Catapulting visitors from the pastoral to the sublime — with paintings of delicate water lilies and epic landscapes suffused with the vibrant colors of golden hour juxtaposed next to grotesque, stark projections of a floating troll and a woman shivering in the bitter cold — the Phillips Collection’s latest exhibition crackles with energy and creativity.
At “Nordic Impressions: Art from Åland, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, 1821–2018,” the Phillips Collection has put together a magnificent show that’s perfectly suited for visitors to wander through during Washington’s cooler months. A survey show with such a broad mandate could easily have been pedantic and plodding. Instead, it’s revelatory in its display choices, selection of artists and the surprising connections it creates across cultures, generations and media.
Chronology is out the window here, as is separating the artwork by country — and the show is all the better for it.
Audacious paintings of violent scenes and quirky contemporary videos hang comfortably next to quiet, still images of Nordic interiors and searing, pensive self-portraits. An unforgettable room features the absolute strangeness of Tori Wrånes’s 2017 “Ældgammel Baby (Ancient Baby),” a surreal, disturbing and at times hilarious projection that seems —somehow— meant to be paired with the vibrant and violent 19th-century Romantic Finnish nationalist painting “The Defense of The Sampo” by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, never before shown in the U.S.
Myth creation, terror and humor flow through the two works — and as chief curator Klaus Ottmann says, “this room turned into a kind of mythological, legend type room where all of the darker parts of the Nordic soul are shown.”
With pieces from every Nordic country and their associated territories, the exhibition is a remarkable showcase that lives up to its name. It’s also well worth noting that almost half of the 53 artists on display are women, and that works by two Sámi artists, Outi Pieski and Britta Marakatt-Labba, hang in the same room as prints by famed icons like Norway’s Edvard Munch.
The exhibition is the culmination of the Nordic Cultural Initiative, a collaboration that began in 2014 between the Phillips and the D.C.-based embassies of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. The idea for a major exhibition on Nordic art was hatched four years ago over a lunch of mackerel with embassy representatives, recalled Phillips Director and CEO Dorothy Kosinski. The next year, the embassies planned a whirlwind multi-week tour and crash course in Nordic art for Ottmann.
“The most important contribution the embassies made to us and to Klaus was to fund a three- or four-week intensive field trip all across the countries, meeting with museum colleagues and collectors and artists in their studios and galleries. It was a really deep dive. And I feel all that knowledge and sense of discovery here,” Kosinski said.
As Ottmann recalled to The Washington Diplomat, the 2015 trip “was a very intense itinerary. My wife was able to come with me, so we were going to probably five museums every day. I didn’t just go there — I looked at the entire collection, I met with the director or the chief curators, asked them to show me what they thought were the most important works in their collection.”
Ottmann also took a side trip to the Momentum Nordic Biennial of Contemporary Art in Moss, Norway, a small town outside of Oslo, at the embassies’ suggestion — a tour he credited as “really helpful” in conceptualizing the exhibition.
The embassies continued to play a critical role after that trip wrapped, speaking on behalf of the exhibition to help Ottmann bring “some of these really great paintings” to Washington, providing financial assistance and helping to bring some of the contemporary artists to the Phillips for the opening and for the installation of the pieces.
“Nordic Impressions” offers visitors a superb introduction to Nordic art from the 19th century to today, as well as lively and unexpected connections for those well versed in the field. Beauty and terror, light and darkness, openness and interiority, nature and folklore — all of these strong Nordic themes riff off of each other to resonate in a show that revels in both delighting and jarring viewers.
Nordic Impressions: Art from Åland, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, 1821–2018
through Jan. 13, 2019
1600 21st St., NW
(202) 387-2151 | www.phillipscollection.org
About the Author
Mackenzie Weinger (@mweinger) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.