Abstract Painting as an Expression of its Time: Critical perspectives on post-war non-figurative art

Written by Tore Kirkholt

(Translated from Norwegian by Thilo Reinhard)

Abstract or non-figurative art made its breakthrough in Norway in the period following WW2. Its artistic impact was the result of being perceived as modern, as an art in keeping with its time. Yet, abstract art was not a uniform phenomenon. On the one hand, painters produced works based on natural forms, but abstracted to the point of rendering the subject barely recognizable. On the other hand, there were paintings that avoided natural forms altogether and used basic visual elements such as planes, colours and geometric shapes instead. While the first type of painting is frequently referred to as abstract art (due to the process of abstraction), the other type is also known as “concrete” art, indicating that this type of art does not rely on visual stimuli or objects in the real world, but rather arises directly from the artist’s imagination. Both stylistic directions were represented in post-war Norway, and we will take a closer look at how they were received and understood by the Norwegian art scene. We will find that what was referred to as “lyrical abstraction” in painting was more accessible than concrete art, since it was easier to associate the former with a (solemn) content.

As early as the inter-war years, an abstract, non-figurative Norwegian art had begun to emerge when students of Fernand Léger, such as Charlotte Wankel, Thorvald Hellesen, Ragnhild Kaarbø and Ragnhild Keyser adopted a constructive and non-figurative form of visual expression in the 1920s. But their paintings met with little understanding in Norway, leading Wankel to stop exhibiting his works, while Kaarbø and Keyser returned to figurative painting. In the 1930s, an abstraction inspired by surrealism surfaced in the work of artists such as Bjarne Rise and Karen Holtsmark. In the catalogue for his exhibition at Kunstnerforbundet in 1935, Rise stated that he was keen to explore the visual idiom of the new age, and that this had to be founded on paintings that expressed the artist’s experiences. That same year, Academy students Bjarne Engebret, Olav Strømme, Gert Jynge, Sigurd Winge and Erling Enger presented their expressive, surrealist-inspired abstractions at a collective exhibition at Kunstnernes Hus (House of Artists) in Oslo in 1935.

Interest in an abstract-surrealist idiom was driven by French and Danish impulses. Rise and Holtsmark had close contact with the Danish painter Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen, whom they had met when he was a student of Axel Revold at the National Academy of Fine Art in Oslo, where he was enrolled from 1927 to 1929. After a year of studies at the Bauhaus in Dessau from 1930 to 1931, Bjerke Petersen – along with Ejler Bille and Richard Mortensen – founded the artists’ association Linien, which was to become a gathering point for abstract-surrealist artists in Denmark. Linien was also the name of the group’s journal, and the first edition, published in conjunction with the group’s first exhibition in 1934, emphasized that they fostered an art that was constructive in its basic design, while the juxtaposition of form and colour acquired a spiritual dimension through the use of symbols. Bjerke Petersen left Linien soon after, and in 1935 organized the international exhibition Cubism-Surrealism in Copenhagen, which included paintings by Magritte, Dali and Miró, as well as works by Rise and Holtsmark.

The abstract explorations of Norwegian artists by way of surrealism were met with little understanding by the critics, who found scanty artistic value in the paintings. Either they were rejected as being far too subjective and self-centred, or they were seen as impersonal variations on surrealist ideals that at best could be dismissed as purely decorative. In 1937, the surrealist painters were excluded from Høstutstillingen, Norway’s largest annual exhibition of new contemporary works. The head of the jury, Rudolph Thygesen, believed that they were not even proper surrealists,[1] and several among them were to return to figurative painting. Therefore, a younger generation of post-war painters was to establish abstract painting as a central and eventually hegemonic form of expression, devoid of surrealist symbolism.

