Not since 1982 has Washington, DC been the host city of a large, comprehensive exhibition of art from the Scandinavian countries. That pivotal show, titled “Northern Light: Realism and Symbolism in Scandinavian Painting, 1880-1910,” was on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in the fall of 1982, and was curated by Kirk Varnedoe. It traveled to The Brooklyn Museum and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and left as a long lasting legacy a catalogue that has been an important resource on Scandinavian art.

This fall, 36 years later, the nation’s capital will again be the location of a large exhibition of Nordic art. This time, the venue is the Phillips Collection of Art, often called “America’s first museum of modern art.” Located near Dupont Circle in downtown Washington, DC, the Phillips Collection is known for its 19th century and modern art, including Renoir’s famous “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” and works by van Gogh, Picasso and Lawrence.


The curator of the 2018 fall exhibit is Klaus Ottmann, the deputy director for Curatorial and Academic Affairs at the Phillips Collection. This exhibition, titled “Nordic Impressions: Art from Åland, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, 1821-2018,” will be on view October 6, 2018 to January 6, 2019.

The Phillips Collection of Art, as well as other museums in the nation’s capital, such as the National Museum of Women in the Arts, has featured exhibitions on Nordic artists over the years, but they have not been as broad in scope as “Nordic Impressions.” This is a rare opportunity to see works of many Nordic artists in one place on this side of the Atlantic.

There is, of course, the natural inclination to compare the two exhibitions, “Northern Light” (1982) and the upcoming “Nordic Impressions” (2018). Northern Light focused on the dynamic creativity and innovation of the late 19th and early 20th century, specifically the years 1880 to 1910, viewed as a golden age in Scandinavian art. It featured outstanding Scandinavian painters from the five Nordic nations who were influenced by the currents of realism, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Symbolism. Many of them achieved international and critical recognition. Among these were Sweden's Anders Zorn, Norway’s Edvard Munch, Finland’s Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Denmark’s Vilhelm Hammershoj and Iceland’s Thorlaksson.

Nordic Impressions, this fall's exhibit, includes some of the outstanding artists of the turn-of-the-last century and covers a broader time period, spanning 200 years from the early 19th to the 21st centuries. It is comprised of approximately 60 works, including paintings, sculptures and photographs.

The most striking difference between the two exhibitions is the emphasis on modern and contemporary art found in Nordic Impressions. Ottmann, whose area of expertise is mid- and late 20th century and 21st century modernism, highlights modern and contemporary movements influenced by abstraction and conceptual art.

As the title of the exhibit suggests (in naming not only the nation states themselves, but also the self-governing islands, such as Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Åland), Ottmann is emphasizing regional identities and contributions within the broader context of the Nordic realm. Of approximately 60 works, 9 are Swedish, 11 are Finnish, one is from the Swedish-speaking island of Åland, which is part of Finland, 12 are Danish, 11 Norwegian, one is from the Faroe Islands and one from Greenland, both politically linked to Denmark, eight are Icelandic, and eight are Norwegian. This exhibit also includes indigenous art, such as Sami, and a significant percentage of works are by women and important early 19th century masters. There may still be changes to the list of works.

In Nordic Impressions, each artist is represented by one work of art. Among the Swedish artists are several from the golden age of the late 19th and early 20th century period, such as Anders Zorn, Helmer Osslund, Fanny Brate and August Strindberg. Strindberg, known primarily for his writing, was also an accomplished painter. Works by Swedish modern artists Öyvind Fahlström and Karin Mamma Andersson will also be on view.

By Dr. Karin Alexis, art historian

Born in Germany, curator Klaus Ottmann received a Master of Arts in philosophy from the Free University in Berlin, and a PhD in philosophy from the Division of Media and Communications at the European Graduate School in Switzerland. He previously served as a curator at the Parrish Art Museum in South Hampton, NY. Dr. Ottmann has curated over 50 international exhibitions, primarily on mid-20th century and contemporary art. Since joining the staff at the Phillips Collection, he has curated many exhibitions, including shows on Pollock, Ossorio and Dubuffet, as well as Danish artist Per Kirkeby. One work by Kirkeby will be included in Nordic Impressions this fall.

Creating and organizing an exhibition like Nordic Impressions is a long process and an expensive endeavor dependent upon private and public support. The Phillips Collection has collaborated with the Nordic embassies in Washington, DC and is working with art museums in Scandinavia. In August of 2015, Dr. Ottmann traveled to Scandinavia to meet with professional staff from art museums and artists. The works on view this fall are on loan from museums and collections in Scandinavia, and also from galleries in New York City.

Information on the author:
Dr. Karin Alexis, PhD, art historian, is an expert on Scandinavian/Nordic art and architecture. She has lectured extensively on Nordic art and architecture, including at the Foreign Service Institute of the United States Department of State for 25 years, the Smithsonian Associates, and the Society of Architectural Historians (Latrobe Chapter). She has taught broad survey courses on the region, covering medieval to modern, and lectured on 19th and 20th art and architecture, as well as topics such as National Romanticism, Zorn, Larsson, Milles and Scandinavian modernism, among others. She presented a comprehensive lecture program on Scandinavian art and architecture in December 2017 at the Smithsonian Associates. She is also the vice president of the Swedish American Cultural Union and active in Drott Lodge.

The Swedish American Cultural Union (SACU) is an organization in the nation’s capital that offers monthly lecture programs on topics related to Sweden and Swedish America, from economics, science and policy issues, to art, literature and culture. Among its recent speakers are Her Excellency Karin Olofsdottir, Swedish Ambassador to the United States; The Honorable Jay Cohen, Rear Admiral, USN (ret.) and former Under Secretary for Science and Technology, Department of Homeland Security; Richard Stenelo of Lund University; His Excellency Andras Simonyi, Hungary’s former ambassador to the United States; Barbro Osher, Sweden’s Consul General in San Francisco; Göran Lithell, Deputy Chief of Missions, Swedish Embassy; Reidar Jönsson, author of “My Life as a Dog,” and Ulf Mårtensson, editor of Nordstjernan. The format of its programs is a luncheon followed by a lecture. SACU events usually take place at the Key Bridge Marriott, conveniently located in Rosslyn, which is along the Potomac River, just across from Georgetown, in the District of Columbia. This location even offers a bird’s eye view of the House of Sweden in Georgetown. The September 2018 program will be a panel discussion of the Swedish elections.