To the men and women of Renaissance Europe, Scandinavia seemed impossibly remote and forbidding: a land of perpetual night, frozen for much of the year, inhabited by barbarians, heretics and witches. Its Arctic wastes were stalked by trolls and other fearsome creatures, such as the rapacious polar bear, while the waters of its fjords and seas were said to be infested by sea snakes of such terrifying dimensions that they might enclose a whole ship within a single coil of their tails.
Scandinavia’s reputation as another world on the edge of this world, a place suspended between myth and reality, was sealed by a single, hugely influential book: History of the Northern Peoples, written in Latin by a Swedish priest called Olaus Magnus and published, with 400 vivid woodcut illustrations, in 1555. Magnus was a Catholic in self-imposed exile from the Lutheran North, and the purpose behind his work was straightforward: to convince the leaders of the Church in Rome of the richness of his homeland, to open their eyes to its many wonders, so that they might stir themselves and seek to win Scandinavia back from the clutches of the Protestants.
The plan backfired, because although Magnus included detailed accounts of the peoples and customs of his Scandinavia, what really caught the collective imagination of his book’s readers were its images of the terrifying beasts of fable and folklore — and its chillingly evocative descriptions of life in a cold climate. Magnus devoted a whole chapter to the effects of freezing temperatures on everything from clothes to working implements (pointing out that a man’s hand will cling to his own axe if he should make the mistake of picking it up by the metal part); another to the miracle of the snowflake’s manifold forms. It is always winter in his book — a winter, moreover, haunted by fiends and monsters. Small wonder that the Pope and his cardinals turned away with a shiver, deciding that a place so thoroughly inhospitable was not worth the trouble of rescuing from Luther and his benighted followers.
And so it remained for centuries. From the time of Milton to that of Newton, Magnus’s magnum opus was pretty much the only book on its subject in the libraries of the learned. Preconceptions became frozen. Scandinavia was cold and barbarous, hardly worth bothering to know. Until the Age of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, when the modern cities of Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo began truly to take shape, it was still regarded by most educated people as a place beyond the civilised world.
To an extent, that attitude persisted into the Romantic period and beyond. Mary Shelley condemned her fiend, Frankenstein, to wander the wastes of the Scandinavian Arctic Circle, confirming that to her and most of her contemporaries it remained, above all, a realm of awe and terror.
The region’s global reputation has suddenly burgeoned, but ancient and sinister associations still seem to cling to it
As late as the second half of the the 20th century, Kenneth Clark simply left Scandinavia off his televisual map of Civilisation. Even now, when the region’s global reputation has suddenly burgeoned, ancient and sinister associations still seem to cling to it. The new wave of Nordic Noir television series is partly responsible. The Killing depicted Denmark as a bleak, feral, murderous place, inhabited by pallid, damned souls condemned to live out their lives in a half-dark hell of crime and punishment.
Sky Atlantic’s recent show Fortitude, set on an island at the Arctic edge of Norway, was even darker and more fantastical: the tale of an ancient plague coming back from the permafrost to possess its human victims, consuming them from within. Scandinavia might be thrillingly monstrous, but civilised? Not really, at least not by reputation. People might go there to wonder at the raw majesty of untamed nature or to eat in what is said to be the world’s best restaurant (Copenhagen’s Noma); but not many make a pilgrimage to experience its culture or, in particular, its art.
The signs are that perceptions might finally be shifting. Last year the British Museum staged a beautifully illuminating exhibition of Viking art, giving the lie to Lord Clark’s assertion that the Vikings were ‘a culture but not a civilisation’ — and suggesting that one of the main reasons why they have been remembered for making war, rather than art, was simply that so many of the things they created were formed from perishable wood.
And over this past winter and spring, the National Gallery devoted a show to the densely worked sublime landscapes of 19th-century Norwegian painter Peder Balke (see main image): darkly explosive studies of the most elemental fringes of the Scandinavian landscape, including what appear to be among the first attempts in painting to depict Arctic phenomena such as the Northern Lights. The rise in Balke’s reputation has been accompanied by a startling increase in prices paid for his work. Twenty years ago, one of his oil sketches could be had for as little as £5,000. Nowadays the same sketch might cost 10 or even 20 times more.
