Bergen the Beautiful: Its Art and Artists
The tourist website for Norway captures the spirit and history of Bergen with its description of this city as “a spectacular amphitheatre clambering up the mountainsides.”
We were there at midsummer’s eve, a time of celebration with bonfires in the three hours when it’s actually dark. Okay, let’s say dusky. In addition to the topographical clamber, Bergen also clamors in summer.
Second in size after Oslo, Bergen is home to Norway’s biggest annual cultural event, the Bergen International Festival: music, ballet, theater, opera, dance, exhibitions and more. Now in its 61st year, this year’s festival featured Benjamin Britten’s 200-voice “War Requiem,” Tan Dun’s opera “Marco Polo,” Canada’s contemporary circus company Cirque Eloize, YouTube sensations Igudesman & Joo, the work of choreographer Sang Jijia, an anatomical take on Stringberg’s “Miss Julie” and much more.
Bergenfest, a three-day music festival of rock/country, blues, world, folk and more draws over 20,000 people annually, in June. We missed the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain by a matter of days. However, Beth Hart & Joe Bonamassa performed outdoors together at Bergenhus Fortress and that was hard to miss. With elements dating from 1240, King Hakon’s Hall, the Rosenkrantz Tower and a large grassy field to accommodate huge crowds on long summer evenings, Bergenhus is just a stone’s throw from the Hotel Havnekontoret, home base for our Bergen visit. We were able to eavesdrop by strolling along the ancient wall.
“Kontor” is a term dating from the 14th century Hanseatic League and means trading post and “havne” is harbor. This hotel has a distinguished address at Castle Road 1 (Slottsgaten 1) and is of greater architectural and historic interest than is typical of a hotel. It’s pedigree as the headquarters for shipping magnate Thorvald Halvorsen and later of the Port of Bergen are on display in the ornate stone stairwells which also serve as a quick guide to the cultural history of Bergen with photos of writer Amalie Skram and of the statue of Snorre Sturluson who wrote the ancient sagas. If you stay there, be sure to ask the staff for the key to the tower for a view of the city and harbor.
The hotel is perfectly situated for access to Bergen’s cultural life. And with its amazing hospitality—ample breakfast and dinner buffets included in the room price as well as afternoon pancakes with lingonberry jam and coffee—we didn’t need to spend time trolling for eateries. The hotel is in the heart of town, a short saunter to the famous fish market where you can try nibbles of whale meat and other marine tidbits.
Henrik Ibsen, author of the plays “The Doll’s House,” “Hedda Gabbler,” and more, spent several years in Bergen and served as dramatist and stage director at the Norwegian Theatre in Bergen. An arresting statue of Ibsen by Nils Raa stands in front of Bergen’s main theatre Den Nationale Scene.
For classical music enthusiasts, a central component of Bergen’s summer cultural life is the music of native son Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) whose haunting “Solveig’s Song” from the Peer Gynt Suites seems a natural sound track for the surrounding scenery. Sometimes referred to as “the Chopin of the North,” Grieg was associated with the German romantic period. Later, he drew increasingly upon traditional Norwegian motifs in a desire to further a national identity.
We arrived just in time for the 2013 season start of Musica Nord, a summer-long series of performances held in the Church of the Cross or Korskirken in the heart of Bergen. A sanctuary from the tourist clamor outside, this cool and calm space was ideal for a program of Handel, Grieg, Svendsen, Brahms and an encore piece entitled “Saeterjentens Sondag” (“The Dairymaid’s Sunday” or possibly “Herding Girl’s Sunday”) composed by Bergen native son Ole Bull (sounding, to my ear, like “ooleh bool”).
How, you might wonder, could anyone called “ooleh bool” be taken seriously? I wondered that myself until I heard the plaintive and evocative “Dairymaid’s Sunday” and had a chance to admire a statue in a central pedestrian zone of Mr. Bull in his very tight pants, with wild romantic hair. The ladies of the day are reported to have swooned in his mere presence and he remains today a revered icon of Norwegian culture. And without Mr. Bull, we might never have had Grieg. He encouraged Grieg’s parents to send the lad to Leipzig Conservatory for further musical studies and the rest is history
Grieg’s home, Troldhaugen (Troll Hill), is about five miles outside the city. Now a museum, visitors can see his villa, the hut where he composed and his gravesite. Troldhaugen is where Grieg was inspired to write some of the 19th century’s catchiest musical works. In addition, a beautiful concert hall there offers performances every day throughout the summer at noon and evening and a bus transports ticket-holders from downtown to Troldhaugen at no extra charge for Sunday evening performances. If you’d like to have the time to stroll about and visit the museum, you’d better go earlier in the day.
Grieg was a very slight man, physically. And his wife Nina was even smaller. When her equally small sister would come to visit, the three of them would go for walks nearby and the neighbors are reported to have commented, “Here come the trolls.” It’s fun to imagine “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as the incidental music for these treks.
