Some artists, though their own work never has any great impact, change the course of art. Next week I will be commemorating the centenary of the death of the Norwegian landscape painter Eilert Adelsteen Normann (1848–1918). In the first of two articles about his life and work, let me explain just what he did that was so important.
Normann was born in the country near to the northern coastal town of Bodø, Norway, in 1848. It is a rugged and beautiful part of the world, only readily accessible by sea. As with many of the best Nordic artists at the time, he travelled to Germany to train, and started his studies at the Staatliche Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1869, where he was taught by Eugen Dücker, a fine landscape painter in his own right, and others.
Like most of the Nordic painters training and working in Germany and France, Normann returned home in the summer, where he caught up with family and friends, and painted. In his case, he concentrated on dramatic views of the coastal fjords, which became popular on the German market. In 1883, Normann moved to Berlin, where he seems to have done a good trade with these fjord views. It has even been suggested that he was instrumental in building the tourist trade, attracting German visitors to see the spectacular Norwegian scenery.
Normann’s From Romsdal Fjord, painted in 1875, is the earliest of his dated works that I have been able to locate. It shows the ninth longest fjord in Norway, which carves its way through a huge mountain gorge. A small party of well-dressed people have arrived in small boats, for a picnic on a rocky spit. A sailing boat is gliding slowly along the mirror surface of the water, and in the far distance is a steamer.
A couple of summers later, Normann returned to the same fjord and painted Romsdal Fjord (1877), using a similar formula for its staffage. Next to his signature, at the lower left, the artist states that this work was painted not in Norway but Düsseldorf.
In the summer of 1880, Normann must have made his way even further north, to the isolated and starkly beautiful Lofoten Islands. There he painted the small fishing village of Reine, a cluster of houses along the rocky coast below huge pinnacles.
Five years later, he was back in the Lofoten Islands in the summer, where he painted Steamship Calling at Lofoten (1885). Steamship services replaced other forms of transport for shipping goods and cargoes along the coast of Norway from about 1880 onwards; the vessel in this painting appears to be a small coaster which most probably moved bulk agricultural cargoes on a fairly regular basis.
Normann had also successfully exhibited at the Salon in Paris since 1882, and during the 1880s seems to have met with modest success there.
In Munich, the biggest centre for art in Germany at the time, the reception given to Impressionism had been reactionary. The State actively promoted traditional styles, embodied in the conservative Munich Artists’ Association. Bitter debate grew in the late 1880s, and in 1892 many artists separated into a progressive rival organisation: this was the Munich Secession.
In Berlin, matters started to come to a head during the 1890s, resulting in the Berlin Secession in 1898, among whose members were Lovis Corinth, Max Liebermann, Otto Modersohn, Max Slevogt, and Edvard Munch.
In 1892, Normann was a member of the board of the Verein Berliner Künstler. During his seasonal visit to Norway, he exhibited some of his fjord landscapes in Oslo, at the Kristiania Art Society, at the same time that the young Edvard Munch was exhibiting some of his paintings in the city. Seeing the opportunity, on his return to Berlin in the autumn, Normann extended Munch an official invitation to exhibit his work in Berlin.
For perhaps the first time in his career, Munch felt honoured and encouraged. In his late twenties, he was flattered that this established artist should even think about inviting him, and delighted that he was to put his work before the famous artists and hopefully more sophisticated public in Berlin.
Munch had just finished painting his Evening on Karl Johan (1892), then still known simply as Evening. Set on the main street in Norway’s capital city, it looks from the Royal Palace towards Storting (the parliament building) with greatly foreshortened perspective to pack the pedestrians together and instill a deep sense of anxiety. This refers to an episode during Munch’s earlier affair with ‘Mrs Heiberg’, in which he was anxiously waiting for her.
On 20 October, Edvard Munch loaded his paintings into a train, and set off for the great city of Berlin. When the exhibition of the Verein Berliner Künstler opened there in November, his work was considered so shocking that it provoked outrage, and the exhibition had to close prematurely after only one week. Munch almost relished the reaction, and the exhibition went on to later showings in Düsseldorf and Cologne before returning to Berlin.
Munch stayed on in the city with his new-found friend Adelsteen Normann, and joined the literary and arts circle around the Swedish playwright August Strindberg which met in the ‘Black Piglet’ tavern. This gave Munch the opportunity to develop the series of psychologically dramatic paintings which were to become his Frieze of Life.
Munch had already painted his first version of Despair in early 1892, when he was staying with the Norwegian painter Christian Skredsvig in the south of France. This slightly later version is higher in chroma than that, and features a different background figure. Although neither version was painted when he was in Oslo, they both show a blood-red sunset view from the same location above the city of Oslo, and the same vessels are shown at anchor in the fjord.
Adelsteen Normann, painter of popular realist views of Norway’s fjords and coast, had just become godfather to one of the world’s most famous paintings: Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893).