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A Pioneer Artist and His Masterpiece
    by Marion John Nelson (Volume 22: Page 3)

When the great wave of emigration from Norway to America got under way in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, folk art in the home country was at a high level. One might, therefore, expect to find a folk art of distinction in the Norwegian-American settlements. Scattered Norwegian folk artists in the Middle West did produce works of exceptional quality, but a tradition never evolved. The reason was, apparently, that the geographic and socio-economic circumstances which had given rise to and perpetuated the tradition in Norway were not found on the American prairie.

What were some of the conditions which accounted for the highly developed and long-lived practice of the folk arts in Norway? Most important was the mountainous terrain, which made transportation difficult and kept many communities almost totally dependent on locally produced goods until around 1900. Norway, far from the centers of modem development in Europe and without political freedom until 1905, was also late in industrializing. This meant that even in many districts where transportation was not a serious problem, local arts and crafts remained alive through much of the nineteenth century. For the development of purely decorative arts, the economic situation resulting from overpopulation seems also to have played a part. Most of the "rose [4] painters"ó Norwegian decorative folk artists ó discussed by Øystein Vesaas in his Rosemaaling i Telemark came from cotter or small-farm families which could not depend totally on the land for a living. Rose painters, incidentally, were therefore well represented among the emigrants to America. {1}

Conditions in nineteenth-century America had little in common with those in Norway. Few immigrant homes or settlements in the Middle West remained self-reliant units for more than a decade. The railroad followed close upon the covered wagon, bringing factory goods and bourgeois tastes from the industrialized East into the remotest settlements. And on the prairies there was ample space for expansion. The enclosed and overpopulated community, which had to develop inwardly, did not exist.

Most of the Norwegian pioneers who were active in the arts fell into one of two categories: those for whom creative activity was a hobby, carried on in spare time or in old age; and those for whom work in the arts was psychologically so important that it was given a substantial place in their lives, even if it served no obvious social or economic need and was looked on by the average immigrant as an almost indecent luxury. It was in the latter category that Lars Christenson (1839ó1910) of Benson, Minnesota, belonged. His major work is the carved wooden altarpiece in the Norwegian-American Historical Museum at Decorah, Iowa (Figure 1). {2}

Except for his artistic activities, Christenson was a typical pioneer. Coming originally from Stedje Parish in Sogndal, Norway, he arrived in the Benson area in 1866, and, as one of the first settlers in Swift County, had to clear and break [5] his land, construct his buildings, and help found a community. He served as unofficial postman in the area, bringing in mail from great distances, and as government assessor for a district that covered several counties. He was the first chairman of the township; and he helped organize a Lutheran congregation, which often met in his house during the ten years before there was a church. He followed the typical pattern of material advancement, first digging a dugout, then building and gradually expanding a log cabin, and finally, in 1907, buying a frame house in Benson, where he moved with his wife and seven children. {3}

Christensonís deepest interest, however, was artistic creation rather than economic and social advancement. Paralleling his activities as a pioneer was his decorative work in wood, beginning with inlay adornment on boxes and progressing through carving on furniture to the sculpture of the altar. {4} He did not carve for money and could expect little recognition for his achievements. All the pieces which I have discovered were made as gifts, and the people around him had so little appreciation of his carving that neither in his obituary nor in the many references to him in the newspaper history of Benson is there any mention of it. The best [6] indication, however, of the deep and sincere motivation behind Christensonís artistic activity is the quality of his work. In the Decorah altar he produced a monument that in originality, expressive power, and grandeur has little to rival it in the folk art of America.

Erwin O. Christensen, former curator of decorative arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is to my knowledge the only scholar who has dealt with the altar in print. He has made perceptive comments on its unique style but has left unanswered the main question which the altar poses for the historian, namely that of the sources for its unusual iconography ó the pictorial representation of the religious subject matter ó and for its complex plan. {5} The typical Midwestern altar of the nineteenth century consisted of a simple, academic painting or statue in an architectural frame with sawed-out and turned decoration. The only details in the Decorah altar that relate it to the usual type are the carved pinnacles which resemble lathe work, and they are alien elements in a design that is dominated by more organic forms. My major goal in undertaking a historical investigation of the altar was to discover Christensonís sources of inspiration.

My conclusions regarding the stylistic and iconographic sources of Christensonís work are that the over-all plan was inspired by Norwegian baroque altars (Figure 2) and that the individual panels are modeled after illustrations in the so-called Doré Bible (Figure 3). {6} The altarís unique quality, however, results not only from its unusual models but from the highly individual style in which Christenson has interpreted them. It would be naïve to attempt to determine in detail the circumstances which account for his interpretation, but among them appear to be his distance from his major model in Norway, his lack of experience in representing the [7] human figure, and his early contacts with Viking and Norwegian folk design.

