The National Gallery and Dulwich Picture Gallery

As I was catching up on exhibitions over the Christmas break, I came across the paintings of the Norwegian Peder Balke at the National Gallery, which turned out to be an exciting discovery. Indeed, while his earlier paintings (1840s to 1850s) clearly remind of German Romantic paintings such as Caspar David Friedrich,or van Ruisdael’s Dutch seascapes, his later ones (beyond 1860s) feel extraordinarily contemporary.
It is no surprise that Peder Balke’s main subject matter is the landscape and in particular the Norwegian dramatic coast and seascapes of the North Cape, since he had to travel a great deal, often by foot, across the country but also Europe (Dresden, Stockhlom, Berlin, Paris) in search of both teachers and patrons. In such circumstances,nature would tend to overcome the artist’s imagination. Rugged coasts,towering summits emerging from the mist,threatening cliffs bathed in a strange moonlight,lone lighthouses surrounded by demented seas, are depicted in his paintings and clearly reflect his preoccupation with the Sublime and Romanticism, where “magnificent nature was an expression of divine or cosmic power” (Llogodt,K,2014, p.45).
While his painting technique appears more constrained in his earlier works, it becomes much more adventurous from the 1860s onwards: the colour palette shrinks with hues of black, white, blues and greens dominating; the white primed background is used to create light effects instead of building up layers of paint; his brushwork becomes more expressive as the oil paint appears very diluted and thinly applied like watercolour washes.His painting North Cape,1870s, is particularly striking. Presented alongside earlier paintings from the same landscape, it clearly highlights the evolution of Balke’s painting technique. It feels as if Balke’s sculpted the rocks and cliffs out of thin layers of black and ultramarine blue oil paint washes. The shape of a steamboat is visible in the distance, while a sailboat is present in the foreground, echoing some of Tuner’s work. The result is a ghostlike, dreamlike, surreal painting.He also experimented with small scale and his small oil paintings on cardboard, especially those of the Northern Lights, are equally striking and experimental. It is this experimental and economical use of paint that makes his work particularly interesting and modern: one can’t help but think about contemporary Swedish painter Mamma Andersson or Peter Doig.

Another painter preoccupied with the depiction of nature currently on show is Emily Carr at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Painting in British Columbia, Canada, a generation later,and at the onset of Modernism, she was also preoccupied by spirituality to be found nature.Inspired by the traditions of the threatened Native American Indians, she painted lush forests in vivid greens with bold gestural brushstrokes to create a deliberate sense of movement that engulfs the viewer and makes the forest strangely alive and unsettling. Beyond the forest, her subject matter ranged seascapes to totem poles and canoes,to further explore matters of spirituality.
While she trained in England and France, hence the influence of the post-impressionists and fauvists in her early work, her painting really matured later on under the influence of Lawren Harris, one of the members of the Group of Seven, whom she had come to exhibit with on the East coast. Her work then became more angular, with simplified forms and a stronger sense of movement. At times, it reminds of futurism and cubism, verges onto abstraction or echoes Edvard Munch’s work.
The exhibition is organised thematically (the forest, Skidegate totem poles, sea and sky) rather than chronologically which can be confusing due to the variety of her style and experimentations. However,the presence of wooden carved Native American Indian’s votive objects alongside the paintings is a welcome addition and provides meaningful context.

Peder Balke is on at the National Gallery, London until the 12th of April 2015.

From the Forest to the Sea, Emily Carr in British Columbia, is on at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until the 8th of March 2015.

References and links:

Ljogodt,Knut, In Quest of the Sublime: Peder Balke and the Romantic Discovery of the North, Paintings by Peder Balke; National Gallery Company Limited,London, 2014