Nordic Impressions

200 years of Nordic art on display in D.C.’s Phillips Collection

Nordic Impressions - Harriet Backer

Image courtesy of the Phillips Collection
Harriet Backer, “Evening, Interior,” 1890, Oil on canvas, The National Museum for Art, Architecture, and Design, Oslo, Bequest of Lalla F. Hansen, 1950.

Christine Foster Meloni

Nordic Impressions is an extraordinary exhibit, brought to fruition by the four-year collaboration between the Phillips Collection and the five Nordic embassies in Washington, D.C.

With funding from the Nordic Council, Phillips Curator Dr. Klaus Ottmann traveled to Åland, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, where he spent three weeks viewing art; consulting with curators, art historians, and artists; and making his own personal selections for the exhibit.

What impressed him the most while visiting museums was how many women artists were on the walls. The Nordic countries show strong support for women. Many of the early women artists in this exhibit were encouraged to pursue their ambitions and went to study in other countries with the great artists of their time.

Dr. Ottmann states that the exhibit is representative of 200 years of Nordic art, with works from the Golden Age, the Romantic era, modernist and abstract expression movements, and art created from the 1960s to the present.

Certain themes have been evident in Nordic culture for several centuries: light and darkness, inwardness, the coalescence of nature and folklore, women’s rights, and social liberalism. More current subjects that appear in Nordic culture today are climate change, sustainability, and immigration. These themes are reflected in this exhibit.

Dr. Ottmann notes that the 53 works are not organized in chronological order. In fact, he admits that there is really no logic to the organization but that his aim was to make interesting juxtapositions. For example, he does not place all of the videos in the Video Room but puts some alongside other works.

Norwegian artists:

“Norwegian Landscape with a Rainbow” (1821)

Johan Christian Dahl was the first Norwegian painter to gain international recognition. He was born in Norway in 1788 but left his country at the age of 22 because it was not a promising place for aspiring artists. He spent eight years in Denmark before settling in Dresden, Germany.

This work is the oldest in the exhibit. A luminous rainbow arches across a dark, cloudy sky, while a small shepherd girl is the only human presence.

“A Subscriber to the Evening Post” (1887)

According to Ottmann, this painting was the first time a child had been used in art for political purposes. Oda Krohg shows her young daughter with a large pair of scissors cutting up an edition of Aftenposten, a newspaper critical of Norwegian bourgeois society. It is a charming work in the style of Impressionists such as Cassatt, Morisot, and Renoir.

“Braiding Her Hair” (1888)

Christian Krohg, husband of Oda Krohg, often painted family life. In this intimate scene, a mother is seated behind her standing daughter, braiding her hair. Krohg uses soft colors, predominantly mauve and blue.

“Evening, Interior” (1890)

Harriet Backer studied in Oslo and traveled throughout Germany and Italy before settling in Paris to become one of the most important Norwegian artists of her time.

She at first focused on natural light in her paintings but then moved to artificial light. This work (on the cover) shows an interior scene with a woman reading a letter. She is sitting in the center of the painting, shaded on one side and lit on the other.

“Tarn with Water Lilies” (1893)

Theodor Kittelsen was known for creating magical landscapes at a time when the rural population in Norway believed in mystical beings. This drawing shows a very dark mountain lake (a tarn) with lily pads whose flowers provide small dots of light.

Prints by Edvard Munch

Nordic Impressions - Munch self portrait

Image courtesy of the Phillips Collection
Edvard Munch, “Self-Portrait,” 1895, lithograph on paper, The Phillips Collection, acquired c. 1951.

An exhibit of Nordic art must include Munch. Ottmann chose to focus on the artist’s prints rather than his better-known paintings.

“Self-Portrait” (1895). Munch drew this somber self-portrait (above) when he was 32. Death was already a common theme and, at the bottom of this print, he places a skeletal arm as a memento mori.

“Two People (The Lonely Ones)” (1895). In this print Munch depicts a woman in white and a man in black standing next to each other, but not too close, on a rocky beach looking out to sea. Their faces are not visible but an overpowering sense of sadness and loneliness can still be felt.

