Øystein Sjåstad er førsteamanuensis i kunsthistorie ved Institutt for filosofi, ide- og kunsthistorie og klassiske språk, Universitetet i Oslo. Sjåstad har skrevet tre bøker: Christian Krohg. Fra Paris til Kristiania (2012), A Theory of the Tache in Nineteenth-Century Painting (2014) og Christian Krohg’s Naturalism (2017). Han har også skrevet artikler og katalogtekster om kunstnere som Erik Werenskiold, Frits Thaulow, Oda Krohg, Christian Skredsvig, Edvard Munch, Irma Salo Jæger, Jan Valentin Sæther og Bjarne Melgaard. Sjåstad er også redaktør for fagtidsskriftet Kunst og Kultur og styreleder i Kunsthistorisk Forening.
Kitty Lange Kielland, born in Stavanger in 1843, has been regarded as one of Norway’s most distinguished artists ever since her own heyday, as evinced by the many portraits other artists painted and drew of her. Several of these works feature in the exhibition, such as Harriet Backer’s pictures of her best friend, Asta Nørregaard’s gorgeous drawing, and August Jacobsen’s unforgettable portrayal of Kielland smoking a thin cigar with her pinky finger sticking out. (Sadly, the exhibition does not include Erik Werenskiold’s portrait of a cigarette-smoking Kielland from 1891, but this work hangs in the auditorium at the National Gallery in Oslo for those who are able to stop by there—it’s well worth the trip.) Judging by all these portraits alone, she must have been quite a woman!
Kielland, by contrast, showed little interest in making self-portraits: it was rather through landscape paintings that she expressed herself as an artist. The exhibition’s main curator, Inger M. L. Gudmundson, has striven to present Kielland as a pioneer in her field in many respects: in Gudmundson’s telling, Kielland introduced neo-romantic art to Norway, was one of the first Norwegian plein air painters, and invented the concept of the so-called Jær painting, that is, depictions of the windswept bogs and beaches in the Jæren region south of Stavanger. Although these claims are open to debate, what it is beyond doubt is the pivotal role Kielland played in advancing Norwegian art, and above all the genre of landscape painting.
THE LANDSCAPE PAINTER
As so many other Norwegian painters of her era, Kielland studied under the Norwegian romanticist master Hans Gude in Karlsruhe, Germany. It was in fact Gude who had discovered Kielland and who helped persuade her family to support her choice of an artistic career. The museum has chosen to display Kielland’s early student works alongside works by Professor Gude. I’m not sure whether this was entirely warranted, as Kielland does not necessarily benefit from such a juxtaposition. Painting did not come as easily to her as it did to her fellow students, such as Amaldus Nielsen, Nicolai Ulfsten, or Frits Thaulow—painting was almost too easy for the latter, and his pictures often seem just a tad too superficial, ending up as showy displays of technical brilliance. By contrast, Kielland’s pictures give viewers something to chew on; the process toward the final work has been more arduous and she has had to work harder, but that has often led to more captivating pictures of a higher artistic value. Nielsen could paint his maritime pictures almost blindfolded, and Thaulow’s French rivers flowed forth effortlessly from his palette, but Kielland’s now-famous peat bogs are the result of years of practice and trial and error. Her pictures radiate an earnest, innovative artistry and evince their slow genesis. This is why I’m not convinced that Kielland is truly a plein air artist in the vein of the Barbizon school or impressionists such as Monet and Sisley—rather, Kielland is above all a Salon artist who takes the genre of landscape painting in another direction than the French plein air painters (and that Thaulow and Edvard Diriks, for their part, were more akin to). Kielland’s most iconic paintings, such as those of the peat bogs and the Fleskum farmland, do not record immediate impressions but are slow-burning contemplations or moody renditions.
In the summer of 1876, Kielland executed her first studies from Jæren, and the following year she finished painting her first major Jær painting in her studio in Munich. Her landscape pictures from these years, such as her boulder pictures, are not particularly good. Their execution is entirely fine, but there is nothing in them that would suggest a major artist in the making. (Nicolai Ulfsten was the one to depict rocks, to put it that way). But it is fun to see her still lifes, such as Still Life with a Fish from 1878, where she demonstrates that she is more than an amateur—she has relatively good control of the picture’s various elements and overall composition, and the colors are fabulous.
