Norwegian jewellery has evolved from embattled folk roots to a distinctive contemporary playfulness, as two new exhibitions reveal.
One hundred years ago, jewellery in Norway was at the forefront of a struggle for national self-determination. Without an aristocracy to decorate, and with a temperamental leaning towards sobriety and modesty in dress, jewellery here was not about status and display. Instead it had grown from its roots in a rich folk tradition to become a powerful means for the expression of distinctive national values, in defiance of Swedish and Danish culture. Indeed, dragons and Viking symbols, folk motifs like crowns and knives, and enamel, a traditional skill, continued to dominate Norwegian jewellery for many years.
Now, however, as Norway celebrates its first centenary of independence as a modem constitutional monarchy and the discovery of Norway's rich oil beds has eased its fight with a bitter climate, jewellery has become a less embattled medium. Beautifully crafted, playful, expressive, it generally eschews the austerity of Swedish designed jewellery for a rich diversity of colour and form, while still taking inspiration from its immediate environment and history. Latecomers to the International New jewellery movement which swept through Europe and America in the 1960s and 7Os, Norwegians seem to have taken particularly enthusiastically to the movement's encouragement of non-precious materials, unconventional standards of beauty and the notion that jewellery can be as potent a stimulus to thought as to sheer sensual pleasure.
This year you will be able to see the work of some of Norway's leading makers at Flow in London and at the Usher Gallery in Lincoln. Behind their individual achievements, how-ever, lies the particular history of the last 40 years in Norway, which has seen the sector transformed from a minor branch of the decorative arts to a leading expression of a distinctively Norwegian contemporary sensibility.
In 1912, the pioneering Norwegian designer and enamel-worker Gustav Gaudernack
(1865-1914) established a class for gold-smiths at the National College of Art and Design in Oslo. This is still the primary training for most jewellers in Norway today. Gaudernack had many contacts abroad, and through him foreign stylistic influences especially Art Nouveau — filtered into Norway, as well as the modern principle of teaching in school workshops. Young jewellers were mainly swallowed up by one of the large firms, such as the family firm J. Tostrup, designing pieces for serial production. One or two notable exceptions, how-ever — Sigurd Alf Eriksen and Grete Prytz Kittelsen perhaps above all — began to work on their own, experimenting with different techniques and materials. Then, in the late 50s, small workshops began to appear all over Norway, and in 1959 the influential organisation PLUS was founded to liaise between these individual craftspeople and larger firms. It was in the PLUS silver workshop that the jeweller Tone Vigeland did her apprenticeship.
Vigeland it was who set a new standard. A sculptor as well as a jeweller, she saw no distinction between her experiments with form and material in fine art and in jewellery. Each fed the other throughout the following decades, as she produced one landmark piece after another. The jewellery is almost always made in oxidised silver and while drawing deeply on her own distinctively Modernist sensibility, seems also to conjure a mythic Viking past. Whether it is the echoes of armour plating in some of her necklaces and headdresses, the bracelets of beaten nails that wrap softly round your wrist, or the chain-mail necklaces and bracelets she began to make in the 90s, each piece evokes the harsh elements and rugged landscape of Norway, with its violent history. It is thus a surprise quite how beautifully the pieces fall around the human body and catch the light.
Toril Bjørg's work can be seen in the same tradition, as female psychic armour for women unafraid to stand out. Her beautiful pieces, almost always in white or oxidised silver, sometimes knitted, sometimes plated like an armadillo shell, sometimes linked i a soft mesh, draw on Elizabethan costume, bird and lizard frills and other natural forms like birds' nests. You need strength of personality to carry them off — for a recent collection Bjørg ended up modelling the pieces herself. Her clientele, largely independent grown-up women with the money to spend on themselves as they choose, includes the current Queen of Norway.
In the 70s the aspirations of a new generation of makers coincided with a period of political radicalism. The leading idea of the New Jewellery movement had been to dissolve the harriers between 'art' and 'craft'. Now jewellers began to call themselves craft artists, as distinct from industrial designers, and gained parity of access to government grants and public commissions with fine fists. Leading jewellers of this generation dude Liv Blåvarp and Millie Behrens.
Enormously influenced by her period at the Royal College of Art in London under David Watkins, Blåvarp defines her generation by dedication to the ideals of truth to materials, making by hand and the perfect marriage form and function. Blåvarp's beautifully carved segmented wooden pieces coil and fold over your neck and shoulders like snakes or exotic birds' plumage. Using a traditionally humble material, but sometimes painting or laminating the component parts, Blåvarp's pieces are rich in colour and conception and warm to the touch. While Behrens experimented with different materials the 80s, she now, by contrast, works most exclusively with man silver and gold, creating elegant pieces that owe their inspiration equally to geometry — 'geometry is to poetry for me' — and features of the Norwegian landscape: fencing, masonry, boulders on the seashore.
As was only too evident at 2004's Craft Triennial in Oslo, younger makers are using Jewellery increasingly to explore ideas about our contemporary globalised consumer society. Inspired by a visit to Southern Africa, Marie Asbjørnsen uses recycled tin: while Louise Nippierd alternates witty and poetic costume jewellery with body pieces of declared socio-political intent. At ease with the past, there are amusing reworkings of Norways great traditions in Alida Rudjord Røiseland's delightful enamel pieces or Janicke Horn's spiky plant and flower jewellery, half threatening, half alluring, while Heidi Sand's deceptively polite and meticulously worked silver and gold pieces show traditional craftsmanship serving an improvisatory spirit. These makers feel themselves to be part of an international flow of ideas, taking inspiration wherever they chance upon it; and yet across all their very different work you can see family resem¬blances as they differently draw on all that Norway's independence has secured and defined for them.
From Crafts, March/April 2005
Read more about the exhibiton: Flow Gallery, London