Learn about the Norwegian Folk Art


Author: Trond Gjerdi

The term folk art is relatively new and is used to describe the decorative products of rural home-industry and craft of the pre-industrial period. Folk art items were produced before an expanded road network and railway system increased trade and travel, and together with the advent of radio upended a whole way of life. These great changes in traditional country culture began just over a hundred years ago and brought with them a new and very different way of thinking. The old rural society had provided an established environment with social and economic traditions not easily broken. Now, however, people began to think in terms of progress, change, and improvement. 

The heart of the old society was the farm, the community, and the valley. Although most of the individual communities were not totally isolated, the inhabitants were practically self-sustaining with little need of contact with the towns except, perhaps, for occasional trading. The chief means of communication between country dwellers and the outside world were the church, local government officials, and occasional trade. Thus, when new artistic trends from urban society penetrated the country districts, they were only partially adopted and were to a large degree modified and given distinctive local characteristics. The regional variations that resulted have been evaluated differently throughout the years. Today we prize them highly as a valuable part of our heritage. 

Who, then, were the makers of this “art” in rural Norway? Only exceptionally were they the large landowning farmers heir to the ancestral farm, rich in grain and livestock. Rather, folk art was created mainly by small freehold and tenant farmers working in their spare time. We find, too, itinerant craftsmen going from farm to farm, carrying out orders for individual patrons. Other artisans remained at home producing goods in their own workshops, after which they would travel about selling their finished wares. The majority of the so-called folk artists were people forced to seek extra work in order to supplement their meager incomes. Only in exceptional cases do we find the independent farmer doing decorative painting, carpentry, or carving on furniture and household utensils unless driven to it by economic necessity. It is important to keep in mind that the prerequisite for folk art in Norway was the hardship of existence. This in no way diminishes the quality of folk art, but helps to explain to us today the social and economic conditions which were decisive in the development of folk art in the old agrarian society.
As we have said earlier, the inhabitants of the country districts lived in far greater isolation than they to today. Nevertheless, by the seventeenth century, many ideas reached them from the towns, which in their turn receive d new impulses through their contact with the world at large. This took place in many ways. First of all, the church played an important role in the dissemination of artistic styles. Here we find the rich ornamental and figurative art of urban areas introduced by professional artisans. At times foreign craftsmen were commissioned to decorate churches and in that way brought knowledge of the latest art styles and color to the local inhabitants. These same craftsmen occasionally made decorated furniture while they were in the rural districts and sold it to the farmers. Local government officials often brought urban fashions into their homes, where they were undoubtedly seen by craftsmen of the district. Finally, many country craftsmen learned a great deal by working for periods in the towns. On closer examination, then, we find that the rural artisans of earlier times were by no means a homogeneous group. While most of them remained in their country communities and were self-taught , there were others who spent some time in the towns, apprenticed to qualified craftsmen, and later returned to their home districts.

Medieval traditions 
If we go further back in time, to the Middle Ages, it is difficult to draw a line between the urban craftsman and the country craftsman as we have defined them. It is not at all certain that a differentiation existed. There may well have been groups of specialized craftsmen but they did not necessarily fall into our modern category of urban and country handicraft. As many medieval articles are executed in an unacademic and primitive manner, it is often too easily concluded that they are the products of country craftsmen.
Dating older objects presents a similar problem. Many are medieval in style and may in fact date to the Middle Ages; they may, on the other hand, be late products of medieval tradition.

