“It’s this kind of attention to detail that makes you believe a world could exist in a dewdrop” – a critic’s comment on encountering the work of Harald Sohlberg, reproduced in the exhibition catalogue.
In 2019 I saw two exhibitions of work by Norwegian artists in London. At the British Museum I went to see prints by Edvard Munch (1863-1944), and at Dulwich Picture Gallery I saw the Infinite Landscapes exhibition of prints and vivid paintings by Harald Sohlberg, who was active around the same time (1869-1935), in the first solo exhibition of his work outside his native country. The two artists would have known each other well.
The Munch show was interesting, and notably displayed a black and white lithograph of The Scream. But I enjoyed Sohlberg more.
Although Sohlberg travelled to several countries, he tended to depict the landscapes of Norway. His paintings often feature landscapes, such as rural towns or churches, in which humans are obviously present and active, but in which they do not feature. His work is, nevertheless, intensely humane. Sohlberg is often described as contrasting modernity with the classically traditional, and he uses a richly nuanced palette to create luminous scenes that evoke the mythical and the emotional.
Detail from Morning Glow (1893), exhibition catalogue:
Sohlberg trained as a decorative painter, and also had a firm grounding in perspective and technical drawing (in addition, he was a keen photographer). Despite his formal knowledge, he tends to play with perspective so that, as the exhibition catalogue notes, the pictorial space seems to be seen from different vantage points at the same time. In the 1890s Sohlberg moved towards a technique of using glaze to build up layers of smooth colour over his visible pencil lines, sometimes using a ruler. This painstaking technique created paintings that at the Dulwich exhibition seemed to somehow glow.
Fisherman’s Cottage (1906):
“Sohlberg noted that the word ‘unusual’ cropped up in every review of his work, which he interpreted as meaning that he did not paint ‘like the modernists’ or in accordance with ‘the development of painting in general” – quote from the exhibition catalogue
Meanwhile, an extract from a 1915 letter describes Sohlberg’s efforts to capture the sublime of the Rondane mountain range with his iconic Winter Night in the Mountains, which is reproduced below:
“Before me in the far distance rose a range of mountains, beautiful and majestic in the moonlight. Like petrified giants.”
Winter Night in the Mountains (1914):