We attended opening night of Troldhaugen’s summer series with a program of Tveitt, Bartok, Rivertz, Grieg, Gershwin and Gulda performed by solo pianist Rune Alver. The concert hall setting is simple and breathtaking: an open stage with a single grand piano backed by a large picture window. While listening to the performance audience members can admire the lush hillside and lake that must have formed part of Grieg’s inspiration.
Speaking of lush, Bergen is famously rainy. One standing joke is of a tourist who asked a young boy, “Does it ever stop raining?” to which the boy replied, “I don’t know. I’m only eight.”
Perhaps this emerald city surrounded by fjord and sea fed the artistic imaginations of its inhabitants the more abundantly as a result. Visual artists thrived here, and so did those engaged in textiles and crafts. No self-respecting practitioner of needlework today would be without a supply of the evenweave cotton fabric used for cross-stitch work known as hardanger cloth, after the Hardanger Fjord nearby. What’s more, the hardanger fiddle with its second set of sympathetic strings, is Norway’s national instrument and its playing style is alive and well not just in Norway but among fiddlers from Northumberland to the New World.
For a short visit to Bergen, it’s best to choose a few strategic targets rather than run yourself ragged trying to do it all although, goodness knows, the tour operators try. This philosophy guided my choice to visit just two of the four buildings that comprise the KODE Art Museums of Bergen, all nestled along the charming Lille Lungegardsvann Lake in the town center.
I went for the Norwegian artists in the Rasmus Meyer Collection and the West Norway Museum of Decorative Art. The Rasmus Meyer underwent renovations this past year but has just reopened and includes works from the Golden Age of Norwegian art. It holds a significant collection of work by Edvard Munch but as I had already Munched out in Oslo at an exhibit celebrating the artist’s 150th birthday, I decided to view the works of the Bergen-born father of Norwegian painting, Johan Christian Dahl, and others.
Dahl’s work reflects the Romantic aesthetic for untamed nature and includes many landscapes with dramatic rock faces, river rapids and dark forests. The later influence of realism, naturalism and impressionism can be seen in the works of Christian Krohg and Hans Heyerdahl. Harriet Backer, Nikolai Astrup and several other fine Norwegian artists are also part of the collection. A number of Backer’s lovely pieces appeared to have gone walkabout when I was there, perhaps on loan to other museums.
The Museum of Decorative Art is also worth a ramble especially if you are a designer, craftsman, or just like to see beautiful items for the home. There is an impressive collection of Norwegian silverware, beautiful costumes, furniture, and Ole Bull’s violin, dating to the 16th century. I would have liked to see more examples of the rich needlework tradition with its widespread influence and regional distinctiveness.
Of prime architectural interest is Bryggen, a wharf-side row of 18th and 19th century merchants’ trading houses with wooden gables. A few timber buildings from the 18th century still remain elsewhere in the city and they season a visitor’s stroll with their rich architectural history. But its Bryggen’s row of listing buildings–a chorus line of drunken sailors—that’s the big draw.
Bryggen was a major outpost of the Hanseatic League, a German cabal of the Middle Ages fueled mainly by cod. The vast supply of fish, dried and sometimes salted, was exported worldwide from the port at Bergen and traded for goods that were, in turn, brought to market in major European ports. The closed German community held enormous authority and wealth and established disciplined systems of accounting, trade, and legal order upon the high seas. It’s a fascinating history and one the city trades upon to this day.
Bergen can be very noisy during tourist season. The fish market, the historic tugs with their shrill whistles, the open-air concerts, the tour buses, motorcycles and car horns all bring a certain amount of sound to the surroundings. If, on top of that, you’ve got an overly ambitious schedule, you may not enjoy the city as it deserves to be enjoyed. Pick a few things that interest you and do them. Grab a few meaningful memories for yourself and avoid the bunions, headaches, and bad moods that result from trying to do too much.
And always carry an umbrella.
If you’re planning a longer stay in Bergen, you might stray further afield and visit the Fantoft Stave Church (Fantoft stavkirke) in the Fana borough. Originally built around the year 1150, it was moved, then it burned, then it was rebuilt. Stave churches have a post and lintel construction with the load carried on the posts (called staves) and intricate carving. As Norway’s oldest buildings, they are a treasured part of the architectural heritage and only a handful remain.
If I had had another day in Bergen, a guarantee of good weather and an easy means to get there, I would have visited the Ole Bull Museum on the island of Lysoen, about 15 miles south of Bergen. Many of Bergen’s wealthy families built luxurious countryside retreats such as this. The unique architecture of his villa and the extensive network of white sand pathways seem like the perfect respite for schedule-weary visitors.
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Written by guest contributor Maggie Herrington for EuropeUpClose.com
A native of Idaho, Maggie Herrington is a travel writer currently based in Europe. Her travel writing goal is to inform, educate and delight; and her work has appeared in various print and online publications.