I watched the series on BBC (originally on Channel 4, but this was on BBC World News) by Andrew Graham-Dickson entitled “The Art of Scandinavia,” and if you haven’t seen it I highly recommend it.
The first episode entitled “The Dark Night of the Soul” explores the often truly depressing art that comes out of a country like Norway that is dark for over half the year. Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” could not have been produced in almost any other country or climate. But, Munch (1863-1944) was depressed for good reason, he had witnessed the death of his favorite sister when he was a child, and seemingly never got over it. There are several other Norwegian artists, such as Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1857), and Peder Balke (1804-1887), who painted the cold, unpopulated north, with dramatic mountain scenery with snow and ice, very atmospheric, but very desolate.
Henryk Ibsen (1828-1906) was one of the greatest dramatists, whose thrust was to dissect out Norways’s social conventions, sometimes in ways that were considered scandalous at the time. Yet, from our point of view they were very modern, touching themes of adultery, rape, and aberrant behavior. He represented the clear-eyed way in which Scandinavians have of skewering themselves and their society.
The second episode about Denmark was very interesting. I did not realize previously the catastrophic effect of the defeat of 1864 by Prussia on Danish history and the Danish psychology. He ended by saying that Denmark was the “ugly duckling” that needed to think of itself as a swan. Very symbolic. But, the trouble with that excellent analogy is that Hans Christian Andersen wrote it in 1844 (I looked it up) twenty years before the historic defeat. But, it is not chance that Denmark passed from an Empire to Legoland, the littlest country in Europe.
The third episode “Democratic by design,” features Sweden. Around the turn of the 20th century Sweden was like most other countries in Europe, with its bourgeoisie and Victoriana, only with more angst. Strindberg (1849-1912) revolutionized the theater as an experience, His palette knife paintings of the Swedish sea represented well his turbulent soul. But, then came the Social Democrats, who really believed that everyone should be equal, but without a revolution.
They believed a transformation of society should come about by sweeping away luxury and unnecessary frippery and making everything democratic, a movement called functionalism. Thus came about Swedish design, beauty in simplicity, at an affordable price. People should not live in separate houses, but in warehouses designed for the masses, with large windows (to get as much light in as possible), and interchangeable furniture and even down to the functional simplicity of the cutlery. This all ended logically with Ikea, the commercial exploitation of affordable functional design.
But, then there was a reaction. The Social Democrats were defeated, and the literature of Sweden took a decidedly unexpected turn, to brutal crime novels, a revelation of the unpleasant underbelly of Social Democracy, but often written by extreme Marxists. Here the novels of Stieg Larsen (‘The girl who kicked the hornet’s nest“) are representative. Yes, the Swedes wanted to welcome the new immigrants from Africa and Syria, but no they would not actually treat them as equals. A quick detour back to Strindberg.