Nuuk Art Museum has a small collection of paintings by the Danish artist Harald Moltke (1871-1960). Harald Moltke was a member of the Danish aristocracy and artly grew up in South Carolina, USA.
Harald Moltke came first to Greenland as an illustrator on a geological expedition in 1898, but it was The Danish Literary Greenland Expedition with Knud Rasmussen in 1902-04 which inspired him for the rest of his life and even made him famous. In between the two expeditions to Greenland, Moltke studied and painted Northern lights in Iceland and Lapland.
Arctic expeditions were part of the Enlightenment project of mapping and collecting knowledge about the world outside Europe. However, in the 19th century these expeditions became also prestige projects for seafaring and great power nations. In the last part of the 19th century Scandinavia left its mark on these expeditions into the Arctic; from being projects of national prestige, it would now increasingly be scientists to plan and undertake these expeditions, driven by scientific interest. The Literary Greenland Expedition falls exactly into this last category, although that does not mean that there was no prestige involved too.*
The aim of the expedition was to discover and collect the Inuit’s myths and their understanding of the world. The participants to the expedition were Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen, Knud Rasmussen, Harald Moltke, Alfred Berthelsen and Jørgen Brønlund.
Being a visual artist, Moltke was the expedition’s painter and illustrator and, as such, his artistic creation was limited to documenting; he later illustrated the books of both Knud Rasmussen and Mylius-Erichsen. Moltke took an interest in the people he met: we can see in his paintings in Nuuk Art Museum that what dominates them is not depictions of nature, but exactly the people. He himself said: “My models interest me as persons – not as ethnographic curiosities.” ** (Cf. Emanuel A. Petersen)
The paintings in Nuuk Art Museum’s collection are all related to The Literary Greenland Expedition. Some are sketches from the expedition, others are painted shortly afterwards, and two large paintings were not painted until 40 years later. These two late paintings are distinctively more dramatic and staged than those made during and shortly after the expedition in 1902-04.
Inside the hut
In a painting from 1903 we find ourselves inside a turf hut, perhaps visiting a family. The window in the middle of the scene and the light beyond catch the viewer’s eyes: outside we glimpse blueish icebergs and a dark yellow sky.
Two men sit in front of the window and are lit up from behind, the light outside creating yellowish spots of sun on their clothes. On the right side of the painting sits a woman and holds a toddler standing on her lap. The light from the window reflects warm and red on their clothes, like nuances of the brown interior on left-hand side of the painting.
The men and the woman are rather clothed for the outdoors, as if they were visiting; the men with anoraks, and the woman in kamiks, sealskin shorts and anorak. The child wears only a kind of white light nightgown.
They sit all in a row. The man in the middle turns towards the viewer as if he wanted to say something – there could be a conversation going on, or maybe it is a pose for the painter. We are embraced by warmth and a comfortable homelike feeling, created by the brown tones. The painting is like a portrayal of a moment in everyday life, or of some casual occurrence. It might be Christmas or some other festivity as the traditional oil lamp is in the window sill.
Moltke’s brush strokes are wide – it is by colour shades that he creates details.
The men sit as a continuation of the window – i.e. of the outside – whereas the woman and child are placed further inside the hut. Even though it seems to be a picture caught in the moment, the different positioning of men and woman with child might be read as inscribed in gender roles: the woman at home, the man outside in the rugged nature.
A row of wandering Inuit constitutes the subject a painting dated both 1903 and 1945. They all wear fur clothes in light and dark earthy colours. In the background are snowclad mountains and a fjord, and sea with pieces of ice.
Nuuk Art Museum knows of a similar painting with the same title, Polareskimoer på vandring (“Polar Eskimoes Wandering”), dated 1903 and privately owned in Denmark. Said painting is bigger and more detailed, and also less dramatic and staged than the one in Nuuk Art Museum’s collection, where by contrast you can almost hear the footsteps and singing of the wanderers. The piece in Nuuk Art Museum is most likely a new version of the former painting, made in 1945 – possibly for commission, but we do not know.
A play of lines created by bodies and gazes goes through the painting. We are drawn into the picture by the man holding a spear across his shoulder, thus forming a cross with his body. From there we are unnoticeably guided down the lines, through glances and gazes, through arms, legs and movements – all the way down into the background. There hindmost in the picture we find the main character, a figure with closed eyes, his head laid back and the mouth open, that seems to be singing or calling something out.
These lines across the image create movement and, correspondingly, also the picture’s feeling of having being “paused” – almost as if the viewer could press play on a remote control and the entire procession would then resume wandering and singing.
In his time
Moltke was trained at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 1888-1893. At the turn of the century he was actually on his way to the South – where both the Danish Golden Age painters and his contemporaries had been, for example the older P.S. Krøyer – but Mylius-Erichsen persuaded him to go to Greenland.
In the period leading up to Moltke’s studies at the Art Academy, said institution had been criticised by numerous artist and critics for being conservative and old fashioned; in what became an artists’ rebellion against the Academy, alternative art schools and academies emerged in Denmark. It was however at this time, around the 1890s, that the first women entered the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. These artists and the whole period in Danish art history are called “the Modern Breakthrough”, a time marked by critical views and social realism. Overall, it was a period which saw the rise of many “isms” (impressionism, symbolism, modernism), and a period when painting as such, in its nature, was challenged by the avant-garde.
Even though Moltke worked with realist and documentary painting, and even though the Literary Greenland Expedition was critical of the Danish colonial power in Greenland – still it is not a critical view the one we find in his paintings at Nuuk Art Museum.
However, Danish journalist and writer Henrik Wivel argues that Moltke’s northern lights paintings from Iceland and Lapland are part of the main currents in his time, i.e. the modern breakthrough and symbolism – the artists that Swedish writer and painter August Strindberg called the aristocracy of nerve, since “with immense sensibility and sensitivity they registered even the minimum molecular motions in air. Like light in the dark.” ***
Some of Harald Moltke’s paintings at Nuuk Art Museum were finished 40 years after the expedition and appear somewhat retrospective, staged and romantic; others, realized during and immediately following the expedition, are more documentary in nature and seem marked by a particular moment in time and by the people the artist met.
* Olsen, Ann Katrine: “Da det skrivende folk kom til Grønland”, Københavns Universitet, 2015
** Olsen, Ann Katrine: “Da det skrivende folk kom til Grønland”, Københavns Universitet, 2015
*** Wivel, Henrik: “Himlens Flammeskrift”, in: Weekendavisen, nr 10, 12.-18. marts 2010