Norway’s Most Innovative Artist of Romanticism

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Norwegian painter Peder Balke is an unsung forerunner of modernism, and still today few will recognize his name.

Peder Balke (1804-1887), explored the Arctic Circle as a young man and was so thrilled that he painted the frozen spectacle of the most remote regions of Norway for the rest of his life. The grandeur of the northern extremes got inside him. Balke’s imagination is ice-bound.

North Cape, 1853
North Cape, 1853

In Peder Balke’s The Tempest (1862) a dark group of birds battle against a gale with more success than the stricken ships listing perilously on the grey waves beneath them. Th whole turbulent scene is contained on a small wood panel, painted with a sense of haste that befits the weather, almost calligraphic, with its confident sweeps of pure black over the white ground.

Peder Balke, portrait
Peder Balke, portrait

Balke was also a political visionary – and it was therefore natural to highlight him when the North Norwegian Art Museum in Tromsø celebrated the 200 years anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution.

North Cape, probably 1840s
North Cape, probably 1840s

A lack of commercial success forced him to abandon his career as a painter, yet, so alluring was this wilderness on him that he continued to paint small scenes for pleasure.

Stetind
Stetind

Last year several of his paintings, including The Tempest, were exhibited at the National Gallery in London, and thus brought the unjustly obscure visionary back into the light of the day. Balke brings out the ineffable mystery where tourists travel to see the midnight sun, where the sky above the massed rocks is terrifying empty and the sea stretches into inhuman void.

Peder Balke, The Tempest
Peder Balke, The Tempest

Peder Balke was trained in Oslo, Stockholm and Dresden, before taking the unusual decision to journey north, to the Arctic Circle. He visited Norway’s spectacular North Cape in 1832. “I never, not in a foreign country, nor anywhere else in our country, had the opportunity to contemplate something so impressive and inspiring,” he wrote in his memoirs.

Peder Balke, The Lighthouse
Peder Balke, The Lighthouse

Balke was the first Norwegian artist who painted the magnificent scenery in Northern Norway in his highly distinctive technique. His depictions of stormy seas, towering glaciers and threatening skies has made him recognized as one of the forerunners of modernism.

Peder Balke, The Stormy Sea
Peder Balke, The Stormy Sea

Explorers only reached the North Pole in the late 1900s, two decades after Balke’s death in 1887. In Balke’s day there was no knowledge of global warming and not very precise information about the Arctic Ocean.

Balke resorted to quick, dynamic brushwork to describe the landscape’s changeable atmosphere, often returning repeatedly to a particular scene in different conditions.

Peder Balke, Sami with Reindeer, about 1850. Northern Norway Art Museum
Peder Balke, Sami with Reindeer, about 1850. Northern Norway Art Museum

As his memoirs of the Arctic became more distant, it seems to have become ever easier for him to abstract it in a set of stupendous motifs. He paints icy mountains so high and steep they seem to hang over the shores below.

His eerie vision has a lot in common with that of his predecessor, the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, who also painted landscapes as cold and perfect as gelid vodka. For both of them, the landscape’s grandeur is a psychological metaphor. Balke’s identification with extreme scenery communicates a boundless isolation. He is a poet of solitude.

It’s worth visiting the Peder Balke Center in Kapp, Østre Toten.

Norway’s Most Innovative Artist of Romanticism, written by Tor Kjolberg