After being a world power during the Viking Age, Norway went through various unions with and occupations by Denmark and Sweden until independence in 1905. Over the centuries “culture” was something the overlords brought with them from foreign capitals…and took away again when they left.
Norway’s own culture was suppressed: under Danish rule, Norwegian “dialects” were forbidden for official documents and communications. As a result, Norway’s early cultural heritage is identified in rural arts and crafts.
The country’s ancient stave churches represent some of the most distinctive examples of Norwegian artistic production. The rich ornamental carvings on door frames, around windows and on capitals in the interior owe more, stylistically, to the design motifs of the Viking period – dragons, tendrils, leaf patterns – than to Christian iconography. There are 28 stave churches in Norway, two of the most striking being the restored church at Urnes, which is on the Unesco list, and the Heddal stave church in Telemark, the largest.
Another very “Norwegian” visual expression from the 18th century, is rustic rosemaling or “rose painting” of which there are as many styles as villages. Used to adorn household utensils and interiors, it features organic patterns and flowers, figurative representation and geometric design.
Plays and literature
The re-creation of a national identity began in earnest in the 1|9th century inspired bu nature, ancient traditions and the heroic Viking sagas of long ago. Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) wrote many plays based on folklore. His best-known works include Peer Gynt (1867), to which Edvard Grieg composed the incidental music, A Doll’s House (1829) and Hedda Gabler (1890). Ibsen commented on Norway’s relationship with Denmark and Sweden, as well as on individual’s relationship with a society which would have him conform.
Growth of the Soil, which follows the tribulations of a Norwegian peasant family over 20
years, won its author Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920. His literary power is unquestioned, but his reputation suffered because of his Nazi beliefs – in the middle of World War II, he sent his Nobel medal to Joseph Goebbels as a token of his support.
Eight years later, Sigrid Unset (1882-1949) won the prize for her epic trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, whose eponymous heroine lives, loves and dies in a richly reimagined medieval Norway.
More recently, Mrs. Pepperpot, an old lady who shrink at inconvenient moments, is another gutsy female character, and brought children’s author Alf Prøysen (1914-70) great success. Her world is still rooted in peasant soil; but over the last 50 years, Norway’s obsession with its own past has abated over time, and today’s writers embrace contemporary genres and worldwide issues.
Jostein Gaarder’s philosophical novel Sophie’s World was translated into 40 languages, and was quickly followed to the top of the international book charts by Åsne Seierstad’s controversial bestseller, The Bookseller of Kabul, set in Afghanistan. More recently she has written “Two sisters”, a book investigating how two Norwegian-Somali sisters, who escaped to Syria in 2013, came to be radicalized, and what has happened to them since they disappeared.
Award-winning author Lars Saabye Christensen is considered one of the original voices in contemporary Nordic fiction – one of his latest books, Beatles, is a darkly comic coming-of-age story set in Oslo.
And “Nordic Noir” is alive as well. Anne Holt’s Inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen pursues truth and justice at great personal cost in thrillers such as 1222. Karin Fossum is hailed as the “Norwegian Queen of Crime”: one of her latest Inspector Sejer novel, The Caller, was translated into English in 2011. And Jo Nesbø reigns supreme with his dry Oslo detective Harry Hole – The Snowman (soon to be released as a Hollywood movie) and The Leopard are his latest white-knuckle page-turners.
From Grieg to Black Metal
Norwegian music also flowered in the early 19th century, mainly influenced by the Royal Swedish Court. The violin virtuoso Ole Bull (1810-80), the “Nordic Paganini”, proved a model for musicians and writers alike. The late 1800s became known as the Golden Age of Norwegian music, with such prominent composers as Halfdan Kjerulf (1815-68), Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) and Johan Svendsen (1840-1911).
Generally they incorporated elements of folk music in their work, including Grieg, who fused folk music with Romanticism.
And classical music still thrives in modern Oslo: Oslo’s incredible submerged Opera House, opened in 2008, is a must-see. Grieg’s work forms the kernel of the Bergen International Festival in late May, a major arts festival bursting with music and theatre performances.
In recent times, theatre of a different kind has been provided by one of Norway’s most unusual musical exports – the thriving black metal scene, which courts controversy with its violent lyrics and bloody stage performances.
Art and Culture in Norway, written by Tor Kjolberg
Feature image (on top): Mari Boine, re-creating Sami songs, Joik, which is a form of singing traditional among the Sami. Composed in response to an event or emotion, it sounds like a yodeling chant.
In the Footsteps of Henrik Ibsen