When I was at university, I was in love with a Norwegian girl. I barely actually spoke to her, so love might be a little strong, but in in idle moments (of which there were many – I was a student, remember?) I would fantasise about us living in a log cabin overlooking a fjord and raising a family of little blonde Vikings. Sadly (and this was to be something of a theme throughout my student days) she didn’t seem to be aware of my existence.
I hadn’t thought of her for many years, until I saw this programme, the first of three, looking at the art of Scandinavia (the clue is in the title). The opening episode focuses on Norway, and how the country’s landscape, climate and national character have shaped its art.
Presenter Andrew Graham-Dixon gave the opening monologue in front of a fjord that looked exactly like the one I had imagined living by – icy blue waters, sheer cliffs, snow-capped peaks – so much so that I almost started looking for my cabin.
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I don’t know much about Norwegian art. My knowledge pretty much begins and ends with Edvard Munch’s The Scream, and I’m sure there’s a lot more to hundreds of years of creativity from an entire nation than one painting! So first up, Graham-Dixon looks at – oh… Munch’s The Scream. It’s a cracking painting, mind – weirdly swirly and hallucinogenic and disturbing. Munch actually painted four of them – three of which are on display in Oslo.
It wasn’t necessarily all screams and misery and horror for our Edvard, though. He was probably up for a bit of knockabout fun and japery in his spare time, right? “The angels of fear, sorrow and death have stood by my side since the day I was born,” he once said. History doesn’t relate whether he was available for kids’ parties.
Not all of Norway’s art subjects your psyche to a full-frontal assault, mind you. Graham-Dixon examines the paintings of the Romantic Nationalists, a 19th Century group who celebrated Norway’s landscapes. It’s not hard to see why. If you’re a Norwegian who’s any good at painting, you’re not short of stuff to look at – Graham-Dixon finds himself at ever more beautiful locations, from fjord to mountain to the bleak beauty of the frozen arctic wastes in the North, complete with the Aurora Bor… Arora Bour… complete with the Northern Lights.
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Back down towards the south, he visits the remote Borgund Stave Church, which he describes as “higgledy-piggledy” (I’m guessing that’s not the technical term) – an extraordinary, beautiful, ornate medieval building that looks straight out of Lord of the Rings. Actually, that pretty much applies to the whole country. You half expect an angry orc to come along and decapitate Graham-Dixon while he’s discussing the work of Peder Balke.
Our presenter, head still happily on shoulders, finishes up in Oslo, a pleasant and unhurried-looking city where spectacular modern architecture coexists happily with the traditional. He visits a café where Ibsen, writer of some of the most fabulously depressing plays in human history, used to go each day to have pickled herring and dried bread. No wonder he was miserable. There’s a painting of him in the café by Munch. I bet the pair of them were a laugh riot.
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You wonder what they had to be so gloomy about. Just open a window. Walk out the door. You live in what might very well be the most beautiful country in the world. Okay, it’s short on palm trees, and nobody should be subjected to pickled herring, but I’d take that every day if it meant I got the fjords and the snow and the mountains. And if my Norwegian girl happened to be waiting, looking radiant in reindeer hide, so much the better…
Art of Scandinavia starts on Monday, 14th March, 9pm, BBC4