Norden – Nordic or Scandinavian?

Norden - Nordic or Scandinavian?

Having a full-time job and being a full-time student is not an easy task, but it does mean that any free time you have becomes even more valuable; whether that be catching up with friends, or writing a blog post, which is still a breather from my dissertation. Working and studying means that the two have to fit in around each other, which includes getting up earlier to write before you go to work. This post is a bit of everything really, with the main incentive to discuss the interchangeable use of Nordic and Scandinavian when referring to the art of these regions; and to discuss the prominence Northern Light, an exhibition staged in 1982, had on forming our contemporary approach to Scandinavian art. 

Delving into a study of the Nordic nations (locally referred to as Norden, or Nordisk – the verb), isn’t always black and white. The main issue arises from the use of the term Nordic and Scandinavian. This is something that I have come across frequently not only in my own writing, but in the writing of others, including most prominently Kirk Varnedoe and David Jackson (a specialist in Nordic and Russian Art at the University of Leeds). The most contentious issue in this regard, is the use of the word Scandinavia. Typically the latter refers to the countries of Sweden, Denmark and Norway, with Nordic referencing the wider spectrum of northern countries – including not only Finland, but Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. This being said, in his recent television series, The Art of Scandinavia, for example, Andrew Graham Dixon comments on the geographical, cultural and linguistic links between the Scandinavian countries. On this premise, Finland cannot be excluded. It is similarly joined by land to Sweden, albeit at the very north of the country. Furthermore, it was once a part of the Swedish Empire, and still to this day Swedish remains a frequently used language. It can also be argued that, disregarding geography, that the similarities in terms of culture, politics, and art are much more akin to that of their Scandinavian neighbours than with Russia to the east. 

Norden - Nordic or Scandinavian?

In the catalogues for Northern Light and Dreams of a Summer Night – two of the foremost exhibitions on this period of art – Finland is included in the study and exhibit of ‘Scandinavian’ Art. In both of these exhibitions, among the first instances a collective study on Nordic art had been shown to an Anglophone audience, artists of all the Nordic nations were displayed alongside one another. Although Northern Light did trigger a new study of Scandinavian art during the period of 1880-1940, it wasn’t, as is so often claimed, the first time these artists had been shown to a British and American audience. Throughout this period of Nordic art, many exhibited throughout the US, with artists including Carl Milles and Anders Zorn receiving many of their larger commissions from the country. Furthermore, Scandinavian artists partook in international competitions, including the Olympic Games – with the Swedish painter, David Wallin, winning the Gold Medal for Painting in 1932. Although perhaps not as recognised as many other genres and artistic locales, a sense of recognition had been established. 

Norden - Nordic or Scandinavian?

With both of these exhibitions, an artistic relationship was established between the Nordic nations, united under the term National Romanticism. Although the categorisation of this period of art under one all-encompassing term, can be deemed a contentious issue, it does provide justification for using Nordic and Scandinavia interchangeably. The inspiration for and the stylistic approach taken by Finnish artists, most notably Akseli Gallen-Kallela, reveal a similar appreciation of native culture and folklore, and the social values that motivated their painting. For both Norway and Finland, countries belonging to the Swedish and Russian Empire’s respectively, Symbolism in painting was a way of promoting a self-identity that had been restricted by foreign influences. Folklore and mythology in art was the propaganda with which change could be implemented. Furthermore a love for the outdoors, and immersing oneself in the native landscape, finding in it some symbolic meaning which promotes the sense of national identity that had become intrinsic to the Scandinavian artists’ composition. These similarities in socio-political and cultural environment, brings Finland into the wider study of Scandinavian art, and furthers the study of Symbolism in the Nordic nations. With this, when writing about the visual arts, especially during the period of 1880-1950, the interchangeable use of Nordic and Scandinavia can be justified, as both stylistically and thematically Finland is an all inclusive part of the wider study.

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