NORWAY: Bohemian identity in Kristiana
Café culture in late 19th century Paris was split between Montmartre and Montparnasse. While Renoir and Toulouse Lautrec favoured the steep streets of La Butte, as the former was called, the poets Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire opted for Montparnasse. By 1884, the café de Versailles, in the 6th arrondissement, had become a favourite establishment for French and Scandinavian artists. To ensure privacy, the patron gave them access to a back room, behind the billiard table. One of the regulars, who happened to be in Paris at the time, was called Christian Krohg. He was Norwegian, from Kristiana (Oslo). The alcohol-fuelled evenings in that Montparnasse café seldom ended before early morning, and Krohg enjoyed every minute: the poets reading their latest poems. The heated arguments about what it meant to be an artist. The conversations about pointillism - a reaction to impressionism. The current pictorial and literary interest in labourers and workers - naturalism, or social realism –topics which fascinated Christian Krogh. He had attracted attention in his native country, not only for his portraits of seamen from the fishing village of Skagen, on the north coast of Jutland, but also his portraits of women: tired seamstresses, slumbering young girls, struggling mothers. His depiction of their plight, and the working-classes in general, had set him apart in Norway– but not in France: the writer Emile Zola, the painters Gustave Caillebotte and Courbet, whom he admired, equally rejected romanticism in favour of naturalism. Could this artistic trend resonate in Kristiana?
The capital beckoned, as did Krohg’s teaching career. After one year in Paris, he bid goodbye to his friends and set sail for Kristiana. One of his most talented students was a certain Edvard Munch, and Krohg was curious to find out what had happened to him. And there was something else fomenting in Norway, not dissimilar to what was happening in Paris: a group of young artists, writers and intellectuals, had begun gathering in the capital, searching for an alternative to the bourgeois establishment and its strict moral code. They were convinced there had to be a different way of encapsulating their beliefs, and if there wasn’t one, they would create it. Krohg was intrigued. Tiny Norway and its provincialism were a far cry from those ebullient café tables on the boulevard du Montparnasse and Montmartre, and yet… the crossroads France found itself in must have been of particular significance to this enlightened Norwegian: the memory of the 1871 ‘Commune’ in Paris, with its bloody, two-month standoff between the communards and the army, was still fresh in many people’s minds. The arts thrived during and after their short rule. As the critic Adam Gopnik wrote, ‘the Commune presaged one of the most pleasure-celebrating periods in the long history of culture: the blossoming of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting in Paris - an explosion of light that continues to illuminate our lives today’.
There was no such ‘explosion of light’ in Kristiana. If anything, it was dimmed. Artists in Norway were treated with suspicion - and often labelled anarchists. Women’s rights were at their infancy. Ideological diktats reigned – and no one seemed able to change them. Christian Krohg was determined to do something about this. His was a form of Bohemianism which set him apart from many of those I shall be describing in this book. Being an artist and fighting the establishment were only a small part of his broader agenda. What Christian Krohg was really interested in was social reform. He was able to express this through the vehicle of painting and literature, but also his association with a movement which would alter the course of his life.
In 1885, on his return to Kristiana, Christian Krohg discovered that the young Bohemians who had gathered in the capital now had a leader named Hans Jaeger. The two men found they had much in common and struck up an immediate friendship. Jaeger was handsome and charismatic. A former seaman, he had become an anarchist, philosopher and novelist who propounded ideas of free love and naturalism, and believed monogamy was a source of evil. His ardent followers were a group of twenty rebellious writers and artists who called themselves ‘The Kristiana Bohèmes’ - and who made a lot of noise. Their bugbears were Norwegian provincialism, urban poverty, organised religion and puritanical values. Interestingly, these rebels in their 20’s, were all upper-class sons and daughters of government officials. Under Jaeger’s guidance, their behaviour scandalised Norway, as did their belief that art should play a paramount role in the development of society. Hans Jaeger’s 1886 novel, ‘Fra Kristiana Bohèmes,’ which touched on the virtues of alcohol, philosophy, prostitution and suicide, threatened to land him in jail for ‘infringement of modesty and public morals.’ The book, of no particular literary merit, nevertheless became a cause célèbre- and prompted Christian Krohg to write one too. This ‘honorary bohemian’ (he was older than all the other members of the group) had the advantage of having talent as well as unconventional ideas. Like Jaeger, the cause of women mattered greatly to him. His novel, ‘Albertine,’ about an unmarried seamstress who eventually becomes a prostitute, landed Krohg in trouble. A series of paintings ‘representing’ the book made matters worse and the novel was duly banned by the police. A demonstration, attended by 5000 people, took place outside the Prime Minister’s office, in defence of Christian Krohg – and the public outcry eventually resulted in a partial de-criminalisation of prostitution.
In 1889, Christian Krohg and Hans Jaeger printed a manifesto of nine commandments, initially scribbled on a paper café napkin. It included such edicts as ‘You shall break with your family,’ ‘You shall kill yourself’, and ‘a passion to destroy is also a creative passion.’ This last edict resonated deeply with the artist Edvard Munch. In fact, everything Hans Jaeger said resonated deeply with Krogh’s former pupil. Much to his father’s despair, Munch was fascinated by the group, a fascination which only became more extreme once his father died. It is rumoured that The Scream,painted a year after his father’s death, was inspired by Jaeger’s nihilistic and disturbing ideas, which Munch often quoted and defended. ‘My ideas developed under the influence of the Bohemians or rather under Hans Jæger. Many people have mistakenly claimed that my ideas were formed under the influence of Strindberg and the Germans…but that is wrong’.
