As It Happens

Why Norwegians love this lesser-known painting more than Munch's The Scream

Winter Night in the Mountains by Harald Sohlberg beat out the better-known The Scream by Edvard Munch in a vote by Norwegians for the country's favourite painting.

'It's the kind of painting that we need in our lives right now,' says London curator of Sohlberg exhibition

Harald Sohlberg's 'Winter Night in the Mountains'. (Harald Sohlberg/The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway)

Edvard Munch's The Scream may be Norway's most famous painting, but Norwegians claim another, more calming work as their favourite.

Harald Sohlberg's Winter Night in the Mountains was selected as Norway's national painting in a 1995 listener poll by the country's public broadcaster. 

This spring, both will be on display in London, England, at duelling exhibits, offering patrons a chance to view them and decide for themselves which they prefer.

Jennifer Scott, director of London's Dulwich Picture Gallery, spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off about the museum's plans to showcase Winter Night in the Mountains and other works by Sohlberg from Feb. 13 to June 2.

Here is part of their conversation.

Jennifer, we know Edvard Munch's paintings, especially The Scream. It's a meme at this point, it's been used in so many different ways — depicting an era of a great deal of existential angst. But that is not what you see in Winter Night in the Mountains, is it?

It's a painting that evokes the sense of when you go for a walk in the countryside and you have that moment of being overwhelmed by the beauty of nature. And it's the kind of painting that we need in our lives right now.

Edvard Munch's The Scream is famous for a reason — it's a really powerful work. And one that really haunts you, quite literally. 

The first time I saw it Norway, I sat in front of it and literally lost time. I don't know where 20 minutes went. - Jennifer Scott is the director of London's Dulwich Picture Gallery

Winter Night in the Mountains is a painting that gives solace.

I think one of the reasons that it was voted Norway's favourite painting is because there's something about it that is comforting and magical.

The first time I saw it Norway, I sat in front of it and literally lost time. I don't know where 20 minutes went. The way that you're positioned as a viewer, you're sitting at the foot of these beautiful snowy mountains, and it feels so cold, and you have these dark silhouettes of trees all around you. Very stark.

But there, at the centre of the painting, is a star. And it's as if that beautiful golden star gives hope. So while it's a cold painting, it also feels warm and comforting.

Edvard Munch's 'The Scream'. (Stian Lysberg Solum/Associated Press via Scanpix Norway)

Were the two paintings contemporary? Did the artists know each other?

The Scream dates from 1893. Winter Night in the Mountains is 1914. So not far apart. They are contemporaries of each other, these two artists.

But, of course, Solberg was painting in 1914 — another time of turmoil. And Sohlberg is the type of artist who distanced himself from his peers.

He wasn't trying to compete with other artists. He was trying to hone his craft. In many ways, he was quite solitary, taking time to understand nature and comparing himself only to himself and to the grandeur of the world around him. 

So I'm not not sure that he would like us comparing him to others. In a way, he would prefer that we look at Winter Night in the Mountains and think, "Is that really what it feels like when you're up on your own in the mountain?"

We know that the British Museum is preparing this landmark Edvard Munch show this year. Is it any coincidence that you are putting on the paintings of Harald Sohlberg at the same time?

The fact that there's another Norwegian show towards the end of our show in London is a very nice coincidence. 

Jennifer Scott is the director of London's Dulwich Picture Gallery. (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

It's widely held that great art must have tension and conflict — whether it's a painting or a novel or whatever. And when it doesn't, it's regarded as sentimental, even if it's popular. So how does Mr. Sohlberg stack up in that serious versus sentimental art discussion?

People always think that great artists have to be tortured. Everyone loves [Vincent] Van Gogh, because of the tortured soul.

For me, a great artist is one who has many layers. And with Sohlberg's work, you want to look and look and look again. And you feel that around every corner, every piece of his work has another story to tell. It's so embedded in Norwegian folklore and myth-making. They're the sort of thing you want to live with.

But they do also pack a punch. They're not all soft and whimsical. The minute you encounter these works, they are quite astounding. 

So for me, he completely stacks up. He's a great artist.

Interview produced by Zahraa Hmood. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


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