Art and Landscape

5 September 2009

Saturday


Munch scream

One of the earliest posts I wrote for this forum was Life and Landscape, in which I attempted to lay out my point of view on the integral character of the life of a people and the geographical conditions of life imposed on a people. This is a theme that has been central to my thinking about economic, social, and political institutions. In short, geography and climate shape the life of a people: the kinds of agriculture that are possible, the plants that will grow, the animals that live in the region, and so forth. From cultivation of food within a given landscape there emerges a traditional form of life for those who live in the landscape. From the traditional form of life there emerge local economic, social, and political institutions. From the interplay of life and the institutions emergent from life, there emerges the entire realm of intellectual activity, so that even our ideas are derived from soil, albeit at a certain remove. Today when I was at the National Gallery in Oslo I was struck by the applicability of this thesis to art. Fine art represents the highest reach of human intellectual activity, but it reveals its connection to the landscape from which it emerges in a concrete way.

Most who come to the National Gallery in Oslo come to see Munch’s “The Scream” which is the most famous work here. It is in a room filled with masterpieces by Munch, and one is liable to be overwhelmed by this and take little notice of the rest of the collection, though the museum has a full complement of European art. Of Munch’s contemporaries, elder and younger, there are works by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Rodin, Degas, Braque, Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne, Gauguin, and even van Gogh. There is also a room with the Langaard Collection that includes an El Greco and several Dutch paintings of the Golden Age.

The works from the south of Europe look utterly out of place here to me. Even the works from Holland seem out of place, but this certainly makes sense as the Dutch landscape is the antithesis of the Norwegian landscape. And it is not only the art works that come from elsewhere that seem out of place, but also the styles that have been imported. Styles, like populations and ideas, migrate; they become internationalized and experience adaptive radiation. The more modification a style experiences with its descent, the more it can accommodate itself to the local landscape. But other factors intervene. The easier life in other climates has led to a disproportionately large population in these regions, so that styles and ideas tend to emerge here first and later move with migrating peoples to other climates, often displacing native styles and ideas from less populated regions.

When we see a painting that looks more like Poussin than Poussin himself, or when we see a repetition of the aesthetic convention of small figures lost in a vast landscape, art has here become so subordinated to style that it is the style rather than the content that is being represented. Oluf Wold-Torne’s “Landscape from Holmsbu” (1911) has been so transformed by southern impressionism influenced by Cézanne and Gauguin that he makes the fjords of Norway pass reasonably well for the low hills of Provence. But, as Tertullian once asked what Athens has to do with Jerusalem, we can ask, “What has Provence to do with Norway?”

Oluf Wold-Torne, Landscape from Holmsbu, 1911

Oluf Wold-Torne, Landscape from Holmsbu, 1911

Jean Heiberg (1884-1976) was influenced by Matisse, studying under the master in Paris, but he represents a greater degree of adaptation of the southern style to the northern climate. His painting of a boy is an acclimatization of Impressionism and thus a more successful rendering of its subject, which is here less style itself than life itself.

Jean Heiberg

Jean Heiberg

Norway has a unique landscape, and a unique culture has emerged from this landscape. In earlier times, the deep interpenetration of the land by the fjords, difficulty of travel by land, easy access to the sea, and the difficulty of farming led to a social structure ship-borne raiders who pillaged and plundered around Europe. The Vikings took advantage of a unique historical opportunity — the devolution of authority to the local level following the collapse of Roman power in the West — to prey upon isolated coastal communities. The power structure of Viking society was remarkably egalitarian, though certain leaders emerged at times. But anyone could learn ship building in Norway and find an isolated spot along a fjord to build a longship. While the spot would be difficult for others to find, it was relatively easy for an experienced sailor to strike hundreds of miles from his home base, and return within days. Thus slaves and plunder were brought back at a relatively low cost.

Political unification under Harald the Fairhair and Christianization ended the Viking age, although the pagan “hard cases” who didn’t want to live under this regime left for Iceland, and they created a unique literature: Skaldic poetry, Eddas, and sagas. Thus Viking civilization underwent its own adaptive radiation, though its colonization of Iceland displaced little in the way of local native culture as Iceland was virtually empty at this time, save for a few Irish monks.

Back in Norway, political unification and Christianization opened Norway to the civilization of Christendom, and this cultural juggernaut emergent from the intense competition of high density populations largely displaced Viking culture — but not entirely. Also, another kind of uniquely Norwegian culture emerged from the need to create a local agriculture to sustain a population that no longer raided other peoples with impunity. Still today one sees the barns built into the hillsides of the fjords, with sod roofs and a ramp from the hill side of the barn leading into the second story of the structure. Domestic animals were kept inside during almost the entire winter, and this required careful planning and storage in order to feed both family and animals during the long winter.

