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Scandinavia at the Barbican.

A fin de siecle cynic might aptly suggest that culture as we know it is being replaced by festivals. Among the shapeless giants and tourist rip-offs, however, there are still some specimens of the kind that combine theme, coherence, respectable subject matter and genuine excitement -- festivals in which the individual events interact, strike sparks and create a larger experience than the sum total of their parts.

Fortunately, Tender Is the North, the London Barbican Centre's Festival of Scandinavian Arts, was a festival of that experience-enhancing kind. Despite its rather limiting name (a quotation from Tennyson), it had both point and focus, and if its programme was generous, it was within the grasp of those prepared to explore it in detail during the month of its existence (10 November-13 December, 1992). Most of its events took place in or near the Barbican, but there were also concerts at Wigmore Hall and The Place Theatre and an appropriate exhibition at the Design Museum.

Despite the festival's extensive programme, Artistic Director Humphrey Burton and his associates wisely made no attempt to cover every major feature and figure of the Nordic world. The treatment of film, the most modern of the arts, was remarkably deep and detailed, with more than a score of Ingmar Bergman films alone on the programme, but otherwise the offerings were thoughtfully selective. Thus, the Barbican's central art exhibition, 'Border Crossings: Fourteen Scandinavian Artists', presented a select group of modern artists, all born between 1849 and 1956, whose challenging and varied work has crossed geographical, creative and spiritual frontiers. In music, Sibelius and Nielsen were highlighted, while Nordic theatre was most prominently represented by rehearsed readings of two contemporary Swedish plays, arranged by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and an Ibsen production by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Within the boundaries of this selective programme, there were riches in abundance. Besides works by Edvard Munch and the multi-talented August Strindberg, 'Border Crossings' presented a considerable array of drawings and paintings by that gifted, unbalanced, precursor of Surrealism, Carl Fredrik Hill. The Guildhall's 'Ibsen' was also of special interest, for it was the dramatist's middle-period comedy The League of Youth -- a work so seldom performed today that Ibsen's own admirable Stage Festival in Oslo has yet to feature it. Sibelius and Nielsen, on the other hand, were presented in depth, with the complete symphonies of each being featured in an independent concert series. And for those who wanted to broaden the programme, there were a certain number of 'associated events', which included an independent Munch exhibition at the National Gallery and a contemporary Icelandic play.

Nor did Tender Is the North fail in its festival duty to spice its coverage with adventure and surprise. For me, at least, the Barbican's most exciting living contributor, aside from Ingmar Bergman, was Norway's Frans Widerberg, the only painter who received the accolade of a personal exhibition. The festival, of course, by no means discovered Widerberg, for he has been exhibited internationally now for some years. Nevertheless, his striking presence in Tender Is the North suggested his importance: with his awkward horses and featureless riders, his bright, indefinite terrains and vast, galaxy-filled skies, he is at once a visual poet of extraordinary power and one of the most creative of contemporary Scandinavians.

With its effective blend of range, surprises and selectivity, the Barbican programme could be experienced on a variety of levels. Those with a limited acquaintance with Scandinavian life and art were able to sample it at its best. They could listen to some Nielsen, attend an Ibsen play, see a few Bergman films and feast their eyes on two long walls laden with Widerberg's visual magic. Between times, they could browse among Nordic handcraft exhibits or build up their literary background by pondering library displays devoted to Knut Hamsun and Hans Christian Andersen. Those long familiar with the Scandinavian achievement, on the other hand, could take advantage of the same programme both to enrich their experience and to put it in perspective. For them, the Barbican was at once a pausing place and a cluster of road signs.

As a festival visitor of the latter variety, one who made his Northern Border Crossing long ago, I found it both a challenging and a seductive experience to wander among so many Scandinavian artifacts and to search for their relationships. In what way or ways, I asked myself, was all this 'Scandinavian'? In five days of almost non-stop looking and listening, I did my best to find out. My vision was undoubtedly influenced by several decades of Northern study and travel, but beyond my bias and preconception lay something real: 'Scandinavia' was there and, the more I wandered in the Barbican, the more certain its presence seemed.

One great feature of that Scandinavian presence is its dynamic relationship with the landscapes of its five component nations. Fjord and shore, mountain and moor, plateau and forest are both stage settings and actors, the substance of a thousand different dramas. That topographical intimacy characterizes the wordscapes of the Icelandic sagas (featured in two festival programmes), and has been passed in verbal and visual tradition down into our own century. At the Barbican, that sense of a resonant, living terrain was especially evident in the pictorial arts -- in some of the photographs, for instance, of the Icelanders Pall Stefansson and Gudmundur Ingolfsson and in the moving pictures of Ingmar Bergman. And if the powerful 19th century landscape painters were not represented at the festival, there were later works in 'Border Crossings' that illustrate the point with a special eloquence, for they lie closer to the contemporary Nordic sensibility than the work of the older artists: the Dane Edvard Weie's shore scene 'Sunlight on the Sea, Christianso', for instance, or Edvard Munch's 'Train Smoke'. The latter is especially striking, for its subject suggests a confrontation of technology and the natural world; yet Munch's smoke merely pours from a scarcely visible locomotive and patterns itself into a peaceful evening beside the Oslo Fjord. Industrial power has become an accent of its setting, an emanation of the landscape.

