8, 1995 | Go to article overview

Two Norwegian Artists Delve into Symbolism from Different Angles A New York Exhibit Contrasts Angst of Edvard Munch with His Contemporary Harald Sohlberg's Love of Nature


Carol Strickland, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


IF Norwegian painter Edvard Munch was the avatar of high anxiety, his contemporary Harald Sohlberg was the champion of mystic intensity. The two artists' works are currently displayed together at the National Academy of Design in "Landscapes of the Mind."

At the end of the 19th century, artists such as Munch (1863-1944), composer Edvard Grieg, and playwright Henrik Ibsen achieved international recognition when Norway - one of the poorest countries on the outskirts of Europe - experienced a cultural golden age.

Now the National Academy of Design attempts to add another figure - Sohlberg - to the stellar lineup with the exhibition, which runs through Jan. 14, 1996, and includes more than 150 paintings, drawings, and prints from the 1890s to about 1910. The differences between the two artists show that Norwegian paintings play more than a one-note tune.

Sohlberg (1869-1935) is extremely popular in Norway but little known elsewhere. His work couldn't be more unlike Munch's. Sohlberg's landscapes are meticulously detailed, while Munch was accused of producing unfinished sketches all his career. Sohlberg's images of mountains, meadows, and fiords are empty of figures and resonate with sublime majesty. In contrast, Munch's figural landscapes radiate angst.

Sohlberg's vision of nature's vastness makes you want to book the next fiord cruise, while Munch's seething shores might convince you to swear off beaches.

What the two have in common - besides a fascination with some of the same scenes - is their Symbolist bent. Both used landscape to represent interior reactions to the exterior world. In the case of Munch, menacing, sinuous lines indicate abject despair, while vast empty spaces convey Sohlberg's awed response to nature's grandeur.

Munch's best-known themes are on display. His friend, the playwright August Strindberg, called Munch the "painter of love, jealousy, death, and sadness." We see how personal tragedy colored his palette. "The Sick Child" (1896), which critics ridiculed as a "miscarriage," recalls the illness that killed Munch's mother and favorite sister when he was a child. The superb lithograph presents a profile of a young girl. Thin, agitated lines emphasize her physical frailty.

Expressive brushwork, put to effective use in "Mystic Shore" (1892), is a signature element of Munch's technique. The seacoast surges in undulating curves to contrast with the vertical, broken bars of reflected sunlight on water.

"Separation" (1896) best shows how Munch distorted form and color to express extreme psychic states. A faceless female, whose dress merges with the shoreline, floats away from a dejected lover. Her hair streams back, entwining his head, to imply he is still in her thrall. He clutches his heart with a blood-red hand.

Such an overwrought image, and others like "Vampire," are saved from melodrama by Munch's powers of pictorial invention. …

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