A pictorial journey in Bergen

Through the eyes of artist Marianne Skjelbred

marianne skjelbrd

Image: Marianne Skjelbred
In the painting “Bergen Lights,” as if approaching the city in an airplane, you experience Bergen’s location, surrounded by mountains and sea.

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Images of the stunning and historic city of Bergen abound. From the famous peaked roofs of Bryggen along the harbor, to the majestic “sju fjell”—seven mountains—that surround it, to the quaint and bustling fish market, the city is rich with visual beauty. And few artists have captured the special sight of Bergen more strikingly than painter Marianne Skjelbred, who has made the city her adopted home.  

Skjelbred explains that she grew up in Sandefjord, a city known for its rich Viking history. But in 2002, she chose to move to Bergen, a move that was “a dream come true.” She was fascinated by the “charming little houses and the lovely streets, the combination of the beautiful nature, mountains and the sea, the people, and the culture.” 

Rich in history, the city was founded in 1070 by King Olav Kyrre and was named Bjørgvin, “the green meadow among the mountains.” And for Skjelbred, “Bergen is a green meadow with lots of opportunities.” In 2006, she became a full-time artist, and a large part of her oeuvre is devoted to painting her adopted hometown.

Photo courtesy of Marianne Skjelbred
Bergen artist Marianne Skjelbred shows off one of her paintings in front of her gallery at the foot of the Fløien funicular near Bryggen.

With her paintings, Skjelbred exhibits a unique ability to capture the essence of Bergen, with snapshots of its most quintessential scenes. Over the years, she has painted the historical wharf scene, Bryggen, many times, always showing fidelity to the setting, yet bringing something unique to each new piece.

With this anchoring in reality, it is perhaps no coincidence that Skjelbred began her journey as an artist as a photographer. She completed her formal studies in this discipline in 1997. 

“My paintings show signs of a photographic mindset, as I desire to capture the light,” she said. “The light is especially important to me. I am fascinated by the light’s color effects and seek to capture this in my paintings.”

But Skjelbred’s mindset is not limited by her photographer’s eye, as she has dabbled in other mediums. “Ever since childhood, I have found joy in creating,” she said. “It started with drawing, and gradually, I explored various techniques, inter alia printing, linocut, ceramics, charcoal pencil, etc.” 

And it is this eclectic approach to her work that allowed it to develop and flourish—with stunning results.

A bird’s eye perspective

Skjelbred approaches her subject of Bergen through different perspectives, highlighting essential pieces of Bergen’s landscape, history, and environment. Her aerial views of the city offer some of the most dramatic insights into the city’s terrain. Again, the treatment of light is always a crucial component, and many paintings depict nighttime scenes.

In the painting “Bergen Lights,” as if approaching the city in an airplane, you immediately experience Bergen’s location, surrounded by mountains and sea. Historically, these two elements have been essential to Bergen’s development, identity, and life. 

Bergen is known as “the city surrounded by seven mountains,” many of which Skjelbred captures in her paintings. “Ulriken by Night” depicts the tallest of them, Mount Ulriken, which soars above the city at 2,100 feet. In this study, the artist employs shades of deep cobalt blue, typical of many of her works and emblematic of the mesmerizing Norwegian nighttime sky. In this painting, like a bottle of Evening in Paris perfume, this scene enchants while preening, as the mountain admires its own reflection in the watery mirror below.

marianne skjelbred

Image: Marianne Skjelbred
Marianne Skjelbred has painted Bryggen from many angles and perspectives. Here the eye is drawn to one of the city’s iconic symbols, the Statsraad Lemkuhl with its three majestic masts.

Many views of Bryggen

Without a doubt, one of the most frequently photographed scenes in Bergen, Norway, and perhaps the entire world, is the historic Bryggen, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Fortunately, one never really tires of looking at these timeless wooden buildings, and Skjelbred’s many pieces and perspectives of these buildings point to their significance to the city and its people. 

The artist’s gallery is right around the corner from Bryggen near the entrance to the Fløien funicular. This puts the painter near the wharf on a daily basis, as the buildings reveal themselves anew throughout the year, as the light changes with the seasons and times of day.

There are rainy days in Bergen—Bergen gets a lot of rain—and at times, Skjelbred offers a more blurred, abstract interpretation of the iconic buildings, with a muted gray sky that envelops the city on misty day. The mist mutes the colors of the buildings, so iconic to Bergen’s identity. The colors of the buildings—red, yellow, and white—are traditionally the colors of Norwegian houses, and the base primary colors of red, yellow, and blue are typical of Skjelbred’s painting, which could be described as simplicity with an elegant flair.

The view from the market expands to the breadth of Bergen’s majestic harbor, embracing the mountains, as does Skjelbred’s more realistic painting above. The eye is immediately drawn to the tall ship Statsraad Lehmkuhl with its three masts, another iconic symbol of Bergen. Like Bryggen, it also has a German connection, as it was built in Germany and was handed over to Norway as reparations after World War II.

marianne skjelbred

Image: Marianne Skjelbred
There are many rainy days in Bergen, and at times, Skjelbred offers a more blurred, abstract interpretation of the beloved old wooden building at Bryggen.

In this treatment, with its more detailed, realistic technique, Skjelbred depicts Bergen at early dusk, while the sky is still light, yet evening is setting in, and you can see the reflections of Bryggen’s lights on the water. The more vibrant colors suggest late summer or early autumn.

In the background is the golden Rosenkrantz Tower, a symbol of Bergen’s wealth and power, peeking out from beyond the ship. Skjelbred masterfully melds these disparate elements of Bergen into a comprehensive whole, all situated within the city’s even loftier natural surroundings.  

marianne skjelbred

Image: Marianne Skjelbred
In “Bergen by Night VI,” Marianne Skjelbred depicts the Statsraad Lemkuhl with its bright white in contrast to the cobalt blues of the night.

In “Bergen by Night VI,” the same setting is captured after nightfall, again with Skjelbred’s signature deep cobalt blues. This painting is also about life up the mountain, as the lighting shows how Bergen comes alive with the many homes scattered on the hillside. The city is animated at night, reflected in the vibrant colors of this painting.

The geography of Bergen offers locals and visitors views of the harbor from a multitude of angles. With “The Colors of Bergen”—again, blue, yellow, red, and white—the sun sinks as the built elements of the city meld with its natural elements. The viewer can delight in how the city’s colors melt, seeping into the sea in her piece. As in many of Skjelbred’s paintings, there is a feeling of fluidity, with the reflections on deep blue water.

marianne skjelbred

Image: Marianne Skjelbred
In “Northern Lights,” the artist depicts the sea with nuanced complexity, as shades of indigo blend into marine green.

In the “The Northern Lights,” there is a distinctive change in palette, uncloaking the play of color through shadow and light. Skjelbred depicts the sea with nuanced complexity, as indigo blends into marine green. The city is a golden striation and, above, a spectral sky pours through the mountain peaks—a dramatic end to our journey through Bergen with artist Marianne Skjelbred.

The artist has written: “The art is to see the light until you become part of it.” Her art is to see the city of Bergen and render it in its special light so we, the viewers, also become part of it—a unique gift.

Skjelbred has stated is that “her dream is to encourage people.” She believes that “art can make a difference in this world, bringing life, love, hope, and joy.” From her gallery at the foot of Mount Fløyen, she sells paintings and prints to both residents and visitors in Bergen, and she ships her works all over the world, as she continues her journey.

To learn more about Marianne Skjelbred and her work, visit marianneskjelbred.com.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.