Forces in Reprieve: Works by Gunnar Norrman
When one surveys the art of Gunnar Norrman, the stillness and silence are dramatic. Empty city streets, seemingly uninhabited buildings, and solitary boats are examples of man-made spaces existing completely undisturbed. Nothing is being created, destroyed, moved, or engaged with. Many of his scenes take place in moments when forces of both man and nature have taken a reprieve, reminding us of the calm that is possible at the intersections of civilization and the natural world.
The stillness is amplified by his exacting technique, and consistently ambiguous atmosphere. Norrman works in a variety of mediums including graphite, charcoal, drypoint, and lithography. Each medium has the potential to become heavy-handed and overworked, yet Norrman exhibits tremendous control. Drypoint involves scratching into a copper plate with a fine metal stylus. When an incision is made, the copper is displaced as thin ridges along the edge of the incision, creating what is called a “burr.” Burrs catch excess ink, softening the edge of the line in the final print. Norrman’s prints benefit from the burrs, as they diffuse harsh lines, generating a softer image. This is especially evident when the drypoint version of Ulex is juxtaposed with its graphite pencil counterpart. Norrman was a prolific artist and his drypoints and lithographs were created with the help of his wife Ulla. She was critical to the printing process and he greatly valued her effort and eye for detail.
Popplar, Mornac, 1972
Fransk bygata (French Village Street), 1987
Gunnar Norrman’s pieces command attention through the contrast of density and lightness, as well as fragility and decisiveness. The faintly distinguishable lines and lightly shaded masses draw the viewer in, partly because one simply can not see the details from a distance. In Popplar, Mornac, the two small white buildings in the distance are barely distinguishable from the general haze surrounding the trees. Alternatively, darkly rendered expanses and forms, such as those in Kvall i tradgarden, throw lighter areas into contrast and create a dramatically lit scene.
A significant theme of Norrman’s work is visual analysis of natural specimens and scenes. This is largely rooted in Norrman’s studies in science, specifically botany, when he was a post-graduate student. Human figures are seldom depicted in the works, although their presence is felt in his numerous land and seascapes. Though no figures appear in Fransk bygata, it is evident that someone was once there; the roads and buildings would not exist without people. The piece is executed with delicate line quality, and is flooded with light. These techniques produce minimal shadows, focusing the viewer’s understanding of time to the afternoon, when the sun is high.
Baskiskt landskap (Basque Landscape), 1975
Gammalberg (Old Mountain), 1975
In Baskiskt landskap, the viewer moves farther away from a man-made space, which is viewed from a distance, and in the context of a greater natural landscape. A collection of clean, white-washed structures sit beneath lightly rendered mountains. A smattering of tall trees interrupts the viewer’s engagement with the buildings, dividing the foreground from the mid-, and background of the piece. The landscape appears maintained, and manicured, indicating that while there are no visible inhabitants, they are likely present and managing the estate. By contrast, the structure depicted in Gammalberg seems to have been without human interaction for a considerable amount of time. The deteriorating turrets and walls, indicate that nature has taken over the structure from the humans that once inhabited it. The castle is perched atop a hill against an empty sky, thus magnifying its solitude and making deterioration more obvious. These two contrasting depictions of building exteriors illustrate the impact of people’s proximity to their creations, whether they are present, or absent.
Fran Fouras (From Fouras)
Another prevalent theme of Norrman’s work is the meeting of land, water, and sky. These seascapes seldom exhibit the full force of the ocean, but rather its calmer, more docile side. Fran Fouras depicts a desolate harbor. Floating in the water are three small rowboats, and two single-masted boats with sails down. Perhaps the other boats in the harbor have left for a day’s work, and the sailors of these boats are not going out. Alternatively, these may be the only boats remaining in the harbor at the beginning or end of the season. The cloudless sky limits the possibility that inclement weather has deterred the sailing community.
In Strandmotiv med bat the viewer is taken beyond the harbor to an open expanse of calm water. Again, we see two solitary single-masted boats with lowered sails. No other boats dot the horizon, so we have no reference to their relative distance to the harbor. The boats could be just outside of the harbor, or miles from shore. The simplicity of the scene makes it devoid of information and therefore a clear narrative. This subtly leads the viewer to be satisfied with its stillness, while offering a chance to construct their own narrative. The viewer is provided with an opportunity for a personal experience, not bombarded with explanative detail.
Mankind has an incredible ability to create, destroy, and interrupt, which sometimes conflicts with Nature’s greater ability to achieve the same objectives. Conversely, both forces also have the capacity to exhibit calm and tranquility. A considerable portion of Gunnar Norrman’s oeuvre focuses on botanical subjects, yet his representations of the intersection between civilization and the natural world convey the harmony that can exist between two powerful forces when they are not in conflict with one another.
Jenny Farrell is a native Bostonian who graduated with a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2013, and an MA in Humanities from University of Chicago in 2015.