Peder Balke: Painter of Northern Lightby Jason Rosenfeld
Metropolitan Museum of Art | April 10 – July 9, 2017
Norwegian painter Peder Balke (1804 – 1887) is unrepresented in the Metropolitan’s collection, but owned in depth by longtime supporters of the museum, the Hearn Family Trust and Asbjørn Lunde, who have together lent thirteen of seventeen works by the artist in this one-room sparkler of a show. Additionally, curator Asher Miller has smartly added seven works from the Met collection by three related painters, and two hyper-detailed maps, to flesh out the significance of this little-known exponent of late romanticism and the particularities of his unique vision—the final flourish of what the art historian Magne Malmanger has called the “Nordic Sublime.”
Balke was born into the impoverished agrarian working class on the island of Helgøya on Norway’s largest lake. He studied in Christiania (now Oslo), and then Stockholm from 1829 to 1833, eventually seeking advanced artistic instruction in Dresden under Norway’s John Constable, the romantic naturalist Johan Christian Dahl (1788 – 1857), in 1835 – 36 and 1843 – 44. The spiritual landscapes of Dahl’s German friend, Caspar David Friedrich, also made an impact. Balke’s life-long subjects were derived from a sketching trek around the south of Norway in 1830, and a boat expedition in the summer of 1832 that took him from Trondheim to Vadsø along the country’s northernmost Finnmark coast. His undertaking became the depiction of Norwegian scenery, a common gambit by artists across Europe in the wake of Napoleonic aggression, as they sought to codify what was distinctive about their respective countries, and cultivate patronage.
The exhibition’s subtitle, “Painter of Northern Light,” somewhat understates the attraction of Balke’s works. In his advanced tendencies, he is the J.M.W. Turner of Norway; indeed, having spent over a year in London from 1849 to 1850, it is unlikely that he overlooked Turner’s work. His pictures after this visit, though often traipsing over the same motifs that he worked with previously, embrace a new engulfing radiance, and set aside the characteristic compositions and conventional tropes of the pan-European Romanticism of his youth. Sometimes though, he tepidly reprised them as in the small View of the Sarpsfossen (1852), and a snowy scene, Finnmark Landscape (1860s).
Karl Ove Knausgaard, as sensitive to the Norwegian landscape as he is to his own ego and libido, disclosed in the first volume of his six-part autobiography that he had a “night mood” by Balke in his Stockholm office, “the green and the black in it” (2009). Balke’s stock-in-trade were such dark pictures, in appearance and feeling, reflecting the long nights of northern Norwegian winters, using motifs that he pursued continually and became associated with. Most striking are his representations of the great massif of Nordkaap. He came back to it again and again, like Constable at Salisbury Cathedral, Paul Cézanne at Mont Sainte-Victoire, or Marsden Hartley at Mount Katahdin. Resembling a gargantuan Easter Island head laid on its back, in The North Cape (1853), the jutting mass has the quality of a block of semi-translucent obsidian, frosted with ice. Miller cites Balke’s “radical simplification of form” and “hallucinatory” views, but what is most advanced are his attempts to render moving weather and air itself, as Turner, the greatest painter of atmospherics, was able to do. Yet Balke dispensed with Turner’s massive canvases, broad effects, and dramatic evocations of European history in favor of minute meditations on local scenery. There is no atmospheric perspective, no middle ground. People figure, if at all, only as foreground staffage, anonymous denizens of forbidding environs.
Despite his attempt to represent Norway’s singularities, such as Nordkaap and Mount Stetind, by the later 1850s Balke’s local market had deserted him, and the politically engaged artist turned to other means of public engagement. At the end of the decade he founded a worker’s commune, Balkeby, wherein he let homes to workers and craftspeople, a precursor to socialist artistic communities that would soon proliferate across Europe. In 1879, it burned. But until a stroke in the 1880s took the brush out of the artist’s hands, Balke did not stop painting: as his political engagement grew, his private productions became ever more distinctive and evocative.
Most astonishing of these are six monochromatic paintings of northern scenery at its most iridescent. They are from late in Balke’s career and are surprisingly small, resembling black ink monotypes or aquatints. In Coastal Landscape (1860s), a great arc of lightly dashed grey paint flits across the sky, forming a mountain and echoing the curvature of boulders in the surf below. In Northern Lights (1870s), the aurora borealis is drained of its otherworldly hues but not its glow. Portrayed as upwardly rocketing vertical shafts of light, a negative image barcode-like scrim in the sky emerges from horizontally rippling waves below, seemingly manipulated with a kind of comb. It is scintillating painting, heaving with imaginative power, and all at under 4 by 5 inches. These monochrome oils resemble the radical light experiments in Joseph Wright of Derby’s Enlightenment landscapes mixed with the abstract proclivities in Victor Hugo’s contemporaneous drawings, and anticipate the measured pyrotechnics in August Strindberg’s fin-de-siècle amateur paintings. But has any painter ever conveyed such monumentality on such a small scale? Their sublimity is all the more enhanced by their concentrated compactness. Empiricism has given way to evocation. The impossibility of painting the Northern Lights resulted in a radical photographic pictorialism, combining the monochromatic and small format of daguerreotypes with a delicacy of paint manipulation that retained the artist’s hand. It was what engravers of Turner and Constable had sought to convey in prints after those painters’ nearly untranslatable works—a sense of atmosphere, climate, weather, drama, vastness.
“Empirical truth is hardly an important concern of the sublime,” wrote Malmanger in A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting 1840 – 1910 (2006), and in his own twilight, Balke put this into brilliant practice—drawing on memories of treks from near half a century earlier, and setting free his imagination—creating grandly intimate works that convey a vivid sense of continuous rediscovery.
JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for The Brooklyn Rail.