|THEODOR KITTELSEN (1857-1914)
artists have been more understood and loved by every Norwegian than
Theodor Kittelsen. Whenever he interprets the forest on a winter day,
or when he describes the mist above the waters, the flower meadows on a
fair night in June, the courtyard in the twilight, the small lake in
the woods with water lilies and a secret mystique, the islands on a
sunny summer day... yes, then we have seen it all.
Theodor Severin Kittelsen was born in the coastal town Kragerø
in the southern Norway in 1857, and his boyhood was pleasant and
harmonious one. When he was only eleven years old however, his father
died, and young Kittelsen was compelled to eke out a living as an
errand-boy, as an apprentice to a house painter in Christiania and as
an apprentice to a watchmaker in Arendal.
It was then that his talent luckily was "discovered", and he was
promised free lessons by the architect Wilhelm von Hanmo at the School
of Art in Christiania.
After two years with von Hanmo, Kittelsen
was granted sufficient financial support to continue his studies in
Munich. His first two or three years there were happy period. He
describes visits to the Three Ravens, the Bavarian Cellar, Binder´s
People´s Theatre and other quaint inns and taverns. It was therefore a
hard blow when, in 1879, he was informed that he could no longer be
supported financially. From now on he had to pay his way by drawing for
German newspapers and magazines, and by painting canvases that could be
sold back in Norway through the Art Society, etc.
The years that
now ensued where probably the most difficult period in Kittelsen´s
life, which is saying quite a lot. He lived from hand to mouth, eking
out an existence from day to day, running into debt, and seldom
enjoying a square meal. Little of his work found its way back to
Norway, and all in all, there is little we know about him during these
During one of his stays in Munich,
Kittelsen stated that his longing for his native countryside had grown
more and more insistent. "What appeals to me are the mysterious,
romantic, and magnificent aspects of our scenery, but if I cannot
henceforth combine this with a wholesome study of Nature I´m afraid I´m
bound to stagnate. It is becoming clearer and clearer to me what I have
to do, and I have had more ideas - but I must, I must get home,
otherwise it won´t work.
His return home (to Kragerø) was
moving, but in the long run Kragerø was bound to prove unsatisfactory.
Nature there wasn´t the "mysterious, romantic, and magnificent" nature
he had longed for. A unique opportunity, however, presented itself when
his sister and brother in-law made their way north to tend the
lighthouse on the wind-swept little island of Skomvær in Lofoten,
the outermost of this 125-mile chain of islands. Kittelsen joined
forces, and was gladly influenced by all the overwhelming new
The Water Sprite (Nøkken). Kittelsen drew a sketch of the Water Sprite by Hauger pond during the summer of 1895.
encounter with the scenery of North Norway, is represented by the
collection "Troll Magic". The idea was that the novelist Jonas Lie was
to write the text for this book. Nothing came of this however, and
Kittelsen himself, for the first time, became responsible for both
drawings and text. A drawing like the one of the sea troll was probably
one of the first to have been inspired by the scenery of Nordland. It
illustrates the story of Johan Persa and Elias Nilsa and their meeting
with the great bullhead. At the end of this story, Elias finds a great
bullhead on one of the skerries and in his anger kicks it into the sea:
"No sooner was it in the water, than it grew and grew to a terrible
monster, which reared up and opened its great jaws, as large as an open
coffin,and it roared: Now you can spit in my face once again, if you
dare, Elias! But let me tell you..."
The Sea Ghost (Norw. Draug), too, would be difficult to place in any context but Nordland,
and the creepy crawly mood Kittelsen creates in this story testifies to
the intense impression that the strangely menacing and magic scenery of
this part of Norway exercised on him. The other drawings of Troll Magic
are generally set in the scenery of the East Norwegian countryside,
with forests and mountains. This applies to The Forest Troll, The
Underground People, The Goblin, Huldra, The Witch, The Water Sprite and
Battle of Giants.
THE BLACK DEATH
In 1896 Kittelsen
completed the illustrative work "The Black Death" his highest peak of
achievement as a black-and-white artist. With visionary empathy he dug
down into this sombre chapter in our history, this incomprehensible
event which threatened at a blow to wipe the whole nation off the map.
Kittelsen returned from Lofoten in 1889 he had the idea of utilizing
subjects from the Norwegian History. He was very involved in Nordic
mythology and sagas at that time, and at first he was planning to use
subjects from Old Norse mythology. But then he came across the woman
who was to become "Pesta". In The Book of Oblivion he describes this
She was small, lean, and bent, her face
greenish-yellow with black spots. Her eyes were squinting, dark and
restless and set deep in her skull now and again a strange, evil light
shone in them, and they flickered round in every direction, so that it
was impossible to fix her gaze. Her head bobbed up and down. Her mouth
moved rapidly - sharp and bitter. She was worse than the plague itself,
I thought to myself, hence her name.
provides the natural germ to "The Black Death", but some time obviously
ensued before the whole project began to take shape in Kittelsens mind.