In Scandinavian music, too, the natural landscape was a festival presence, especially when married to appropriate poetry. Sibelius' 'Autumn Evening' (sung by the extraordinary Finnish soprano Karita Mattila at a London Symphony concert) invited the listener, with the aid of Viktor Rydberg's lyrics, into a twilit landscape of 'foaming lake', 'sighing forests' and 'moss and heather', while Grieg's 'Haugtussa' song-cycle, to words by Arne Garborg, virtually transformed a lonely, living Norway into sound. At her Wigmore Hall concert, Solveig Kringelborn stepped into that Norway with a vocal and dramatic conviction that I do not expect to find soon equaled. Like Munch's train smoke, she became part of her landscape.

But the Nordic love affair with landscape is a matter of detail as well as compositional patterning: there is a Scandinavian relish for the minutia -- for the simple building materials -- of nature that revealed itself everywhere at the festival and tied its programme to the past. The joy in stones that animated the display of modern Danish jewellery by Agnete Dinesen once helped design the small medieval churches of that craftswoman's native country, while the wood used by Icelander Hulda Hakon in a mixed media composition was once curved by Viking boatwrights and painted over with religious images by early Nordic Christians. That Ms. Hakon was featured in 'Border Crossings' among the artists, while Ms. Dinesen displayed her work among the craftsmen in a Barbican foyer is immaterial: Scandinavian art admits no pigeon-holing, and that is one secret of its vitality. Those who were moved by The Seventh Seal in the Barbican cinema would do well to reflect that it was inspired by painted panelling in an old Swedish church, a source acknowledged by Bergman in the name of the play from which he developed his script: Wood Painting.

The Scandinavian tradition, however, cannot be explained simply as the artist's responsiveness to nature and the workman's feeling for its properties: Northern art involves something more profound, more special, than landscape and craftsmanship. To realise that, one needed only to hear Karita Mattila sing 'Luonnotar', Sibelius's powerful creation music based on a passage from the Kalevala, or view Strindberg's mood-swept paintings in the 'Border Crossings' exhibition. The great Scandinavian artists, whether Nordic or Finnish, seem to move in a landscape whose sources and landmarks are spiritual and psychological and whose power transcends geography.

In many cases, that landscape is a place of light and dark, of sun and night. Whether this contrast is more a matter of latitude -- or long winter nights and glorious summer days -- than a mysterious feature of the Northern psyche is difficult to say. In all probability, the lighting of the landscape and the lighting of the personality are reciprocal and reinforce one another. What matters, in any case, is that light and dark are not cyclical like the seasons in Scandinavian art, but coexistent -- the source of a powerful tension that lies at the heart of the Barbican's festival.

'Border Crossings', to cite one festival source, contained a number of works in which the interaction of light and darkness was crucial. Weie's 'Sunlight on the Sea, Christianso', which I have already mentioned, illustrates it clearly. In this apparently simple picture, a large, dark boulder stands facing a day-bright sea; behind it, in the foreground, are lighter boulders and several secondary darkened areas of the shore, one opening up at the bottom edge, as if flowing outwards. Few of us, surely, would find Weie's treatment consciously symbolic or contrived -- and therein lies its power: its subliminal import seems as natural as its brushstrokes. It is a Scandinavian image of that persistent darkness that blots even the sunlit, life-giving sea, that indeed may flow outward into the viewer.

Among the other scenic works, Edvard Munch's 'Mystery on the Shore/The Stump' yields an especially dramatic example of light-dark tension. Here, the Nordic feeling for nature and a craftsman's fondness for natural materials are combined, for it is a woodcut that pictures wood: a night-grey tree stump on a black strand. With roots like tentacles, the stump dominates the shore, but across the fjord a white moon stands low in the sky, reflecting brightly on the water. The deepest meaning of this pattern of light, dark and half-light would be difficult to verbalize, but it is a powerful Scandinavian icon.

Striking examples of light/dark patterning can also be found in both the sane and the (brilliantly) 'insane' art of C.F. Hill and in the turbulent paintings of August Strindberg. It is more illuminating, however, to observe how readily the Scandinavians abstract the lighting motif and carry it beyond the landmarks of external nature, as for example in Kirsti Rantanen's 'Abandoned Stage: A Textile Installation' -- a theatrical world of yarn and cloth to which the Barbican visitor could attach many meanings. Major features of this Finnish installation were two dark units which were more or less joined visually by large coils of colourful, twisted yarn. Above the coils, a yellow cloth with a large 'Circle of light' hung suspended. The artist herself has said that 'I create gyrating circles and twisting spirals -- reminiscent of passing time and thoughts'. Have the coils of her installation taken their colour from the sun above as they move, thought-like, from darkness to darkness?