In 1931, the Belgian artist Georges Vantongerloo established the artists’ association Abstraction-Création in Paris, collaborating with, among others, Auguste Herbin and Theo van Doesburg. The association was founded to promote pure abstract art, and represented a counterpart to Breton’s surrealism. The group’s interest for a constructive and geometric form of abstraction was continued after the war by the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, an artists’ association that also established an art exhibition of the same name in 1946. Some of its most central artists were Jean Dewasne, Jean Deyrolle, Auguste Herbin and Serge Poliakoff. The group’s first exhibition had the subtitle “Art abstrait, concret, constructivisme, non-figuratif”, thus demonstrating that the central interest of these artists was the constructive design of the image itself. They all ended up in the stable of Galerie Denis René, joined by among others Richard Mortensen and the Danish sculptor Robert Jacobsen in the late 1940s. This form of geometric abstract art is often referred to as “concrete art”, a term that is firmly established in Denmark and Sweden, but not as common in a Norwegian context.

It was in the form of this type of concrete art that abstract or non-figurative art began to make its mark in Norway during the post-war years. In the spring of 1950, Odd Tandberg presented geometric non-figurative paintings at Galleri Per, while Gunnar S. Gundersen, Ludvig Eikaas and Gudrun Kongelf showed their non-figurative paintings at a collective exhibition at Kunstnerforbundet, Norway’s leading artist-initiated gallery of contemporary art. This second  exhibition presented the audience with geometric shapes kept in bright colours and often delineated by dark contours. These works had a distinctly decorative quality, and several of the reviewers felt that they did not succeed in reaching beyond the purely decorative. Painter and critic Håkon Stenstadvold insisted that the paintings exhibited at Kunstnerforbundet were not “art in the European sense of the word”, but had to be understood as ornament.[2] One of the main reasons for this was the fact that these painters had abandoned the image, the subject matter. But the most important reason for the paintings to be viewed as merely decorative seems to have been the lack of a spatial dimension, a key point of interest among critics as well as painters at the time.

As early as the first issue of Linien (1934), Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen described how the art group’s members were preoccupied with portraying the new “temporal-spatial world-view” of the time.[3] This was confirmed by Stenstavold in an article from 1959 about Thore Heramb’s painterly abstractions, where he stated that art that took itself seriously should and must be about our experience of space. Stenstavold argued that space, or our perception of it, had changed. Space had become relative due to a new understanding of its nature brought about by physics, as well as the fact that “our life in busses and cars and trains and trams allows us to experience space as a tapestry of images.”[4] Life had become dynamic and fragmented, and it was the role of art to lend artistic expression to one’s own time

There was a widespread belief among these artists that art should turn away from the spiritual struggle of the individual. The point was to find a style capable of expressing a new attitude towards the world, linked to the collectivism that characterized the new age of productivity. In his book Idékamp og stilskifte i norsk malerkunst (Battle over Ideas and Stylistic Change in Norwegian Painting) from 1946, Stenstadvold,  argued that the modernization process had given rise to a new attitude towards human beings, the emphasis now was on human “productive and social abilities”, rather than on a peculiar, deviant state of mind. Stenstadvold depicted his time as being dominated by a focus on production “that demands each part to subordinate itself in relation to its place in the mechanism, and to adjust its pace to the working speed of the machines.” Under such circumstances, art too had to renew itself. No longer was art about expressing the artist’s individuality; instead, the new world-view was to be conveyed through an art consisting of “tension, balance, equalization of forces.” This was art’s response to what he described as the physically conditioned world view.[5]

Håkon Stenstadvold was a painter himself, and had studied with the Danish art theorist Georg Jacobsen at the National Academy of Fine Art in Oslo during the pre-war years. For five years, from 1935 to 1940, Jacobsen instructed Norwegian art students in the constructive principles of painting. He was no advocate of abstract art, but his constructive principles were clearly compatible with non-figurative painting. In 1963 he published his ideas on pictorial composition in his book Noget om Konstruktiv Form i Billedkunst (Some Notes on Constructive Form in Painting), in which he conveyed his understanding of the importance of a constructive approach based on the study of old masters and of Cézanne’s art. Here, Jacobsen emphasized an art that was to be impersonal and speak to everyone; such an art “will give us far greater satisfaction than to circle around this insignificant ‘I’ that, God knows, is not all that interesting.”[6]