In a letter from Hvitsten,
his home at that time, he wrote: "Between us, The Black Death is giving
me a great deal of trouble. My goodness what a subject for
illustration!" Things were now going properly, but he soon found his
surroundings improper for his workings. He had to get out into God´s
sacred nature. He had to be allowed to have a breather. Sole in Eggedal
was the place he was looking for, but it was not until the late winter
1896 that he was able to move in there and complete his last works for
The Black Death.|
The Black Death contains fifteen poem or poetic
prose sections with drawings where most of the subjects, of course, are
Kittelsens´s own. There are pure moody poems like Pesta Is Coming,
Pesta Departs and Autumn Evening, poems in which he has achieved a
stylistic simplicity of great effect. On other occasions he creates a
little tale, such as the one about Wee Per and little Mari, who have
lost their mother and father and whom the trolls take pity and care
for. But Kittelsen also utilized the saga material from Andreas Faye´s
old book Norwegian Folk Tales from 1843. From here he more or less
borrowed Over Sea and River (in Faye this is called Pesta in
Gjerrestad) and Knut and Thore (in Faye The Black Death in Setesdalen).
He also made a great deal out of Faye´s Hedal Church in Valdres
and Mustad in Vardal. The drawing for the latter is a masterpiece of
suggestive horror. The absolute highlight of The Black Death however,
is undoubtedly the magnificent drawing of Pesta on the stairs, where
the light effect and the strange, dizzy perspective greatly intensify
the sense of horror. Both in its subject-matter and artistic execution,
this drawing deserves a special place in Kittelsen´s production.Two of the pictures and many citations used here are taken
from Leif Østby´s book on Theodor Kittelsen, published by Grøndahl
THE NATURE LOVER
The Black Death, Kittelsen continued to live at Sole for about three
years where he worked at a number of illustrative tasks, and also had
his own home built at Lauvlia in the neighbouring district of Sigdal
about a dozen miles further south. The Sigdal scene, with its soft and
charming contours, proved a never-failing source of inspiration. People
and Trolls contains enthusiastic descriptions of this scenery.
was also in this scenery that he was inspired to do the illustrative
work Tirill-Tove, a work filled with the same delight in nature that we
find in Jomfruland, but the tone is more serious, perhaps even more
sincere. A great many painters have depicted the forests of Norway, and
with Tirill-Tove and a great many other watercolours and coloured
drawings, Kittelsen takes his place side by side with these as one of
the great landscape artist of our country. With this series he ushers
in his finest period as an interpreter of Nature.
descriptions of nature to pure fantasy was only a step with Kittelsen,
and the forest scene around him provided rich inspirations. Everything
in nature - stones and tufts of grass, moss and pine branches, tree
trunks, stumps and roots, - all aquired in his imagination human or
troll-like features. Stooks of Corn in Moonlight is probably the best
example of the thin borderline that separates realism from fantasy: a
few light strokes transform the stooks beneath the yellow light of the
autumn moon into a company of sedate trolls making their way downhill.
Kittelsen was tremendously productive as a landscape artist during the years he lived at Lauvlia.
In the autumn of 1900 he writes that for an exhibition in Copenhagen,
apart from thirty-eight drawings illustrating Caspariªs Winter Tales,
he has prepared no less than twenty-three coloured summer drawings. New
works were constantly added to these, with every new exhibition, some
of them summer pictures, some of them winter pictures. Memories from
the years at Lauvlia, which, despite everything, were so happy, lived
on his mind. As late as 1913, only a few months before he died, he
painted his daughter Ingrid picking bog cotton.
Lauvlia, Theodore Kittelsens home.
was a sick and broken man when, in 1910, he was forced to leave
Lauvlia. He settled first at Huseby, in Vestre Aker, just outside Oslo.
In the company of friends he recovered his spirits somewhat, and he was
still creative. The civil grant for his artistic achievement voted him
by the Norwegian Parliament in 1911, was a great source of
encouragement. In 1912 he purchased a property at Jeløya near Moss,
with Edvard Munch at Grimsrød as his nearest neighbour, where he
January 21, 1914 died.
His old friend Christian Skredsvig
tributed him: "Kittelsen left a void behind. He was unique - there will
never be anyone to succeed him. Even the trolls have disappeared for
always. At any rate, I have never seen them since."