Northern Lights, 1870s
Oil on Panel 20 x 10cm
National Gallery, London
19 January 2015
I was in the National Gallery waiting for my timed slot for the Late Rembrandt exhibition and thought I would kill time having a look at the free exhibition of the work of Norwegian painter, Peder Balke. An artist almost unknown outside of Scandinavia, that I had never heard of, using similar techniques to those I developed as part of my recent PhD thesis! One of those rare pleasant surprises that still happen from time to time.
Peder Balke was born on the Norwegian island of Helgoya and was one of the few artists to venture to the far North of his native land for inspiration. He explored the Arctic Circle and painted the frozen spectacle of the most remote regions of Norway for the rest of his life. His early style that offered him some limited success was represented in the exhibition, but the majority of works were from after 1850 when he had withdrawn from commercial painting to focus on a career in politics.
I have selected one of the latest and smallest works in the show to review. Measuring only 10x20cm, this small irregular shaped painting on a wooden panel epitomises the effectiveness of his technique. Balke sets the scene by applying thin washes to depict the sea and sky divided by simple opaque marks to create a horizon of bleak mountains. Into the night sky he conjures the spectacle of the Northern Lights by vertically scraping away paint revealing the white ground below. The reflection of the lights on the surface of the water and pictorial depth is accomplished by using this technique horizontally. A final flourish is the addition of four boats of various sizes with a few marks and erasures giving perspective to the painting and accentuating the loneliness and isolation of the drama. This tiny painting becomes a metaphor for the despair of the artist’s soul, his career as an artist forgotten and even omitted from his obituary.
Whilst the division of the space into receding horizontal planes owes a debt to the compositions of Caspar David Friedrich; the use of simple motifs, freely painted on a surface unified by a minimal palette and his technique of removal of paint to effect light sets him apart from his generation of Romantic landscape painters. The fact that these landscapes were painted some 40 years after he had visited the far North made this idiosyncratic style both effective and appropriate to capture his memories of the sublime landscape. Contemporary painters such as Luc Tuymans (simplified motifs / palette) and Elizabeth Peyton (bold brushwork / the ground as light) have used similar approaches to signify loss and memory in their work. However, neither of them conveys the boundless isolation with their metaphors as consistently as Balke achieves in his late work.
An online book of my own works based on The Caravan as a motif is available should you wish to see how I arrived at a similar technique to that used by Balke in his later paintings. Just proves that no matter how original you think you are, there is nothing new under the (Midnight) Sun!
Peder Balke was at the National Gallery, London, WC2,
until April 12, 2015
(44-020-7747 2885; www.nationalgallery.org.uk)