Scandinavian art? Let's see, there's Edvard Munch

Historically, the Scandinavian countries haven't done too well in the visual arts. Norway produced Edvard Munch - but that's about it.

There were, of course, any number of good Scandinavian painters and sculptors over the years, some with fairly solid international reputations, and others with strong local ones. The art they produced, however, while excellent in many ways, never rose significantly above merely reflecting what was fashionable in the European art capitals at the time, or else remained largely provincial or idiosyncratic.

It's obvious, judging from the Guggenheim Museum's current three-part exhibition here of contemporary Scandinavian art, that the situation hasn't changed very much during this century. While Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland have recently produced some extremely talented artists, what these artists have produced - with the exception of some of the work of Asger Jorn and Oyvind Fahlstrom - cannot be said to be of either great importance or of truly first-rate quality.

The three exhibitions - ''Art Now: Contemporary Scandinavia,'' ''Oyvind Fahlstrom,'' and ''Asger Jorn'' - are part of a 15-month nationwide celebration honoring the cultural and intellectual life of the five modern Nordic nations. This celebration will include art exhibitions as well as dozens of programs featuring theater, dance, music, film, and lectures. These will be held throughout the United States, including Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Los Angeles.

What the viewer sees as he walks down the ramp of the Guggenheim Museum is art of extraordinary energy and visual excitement, with Asger Jorn's 60 or so highly charged and passionately colorful near-abstract paintings setting the tone of the show. This lively quality is then picked up on a more technically precise, iconoclastic, and fun-filled level by Oyvind Fahlstrom's 51 paintings and works on paper, and is then echoed or modified by the art of the 10 younger artists representing the five countries.

It is, without question, an exciting and stimulating exhibition. There is nothing in it I didn't like. Jorn is an excellent - even at times a magnificant - painter, and quite a few of Fahlstrom's pictorial inventions are pure enchantment. In addition, some of the individual pieces by the younger artists are quite impressive. (Among these, I was taken by Olle Kaks's huge ''Coleopter, '' and Olli Lyytikainrn's watercolor ''Ladies' Bicycle.'')

And yet, if one realizes that this show represents the cream of the art produced by five countries over the past 30 years, and that, worldwide, these 30 years have been among the most culturally eruptive and innovative of the past century and a half, the overall achievement represented on these museum walls begins to dim somewhat.

Fahlstrom stands out dramatically, because he was so wonderfully idiosyncratic and so very international. In his involvement with Pop images, comic-strip characters, and techniques, and in his pictorial use of the printed word, he was almost as American as his American Pop-Art contemporaries Warhol and Lichtenstein. (He did, in fact, live in New York - except for summers in Sweden and Italy - from 1961 until his death in 1976.)

Even if his art seems a bit too tart, mythological, and anxious to be wholly American, it still does not truly belong to the traditions of his native Sweden. It belongs, instead, to the great Northern European idiosyncratic tradition which produced Breughel, Bosch, and Durer several centuries ago, and James Ensor , Max Ernst, and Paul Klee within the past 100 years or so.

Fahlstrom created a private world out of very public images, and thereby permitted us to share at least something of his wide-ranging vision of life. In the process he did some extraordinarily beautiful paintings (especially in the 1950s and early '60s), and a number of wonderfully witty and biting works that take the form of comic strips, picture puzzles, games, miniature sets and models , cutouts, happenings, and so forth. The result, for my money, establishes him as the outstanding Scandinavian artist since Edvard Munch.

The three shows close on Nov. 7. The Fahlstrom exhibition will then travel to the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (Jan. 30-March 27); the Jorn show goes to the Barbican Arts and Conference Center in London (Feb. 15-March 10); and ''Art Now: Contemporary Scandinavia'' will move first to the Port of History Museum, Philadelphia (Dec. 11-Jan. 30), then to the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery (March 5-April 17). Charles Demuthm

The United States has produced a number of painters of exquisite sensibilities who preferred to work on a small scale. Although the reputations of these artists may not have reached the heights achieved by some of their more monumental or flamboyant contemporaries, they have, by and large, either remained constant or improved gradually over the years.

Outstanding among these have been Maurice Prendergast, John Marin, Mark Tobey , Morris Graves, and Charles Demuth. Demuth, in particular, was a painter for whom creative sensibility was of primary importance, and as a result he produced some of the most exquisitely sensitive watercolors done by anyone in this country.

A number of these, plus a wide selection of sketches and studies, are on view at Salander-O'Reilly Galleries here. Included among them are a few landscape and flower pictures from the 1910s, an important illustration for Emile Zola's novel ''Nana,'' vaudeville and sailor scenes, and fruit and floral still lifes from the 1920s.

All are small and delicate, and at first glance could easily be dismissed as merely pretty or handsome. There's nothing particularly impressive, after all, about smallish pictures of apples, plums, tomatoes, lilies, or butterflies. Any art student or beginning painter learns about his craft by painting such things - and then generally goes on to more ''important'' subjects and themes.

Now this, of course, misses the point of what Cezanne and the Cubists taught us - the importance of painting even the most humble and ordinary of subjects - and entirely misses the point of what Demuth was trying to do.

The fascinating thing about Demuth is that his art is dependent on physical appearance but also has a geometric sort of pictorial logic. Coming after Cezanne and the Cubists, he was fully aware of how their art had broken up and ''splintered'' the solid appearance of reality, and had then restructured painting to conform to their new, more two-dimensional pictorial ideals.

Demuth was neither purist nor theorist enough, however, to follow that approach into pure abstraction, as many of his contemporaries did. He opted instead for a highly personal style which fused the appearance of the world around him with some of the formal structural ideals derived from Cezanne and Cubism.

What followed was a body of work unique in 20th-century art. It consists of a small group of superb, rather geometric paintings of such things as grain elevators and church steeples, hundreds of good, solid watercolors and drawings, and a few dozen of the most delicate watercolors (largely of flowers, vegetables , fruit, and other small objects) any American has ever produced. The exhibition at the Salander-O'Reilly Galleries includes a good half-dozen of these pieces, and quite a few more works of only fractionally lower quality. It will remain open to the public through Oct. 30. Medieval art treasure

Cimabue's painted cross from the church of Santa Croce in Florence, one of the great treasures of medieval Italian art, is on view at the Metropolitan Museum here. It was painted shortly before 1288, and represents Cimabue at the height of his powers.

The Cimabue Crucifix had an uneventful history until 1966, when it fell victim to the November flood that devastated Florence. (At one point the water was over 11 feet in the church of Santa Croce.) Restoration began almost immediately, and was completed in 1976. Although officially reinstalled in Santa Croce, the crucifix has been sent to the United States in celebration of the increased number of cooperative ventures between the museums of Italy and the Metropolitan. It will remain on view in the Medieval Sculpture Hall of the Metropolitan through Nov. 11.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.