Designs of a completely medieval type, clearly related to the Romanesque style period, partly also to the Gothic and even to pre-Christian art, still appear in architecture, ornamentation and furnishings as late as the middle of the 1700s. These anachronistic pieces are found mainly in the central areas of southern Norway, Telemark, Hallingdal, and Setesdal, areas that long clung to the old traditions. These objects are made with a simplicity and sturdiness belonging completely to the Middle Ages, when the carpenter not only built houses but made furniture as well. The cabinetmaker as such did not exist. The form of the ornamentation and figural scenes on these articles shows clearly their affinity to such examples of Romanesque and Gothic art as the carvings in the stave churches of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These carvings, in turn, show elements of pre-Christian art in such motifs as dragons, snakes, and fanciful animals. This very ancient type of ornamentation lived on in everyday country articles, and we find it in furniture and household utensils, doorjambs an d gallery posts, until the eighteenth century. 
Later folk art 
The Reformation of 1537 marked a dividing point in Norwegian history, not only in regard to religion, but also in economic and cultural terms. It coincided with increased prosperity and improved communications between the towns of Norway and cultural centers on the Continent, which gave a new impetus to folk art. This was reflected first of all in urban handicrafts. With the growing demand, the number of craftsmen increased. New European stylistic motifs were introduced in a number of ways. Those who were ordering new works were increasingly familiar with the outside world; Norwegian artisans were traveling under the auspices of the guild system to countries such as Germany and Denmark. Many craftsmen came to Norway from Germany, for example, and received commissions to refurbish the reformed c churches. Finally, imported articles were used as prototypes in domestic crafts. 

In the carpentry craft, which became increasingly important, we notice a marked change. Many special tools were introduced and construction methods became more refined. Typical of the new fashion is the use of panels in doors and furniture and on walls. One of the most important characteristics of Renaissance style is this use of framed and paneled constructions. After this style made its appearance in Norway in the seventeenth century, it was highly developed in the towns. 

The cabinetmakers’ craft was far from being a simple matter of sawing and planning flat smooth surfaces. What we call wood carving or sculpting was also part of their art. In certain towns there were craftsmen doing only this and they were called sculptors, but the carpenters undoubtedly practiced wood carving as well. They carved acanthus foliage and figural motifs of both religious and secular nature. 

Country craftsmen adopted new ideas from European arts and crafts, but there were no fixed rules for the way in which these were fused with local traditions. This is exactly what gives rural art its own distinctive quality. One of the most conspicuous characteristics of folk art is the way in which imagination transformed academic art through many stages to a vigorous local style. This is evident, for example, in the way in which the colors of rural art were exploited to their maximum strength. During the 1600s it was not unusual for the wall sand ceilings of upper middle-class urban homes to be painted and decorated in what we call rosemaling, although in form and color it was more academic than that which we usually associate with the term. This painting style, distinctly urban in origin, has been preserved mainly in churches throughout the countryside. The professional painters who decorated them worked in the Renaissance and baroque styles of the seventeenth century. It was this rosemaling that rural craftsmen learned, copied, and transformed. They incorporated vine tendrils, flowers, and human figures in imaginative compositions, borrowing motifs from illustrated bibles and combining them with scenes from everyday life.
Folk art took many forms of expression. A great variety of techniques and available materials were put to use. It was natural that wood in particular should play a dominant role. In addition, however, iron, wool, flax, and dyestuffs were among the natural resources to be found. In the following we shall examine the techniques and materials used by rural craftsmen. 

Wood carving 
A distinctive type of wood carving called “karveskurd” or chip-carving has rich traditions in Norway. This type of ornamentation is recognizable by its geometric patterns made with the help of compass and ruler. With a compass one could compose stars with both six and eight points and also triangular and square patterns. Many variations within this framework were possible and produced an unbelievable number of different designs. Chip -carving was usually done with the aid of a v-shaped chisel (geisfuss), so that the pattern emerged with sharp surface edges and a pointed finish in the bottom of the groove. Chip-carving is a very widespread technique and may be found all over Europe. In Norway, it is found especially in the western part of the country and the coastal area further north and south. 

The origin of chip-carving is difficult to trace. From the seventeenth century on, however, many decorative articles were imported from Denmark and Germany with a thinner and denser ornamentation than that of the older Norwegian chip-carving. It is evident that these items sparked new interest in the decoration of smaller wooden articles, such as chests, boxes, caskets, and mangle boards, with this more delicate carving. Chip-carving existed side by side with other forms of wood carving and rosemaling in country districts, although in certain areas rosemaling completely replaced it. 

