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International exhibition of early modern Scandinavian painting opens at Scandinavia House
Harald Sohlberg, Flower Meadow in the North, 1905.

NEW YORK, N.Y.- Luminous Modernism: Scandinavian Art Comes to America, 1912, an international loan exhibition of paintings by Edvard Munch, Vilhelm Hammershøi, Anders Zorn, and other Scandinavian pioneers of modernism, opened at Scandinavia House: The Nordic Center in America. The exhibition brings together 48 works by Nordic artists who embraced, and pioneered, the transformative aesthetic innovations that swept the European continent during late 19th- and early 20th-centuries. It remains on view through February 11, 2012.

Luminous Modernism looks back at the first exhibition organized by The American-Scandinavian Foundation (ASF), a 1912 survey of contemporary Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish painting that traveled to Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, and Toledo following its debut in New York City. The exhibition had an enormous impact in and beyond the cities to which it traveled. Reviewers used words like “radical” to describe the work it contained (it was the first U.S. presentation of Edvard Munch’s paintings); artists like Marsden Hartley were strongly affected by it; and in each of those four cities it drew some of the largest audiences of any art exhibition up to that time. Although it was eclipsed just two months after it closed by the arrival of the more radical Armory Show, the ASF-organized exhibition and its reception constitute a significant chapter in the history of art and culture in America.

Luminous Modernism, which features 20 of the same artists and eight of the same works presented in the 1912 exhibition, provides a rich picture of that earlier presentation and what visitors found so compelling about it. Moreover, the current exhibition has been expanded in scope to encompass all five Nordic countries, including Finland and Iceland, thereby illustrating the full range of artistic expression throughout the region during this period.

Luminous Modernism has been organized by the ASF in collaboration with an international team of scholars headed by Patricia G. Berman, Professor of Art History at Wellesley College and the University of Oslo. A leading specialist in early modern Scandinavian art, Dr. Berman is the author of numerous important scholarly publications in the field.

Luminous Modernism
Organized by nationality, Luminous Modernism includes work ranging from the visionary landscapes of Munch, Harald Sohlberg, and Akseli Gallen-Kallela, to the intimate domestic interiors of Hammershøi and Harriet Backer, to depictions of rural life by Carl Larsson and Lauritz Andersen Ring. On loan from more than 20 public and private collections in Europe and America, the works on view represent the wide range of styles, subject matter, and aesthetic aims embraced by Nordic artists as they sought to break away from the confines of academicism at the turn of the century. Inevitably, many were drawn to the innovations of Symbolist, Impressionist, and Neo-Impressionist art, which they often studied first-hand on prolonged stays in Paris. However, foreign influences were typically filtered through and transformed by the culture and rich artistic traditions of their homelands. The regional modernism of Scandinavia thus became a unique idiom within international developments in modern art.

Central to much of this regional modernism was a fascination with the qualities of Scandinavian light. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the work of the great Danish modernist Hammershøi, whose silent, sun-filled domestic scenes, such as Interior of Woman Placing Branches in Vase on Table (1900), look back to 17th-century Dutch painting but also anticipate 20th-century explorations of abstraction. In contrast to Hammershøi’s urban focus, Ring celebrates the land and life of rural Denmark. Harvest (1886), a radiant pastel of the artist’s brother scything, owes much to the French peasant scenes of Millet; while in Fjord near Karrebæksminde (1910), included in the original 1912 exhibition, Ring masterfully captures the vastness of Denmark’s coastal plains.

Paintings by the important Finnish Expressionist Gallen-Kallela include an evocative depiction of his wife watching a sunset from the Kuhmoniemi Bridge (1890). The daring palette of mauves and yellows, and the simplification of forms, recall the contemporary work of Munch, but without the disquieting psychological overtones.

Works by Ásgrímur Jónsson and Thórarinn Thorláksson, considered the founders of Icelandic landscape painting, concentrate on the distinctive light and rugged topography of their homeland. In Jónsson’s majestic Mt. Tindafjöll (1904), the glacial peaks of the famous natural landmark are dramatically illuminated by a breaking sky.

Norwegian Expressionist Munch, Scandinavia’s most celebrated modernist, is represented by three large-scale canvases. Two of these explore his favored themes of sexual awakening and nature as a vital force: In Girl Under an Apple Tree (1904), a primly dressed young girl stands before the writhing, intertwined branches of an apple tree—an obvious reference to the Garden of Eden. Munch’s Bathing Boys (1904–05) (see page one) features a scene of nude adolescents on the beach, one of whom modestly tries to cover his nakedness.

As this exhibition makes clear, however, Munch was by no means the only Norwegian artist of talent and vision during this period. In fellow Expressionist Harald Sohlberg’s Flower Meadow in the North (1905), a seemingly endless carpet of white daisies glows surreally in the twilight. The liberating influence of international vanguard art on Norwegian painters can be seen as well in works such as Harriet Backer’s Woman Sewing (1890), with its vibrant color and bold brushwork, and Ludvig Karsten’s Matisse-inspired Still Life with a Hat. The latter, as well as Jean Heiberg’s Nude Woman (1912), which owes much to the palette and technique of Henri Matisse, and Henrik Lund’s Gauguinesque Portrait of Hans Jæger (1906), were all featured in the original 1912 exhibition.

Turn-of-the-century Sweden also boasted a vibrant, sophisticated, and varied artistic life. Zorn’s Ida by the Window (1908) exemplifies the exuberant yet precise brushwork that brought that artist international acclaim as a society portraitist and enabled him to begin his extensive career in the United States. Sweden’s landscape painters were particularly noted for their innovation and experimentation during this period. In Eugène Jansson’s The Pier at Torekov (c.1896), for example, the moonlit forms of swirling clouds, sea, and land verge on pure abstraction. Works by Prince Eugen—son of King Oscar II of Sweden and a leader of the country’s artistic avant-garde—include After Rain (1904), in which fading twilight reduces nature to delicately patterned silhouettes. By contrast, Carl Larsson’s charming and richly detailed watercolor Now It’s Christmas Again (1907) typifies the happy scenes of domestic life, and the commitment to the Arts and Crafts movement, of one of Sweden’s most popular artists.

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