Peder Balke, The North Cape, c.1840
There are still four months to see the fascinating Peder Balke exhibition currently on at the National Gallery. I have written about him on this blog before - in Landscape from Finnmark I highlighted the trip he made in 1832 beyond the North Cape and in Gausta Peak I focused on the way his reputation has risen as critics and collectors have come to view his later work in the light of Modernism. This exhibition shows how often the artist returned to his memories of the North, adding strange light effects or reducing the motif to a bare abstract form. As Christopher Riopelle writes in the catalogue, 'the cape's angular notched profile is as distinctive as Paul Cézanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire. The experimental side of Balke is also evident, particularly in a group of ghostly monochrome sketches lent by the Daniel Katz gallery (they recently donated a Balke to the Gallery's permanent collection). With their thin washes worked over with fingers and comb such works have, according to Riopelle, particularly caught the attention of collectors, 'so intriguing are the processes of their making and so remarkable the powers of evocation they employ in such small compass.'
Peder Balke, Northern Lights over Coastal Landscape, 1870
Looking back at the notes I made at the exhibition in November I see I disliked some paintings that now look good to me in the catalogue - probably something to do with the thinness, dullness and age of the paint when viewed up close. But I was particularly excited by the way some of Balke's coastal landscapes, with their high peaks floating over empty clouds, resembled Chinese ink paintings. Riopelle refers to this in his essay: 'spared areas magically summon up complicated motifs like waterfalls, or receding mountain ranges, or trails through fields and up hillsides, along which the eye, like a Chinese scholar on a contemplative stroll through his garden, can freely roam.' In his review of the exhibition Alastair Sooke complains that scholars haven't done more to find out whether Balke was aware of Chinese art, although Friedrich and Turner are a more obvious starting point for seas of fog and mountains shrouded in mist.
Anders Fredrik Skjöldebrand, Arrival at the North Cape (18th-19th July 1799), 1801-2
In addition to Riopelle's reflections ('Balke / London / Then / Now') the catalogue has a biographical essay by Marit Ingeborg Lange based largely on Balke's own memoirs, which it would be fascinating to read (they have not even been fully published in Norwegian). There is also a short piece by Knut Ljøgodt, Director of The Northern Norway Art Museum in Tromsø, which discusses Balke in relation to the 'artistic discovery of Norway'. This began with the Danish painter Erik Paulsen, who travelled to Norway in 1788, and was followed by others, including the leading Norwegian painter Johan Christian Dahl, who would become a supporter of Balke. Northern Norway first appears in an engraved travelogue (see above) and later became a recurring theme for a contemporary of Balke's, Knud Baade, who made the journey to Nordland in 1834. Balke's journey two years earlier was the furthest north any Norwegian artist had gone. In this paragraph quoted by Lange he has found respite from a storm-tossed sea at Vardøhus Fortress.
'The day after our arrival at Vardø I crossed the island for a good view of the sea breaking against the cliffs after the previous day's hurricane, and the magnificent sight that manifested itself to my scrutinizing gaze will never fade from my memory. I had positioned myself on a rocky plateau some 100 feet above the sea, and I felt I had to hold on tight to the cliff when the backwash hurled itself against the rock face and with a deafening sound like thunder rolled out again into the heaving sea, only to repeat the same fruitless onslaught on the unshakeable wall around which swirled the mighty waves of the Arctic Ocean.'
Peder Balke, Vardøhus Fortress, 1870