For this I weep all my days, and throughout my lifetime grieve
that I swam from my own lands and came from familiar lands
towards these strange doors to these foreign gates.

(Elias Lönnrot, The Kalevala)

Scandinavia has always been revered for its excellent craftsmanship in architecture, design and furniture. Unknown to many, its bearing in the fine arts is equally unprecedented. Particularly in the 1900s, Nordic art witnessed its golden years, attributing to the international recognition of its local artists, for instance, Edvard Munch.

Sompo Museum of Art in Shinjuku, Tokyo is presenting “The Magic North: Art from Norway, Sweden and Finland” until June 9 this year, the first full-scale exhibition of Scandinavian paintings from the 19th century to the early 20th century showcased in Japan. Approximately seventy outstanding artworks from the Finnish National Gallery, Ateneum Art Museum, the Nasjonalmuseet—the National Museum of Norway and the Nationalmuseum—Sweden’s museum of art and design are on view.

The exhibition introduces masterpieces of Edvard Munch, Christian Krohg, Albert Edelfelt, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Anna Boberg, Theodor Kittelsen, Anders Zorn, among other artists who have interpreted the climate, sceneries, histories, and cultures of each country, inspired by Nordic romanticism, Scandinavian ancient mythology and fairy tales, and the lifestyles of the people.

In the Introduction section, viewers are transported to the beginnings of Nordic art in the 19th century, when it evolved from influences by continental Europe to a more scrutinized perspective of the region’s nature, history and culture. Themes of Norse mythology and folklore began to appear in paintings and book illustrations. The Romanticism era prevailed dominantly and emphasized landscapes and unique terrains of the Northern homelands.

Ilmatar(1860) by Finnish painter Robert Wilhelm Ekman is representative of Romanticism and depicts the air maiden Ilmatar from the Finnish national epic poem The Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot. The Kalevala is regarded as Finland’s most significant literature in the mid-19th century that is often portrayed in Finnish art. Here, Ilmatar descends from the air into the sea and becomes pregnant by the sea breeze. Her eggs shatter and parts of the egg shells create the land, sky, sun, moon, and stars, ultimately giving birth to the world.

A typical Scandinavian landscape rendition in the 19th century is seen in Rocky Landscape with Waterfall (1859) by leading romantic landscape painter from Sweden in the 1850s, Marcus Larson. Larson was largely known for delineating dramatic seascapes, coastal scenes, large rivers and waterfalls.

Chapter 1 of the exhibition dwells on the power of nature—grand mountains, forests, lakes, midnight sun in short summers, and polar nights in long winters—as symbols of Scandinavia’s changing seasons. Nature stood as the most vital source of inspiration for all artists during this time.

Spring Evening in Jølster (1926) by Norwegian modernist painter Nikolai Astrup exemplifies the floral meadows of springtime in Norway. Varied hues of green are illuminated by the glowing light cast over the vibrant scenery. Astrup lived most of his life in Jølster. Being asthmatic, he often retreated outdoors to breathe, and this picture reflects his moments of wandering during the bright spring days.

Another spring vista is captured by Swedish painter Nils Kreuger in Spring Evening (1896). Kreuger’s forceful touch on the naked branches accentuates a stylized, decorative design, provoking a fascinating rhythm with the cold, blue spring sky. Kreuger was highly influenced by French plein air painting, Gauguin and Van Gogh, and later by Neo-impressionism.

Many pieces evoke images of fairies, monsters, mountain trolls, and other mythological characters, particularly in the second chapter on magical forests. Deep forests served as the ideal niche for inciting imagination, wherein strange inhabitants may seek recluse or encounter peculiar events with goblins, witches, and heavenly beings. It was the Nordic tendency to commune with fantasy and the mystical past as a means of alienation from the modern and materialistic world.

Theodor Kittelsen’s Soria Moria Castle: The Adventures of the Ash Lad series of pictures are well known among impressions of Norwegian folk tales. The Ash Lad is a young boy who overcomes many difficulties, but eventually succeeds in the end. In the exhibition, we see three paintings projecting this theme by Kittelsen who was recognized for his dreamy and spellbinding portrayals of Scandinavian folklore. The Ash Lad and the Golden Bird (1900) shows the Ash Lad mesmerized by a shining golden bird that had been asleep for a hundred thousand years.

Viewers can watch an eight-minute video of moving illustrations by Kittelsen, sketching the Black Death, mysterious trolls and fairies. These “invisible beings” are believed to lurk in the depths of Northern Europe’s wilderness, and were richly enlivened in Kittelsen’s crisp imagination of the outside world.

In the final chapter focused on cityscapes, the collections reveal the rapid development of Scandinavia’s urbanization propelled by the coming of the Industrial Revolution. Many Nordic artists went to Paris to study art, and brought back with them the air of Realism and Impressionism that had influenced Scandinavian art immensely.

August Strindberg was one of the Northern countries’ most outstanding writers and painters. His works were generally void of human figures, and instead characterized dark landscapes and oceans, such as in The City (1903). Here, the somber tone of the cloud formations and the rolling sea waves almost haunts the viewers, professing the artist’s view of modern civilization.

The popular Edvard Munch cannot be missed in this exhibition for his works, On the Veranda (1902) and Winter on the Fjord (1915). As a Naturalist, Munch often worked outdoors and honed his skills in color expressions. He was highly influenced by German expressionism and shifted later to Symbolism, which enabled him to explore the inner world’s shades of deep love, anxiety, life and death. On the Veranda describes the balcony view from his villa in Åsgårdstrand in southern Norway, and was first exhibited in Paris in 1903. The scene clearly brings forth Munch’s experimentation with color harmony.

This exhibition widens our understanding and curiosity of the forms of nature, mysticism, and resplendent culture that surround the magic of Scandinavian life in art.