Solace through the Beauty of Nature
Art Review, The Tufts Daily, Wednesday, April 3, 1996, by Cara Maniaci.
Gunnar Norrman beckons to the little bird on the fence. He offers a tasty seed, pinched between the fingers of his outstretched hand. Gently, with slight hesitance, the bird swoops down, perches himself on Norrman's fingers and nibbles at the seed. Clearly this man has an understanding with nature that few individuals possess. It seems that he communicates with nature and listens passively to its resounding tranquility.
Sketching and drawing wherever he goes, Norrman records his impressions of nature. These drawings have made for him a life's work which has touched individuals across the globe. The 83-year-old artist, his wife Ulla, and his thousands of etchings have frequently traveled from their native Sweden. This past weekend, Gunnar and Ulla Norrman visited Boston. Friday was the opening day of Norrman's latest show, "A Moment of Beauty — Five Decades of Work" at the Pucker Gallery on Newbury Street.
This exhibition gently welcomes us into Norrman's world — a vision of nature reduced to simple geometric forms, subtle shades of grey and resolved black tones. Trees are delicate silhouettes of branches, pulling out of an enveloping mist. In Norrman's work exist both a quiet solace and a sparkling exuberance. The nature Norrman envisions in his works is somewhere between dogged lines and nebulous haze. He cites Seurat as an influence on his work because of his superb draftsmanship and ability to express tones through chiaroscuro. Though Seurat's most well-known compositions are in color, it is clear that both artists share the effort to create form through the subtle differences in light and shadow. Norrman's prints and drawings, like the paintings of Seurat, possess a grainy atmospheric sense.
As we note that Norrman's landscapes do attend very intently to atmosphere, he tells us that his travels have often been in search of an atmosphere of intensely tranquil nature. This he seems to have found in the Maritime region of Southwest France. Having travelled from the Basque Pyrenees to Rome, to Crete, and made recordings of nature in all of these places, we find that Norrman's drawings and prints seem to retain a curious consistency, a stasis that, regardless of place, remains the same. Perhaps it is the way he will hone in on the very minor details in nature, often presenting a simple weed or rock as his "motif." When asked about how he felt his style has changed throughout the 50 years of his career as an artist, he replied sternly: "It hasn't." Wife Ulla explained further: "Gunnar has always presented a quiet in nature." Norrman also cites that he will "absorb and combine remembered impressions," referencing his imagination to recall a state of nature that reflects the particular mood he is striving for.
Norrman has been said to project the tranquility from the outer world to our inner world, our nature. In meeting this extraordinary man, we also realize that he projects his own nature — a gentle serenity and joy — onto the landscapes he creates. According to Sten Ake Nilsson, author of a monograph discussing Norrman and his work, Norrman's art "is an extension of that which already exists within us and without, the inner landscape and the outer as an accumulation of human endeavor."
In this spiritual nature in his work, and in its stylistic attributes, we can also clearly see the influence of Chinese painting. The art of Sung Dynasty ink painter Mu-Ch'i has most definitely been a source of inspiration to Norrman's work. Norrman reminds us of the Buddhist monk-painter, who in medieval China and Japan went into nature to seek enlightenment. Norrman seeks tranquility and peace of mind. Furthermore, Norrman's delicate handling of line calls to mind the calligraphic brushstrokes in the Zen ink paintings. And, much like a Buddhist monk who ponders the flow of a brook to seek meaning in life, Norrman looks to the most subtle elements of nature for fulfillment.
Norrman will make an effort to sketch nature in any type of weather. According to wife Ulla, he developed an affinity for still life because "when it would rain, he could create some nature in the room." When he goes outdoors, his careful observations of nature are translated into pencil. When he returns home from his excursions, Norrman selects the drawings which are to be either left as original sketches, or further worked into a charcoal drawing or drypoint print. Norrman is best known for his work in drypoint, a technique which he has perfected throughout his career.
Drypoint is a method of printmaking that has existed since the 15th century, but was not used as a primary medium for artists until the 19th century. The sketchy line and diffuse tonality of drypoint attracted 19th century artists such as Whistler and Joseph Pennell. When Norrman began to employ drypoint in his artwork during the 1960s, he realized its potential to reproduce the atmospheric effects he found so alluring. Gunnar and Ulla do nearly all of the printmaking of Gunnar's works themselves. Norrman cited that his closest followers can easily tell the difference between a print done by the artist himself versus one of the few he has had made by a printing company.
Norrman's charcoal drawings are typically larger and have a more bold chiaroscuro, due to the nature of the medium. Most delicate and tactile, though, are the original pencil drawings. In "Junimorgon", Norrman captures the ripple of the water in a pond as a light breeze skims the surface. Even though his work lacks in color, we can tell exactly the time of day and quality of the air. A wonderful example of a Norrman drypoint is "Girondekaj", in which the sketchy, granular line lends itself beautifully to the reflection of the dock and the distant trees, obscured by a thick fog.
The best way to appreciate these images, though, is in person. The slight shifts in line that define the texture and form in Norrman's work beseech deep contemplation. To his fans, Norrman's prints and drawings have become both icons of natural tranquility and self-portraits of the artist — a man who has devoted his life to a search for beauty. He says of his work: "I struggle on looking for the picture of my dreams."