Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The World of Oleanna: Norwegian Nationalism and Folk Art

Photo: Futurecraft Studio. Women from Voss, wearing their local bunad, bring a baby to christening, wrapped in a skillbragd coverlet.

Folk art, and the recovery of a folk tradition, played a central role in the European romantic nationalism movements of the 19th century. Norway, tethered to Sweden thanks to a Napoleonic-war treaty, was not immune from this movement.

But the interesting thing was, Norway didn't really have to recover anything. It just had to remember.

Because of its geography (isolated valleys, mountain villages, and coastal outposts), its lack of a central government (after the 14th century, when Denmark began its centuries-long control), and the limited influence of the urban upper class and nobility (comprising 10% of the population), folk traditions in Norway tended to be unbroken, in a straight line from the Middle Ages through to the 19th century.

In the 19th century, for Norwegian nationalists and folk enthusiasts, it was not a matter of reconstruction; it was simply a matter of visiting the villages throughout the mountainous country to gather the tales, songs, and visual art (particularly weaving and chip-carved and rosemalt pieces) to create a story of Norwegianness in support of the nationalist movement.

In Oleanna, the characters don't necessarily consider the beautiful folk art around them as signs and symbols of a nationalist movement, but as parts of their everyday life, familiar and beloved from time out of mind. The people in Bergen and Kristiania (which later resumed its original name, Oslo, in 1925), who drove the separation from Sweden in 1905,  understood the importance and power of that unbroken line.
Folk art grew out of what had been mainstream art in the proud and independent Medieval kingdom of Norway, which came to an end in the 14th century. It represents a cultural link between that old kingdom and the new that came into being in 1905. (13)*

* Norwegian Folk Art: The Migration of a Tradition by Marion Nelson. Abbeville Press, 1995

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