1912: Scandinavian Art Comes to America

You don’t realise how quickly time has passed by until you open your diary and January is over, and February has begun. At the beginning of last month I officially started my PhD (glutton for punishment). So I thought that part of my blog would become a way of introducing little elements of my research, because of course everyone is dying to know more about the ‘Nordic Niche’ (as a friend put it)!

“The first attempt to open the eyes and minds of America to the art Europe had to offer”

The American-Scandinavian Foundation Exhibition, 1912

In 2012, the American-Scandinavian Foundation in New York brought together some twenty of the Scandinavian artists who were exhibited in their original 1912 exhibition, Contemporary Scandinavian Art. Curated by Scandinavian art specialist Patricia Berman, it was not a recreation of the original exhibition, rather a commemoration and continuation of what they had brought to the American people a century earlier. Moreover this exhibition, Luminous Modernism, was extended to include Finland and Iceland, in an all-encompassing display of turn of the century Scandinavian art.

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Our Land by Otto Hesselbom (1904)

In both instances, whether it be establishing or reaffirming the place of Nordic art, the works of the respective nations was met with great admiration and awe, whereby “the regional modernism of Scandinavia […] became a unique idiom within international developments in modern art.” The effect of this very first exhibition was powerful, it was regrettably, however, short lived. Soon after the exhibition closed in New York, to begin its tour, the ‘Armory Show’ arrived in town – bringing with it examples of European modernism and futurism. The latter exhibit has often been characterised as “the first attempt to open the eyes and minds of America to the art Europe had to offer”, however, if this were a race, then the American-Scandinavian’s staging of Nordic art, won that very contest.

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Flower Meadow in the North by Harald Sohlberg (1905)

Forming a relationship between the arts of America and Europe was a decisive one, and in the case of Sweden in particular, the intention of the Foundation was to “facilitate cultural exchange between the U.S. and Scandinavia.” As a result, the role of the individual Swedish artist in America, including Carl Milles, Carl Eldh, and Anders Zorn, was as crucial in advancing their careers, as merely working within the confines of their home country. The original, groundbreaking exhibition of Contemporary Scandinavian Art in 1912, was received with high acclaim, with one critic writing that:

“Taking the exhibition in its entirety, we may very well congratulate ourselves upon having had it.”

Words such as ‘radical’ were further used to describe the paintings on display, with the likes of Munch being introduced to an American audience for the first time. Among the six works by Munch first shown to the American public, were In the Garden (1902) – strongly evocative of Paul Gauguin in the vibrancy of colour and undulating, curving brushstrokes which form the landscape – and Starry Night (1893), reminiscent not only of Van Gogh’s Starry Night but of J.M. Whistler’s Nocturne’s. It is easy to appreciate, with these paintings in mind, how Munch came to be so admired: he was something new and exciting; strange and radical, with a sense of ‘colour insanity’ that the American people had not witnessed before.

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Starry Night by Edvard Munch (1893)

Munch, however, was not the sole focus of the exhibition; with other artists, including the Norwegian painters Christian Krohg, Christian Skredsvig, and Erik Werenskiold on display. The Swedish contingency was further represented in works by Prince Eugen, Carl Larsson, Zorn and Gustaf Fjæstad; with the Danes on show, including P.S. Krøyer, J.F. Willumsen, Julius Paulsen, and Laurits Andersen Ring. No added attention was given to one artist over the other, this was a time to recognise the art of Scandinavia in equal measure, not to encourage a bias or stereotype.

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Hoar Frost on the Ice by Gustaf Fjaestad (1901)

With this exhibition came the attempt to further the bonds between Scandinavia and North America. Christian Brinton, curator of the 1912 exhibition, was a leading figure in promoting Nordic art and bringing it to an American audience. The same efforts were applied to Russian art, where he set about trying to dissolve the issue of race and nation in the world of art during the inter-war period. One of the sole commentators on Scandinavian art in America at this time, Brinton further went against what many of his colleagues were advocating – i.e. that of modernism and its Expresssive forms. As Brinton, wrote:

“It may be unpatriotic to say so, but, judged by current European standards, we are distinctly behind the times when it comes to the matter of esthetic [sic] development.”

Although the legacy of Scandinavian art may not be at the forefront of art historical study in America, it provides an interesting point from which to begin looking at the immigrant networks of artists that flourished in the USA during the 1900s.

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