“Henrik Ibsen at the Grand Café” (1902). Munch felt a kinship with Ibsen and has drawn the playwright in Oslo’s Grand Café, the popular meeting place for artists and writers. Ibsen’s large white head floats on a black background on the left side of the print while very small figures are seen rushing by outside through a window on the right.

“Golden Tears” (2002)

This chromogenic print depicts a young woman bathed in soft red light with tears of honey sliding down her cheek. Torbjørn Rødland explains that he means for this work to be “layered and open to paranoid interpretation.”

He describes his style as “one-third Nordic melancholia, one-third Japanese cuteness, and one-third American vulgarity.” This photograph does not appear to be either cute or vulgar.

“Legend of Ygg” (2014)

Marthe Thorshaug’s 17-minute video is a story of death riders. A group of girls dressed in black ride their horses as fast as they can over the Norwegian countryside at night, testing their courage and causing nocturnal car accidents that cannot be explained.

“Ancient Baby” (2017)

In Tori Wrånes’s mesmerizing video, projected on a museum wall, the artist floats and twists and turns in space for almost 19 minutes. Dressed primarily in orange and white and wearing two masks, she plays a musical instrument and then throws it away.

Nordic Impressions - Outi Pieski

Image courtesy of The Phillips Collection
Outi Pieski, “Crossing Paths,” 2014, wood and threads, courtesy of the artist.

Non-Norwegian artists

“Out of This World after Ensor,” Asger Jorn (1962) Denmark

Jorn took a painting of a hanged man by French painter Hugues de Beaumont and added a carnival mask to the man’s face. The practice of modifying old paintings dates to Belgian painter James Ensor’s work in the late 1880s.

“Arctic Hysteria,” Pia Arke (1996) Greenland

In this silent video we see the artist crawl across a large black and white photo of Nuugaarsuk, the region in Greenland where she grew up, destroying it as she does so. The title refers to the behavior of the Inhuit people protesting their colonial past.

“Self-Portrait,” Ruth Smith (1855) Faroe Islands

Smith studied art in Denmark and became a leading colorist in the Faroe Islands. Her portraits show the influence of Cézanne. She drowned at the age of 45 while swimming in a fjord near the village where she was born.

“The Dying Dandy,” Nils Dardel (1918) Sweden

The clear-cut figures of the dying dandy and his four mourning friends in their colorful attire stand out against a black background. The dandy represents the artist who had a heart condition from birth and died of a heart attack in 1943 at the age of 55.

“Extension,” Sigurður Guðmundsson (1974) Iceland

Guðmundsson was co-founder of SÚM, an art movement in Iceland associated with concept art. He creates staged photographs and frequently puts himself in them in ridiculous or amusing situations. In “Extension” he is straight as an arrow leaning against a wall, holding a stack of books with his forehead.

Nordic Impressions - Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Image courtesy of the Phillips Collection
Akseli Gallen-Kallela, “The Defense of The Sampo,” 1896, tempera on canvas, Turku Art Museum.

“The Defense of the Sampo,” Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1896) Finland

Receiving permission to bring this Finnish treasure to the United States was a tremendous coup for Dr. Ottmann. This powerful painting tells a story from the Kalevala, the great Finnish epic, of the sea battle for possession of a magical artifact forged for the witch of the north and stolen by a magician.

“Crossing Paths,” Outi Pieski (2014) Sámi artist in Finland

This immersive installation, made up of hundreds of colored threads (Sámi tassels) tied to wooden branches, sways gracefully from the ceiling. According to the catalogue, “Pieski’s art interweaves memories of the indigenous people of Scandinavia with the mountainous landscapes of the north.” It took two days to mount this intricate work of art.

This exhibit runs from Oct. 13, 2018, to Jan. 13, 2019. The Phillips Collection, the oldest museum of modern art in the United States, is located at 1600 21st St., N.W., Washington, D.C. For more information, see the Phillips website at

<em>This article originally appeared in the November 2, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit <strong><a href=””>SUBSCRIBE</a></strong> or call us at (206) 784-4617.</em>

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.