Light on little-known, turn-of-the-century Scandinavian painters

Northern Light, Nordic Art at the Turn of the Century, by Kirk Varnedoe. New Haven: Yale University Press. 286 pp. $50. A region, like a nation, is bound and defined by its physical properties as much as by the character of its people. The properties that give us a definition of Scandinavia include that most illusive and undefinable of energies, and the one scarcest in northern climes - light. The long winter nights, the low piercing angle of the light when the sun does rise, the reflections of the stars on snow and the cold fire of the aurora borealis, all are precious light forms that affect and inspire the Scandinavian people and the region's painters.

Scandinavian painters are little known outside their own countries, and that makes this book, beautifully produced by the Yale Press and carefully printed in Oslo, a surprise for most art lovers. Of the nearly 50 painters featured in 100 color plates (with many more discussed to a lesser degree), the only two who can claim world familiarity are Edvard Munch and Carl Larsson. The others reflect the major trends to which they were attracted or the national schools they followed. Swedish painters tended to study in France, given the opportunity, while Danish painters favored a cultural bond with Germany. At the western end of the region, Norway's painters valued their isolation, as did Finnish painters, at the eastern edge. Icelandic painters are also discussed and their curious isolation explained.

The turn of the century was a golden age for Nordic painters, and the reader cannot help being surprised that so much highly imaginative and absolutely original painting should remain in the shadow of the reputations of French and Italian masters. The Scandinavian skills, and for that matter the skills of the painters of many other nations, tend to throw doubt on the continued use of the word ``master'' with European exclusivity.

In his introduction, Karl Varnedoe discusses, with the clarity of a patient lecturer, the various schools of painting and the effects of major historical influences in the Scandinavian countries. He explains, for example, the relationship between nationalism and the interest in cultural roots such as mythology and religion, showing their contrasts with the emerging industrial politics. He elucidates, in his words, the ``peculiar combinations of the regressive and the progressive, the pass'e and the premonitory'' in painting - discounting the usual linear progression from one movement to the next. Art is not just ``a baton-race of stylistic innovation.''

The change from Realism to Symbolism dominated the period, the former rooted in the empirical, the latter in the irrational. But the development in Scandinavian art was not a clear one, producing what Varnedoe admits are curious hybrids. It will take only a brief study to see the roots of America's most famous artist, Andrew Wyeth, in the works of a dozen or so Scandinavian painters, the blend of stark accuracy and brooding subject matter to produce all sorts of metaphysical hints.

For the most part, however, the painters depicted such themes as home life, the close interiors of northern latitudes, the unfinished summers, and the long, introspective winters. Paintings of summers are joyful, but the winter landscapes reflect the cold, deadly expanses to be crossed, pale snowy scenes, and the gray mass of northern cities.

Varnedoe is an accomplished writer on art, with several books to his credit. He teaches at New York University and was awarded a MacArthur fellowship in 1984. This book reflects his authority in the subject and his love of it as well.

Jeff Danziger is on the Monitor staff.

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