If you’re tired of hygge then you’ll like Harald Sohlberg. The Norwegian painter eschewed the cosy fireside for the great outdoors, eager to see what view might greet him as he wandered the woods and country roads of Norway in the failing light. While his contemporary Nikolai Astrup filled his landscapes with people, Sohlberg preferred to bring nature to the fore, at once unnerved and mesmerised by its power.
He excelled at depicting the scene just stumbled upon or left behind. In ‘Summer Night’ (1899), a table is set for two on a veranda overlooking the Kristiania Fjord off what is now Oslo. The glasses are half full, the fruit sliced but abandoned, the door of the house ajar. Have the diners slipped inside? Then look at the sunset they are missing.
A skiing trip to central Norway in 1899 showed Sohlberg just how much there was to learn from being outside. Standing beneath the Rondane mountains, he was struck by his insignificance. ‘The longer I stood gazing at the scene,’ he reflected, ‘the more I seemed to feel what a solitary and pitiful atom I was in an endless universe.’ He moved to the region a few years later and began making studies for what would be his masterwork, ‘Winter Night in the Mountains’ (1914).
The finished painting is a spirit-lifting piece that glows against the dark walls of the exhibition space. The mountains rise like icebergs into the night. A yellow star is perfectly placed between them. Like so many of Sohlberg’s paintings it has a highly illustrative, fairytale quality. Entering a room of his woodland scenes and studies of mermaids is like stepping into the world of Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm.
Sohlberg originally trained as a decorative painter and retained a preference for clean lines. Highly stylised landscapes, such as ‘The Country Road’ (1905), reference prints. One detects in works like these the influence of Japonisme and Gauguin and perhaps even Renoir (Sohlberg’s self-portrait of 1896 looks peculiarly French). The best of his character studies, which include a charmingly confrontational ‘Girl from Schaftelokken’ (c.1897), are full of wit.
In 1902, Sohlberg moved with his wife to the mining town of Roros near the Norwegian-Swedish border. Although you sense from the black skies that the place was bleak, Sohlberg made his street scene of red and ochre houses piled high with snow a picture of winter bliss. It may have been warmer indoors but, as Sohlberg realised, it was out in the elements that you understood what life was about.
The play of elements on the landscape is also explored in a number of works at The Last Hurrah!, the closing exhibition of the Bohun Gallery in Henley-on-Thames. Founded in 1973, the small but wonderfully bright gallery specialises in contemporary British art, and has particularly strong links with Julian Trevelyan, whose estate it handles. Trevelyan is among the 45 or so artists exhibited in this eclectic show, which marks the gallery’s 45-year existence. Other artists include John Piper, Peter Blake and Maggi Hambling.
A ‘Walls of Water’ series by Hambling was exhibited in parallel with Peder Balke’s Norwegian seascapes at the National Gallery show of 2014. Her paintings there were vast, while her ‘Wall of Water’ paintings at the Bohun are each around the size of a greeting card. Though diminutive they are full of the energy and light. On a similarly compact scale is Dorset landscape artist Colin Bishop’s richly layered painting of ‘Ball Hill 11.07 a.m. – 2.03 p.m. 25th March, 2018’.
Go to Dulwich for dreamlike Norway and to the Bohun for the British dreamers. ‘The Schooner’ (1981), shown at the Bohun, may not be the most accomplished of Julian Trevelyan’s works, but to see his sailboat drifting across the snow-like sea beneath an orange sun is to feel the timeless pull of nature and yearn for journeys to come.