Aksel Waldemar Johannessen: Break of Spring (1918-20), Oil on canvas 100x120 cm
The 20th century
After the turn of the century Norwegian contemporary painting was closely linked with that of France, a connection which was to last until the 1960s. This was apparent in the works of Thorvald Erichsen, whose light, colourful and intense paintings were probably influenced by Bonnard, thus forming the greatest possible contrast to Norwegian Realism.
Another important painter, Ludvig Karsten (1876-1926), was known to art critics as a late Impressionist, clearly under the influence of the French but also highly inspired by the work of Munch. In 1909 a number of Norwegian painters studied with Henri Matisse. Prominent amongst these was Henrik Sørensen (1882-1962), who interpreted his master in an individual manner, and Jean Heiberg (1884-1976), who on the other hand tried to develop a more academic style. The young students of Matisse represented a continuation of Werenskiold’s nationalist campaign and stood in strong contrast to old Matisse students such as Karsten, who worked in the tradition stemming from Christian Krohg. This aspect of the split became clearly visible on the occasion of the great 1914 Exhibition, arranged in Oslo to celebrate the centenary of national independence. No less a person than Christian Krogh was responsible for selecting the paintings, prompting a group dominated by Matisse students to break away from the official arrangements and organise their own exhibition entitled ‘The Pavilion of the 14’.
Norway’s first abstract painting was by Thorvald Hellsen (1888-1937), who during World War I developed a decorative, abstract style influenced by Fernand Legér. Other students of Legér in the 1920s included Charlotte Wankel (1888-1969), Ragnhild Kaarbø (1889- 1949) and Ragnhild Keyser (1889-1943). Other painters who established themselves at the turn of the century include Axel Revold (1887-1962), Per Krogh (1889-1965), Alf Rolfsen (1895-1979) and Aksel Waldemar Johannesen (1880-1922), a Humanist who painted the working class and life’s losers. Johannesen’s work was not recognised until after his early death and he is often called ‘the forgotten artist’.
Most painters of this generation experienced a change in attitude after intense studies in Paris. They were no longer satisfied to concentrate on painting purely for the sake of the art, developing a deep sense of dislike towards any superficial content in art and life. Furthermore, like their predecessors, they also felt a responsibility towards society. As a result, there was renewed interest in the technique of large-scale mural painting, based on the belief that painting had a task to perform in society and the best means to that end was to decorate public buildings and spaces. Within two decades an astonishing number of churches, schools and other public buildings were decorated or redecorated, most of them al fresco. Examples of this include Axel Revold’s fresco decoration in the Bergen Stock Exchange (1918-1923), Per Krogh’s murals in the Seamen’s School in Oslo (1921-1924) and Alf Rolfsen’s decoration of the New Crematorium in Oslo (1932-1937). Murals for the Oslo Town Hall were also planned, but Rolfsen only finished this task after World War II.
Surrealism was introduced to Norwegian painters by Vilhelm Bjerke-Petersen and from 1935 surrealist artists became increasingly active. Olav Strømme (1909-1978) and Alexander Schultz (1901-1981) interpreted symbolically the flora, sexuality, dreams and subconscious life of the soul; Kai Fjell (1907- 1989) developed a form involving erotic themes symbolically rooted in the life of the rural areas; Arne Ekeland (1908-1994) worked with social psychological motives linking sexuality to the class system; Harald Kihles’s (1905-1997) pictures presented a Romanticist reaction to industrialism and urban societies; Agnes Hiorth (1899-1984) interpreted new trends in landscapes and portraits; and Erling Engers (1899-1990) presented life in the rural areas in a satirical manner, concentrating on the quality of the landscape.