Kielland moved to Paris during the turn of the year from 1878 to 1879, and it is naturally enough Jær pictures that she exhibited at the Salon in 1879. Gudmundson hails this event as Kielland’s “international breakthrough,” though that does seem to be an exaggeration—thousands of artworks were shown at the annual Salons, and it takes more to achieve an international breakthrough. If Kielland actually did become a prominent figure in the international (i.e., Parisian) art scene, this is something neither the exhibition nor the catalogue substantiates; being shown at the Salon is simply not enough. What did in fact happen in Paris is that Kielland was allowed to evolve as an artist, and the increasing quality of her works throughout the 1880s is apparent. It is here that we see the plein air Kielland, with scenes culled from both the Stavanger region and France. These are elegant pictures, but there were many others who painted in that style—Kielland takes her place here as but one of many European painters of the 1880s. Nor does the large-scale Coastal Landscape in Brittany (1881) really pop out from the canvas: it’s entirely adequate, but nothing more.
It is in the next section of the exhibition that things really begin to take off. In this portion, a number of Kielland’s celebrated paintings of peat bogs (Nor. torvmyr) have been gathered together, probably for the first time. This is truly a highlight of the exhibition, one that feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is fascinating to observe how Kielland continually returned to this motif over the years. The exhibition catalogue includes an astute essay by Gudmundson that details how the peat bog motif was developed as part of Kielland’s career and situates the paintings in the wider context of art history.
In 1886 Kielland and Harriet Backer traveled to Fleskum, a farm estate just outside of Kristiania (Oslo), in order to paint along with Christian Skredsvig and several other of Norway’s leading artists. At Fleskum these various artists cultivated a more atmospheric style of landscape painting, more in line with the spiritual pictures of romanticism than with Gude’s geological realism or the plein air impressionists. Kielland’s peat bog aesthetics fit hand in glove with the aesthetics sought after by the Fleskum colony. Serene, unperturbed water surfaces, often featuring reflected clouds, became her stock in trade and were a clear contrast to Frits Thaulow’s bubbling rivers and Christian Krohg’s frothing seas. The exhibition’s Fleskum section also juxtaposes Kielland with her contemporary Eilif Peterssen, and Kielland can safely be declared the winner of this “duel.”
One of the exhibition’s groundbreaking contributions is to demonstrate that Kielland, like Backer, was preoccupied with interiors. The two of them painted not least each other and other artists, and several of these works are showcased at the exhibition. Kielland painted various female colleagues and also the famed novelist Arne Garborg, a native of Jæren, strikingly captured while reading. These interiors are replete with eye-catching details, such as plants, ornaments, furniture, and interior decoration, as well as pictures seen hanging on the walls. In these works we are clearly in an urban environment, far from the peat bogs of Jæren (although nature does crop up in the guise of potted plants and the landscape paintings in the background).
In 1889 Kielland, along with Backer, moved back to Norway. She lived mostly in Kristiania (where she died in 1914), but first she lived just southwest of the city in Sandvika. At Sandvika she painted a handful of wonderful nature studies and some lesser pictures, also shown at the exhibition. Above all, the exquisitely executed Winter Landscape in Sandviken (1890) is a gem.
Kielland also looms large as a political debater, feminist, gender theorist, and organizer. She was a close friend of the radical Arne Garborg, supported the “Kristiania bohemians” Christian Krohg and Hans Jæger, and co‑founded the Norwegian Association for Women’s Rights in 1884. Among her many texts, it is particularly Kvindespørgsmaalet (The women’s issue) from 1886 that should be mentioned. The exhibition presents both this text and several others (not least letters), but imagine if someone could take it upon themselves to publish a new edition of these texts! In them, Kielland shines a light on society’s double standards and the disparate moral demands men and women faced, not least when it came to their sex lives, and sometimes you have to wonder whether we really have come that much further today. The feminist debate is just as relevant now as it was then.
The abundant, stylish, and well-conceived catalogue includes a number of essays by veterans and relative newcomers alike. There are no particularly innovative readings on offer, but the essay co‑authored by Sigrun Åsebø and Janeke Meyer Utne makes a solid contribution to Kielland scholarship. Åsebø and Utne discuss Kielland’s feminism and make evident the scope and significance of her undaunted activities. They also demonstrate how multilayered and complex the era’s feminist discourse was. (Also worth mentioning here is Karl Ove Knausgård’s brief essay, which serves as a sort of companion piece to the Towards the Forest: Knausgård on Munch exhibition he curated this year for the Munch Museum in Oslo.)
