Edvard Munch’s The Scream is a classic symbol of dread that has been hailed as the ultimate icon of contemporary politics – but a very different Norwegian painting is the country’s favourite.
And as the British Museum prepares for a landmark Munch show this year, organisers of the first ever international exhibition of work by Harald Sohlberg have expressed the hope that his work will provide solace in troubled times.
The Sohlberg exhibition will open next month at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery. The artist was a contemporary of Munch’s, but his enchanting landscapes present a very different Norway option for British audiences, and one many Norwegians prefer.
His Winter Night in the Mountains, which will feature in the exhibition, was voted Norway’s national painting.
Ahead of the Munch exhibition, the British Museum’s Hugo Chapman told the Guardian that The Scream was especially resonant today. “Is that not the feeling of our time?” he said.
Curators of the Sohlberg show see his pictures as having a very different function. “He is an artist of escapism when the world appears to be going crazy,” Jennifer Scott, director of the Dulwich gallery, said.
“Sohlberg’s work is the antidote to the horrors of daily life. Winter Night in the Mountains was painted in 1914 so his paintings were immensely important in times of trouble.”
Featuring more than 90 works, the exhibition is the first Sohlberg show outside Norway and marks the 150th anniversary of his birth. It will also coincide with the major exhibition of Munch’s work that opens in April at the British Museum.
“It is part of our mission to introduce artists who are relatively unknown in this country,” Scott said. “I really hope visitors will see both exhibitions, but it is lovely that ours opens first because I think we need it more.
“Munch is exciting and raw. But, with Sohlberg, there is something that feels more profound and you can keep finding new things in his work.”
She picks out his 1906 work Fisherman’s Cottage. “I remember seeing it as a kid and I didn’t know who Harald Sohlberg was, so I’m so excited that we’ve got it. It’s a beautiful view with trees that look almost fantastical, then a glinting cottage with just a light on inside. It makes you feel safe somehow, even though the expanse of nature can be quite terrifying. It is the kind of painting that people are going to fall head over heels in love with.”
The British poet and novelist John Burnside regards Sohlberg as Norway’s finest painter and will explain why at a talk at the gallery in May. A character in his book, A Summer of Drowning, laments that nobody abroad knows anything about Norwegian art other than The Scream.
One of Sohlberg’s other admirers is the UK’s ambassador to Norway, Richard Wood. “There is something very lasting and contemporary in Sohlberg’s work which Norwegians identify with very strongly, namely a sense of the country’s majestic but daunting geography and climate,” he told the Guardian.
He added: “Norwegian art is relatively unknown in the UK. I hope that this will change with the Sohlberg exhibition and that the British public will be curious to discover more.”
Wonderful retrospective of Harald Sohlberg has attracted more than 100,000 in his native Oslo. Coming to London next @DulwichGallery – don't miss it! @nasjonalmuseet #sohlberg pic.twitter.com/L0argdObAg
— Richard Wood (@RichWoodUK) January 11, 2019
“Sohlberg’s works are clearly aesthetically pleasing. But I hope that audiences will also be able to step back and understand what he is saying about the psyche of a country with growing pains on the harsh periphery of Europe.”
He also backed Norway’s choice of Sohlberg’s work as its national painting over the better-known work by Munch.
Wood said: “While The Scream is a unique and fascinating painting, it is about Munch’s tormented soul. While not without angst at the enormity of the cosmos, Winter Night captures the soul of a whole nation perfectly. And the light and depth and colour are simply wonderful.”
Wood was diplomatic when asked whether the two exhibitions would help secure ties between the UK and Norway at a time of growing interest in the “Norway plus” option as a possible route out of the Brexit crisis.
He said: “Norwegians feel a very strong bond with the UK. They remember historical links, they grow up watching UK media, learn flawless English, trade with British companies, support British football clubs.
“The exhibiting of Norwegian artists in the UK will go some way to raise the profile of Norway in the UK. So I’m confident that whatever the outcome of political processes, the links with Norway will stay strong.”