Folk Art in situ at Hålandstunet

27 July 2012


A room with a view at Hålandstunet, Suldal.

In Vernacular Culture in Hardanger I mentioned that many local folk museums throughout Norway maintain traditional buildings in situ, and today I visited one of these. Hålandstunet is an assemblage of three buildings in Suldal probably less than a half hour’s drive from Sand. Until the farm was purchased by the museum, it had been in the same family since 1570. The oldest of the buildings dates from the 17th century, with traditional Norwegian rose painting — rosemåling — dating to about 1650. The later manor house dates from 1836, and looks quite spacious and comfortable for the time.

Sitting on a bench in the Hålandstunet manor house.

I have long regarded in situ works of art to be the “holy grail” of aesthetic tourism, and my own aesthetic pilgrimages have often been organized around seeing particular works of art that still remain in their original context, like the late medieval St. Wolfgang altarpiece by Michael Pacher. Seeking out in situ works of art often means going to considerable trouble to find the truly great examples, and then to make one’s way to their sometimes obscure homes. It is, at least, significantly less convenient than touring through an art museum in middle of an easily accessed major city, where such art treasures are usually collected. Yet I find that the effort is repaid with interest, as the journey to an isolated work of art usually reveals something about the circumstances and the history of that work. In other words, it is worth the trouble.

Traditional rose painting at Hålandstunet from about 1650.

At Hålandstunet we have the vernacular culture equivalent of high culture art in situ — the whole of Hålandstunet, with its carved and painted implements of the ordinary business of life in pre-industrialized Norway, is a tribute to the usually nameless folk artists who decorated their lives with whatever was ready to hand. This is folk art in situ. It would not be right to call this a utilitarian art; it is, in a sense, the antithesis of “pop art.” Precisely because the implements of the ordinary business of life were not mass produced, they were of considerable value and often followed a person through life — and probably they followed a family through generations. Heirlooms are not always or only jewels; a sturdy copper kettle may have been an heirloom.

While the house was being restored, a 16th century Bible was found in the walls of the house; this is not on display here, though, but is kept elsewhere.

The countryside of Scandinavia is rich in such vernacular architecture. Many of these structures have been incorporated into open air museums, such as that I saw at Utne in Hardanger, but quite a few are still to be found dotting the countryside. Sometimes when you drive around the back roads of Norway you come upon an ancient structure by chance, and it is obviously been sitting for hundreds of years upon the same spot. A few of these unmoved, unchanged treasures have been carefully curated by museums and are open to the public. Hålandstunet is among these.

When a copper kettle is expensive and difficult to obtain, it becomes an heirloom and stays within a family.

As much as I enjoy open air museums, as with the treasures of high culture art found in (relatively) remote backwaters, I find that it is worth the trip to find those surviving instances of vernacular art still in situ. When you travel to Hålandstunet you must travel more or less the same path taken since 1570 when the first residents arrived, and when you look out the windows you see the same view that the original residents saw. That is worth something. There is much to be learned from the lives of the original inhabitants that are exhibited in the artifacts they left behind. The less disturbed these traces, the more there is to learn. This is not “original intent” but what might be called original disposition.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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