Tapestry fans, don’t miss two pieces designed by Norwegian National Romantic period artist Gerhard Munthe at the American Swedish Institute (ASI). They are on loan from the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, to augment the newly-opened Norse Saga Room. The heavily carved appointments of the room were originally made for a Swedish businessman, given to a Swedish museum, and then sold at auction to Minneapolis entrepreneur Curt Carlson, who had the room installed at his corporate headquarters in Minnetonka. Through a donation from Carlson Holdings, Inc. and the Carlson Family Foundation, it is now on view at the American Swedish Institute.
The Norse Saga Room is tucked under the elaborately carved staircase to the basement level. As you walk down the staircase to the lower level, observe joyful children in the new youth area, possibly fishing for fish made of felt, and “cooking” them in a Viking-style cauldron (or running on the bridge clutching a stuffed beaver).
Although the artist who designed this room is unknown, it is believed to be inspired by the style of Norwegian artist Gerhard Munthe. Munthe is well-known as a designer of many tapestry cartoons based on folk tales and mythology. Two tapestries in Munthe’s designs are on loan to ASI from the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, as they fit perfectly into the style of the room.
The first is “Hjørungavåg.”
Information from the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum tells the story of the image:
The tapestry depicts a scene from a battle in 986 AD at Hjørungavåg (Hareid Kommune, Sunnmøre, Møre og Romsdal) between Norwegian forces and Vikings from the Baltic Sea. The story was recorded by Snurre Sturlason, the Icelandic poet and historian, in the early 1200s. Earl Haakon reigned over Norway as a vassal under the king of Denmark. When the king tried to convert Haakon (who believed in Norse gods) to Christianity, tensions rose. The Danish king hired professional warriors from the island of Jorn in the Baltic Sea to go to Norway and kill Haakon, or at least drive him out of the country. Haakon found out about the plan, and with his son Eirik, assembled a large army to meet the Vikings of Jorn. There was a fierce and bloody battle at Hjørungavåg. It looked like the mercenaries would win, so Haakon sacrificed his youngest son, Erling, to the Norse gods to enlist their help and win the battle. Thor has come to their aid and is fighting alongside one of Haakon’s Norwegian warriors in the tapestry. Thor is easily identified by his hammer and the chariot pulled by two billy goats, Gnasher and Gaper.
Munthe was a prolific and talented artist and designer. I think it is fun to see how elements in one medium are transferred to another. This drawing with gauche on paper is owned by the Norwegian Nasjonalmuseum. Note how the lightning-like power coming from Thor’s hammer resembles the woven bolt above.
A delightful design detail–look how the three horizontal stripes in the wings of the ravens add just the right amount of interest to otherwise flat black shapes.
The other tapestry is “The Golden Birds.” It was woven for the first time in 1899, and many reproductions were made, especially in the next three decades. The pattern was sold through Husflid, the Norwegian Handcraft Association. The Vesterheim copy was woven by an unknown weaver with the initials OR, around 1935.
Pretty colors and patterns mask a dark theme: a witch (or troll) is luring a prince and princess from their castle with golden birds. The two birds in the bottom border have unusual crests, and oddly, are carrying baby birds?
The charming dog looks modern, doesn’t he?
I found the room as a whole a bit oppressive rather than impressive, which surprised me. The carving was a tour de force, beautifully incised and in many cases, sensitively colored. This door insert panel had nice horses.
But there was nothing comfortable about any of the furniture; no bench or chair begged to be used by a human. To me, the over-excessive ornamentation on this corner cupboard didn’t add up to a harmonious and appealing piece. (And extensive pattern and ornament can be beautiful; think of all of the beautiful porcelain ovens and moldings in many rooms of the ASI mansion.)
Still, it’s great fun to visit the room–you’ll be sure to find details that you find amusing or interesting. I liked these carved beasts on a board near the ceiling at the end of the room.