Though Kielland’s feminism is not overtly on display in her art, it does come to the fore through her very act of painting—through the fact that she made her living from painting, and her belonging to the crème-de-la-crème of Norwegian art (she is undoubtedly a “great woman artist”)—and through her own independence. In short, she is a feminist by virtue of her praxis and lifestyle. This is probably the most effective sort of feminism. She proved that women (at least of a certain class and to a certain extent) could claim their right to be something other than what was expected by society at large. As such, she challenged power in a Foucauldian fashion: she renegotiated the social mechanisms of power with her life choices rather than creating feminist propaganda (which Christian Krohg veers towards in his landmark Albertine in the Police Doctor’s Waiting Room from 1885–87).
It is in such a feminist light that we must understand Kielland as a landscape painter. As Åsebø and Utne conclude in their essay, and as Anne Wichstrøm before them touched on in her groundbreaking studies, becoming a landscape painter was an unconventional choice for a woman. In Kielland’s case, she not only chose to become a landscape painter, she developed the very genre of Norwegian landscape painting, playing a key role in inventing a Norwegian neo-romantic landscape and an entirely new landscape aesthetics. To quote Åsebø and Utne, “When Kielland positions herself as a landscape painter and gives herself a national overarching gaze, a position initially understood as masculine, she, in many respects, lives out her feminist struggle.” 1
In collaboration with the Kunstgress dance collective, the artist Marianne Heier created a specially commissioned performance for the exhibition titled O. I was sadly unable to see this performance, but from what I’ve read it appears that Heier has had similar thoughts when encountering Kielland’s landscapes. Unless I’m projecting my own research interests here, I feel that Heier is asking whether the peat bog pictures can be read as gendered imagery. Can they for example be read as a dichotomy between man (sky, philosophy, thinking, culture) and woman (bog, nature, body)? Are they images of heterosexuality, asexuality, or, as I myself believe, bisexuality? Such questions must remain a topic for a future article.
In several of the catalogue texts there are unfortunately a few glaring flies in the feminist ointment. Already in the foreword, Kitty Kielland is referred to familiarly as “Kitty.” Ouch! Perhaps this was merely overlooked during the proofreading phase (I know from experience that catalogues are produced in a whirr). But it soon turns out that in particular one of the authors, in otherwise excellent texts, exclusively refers to Kielland as “Kitty”—and to Backer as “Harriet.” This is especially conspicuous in the essay on the friendship between Kielland and Arne Garborg: the former is “Kitty” and the latter is “Garborg,” as though Kielland was a child or a pet. The catalogue editor should definitely have intervened here: this is a way of referring to women artists that simply must end, at least in scholarly works (just think of poor Oda Krohg here, the perennial “Oda” to Christian Krohg’s “Krohg”).
Finally, it should also be mentioned how instrumental Kielland was in supporting Norwegian artists and museums. She donated pictures to the Stavanger Art Society (today Stavanger Art Museum), she bequeathed money to the National Gallery in Oslo to bolster their acquisition program, she promoted the inclusion of Lars Hertervig in the canon of Norwegian art, and she supported young artists such as Halfdan Egedius and Thorvald Erichsen. To repeat myself: what a woman!
Open Air: Kitty L. Kielland is a wide-ranging presentation of Kielland’s career. It therefore goes without saying that not all of the pictures on display will be of the same high quality. There is nothing negative about this—it is always interesting to see an artist’s development as they engage in trial and error. The curating of the exhibition has been smart and discerning: the rooms have been painted in sumptuous colors, and visitors move about in a logical order from one section to the next. I would nonetheless contend that it seems unnecessary to include so many works by other artists: their inclusion does not add all that much, and it raises the somewhat unpleasant suspicion that Kielland was not deemed good enough to carry an entire exhibition by herself (although I don’t think that was the actual reason). In particular, the pictures by Hertervig, Gude, Peterssen, Ulfsten, and Erichsen could well have been omitted. But these are mere details, and the exhibition deserves all the attention and visitors it can get. Emphasizing the contemplation of nature on the one hand and feminism on the other, Kitty Kielland is undoubtedly an artist for today, an artist we also need in 2017. Our thanks should therefore go to Stavanger Art Museum, which along with Lillehammer Art Museum and Haugar Art Museum has organized a Kielland exhibition for the ages.