There is nothing that makes me happier, traveling abroad, than discovering a national art museum that is not on the usual tourist route. In Mexico City, the great treasures of the Aztecs and Mayans are on display at the National Museum of Anthropology, which is not to be missed. But the smallest, oldest national art museum is somehow even more interesting. I have fond memories of many visits to the renowned Hermitage State Museum in St. Petersburg, but perhaps even more vivid memories of the Russian State Museum, which has traveled a long way.
The official national or state museum is often a little older, arranged chronologically and full of art that fits the description that the composer Richard Strauss once gave of himself: "I could not be a composer of prim & # 39, order, but I am a first -this second-choice composer. "Here we see the best of those artists who have never been to international stature and, very often, the worst of those who have done so. You will also find an extraordinarily good art by artists who refused to follow the trends of their time, academic art far from the mainstream while the world looked at the new emerging trends in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century, or representative art from the center of the world. last century, the abstraction became an international style.
Often, there will be a gallery dedicated to the great narrative and historical paintings of the 19th century, works that may be too large to move and contain the essence of the idealized identity of the country and the core of its nationalist mythology. Travel writers tell us that we know a foreign land mixing with its people and eating food, but if you only have one afternoon in St. Petersburg, go look for paintings by Ilya Repin or Vasily Surikov, virtuosos of the great way he has applied the paint for the acre.
The exhibition of the Phillips "Nordic Impressions" collection, which brings together some 200 years of art from Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and other Nordic countries, offers many of these same pleasures. It has a tentacular, slightly diffused synoptic feel of a national museum. It covers a dizzying range of different types of art, from nineteenth-century landscapes to contemporary video and photographic works by international stars Ragnar Kjartansson and Olafur Eliasson.
As in a good national museum, it is possible to trace the arrival and transformation of international stylistic trends by looking at the dates of the exhibited work, which often suggests that the latency time between the center and the periphery was much more short than expected. And then there are works that explode any sense of the usual chronology, as for example the painting by August Strindberg, almost entirely abstract of 1894 "Wonderland". The playwright and author describes what he calls "a shady wood" with a clearing of some kind in the middle. But the painting could hang next to a Rothko or a Pollock without too much dissonance.
Women are abundantly represented among the artists in sight, which may have something to do with the relatively bright social policies of several Nordic countries at the beginning of the last century. Finland was the first European country to grant women the right to vote (in 1906, long before the United States passed the 19th amendment in 1920), and Sweden and Norway followed not long afterwards. Helene Schjerfbeck, a Finnish artist born in 1862, is among the most famous among the artists on show (her work was seen in a 1992 Phillips Collection exhibition), and her painting of a dressmaker, in the dark and mellow palette of Whistler, is among the highlights of the exhibition. Tori Wranes, a Norwegian artist born in 1978, contributes with a pinch of extravagance to a video called "Ancient Baby", with the artist appearing masked and suspended in space.
Just like in most national museums, the theme of national identity is a recurring theme. And there is no better time to think about this than the present, with the word "nationalism" in the news. When the president embraces the word, he does it in a cunning way: It will seem that some of his apologists are no longer threatening the word "patriotic", while encouraging others among his supporters to embrace its broader meaning, of an ethnically monochromatic " American nationalism "founded on xenophobia and intolerance.
Most national art museums must engage in a series of nationalisms, from cinematic representations of historical events (often invented, coopted or highly distorted in their meaning) to images of beloved landscapes and beloved social habits. The propaganda shamelessly hangs inevitably under the roof and often in the same gallery with the work of artists who seriously tried to define a sense of identity through love for people and place. And sometimes these categories get confused: seemingly innocuous genre scenes can be loaded with fanaticism, while history paintings tell the narrative in contrast to orthodoxy.
The "Nordic impressions" give us a sense of truncation of this range of nationalists, without the baths of patriotic history painting or the molasses of nostalgia and the scenes of the sunset. The work of Akseli Gallen-Kallela, a Finnish painter who turned to Kalevala (a national cobbled epic that was at the center of nineteenth-century Finnish nationalism when the country was still under Russian control), is muscular, excited and exciting , like Wagner's works transformed into fairy-tale illustrations. On the other side of the spectrum, "The Girl from Alvdalen" by Anders Zorn shows a young woman in traditional Swedish costume who wanders barefoot through a shallow, placid stream and is so sweet she can be enchanted without hurting her teeth.
Subsequent works, and the work of contemporary Nordic artists, move away from this sincere commitment to national identity and take on more complicated and difficult ideas. These artists now belong both to the international artistic community and to the country from which they came. Video artists, in particular, are grappling with problems of trauma, isolation, femininity and colonialism. An artist, the Danish Per Kirkeby, is quoted in a catalog essay that expresses impatience: "To write something about what is" Nordic "in art is indeed an arduous task.I would rather not disturb."
It is easy to understand his reluctance to deal with the subject. Starting to suggest affinities between artists on the basis of national or regional identity almost inevitably leads to clichés, exclusive categories or ideas so large as to be meaningless. Given what happened with the nationalist movements of the last century and the toxic rebirth of a militant nationalism today, it is easy to understand why artists would resist to dwell on the subject. But while they have moved on to other things, the camp is open to more disgraceful forces to tackle the debate. I think the world would have greatly improved if many of them had returned to the fray, testing whether it is still possible to find non-toxic answers to the question whether there is such a thing as the national character and, in this case, how we articulate it without repeating past mistakes .
"Nordic Impressions" is on show at the Phillips Collection until January 13th. For more information, visit www.phillipscollection.org