FLYING alongside the Saltire outside the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile from next weekend, the national flags of the Nordic nations – Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark – will signal a pioneering and revelatory exhibition. The Nordic House will feature artworks depicting Arctic landscapes that glimmer with unexpected colour and shadowy seafarers battling the elements, while photographs will show doughty Baltic fisherwomen, an entire Swedish mining town in transit and... huts.
And those huts have a key place in an exhibition which seeks to invite comparisons between ourselves and our northern neighbours and, as the exhibition’s director, Lesley Riddoch, puts it, “re-establish a ‘north-east passage’ of art, ideas and stories between Scotland, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Denmark”.
With a giant map of Scotland’s North Atlantic links adorning the floor, the exhibition features five main elements, the most visually arresting of which are paintings by two artists from Norway and Iceland. Icelander Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval (1885-1972) was an impoverished orphan who became a fisherman, but spent all his spare time drawing and painting until, at the age of 27, with financial assistance from his fellow fishermen and the Icelandic Confederation of Labour, he studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.
The Nordic House will show the marvellously organic, almost coralline intensity of his paintings, with their multihued landscapes and figures, bursting with a swarming energy and colour. Such is Kjarval’s enduring popularity in Iceland that, in 1977, a flute tribute to him featured on the debut album of an unknown 11-year-old by the name of Björk.
From Norway’s northernmost region of Finnmark, Kaare Espolin Johnson (1907-1994) also transcended adversity. Born near-sighted, the artist, who had studied at the National Academy of the Arts and later the Art Academy in Oslo, lost the sight of one eye when he was 34. A cataract formed on the other some years later. Instead of giving up, the virtually blind Johnson developed his own distinctive but painstaking technique, using soot or other pigment to create a black layer on white paper then scraping it off with blade or needle, creating the opposite effect using white over black.
The results are grainy canvases inhabited by fishermen, somewhere in appearance between Peter Howson characters and Lewis Chessmen.
The exhibition has been curated by Graham Hogg of the Glasgow-based architectural research and design collective Lateral North, and financed by the Nordic Culture Fund. The images by Johnson and Kjarval are not originals but approved reproductions, making the most of a budget that would not have stretched to shipping and insuring artworks.
Other thought-provoking elements include photographs taken during the 1920s of fisherwomen from Finland’s Åland Islands, who fished in the Baltic and frequently worked as merchant seamen, while another photographic display documents Sweden’s Arctic mining town of Kiruna, currently being flitted four kilometres, building by building, because of subsidence.
Then there are the huts, or more precisely photographs of Copenhagen’s picturesquely hutted Vennelyst allotment gardens, where for more than a century families have moved to spend the summer. As an example of a society less constricted by convention, not to mention overbearing land-ownership issues, than our own, these huts are significant.
I’m discussing the exhibition with Hogg, who is in throes of combining these disparate seeming elements into one coherent exhibition. He’s telling me how he and his Lateral North colleagues have looked at Scotland’s potential role in the Nordic countries, a topic which will be examined at a conference in Iceland this year, when we’re joined by architect and Scottish “hutting” campaigner Peter Caunt, bearing a tenth-scale model hut. In comparison with the Nordic nations, hutting in Scotland has been a vexed subject, with the usual outcome being eviction of tenants. Caunt is involved in Reforesting Scotland’s Thousand Huts campaign to dismantle planning and land-ownership barriers to building hut accommodation in woodland, a commonplace custom in Nordic countries.
It’s a moot issue with Riddoch, who is doing a PhD with Strathclyde and Oslo universities comparing the cabin traditions of Norway and Scotland and says a representative from Vennelyst, Birger Andersen, will give a talk at the Storytelling Centre on Thursday. “What is the problem in Scotland?” says Riddoch. “It’s this constant fear, it would seem, of working people getting a toe-hold on land – which of course is always rented, never secure.”
Riddoch is a near-evangelical admirer of the way that the Nordic countries do things differently to ourselves – or is it us who are the odd folk out? As she points out in her book Blossom: What Scotland Needs To Flourish, these nations manage to attain top places in international league tables of productivity, wellbeing, health and GDP, but possibly more than that she admires their resilience and their sense of themselves – which she finds evidenced in the priority given to their own national art in their galleries.
The working title for The Nordic House show was All Our Norths, which she agrees was a bit of a mouthful, “but in my head these are all my norths, because when I see a lot of the material here, I feel as if that conception of the value of remote places is captured easily, without being defensive. Scotland’s story has been so bound up with clearance, with loss and with the fight for land, that it’s hard for us to have a straightforward relationship with remote places. These people have had some of that but none of that kind of forced clearance, because they had none of the way that land was owned here. It’s as if, with all that clutter out of it, you get universal themes addressed – the theme of loss, particularly in fishing communities, and the universal exuberance at the fullness of nature.”
Is she hoping for any spin-off from The Nordic House? “I would like to see the national galleries of this country think about a Nordic show. We’re using reproductions here, but I would hope that, in the same way that the Glasgow Boys exhibition was a great hit years ago, something like these Nordic artists would make an amazing exhibition that people here would love to see. Although I’m not holding my breath.”