Norwegian Folk Art: The Migration of a Tradition

Norwegian Folk Art: The Migration of a Tradition

by Marion Nelson

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The unique charm of Norwegian folk art is commanding the attention of an ever-increasing number of museums and collectors. The rich history of these beautiful and functional objects - fanciful wood carvings, tableware and furniture with rosemaling, the snowflake patterns of Norwegian knitting, and costumes with white Hardanger embroidery - dates as far back as the…  See more details below


The unique charm of Norwegian folk art is commanding the attention of an ever-increasing number of museums and collectors. The rich history of these beautiful and functional objects - fanciful wood carvings, tableware and furniture with rosemaling, the snowflake patterns of Norwegian knitting, and costumes with white Hardanger embroidery - dates as far back as the Middle Ages. This volume, which illustrates nearly 250 objects spanning four centuries, reproduces some of the finest holdings of Norwegian museums, together with valuable family heirlooms brought to America and twentieth-century works created by Norwegian-American craftspeople. Many perspectives of this folk tradition are explored in the volume's ten essays, written by leading Norwegian and American scholars. This is the most comprehensive study of such varied factors as art historical traditions and influences, the social and economic background that encouraged each of these arts, Norwegian symbolism, traditional costume, and emigration to the United States and its influence on the arts. An informative and practical discussion of Norwegian folk art collections is also included. This book, the most important reference on the subject for years to come, is essential for folk art collectors, historians, and artisans, and is a fascinating cultural history for anyone of Norwegian heritage.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal - Library Journal
This exhibition catalog offers ten comprehensive and scholarly essays that review the artistic traditions of Norwegians and Norwegian Americans through illustrations of decorative and functional objects spanning four centuries. The essays cover cultural history, the social and economic background of folk art in Norway, folk dress, emigration and settlement patterns, and tradition and revival. Among the beautifully photographed objects are fanciful woodcarvings of ceremonial serving vessels, elaborately decorated trunks with rosemailing (a general term for Norwegian folk painting), and coverlets woven in geometric patterns. The text identifying these objects offers typical informational notes but also poignant comments on style and artistry. Editor Nelson (director emeritus, Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum; professor emeritus, art history, Univ. of Minnesota) has produced a work documenting Norwegian tradition and material culture from a rural economy centuries ago to 20th-century Norwegian American craft. For large public and academic libraries.Judith Yankeilun Lind, Roseland Free P.L., N.J.

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Abbeville Publishing Group
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Introduction by Marion Nelson

Norwegian Folk Art: The Migration of a Tradition has two aims: first, to give a comprehensive presentation of Norwegian folk art from its beginnings in the late Middle Ages, through its development under the influence of mainstream European art, to its decline with the coming of the Industrial Revolution; and, second, to follow that art across the Atlantic with the 19th and 20th century emigrants who settled in the United States. The major question that it asks is: What happens to a folk tradition when the people to whom it belongs move to an environment with few of the conditions that brought it into being? From an American standpoint, the book is an intensive investigation into the background of a specific strain in the art of the people in this country.

The amount of American material included here that the purist would consider folk art is limited. Much was created during the past twenty years by people in a wide range of social circumstances. The fact that it is part of a group phenomenon based on a genuine folk tradition, however, gives it a place in the total history of that tradition whether or not the circumstances of its production are those characteristic of folk art. The study is not so much of folk art per se as of an artistic tradition that has continued to have creative and symbolic significance for its national group. The segment of that group which is followed in particular is the approximately 900,000 Norwegians who emigrated to America and their descendants.

Even much of the early Norwegian folk art which meets all the circumstantial conditions of that term does not have the naive character associated with it byAmericans. What collectors and even museums in this country generally seek in folk art is individual expression which lacks as much as possible the marks of tradition. This continues in spite of the emphasis folklorists have for the past twenty-five years put on tradition as a necessary element in folk art.

That the naive should be looked on by Americans as a distinctive characteristic of folk art is natural when one considers that their own folk art is the product of a young, mixed, and mobile society with limited possibility for the development of tradition. In Norway, where the rural population was homogeneous and stable and where many communities had unbroken histories going back to prehistoric times, tradition could not be avoided. One finds a commonality in the art of every district based in a deeply rooted traditional culture. Even innovation, and it can be great, is generally within a tradition and cuts across the culture broadly rather than taking the form of scattered isolated phenomena. Almost all pure decoration in Norwegian folk art bears the strong mark of tradition in both concept and execution. Figures can be another matter. Except for a local strain in figurative powderhorn decoration and another in picture weaving, the use of figures was comparatively rare. No strongly unified tradition in their presentation came into being. Figures in Norwegian folk art, therefore, can have the native charm and individual expressiveness so cherished by Americans (42, 72-74, 77, 81-83, 166, 171-173, 190).

Norwegian folk art from the decline of the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution constitutes by far the greatest amount of art produced in the country at the time, a circumstance resulting from Norway's largely rural population and the limited economy as well as limited size of the urban upper class. Folk art grew out of what had been mainstream art in the proud and independent Medieval kingdom of Norway which came to an end in the 14th century. It represents a cultural link between that old kingdom and the new that came into being in 1905. Not only in quantity but in vitality and artistic quality, Norwegian folk art overshadows the rather modest artistic efforts made by the approximately ten percent of the population that constituted the urban society and had its cultural affinities with the country's administrative center in Denmark.

