Widar Halén
National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design. Director of Design and Decorative Arts

Japonisme and a new national identity in Norway

Japonisme, the influence of Japanese art in the late 19th century, was a well-established phenomenon in Europe and the USA by the time Nordic artists and designers incorporated it into their creations. The influence was two-fold, directly from the Japanese art available in the North and indirectly from Continental and British Japonisme. The concept of a feudalistic, almost medieval Japan had facilitated the reception of Japanese art, and in the Nordic countries, it reinforced the idea of a national identity, particularly in the Swedish-ruled Norway and the Russian-ruled Finland. Nordic artists recognized a similar emphasis on national myths and fairy tales as well as an intense love of nature which coincided with their artistic aspirations. In this way Norwegian artists and nationalists capitalized on the usefulness of Japonisme in creating a new national identity.

National romanticism lingered on in Norway, especially as the union with Sweden drew to a close and finally was dissolved in 1905. The merging of the Viking revival or so-called Dragon style with Japonisme and Art Nouveau was probably the most original style that ever developed in Norway. To the Nordic and Norwegian artists Japan was geographically and culturally remote, but Japonisme fostered an awareness of Japanese art as a monolithic, feudalistic and almost medieval art, similar to the pre-imperialistic art forms that were studied and admired in Norway at the time. It reminded the Norwegians of what they had once been in the Viking and medieval age, and the comfort of similarity was balanced by the appeal of sheer novelty. National themes and a love of nature combined with Japanese impulses constituted a perfect symbiosis. Norwegian artists were influenced by Japanese art because of a basically affirmative predisposition towards it.