Few artists have been more understood and loved by every Norwegian than Theodor Kittelsen. Whenever he interprets the forest on a winter day, or when he describes the mist above the waters, the flower meadows on a fair night in June, the courtyard in the twilight, the small lake in the woods with water lilies and a secret mystique, the islands on a sunny summer day… yes, then we have seen it all. Theodor Severin Kittelsen was born in the coastal town Kragerø in the southern Norway in 1857, and his boyhood was pleasant and harmonious one. When he was only eleven years old however, his father died, and young Kittelsen was compelled to eke out a living as an errand-boy, as an apprentice to a house painter in Christiania and as an apprentice to a watchmaker in Arendal. It was then that his talent luckily was discovered, and he was promised free lessons by the architect Wilhelm von Hanmo at the School of Art in Christiania.
After two years with von Hanmo, Kittelsen was granted sufficient financial support to continue his studies in Munich. His first two or three years there were happy period. He describes visits to the Three Ravens, the Bavarian Cellar, Binder’s People’s Theatre and other quaint inns and taverns. It was therefore a hard blow when, in 1879, he was informed that he could no longer be supported financially. From now on he had to pay his way by drawing for German newspapers and magazines, and by painting canvases that could be sold back in Norway through the Art Society, etc. The years that now ensued where probably the most difficult period in Kittelsen’s life, which is saying quite a lot. He lived from hand to mouth, eking out an existence from day to day, running into debt, and seldom enjoying a square meal. Little of his work found its way back to Norway, and all in all, there is little we know about him during these years.
During one of his stays in Munich, Kittelsen stated that his longing for his native countryside had grown more and more insistent. “What appeals to me are the mysterious, romantic, and magnificent aspects of our scenery, but if I cannot henceforth combine this with a wholesome study of Nature I’m afraid I’m bound to stagnate. It is becoming clearer and clearer to me what I have to do, and I have had more ideas – but I must, I must get home, otherwise it won’t work.” Sjøtrollet, 1887
The Sea troll Draugen
The Sea Ghost
His return home (to Kragerø) was moving, but in the long run Kragerø was bound to prove unsatisfactory. Nature there wasn’t the mysterious, romantic, and magnificent nature he had longed for. A unique opportunity, however, presented itself when his sister and brother in-law made their way north to tend the lighthouse on the wind-swept little island of Skomvær in the Lofotens, the outermost of this 125-mile chain of islands. Kittelsen joined forces, and was gladly influenced by all the overwhelming new impressions. Nøkken, 1887-92
The Water Sprite
His encounter with the scenery of North Norway, is represented by the collection ‘Troll Magic’. The idea was that the novelist Jonas Lie was to write the text for this book. Nothing came of this however, and Kittelsen himself, for the first time, became responsible for both drawings and text. A drawing like the one of the sea troll was probably one of the first to have been inspired by the scenery of Nordland. It illustrates the story of Johan Persa and Elias Nilsa and their meeting with the great bullhead. At the end of this story, Elias finds a great bullhead on one of the skerries and in his anger kicks it into the sea:
“No sooner was it in the water, than it grew and grew to a terrible monster, which reared up and opened its great jaws, as large as an open coffin,and it roared: ‘Now you can spit in my face once again, if you dare, Elias! But let me tell you…”
‘The Sea Ghost’ (Norw. Draug), too, would be difficult to place in any context but Nordland, and the creepy crawly mood Kittelsen creates in this story testifies to the intense impression that the strangely menacing and magic scenery of this part of Norway exercised on him. The other drawings of ‘Troll Magic’ are generally set in the scenery of the East Norwegian countryside, with forests and mountains. This applies to ‘The Forest Troll’, ‘The Underground People’, ‘The Goblin’, ‘Huldra’, ‘The Witch’, ‘The Water Sprite’ and ‘Battle of Giants’. Pesta Kommer, 1894-95
The Black Death
In 1896 Kittelsen completed the illustrative work ‘The Black Death’ his highest peak of achievement as a black-and-white artist. With visionary empathy he dug down into this sombre chapter in our history, this incomprehensible event which threatened at a blow to wipe the whole nation off the map.
When Kittelsen returned from Lofoten in 1889 he had the idea of utilizing subjects from the Norwegian History. He was very involved in Nordic mythology and sagas at that time, and at first he was planning to use subjects from Old Norse mythology. But then he came across the woman who was to become Pesta. In ‘The Book of Oblivion’ he describes this encountering:
“She was small, lean, and bent, her face greenish-yellow with black spots. Her eyes were squinting, dark and restless and set deep in her skull now and again a strange, evil light shone in them, and they flickered round in every direction, so that it was impossible to fix her gaze. Her head bobbed up and down. Her mouth moved rapidly – sharp and bitter. She was worse than the plague itself, I thought to myself, hence her name.”
