An artistic testimony of northern pagan tradition

Study by Philippe Blache, doctor in socio-cultural anthropology

‘‘Great God! I’d rather be A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn –’’

William Wordsworth

Trajectory of a folklorist

Born in Kragerø, Norway in 1857 from a family of eight children, Kittelsen started his professional life by following the ideal of a stable occupation, thus he first occupied the position of an apprentice watchmaker. Found of the marvellous, magical combinations offered by the contemplative quality of nature, the feelings it communicates, Kittelsen rapidly took the adventurous side of art, exploring his own creative capacity. He became a pupil at a drawing school in Christiania, then in Munich under the direction of Diderich Aall. Aall discovered Kittelsen’s great capacity in drawing, surrounded by a vivid imaginary world that would soon be expressed under fabulous, adventurous and distant worlds. After a scholarship in Paris, he returned to Norway where he started actively to make a living with his paintings.

All of his work depicts a great poetical capacity in description and contemplation, with roots in primitive feelings of the people, closer to nature and to an organic ideal which characterises Norway cultural and historical community. Kittelsen will know a certain success with the illustration of folktales. This corresponds to Kittelsen’s fascination for the mythological object and the popular poetry. With some of his contemporaries and representatives of neo-romanticism ( the legacy of the German idealism school), Kittelsen celebrates the substance of a community unified by its language, aesthetics and tradition (Folk). Kittelsen has participated to the illustrations of Asbjornsen and Moe’s Norske folkeeventy for the 1914 edition.

Astonishing defenders of the national romanticism and Norwegian popular folklore, the two authors published an important collection of tales which also includes the drawing contribution of Peter Nicolai Arbo, Erik Werenskiod. Most famous folkloric population depicted by Kittelsen are the Trolls. Asbjornsen connects trolls to nature. They are giants, hairy, strangely beaded, mostly undressed and often armed with a club. they defend their tribe with animal companions. They pursue heroes and sometimes kidnap members of the royal family. They are firstly recognisable from humans thanks to their terrifying snorting and sniffing sounds.

Attached to the Norwegian nature, Kittelsen is the defender of particular cultural values, embedded in popular folklores. In that way, his contemplative paganism depicts the landscapes variations and forest life populated by supernatural creatures as echoes of people’s deep aspirations. The core of Kittelsen’s poetical vision is also a vision of Man and his mission on earth, an ethical and a mystical mission which leads us to a realistic form of heroïsm and to a spiritual communion  towards a romanticised nature.

A cultural renewal at the heart of popular mythologies

If Germany played a major role in the birth of a new reflexion about the myth and folklore (notably in the Sturm und Drang movement, in the Naturephilosophie of Schelling, the brothers Grimm and their studies on rural customs and popular superstitions), Norway and more generally Scandinavia had a clear importance in its development. After Herder, Brentano and Achim Von Armin’s substantial observations on the mythological knowledge (inspired or derivated from the Edda, Ossian) and its constitutive function in the accomplishment of the national romanticism, the Danish philosopher Frederik Severin Grundtvig will participate in this cultural renewal, making large references to the gothic past, to the ancient pre-Christian mythologies in the consolidation of the national cultural identity of his country.

With his free form thought, his meticulous view on northern mythologies linked to noble moral ideals (revolutionary consciousness and social movement based on a collective and popular creativity) Grundtvig will inspire the leaders of Norway’s romantical movement. In this heritage, the creativity of the people takes its source in the poetry, as a primordial form of language. The expression of this creativity makes the culture a living organism, capable of transcending the nation in one individual collective. This new philosophy of humanity and the awaken of the creativity of Northen people is introduced by Henrik Wegerland and the heroïc dimension he confers to his patriotic mythopoësis. The fabulous, dramatic and epic dimensions of Wegerland’s romantical poetries make echo to Kittelsen’s unique depiction of his love for grandiose landscapes, his enthusiasm for the national neo-paganism and his devotion to the mythologist movement. Another Norwegian romantical poet, Johan Welhaven also expresses this spontaneous and natural communion with mythical personifications and the visionary aspects of primitive poetry, in its strength and authenticity. These elements can be found in Kittelsen’s intuitive, naïve, tender and frightening paintings.

The understanding of nature is mostly affective, mythological, giving its dignity to feelings, to the magical idealism, to the concrete and immediate harmony between man and his environment (organic totality).

Comparative mythological studies in history (George Dumézil) and in Anthropology (Kluckohn, Frazer, Malinowski) demonstrates that an interference exists between the psychological human history and the divine one, myths are symbolic descriptions of nature phenomena. In a way, Kittelsen’s paintings are mythic tales which describe this interaction between day-dream, fantasies and primitive knowledge (inside a constellation of symbols and rituals). As stated by ethnographical observations, the myth is a living reality which has its influence on the world and human destinies. Kittelsen’s artwork is delivering an aesthetic examination of this living reality and primitive psychology which haunt the collective consciousness.

During all its career Kittelsen spread visions, natural faith, feelings and mystical qualities which encourage to valorize the « organic » facet of art and the romantic renewal of northern culture. He is a great, creative and constructive representative of nordic tradition. His faith is animated by a spontaneous love, sustained by naïve depictions which converge around an aesthetic of freedom. As a fantasist-mythological painter, Kittelsen followed his neo-romantical intuition, going beyond the materialism and the naturalism to enter the enchanting world of poetical dreams, tales and legends, the only and primitive language which maintain the people awaken, capable of perceiving the world in its integrality, respectful to ethnopluralism.


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Frazer J.G., 1995 [1911], The golden Bough, a study in magic and religion, Touchstone Edition
Grundtvig, 1976, selected writings, Fortress Press
Haase D, 2008, The greenwood ancyclopedia of folktales and fairy tales, Greenwood Press,
Kluckohn C, 1942 , myths and rituals, a general theory, Harvard University Press
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Wegerland H., 2003, The army of truth: selected poems by Henrik Wergeland edited by Ragnhild Galtung, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press
Welhaven J S., 2010 [1839], Digte, Nabu Press

Philippe Blache  is a doctor in socio-cultural anthropology, reviewer and musician

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