Painting the past in 19th-century Norway

The 5th and 6th centuries AD have quite different meanings around present-day Europe.  The fact that we have multiple names for the period is telling.  In the Mediterranean East, for instance, this is the Byzantine era.  In the West it’s Late Antique.  Around the North Sea it’s often called the Migration Period.  In Scandinavia it’s also the Iron Age (albeit the post-Roman one).   The romanticised connotations of these names are diverse and important. It’s a time of faded glory (Late Antique); wandering tribes (Migration Period); a convoluted and tired Empire, tinged with an oriental mysticism (Byzantine); or a slow accumulation of processes begun halfway through the first millennium BC (Iron Age).  The 5th and 6th centuries, though their shadows are sometimes cast by broadly comparable evidence, project themselves variously onto the screen of our imagination.

I’ve written before about the striking continuity Norwegian archaeology displays through the long Iron Age.  For instance, some small barrow cemeteries continued to be used through the pre-Roman and Roman Iron Ages and into the Migration Period, many even lingering into the Viking Age.  This scale of continuity puts the Norwegian Migration Period in a somewhat different light to that of much of southern and western Europe, which experienced a starkly different series of transitions with the coming and going of Empire.  Furthermore, these cemeteries have always played a prominent role in the landscape, many of them containing monumental barrows, some even marked by standing stones.  They capture the imagination in a manner that the (for the most part) invisible cemeteries of Anglo-Saxon England and Merovingian Gaul do not.

These prehistoric mounds and megaliths did not escape the attentions of the 19th-century re-inventors of the Norwegian landscape: painters.  Norway, at the beginning of the 19th century, had a growing sense of identity and an impetus to establish a distinct cultural footprint.  Formerly under Danish control then Swedish, the Norwegian constitution was drawn up in 1814.  Twenty-two years later the national museum of art was founded in Oslo (then Christiana).  A key figure among its founders was the painter Johan Christian Dahl, who gave the purpose of the new museum as not only for providing model examples for art students in the capital, but also for the refinement of public taste.  The foundation was to grow a sense of worth, not just among its citizens, but also to establish the Norwegian landscape itself as a worthy subject of romantic landscape painting (Lødrup Bang 1987, 125–6).  Most accounts make Dahl out to be a man working for the common good, setting out to open Europe’s eyes to the potential of Norway as an artistic subject, a landscape inhabited and worked by farmers following ancient traditions, fighting a millennia-old battle against an unforgiving landscape with an heroic past of its own.

Dahl himself was a painter of considerable talent and ambition.  Indeed, he is generally credited as the father of Norwegian landscape painting.  Furthermore it was Dahl, followed by his two most famous students Thomas Fearnley and Peder Balke, who championed this subject.  A number of Dahl’s paintings feature Scandinavian (Norwegian or Danish) prehistoric remains.  Consequently prehistoric Norway, which includes the Migration Period, was present at the quite intentional moulding of modern Norwegian identity.

Flicking through Dahl’s complete works (Lødrup Bang 1987), I came across the following 17 paintings that contained obvious examples of Scandinavian prehistoric monuments:

  • Dolmen near Vordingbord in Moonlight (1816) [Denmark]
  • Dolmen near Vordingbord in Winter (1825, 1829) [Denmark]
  • Menhir in Sognefjord in Winter (1827) [Norway]
  • Fjord Landscape with a Menhir (1833, 1837, 1839) [Norway]
  • Birch Tree at Slinde in Winter (1835, 1838) [Norway]
  • Grave by the Sea with a Menhir (1838)
  • Menhir by the Sea (1838)
  • Danish Winter Landscape with Dolmen (1838) [Denmark]
  • Haymaking between Menhirs at Nornes (1839) [Norway]
  • Landscape from Voss with Grave Mound and Menhir (1840) [Norway]
  • Mountain Farm in the Tessungdal (1840, 1841, ?1842) [Norway]

All of these paintings sit quite comfortably alongside his equally numerous renderings of castle and church ruins, variously from Norway and Germany.  The thing about Dahl’s paintings of prehistoric remains though, is that the barrows and megaliths tend to sit integrally with the landscape; they become part of the natural environment.  Dahl’s aim was to paint nature and his human subjects were very few.  Because he often made human figures diminutive, their presence lends a sense of imposing scale to the landscape.  People are not the subjects of the painting, and they usually have their backs to us.  Their engulfment in the landscape stands in for our own.  Because of Dahl’s emphasis on nature the barrows and megaliths become an inseparable part of the landscape, lending it chronological depth and a sense of the romanticised mythological past.

