There is nothing that makes me happier, when traveling abroad, than to discover a national art museum that isn’t on the usual tourist path. In Mexico City, the great treasures of the Aztecs and Maya are on view at the National Museum of Anthropology, which is absolutely a must-see. But the smaller, more old-fashioned National Museum of Art is in some ways even more interesting. I have fond memories of several visits to the world-renowned State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg but perhaps even sharper memories of the far-less-traveled State Russian Museum.
The official national or state museum is often a bit more old-fashioned, arranged chronologically and full of art that fits the description the composer Richard Strauss once gave of himself: “I may not be a first-rate composer, but I am a first-class second-rate composer.” Here one sees the best of those artists who never broke out to international stature and, very often, the worst of those who did. You also find exceptionally good art by artists who refused to follow the trends of their time, academic art made away from the mainstream as the world looked to the new trends emerging in Paris in the late 19th century, or representational art from the middle of the past century, as abstraction became an international style.
Often, there will be a gallery devoted to the grand narrative and historical paintings of the 19th century, works that may be too big to move yet contain the essence both of the country’s idealized identity and the core of its nationalist mythology. Travel writers tell us that we get to know a foreign land by mixing with its people and eating their food, but if you only have an afternoon in St. Petersburg, go look for the paintings of Ilya Repin or Vasily Surikov, virtuosos in the grand manner who applied paint by the acre.
The Phillips Collection exhibition “Nordic Impressions,” which surveys some 200 years of art from Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and other Nordic lands, offers many of these same pleasures. It has the sprawling, slightly diffuse synoptic feel of a national museum. It covers a dizzying range of art, from 19th-century landscapes to contemporary video and photographic work by international art stars Ragnar Kjartansson and Olafur Eliasson.
As in a good national museum, you can chart the arrival and transformation of international stylistic trends by looking at the dates of the work on display, which often suggest that the lag time between the center and periphery was far shorter than expected. And then there are works that blow up any sense of the usual chronology, such as August Strindberg’s almost entirely abstract 1894 painting “Wonderland.” The playwright and author depicts what he called “a shadowy wood” with a clearing of some sort in the center. But the painting could hang next to a Rothko or Pollock without too much resulting dissonance.
Women are abundantly represented among the artists on view, which may have something to do with the relatively enlightened social policies of several Nordic countries early in the past century. Finland was the first European country to give women the right to vote (in 1906, well before the United States passed the 19th Amendment in 1920), and Sweden and Norway followed not long after. Helene Schjerfbeck, a Finnish artist born in 1862, is among the best known of the female artists on display (her work was seen in a 1992 Phillips Collection exhibition), and her painting of a seamstress, in the somber, muted palette of Whistler, is among the highlights of the exhibition. Tori Wranes, a Norwegian artist born in 1978, contributes an unsettling bit of whimsy with a video titled “Ancient Baby,” with the artist appearing masked and hovering in space.
Just as in most national museums, the subject of national identity is a recurring theme. And there’s no better time to think about that than the present, with the word “nationalism” in the news. When the president embraces the word, he does so in a canny way: It will seem to some of his apologists no more menacing than the word “patriotic,” while it encourages others among his supporters to embrace its larger meaning, of an ethnically monochromatic, “America first” nationalism founded on xenophobia and intolerance.
Most national art museums have to grapple with a range of nationalisms, from cinematic depictions of historical events (often invented, co-opted or highly skewed in their meaning) to images of beloved landscapes and cherished social habits. Shameless propaganda inevitably hangs under the roof and often in the same gallery with the work of artists who earnestly sought to define a sense of identity through love of people and place. And sometimes, those categories blur together: Seemingly innocuous genre scenes may be loaded with bigotry, while history paintings tell narratives counter to orthodoxy.
“Nordic Impressions” gives us a truncated sense of this range of nationalists, without the bathos of patriotic history painting or the treacle of nostalgia and sunset scenes. The work of Akseli Gallen-Kallela, a Finnish painter who turned to the Kalevala (a cobbled-together national epic poem that was one focus of 19th-century Finnish nationalism when the country was still under Russian control), is muscular, overwrought and exciting, like the operas of Wagner made into storybook illustrations. On the other end of the spectrum, Anders Zorn’s “The Girl from Alvdalen” shows a young woman in traditional Swedish costume wandering barefoot through a shallow, placid stream and is just sweet enough to charm without hurting your teeth.
Later works, and work by contemporary Nordic artists, move away from this forthright engagement with national identity and take up more complicated and difficult ideas. These artists now belong as much to the international art community as they do to the country whence they came. Video artists, in particular, grapple with issues of trauma, isolation, femininity and colonialism. One artist, the Danish Per Kirkeby, is quoted in a catalogue essay expressing impatience: “To write something about what is ‘Nordic’ in art is a tall order indeed. I would prefer not to bother.”
It’s easy to understand his reluctance to address the subject. To start suggesting affinities between artists based on national or regional identity almost inevitably leads to cliches, categories that are exclusive, or ideas that are so capacious as to be meaningless. Given what happened with nationalist movements in the past century, and the toxic resurgence of a militant nationalism today, it’s easy to understand why artists would resist dwelling on the subject. But as they have moved on to other things, the field is wide open for more disreputable forces to take up the debate. I think the world would be greatly improved if more of them were back in the fray, testing whether it is still possible to find nontoxic answers to the question of whether there is such a thing as national character and, if so, how we articulate it without repeating the mistakes of the past.
“Nordic Impressions” is on view at the Phillips Collection through Jan. 13. phillipscollection.org