The Elephant in Room Four: An Anthropocene Take on Infinite Landscapes

By Siri Valdez.

At first I didn't see her, the old Elephant that was standing on all fours blending quietly into the dark grey walls of the exhibition space at the National Gallery. I was attending the opening of the Harald Sohlberg exhibition Infinite Landscapes, and had just had my second glass of wine after listening to Trine Skei Grande, the Norwegian Minister of Culture, presenting the artist's work in all its national glory. Sohlberg is the newest old star on the Norwegian night sky alright, soon ready to shoot his way into the international art scene. Next stop: Dulwich Gallery, London.

The exhibition focused on presenting Harald Sohlberg's ouvre and lifespan. We followed his work, mostly chronologically, through five rooms - getting new insight into his early attempts of finding his own way artistically, and showing us his work process: using a combination of neatly transferring sketches to the canvas using a grid, and then glazing his pictures with thin layers of a transparent paint that allows the colors to shine through [1]. The rooms were thematically arranged: such as A World in a dewdrop and The silent town ending up Under the stars in room number five where various renditions of the headliner Vinternatt i Rondane or Winter in the Mountains was displayed. The effect of all the works combined had a wow-factor to it, Sohlbergs artistic skills was indeed impressive, such as his detailing of leaves and branches or the strong colors he chose that almost bled out of the frames. This wow-factor went as a wave through the visitors, it seemed, overhearing statement’s such as "he sure knew what he was doing" and "truly impressive renditioning of Rondane mountains."

However, walking through the exhibition reminded me of how I felt at the Munch/Gauguin exhibition earlier this year (in-between the #meetoo movement and the heat weave); I was on the one hand greatly impressed by the volume of work presented at the exhibitions and the attention to detail and thorough research behind it. On the other hand, I was questioning what seemed to be a lack of dealing with what I felt was the bigger picture: In the former case; how to represent misogynistic and racist views from the past when revisiting art from another era - and in this latter; what is the bigger meaning behind this increasing interest in landscape paintings from the past in today's climate challenges? Keeping in mind that Sohlberg is not the only Norwegian landscape painter that has gotten a revival these past few years.

That's when I noticed her. The Elephant. In Room four, The Silent Town, standing by the oil-painting Night depicting a church, a cemetery and a factory pipe in the old mining town of Røros. Standing there, wise and silent - following the audience with her big eyes as they walked passed her.

"Hey, psst" I said to the Elephant.

"Hey to you too" the Elephant said back.

"Didn`t I see you at the Munch/Gauguin exhibition earlier this year?"

"What can I say", the Elephant shrugged - "I enjoy a great piece of art."

Harald Sohlberg, "Natt, Røros kirke," 1904

We started small talking at first. She too, was impressed with the amount of work that was displayed, and the skill of the artist. But she was also concerned with why landscape paintings from the past was on the rise. She wondered if the collective resurrection of these luscious landscapes perhaps was more related to the decline in biological diversity than we like to admit. And if so, is there a more dire message to convey in this exhibition, than simply presenting a chronological work of the artist or adding another notch on the belt of Norwegian national identity?

Maybe because this is the first big Sohlberg exhibition in recent times, and because this exhibition will travel abroad, there should not be any other additional focus than to first and foremost present Sohlbergs work and life to a wider audience. Or at least, that seems to be similar to the line of thought Kunstkritikk´s critic Ingvill Hellmo had, when she reviewed the landscape painter Nikolai Astrups´ exhibition Painting Norway at Henie-Onstad museum in 2016 [2]. An exhibition that tried to connect the work of Astrup with current environmental art projects, which she felt was somewhat strained and unnecessary. The artist work should speak for itself, from its own time.

But then again, landscape painters in particular have become so intertwined with the national identity of Norway that it is hard to talk about them without simultaneously stirring up feelings of national romance, talking straight to the Norwegian heart or "den norske folkesjela." Our history with the landscape (and its indigenous people) is by far a strictly romantic one - a country built on whale hunting and oil with one of the biggest carbon footprints per capita (a footprint far bigger than an Elephant’s) are in dire need of a collective turn-around if we are to be able to handle the challenges that lie ahead. Sohlberg personal project, that according to the wall text in room two addresses "the hidden connections between the outer perceptible world and inner essence of the human condition" - rather than speaking for itself, seems to have been hijacked by a national agenda, with Skei Grande claiming Winter night in the Mountains as the national painting of Norway - not letting the work "stand on its own" so to speak, but somehow representing the spirit of Norway.

So, if Sohlberg truly is representing Norway, can we then escape taking in Norway’s responsibility for the climate change that lies ahead in an exhibition titled Infinite Landscapes? As Somini Sengupta writes in a New York Times article titled "Both Climate Leader and Oil Giant? A Norwegian Paradox"; while Norway is trying to wean its citizens off fossil fuels through tax cuts on Teslas, it is effectively doing the opposite abroad, with no intentions of cutting down their exports in oil, in fact oil production is revving up [3].

As the Elephant and I walked our way through room four, we started reflecting on how Sohlbergs works often are depicted without people - such as his haunting renditions of the mining town Røros, relating it to the artistic theme of his time "The City of the Dead." "Seeing those paintings today, in the age of the Anthropocene, it is hard not to relate this theme to an eerie feeling of apocalypse, where the humans are long gone and only the remnants of their actions are left behind," I said. The Elephant nodded. "In this current climate" she replied, "when landscapes are vanishing at an increasing rate, ice-poles are melting and the snow capped mountains of Rondane Mountains are far from infinite any longer, one cannot help to factor in those aspects as well as one walks through the exhibition."

I would have loved to talked more with the Elephant, but she had other places to be, other shows to attend and soon left me by myself to contemplate - standing in solitude in front of the blue and white mountains of Rondane. It made me conclude that resurrecting and claiming landscape artists from the past as a part of the current Norwegian national identity is all fine and well, but if we do not start preserving and reflecting on the real nature they depict, there will soon only be memories of the snow capped mountains of Rondane left. And yeah, there might also be one big holographic elephant walking down the empty streets of Røros.


[1] Wall text Room two of the exhibition: A World in a dewdrop.