The National Gallery in London owns just one painting by a Norwegian artist. It’s not, as one might suppose, by Edvard Munch, nor by Harald Sohlberg, Thomas Fearnley or Johan Christian Dahl. Rather the little oil in Room 44, a stormy monochromic seascape barely larger than a postcard of 2 ships foundering amid giant black waves and walls of white spray called “The Tempest”, is by Peder Balke.
Peder who? I wouldn’t be surprised that you never heard of him before.
The National Gallery’s unlikely decision to dedicate an entire exhibition to Peder Balke, one of the first ever to take place outside Norway, will surely help to revive his reputation.
Colin Wiggins, special projects curator at The National Gallery was more than happy to be at the origin of the project and said: “This is one of those rare moments of absolute excitement. Peder Balke is a rediscovery”.
But who is Peder Balke?
Peder Balke (1804-1887) is a Norwegian painter that was even barely known in his home country, until recently. He didn’t encounter success during his lifetime. Having difficulties to sell his paintings, he abandoned his career to focus on social projects and politics but he continued to paint for his own pleasure. Once delivered from the pressure of making a living from his paintings, his style changed to become more personal, more modern.
During the summer 1832, Peder Balke, who was in love with the Norwegian landscapes, decided to go and seek for its most remote, its most desolate and its most distant points by sailing up the west coast of Norway as far as he could go. He went up to the inhospitable and barely accessible far-northern region of Finnmark. He reached the North Cape, the northernmost part of Norway, which was even more impressive at that time because it was the further north you could go, the final limit to knowledge and exploration – beyond it lies nothing (explorers only reached the North Pole in the late 1900s, two decades after his death).
Peder Balke wrote in his memoirs: “I can’t begin to describe how elated I was at having seen and re-tread the land, once again, after satisfying my deep longing to see the northern provinces. No easier is it for me to pen my thoughts on which sublime and mesmerizing impressions the wealth of natural beauty and unrivaled settings leave upon the mind of an observer. These impressions not only overwhelmed me for a brief moment, but they, too, influenced my entire future since I never yet, neither abroad nor other places in our country, have had the occasion to gaze at something so awe-inspiring and exciting as that which I observed during this journey to Finnmark. Unsurpassed in the norther provinces is the beauty of nature, while humans – nature’s children – play but a minor role, in comparison”.
The 1832 journey had a momentous effect upon his development as an artist; the eerie, isolated, dramatic and gloomy Arctic landscapes became a leitmotiv as he continued to paint them from his memory for the rest of his life.
And I totally understand why. I myself went to the North Cape region and can testimony that it’s still a rather hostile place but that the landscapes are breathtaking, inspiring and unforgettable.
Peder Blake’s early paintings are quintessentially romantic, the product of a man awed by nature, overwhelmed by the often-horrifying beauty of his own land.
On the opposite, his late paintings are more modern. More abstract too, as his trip to the North Cape became a distant memory.
As Cathy Fitzgerald, a writer and radio producer, rightly said: “It’s almost as if he’s captured somehow that action of memory; it’s as if the details are being stripped away and you’ve got the essence that has been left over time”.
Long forgotten, Peder Balke is today increasingly recognized as an important precursor of modern painters.
Let’s hope that this exhibition, which will introduce him to a wider audience, will also allow him to gain some recognition for his talents, recognition that he was unfortunately so lacking in his lifetime.
Peder Balke at the National Gallery – Sunley Room
Until 12 April 2015
Admission is free