The culture from which Munch came had these traditions that emerged from the unique landscape of Norway, though overlain with cultural influences from elsewhere in Europe. As we have seen above, these imported cultural traditions, including aesthetic styles, at times wholly submerged the native traditions of the region, but those traditions and the way of life is always there, even if not represented in fine art. We cannot even say that it remains “below the surface” because it is a way life carried on quite in the open, though it is, as they say, “below the radar” of high art. What do Impressionism Fauvism, Dadaism, or any other “ism” have to do with cultivating cherry trees along the fjords of Norway? Another question: what ought they have to do with it? If an art does not express the authentic life of a people, it is not an art worth having. The styles of the south of Europe authentically express the spirit of the southern peoples, but in Scandinavia this is at very least questionable.

Munch created a personal style of art that is emphatically an art worth having. Whether its uniqueness is that of Munch himself or that of the Norwegian character I will not inquire, but it is unique, striking, memorable. It is for this reason that “The Scream” has become an international icon, and the mechanical reproduction of this image, and the repetition and variation throughout popular culture, once again represent an adaptive radiation of a style of art, but this time emerging from Norway and making its way into the wider world.

El Greco in Oslo: the inner light and inner life of the subject is made manifest.

El Greco in Oslo: the inner light and inner life of the subject is made manifest.

Many are the ways in which figures, or indeed a landscape entire, can be lit from within, giving inner radiance and inner life to the subjects of a work of art. El Greco represents one very distinctive form of this, focused upon the figures in his paintings. Poussin represents another form of inner radiance and inner life, in his case focused upon the landscape itself, and we can see the influence of the sublime Poussin landscape in a large gallery near the Munch room, where hangs the famous Brudeferd i Hardanger of 1848. All the works in the room (I didn’t take the time to write them down, and didn’t buy a museum catalogue) are captivating, but in a very different way than the works of Munch.

Not Munch: Brudeferd i Hardanger of 1848 shows the inner radiance of the landscape, but there is nothing unique in its style of representation.

Not Munch: Brudeferd i Hardanger of 1848 shows the inner radiance of the landscape, but there is nothing unique in its style of representation.

In Munch, men and women become spirits, or perhaps more specifically, they become ghosts, living a life, such as it is, of greatly attenuated embodiment, almost to the point of incorporeality. There is no question that the body is here subordinated to the spirit: these hollow-eyed figures seem more dead than alive, though not entirely dead, and not entirely alive. On the other hand, the ordinary objects of life are imbued with a special life and radiance of their own, raising them up from a purely or merely corporeal existence, thus placing them on essentially the same plane of beings as human beings — they are (or have become, in the world of Munch) beings in their own right, neither better nor worse than human beings, but representative of an ontological egalitarianism.

Munch, Moonlight, 1893

Munch, Moonlight, 1893

The picket fence and the window frame in “Moonlight” (1893) are more radiant than the face of the woman who is the only figure in the picture — or is she? She casts a green shadow that seems to have a mysterious and menacing life of its own. In Munch’s “Puberty” (hanging in the same room) the single central figure also casts an amorphous and menacingly alive shadow.

Munch, Death in the Sick-Room

Munch, Death in the Sick-Room

In “Death in the Sick-Room” three figures have faces about the same color of green as the walls, while the other three figures whose faces appear have ruddy faces a little darker than the floor (the face of a seventh figure, weeping while seated in a chair, is not visible). In other words, the figures have been subsumed under the room in which they appear.

Munch, Self Portrait

Munch, Self Portrait

In Munch’s self portrait of 1895 he looks like a ghost surprised by the living, and indeed surprised by the living viewer who has rudely interrupted his spiritual reverie, although it is a spiritual reverie of a curiously worldly character.

Munch, Madonna

Munch, Madonna

Easily the most compelling work in the Munch room of the National Gallery is his “Madonna” with her flame-red halo. No reproduced image can do justice to this; you must go to see it with your own eyes. In fact, I had difficult taking my eyes away from it, for each time I looked away I found my eye drawn back to it. Here the single, central figure is set against a swirling background, like the swirling lines of “The Scream.” The Madonna has no arms or legs, though she in no sense appears incomplete. Her limbs are imperceptibly caught up in the whirlpool that is the world, and we scarcely notice that we do not see them. Is the Madonna fading into the background, losing herself in the world, or has she only just emerged from the world, as though the world had pushed up some profound part of itself from a deep place up into the light, but into a surreal, preternatural light that perhaps is the very light of her flame-red halo? Is she illuminated from within or from without? In the context of ontological egalitarianism, these are simply two perspectives on the same state of affairs.

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