Art In A Cold Climate

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01Art In A Cold Climate: Elizabeth Hay On Painting Place Iii By David Milne20151214

The Canadian novelist Elizabeth Hay considers the significance of a painting which symbolises much about her country, once famously described having "too much geography". The great achievement of Canadian painter David Milne, says Hay, was to take the impersonal vastness of the nation's landscape, and make it personal.

Milne, who died in 1953, was a modernist painter who lived in a cabin in northern Ontario and eked out a frugal lifestyle while producing paintings "full of immense space and airiness", says Hay. His work, "Painting Place III" was created when he awoke from an afternoon nap in a hollow and saw the landscape framed by spruce trees. It was his management of the scene that made it personal, she observes. "He nestled a painting box, a quart jar, and tubes of paint in the foreground, turning the picture into a self-portrait of sorts, a portrait of someone imbued with a sense of landscape."

Like Milne, Hay's own writing has reflected the immensity of Canada's vast northern landscape. "What we have in common, in differing degrees...is not just a feeling for landscape, but a need for it," she says.

This edition of The Essay is one of a series in which five writers each consider the significance of a work of art to their nation, as part of Radio 3's Northern Lights season.

Producer: Andy Denwood.

02Art In A Cold Climate: Hallgrimur Helgason On Fish Processing In Eyjafjord By Kristin Jonsdottir20151215

Artist and writer Hallgrimur Helgason asks what one Icelandic painting can say in a culture that is primarily verbal.

The visual arts got off to a slow start in Iceland, he observes. "Our first ever exhibition of paintings opened in the year 1900. The history of Icelandic art reads like a short story." For a thousand years Icelandic culture had been dominated by the Sagas. When paintbrushes and oil paints finally arrived in the 19th century, early artists focused on the country's stunning scenery. But in 1914 a bright new talent emerged blinking in the northern light.

"Fish Processing in Eyjafjord'" captures a lively group of women in the bright morning sunshine, preparing salted cod for export. "Here everything is a first", says Helgason. "We're at the dawn of our art history, at the dawn of the twentieth century, at the dawn of a beautiful day by the beautiful fjord." And the artist represents another first, as one of the very earliest women painters in Iceland: Kristin Jonsdottir, who had returned from Denmark, inspired by Cezanne and Van Gogh. "It's all fresh and new, painting ordinary people at work, with strong and stylized brushwork," says Helgason.

This edition of The Essay is one of a series in which five writers each consider the significance of a work of art to their nation, as part of Radio 3's Northern Lights season.

Producer: Andy Denwood.

03Art In A Cold Climate: Mette Moestrup On Pia Arke's Camera Obscura20151216

Danish writer Mette Moestrup praises the way artist Pia Arke explored the difficult relationship between Denmark and Greenland, its former colony.

Arke was the child of a Danish father and a Greenlandic mother. "My pictoral work deals almost exclusively with the silence that surrounds the bonds between Greenland and Denmark," she wrote. "I was myself born into that silence."

One of Arke's projects involved the construction of a giant Camera Obscura on the site of her long demolished childhood home at Cape Nuugaarsuk in Greenland. The camera looked like "a big ice-cube among the barren mountains", says Moestrup. The artist was able to sit inside the camera as she took landscape and portrait shots.

"Here," says Moestrup, "she created beautiful, haunting, hazy photographs of the bare rocky formations, the water and the ice. A lost home, and a lost view recreated via the nomadic camera house."

This edition of The Essay is one of a series in which five writers each consider the significance of a work of art to their nation, as part of Radio 3's Northern Lights season.

Producer: Andy Denwood.

04Art In A Cold Climate: Ray Hudson On Touching Fire By Carolyn Reed20151217

Writer and historian Ray Hudson considers how one drawing shows Alaskans caught between the fire and the sea: between the state's turbulent natural beauty and the race to exploit its wealth in raw materials.

In Carolyn Reed's "Touching Fire", two women stand on the shores of a great sea, their faces lit by a pile of blazing logs. "This fire for me suggests the commercial exploitation that has historically consumed much of the region," says Hudson, who witnessed a massive expansion in commercial fishing during nearly three decades living in Alaska's remote Aleutian Islands. Yet he takes heart from the dignity and determination of the women caught between fire and water. "I know that despite its violent dominance the fire will go out and the women will turn to face the sea," he says.

This edition of The Essay is one of a series in which five writers each consider the significance of a work of art to their homelands, as part of Radio 3's Northern Lights season.

Producer: Andy Denwood.

05Art In A Cold Climate: Thomas Hylland Eriksen On The Holmenkollen Ski-jumping Hill20151218

Many people would not consider a ski-jump to be a work of art. But for anthropologist and novelist Professor Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Oslo's Holmenkollen ski-jumping hill was the most important art work in Norway.

"The Holmenkollen Hill, white, elegant and majestic, hovered above the city like a large bird about to take flight," says Eriksen. "It was a work of art enjoyed by tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people every day". Eriksen employs the past tense because the structure - built for the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo - was pulled down and replaced with a more "flashy, hi-tech and efficient" ski jump in 2008.

The architects of the original - Olav Tveten and Frode Rinnan - had created much more than a sporting facility, he says. It was a frugal, elegant structure, which spoke to the Norwegian love of the mountains and the outdoors. "Looking towards Holmenkollen made people more Norwegian." It lives on, he says, as a memory of how architecture can transform a practical structure into a sublime work of art.

This edition of The Essay is one of a series in which five writers each consider the significance of a work of art to their nation, as part of Radio 3's Northern Lights season.

Producer: Andy Denwood.