A number of Renaissance style elements came to Norway in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Flatskurd, or carving in low relief, appeared first in urban works and later in rural art. The vine tendrils are often simple, with leaves extending perpendicularly in regular sequence. The tendrils may also be double, as we find especially on supporting posts of Telemark storehouses and on mangle boards. Also typical of the style is an emphasis on architectural motifs, such as columns, pilasters, moldings, and arcades, as well as the use of decorative hardware. The source of these ornamental mountings was the blacksmiths’ work. Other characteristics of Renaissance carpentry were panel and frame construction and the use of moldings. 

The earliest examples of Norwegian Renaissance art that are preserved are from the late sixteenth century. These are mainly associated with new church interiors: altarpieces, pulpits, panelling of lower wall sections, and so forth. Subsequently, many elements of Renaissance carving and carpentry work appeared in rural handicrafts, somewhat earlier in western Norway than in the east. Carving in low relief gradually became known throughout large parts of southern Norway, but was especially developed in Valdres, Hallingdal, and Telemark. The simple vine tendril in low relief carving is a much-used motif on furniture, particularly cupboards. In Telemark it lasted an exceptionally long time. In the 1800s, the use of panel and frame construction for interior decoration was carried to such extremes that all the furnishings of the house were treated in this manner. 

The period from about 1700 on was an important one in Norwegian wood carving. New inspiration from continental handicrafts revived wood-carving traditions in the eastern regions. One of the main elements of the new style was the sculpted acanthus. This thistle-like plant has richly articulated leaf foliage and accentuated leaf veins and is very ancient as an art motif. It was used ornamentally in classical Greek and Roman art, later became an important element in decorative arts throughout Europe, and is still in use today. Renaissance foliage decor was based on the acanthus, but it was during the baroque period that it reached its most vigorous form. 

The decoration of the Oslo Cathedral in 1699 marked the introduction of the new carving style to Norway. It is believed to have been a Dutchman who was commissioned to carve the new altarpiece and pulpit, and thus it was the work of a professional artisan which formed the basis for a school of rural carving in all of eastern Norway, spreading through the valley of Gudbrandsdalen to the north. This kind of wood carving is so typical of Norway that it has become almost an emblem. Its distinguishing feature is first and foremost the acanthus vine tendril, but flower motifs, figure carvings of angels, and other biblical themes are also important decorative elements. A number of urban carvers, whose names we know, worked in rural churches. Local craftsmen, too received important commissions throughout the countryside, although such work was supposedly reserved for professional town craftsmen. 

This particular type of wood carving was not, however, found only in monumental public works done by well-known wood carvers. Their style left its mark on many lesser-known wood carvers as well, who made ordinary utility articles such as cupboards, tables, log chairs, ale bowls, ladles, and mangle boards. 

Rose painting 
The term rosemaling refers to a style of decorative painting characterized by vine foliage and flowers but also including live figure representations and landscapes in religious and secular scenes. It was used to decorate furnishings and equipment, drinking vessels and eating utensils, and the interiors of houses and storehouses. This colorful decorative painting flourished for a comparatively short time in the country districts of Norway. Roughly speaking, it lasted from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the last half of the nineteenth, a factor it has in common with European rosemaling in general. In certain parts of Central Europe such as Bavaria and Switzerland, a similar style of decorative painting penetrated the country districts about a hundred years earlier. Geographical conditions there made an early diffusion from urban to rural areas comparatively easy. The high point in rosemaling in Europe was reached about 1800. At that point, decorative painting activity declined or took other forms, such as imitations of the grain of costly wood. 

The growth of rosemaling in Norway must be seen against a background of economic and cultural conditions. Growth and prosperity in both urban and rural society came as a result of improvements in agriculture as well as expansion of trade and communications. Farmers had more money in their pockets and this affluence, especially among freehold farmers, led to greater possibilities for the development of the arts an d crafts. Among other things, this was expressed by improvements in farmhouses. By the eighteenth century, most houses had a fireplace with flue and chimney instead of the earlier open hearth in the centre of the room with a smoke vent in the ceiling. The smoke nuisance, previously very great, was reduced considerably and walls and furniture were now relatively free of soot. In many places, windows and wooden floors appeared simultaneously with the fireplace as new elements in rural building patterns. More and finer furniture was also to be found, much of it painted and decorated. 