The nature of the altar with which Christenson would have been acquainted in his home church of Stedje in Sogndal is apparently not known. Erwin Christensen indicates that it has been investigated and that it gives no clue to a further understanding of the Decorah work, but I fear that the investigation was made of the altar in the present church at Sogndal, which is not the one Lars Christenson attended. The twelfth-century wooden edifice in which he was baptized, confirmed, and married was torn down in 1867, three years after he left for America. Nothing remains but fragments, the major of which are two portals with carvings in the late Viking interlace style. {7} Since many Norwegian churches were furnished with new altars during the seventeenth century, the one at Stedje probably resembled one at Ørskog near Aalesund, a typical example of the baroque altars on the west coast of Norway (Figure 2). Christenson, who was trained as a carpenter and spent a year in Bergen before coming to America, would under any circumstance have known examples of these Norwegian masterpieces of wood sculpture. {8}

The Decorah work has, in common with the west-coast Norwegian baroque altars, a three-part and tiered composition and a central placement of the Crucifixion, the Last Supper, and the Ascension (Figures 1 and 2). Even some of the detail reflects that of the seventeenth-century creations. The bodiless angels surrounded by flowers on the side panels (Figures 1 and 4) have an obvious prototype in the cherub head and wings worked into an acanthus decoration immediately above the Crucifixion in the Ørskog altar (Figure 2). The faces in the roundels on the posts that are seen in [8] Christensonís own work and the supporting figures at their bases (Figure 1) have counterparts in the grotesque masks on the outer posts in the Ørskog altar and the angels at the bases of the inner posts (Figure 2). Christenson, as if aware that these motifs might seem peculiar to Americans, has carefully identified them. The cherub has the caption "The Angel amongst Flowers" in both Norwegian and English, the only English legend on the altar. An article in the Benson newspaper, undoubtedly based on an interview with the artist when he exhibited the altar at the Minnesota State Fair in 1904, identified the faces on the columns as the evangelists and the supporting figures at the base as the four great prophets. {9}

There is, to be sure, little more than a faint echo of the seventeenth-century Norwegian altars in Christensonís work, but a closer similarity could scarcely be expected. He had been in America thirty-three years when he began his altar around 1897, and could not have retained more than a vague image of the Norwegian works. {10} It was this image only, not the altars themselves, that was his inspiration in formulating his design.

While the relationship of Christensonís work to the baroque altars is somewhat remote, its connection with the Doré Bible is very direct. The artist possessed a copy of an edition which contains models for all the panels (Figures 1 and 3). {11} [8a]

[8b]


[8c]

[8d]

[8e]


[8f]

[8g]

[8h]

[9] Christenson, except for omitting some background and peripheral figures, has taken few liberties with the basic iconography of the illustrations. The only added figures are two in the lower left-hand corner of the representation of Christ among the Elders (Figure 5), and they have prototypes in another illustration of this subject in his Bible. The tree and the sun in the Ascension panel (Figure 6) are the only significant details in the pictorial portions of the altar not to be found in the Bible illustrations. Here the artistís primitive impulse to fill space appears to have taken precedence over his desire to be faithful to his models. He may have thought of the bird as the dove of the Holy Ghost and the sun as a symbol of God. This would make the panel a representation of the Trinity as well as of the Ascension.

Apparently more than insecurity led Christenson to adhere strictly to his models in the number, arrangement, and poses of figures. It will be demonstrated that in other matters he has revealed exceptional daring. A devout Christian and a humble craftsman, he, like the artists of the Middle Ages, undoubtedly felt obliged to conform as fully as possible to his predecessors in representing Biblical subjects. One reason why his iconography is nevertheless comparatively original is that some of his models were recent and not especially traditional interpretations of their subjects, a fact which Christenson would scarcely have realized.

In matters of style Christenson threw off the cautiousness which he revealed in his iconography and came forth as an artist of exceptional competence. There is a unity, a spirituality, a consistency between style, medium, and material in the altar that seem incredible in a work inspired by a miscellaneous collection of painterly and for the most part sentimental and melodramatic illustrations.

The Crucifixion serves well as an example of the stylistic liberties Christenson took with his models to achieve his original and unified result (Figures 7 and 8). The atmospheric setting and unessential detail of the Bible illustration [10] are omitted, and the main figures become simple, sharply outlined masses projecting from a flat background. Their size relationships no longer follow the laws of linear perspective but are worked out to create a clearly centralized composition and to emphasize the spiritual content of the subject. The head of Christ has been enlarged proportionately much more than his body, his body more than those of the thieves, the thieves more than John, Mary, and the Magdalene. This focuses the entire composition on Christís head and reduces the importance of his torso and of the mourners. The sensuous and theatrical character of the model has given way to a detached serenity.

