One is tempted to wheel out that old chestnut about naming ten famous Belgians; most people can come up with half a dozen, although two of those usually mentioned, are characters from fiction. On the other hand, name some famous Norwegian painters, and you will most likely get Edvard Munch, followed by a long silence.Visitors to the Dulwich Picture Gallery will recall an exhibition of Nikolai Astrup’s work exactly two years ago, and have the advantage. Well, now there’s a third name to add to the list, namely Harald Sohlberg. Without descending to the soft underbelly of Nordic stereotypes, what we see here is another lugubrious and melancholic Norseman, beset by Symbolism, and haunted by dreams, visions and emotions. Love, death and sex are not far behind. What we have, then, is a fairly competent painter straddling the turn of the nineteenth century, and using his native Norway as his muse and model. His landscape oils of summer nights are moody, eerie and convincing, each with a magical quality that evokes both the unique light at sunset and the nature that dominates the scene. His figurative work, however, displays an inconsistency in his work, that makes one re-examine his other output.
His series of paintings and pen and ink drawings of mermaids are a sorry collection of badly-drawn, half-fishy-female figures, bobbing about in the water, usually with a moon behind their heads. Like the moon, Sohlberg waxes lyrical about these strange mythological creatures that, because of their mystery and passion, were particularly popular with the Symbolists. ‘She will be a passion, passion is what she will be, for then she is mine; this will be the picture’s essence, its core.’ he wrote. ‘She will illustrate the all-powerful passion, the purpose of life, that on which everything depends, the source of sorrow and joy, life and death, wealth and misery, the source of life, of murder, of genius and idiocy, and all that fills the madhouses.’ Well, you said it, Harald. Even Munch wrote ‘This painting is the work of a madman,’ about The Scream, his Expressionist painting depicting angst personified.
His best works are uninhabited landscapes, relying on soft, crepuscular views over the countryside, mountains or water, framed by trees and foliage, displaying the great depth, scale and the power of nature. His views of the 17th-century copper mining town of Røros, where he lived with his wife for three years, are painstaking in their graphic fiddling of brightly-coloured timber buildings in the mainly peopleless town, with every plank of wood picked out in vivid detail. How different from the later, and looser, paintings of the Rondane mountains, of which he said on his first encounter with them, ‘I was overcome by a gush of emotion greater than I had experienced before,’ which had the effect of reducing him to ‘a solitary and pitiful atom in an endless universe.’
The final gallery of this 90-works exhibition, is devoted to Winter Night in the Mountains, a series of preparatory sketches in oil, charcoal, pastel and watercolour, culminating in a large canvas, finished in 1914, which he regarded as his most significant work, and now hangs in The Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo. In the same gallery, there are two earlier scenes from Røros; Night, Røros Church, and Night, depicting the smelting works and chimney in the background, and a graveyard, with broken crosses in the foreground. The only sign of life is a lighted window in the clerestory right at the top of the Church nave.
One work that is completely outside the style or content of anything else on display is a pen and ink drawing called The Assailant, in which a very frightened young girl scurries along a path in the woods, and is about to be set upon by a Magwitch-like figure hiding behind a tree, with a long, saurian neck and evil in his eyes. Other views through trees are a great deal less menacing, including Fisherman’s Cottage, an evocative painting of a summer night, and Sun Gleam, in which the patches of sunshine through the trees make almost figurative patterns on the path. The Country Road is a classic Sohlberg composition, with the setting sun framed by a tree each side, and a line of unwired telegraph poles, receding down the hill, with a tiny slash of orange sky reflected in the distant river. These landscapes are by far the best works in the exhibition, which coincides with 150 years since his birth in Kristiania, re-named Oslo in 1925.