He also made a great deal out of Faye’s ‘Hedal Church in Valdres’ and ‘Mustad in Vardal’. The drawing for the latter is a masterpiece of suggestive horror. The absolute highlight of ‘The Black Death’ however, is undoubtedly the magnificent drawing of Pesta on the stairs, where the light effect and the strange, dizzy perspective greatly intensify the sense of horror. Both in its subject-matter and artistic execution, this drawing deserves a special place in Kittelsen’s production.
Pesta provides the natural germ to ‘The Black Death’, but some time obviously ensued before the whole project began to take shape in Kittelsens mind. In a letter from Hvitsten, his home at that time, he wrote: «Between us, ‘The Black Death’ is giving me a great deal of trouble. My goodness what a subject for illustration!» Things were now going properly, but he soon found his surroundings improper for his workings. He had to get out into God’s sacred nature. He had to be allowed to have a breather. Sole in Eggedal was the place he was looking for, but it was not until the late winter 1896 that he was able to move in there and complete his last works for ‘The Black Death’. Fattigmannen, 1894-95
The Pauper Musstad, 1896
‘The Black Death’ contains fifteen poem or poetic prose sections with drawings where most of the subjects, of course, are Kittelsens’s own. There are pure moody poems like ‘Pesta Is Coming’, ‘Pesta Departs’ and ‘Autumn Evening’, poems in which he has achieved a stylistic simplicity of great effect. On other occasions he creates a little tale, such as the one about ‘Wee Per and little Mari’, who have lost their mother and father and whom the trolls take pity and care for. But Kittelsen also utilized the saga material from Andreas Faye’s old book ‘Norwegian Folk Tales’ from 1843. From here he more or less borrowed ‘Over Sea and River’ (in Faye this is called ‘Pesta in Gjerrestad’) and ‘Knut and Thore’ (in Faye ‘The Black Death in Sætesdalen’).
The Nature Lover
After ‘The Black Death’, Kittelsen continued to live at Sole for about three years where he worked at a number of illustrative tasks, and also had his own home built at Lauvlia in the neighbouring district of Sigdal about a dozen miles further south. The Sigdal scene, with its soft and charming contours, proved a never-failing source of inspiration. ‘People and Trolls’ contains enthusiastic descriptions of this scenery. Det rusler og tusler rasler og tasler, 1900 Creepy, Crawly, Rustling, Bustling It was also in this scenery that he was inspired to do the illustrative work ‘Tirill-Tove’, a work filled with the same delight in nature that we find in ‘Jomfruland’, but the tone is more serious, perhaps even more sincere. A great many painters have depicted the forests of Norway, and with ‘Tirill-Tove’ and a great many other watercolours and coloured drawings, Kittelsen takes his place side by side with these as one of the great landscape artist of our country. With this series he ushers in his finest period as an interpreter of Nature.
From realistic descriptions of nature to pure fantasy was only a step with Kittelsen, and the forest scene around him provided rich inspirations. Everything in nature – stones and tufts of grass, moss and pine branches, tree trunks, stumps and roots, – all aquired in his imagination human or troll-like features. ‘Stooks of Corn in Moonlight’ is probably the best example of the thin borderline that separates realism from fantasy: a few light strokes transform the stooks beneath the yellow light of the autumn moon into a company of sedate trolls making their way downhill. Kornstaurer i måneskinn, ca. 1900
Stooks of Corn in Moonlight Skogtroll,
Kittelsen was tremendously productive as a landscape artist during the years he lived at Lauvlia. In the autumn of 1900 he writes that for an exhibition in Copenhagen, apart from thirty-eight drawings illustrating Caspari’s ‘Winter Tales’, he has prepared no less than twenty-three ‘coloured summer drawings’. New works were constantly added to these, with every new exhibition, some of them summer pictures, some of them winter pictures. Memories from the years at Lauvlia, which, despite everything, were so happy, lived on his mind. As late as 1913, only a few months before he died, he painted his daughter Ingrid picking bog cotton.
Kittelsen was a sick and broken man when, in 1910, he was forced to leave Lauvlia. He settled first at Huseby, in Vestre Aker, just outside Oslo. In the company of friends he recovered his spirits somewhat, and he was still creative. The civil grant for his artistic achievement voted him by the Norwegian Parliament in 1911, was a great source of encouragement. In 1912 he purchased a property at Jeløya near Moss, with Edvard Munch at Grimsrød as his nearest neighbour, where he January 21, 1914 died. His old friend Christian Skredsvig tributed him: “Kittelsen left a void behind. He was unique – there will never be anyone to succeed him. Even the trolls have disappeared for always. At any rate, I have never seen them since.”