The prominence of tradition in Norwegian folk art gives much of it a sophistication and refinement that is associated with mainstream decorative arts. These were, indeed, the models, primarily from the 18th century on. Like mainstream artists, the folk artists too became professionals within the framework of their rural society. As Nils Ellingsgard points out, farming was more a supplementary source of income to their art activities than the reverse. They had no guilds, but their art was passed down from generation to generation through an informal apprentice system that had the strengths of guild education without its stifling rigidities.

The almost academic emphasis on mastery in Norwegian folk art, especially in acanthus carving and stylized floral painting, has made it easy to build on in modern times. Doing so involves considerable training and practice but it does not call for the artificial regression to a primitive state necessary to produce folk art of a genuinely naive kind. Little Norwegian folk art is naive.

Even stylistically, Norwegian folk art absorbed much from urban mainstream culture. It went through its major phases from Renaissance to Baroque, Regency, and Rococo, incorporating elements of these into its creative vocabulary (1). This may be another reason for the naturalness with which it can be built on and with which it finds a place in Norwegian mainstream culture today and that of Norwegian immigrants long settled on another part of the globe. It is distinctive enough to satisfy needs of identity, but it is familiar enough to anyone in the western world to have direct appeal purely as decoration apart from national associations.

Whatever the explanation, Norwegian folk art is an art of exceptional potency that can still generate aesthetic response. Except for a geometric strain represented by chip carving, much burnt decoration, thread-count embroidery, and square interlock weaving, it is in blatant defiance of the machine age. The extraordinary organic vigor in much of Norway's folk carving and almost all of its folk painting is a welcome antidote to modern life.

The majority of this presentation is devoted to illustrations of over 200 objects which with their captions tell the story of Norwegian folk art. About one-third are from Norwegian museums; another third have crossed the Atlantic, largely with early immigrants, and are now in private and public collections throughout America. This latter group represents the first and most concrete step in the migration of Norwegian folk art. The remaining objects have been produced in America by immigrants who continued the tradition or by their descendants and others under their influence who are building on the vestiges of it. These objects are shown alongside those in the historical presentation so that one can readily compare the tradition in its original form with that which it took when continued far from its place of origin and increasingly far from the time when it began. This final category of material represents the human migration of the tradition and the generative power of it on people who for the most part have never known it as an integral part of life.

The organization and interpretation of the objects in the pictorial history of Norwegian folk art are based largely on their visual character, their style, rather than on their functional significance in the culture of which they were a part. What migrated and survived was an art tradition increasingly cut off from its original cultural context. The objects, by virtue of their fixed material state, remained essentially unaffected by the Atlantic crossing, while other elements in the culture, such as language, music, and social customs, underwent almost immediate change. Even the new objects, both early and late, made on the basis of that tradition by the immigrants reflect greater concern with retaining the visual character of the models, although these were not always accurately remembered or understood, than with adapting them to functional needs in the new culture.

The deviations from early models that did occur were more the product of imagination than of accommodation. Examples of this are the rosemaling of August Werner (206) and the carving of Hermund Melheim (67-69). The tradition's stubborn resistance to entering the shifting stream of the time was what eventually gave it new meaning for its group. It no longer had an integral place in the culture of that group but it became a welcome symbol of something stable and distinctive that had once belonged to it in an all but forgotten past. It could also satisfy long dormant aesthetic needs unrelated to other elements in the culture. This is something which Norwegian folk art appears increasingly to have done even when still in the environment of its origin.

The pictorial presentation is supplemented with two essays by the editor on the general subject of folk art in Norway and among the immigrants, both of which are also written from a largely art historical point of view, and with eight essays by other authors that put the material more in its social and cultural context. The milieu in which Norwegian folk art was created is given an extraordinarily factual presentation by Halvard Bjorkvik, Former Director of the Norwegian Folk Museum in Oslo, while Odd Lovoll, King Olav V Professor of Scandinavian Immigrant Studies, St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, gives an equally graphic presentation of Norwegian emigration to America and settlement here. Jon Gjerde, Professor of History, University of California Berkeley, focuses his essay on what the immigrants brought with them and how their choices were made.

Two essays throw light on the early cultural scene in rural Norway. Nils Ellingsgard, a Norwegian painter and scholar of folk art, describes the migrant nature of rosemaling, Norwegian folk painting, even before it made the Atlantic crossing; and Aagot Noss, Chief Curator Emeritus of Costume and Textiles at the Norwegian Folk Museum, defines the messages conveyed in traditional dress. Carol Colburn, who teaches Costume History and Design at the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, follows up on Noss's subject with an essay on the wearing of traditional Norwegian dress in America and the changes which occurred in its character, use, and symbolic connotations.

Tonte Hegard, Senior Advisor, Directorate for Cultural Heritage, Norway, traces the long history of collecting and researching folk materials in Norway that accounts for the rather complete picture we have today of Norwegian folk art. Albert Steen, former Curator at the Museum of Applied Art, Oslo, discusses the role of Norway's Medieval and folk culture in establishing its national consciousness in modern times.

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