Theater of Cruelty

The story of the female artists

The visual arts of modernism in Norway. A feminist action
Forfatter: Øystein Sjåstad
Forlag: Pax, (Norge)
PICTURE ART / The idea of ​​good form is modernist brainwashing. Already from the Renaissance it was established that beauty belonged to the female body. But who painted a natural primordial state where lust and desire were each in their own way equally unthinkable?


One of the interesting younger voices in Norwegian art history writing in recent years has been Øystein Sjåstad. Now he has written a book about Norwegian modernism told through paintings by female artists, where the paintings themselves represent a coherent narrative – usually without ties to sociological, art political or biographical conditions standing in the way of attention to the art.

The human being and the conditions_Karen Holtsmark

Written out of history?

As an art historian, Sjåstad is conscious of his work and questions how the subject can operate as conservatively as it has with regard to canon thinking. In an overview of the roughly one hundred years we can talk about a 'Norwegian' art history, it is astonishing how many of the assessments Jens Thiis presented in his Norwegian painters and sculptors, published 1904–07, which are still passable. Many of the female artists who were given space there have since been marginalized. Certain countermeasures against a unidirectional male canon have of course been carried out, not least through a certain strategy with regard to the purchase and exhibition of female artists within the museum sector – which the Directorate of Culture also encourages – but also through the writing of art history, where professor emerita Anne Wichstrøm was a pioneer in his basic research on female artists carried out in the 1980s and onwards.

According to the text, Sjåstad's book was written with anger directed at Norwegian historians' unwillingness to apply a new view of sex and art, including against a constant use of here as a quality criterion. Sjåstad writes that "Art opens up a wide range of qualities – not just an idea of ​​good form, whatever that means".

Astri Welhaven Heiberg: Landscape With Women (1912). Oil on Canvas, Trondheim Art Museum
Astri Welhaven Heiberg: Landscape With Women (1912). Oil on Canvas, Trondheim Art Museum

Self portraits

In the otherwise existing canon of artists only a few have womanr got an indisputable place. Among these first division athletes are Kitty Lange Kielland and Harriet Backer, eventually also Asta Nørregaard. An example of a subject where profession and identity are almost blurred is the well-known Harriet Backer Blue interior, painted in Paris in 1883. The model is Asta Nørregaard, but it is known as a curiosity at best. It is the light effects that our interest in the painting has focused on.

orghild Røed Lærum Lulu reclining female nude, Paris

A similar motif with a painting Nørregaard would hardly fit into the same conventions as a quiet woman immersed in her needlework. But as a pedagogical point Sjåstad highlights Kitty Lange Kielland#'s motif with a reading Arne Garborg, which no art historian would fail to connect with the name of the ingenious Jærbow.

With a few exceptions, the female self-portraits are freed from the work situation, which could have been represented in the picture itself. An important exception is Asta Nørregaard's studio portrait [see note, editor's note], where she shows herself in front of an enormous canvas that will become an altarpiece for Gjøvik church. 1882 was the first time such a commission was awarded to a female artist. Here we see an artist self-portrait. The staging of one's own profession has been of less interest to female Norwegian artists than was the case within Danish and Swedish art in the same period. This applies to both self-portraits and 'girlfriend portraits'. In 1885, Nørregaard drew the relatively young Edvard Munch, an artist who had admittedly been exhibited at the Autumn Exhibition a couple of times, but who undoubtedly appears in Nørregaard's portrait as a complete artist character.

Nørregaard: Edvard Munch

An exception to the modesty is the rather unknown artist Agnes Myhre, who in 1895 created a motif of female artists in a study situation. Where did Agnes Myhre go? As for several other of the many names that are swirling around The visual arts of modernism in Norway, there are many pieces missing from the complete picture. And several of these pieces come through the book as triggers that are presented with full overlay: The last word has not been said.

A new century

Throughout the first decades of the 1900th century, there was a great desire to experiment within art, and some of the obvious expectations of what a painting should be were put aside. The painterly expression gained new possibilities, in a constant stream of international isms that took on their own varieties in art. Charlotte Wankel, Borghild Røed Lærum, Ragnhild Kaarbø, Karen Holtsmark and others are good examples of female artists who alone contribute to the history of art.

Helga Ring Reuch (1865-1944), Size: 96×58.5 cm Location: Private, Photo: O.Væring

As general art history and orientering on stylistic historical trends, this part of the book also functions as a crash course, without seeming burdensome. This is a part of the book that one would have liked to see was larger. One of the paintings highlighted is Lærum's Lulu, where a naked woman lies on a divan, but without appearing physically attractive. The many strangely executed details and figure passivity underpin a psychological and sexual understanding of the work, even if the first impression may seem unconcernedly sensual.

The view of the human body that comes to light among the female Norwegian artists shows a great absence of sexual interest, in contrast to contemporary male colleagues. Sjåstad has not found a single example of a sexualized look at the man, hardly any nudity at all, within art. This can have different explanations, from both norms and pictorial history. Already from the Renaissance it was established that beauty belonged the female body and thus was not a subject in which it had anything to do with depicting male models.

Motifs from Kenya make a contribution to the view of 'exotic' cultures in their time.

Artists such as Signe Scheel, Helga Ring Reusch and Rigmor Bech have worked with nudity, but with a feminine virtue. An exception is Astri Welhaven Heiberg's female motifs, which can be understood in a number of ways, for example as being placed in a natural primeval state where lust and desire are each equally unimaginable in their own way. In a separate appendix, Sjåstad discusses the research that Signe Endresen has done on Heiberg's female acts over the past 20 years.

Another artist who enjoyed great interest, but more or less disappeared from the horizon, is Joronn Sitje, which with its motifs from Kenya makes a contribution to the view of 'exotic' cultures in its time and how this can be understood as part of a search for something primitive or original that arose within modernism.

Blue interior.Harriet Backer

Do we need a new art history?

It has been a long time since the last overview of Norwegian art History – understood here as the history of easel painting – was written. Sjåstad's new book presents the history of the female artists in an easy-to-understand and engaging way, also with a jab at her own professional field, including art critics in the daily press. The book is a valuable contribution in preparing the ground for a richer picture of the history of our art, and its extensive illustration material brings to life some intense years in which artistic modes of expression were constantly changing. The only minor sigh of relief from an interested reader is that the story ends sometime in the 1930s. The time after that is hardly less exciting.


p.s. MODERN TIMES also recalls recent releases
Elin Tinholts
The necessity of nature study (2023)
about Asta Nørregaard;
Anne Melgård, Vibeke Waallann Hansen (ed.)
Harriet Backer: it was painting talk I needed.
Letters 1878–1932

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