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Peder Balke’s Arctic landscapes in the National Gallery

18 November 2014

In Peder Balke’s The Tempest (c. 1862) a dark group of birds battle against a gale with more success than the stricken ships listing perilously on the grey waves beneath them. In the foreground one of the swells kicks up a cloud of white spray over a group of cold, inky black rocks. The whole turbulent scene is contained on a small wood panel, painted with a sense of haste that befits the weather. It’s almost calligraphic in its effect, with its confident sweeps of pure black over the white ground.

Click here for a gallery of highlights from ‘Peder Balke’ at the National Gallery

This is the only painting by the Norwegian artist Peder Balke in the National Gallery’s collection, but they have built an entire exhibition around it this winter in collaboration with the Northern Norway Art Museum in Tromsø. The 19th-century painter trained in Oslo, Stockholm and Dresden, before taking the unusual decision to journey north, to the Arctic Circle. Balke’s visit to Norway’s spectacular North Cape in 1832 had a profound impact on him (‘I never, not in a foreign country nor anywhere else in our country, had the opportunity to contemplate something so impressive and inspiring’, he wrote in his memoirs), and he spent years attempting to capture the ‘opulent beauties of nature’ he encountered there.

His attempts are remarkable for their sense of freedom and experiment. Balke resorted to quick, dynamic brushwork to describe the landscape’s changeable atmosphere, often returning repeatedly to a particular scene in different conditions. But he had difficulty selling his paintings, eventually abandoning his career to focus on social projects and politics. To this day his work remains largely unknown outside his native Norway.

The National Gallery’s unlikely decision to dedicate a show to Balke will surely help to revive his reputation. The curators have billed the artist as an ‘unsung forerunner of modernism’, and his works are on display alongside Maggi Hambling’s gestural, turbulent ‘Walls of Water’ to drive home the point. The majority of the works have been loaned from the Northern Norway Art Museum and private collections, so unless you’re heading further north anytime soon, this is an unrivalled opportunity to discover more about the artist’s work, and to compare it to the UK’s homegrown masters of the expressive landscape, Constable and, particularly, Turner.

Click here for a gallery of highlights from the exhibition.

‘Peder Balke’ is at the National Gallery, London, until 12 April 2015.

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