From the Age of the Vikings, Norway has given the world art and architecture, ranging from its famous wooden stave churches to the paintings of Edvard Munch, Scandinavia's most celebrated artist.
Just before the Viking period, carved stones bearing runic inscriptions began appearing in Norway from the 3rd century A.D. on.
The Vikings may not have been the insensitive barbarians their reputation has it, as they showed a high artistic skill as reflected by the decorations on the Oseberg burial ship at the Vikingskiphuset (Viking Ship Museum) in Oslo. The ship has a carved likeness of a ferocious beast, a traditional feature of Viking boats. The Vikings seemed to have been inspired by Carolingian art, which stemmed from Byzantine traditions.
Not much is left of Christian art in Norway. The country converted to Christianity in the 10th century. In early art, human figures were not often represented, the early Norwegians preferring to stick to the dragonlike heads as seen on the prows of Viking ships that terrified Western Europe.
It took a long time before art firmly established itself in Norway. Cut off from the cultural life of Europe, Norwegian art experienced a long slumber from the 15th to the 18th centuries. The coming of the plague and the loss of political independence are blamed for this decline.
Local painters showed little originality, preferring to copy more famous examples established by artists in the south or central Europe.
As a decorative motif, the painted rose swept the country in the mid-1700s, introducing a striking use of color for the first time in Norwegian art. Later, the rose was combined with the acanthus leaf as a motif. The trend was toward abstract design in most Norwegian popular art.
Even as late as the beginning of the 1800s, there was little noteworthy art. The most original artist was Johan Christian Clausen Dahl (1788-1857), a major landscape painter who drew his inspiration from the North German Romantic School. His cloud studies are still viewed as brilliant art today.
French influence in painting made itself known in the works of the painter Christian Krohg (1852-1925). But with the birth of Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Norway was to experience an artist who became the most celebrated painter in Scandinavia. His works can be seen, among other places, at the Munch Museet (Edvard Munch Museum) in Oslo.
Munch became the leading force in the creation of the Expressionist style. His Scream (1895) remains one of the most reproduced paintings on earth. In this masterpiece, he used form and color (reds and yellows) to convey his deep personal vision of the horror of existence. In his works Munch explored the themes of life, love, fear, melancholy, and death. He portrayed women either as frail, innocent sufferers or the reason for jealousy and despair.
The Nazis labeled Munch's works "degenerate art," but that was only a temporary setback for him. He wrote: "From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity." And so it came to be.
Other notable artists that you'll see in the museums of Norway include Christian Skredsvig (1854-1924), whose most famous work is the neo-romantic The Sallow Flute (1889), and Adolph Tidemand (1814-1876), who became known for his paintings of old Norwegian farm culture. The Nasjonalgalleriet (National Gallery) in Oslo owns more than 100 of his works.
Another Norwegian painter, Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928), was also a neo-Romantic, preferring clear, strong colors in his landscapes. A pioneer among female artists was Harriet Backer (1845-1932), who was influenced by impressionism, though most of her work is classified as realist.
Another woman is among the most distinguished of all Norwegian artists today. Born in 1971, Marianne Aulie sells works for millions of Norwegian kroner, although the art historian Stig Andersen calls her paintings "soft pornography." Her repertoire includes everything from abstract paintings to Madonnas and images of clowns. She likes to bathe her paintings in champagne to get a particular texture from the alcohol reacting to acrylic paint.
Sculpture in Norway appeared as dragons on bedposts, carved chairs, and drinking vessels shaped like Viking ships, and on reliquaries in the form of churches.
Norway's first sculptor enjoying an international reputation was Adolf Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943), whose great works remain the statuary groups he created for Vigelandsparken in Oslo. The chief treasure here is his Vigeland Monolith. Naked figures, entwined and struggling, cover the obelisk.
A distinguished Norwegian-Danish sculptor, Stephan (Abel) Sinding (1846-1922), was considered "too modern" by many traditional Norwegian art critics. But Danish beer baron Carl Jacobsen thought otherwise, and that is why the largest collection in the world of Sinding sculptures reside today in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen. However, you can see the Sinding statue of Henrik Ibsen at the National Theater in Oslo.
As a sparsely populated country on the northern edge of Europe, Norway, did not distinguish itself in architecture the way countries such as Germany and Italy to the south did.
Little survives of early Christian architecture in Norway. Constructed in the 11th century, the first building of importance was Nidaros Domkirke in Trondheim. This cathedral was reconstructed (1282-1320) in the late Norman style, at which time it incorporated many Gothic features.
Norwegian architecture flourished in its stave churches (stavkirker), which were built before the Reformation, using as inspiration ancient pagan temples. The churches were constructed on a framework of staves, or heavily wooded posts, supporting the walls and roofs. There are 28 well-preserved stave churches remaining today, constituting Norway's most important contribution to world architectural history.
These churches were characterized by their many storied and steeply sloping roofs. Gables, pinnacles, and cupolas were used in abundance. After the construction of these churches, Norwegian architecture fell into a slumber that lasted 3 centuries.
In the early part of the 1800s, architecture in Norway fell under the influence of the Swedish monarch Charles XIV (1763-1844). Norway was locked into a political union with Sweden, which dominated the country. In the development of Christiania (later Oslo) as the capital of Norway, the king imposed a neoclassical style in architecture.
However, in the countryside, vernacular architecture consisted mainly of wood structures, which can still be seen in many open-air museums throughout the country, including the Norsk Folkesmuseum, in Oslo, and Maihaugen, in Lillehammer.
Around the turn of the 20th century, Jugendstil, a variant of Art Nouveau, came into vogue, especially when the port of Ålesund, which had burned to the ground, was almost entirely rebuilt in that style. In the 1920s, modernism prevailed, which in Norway was called funkis. This simplified functional style would prevail until 1940, when Norway was conquered by Nazi Germany.
After the war, modern buildings were often multistoried, with wings, using timber or brick. New housing developments were set in long rows rather than in rectangular blocks to get the maximum of light and sunshine.
The architecture of the 21st century can be daringly avant-garde, as evoked by the futuristic Oslo Opera House. With its marble-clad surface and enormous glass facade sporting solar panels, the building evokes a Norwegian iceberg rising from the cold Arctic Sea.