From Dahl to Munch

Written by  Maria Luisa Pacelli
Romanticism, realism and symbolism in Norwegian landscape painting.
The Palazzo dei Diamanti is currently hosting an exhibition of Norwegian landscape painting. The Norwegian landscape movement was born early in the 19th century with Johan Christian Dahl. The artist, inspired by his country's natural scenery, started a tradition of great beauty which, while it drew on what was happening elsewhere in Europe, maintained its individual identity, a result of the morphological and cultural characteristics of Norway itself.

The exhibition, the fruit of a project by Ferrara Arte and the Nasjonalgallerjet of Oslo, documents the development of this figurative school, from Dahl's naturalistic romanticism to symbolist-inspired works; this movement was to be found in Norway in the person of Edvard Munch, one of its best-known and most representative figures.

The Norwegian landscape artists were great travellers, and lived mainly abroad. Nonetheless they maintained close ties with their homeland which continued to be the main subject of their painting. Dahl himself was the first to leave Norway to attend the academy in Copenhagen, later, after time spent studying in Italy he settled in Dresden. A convinced naturalist, he believed in the necessity for observation from life; as an artist, he wanted primarily to be an interpreter of the landscapes of his homeland.
The need to return home thus became ever stronger and in 1826 he left for Norway. According to the artistic manifesto he developed, a landscape should "transport the viewer INTO a given country" and express "that which IS characteristic OF that country AND its nature."

Pupils of Dahl, Thomas Fearnley and Peder Balke, developed what they had been taught in a personal manner, the first stressing the romantic and spectacular aspects of the master's art, the second creating an original technique with which he gave life to a surprisingly modern pictorial language. Like the other Norwegian landscapists of the romantic period, Balke too wanted to express the specific character of the Norwegian countryside, but both the technique which he developed and his way of looking at the land took on a symbolic nature in order to express the relentless power of natural phenomena.

Towards the middle of the century a new trend emerged in Norwegian painting, leading artists towards explicit, majestic romanticism, stemming from nationalistic ideals. The leading representative of this new wave was Hans Gude. During his long career the artist moved from an idealised conception of landscape to a more sober, naturalistic one.
A successful painter, Gude taught a host of Norwegian artists. Kitty Lange Kielland, the leader of the realist movement during the 1880s, studied with him in Karlsruhe; subsequently, she continued her studies in Munich, and in 1879 moved to Paris, where she stayed for a decade. During the summer, the artist spent long periods in Norway to paint en plein air.

The works of Norwegian painters who took part in the symbolist trend at the end of the century bring the exhibition to a close.

Outstanding among these are the splendid paintings by Edvard Munch, who - thought not primarily a landscape artist - was to work in this genre throughout his career.