Two Norwegian Artists Delve Into Symbolism From Different Angles
A New York exhibit contrasts angst of Edvard Munch with his contemporary Harald Sohlberg's love of nature
IF Norwegian painter Edvard Munch was the avatar of high anxiety, his contemporary Harald Sohlberg was the champion of mystic intensity. The two artists' works are currently displayed together at the National Academy of Design in ''Landscapes of the Mind.''
At the end of the 19th century, artists such as Munch (1863-1944), composer Edvard Grieg, and playwright Henrik Ibsen achieved international recognition when Norway - one of the poorest countries on the outskirts of Europe - experienced a cultural golden age.
Now the National Academy of Design attempts to add another figure - Sohlberg - to the stellar lineup with the exhibition, which runs through Jan. 14, 1996, and includes more than 150 paintings, drawings, and prints from the 1890s to about 1910. The differences between the two artists show that Norwegian paintings play more than a one-note tune.
Sohlberg (1869-1935) is extremely popular in Norway but little known elsewhere. His work couldn't be more unlike Munch's. Sohlberg's landscapes are meticulously detailed, while Munch was accused of producing unfinished sketches all his career. Sohlberg's images of mountains, meadows, and fiords are empty of figures and resonate with sublime majesty. In contrast, Munch's figural landscapes radiate angst.
Sohlberg's vision of nature's vastness makes you want to book the next fiord cruise, while Munch's seething shores might convince you to swear off beaches.
What the two have in common - besides a fascination with some of the same scenes - is their Symbolist bent. Both used landscape to represent interior reactions to the exterior world. In the case of Munch, menacing, sinuous lines indicate abject despair, while vast empty spaces convey Sohlberg's awed response to nature's grandeur.
Munch's best-known themes are on display. His friend, the playwright August Strindberg, called Munch the ''painter of love, jealousy, death, and sadness.'' We see how personal tragedy colored his palette. ''The Sick Child'' (1896), which critics ridiculed as a ''miscarriage,'' recalls the illness that killed Munch's mother and favorite sister when he was a child. The superb lithograph presents a profile of a young girl. Thin, agitated lines emphasize her physical frailty.
Expressive brushwork, put to effective use in ''Mystic Shore'' (1892), is a signature element of Munch's technique. The seacoast surges in undulating curves to contrast with the vertical, broken bars of reflected sunlight on water.
''Separation'' (1896) best shows how Munch distorted form and color to express extreme psychic states. A faceless female, whose dress merges with the shoreline, floats away from a dejected lover. Her hair streams back, entwining his head, to imply he is still in her thrall. He clutches his heart with a blood-red hand.
Such an overwrought image, and others like ''Vampire,'' are saved from melodrama by Munch's powers of pictorial invention. In lesser hands, such intensity would appear merely maudlin.
''The Scream,'' represented by a black-and-white woodcut of 1895, shows how Munch's best work transcends cliche. The activated currents of the sky and the aggressive thrust of the jetty, where the anguished figure stands, convey a powerful sense of unbearable pressure.
Munch deliberately drew on his private wounds as raw material for his art, which he called ''life paintings.'' He rejected the naturalistic tradition, vowing he would not paint sedate people reading or knitting but those who ''breathed and had emotions, that suffered and loved.''
The price for spotlighting his harrowing nightmares was public rejection. During his peak period in the 1890s, Munch's shows garnered few sales and caused public outrage. He supported himself by charging admission to scandal-mongers.
Once Munch made peace with himself and eschewed his early confessional mode, his paintings lost their brooding power, as is evident in the few tame canvases on display from his later career.
Where Munch's natural forms, in his prime, were looming and foreboding, his compatriot Sohlberg depicted nature as exalted and infused with spirituality. Sohlberg's goal was to convey, as he said, ''the awesome beauty of detail.'' He painted intimate minutiae in the foreground, stretching toward the infinite distance, broadly rendered, in the background.
''Flower Meadow in the North'' (1905) includes a field of daisies - with individual petals clearly defined - that gradually recedes to a gauzy blur. The white trapezoid of flowers is echoed by an opal band of river in the middle distance and a pale moon and sky at rear. The vast panorama - from the microscopic to the telescopic - culminates in a unified whole.
Sohlberg's layering of translucent glazes casts a soft glow over his landscapes. The painted foliage appears tender, evoking the artist's love of nature.
In Norway, weekend excursions into the countryside form the core of the national character. It's no wonder the most beloved painting in Norway is said to be Sohlberg's ''Winter Night in the Mountains'' (1901).
The image is suffused with blue, the quintessential, moody color of Symbolism. It has a crystalline clarity and forthrightness. The two masses of mountains are symmetrical, framed by silhouettes of foreground tree branches. A star shines in the indigo sky and a cross on the right-hand peak suggests a cathedral, a fitting image for the mystic spirit that permeates Sohlberg's outlook.
Both artists used nature for their own ends: Sohlberg to represent his sense of wonder at the glories of the supernatural and Munch to convey his turmoil. Sohlberg is as Norwegian as cod, while Munch's work is as universal as struggle.