Elling Reitan’s Peer Gynt

Contemporary multimedia artists channels Grieg and Ibsen

Elling Reitan - Peer Gynt

Image courtesy of Norway Art
Norwegian artist Elling Reitan’s four original lithographs visually interpret Edvard Grieg’s music for the “Peer Gynt Suite.” Picture here is Peer Gynt in the Hall of the Mountain King.

Norway Art

Elling Reitan is a famous contemporary Norwegian artist who has broad interests beyond art. He plays guitar (look for him on YouTube). He majored in literature and philosophy in college. He was a high school teacher for 15 years. He has been a competitive skier, even participating in the Holmenkollen Ski Festival, and a ski coach. He is an avid golfer. Yet all along the way, from childhood, he has drawn and painted. His studies with Odd Nerdrum led him to turn to a full-time art career.

Born in Trondheim in 1949, Reitan has lived there all his life. Frequent travel in connection with his art has taken him far from home. Exhibits of his paintings, limited-edition lithographs, and silkscreen prints have been held in Europe, Asia, and North America. He was selected as the “Nobel Artist” in 2000, and his art adorned the Nobel Peace Prize diploma, an honor that brought him further international recognition.

In Norway, Reitan is known as the “painter of colors.” In addition to his frequent use of strong, primary colors, his art is very symbolic. The two tiny figures of “Yin and Yang” appear in much of his work. 

Introduction to the Midwest

When Editor-in-chief Lori Ann Reinhall asked if I had ever had personal contact with Reitan, it occurred to me that readers might be interested in the following history.

In 2006, Reitan was introduced to the Midwest, when examples of his work were brought from Norway to Minneapolis (and later to Minot, N.D.). Jan Bøckman Pedersen had begun representing Reitan after retiring to Norway from positions with NATO and later IBM in Paris. Pedersen recognized that he could use his skills to assist Norwegian artists in promoting their work, as he did when we arranged the exhibit that I would curate in Minneapolis. Paintings and limited-edition prints by Reitan were displayed at the annual Leiv Eriksson Festival hosted by Mindekirken. The Reitan exhibit, along with artwork by Norwegian-American artist Tom Maakestad, was very popular. 

Image courtesy of Lori Ann Reinhall
“Solveigs sang” is one of the four lithographs in the Peer Gynt series by Elling Reitan.

Reitan and Pedersen flew to Minneapolis for the weekend of the opening of the festival and exhibit. We were thrilled to meet them.

A few weeks later, it was an honor to have Crown Prince Haakon view the exhibit, and, at the invitation of Pastor Jens Dale, I had the opportunity to meet him to comment on it. The late Thor Johansen, royal Norwegian consul general at the time, also supported our efforts. When he sponsored a reception and dinner for the crown prince at St. Paul’s Landmark Center, Reitan’s art was displayed at his request. 

The next year, I worked with Norsk Høstfest to design and produce the official poster, which recognizes one important artist per year. The poster and other official publications featured Reitan and his piece depicting Peer Gynt’s ride. The following year, we arranged for his Peer Gynt series to be displayed at Høstfest’s fine restaurant En To Tre.

In recent years, Reitan’s art has been presented by Norway Art in several ways at Norway House in Minneapolis. It has been displayed in the Norway Art space, in special exhibits in the Coltvet Room, and at programs of the Edvard Grieg Society of Minnesota. 

Image courtesy of Norway Art
The mountains of Dovre were beautifully portrayed by the classic Danish painter Carl Saabye.

The Peer Gynt Suite

Norway’s famed composer, Edvard Grieg, wrote the “Peer Gynt Suite” based on the adventurous fantasies of Peer Gynt from Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 play. Grieg authority Dr. William Halvorsen notes that “In the Hall of the Mountain King” was composed in the summer of 1874, while Grieg stayed at the hytte of a friend in Sandviken. The orchestral version of the “Peer Gynt Suite” was completed in 1875. 

“In The Hall of the Mountain King” has achieved iconic status. It has been performed by many prominent orchestras and published in many arrangements. Its recognizable theme has become well known among classical audiences and in popular culture. Today, it has been performed by heavy metal bands, groups such as The Who, rock and folk performers, as well as in videos, television, and other media. 

Reitan’s limited edition of four original lithographs visually interprets Grieg’s music for the “Peer Gynt Suite.” The four themes chosen by Reitan were Peer’s Ride over Besseggen, In the Hall of the Mountain King, Anitra’s Dance, and Solveig’s Song. 

Ibsen imagined the Dovre Mountains as the home of the mythical troll king, Dovregubben. One of Peer Gynt’s fantasy adventures was his visit to the troll king in his mountain lair.

“I Dovregubben’s hall” is the Norwegian title of “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” The title refers to the troll king—Gubben—who lived in the fortress-like mountains of Dovre.  Both the drafters of Norway’s Constitution and the founders of the Sons of Norway used the motto standing until Dovre would fall. The chances of Dovre falling would be none, so the phrase refers to the permanent strength of the Norwegian nation, as well as the Norwegian-American organization.

The mountains of Dovre are beautifully portrayed in a painting by classic Danish painter Carl Saabye (1807-1878). In his painting dated 1857, Saabye captured the visual power of the mountains, as well as the typical Norwegian contrasts of sun and shadow, light and dark. (The first owner of the painting was King Carl Fredrik VII of Denmark. Now it may be seen at Norway Art.) 

From the time of Saabye, Ibsen, and Grieg in the 1800s to Reitan in the 2000s, the popularity of the Peer Gynt theme has persisted in art, literature and music. Like the Dovre Mountains, it is strong and long-lasting!

To learn more about Elling Reitan, visit www.ellingreitan.com.

This article originally appeared in the June 12, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Mary Jo Thorsheim

Mary Jo Thorsheim (1937-2023) was the owner of the Norway Art® importing business for 40 years and a regular contributor to The Norwegian American.