Regarding the three painters who exhibited at Kunstnerforbundet in the spring of 1950, their paintings were indeed understood as impersonal, not least due to their decorative character. Among the three young artists it was especially Gundersen who was fascinated by the dynamic spatial effects in his non-figurative compositions, and was to be the Norwegian artist most true to a constructive, non-figurative ideal. His interest in this type of painting was spurred by a trip to the continent in 1949, where he had become acquainted with constructive, concrete art in the circle around Galerie Denise René. Gundersen was inspired by artists such as Auguste Herbin, Richard Mortensen and Victor Vasarely, whose paintings, composed of geometric shapes,, explored the relationship between figures and space.[7] In an interview in connection with a group exhibition at Kunstnerforbundet in May 1955, Gundersen confirmed that it was the discovery of “the possibilities of relative space” that had led him to non-figurative painting. Twenty-five years later he described his paintings using concepts such as tension, movement, rhythm and space.[8] And in hindsight, he also stressed the importance of space in the creation of art: “Without a vivid and malleable space, [there is] no art, merely decoration and ornament.”[9]

Although Stenstadvold labelled the non-figurative paintings shown at Kunstnerforbundet’s collective exhibition in 1950 as ornamental, he was nevertheless enthusiastic about what he had seen, believing that ornamentation was due to be renewed. Four years earlier, he had commented that an “intense manufacture of squiggles in the name of decorative painting” had taken place, and claimed that this had largely affected the interior of churches.[10] Therefore he encouraged architects and manufacturers of utilitarian items and textiles to stop by Kunstnerforbundet’s premises and have a look – here, at last, was a decorative style that was in keeping with its time. Stenstavold viewed this as the result of a long-term stylistic effort whose roots went back to the Bauhaus school and whose goal was to create a modern form of ornamentation. The exhibition showed that also Norwegian painters were about to master this ornamental style.

“Imagine these works translated into floor tiles, or walls in solid material,” Stenstadvold wrote, “imagine these shapes filling the empty surfaces of buildings and utility objects.”[11] The Norwegian daily Aftenposten followed up the topic with a survey, in which among others the artist Henrik Sørensen had his say. He wished to see this type of art on “government and municipal buildings”, and wanted to let non-figurative artists “colour the city, this sad, desperately anaemic, functionalist – and urine-coloured city.”[12] The appeals of Stenstadvold and Sørensen bore fruit. At the 900th anniversary of the City of Oslo that year, the city centre had been decorated by painters Odd Tandberg, Carl Nesjar and Gunnar S. Gundersen, in collaboration with architects Geir Grung and Sverre Fehn. That same year, Gundersen, Kongelf and Eikaas were commissioned to decorate the facade of Kunstnerforbundet. The result was a playful use of triangles, rectangles and circles in a composition that accented the surface and mirrored the shapes of the entrance and the windows.

In the years to come, non-figurative art was to adorn the empty surfaces of many different buildings. Gundersen received a number of similar commissions, such as the entrance to Bytårnet School in Moss, completed in 1961, while the decoration of the dining room at Rikstrygdeverket (the National Insurance Administration) and the entrance to the Foreign Ministry both were completed in 1963. Today, the most famous and widely discussed work in this genre is the decoration of the Government Building (Regjeringsbygget, 1957–1958), whose stairwell and foyer were decorated by artists Erling Tore Haaland, Inger Sitter, Carl Nesjar and Odd Tandberg on commission by the architect Erling Viksjø. Here the decorative design became an integral part of the building, produced by sandblasting the special natural concrete Viksjø had developed, a process that uncovered the round, polished river gravel filled into the formwork. By varying the brightness and texture, different non-figurative fields could be articulated on the wall of the building.

Thanks to these commissions, non-figurative art began to gain prestige and recognition. Yet, the opinion that a non-figurative approach should solely be limited to decorative purposes was widely shared. In the above-mentioned newspaper survey from 1950, Sørensen stated: “To me it does not appear as art, not as pictures to hang on a wall, but to be the wall [itself], to be integrated into the wall.”[13] Sørensen’s notions were shared by many. In response to paintings by Gundersen, Eikaas and Kongelf, the painter and critic Ole Mæhle commented that this idiom seemed cold and mechanical. While natural forms were an intrinsic part of our world, these geometric shapes had little appeal to “humanness”.[14] When Mæhle reviewed Gundersen’s paintings at Galleri KB in 1957, he titled the article “Extreme art!” and cited the Fauvist painter Maurice de Vlaminck, who had referred to abstract art as the official art form of the century of robots.[15] Americans had embraced the new idiom because it conformed to the American way of life, thanks to its mechanistic, organized and abstract qualities.

