Works by the largely forgotten Norwegian artist, only now being rediscovered as one of the forerunners of modernist expressionism.
The National Gallery in London owns just one painting by a Norwegian artist. It’s not, as one might suppose, by Edvard Munch, nor by Harald Sohlberg, Thomas Fearnley or Johan Christian Dahl. Rather the little oil in Room 44, a stormy monochromatic seascape barely larger than a postcard of two ships foundering amid giant black waves and walls of white spray, is by Peder Balke, an artist whose paintings had been all but forgotten unknown even in his native Norway.
Last summer, however, the Northern Norway Art Museum in Tromsø staged the first major exhibition of his work in a century, and this winter these 50 or so paintings go on show in London.
Balke was born in 1804 on the island of Helgøya. He trained as a painter at the art school in Christiania (now Oslo), before moving to Stockholm and Dresden, where he studied with Dahl and encountered the work of Dahl’s friend, Caspar David Friedrich, whose influence is also evident in some of his work.
But Balke’s often improvisational style really developed during a journey he made by ship in 1832 to the North Cape, well inside the Arctic Circle. ‘The pen cannot describe the illustrious and overwhelming impression that the opulent beauties of nature and location delivered to the eye and the mind,’ he wrote, ‘an impression, that not only caught me in the flush of the moment, but also had a significant influence on my whole future life.’
Like Turner, he was a painter of the sublime, awed by nature. His land and seascapes are austere, unyielding, often dramatically lit. Essentially romantic they may be, but they presage expressionism.
But his career as a professional artist was short lived. Thanks to a combination of bad luck – in Paris in 1848 the revolution caused a royal commission for a set of Norwegian scenes was aborted when King Louis Philippe was overthrown (though the 28 oil sketches he made for it remain in the Louvre) – and scant commercial success he abandoned art for a career in property, notably the development of housing for workers the Oslo suburb of Balkeby, and later politics (where he championed pensions for men and women, and of grants for artists). But he continued to paint for pleasure and ever more experimentally, applying layers of diluted paint on to white-painted boards, using sponges, even his fingers when conventional brushwork could not conjure the wildness and power he strove to show.