Scandinavian Art at the Phillips: Wild, and Wildly Diverse

Evening, Interior, 1890, by Harriet Backer. Oil on canvas. (The National Museum for Art, Architecture, and Design, Oslo)
Norse myth, nature mysticism, and modern camp defy cliché in Nordic Impressions.

The Phillips Collection in Washington is an example of what joys diversity can produce. Not the superficial, bean-counting diversity lots of people cry about but a diversity for intelligent people, diversity in mission, scale, and ideas. In a sea of big-government museums, crowds, and polemical blockbusters, the Phillips is small, set in a historic house, funded through private giving, blissfully independent, and free to experiment.

Its new show, Nordic Impressions, is a free-form, deeply engaging look at the art of Scandinavia. It’s not encyclopedic. Rather, it’s a deft assembly of works done by artists, most of whom I didn’t know, from Greenland to Finland. Some of the art is historic and some is new. At times bracing, at times warmly intimate, the art challenges us to dispel stereotypes. There’s plenty to love and to learn.

The show has a voice. The curator, Klaus Ottmann, picked the objects based on what he thought was good and intriguing and unsullied by clichés. The art doesn’t fall into conventional movements we know like “neoclassicism” or “impressionism,” which apply readily in France or Britain but don’t work everywhere. He did find two we might not know that are relevant to northernmost Europe. One starts in the 1870s when Scandinavian artists declared independence from French style, the School of Paris, a bland, derivative international style, and instead sought nationalist styles rooted in their own culture and topography. A second, largely regional movement, springs from Fluxus in the 1960s and ’70s. Conceptual and performance art then found a distinctive home in Scandinavia.

This leads to some very funky art. The video art in the show is particularly great and must be experienced. It fits so perfectly with everything else, one of many sensitive curatorial choices. My favorite was Rita Jokiranta’s (b. 1972) flowing water video, which, for doubters on video art’s beauty and authority, shows what video can do that painting can’t.

There’s some northern light but not a lot. Some angst — Ibsen was Norwegian, after all — but it’s not a wet blanket. No fjords. There are many different cultures involved, but all seem to gravitate toward nature. Many of the artists are women. It’s impossible to make a generalization about them, except that they’re all good. None are famous. It wasn’t their micro-climate — their families or neighborhoods — that failed them, since their art is solid and they felt free to chase their vision. Selling them short was the macro-climate of the European art market, big-city schools, and art critics.

Norse myth is important in both narrative pictures and the prevalence of nature mysticism. Theodor Kittelsen (1857–1914) and Hugo Simberg (1873–1917) painted small landscapes emitting both peace and dread via eerie, dark passages of water dotted with tiny flashes of light or small plants that seem electrified. What lurks beneath is left to the imagination, or the viewer can simply enjoy their beauty. I’ve written about August Strindberg’s paintings before. Strindberg (1849–1912) was a great writer but also a wild painter. His Wonderland from 1894 is both a seascape and a cavescape, and a new twist on a painting with both indoor and outdoor elements.

There are lots of interiors, but they aim at two things: the aesthetic properties of candlelight and gaslight, and ways to show people indulging their own thoughts. Harriet Backer (1845–1932) painted Evening, Interior in 1890. It’s magical. So is Helene Schjerfbeck’s The Seamstress, from 1905. Don’t burden yourself with finding a social context for the figure. The picture is too riveting to get cluttered with labor economics.

There’s wit, whimsy, twists, and turns, too. Sigurdur Gudmundsson (b. 1942) is Icelandic. His work often frames his body in counterintuitive situations. He and the photographer and video artist Ragnar Kjartansson (b. 1976) dance to the beat of their own drummers. Iceland is a way-out place geographically and temperament-wise, and I’ll leave it at that. Their work is wonderful.

Many of the artists in the show move freely among media. The art world is smaller in Scandinavia and less cutthroat. Artists don’t feel pressure to occupy niches. There’s great sculpture in the show, too. Materials are often wood and textiles. The overall effect is art that’s confident and clever but also comfortable and tuned to humanist values.

For Americans, the many constituent pieces of Scandinavia have little ugly historical baggage. Nothing threatens us. We don’t think of them as oppressors, invaders, anarchists, evildoers, Communists, fascists, or ethnic cleansers, although some were a bit of each. One of the show’s many pleasures is the clean slate the art brings. It’s a relief, I suspect even more so in Washington, where everything is so grimly freighted.

The art is installed where it looks best, in conversation with things having some visual compatibility and just enough tart contrast. Each gallery has something to draw people in, something recognizable, a memory jog, but instantly winning. Nils Dardel’s (1888–1943) The Dying Dandy draws from lots of Old Master scenes of the dead Jesus as well as the Death of Wolfe, by Benjamin West, and the Death of Chatterton, by Pre-Raphaelite Henry Wallis. These death scenes get progressively campier. The brilliantly eccentric Dardel wins the prize on that score. It’s big, with Matisse’s palette, even though Dardel was Swedish. There are works by big stars Edvard Munch and Anders Zorn, but they are not front and center and give the other artists room to shine.

We’re spared the martinet curator. There’s no dictated path, so the visitor is free to wander. The wall labels focus on the individual artists and objects. Meaning isn’t forced. Old and new art and media are mixed. The galleries are not grand — this was once a home — and the art is mostly small. The art, spaces, lighting, and wall colors generate a sense of warm welcome. Visitors want to stay, to look, and to learn.

The Phillips has a superb permanent collection, mostly bought by Duncan Phillips. It has the stamp of a strong personality and focuses on American and French modern painters. Renoir’s grand, sumptuous Luncheon of the Boating Party from 1880 is there. Only America has the kind of philanthropic character inviting a collector to establish a museum open to the public based on his collection. In Europe, a collection of this quality and distinction would most likely get sold and dispersed after the owner’s death. His heirs would prefer to have the money. Almost all European museums are owned by the state, anyway. Imagination like that on display in the Phillips’s Nordic art show is not standard. We see it in America through a museum community built on vast differences in taste and interests. It’s diversity that has a point.

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