The allegation that non-figurative art did not appeal to “humanness” presumably had its roots in Ortega y Gasset’s views, propounded in his book La deshumanización del arte (1925), published in a Norwegian translation in 1949 under the title Kunsten bort fra det menneskelige (English version: The Dehumanization of Art). Here Ortega argued that the human element in art was related to our everyday experiences, and thus to the subject matter in painting, while the new art focused on the qualities of the artistic medium. He referred to the objects in modern art as “ultra-objects” that did not exhibit any human emotions or passions, but rather what he called “secondary passions, specifically aesthetic sentiments.”[16] By doing so, he established modern art as an inaccessible art form that was difficult to understand, and intelligible mostly to only a small elite.[17]

Ortega’s book was not an attack on modern art. Quite to the contrary, the author claimed that it was precisely the distance to reality that gave rise to art. Yet in Norway his book was understood as an attack on modern art, ostensibly due to his insistence on the essentially subordinate role of contemporary art, characterized by playfulness and irony: “This inevitable dash of irony, it is true, imparts to modern art a monotony which must exasperate patience herself. But be that as it may, the contradiction between surfeit and enthusiasm now appears resolved. The first is aroused by art as a serious affair, the second is felt for art that triumphs as a farce, laughing off everything, itself included—much as in a system of mirrors which indefinitely reflect one another no shape is ultimate, all are eventually ridiculed and revealed as pure images.”[18] Ortega basically viewed modern art as a thing of minor importance; it did not demand the same kind of “quasi-religious” attitude from the viewer as did older art. This was the reason for its dehumanization – its confrontation with the long humanistic tradition of visual art.

Allegations of dehumanization were primarily directed at geometric abstraction, as it triggered associations to a modern life in which human beings were subservient to machines. And indeed, Gundersen was not interested in creating works that conveyed his own personal experiences; that is why we see no traces of expressive brushwork in his paintings. According to his own statement he left his shapes as neutral as possible in order to open up for the viewer’s own experiences. During the 1960s, Gundersen continued to develop his geometric abstractions into paintings with freely floating planes and parabolas in moments of suspenseful juxtaposition. The paintings often had titles associated with the experience of nature, such as Vintersol (Winter Sun) from 1966, owned by the National Gallery in Oslo. It was an optical art that activated the viewer in an attempt to grasp the spatial context. Peter Anker aptly described Gundersen’s paintings by saying that they caused the viewer’s “eyes to itch.”[19] In his review of Gundersen’s exhibition at Galleri Haaken in 1963, Anker rejected the view that the paintings on view were to be considered vacuous decorations:

I cannot accept that this type of painting should be without substance, that is to say “merely decorative”. It is true that the end effect is decorative, but each image is an integral whole, an artistic individuality expressing drama, humour, caprice, or serenity and equilibrium. Just like other types of visual art, it is able to conjure up human emotions and moods. It is warm and alive, without being sentimental. This warm intelligence is to me the most valuable quality of Gundersen’s work.[20]

But it was by way of a different idiom altogether – abstraction in the narrow sense, leading the viewer’s associations in the direction of natural impressions – that non-figurative art was to gain understanding and acceptance among a larger Norwegian audience. This type of painting is often referred to as lyrical abstraction, characterized by abstract organic forms and free brushwork. Understanding these paintings as records of the artist’s experiences confronting a piece of reality allowed them to become imbued with content, and be perceived as human in an entirely different way than geometric abstraction.

