"A Mirror of Nature" is an internationally touring exhibit and the MIA is its only stop in the United States. It focuses on paintings of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland, primarily from the 19th century. MIA curator Patrick Noon says during that time landscapes were often belittled as nothing more than "chewing gum for the eyes." He says it's a reputation the genre still sometimes fights today.
"I don't think landscapes can be dismissed as 'easy to take in' because if you look at them seriously and look at these artists seriously and look at what they're trying to accomplish and understand the context they're working in, there's tremendous layers of meaning in these pictures," says Noon.
The exhibition is divided into five groups, broken down by style and following a loose chronological order. Noon says the early paintings document a time when Nordic countries were first struggling to form a sense of national identity.
"Landscape painting is territorial in some respects," says Noon, "and especially in the Nordic countries where national identity is key at this point because there are so many national boundaries in flux. So artists begin to use their peculiar landscapes as a means of identifying what was indigenously significant about their own nations."
The Nordic Sublime movement presents dramatic renderings of rugged fjords and wild waterfalls in overwhelming size and color. But as time passed, painters turned to a more intimate approach, in which nature is part of daily life and feels under control. In one painting a pair of women bid farewell to friends at a dock, standing beneath the Danish flag. In another, women talk as their linens lie on the grass, bleaching in a sunny clearing.
Some landscapes look familiar, as though one might stumble across them along Minnesota's North Shore. It's why so many Nordic immigrants settled here. Most of the paintings completed in the outdoors--known as plein air paintings--depict summer scenes. It's not easy to sit outside and paint for hours in Stockholm in February.
"You must be absolutely ecstatic when you come out of winter, I would think," says Noon, "The first sign of growth and vegetation is cause for celebration. And the light, of course, is a very important feature of painting in these regions, because it's so different from the light of America or even Italy or France."
Several of the paintings on display revel in the strange light of a long summer evening when the moon shines bright silver but sunlight has yet to fade completely from a deepening blue sky. Eventually the landscapes come to represent an inner state of mind, as seen in Edvard Munch's painting of moonlight on water or in August Strindberg's abstract stormy seascapes.
But Noon says Nordic paintings truly come into their own with the evolution of the Evocative Landscape--realistic images infused with human emotion. A rippling river in winter implies an inward reflection, while an immense cloud looms in an unsettling way over a Swedish grove. Noon says far from being just eye candy, these landscapes have a great deal to say about the transformation of Nordic countries and humanity's relationship to nature. Noon says he hopes people who associate landscapes with Monet and Van Gogh will see that there was much more to the 19th century than impressionist art.
"I'd be delighted if they came and just enjoyed these landscapes for what they are," says Noon. "I think I'd also like them to come away with a sense of revelation, because there are things here you just don't see anywhere else."
"A Mirror of Nature" runs through Sept. 2 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts before it continues on to its final stop in Copenhagen, Denmark.