One of the first things I learned when I arrived two months ago in Norway was that the Nasjonalgalleriet was free on Thursdays. Finally, I got to go this past Thursday, and it is a place which I can see myself visiting many times over the coming years.
When you walk in and place your bag and coat in a locker, you walk up a simple stairs but are met immediately with the sight of not alone a famous painting but a painting which depicts a famous scene: Christian Krohg’s depiction of Leif Erikson voyaging to America c.1000 CE. The painting was completed in 1893, and must surely reflect something not just of the story of Norwegian discovery in the viking age, nor the country’s history of migration to America, but also the impending desire for independence from Sweden, which would come about in 1905.
As you turn up these stairs, either left of right of the Krohg painting you begin your jounrey through the highlights of the Norwegian national collection. Currently what’s on display ranges from antiquity to 1950, and so as you make your way through each room you come a little closer to the present, and encounter most of the major movements in European art along the way. The experience can be something of an overwhelming one. For the first time in my life, I decided to take notes as I walked through the rooms – partially to slow my pace down but also so that I could remember which artists struck me most and so that I could actually go back and eventually find out a little more about some of those who interested me especially.
In the early rooms we have some examples of classical antiquity which are not entirely interesting – unsurprisingly much better examples of this kind of thing can be found elsewhere. Some of the christian art from Novgorod in Russia in the third room you enter is perhaps the most interesting of the first half of the exhibition.
There are old masters of the Baroque and Dutch schools to be found but what I was most interested in going to the Nasjonalgalleriet for was the Norwegian artists, whose work comes into prominence from about the mid-way point in the journey through the rooms.Rooms 9-12 give an excellent show case of Norwegian (and Danish – Denmark and Norway didn’t split until 1814) Romantic landscape painting including the work of Johan Christian Dahl, Thomas Fearnley (a Norwegian whose grandfather came from Hull), and Peder Balke, to name just a few.
Among my favourite works as I passed through the gallery was Tidemand’s Low Church Devotion, which shows lay preacher Hans Nielsen Hauge preaching to poor farmers in the hearth-room of a family home.
From here we get a stronger impression of new movements in art which include works by Cezanne, Rodin, Gaugin and of course, Norway’s most famous artist – Edward Munch. The Scream, his most famous painting, is housed in the 19th room of the gallery.
Some realist painting is represented in the works of not just Krohg,but especially Erik Werenskiold. Krohg’s Braiding Hair is a good example of this genre in Norway, as is Werenskiold’s A Pauper’s Burial. I also enjoyed the energy of the painting of Halfdan Egedius, especially spil og dans (play and dance).
In the 22nd room the standout painting for me was Per Krohg’s Cabaret from 1913-1914. The second to last room is the one which contains the work of Picasso, includng Guitar, Guitar and Glass, and Poor Couple in Cafe.
In all, the gallery is a tour-de-force and requires probably two visits, at least. Certainly, by the time I had seen the main exhibit my energy to go see the exhibition about the influence of Japanese art on Norway was non-existent. It gives me a good excuse to go back, and if you are ever in Oslo, make sure to make this gallery a part of your trip! You won’t be disappointed.