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The Scandinavian Romantic painter is celebrated in this exhibition of public and privately owned works
If you want proof that there’s more to Norway than midnight sun, endless winter nights and sweeping ice-bound tundra, Peder Balke (1804-1887) isn’t your guy.
Balke was a failed artist. By the 1850s, he’d grown so tired of not ‘making it’ that he gave up any commercial aspirations and dedicated his life to politics. It’s only recently that he’s become viewed as the defining Norwegian artist of his generation. He travelled the length of Norway early in his career, all the way up to the inhospitable and barely accessible far-northern region of Finnmark. His early paintings are quintessentially Romantic, the product of a man stood in awe of nature, overwhelmed by the often-horrifying beauty of his own land. Ships tumble in the waves, mere metres from impossibly sharp rocks; swooping clouds and huge dark mountains dwarf sailors and Sami tribesmen. It’s all nocturnal, moody and imposing.
It’s when Balke gave up trying to be a professional artist that his paintings really start to impress. Without the burden of commerce, he was free to express himself. By the 1860s, seas become swooping masses of whooshed paint; mountains are rough, grey slabs of stabbed gestures. Geographical forms are lost in swathes of fog, weather systems are blankets of visual silence. It’s awesome.
The works get smaller, too – and better. Balke’s miniature landscapes eventually become completely monochrome, black and white vistas of the frozen North’s grim, frostbitten kingdoms. A lot like Turner’s later work, these pieces feel purposeful in their abstraction. Turner, of course, has a show down the road, as does Constable, and this small exhibition does a lot to argue for Balke being seen in a similar light to these two giants. Come see these wonderful paintings, but bring a coat – it gets cold.