Norway has often been seen within Scandinavia as something of a bumpkins’ backwater. It is a prejudice confirmed by many a joke. Have you heard the one about the three Scandinavians building a new hotel? The Swede raises the finance, the Dane designs the furniture, while the Norwegian stocks the bar (and then drinks it dry). But these days the Norwegians seem to be laughing the hardest, having stockpiled the money from their oil and used it to create what is possibly the most benevolent social security system in the world. They have also used it to create and maintain some of the most beautiful — and refreshingly uncrowded — museums and heritage sites anywhere in Europe.
Balke and Dahl have been rediscovered... but the Norwegian art tradition still harbours many secrets, or at least so far neglected talents
There is no better place to go for an introduction to the rich world of Scandinavian art, architecture and design. For those with limited time, Oslo contains the greatest concentration of places and things to see. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design houses the most famous Scandinavian painting of all, Edvard Munch’s unsettling encapsulation of nameless urban alienation, The Scream; but it also has a fine collection of earlier 19th-century Norwegian painting. There are pictures by Peder Balke, and by Johan Christian Dahl, the so-called ‘father of Norwegian landscape painting’, who rose from the humblest of backgrounds to create what were once regarded not merely as landscape paintings but as rallying cries for a nascent Norwegian nation. His images of sheer mountains and glaciers, or of dolmens standing in defiant isolation against stormy skies, were held to epitomise the Norwegianness of Norwegian art: a steadfast pride, among the inhabitants of a still formidable natural world, at their own ingenuity and stubbornness in having founded a civilisation there.
Balke and Dahl have been rediscovered, to the extent that their work has been widely seen outside Norway, but the Norwegian art tradition still harbours many secrets, or at least so far neglected talents. Some of the most extraordinary paintings in Oslo’s National Museum were created by an obscure artist of the mid-19th century called Lars Hertervig, who painted for much of his life in complete isolation on a remote farm near Stavanger. His unpeopled pictures of the Norwegian landscape have an eerie, hyperrealised quality that seems almost to predict the dreamscapes of Salvador Dalí. They are as unsettling as prophecies, painted predictions of a time when Norway will have returned to primordial wilderness, under skies that swirl like hallucinations.
Oslo is also one of the best places to see the old folk architecture of Scandinavia, little of which survives in situ. The outdoor section of the Norwegian Folk Museum contains hundreds of ancient Norwegian wooden buildings and huts — from farmhouses to churches and schoolhouses — most of which were uprooted and moved to several acres of Oslo suburb early in the 20th century. There is nothing of the modern theme park about the arrangement. There are enough of them to form whole streets, a ghost town of the medieval past.
The Gokstad Ship at the Viking Ship Museum: ‘One of the wonders of the world’. Photo © Glyn Thomas/Alamy
Next door is the Viking Ship Museum, which could claim to be the single most striking museum in all of Scandinavia. Its contents are simply ships, displayed rather like the skeletons of dinosaurs in Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, in a space expressly designed to suit their form. The most beautiful — might it be the most beautiful ship ever made by human hand? — is the Gokstad Ship. It is as streamlined as a shark and as sinuous as a wave re-fashioned from planks of wood: one of the wonders of the world.
Anyone who gets a taste for the Vikings from the Viking Ship Museum will want to head inland, into the heart of Norway’s wonderfully unspoiled landscape, and seek out some of the 28 surviving stave churches with which the Vikings declared their conversion to Christianity. They are unforgettable, higgledy-piggledy structures, each like a cross between a Romanesque church and a Viking longboat turned upside down. Some are decorated with dragons instead of gargoyles, while in their darkened interiors — which give us the closest idea we can have, perhaps, to what Beowulf ’s mead hall might have looked like — dim figures of the old gods, Thor and Odin, often lurk. Jesus Christ was not sole helmsman of the Viking ship of faith.
The more adventurous may travel to Tromsø, to see not only the Northern Lights but also Peder Balke’s paintings of them: one of the finest collections of the painter’s work is held by the Northern Norway Art Museum in that city. Bergen should not be missed either. An old city of the Hanseatic League, it has preserved its merchant houses, and its museum contains the best display anywhere of Munch’s work during his brief period of youthful brilliance — above all, the Frieze of Life paintings. The old Michelin guides used the phrase ‘vaut le détour’ when commending a place to their readers. For anyone interested in discovering the art of Scandinavia, Norway is most certainly worth the detour.
Main image at top: Peder Balke (1804-87), Untitled (detail), 1848. Oil on Canvas. Photo © O. Vaering/Bridgeman Images
This article appears in the May 2015 issue of Christie’s magazine — Subscribe here. For more features, interviews and videos, visit Christie’s Daily