Stella Grace Lyons gained her BA in the History of Art with a First in her dissertation from the University of Bristol, and her MA in History of Art at the University of Warwick. She spent a year studying Renaissance art in Italy at the British Institute of Florence, and three months studying Venetian art in Venice. Stella is a freelance Art History lecturer and speaker accredited with The Arts Society, and in June and July 2018, Stella travelled with Voyages to Antiquity on our inaugural cruise to the Norwegian fjords. In this post, she reflects on a nation that has sometimes been overlooked when it comes to the world of art.

View from Stalheim by J C Dahl

Norway is not known for its art. In fact, there is only one Norwegian artist who has achieved celebrity status: Edvard Munch. Even he is only really remembered for a single image depicting a tormented figure surrounded by a flame-licked landscape, ‘The Scream’. But, as I discovered on my first cruise lecturing for Voyages to Antiquity, those who enjoy art will almost certainly enjoy a cruise to Norway. Why? Because it’s a country that is incredibly visually stimulating. Every moment spent cruising the fjords, I witnessed beauty; from immense mountains, to deep green lakes, verdant forests filled with wildflowers, and the most crystalline rivers I’ve ever seen. Stepping out onto the deck was like being engulfed in a panoramic landscape painting.

With such inspirational beauty at every turn, why has Norway been viewed as an artistic backwater? It all stems from the Renaissance, when Scandinavia had a reputation as a frozen wilderness filled with witches and terrifying creatures. This was largely due to a text written by a well-meaning Swedish priest, Olaus Magnus, who in 1555 wrote a monumental tome entitled, ‘History of the Northern Peoples’. His book included detailed woodcut illustrations and his hope was that he could educate Europe about the customs and history of the Nordic people. Instead, Olaus mentioned one sea monster too many; the text and its accompanying illustrations sent the rest of Europe into a terrified frenzy. There was no way they were going to risk setting foot in those snowy wastelands!

Hardangerfjord

Even as late as the 20th century this opinion had endured, confirmed by the exclusion of the Scandinavian countries in Kenneth Clark’s seminal ‘Civilisation’. At last, however, this view is changing, and Norway’s art is being considered worthy of study; evident by the National Gallery of London’s decision in 2014 to hold a one-man exhibition of the dramatic works of Norwegian painter Peder Balke.

The beauty of a cruise to Norway for art lovers is that there is still a wealth of artistic gems to discover. Most of these paintings were produced during the 19th-century, Norway’s artistic ‘Golden Age’. A great range of these can be seen in Bergen, at the KODE gallery. Split across several buildings is a spectacular collection of Norwegian paintings; from iconic, vast landscapes by the Norwegian nationalist artist JC Dahl who, through painting, explored what it meant to be Norwegian, to the bright colours of Midsummer bonfires and celebrations of folk-life painted by Nikolai Astrup.

The highlight of the National Museum of Art in Oslo was the Munch room, which included ‘The Scream’ as well as my personal favourite, the sensual ‘Madonna’. The gallery also held room after room of mystical images depicting the midnight sun that Scandinavia is so famous for. In Norway, the group of artists dedicated to painting this light were known as the Fleskum colony, but similar groups existed in all the Scandinavian countries. In Denmark, it was the Skagen painters, who were devoted to painting the blue, translucent summer light as it merged with the sea.

Stella admiring Munch’s Madonna

Voyages to Antiquity’s guests will be able to look at these magical artworks this year when visiting Norway in June and July. Both the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’ and the ‘Norwegian Fjords’ cruises include a visit to Copenhagen, home to some brilliant paintings by the Skagen artists. If landscape paintings are not your cup of tea, then look out for the works of one of my favourite Danish painters, Vilhelm Hammershoi, in Copenhagen. The silent, poetic interiors of his home in the Christianshavn district of the city are enchanting. He even makes an empty, dust-filled room beautiful, as is apparent in his painting ‘Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams’, which hangs in the Ordrupgaard Museum. Whatever gallery you decide to visit, you will notice they all have one thing in common: there’s not a sea monster in sight.

If you would like to visit the art galleries in Bergen, Oslo or Copenhagen, you can do so on two of our highlighted sailings. Our ‘Land of the Midnight Sun‘ itinerary takes Aegean Odyssey through the breathtaking fjords and stunning natural landscapes of Norway’s North Cape, to the remote ports of Harstad, Honningsvåg and Tromsø. Our ‘The Norwegian Fjords‘ voyage sails from Copenhagen, one of the friendliest cities in the world, and takes in destinations in Denmark, Norway and Scotland.