Clearly, whatever light and dark may embody in individual Northern works of art, an elemental network of mortality has caught them up -- a network that reveals itself in other motifs as well. Thus, in many alcoves of the Barbican programme, Life and Death are in effortless interaction. Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, for instance, is the essentially delightful story of a son and his father both finding fulfillment in love; before they achieve that, however, the son tries to hang himself, and the father seemingly blows his brains out playing Russian Roulette. In Grieg's Haugtussa, however, the pattern is less up-beat, for the great song-cycle's sometimes rollicking, sometimes tender lyricism gives way at last to music sung from the far shores of sadness: to me, at least, a potential prelude to suicide.

So intimate can the tension between the opposing forces of existence become in Scandinavian art that they are inseparably juxtaposed. The Barbican festival provided an admirable example of this in Bellman's Opera, the entertainment fashioned by Martin Best and Clifford Williams from the songs and characters of Sweden's 18th century genius, Carl Michael Bellman. As they sing, Bellman's people sometimes move gracefully through a city set in a refined pastoral landscape that has been prettily planted with classical allusions -- a world of glittering life. Yet, in objective 'sociological' terms, they are derilicts and drunkards, the pitiful pub-dregs of Gustavian Stockholm, denizens of a dark world at the side of the grave. The result of Bellman's art, however, is neither contradiction nor confusion, but a tension of opposites -- the wedding of elegant song and dishevilled tragedy into a unique experience.

A curious revelation of this Nordic tension was to be found -- unexpectedly -- in a Barbican display of contemporary glass by Ulla Forsell, a Swede whose art is almost as irresistible as Bellman's. Of herself and her demanding, exasperating art, Ms. Forsell has said: 'It is paradoxical that the artist, ever eager to create a monument to self-expression, should choose a material as brittle and fragile, as doomed to destruction as glass. But having once looked deep into the furnace of the untouchable molten metal, pipe in hand, I knew that I should devote my life to its mastery'. And so she has created colourful and witty glassware of all sorts: a plate of glass fried eggs, for instance, and marvellous wine glasses that Bellman's characters would have loved. Life and sparkle are everywhere in her work ... but metaphorical darkness is in the inevitable shattering of objects 'doomed to destruction'. Like much else in creative Scandinavia, her art is light waiting for its fall into the dark.

One of Ms. Forsell's most resonant creations is a blue-painted wooden ladder with elegant, curved glass plaques mounted between its rungs, thus reminding us that the Northern creative spirit climbs as well as falls -- even soars, at times, like Widerberg's people when they free themselves from their elemental soil. And in their landscapes of light, dark and twilight, the Scandinavians cross and search, as well as climb and fall: they are Edvard Munch's steaming locomotive and Vikings sailing towards the west. They are far-travelling Peer Gynt, too, who visited the Barbican in a concert performance of Grieg's score, and farther-travelling Thor Heyerdahl, who turned up there in person to talk about faraway Peru. Stop them all and ask them where and why they are going, and they will give you answers before they hurry on, casting shadows as they depart. But will their answers only be questions, after all?

The ultimate power of the Scandinavian tradition lies in its mysterious uncertainty: Do its living landscapes spread themselves within or without? Or both at once? And can we even be sure where that light comes from or what the darkness is? Even a Heyerdahl can only journey into vision, can only test his dreams.

In a sense, the larger import of Tender Is the North is summed up in a pair of contrasting images that were on view at the Barbican: one Danish and hanging on a wall, the other Swedish and projected on a screen.

The painting was 'Ainsi on s'Ensor' ('Out of this World -- After Ensor') by the Danish modern Asger Jorn. It was one of 'Border Crossings' most powerful experiences: in a dark room, the body of a man hangs suspended by a rope, his face covered by a brightly colourful, garish mask, like one of those in James Ensor's paintings. But none of the Belgian's mask-scenes, surely, has the mocking directness of this image -- an image void of all relief or hope.

The cinema image was also a matter of light and dark. Indeed, it is one of the great images of the modern Scandinavian screen: in the final moments of a young girl's life, her illuminated face confronts the black shape of Death. Seen there at the climatic moment of The Seventh Seal, that face, too, is perhaps a mask, but the mask is slipping away from the living flesh. Beneath, we see hope, a sense of anticipation, incipient joy. No Ensor here, but a smile trying to escape.

Existence? It is more likely to be a smile than a painted leer, but then again ... For a month at the Barbican, the true and tender North shed both light and shadow upon that problem.

|Dr. Louis Muinzer has translated several Scandinavian works as well as writing on Scandinavian subjects.~
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Title Annotation:London Barbican Center's Festival of Scandinavian Arts
Author:Muinzer, Louis
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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