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Back to the Land

What Minnesotans can learn from Nordic nature paintings

Back to the Land
Photo by EILIF PETERSSEN,
WHEN THE TOUR SCHEDULE was conceived for a major exhibition of Scandinavian art called “A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting 1840–1910,” there was little doubt about which metropolis would host the show’s sole North American stop: the land of lutefisk, the uff-da capital of the country. After all, the consortium of European museums that assembled the show, which opens this month at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), was well aware of the reception that Twin Citians gave another great exhibition of Scandinavian paintings: “Northern Lights,” which came to Minneapolis in 1983 and drew some of the biggest crowds of any stop on the exhibit’s tour.

“A Mirror of Nature” stands to be an even bigger event. It’s part of a months-long celebration of Scandinavian culture, called Nordic Summer, which includes events at the Guthrie Theater, the American Swedish Institute, and other venues. Given the tie-ins and the subject matter, the show signals a turning point for the expanded MIA, which now has the space and the clout to host major shows. “We’re trying to project ourselves nationally and internationally as an institution that does this kind of high-powered, important exhibition,” says Patrick Noon, the MIA’s chair of paintings and modern sculpture.

More than 100 pieces in the show were assembled from the national galleries of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, which are the show’s only other hosts. The artworks showcase the evolution of landscape painting in Nordic countries at a time of great social change, when the forces of industrialization and urbanization spurred Scandinavia’s relatively late transformation from a poor rural society into a region of city dwellers. As society changed, so did people’s outlook on nature, and it is the evolution  of the Nordic emotional attachment to nature that’s so eloquently expressed in the exhibition. 

Noon is partial to the painting “Flower Meadow in the North,” with its eye-popping—and unexpected—ocean of wild daisies under moonlight. Painted in 1905, it expresses much about the Nordic view of nature—and perhaps, that of many Minnesotans—which is characterized by “a longing for peace and quiet,” says Roland Thorstensson, a professor of Scandinavian studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. “I think even many modern Scandinavians long for that solitude, for that peacefulness that nature can give and is seldom found in the hustle and bustle of an urban environment.”

Summer Night, painted by the Norwegian artist Eilif Peterssen in 1886, on a farm not far from Oslo, speaks even more closely to the Minnesota mindset. It depicts a quiet lake, devoid of development, the moon reflected in the still water. The setting could easily be Bemidji or Grand Rapids, the sort of thing one might see while walking in the woods and a landscape in which Norwegian immigrants would have felt at home.

“This is in fact one of the foremost paintings that is marked by this new trend [away] from pure realism to a more romantic mood,” says Torsten Gunnarsson, the director of collections at Stockholm’s national museum and the lead curator of the exhibition. It is rooted in the 1880s realism that Nordic painters had learned in France but infused with the new romantic mood that began to change painting during the 1890s. Already, the rural Nordic landscape was becoming idealized into a source of nostalgia. By 1910, Scandinavian-Americans in Minnesota would also be living mostly in cities, never to look the same way at the countryside again.

For more information on Nordic Summer events, visit www.minneapolis.org/nordicsummer
Further details about “A Mirror of Nature” are available at www.artsmia.org

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