In the early 1950s, Knut Rumohr led the way with his colourful, abstract paintings done in tempera. His free, almost spontaneous brushstrokes in the matte tones of tempera lent a special brilliance and intensity to his work. In some of the paintings, decorative elements were incorporated into the organic shapes. Rumohr’s distinctive art seemed to draw equal inspiration from the landscape of Western Norway as it did from the colours and decorative idioms of traditional Norwegian arts and crafts, two sources of inspiration that caught the interest of the critics. In an article about Rumohr from 1957, Peter Anker wrote that his paintings were more than a purely aesthetic play of colourful brushstrokes, light and shapes. Rumohr’s artistic development from a figurative to a non-figurative idiom were the best guarantee that his art was meaningful, that his “formal experiences fundamentally are human experiences, with more or less specific psychological content.”[21]

Along with Peter Anker, Ole Henrik Moe was to become one of the key proponents of abstract art. These two young art historians took it upon themselves to convey an understanding of abstract art and its qualities to a Norwegian audience. Like Anker, Moe felt that abstract painting had to be more than a game with purely artistic elements. “Is it simply a game of geometry, brush strokes or painterly matter?” he asked in a debate about non-figurative painting in 1957. “Has the artist taken the easy way out and started from behind? (...) Or is his expression rooted in ‘once upon a time’, a sensory impression, an experience of reality?”[22] Lyrical abstraction promised precisely such a “once upon a time”. In his article on Rumohr’s work, Anker described how abstract painting conveyed “an experience, the innermost core of a situation freed from the immediate, sedentary and the incidental.” In this way “the emotional core (...) could be freed from the slag of incidental memories and associations.” Anker came to refer to this as “the cultivation of humanness.”[23]

The interest and enthusiasm spawned by lyrical abstraction was thus linked to its ability to give shape and meaning to the human connection with the world. Therefore also  shapes had to be understood as something more than random or empty aesthetic symbols. The French painter Jean René Bazaine understood abstract painting in this same sense. “Whether it is a matter of “direct vision”, “composition” or “abstraction”, (...) one does not divorce the visual sign from the earth that has given it nourishment, one does not pin down living reality with dry symbols.”[24] Bazaine belonged to what was referred to as the “School of Paris” during the post-war years, when lyrical-abstraction evolved. Other artists associated with the School of Paris were Pierre Soulages, Nicolas de Staël, Hans Hartung, Alfred Manessier, Serge Poliakoff and Maurice Estève. In 1980, Stein Mehren described the shock he experienced upon seeing paintings by Bazaine, Manessier and Estève for the first time: “These paintings did not represent trees, flowering branches against a starry sky, damp moss on ancient stones,” he wrote. “They were these phenomena, just as our feelings somewhere inside us are nature.”[25]

It was this type of exalted emotion lyrical abstraction was able to convey. Besides Rumohr, two other artists were to become important representatives of the style: Inger Sitter and Jakob Weidemann. Especially throughout the 1960s, following a series of expressive collages inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s work at the beginning of the decade, Sitter cultivated a lyrical abstract style based on stone formations and coastal rock slopes. Nonetheless, what is commonly agreed to be the breakthrough of abstract art in Norway came with Jakob Weidemann. Ever since his debut exhibition at the art dealer and gallery Blomqvist in 1946, he had been a favourite among the critics. And although he had leaned towards a rather rigorous and geometric form of abstraction in many of his early paintings, his works were rarely accused of ending up as decorative.

But it was only once he began to focus his attention on the Norwegian forest floor that a larger audience truly began to pay attention to him. The large exhibition at Kunstnernes Hus in 1961 – where Weidemann exhibited in one of the two skylight rooms, while Arnold Haukeland exhibited in the other – is considered to be the final breakthrough for abstract painting in Norway. On large canvases with thick layers of paint, the colours of the forest floor radiated towards the viewer in irregular shapes, intensifying towards the centre of the visual field. Although these paintings lacked a clear dynamic element, they had an eruptive force, a vibrating energy of colour fields reminiscent of withering leaves and rotting logs. And the critics got exactly what they had wished for: an abstract art whose visual character was clearly linked to the earth that gave it nourishment. In his review, Anker commented that Weidemann had overcome the provincialism that was the result of art being seen as an international language, “an Esperanto that dispenses with both personality and nationality.”[26] Instead, his visual language was rich with the experience of nature, Anker asserted, conveying the materiality of things in such a way that anyone with the experience of walking through a Norwegian forest would be able to identify with it, Anker asserted. Weidemann had managed to turn the modern, abstract idiom into a medium capable of communicating personal experiences.

