Exhibition review: Peder Balke at the National Gallery

Caroline Bugler discovers the drama and romance of the frozen north in a new exhibition of landscapes by a pioneering Norwegian artist.

I had positioned myself on a rocky plateau some 100ft above the sea,’ wrote Peder Balke, ‘and I felt I had to hold on tight to the cliff when the backwash hurled itself against the rock face and with a deafening sound like thunder rolled out again into the heaving sea, only to repeat the same fruitless onslaught on the unshakeable wall around which swirled the mighty waves of the Arctic Ocean.’

The Norwegian artist was recalling a moment in an epic trip he had taken along Norway’s coast in 1832, when he stood at the country’s northernmost point in the aftermath of a hurricane. Anyone who has seen north Norway’s dramatic coastline will understand that sense of awe. It’s a place of snow-capped mountain peaks, islands isolated in threatening tides, perpetual daylight in midsummer and a twilight winter gloom occasionally punctuated by the magical dance of the Northern Lights.

The North Norway Art Museum in Tromso, where this exhibition began, displays hundreds of painted views that capture the sublimity of this landscape, but Balke (1804–87) was the first artist to focus on it almost exclusively. He is hardly known in the UK, although four of his paintings came to the National Gallery’s ‘Forests, Rocks and Torrents’ exhibition three years ago and the gallery was given a small Balke panel in 2010 the only example of his work in a British public collection.

A poor farmer’s son, Balke started out as a house painter, painting and stencilling the walls of local homes, before eventually branching out into full-scale murals. His art education was patchy, although he learned a great deal from fellow Norwegian Johan Christian Dahl as well as Casper David Friedrich. What he really took to heart was Dahl’s advice to paint from Nature which, for him, meant the countryside he knew best.

In 1830, he set off on foot through the Telemark region and over the mountains to western Norway, picking his way along dangerous paths that ran alongside waterfalls and encountering a valley that so engrossed him with its sublime beauty that ‘I hardly knew whether what surrounded me was real or supernatural’.

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This was just a prelude to his even more ambitious trip along the coast two years later, when he travelled by boat from Trond-heim past the North Cape and into the land of the Sami. It is significant that the journey was by sea still the best option for negotiating the indented coastline of the far north as most of the paintings he created subsequently were seascapes based on sketches made on that tour. They convey both a profoundly romantic response to the Arctic Ocean and a sense that it has been seen and felt at first hand.

Balke’s paintings, which are moody, often desolate and frequently moonlit, inevitably invite comparison with Friedrich’s, but there are significant differences. Friedrich’s minutely detailed landscapes are usually populated, but Balke’s are almost always devoid of human presence. They are also more freely painted.

Early in his career, Balke applied the paint in thick impasto, but, by the 1860s, he was experimenting with a different technique, spreading thin layers of paint onto a white ground, then using rags or his fingers to dab or scratch some of it away so that the white showed through. This method which probably drew upon his early experience as a painter of decorative effects created a pared-back effect that, at times, almost resembles Chinese brush painting.

Balke had a chequered career he travelled widely in search of sales and achieved some success, managing to sell paintings to the Swedish king Karl Johan. He even found a patron in the French king Louis-Philippe, who retained fond memories of a youthful trip to north Norway (to this day, Balke is represented by more works in the Louvre than any other Scandinavian artist).

But his paintings gradually fell out of favour and were criticised for being slipshod and lacking in refinement. To modern eyes, they look spontaneous and bold. The works Balke produced at the end of his life are surprisingly innovative, particularly a series of miniature monochromatic works depicting stormy seas, the North Cape and the Northern Lights (strangely evoked by parallel lines of white against a dark sky).

He never exhibited these private pictures, but, in many ways, they are his most revolutionary. Their extraordinary economy, which verges on abstraction, coupled with almost Expressionist brushwork, are the reasons why Balke is now admired for his idio-syncratic proto-Modernism.

Peder Balke is at the National Gallery, London, WC2, until April 12, 2015 (020–7747 2885; www.nationalgallery.org.uk)

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