Another artist who was a Jaeger acolyte was Oda Lasson. The daughter of a government attorney, she had Russian princely connections (which earned her the label of ‘Bohemian Princess’) and was married to a businessman, with whom she had two children. But Oda wanted more from life than simply being a wife and mother. She had always harboured a strong desire to be an artist and enrolled in a private art school for women: in 1884, Christian Krohg became her teacher – then her lover. She left her husband, which scandalised bourgeois society. If that wasn’t enough, she too began promoting ideas of free love once Krogh introduced her to Hans Jaeger, who became as smitten with Oda as Christian Krogh was. A menage à trois seemed to be the only viable solution - at least for a while. Oda became pregnant by Krohg, and it wasn’t until 1888 that her first husband granted her a divorce, and she was able to marry Christian – Edvard Munch became godfather to their daughter.
The favourite hangout for that merry bunch was the Grand Café – much frequented also by Ibsen, who studiously avoided these anarchists, especially Jaeger who was in trouble with the law. The jail sentence he had managed to evade until then was looming. There was no choice for him but to leave the country. He moved to Paris, where he eventually settled. Jaeger remained an anarchist for the rest of his life and died in 1910, of syphilis and alcoholism.
Of all the Kristiania Bohèmes members, none of them is remembered apart from Oda Lasson who went on to secure a career of her own – and a string of lovers, in line with Jaeger’s edicts. She and Christian had a son, Per, and the family moved to Paris in 1901, when Krohg was offered a teaching position at the Academie Colarossi – Camille Claudel and Jeanne Herbutene, Modigliani’s lover, were among its notable students.
Per Krohg grew up a native of Montparnasse. Displaying artistic talent at a young age, Auguste Rodin predicted that the nine-year-old boy would go far – and his prediction proved true.
Meanwhile, back in Kristiana, things were becoming increasingly thorny for Krohg’s favourite student. Edvard Munch’s sensibilities were not to everyone’s liking. In 1892, the German critic Max Nordau wrote a book, ‘Degeneration,’ which caused quite a stir. In it, he singled out the deviancy of artists, and deplored an “end-of-century that was leading society to ruin.’’ Others responsible for this ruin were ‘neurotics, the worst enemies of society.’
His contemporary, the Norwegian psychiatrist and politician, Johan Scharffenberg, could not agree more. Cigarettes and alcohol, he wrote, were poisonous and corrupting. They were also the principal cause of neurasthenia, that mysterious combination of hysteria and hypochondria afflicting artists,therefore symptomatic of degeneration. That the upper classes were equally afflicted did not seem to enter the equation.
Edvard Munch found himself at the centre of the degeneration debate -with Scharffenberg targeting him personally (he suggested Munch’s ‘abnormality’ might cause Norwegian youth to become contaminated). His reasons? Not only was the artist an enthusiastic smoker, drinker and café-goer but he was rumoured to be stricken by madness.When his painting The Scream was first exhibited, Munch revealed that ‘illness, madness and death were the black angels that guarded my crib,’ a revelation which caused consternation. The other matter was the Self-portrait with cigarette he completed in 1895, the first time an artist had painted himself smoking. At the time cigars and pipes were de rigueur. But cigarettes, viewed as deviant, had always been associated with the lower classes. Yet here was the defiant Edvard Munch, gazing at the viewer from a dark and smoky background, holding a cigarette between his middle-class fingers. The portrait could be interpreted as a direct message to Max Nordau: ‘I am a decadent degenerate and proud to be so.’ The fact that the artist seemed to be confronting his own darkness, using smoking as a metaphor for the bohemianism he espoused was deemed outrageous by some, brave and powerful by others, especially the intelligentsia.
(Self-portrait with a cigarette, 1895)
The painting was exhibited in a much-anticipated show in Kristiana, together with The Scream and other works. The reaction was predictable: ‘one can no longer regard Herr Munch as a man to be taken seriously, nor as even having a normal mind. He looks down upon the public and degrades art and human life.’
It is difficult to pinpoint when exactly modern art began. It was a gradual metamorphosis, which started in Paris. But the likes of Christian Krohg, with his strong desire for social change, Edvard Munch who dared to confront his darker side, and even Hans Jaeger with his wild commandments, were part of this metamorphosis. That some retrograde members of the establishment deemed it ‘degrading’ proved, ironically, to be a blessing. Because the more degrading art was perceived to be, the more the public wanted an answer. Was it degrading because it spoke the truth? If so, what was the meaning of that truth? There were clearly more ways of viewing the world than through the lens of society’s antiquated rule book. Emotions, dreams, the subconscious, were slowly entering the fray. And those applying it to their art were called Bohemians. They were modernists, and they helped shape an important narrative of history. When Christian Krohg sat in the Café de Versailles, he was only catching the beginning of that narrative. Did he know that he was also a part of it? How monumental it would become? Something tells me that he did.
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