The inspiration for rosemaling in the countryside came from the professional handicrafts in the towns. Into Renaissance and baroque styles decorative painting was incorporated, with vine foliage and flowers as important elements in style expression. Urban artisans took rosemaling as well as wood carving to the country churches. In the seventeenth century more and more country churches were painted; on ceilings, walls, and furnishings vine foliage and flowers now appeared in happy combination with religious scenes deriving from European art. Gradually the more urbanized upper classes and wealthy farmers acquired articles in the new fashion for their homes. 

It took several generations, however, before rural craftsmen adopted this urban style. It was well into the eighteenth century, when urban painters were already turning to a Rococo manner, that a few rural painters began to apply Renaissance and Baroque motifs to domestic painting. A contributing factor in the slow development of decorative painting may have been the absence of such a tradition in country regions. It is not without significance that, because the craft of painting was new, working methods had to be learned, tools made, and unfamiliar materials obtained. Then, too, urban painters regarded their rural counterparts as competition, and offered resistance rather than encouragement. 

Pictorial motifs in folk art 
Pictorial motifs have received increased attention in the literature of folk art as their origins are studied and their iconography interpreted. Scholars can now provide some answers to the questions of what kinds of models may have been available to the rural artisans and what meanings were attached to the images they produced. 

Illustrated bibles were an important source of pictorial compositions. Illustrations from the Old Testament and from the Gospel. According to St. John were particularly popular in folk art. Perhaps this is because the episodes in these sections lend themselves to dramatic presentation. The Reformation Bible was printed in an edition of 3,000 copies and most likely found its way into all Norwegian churches. In addition, so-called chapbooks, such as the Chronicle of Charlemagne and the Chronicle of Holger the Dane, with their many illustrations, inspired rural craftsmen. All of these books served to introduce compositions and motifs of European art into the folk repertoire. Some retained their original meaning; others came to be associated with ancient rural traditions. Holger the Dane, for example, was depicted, with many local variations, on horseback and with raised sword. Horses also appear frequently on mangle boards and the motif originates in a far older tradition. The symbol of the horse played an important role in the pre-Christian Scandinavian world view, and connoted strength and virility. Its appearance at a later date does not carry the same symbolic meaning, but the horse has nevertheless lived on in folk art through the ages as a decorative motif and as an echo of an old tradition. 

The lion, too, has an interesting history in folk art. It appears in medieval wood carving and can be found as painted motif in the nineteenth century. This may not represent an unbroken tradition, however, but rather a variety of sources and meanings. In the Middle Ages, the lion was a symbol of strength and power. For this reason, w e find it frequently incorporated in decorative designs framing door openings. In a religious context, the lion is the symbol of good in the fight against evil. When the lion appears in eighteenth century works, fighting with Samson for example, the illustrated bible is clearly the model. The lion is also depicted with an axe or halberd as its attribute and in such cases must be modeled on the lion in the Norwegian coat of arms. Peter Anker suggests that the lion was strongly implanted in folk art because the coat of arms so frequently decorated iron ovens. 

Different kinds of birds appear as motifs in pictorial art, and drinking vessels are often in the shape of birds. Although it is difficult to generalize about the symbolic meaning of birds, we do know that in early folk beliefs they were considered omens of the future and that chickens and geese were connected with fertility. Drinking vessels in the form of chickens or geese may thus have been intended to ensure good crops. It is well to remember, however, that symbolic content is frequently lost in folk beliefs, while the purely decorative element continues in use. 

The editor of the article, Trond Gjerdi, was born in 1938. He was awarded a Masters degree in ethnology in 1970 and worked as assistant curator at the Norwegian Folk Museum from 1970-84. Since 1984 he has been director at the Oslo City Museum.