Conflicting impressions of Nordic soul

By James Malpas

The Soul of the North : A Social, Architectural and Cultural History of the Nordic Countries (1700-1940 by Neil Kent (published by Reaktion Books).

Whereas a number of books on Nordic art are now available (indeed, one by Neil Kent, published over a decade ago), historical studies are rarer creatures. In the excitement of novelty, the Baltic nations leapt into prominence on British university bookshop shelves since their Liberation in 1991, but ‘Norden’ itself remained in the penumbra of this attention. (Indeed, a volume needs to be written about the connections between that and those ‘little brother nations’ to the south.) ‘Scandinavia’ doesn’t fit into ‘Central Europe’ or ‘Eastern Europe’ in the tidy-minded shelving accorded to history-books and – to its relief – ‘Norden’ is certainly not on the shelves for ‘Russia’. With its relatively high invisibility quotient in English-language texts, then, Mr Kent’s book is to be welcomed, for helping fill this lacuna.

It is hard to be impressed by the general level of knowledge about the region shown in Britain generally, though this may be marginally improved by the time you read this, with Sven-Göran Eriksson’s elevation to the dubious pleasure of managing the English football team. (I will refrain from citing the Daily Mail ‘leader’ concerning this matter; suffice it to say it was ignorant and xenophobic and smug in equal measure: apparently, the Swedes live in ‘Fjords’).

However, this insularity extends as much to Britain’s own history. Britain, (or is that just ‘In-ger-lund’?) showed little media subtlety over Denmark’s recent ‘no’ vote decision on the Euro: witness the predictable images in the tabloid press of hairy, helmeted Vikings with red and white shields (incidentally reversing the colours of St George, that famous Syrian and patron saint of England). They ‘argued’ that ‘Great Danes’ had used common sense to see off the Danish ‘Establishment’ and the Eurocrats. This view will probably last just as long as the England team isn’t drawn against them in World Cup play-offs. Otherwise, middle-class British culture rates ‘lifestyle’ aspects of Scandinavia as modishly cultivated; pale wood flooring, luminous, chic glassware and worship in the secular cathedrals that are Ikea stores suggest that ‘Scandinavia’ is not so much a place as a state of mind – or decor, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde (on Japan and japonisme in the last century). Witness Have I Got News For You’s quip about Mr Eriksson’s ‘showing Swedish work culture by turning up at his desk by 8 in the morning and having it assembled by 7 in the evening’.

Mr Kent’s book is a chance for another history to emerge, rooted over three centries rather than three decades. One wonders what impact it may have beyond the academic world and university courses that it seems to have in mind as a target audience and from which it seems to have emerged. It seems something of an old-fashioned book, despite the ‘mission-statement’ blurb that ‘Reaktion’ announce at the front as to the ‘raison d’etre’ for this ‘Histories, Cultures, Contexts’ series: ‘A home for highly innovative histories’ is how it’s (slightly unpleasantly) pitched – but for all its virtues this book isn’t highly innovative. Yet its traditionalism is somehow appropriate and since there are few other contenders in the field at all, it may get away with the unhelpful hype. Does the book ‘recover lost moments of intensive ceativity’ (indeed, can any book?), as the mission-statement blurb puts it?

Perhaps because of, rather than despite, the factual amassing the volume steadily works on, the overall aim of the Soul of the North isn’t so very clear at the 400-page end. This numbed feeling is probably accurate enough, since, as Tapani Lausti wryly put it in Reflections from an irony-free country (Eagle Street, January 1999), ‘chance encounters and experiences’ fuel national stereotypes and save the effort of thinking (hence their popularity in the tabloid press). The tones of grey that may be nearer reality require thought to differentiate them. There’s certainly enough factual and factoid material herein for thought to chew on, but what is possibly missing is the truly illuminating concatenation of events and image, quotation and personality. In a sense, this is the inherent problem with this format of cultural history: art works are historical ‘evidence’, a form of documentation – and when this is the end rather than the means, then something more deeply perceptive is perhaps lost? The same feeling of loss occurs when William Blake’s imagery or verse is used solely to illustrate social conditions in England in the 1790s.

In Nordic academic writing, this approach has been developed by, for example, Professor Matti Klinge at Helsinki University. Snappy titles like ‘Krig, Kvinnor, Konst’ (War, Women and Art) aim to comprehend – in this case – three main aspects of Finland’s historical struggle for identity. Certainly his volume of that title does this more succinctly for one nation in one century than the ‘baggy monster’ of a title like The Soul of the North can allow, so perhaps it’s over-ambition (five countries in two centuries) the reader is up against here.

The danger of the nebulous phrase as title is shown by the recent Barbican exhibition using Tennyson’s line ‘Tender is the North’ which produced bafflement among the British. Headings like ‘Canal Building’, ‘Retirement’, ‘Criminality, Public Order and the Legal Code’, ‘Hanseatic Expansion’ (to name a few) might seem to preclude much ‘soul’ in their usefulness that strives to escape picture-book representation of ‘Norden’ as either Nomadic Viking raiders or devoted home-makers, from Gustavian to Modern. Neil Kent’s book, with its wide-angle lens collates the often separated aspects of Nordic ‘art’ from Nordic ‘history’ and ‘society’ from 1700-1900 and presents a structure which, for the most part, can allow ‘outsiders’ to grapple with the surprisingly complex pattern of national, international and colonial developments. The didactic aim of The Soul of the North seems to be to dispel perceptual fuzziness. Most middle-class professional Londoners, for example, would assume they are countries that have factories for the production of attractive blonde girls to act as ‘au pairs’ – Richmond-on-Thames as annexe of Greater Sweden… Volvos and Saabs, Ericsson and Nokia, these act as icons in the way ‘witchcraft’ did for foreigners thinking of Lapland in the sixteenth century, when primitive, exuberant maps had that region down for general weirdness.

