Charles Nodier, the French Romantic writer who lived through the hells of the Reign of Terror and the wars of Napoleon, once pontificated upon the deeper relationship between nature and language. Specifically, Nodier attempted to define separate languages by the natural landscapes that they culled forth in his own, highly imaginative brain. To him, the soft, undulating sounds of Italian came “like the rushing of a waterfall and the trembling of olive trees.” Similarly, Greek, the Western world’s original language of learning and philosophy (which of course is a Greek word), reminded him of “the sound of the waters of Peneios.”
Outside the Mediterranean, where Europe grows colder, harsher, and, from a Greco-Roman point-of-view, more savage, Nodier noted that the tongues begin to take on a meaner cast. Languages such as Swedish, German, and even English, with their heavy, sharp consonants, offered up to Nodier “clanging, rough sounds” that remind one “of the whispering of wild streams, the cry of fir trees bent by the storm, and the din of cliffs falling away.” In essence, Nodier and many like him saw and continue to see Germanic and Slavic Europe as places of violence and darkness in the natural world, and this reality is not only mirrored in speech, but also in art and culture.
Seated at the far western side of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Norway is the very embodiment of the mysterious Far North in Europe. Known for frigid climates, lonely and mist-shrouded fjords, and tall, fair-haired people who are often stereotyped as the humorless double to their Swedish neighbors, Norway’s chief cultural export over the last two or three decades has been black metal—a frequently blasphemous, but always abrasive form of music. Unlike other sub-genres of heavy metal, black metal is mostly known for activities outside of the recording studio, especially the chaotic events that occurred in Norway in the early and mid 1990s. From 1991 until 1995, various black metal musicians were responsible for a semi-public suicide, a wave of church burnings that specifically targeted the historical wooden “stave” churches of medieval Scandinavia, and two grisly murders, one of which became a national sensation involving the musician Varg Vikernes, who has enjoyed a second life outside of prison as a White nationalist author, and, according to the French authorities, a potential terrorist.
From this vantage point, the relationship between Norwegian black metal and Theodor Kittelsen, a thoroughly brilliant Norwegian painter from the 19th and early 20th century, seems laughable at best. After all, Kittelsen seems worlds away from corpsepainted metalheads. The truth is though that many of Kittelsen’s paintings, with their stark loneliness, foreboding sense of dread and subtly pagan interests in ancient customs, are the perfect complement to black metal’s obsession with death, winter, and evil. As such, many black metal bands from Norway like Burzum (which is really a one-man group exclusively controlled by Vikernes) and Wongraven, have found not just musical inspiration in Kittelsen, but artistic inspiration as well.
Among Kittelsen’s more popular illustrations are the ones taken from his book Svartedauen, or The Black Plague. These black-and-white images present a depressing portrait of Norway circa 1349—the year the bubonic plague came to the country. In Svartedauen, Kittlesen represents the Black Death as a gnomish, old hag who travels from one barren landscape to another. In her wake, nothing remains. The Norwegian countryside of Kittelsen’s Svartedauen is depleted and devoid of all life.
While these bleak portraits are some of Kittelsen’s most popular and therefore most recognizable, Kittelsen’s oeuvre was not solely dedicated to the horrific. Like many of his contemporaries (especially fellow Norseman Edvard Munch), Kittelsen found inspiration in macabre images and somewhat decadent themes, but unlike his peers, Kittelsen frequently added a gleeful sense of humor to his more fanciful productions. Trolls, a staple of Norwegian folklore, were a particular favorite, and Kittelsen’s many troll paintings, from the humorous to the grotesque, have earned him the title of the “Father of All Trolls.”
But “The Father of All Trolls” was more than just a painter of the fantastique. Besides crafting his own unique style, which combined elements taken from Art Nouveau and Naturalism, Kittelsen was a born Romantic deeply in love with his native country and its sprawling wilderness. Born in 1857 in the coastal region of Telemark, Kittelsen grew up as one of eight children in a single-parent household after his father’s early death in 1868. By age eleven, Kittelsen was sent to become a watchmaker’s apprentice, but after his artistic talents were discovered, Kittelsen was then sent to Christiania (today’s Oslo) in order to study painting. Eventually, Kittelsen received financial help from one Diedrich Maria Aall, a wealthy benefactor, and studied not only at the Norwegian National Academy of Craft and Art Industry, but also in Munich under the tutelage of Professors Ludwig von Löfftz and Wilhelm von Lindenschmit, the Younger. Under a later state scholarship, Kittelsen would travel to Paris, but after 1887, he would rarely leave rural Norway. Incessant poverty plagued him for much of his life, even though he was and continues to be incredibly popular in Norway.
Due to failing health and the stress of having to live from stipend to stipend, Kittelsen finally passed away at age fifty-six. The year of his death—1914—could not be more symbolic. Kittelsen, a gentleman and one of the last Romantics (he is often called a Neo-Romantic) to enthusiastically imbue his paintings with unadulterated wonder and sublimity, in some ways represents the last days of Old Europe. Although World War I did not directly touch Norway, it ultimately affected the Norwegian way of life and thought. Artistic movements such as Modernism, Futurism, and Cubism, which had been brewing as avant-garde expressions since at least the turn of the 20th century, attempted to radically redefine beauty and art in the face of a changing world after 1918. To complete this revolution, a severance with the past and traditions was called for, with the Futurism’s founder F.T. Marinetti calling for the destruction of museums and libraries in order to promote “a new beauty—the beauty of speed.” Famously, Marinetti claimed that a racing car was more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.
This was not a world that Kittelsen would have been comfortable with, for his best expressions are in the realms of history, landscapes, and folklore. This fact, along with the artistic intelligentsia’s preference for purposely obscure and obfuscating “art,” goes a long way towards explaining why Kittelsen is so little known outside of Scandinavia. Still, there is the National Theodor Kittelsen Museum in Blaafarveværket, plus numerous websites, most of which are available in English, do their very best to keep his legacy alive. “The Father of All Trolls” is worth remembering, especially as the autumn turns toward the long, cold nights of winter, when trolls, nøkken, and even the Black Death might be about.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.