Hugo Lous Mohr (1889-1970) made the paintings in the vault in the Oslo Domkirke, the Cathedral called in English, although it is not really a large building, as churches go.
Mohr was appointed to do the job in 1935, but it was finished after the war, in 1949. The paintings belong to a period which I don’t usually like that much because of the style, but I still sympathise with much of the art from this period because of the political message which is often there, very visible for instance in the paintings in Oslo City Hall, made by many different artists, where among other motives many branches of society are represented, sailors and ships, industry and industrial workers, etc. There still seems to be a need to defend some of the values from this period, but maybe not all the political habits…
With the work of Per Krohg in the City Hall there is a story which I maybe have to tell one day, his murals there were made from 1940 to 49, through the war, with a break in 42-43 when the artist was first sent to Grini, a Nazi political prison camp in Bærum outside of Oslo, and he also had to do road work, as a punishment.
Henrik Sørensen, another important artist from the same times, also contributed substantially to the decoration of the City Hall. He was born in Sweden and lived there until he was twelve, then moved to Norway with his father and lived here.
Even if Hugo Lous Mohr’s motives in the church are of course not worldly in the sense that Krohg’s and Sørensen’s in the City Hall are, the way of depicting and perceiving humans are not that far away from each other.
You can see this also in Krohg’s and Alf Rolfsen’s illustrations of the fairy tales, Asbjørnsen og Moe, the pendant to the Grimm brothers in Germany, scholars who traveled the country and collected the tales. Per Krohg’s and Alf Rolfsen’s illustrations are very different from Erik Werensḱiold’s better known drawings, Werenskiold has quite a few shrewd portraits both of Askeladden and others, also the king, a person who appears in many of the stories.
Erik Werenskiold is more than 30 years the senior of Krohg, and draws and paints in a completely different style, belonging to the 19th century or to the turn of the century, but lived until 1938.
The troll has captured the princess, a common theme in the folk tales of Norway. Drawing by Erik Werenskiold.
Theodor Kittelsen’s spooky and mysterious trolls and other creatures from the woods and mountains, also illustrating the fairy tales, and appearing elsewhere too, is a story in itself, well known here and for a good reason. Our soul, I more or less subconsciously thought when I grew up. Today there are many other art things in my mind from my country which deserves attention, but Kittelsen is still something special.
Something from Store norske leksikon, the biggest Norwegian encyclopedia, in Norwegian, but with a couple of the most famous pictures by Kittelsen:
Per Krohg’s world of people, and to a certain extent Hugo Lous Mohr’s too, gives me a much more everyday feeling than Kittelsen and Werenskiold, no-nonsense and straight forward. Functionalism made its way into design and architecture in the same period. Everyday life seen from another angle…
In a church context I sympathise quite a lot with the attitude that Hugo Lous Mohr and the rest give us, especially today, when the Norwegian Church has partly moved into much more humane attitudes than used to be prevalent, at least according to common prejudice.
I wouldn’t be able to say too much about the Church here at the time the cathedral was built, in terms of attitude or theology, my knowledge is too scant. I feel when entering the Cathedral that I am more interested in the aesthetics of the old church, including the altar piece and the rest of the decorations, but more drawn to the attitude or the feeling that comes out of Lous Mohr’s paintings. Scizophrenic? Maybe it is.
The decoration in the middle of the cathedral ceiling, with the inscription «Gloria in excelsis Deo» also resonates well with the feeling of mystery that I think many here actually share, within or without the church, an abstract decoration which in a way excludes no one, which is, I think, the core of the positive side of culture here, when it is present. The stripes around it covers a huge part of the vault.
The fact that the whole thing makes a contrast to the rest of the decorations as almost solely abstract figures and not pictures, makes perhaps the thought present that God is impossible to depict…
Henrik Sørensen’s portrait of Christ is rightly famous, I think. Sørensen is maybe a more popular painter than Per Krohg, his works also perhaps gives me more space to think and to feel free, in several directions.
I see when I read about his version of Christ that some in Sweden have seen it as «Aryan» and that it caused a lot of uproar when it was first made and mounted in the Linköping Cathedral, a few years before the war. Dismissed by some was also (t)his use of the church room.
When seeing pictures from the church I can understand that his altar piece in Linköping could be felt as a revolution inside this building, but today the criticism of a blonde Jesus seems to me strange. I feel as accepting as anyone towards the cultures of the world, I have no objections to depictions of Christ as black or Indian or gay or in other ways new or different from the Middle East where he was born. I haven’t seen any of the versions of this picture live, but to me this portrait can function as the liberation from a dark and unpleasant version of Christianity that we have had to live with for centuries here, it radiates friendliness and openness, totally opposed to the moral madness that I believe still some religious movements here employ, even if what is mostly left of it (I hope) is remembrances.
They prevail, at least, no doubt about that.
But I don’t know of the person Henrik Sørensen and what he meant with the picture, I have to read more to say more.
As a Catholic I sometimes feel a lack of closeness to the mystery in Protestant theology and preaching, but I more and more enjoy the human presence, advanced and honest friendliness, if you can put it that way, in a lot of the work the Norwegian Church does, from helping people on the street, to conversations and simply therapy, given by the same preachers when they sit in a chair and talk rather than stand at the pulpit.
The fact that higher education had to be done in Copenhagen or elsewhere in Europe at the time the cathedral was built is of course also there, another feeling of smallness, that fact goes also for priests in the church, who were also the only ones allowed to preach here until the early 19th century.
But one should not forget that even if we lacked a university until a few years before the establishment of our Parliament in 1814 and the writing of the constitution, free schools for kids became law in 1739, and the Cathedral schools, which taught on a secondary school level, were built in late Medieval times like in the rest of Scandinavia, I believe, I think the first ones were built here in the 1100s.
And seriously no hard feelings today towards Danes, or Swedes for that matter, even if you could believe it sometimes, it is too long ago that Norway was a Danish province and Sweden and Norway The Twin Kingdoms or something like that. The Swedes let go of us with no attempts of war, even if we actually mobilised.
As I write this, I feel the need to go to the National Gallery to have a look at some of the works I am talking about or similar ones, but the National Gallery has been closed for a long time, just like some other important museums in Oslo, and I don’t know why.