Cinema has much to answer for other British assumptions: that everyone is either an alcoholic or trainee-alcoholic (if climate-induced suicide doesn’t get them first), ironically because the cost of drink is so high it drives you to drink. Yet if asked to name a film that exemplified ‘Summer’, Colin Nutley’s sunny take on rural Sweden in ‘House of Angels’ would be hard to beat. The wry, laid-back humour of Aki Kaurismäki’s ‘Drifting Clouds’ also goes against the Bergman grain. Reading the dense text of The Soul of the North (and its pulsating dark blue Eugen Jansson painting on the cover deepens this response) one ends up wondering to what extent through history the Nordics themselves are responsible for these conflicting impressions the outside world receives.

Cited as paragons of peace now, the sheer catalogue of wars and civil wars that crippled the region from the 13th to 18th centuries is unnerving. The plight of peoples beset by famine and epidemic and pandemic disease likewise: and makes the search for peace and medicine and social security totally understandable. Is such enigmatic paradoxicality, so fascinating in its way, not part of a Great Nordic Plan? I mean, could Central Casting have managed to produce Abba, The Cardigans, Ole Gunnar Solskaer, the Kaurismäki brothers, Bjoerk (or Lars von Trier…)? ‘Professional help’ would have been called in immediately.

Even in the 17th and 18th centuries it appeared to be a region punching far above its weight, although its parts seemed happier to be landing the punches mainly on each other – nowadays they seem to be landing in a more concerted fashion, mainly in the music and sports worlds (judging from the Sydney Olympics medal tally). This is hardly surprising from a generally tolerant, generally well organised group of countries. There is the famous reticence, of course, which occasionally can act as a trap: The distrust of boastful claims, as being destructive of egalitarian consensus. Although this, somehow, seems to break down when the sibling rivalry between Sweden and Norway gets invoked and can even get to Danes and Swedes, which may be why it took so long to bridge the two countries. For the record, the Swedes consider the Danes ‘weird’, the Danes think the Swedes ‘boring’. Just like any family, really. As for the rivalry in ice hockey between Sweden and Finland; anyone who witnessed the Finnish victory of 1995 will never forget the crowd response all night afterwards…

Head rather than heart

But this is a book that engages the head rather than the heart, which seems strange in the light of the title: anyone imagining that they are in for an emotive roller-coaster of angst and Romantic nature-identification will be either elated or disappointed according to taste and the prose has a somewhat stodgy quality in comparison with Simon Schama’s History of Britain. Unlike the ‘in your face’ quality that it has, there’s a ‘distance-learning’ element about this ‘Soul’ as though the reader is, after all, to be reminded (s)he is dealing with the edge of Europe here. A clue as to the author’s ‘take’ on the region (and he has excellent credentials, being a longtime resident in Finland and – admirably – a speaker of the language) is the fact his book begins with ‘Christianity, spirituality and the Church’. In some ways this is historically valid and useful since the impact of the Reformation on Scandinavia was perhaps greater than anywhere outside Germany (including England and perhaps Scotland).

The nationalism fomented by belief in religious differences from the South of Europe led to the astonishingly successful intervention in the latter stages of the Thirty Years War (1618-48) when Gustavus Adolfus (killed 1632) not only made Northern Europe safe for Protestants by curbing the Imperial excesses of the Catholic Habsburgs but enabled Scandinavian influence to surge southwards in a way unseen since the Glory Days of the Vikings a millennium before. Ironically, the Swedish Empire could only thrive at the expense of the Danish one: beleaguered, the latter linked up with Tsarist, expansionist Russia to the east and managed, by default, to humble its rival by using the vast Russian resources an alliance provided. (Things might have turned out differently if the Ottoman Pasha had been less feckless and joined with Cossacks to help Sweden…) The sporting rivalries of the present are perhaps the replacements of the more debilitating power-games of the past, supporting George Orwell’s contention that ‘sport is war without the bullets’.

Mr Kent’s book is not, then, in the style of a power-and-personalities narrative, but a thematic one (the chapter ‘Health, hygiene and disease’ has some toe-curling revelations). This is a difficult route to take, since it suggests omniscience, although the author carefully stresses the personal choices he made, in the Introduction. But is it reasonable to claim that while ‘to attempt to understand the nature of Nordic life, it is necessary to have a wide overview of important historical events, whether political, cultural, social or scientific’, there is an escape-clause of ‘I have rejected any attempt to write a comprehensive analysis of ‘Nordic’ culture or society and have chosen instead to focus upon a selection of different aspects of Nordic life… based on a highly personal and therefore rather arbitrary selection, it could still provide a broad view of various aspects of the Nordic world, especially of those rarely considered even in native works’ (these are unspecified). As a result, certain areas ‘like music and dance, have been largely excluded’. And how does that skew the discussion? At which points in the seemingly cool, collected thematic disclosure is the ‘arbitrary’ at work? Perhaps in such works, a wider frame of reference to topics NOT covered in the text should be appended, so that readers might be able to map out such areas for themselves.

Possibly, bearing Matti Klinge’s volumes in mind, the subject is too large for a survey volume of this sort to ‘capture’ in any case. It’s good that it has been done, but it recalls Ruskin’s stricture against a 19th century painter of ‘considerable talent, who seems to have been made to paint against his will’: there needed to be more evidence of enjoyment in the writing of it for this to be a great book, able to recover those ‘lost moments of intense creativity’.

James Malpas is an expert on Nordic art at Sotheby's.


[home] [focus] [archive]