Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss

It's that time of the year when the National Gallery starts to seem humid and crowded, but take the stairs down to Level 0 and you find yourself almost alone. I had Room C to myself yesterday and was able to have a good look at the Gallery’s two newest acquisitions, The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss (1827) by Johan Christian Dahl and At Handeck (c1860) by Alexandre Calame.  Neither are as immediately striking as the Calame on loan hanging next door, Chalets at Rigi, with its bright Alpine sunlight and misty purple distances, but after a while I started to appreciate Dahl's Norwegian landscape, painted after a trip he made back to the country of his birth in 1826.  Dahl left Norway originally in 1811 to study in Copenhagen and there is a letter he wrote there in which he says ‘first and foremost I study nature – a pity there are no cliffs and water here, but then one has to make do with the water fountain.’  It must have been a relief to head back north and sketch a real cataract, although in this painting Dahl, characteristically, does not try to make it appear too spectacular.  The falls are just one part of a wider landscape of dark slopes and trees under a wintry sky. 

The new wall text for The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss notes that this location is now the site of a hydroelectric power station.  Reading this I imagined curating a whole exhibition of paintings of rivers that were subsequently tapped for their hydroelectric power - images of the Romantic sublime that could only now be depicted in terms of the industrial sublime.  In providing this information for the visitor, the Gallery turns the painting into a kind of an environmental art work.  But Dahl was not painting a pristine wilderness.  The foreground is strewn with tree trunks that are too large to have been felled by the river.  They were the product of a lumbering operation were logs were thrown into the river and then collected downstream.  Thus the forest trees and running water depicted in this painting were already being treated as a 'standing reserve' for technological exploitation when Johan Christian Dahl passed this way, nearly two centuries ago.

Johan Christian Dahl, The Lower Falls of the Labrofoss, 1827


Mike C. said...

Two magnificent photographic projects of the "industrial sublime" immediately spring to mind: Jamey Stillings' "The Bridge at Hoover Dam" ( and Edward Burtynsky's "Three Gorges Dam" project (


Plinius said...

This Dahl painting could also be assigned to the class of artworks that deal with wood travelling downstream, e.g. David Nash's Wooden Boulder and Bill Mason's Paddle to the Sea.