Johan_Christian_Dahl_-_Megalith_Grave_in_Winter

Johan Christian Dahl’s Domen near Vordingbord in Winter (c.1825). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Johan_Christian_Dahl_-_Winter_at_the_Sognefjord_-_Google_Art_Project

Johan Christian Dahl’s Menhir in Sognefjord in Winter (1827). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Symbols abound in Dahl’s paintings.  Dead trees and rainbows are so ubiquitous they verge on cliché.  He was also known to have observed and drafted landscapes in the summer, and then painted snow over them, to achieve a sense of melancholy and perhaps the hope of renewal.  Prehistoric monuments fulfilled similar roles.  In the painting “Vordingbord in moonlight” (in Denmark, above), the moonlight, winter and stones all stand for death and the past.  In “Menhir at Sognefjord in Winter” (also above) the megalith symbolises the antiquity of the winter landscape, as well as disconsolation and death (being a grave marker).  Nevertheless, the ray of light that peeps over the mountains and strikes the apex of the standing stone is perhaps our symbol of rejuvenation in this otherwise sombre painting (Lødrup Bang 1987).

Modern human settlements also feature in Dahl’s paintings, sometimes placed in juxtaposition with ancient remains.  They reference the deep legacy of Norwegian farmers.  They connect the apparent mundanity of the present with an heroic past.  This is true for the various versions of “Birch Tree at Slinde” (below), but more obviously for “Mountain Farm in the Tessungdal” (also below), where the barrow and its megalith impose themselves upon the little farmstead, their nearby tree finding some kind of life-force in the ancient tumulus, while the tree in the foreground withers.

Slindebirken,_Vinter_(I.C._Dahl)

Johan Christian Dahl’s Birch Tree at Slinde in Winter (1838). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Tessungdal

Johan Christian Dahl’s Mountain Farm in the Tessungdal (1841). Source: Project Muse.

None of this is to say that Dahl knew an awful lot about Norwegian prehistory, or that he particularly cared to learn.  Here we are not dealing with an archaeological understanding of the past, but an artistic one.  During his time in Dresden Dahl would have been in touch with antiquarian circles, but this was long before the academic discipline of archaeology was formed.  As such, scientific understandings of the ancient past were less separable from popular understandings informed by the visual arts, poetry and literature.  Dahl’s paintings must have struck a pre-existing chord with their audience (Caspar David Friedrich, a colleague of Dahl’s, was using similar devices in Germany at the time), but they also reinforced a particular understanding of prehistory, as one that was seamless with the natural landscape, and continuous with the present. In doing so, Dahl pulled the past and the present together, affecting both with a sense of the other, whilst simultaneously diminishing four uncomfortable centuries of external rule.

As explored in a recent article by Mari Lending, Johan Christian Dahl had some intriguing opinions on the preservation of ancient barrows, which is where we arrive some of the more familiar subjects of this blog: grave goods and jewellery.  While Dahl was beginning to explore ancient monuments with his palette and brush, his antiquarian contemporaries commenced theirs with spades and pick axes.  Dahl was resolutely against these excavations, declaiming museums of finds from these monuments as a force for destruction, and championing the barrows as “museums” in their own right, intact and set in their landscape context.  The removal of artefacts from these tombs to the Oldsaksamlingen (Collection of Anquities) in Christiana he saw as profoundly destructive.  Rather than the preservation of grave goods as purely material objects, Dahl focused on the preservation of the landscape, integral to the barrows, and integral to them their hidden and buried treasures.  Though unseen, artefacts like elaborate brooches were nevertheless inseparable from the landscape for Dahl.  Like a building indicates an inhabited landscape through the knowledge rather than the explicit depiction of its human inhabitants, a barrow could only really be a barrow if it contained its material assemblage.  With that removed, the barrow was a mere reconstruction or imitation.

Though Dahl’s opinions now seem antiquated and perhaps even a little naive, I think we’ve all felt a bit like this after visiting excavated sites.  For instance, similar feelings might be expressed upon viewing the burial mounds of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, where we know that the sunken barrows are at least partly reconstructed and have been pillaged variously by treasure hunters of centuries gone by as well as 20th-century archaeologists.  Their neatly mown grass and roped fences add further layers of alienation and artificiality to the modern visitor.  Obviously both excavation and conservation are fundamental to both our knowledge of the past and its material preservation but that doesn’t mean it isn’t self-contradictory as Dahl himself observed more than a century and a half ago, and it doesn’t mean that these inevitabilities are trivial in how we create knowledge about the past. The choice is paradoxical, but would we rather envisage a Migration Period as a continuous, tangible presence in the world we inhabit, or as a roped-off reconstruction?

Bibliography

Lending, M. 2009. ‘Landscape versus museum: J. C. Dahl and the preservation of Norwegian burial mounds’, Future Anterior 6(1), xi-17 [available online from http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/future_anterior/v006/6.1.lending.html, accessed July 2015].

Lødrup Bang, M. 1987. Johan Christian Dahl 1788-1857: Life and Works. Vols 1-3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.