Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 21, 2022
Kristoffer Neville The Art and Culture of Scandinavian Central Europe, 1550–1720 University Park: Penn State University Press, 2019. 256 pp.; 15 color ills.; 65 b/w ills.; 82 ills. Cloth $89.95 (9780271082257)
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In the opening pages of his recent survey of early modern Scandinavian art and architecture, Kristoffer Neville argues that “the Danish and Swedish courts were fully integrated in Central European culture and played leading roles in the larger region from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century” (6). Rather than emphasize the uniqueness of Scandinavian artistic production in this period, Neville’s project is to excavate an often overlooked unity between closely related territories that have undergone an artificial separation in the writing of German, Danish, and Swedish national art histories. By revealing the impact of the Scandinavian monarchies in the German-speaking lands as patrons, exemplars, and conquerors throughout the long seventeenth century, Neville reinscribes them into the history of Central European art.

The greatest contribution of Neville’s book is to provide an accessible English-language overview of early modern Scandinavian royal patronage. By focusing on both Sweden and Denmark he transcends the limits of nationalist art histories and produces an account that is reflective of the porous and polyglot nature of the period’s courts. His book will allow for a diffusion of insights synthesized from foundational texts in early modern Scandinavian art, many of which have never been translated. His accessible account of major monuments is a boon to professors seeking to widen the geographic purview of their survey courses.

Neville’s book is almost exclusively concerned with court art, and he is at his most persuasive in describing dynamics of rivalry and emulation among princely patrons with their “competitive awareness of artistic activities at peer courts” (150). He shows how certain types of monuments, such as the palace chapel, fountain, or royal tomb, linked Protestant courts across the German and Scandinavian lands in a cultural cohesion driven by the mobility of artists and architects, who might even be “loaned” from one prince to another. His clear-sighted analyses of architecture are complemented throughout the text by his own accomplished photography. He is also a skillful interpreter of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts, demonstrating links between literary tributes to absolutist rule and the period’s art and architecture.

Neville is the co-editor of a volume dedicated to the patronage of Queen Hedwig Eleonora of Sweden and the author of a major study of Swedish architect Nicodemus Tessin the Elder, who built the queen’s celebrated palace at Drottningholm. Both born in what is now northern Germany, these two figures—an architect of European significance and a queen who personally directed architectural projects—embody Neville’s thesis about the integration of Scandinavian culture into the wider Central European panorama. His brisk survey of major monuments reaches its crescendo in extended readings of the royal palaces at Drottningholm and Stockholm. Neville convincingly argues that the latter set the tone for absolutist architecture in Central Europe at the start of the eighteenth century, inspiring projects in Berlin and Dresden. He also demonstrates how the careers of the father and son duo who built these palaces, Nicodemus Tessin the Elder and Younger, are representative of a shift from the artisanal Baumeister to the professional, intellectual architect in northern Europe.

Neville further links early modern Scandinavia and the Holy Roman Empire through a shared political and historiographic deployment of Gothicism. Fabricating genealogies on the basis of texts like Jordanes’s sixth-century Getica, the Swedish, Danish, and Habsburg courts all recruited antiquarian and philological arguments to assert their venerable origins. In his interesting reading of the paintings and sculpture at Drottningholm, Neville shows how the images of mythical Gothic queens served as counterparts for Hedwig Eleonora. Despite such examples, Neville concedes that there was no visibly “Gothic” tradition in early modern Scandinavian architecture or portraiture, arguing that “from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, the artistic production of the courts in Denmark and Sweden shows hardly a trace of self-conscious interest in archaic forms” (21). Instead, as Neville recounts, writers like Olaus Rudbeck contorted their descriptions of archeological remains at sites like Gamla Uppsala to assimilate them to a prestigious Greco-Roman visual language. But alongside such fanciful acts of appropriation, this period also saw more rigorous and lasting antiquarian achievements. With a warrant from the Danish crown, Árni Magnússon collected medieval Icelandic manuscripts, while Johan Peringskiöld surveyed runic inscriptions across Sweden, both men pioneers in the philological and archaeological study of the Old Norse past. It took another hundred years for such scholarship to inspire significant revivalism in the visual arts, but these endeavors speak to a nascent nationalism, grounded in the material recovery of a distinctively Scandinavian antiquity, that cannot be reduced to a pan-Germanic “Gothicism” derived from Latin texts.

Neville argues that his “book is not about cultural exchange,” because “cultural exchange implies an interaction of two substantially distinct cultures” (11). He instead perceives Sweden, Denmark, and the German-speaking lands to form a continuum within which ideas, artists, and objects could travel with minimal translation. The cultural sphere sketched by Neville extends southward from Stockholm to Munich. Diverging from current trends in Scandinavian studies, he does not engage with the history of Scandinavian colonialism in the far north, although the Swedish conquest of Sápmi (Lapland), and early Danish expeditions to Greenland were important facets of Nordic imperialism in the period he studies. Christopher Heuer, in Into the White: The Renaissance Arctic and the End of the Image (Zone Books, 2019), has recently demonstrated the fascination exerted by the Arctic on the early modern imagination, but aside from a few references to the “stark and unforgiving” landscape (25), Neville does not pursue an early modern construction of Northern (as opposed to Germanic or Gothic) difference.

As I read Neville’s book, I found myself recalling with pleasure my own visits to Drottningholm and Frederiksborg and gained a greater appreciation of these monuments’ dialogues with Central European architecture. But I also wished for a broader panorama that might include more of what distinguishes Scandinavian visual culture, with its vernacular church architecture and folk painting traditions. I wondered what a survey of early modern Scandinavian art might look like that engaged with postcolonial theory and the rich recent scholarship on Scandinavian expansionism in the far north. Early modern Swedish court spectacle instrumentalized reindeer and Sámi herders, as well as Gothic allegories. Danish cabinets of curiosity featured portraits of abducted Inuit travelers alongside Flemish bronzes. Whether or not “cultural exchange” is an apt description for Sweden and Denmark’s interactions with Central Europe, the violent collision of very different cultures was a defining feature of Scandinavian early modernity.

Largely skipping over the eighteenth century, Neville concludes his book with a brief coda devoted to the idea of the “Romantic North,” as expressed in landscape paintings by figures such as Caspar David Friedrich (notably born in Pomerania as a Swedish subject). Argued with less precision than the rest of the text, this section posits a tentative link between the seventeenth-century Scandinavian landscapes of David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl and Allart van Everdingen and those of the Romantics by claiming that “all shared a sense that the Northern landscape held great power” (174). Neville contends that “substantial new research is necessary before the relation of the lingering Gothic tradition and nascent Northern Romanticism can be clarified” (167). I would argue instead that the Romantic interest in the Northern past had far less to do with the obscure (and frankly preposterous) claims of the courtly Gothicists than with the hard-won recovery of Northern antiquity that took place over the course of the eighteenth century, gaining urgency with the traumas and territorial losses of the Napoleonic wars. In this period, Sweden and Denmark saw, alongside a diminishment of imperial power, a flourishing of intellectual life, vernacular literature, and the visual arts. Romantic travelers to Scandinavia like Mary Wollstonecraft encountered lands that were both alien and proud of a distinctive past. As recent headlines about the possibility of Sweden and Finland joining NATO have made clear, the tension between difference and unity, belonging to Europe and standing apart, continues to define Nordic identity to this day.