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THE NORDIC COUNTRIES: Part of the Global Village?

The living conditions in the Nordic countries changed in the 1960s. The economic boom resulted in a mass cultural society in which the conservatism of bourgeois society was challenged by consumerism and advertising. For LG Lundberg, who worked at the Arbman advertising agency at the beginning of the 1960s, it was obvious to start out from the pictorial language of advertising and apply it to painting. In Lundberg’s work, however, the commercial aspect was not as prominent as he introduced imagery from a number of different fields that collide and contradict one another. A fundamental point of departure in his painting of the time was an explicit interest in sexual allusions, which are a central ingredient in the idiom of advertising.

In the early 1960s, Marshall McLuhan published the book Understanding Media, in which he described the television set as a campfire around which one could take part in events from what the author called the “global village”, which is what the world had become in the age of mass media. In his neorealist paintings from the beginning of the 1960s, Ola Billgren reproduced his everyday experiences from his homes in Lund, Malmö and Österlen, often mixed with massmedial second-hand realities from near and far. Billgren portrayed this complex duality with cinematic clips and deconstructed stories that can be traced back to French New Wave directors such as François Truffaut or the deconstructed narratives of New French Novelists such as Alain Robbe-Grillet. This formal game hinted at how complex the modern world can appear when different degrees of reality and fiction interfere with each other.

Per Kirkeby is, without a doubt, the Nordic artist who enjoyed most international success with his explicitly Nordic painterly tradition. Kirkeby’s complex works have multiple points of reference, ranging from geology, which he studied at the University of Copenhagen, to the painterly tradition generally referred to as the Nordic Romantic tradition. Kirkeby’s painting, however, is not an authentic landscape painting. He pushed the boundaries of a Danish painterly tradition that extends from the Bornholm painters such as Edward Weie to Asger Jorn whom Kirkeby analytically dissected.

The economic boom of the 1960s turned into the recession of the 1970s. The oil crisis affected the Western economies and led to increased oil prices. Our dependence on oil also sparked an awareness of how vulnerable Western consumer society was on an environmental level. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was the starting point for the environmental movement.

Norwegian artist Kjartan Slettemark received his breakthrough as an art activist in 1965 with an exhibition outside the Norwegian Parliament building, criticising the United States’ war in Vietnam. Slettemark’s criticism of the United States was primarily focused on its President, Richard Nixon, who reappeared in several of Slettemark’s works in the 1970s. Employing the president in fake adverts for the Swedish coffee brand Löfbergs Lila, Slettemark devalued Nixon’s importance in an extremely intelligent way. Slettemark was not as dogmatic as many of his Nordic artist colleagues, instead he added playfulness and self-criticism. With his poodle costume, which he wore during a performance in connection with the inauguration of Malmö Konsthall in 1976, he suggested that art activism was no more significant than a lap dog yapping at the heels of the middle classes.

Finnish artist Silja Rantanen first studied architecture at the University of Technology in Helsinki before making her debut as an artist in the beginning of the 1980s. Rantanen’s interest in architecture also influenced her painting, which was based on architectural elements and quotations from early Renaissance art –  a central part of the Western cultural heritage. In the increasingly globalised world of the 1980s, the Western cultural sphere no longer appeared as dominant as previously. In her studio, Rantanen had a type of folding screen frequently used as a room divider in Japanese culture. The screen was the inspiration for a series of four paintings entitled Edo/West and Edo/North, referring to the historical Edo period in Japanese history from 1603–1867, characterised by notable achievements in art and crafts.

In addition to the architectural function of the screen, Rantanen took an interest in the screen’s expression as a metaphor for a spatiality that was contrary to the perspective effect of Western painting. The artist identified a peculiar duality between the two- and the three-dimensional. This interest in foreign pictorial conventions has been a central aspect of Modernism, extending from the impressionists and van Gogh’s exploration of Japanese culture to Barnett Newman and colour-field painting.

In our time, photography has taken on a new dimension as an art form. This is highly evident in the Finnish photographic tradition and the School of Helsinki. A central figure in Finnish photography is Elina Brotherus who created the photographic series Seabound for the AKO Foundation in 2018–2019. Elina Brotherus produced images in which she transposed herself from the Finnish landscape to the Norwegian archipelago of Kristiansand, introducing her own figure in the photographs, but not as an expression of a personal or authentic relationship to the landscape. She was, after all, a visitor. Rather, the images serve as models with which Brotherus comments on the work of artists of different eras and expressions. Among others, we find the Norwegian painter Amaldus Nielsen’s works in various versions, including Morning at Ny-Hellesund from 1881, which Elina Brotherus manipulated in a photographic work that accentuates the various times of the day. In other photographs, she sets out from the Norwegian landscape which she relates to the Norwegian performance artist Kurt Johannessen, and includes references to Yoko Ono and Valie Export. Thus demonstrating that Norwegian nature is not only national but also part of a wider cultural domain.