Ortega y Gasset had viewed modern art as marginalized, playful, ironic and unpopular. Its appetite for solemnity escaped him, as Edgar Wind once noted.[27] But it was precisely this appetite that brought about the breakthrough of abstract painting in Norwegian art, and garnered the enthusiastic endorsement of the critics.

[1] Eli Okkenhaug, “Surrealismen, et norsk intermesso.” In: Eli Okkenhaug and Alf Sandvik (ed.), Uroen og begjæret: surrealisme i Skandinavia 1930–1950. Exhibition catalogue, Bergen Kunstmuseum, 2004, p. 45.

[2] Håkon Stenstadvold, “Appell ved en utstilling.” Aftenposten, 4 March 1950.

[3] Quoted by Marianne Barbusse and Lene Olesen, De konkrete: Konstruktive tendenser i dansk kunst – fra kubisme til Ny Abstraktion. København: Gyldendal, 1995, p. 35.

[4] Håkon Stenstadvold, “Thore Herambs kunst.” Bonytt, 1959, p. 146.

[5] Håkon Stenstadvold, Idékamp og stilskifte i norsk malerkunst: 1900–1919. Oslo, 1946, pp. 183–184.

[6] Quoted by Svein Thorud, Den konstruktive skole: Georg Jacobsens betydning for norsk malerkunst. Master’s thesis, Oslo, 1977.

[7] These artists were to become better known to a Norwegian audience through the exhibition Klar Form (Pure Form) at Kunstnernes Hus in 1952.

[8] See Terje Huser, Gunnar S. Gundersen: Offentlige utsmykninger, 1949–1980. Sonja Henie and Niels Onstad Foundations, 1983, pp. 68–74.

[9] From an interview in 1982. Here cited after Ole H. Moe, “Gunnar S. Gundersen”, in Huser: Gunnar S. Gundersen: Offentlige utsmykninger, p. 5.

[10] Stenstadvold, Idékamp og stilskifte i norsk malerkunst, p. 182.

[11] Stenstadvold, “Appell ved en utstilling.” Aftenposten, 4 March 1950.

[12] “La de non-figurative malerne farvelegge byen.” Aftenposten, 18 March 1950.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ole Mæhle, “3 non-figurative malere i Kunstnerforbundet.” Dagbladet, 3 March 1950.

[15] Ole Mæhle, “Ekstrem kunst!” Dagbladet, 5 March 1957.

[16] José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art and Other Essays on Art, Culture, and Literatur. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 22

[17] Ortega’s views on modern art also came to be important for Bourdieu’s book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, which takes up precisely the difference between a distinguished and a more popular-minded habitus (outlook), explaining why their tastes differed so widely.

[18] José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art and Other Essays on Art, Culture, and Literature, p. 48.

[19] Peter Anker, “En betydelig norsk modernist.” Arbeiderbladet, 11 March 1963.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Peter Anker, “Knut Rumohr.” Kunsten Idag, no. 2 1956, p. 7.

[22] Ole H. Moe, “Mer billedstrid.” Aftenposten, 27. December 1957.

[23] Anker, “Knut Rumohr”, p. 7.

[24] Jean Bazaine, here quoted after Ole H. Moe, “Inger Sitter – en kunstner I oppbrudd.” In: Peter Anker and Ole H. Moe, Inger Sitter. Oslo: Schibsted, 1987, p. 45.

[25] Stein Mehren, 50 60 70 80: Essays. Oslo: Aschehoug, 1980, p. 83.

[26] Peter Anker, “Haukeland og Weidemann stiller ut.” Frisprog, 8 April 1961. 

[27] Edgar Wind, Art and Anarchy: The Reith Lectures 1960. New York: Random House, 1969, note 32, p. 120.

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