The size relationships established in the Crucifixion ó the large forms in the center and the small toward the edges óare carried through in the composition of the entire altar and account to a great extent for its highly centralized character. All the panels surrounding the Crucifixion are considerably smaller than it, and no figure within them is more than about one third the size of the central Christ figure.

Christenson further subordinated the altarís peripheral panels by giving them a horizontal orientation which prevents them from competing with the majestic verticality of the Crucifixion. Since the models for all but the Last Supper were vertical, this demanded considerable ingenuity. A comparison of the model for the Ascension (Figure 3) with Christensonís version (Figure 6) illustrates how imaginatively and judiciously he carried out his task. To make room for an appropriately large, prominent Christ figure in spite of the reduction in vertical space, the artist moved the apostles from lower center to one side. The space remaining opposite them was then filled in with the tree and the sun mentioned earlier. A less dramatic but even more skillful adjustment was made in the panel of the Nativity (Figures 3 and 9).

A unified composition was also a major concern in Christensonís selection and arrangement of subjects. In fact, one suspects that aesthetic considerations had priority over [11] content. The episodes in the life of Christ are not in chronological order but are so arranged that a symmetrical, well-planted composition results. Subjects of similar appearance are placed opposite each other, and those with many figures are placed below those with few. I can find no record of which subjects Christenson had intended for the predella ó the three base panels ó which was left unfinished when he quit work on the altar in 1904; but the design of the completed part indicates that these panels, like those immediately above them on the sides, would have contained subjects with many figures. {12} Had the predella been filled out, the altar would appear less squat and top-heavy.

The matter of composition was probably not Christensonís reason for moving the Last Supper from the predella, where it is in the baroque models (Figure 2), to a position above the Crucifixion (Figure 1); but the change fits well into his compositional scheme. True to the pietistic spirit which prevailed in the early Norwegian-American church, Christenson chose the admonitory words, "But, behold, the hand of him that betrayeth me is with me on the table," as the main inscription of the altar. Since these words were taken from the Biblical account of the Last Supper, the artist naturally placed the panel representing this subject in close proximity to them. From the standpoint of composition, however, the location of the panel adds to the altarís centralized character. The practically empty lower portion of the Last Supper panel can easily be conceived as an extension of the space in the panel below, an illusion which the artist emphasized by having the folds of the tablecloth continue the lines established by [12] Christís arms and head in the Crucifixion. The stylized row of apostles serves as a crowning border over this central area.

A digression here may be justified to consider the order in which the panels were produced and the development of Christensonís style while he was working. The rigid, archaic manner in which the disciples in the Last Supper panel are depicted may have stemmed partly from the facts that Christenson knew little about representing the human figure when he began the altar and that this panel was one of the first carved. An old photograph shows only the crown of the altar standing on two chairs, an indication that chronologically the upper portion preceded the main body of the work. {13}

Though Christenson had considerable experience as a decorative carver before beginning the altar ó a fact revealed by the stylistic and technical refinement of the acanthus decoration on the crown ó he had probably done little or no figure carving. There are no human figures on any of the early works by him which I have seen, and his training as a carpenter would scarcely have included more wood carving than was necessary for producing the standard decorative motifs of the period. The Last Supper panel was therefore presumably an experimental work in a field of endeavor that was new to Christenson. His problem was to determine whether he should attempt a true reproduction of his sophisticated model ó Da Vinciís famous work as reproduced in the Doré Bible ó or whether he should transcribe it into his own decorative idiom. {14} In the heads and faces he tried to suggest the odd angles and emotional expressions of the original, while in the bodies he resorted to a more schematic representation. The only idea they convey is the disciplesí fear of placing their hands on the table. [13]

Vacillation between the realistic and the decorative continued in the later panels as well, but the decorative, in a freer form than that found in his representation of the Last Supper, came more and more to the fore. On the panels to the left in the main section (Figures 4 and 5), Christenson was still attempting a somewhat faithful reproduction of his realistic models. This is evident in the overlapping of figures, the variety of angles at which they are represented, and the rather scattered, casually arranged lines that mark the folds of the drapery (a continuation of the drapery style in the Ascension). In the panels to the right (Figures 9 and 10), the subjects depicted have been spread evenly over the surface to fill it with pattern (see especially Figure 9), almost all the heads are frontally presented in spite of the angle from which they are seen in the model, and the folds of the drapery have become a highly organized surface pattern (see especially Figure 10). A freedom and mastery in the design of these panels indicate that they represent Christensonís figure carving in its most mature phase.

One might even speculate that the Nativity panel was never completed. In all the other panels Christenson cut back the ground areas between his figures so that none of the relief is recessed as it is in the upper portion of the Nativity panel. I am inclined to believe, however, that the artist intentionally left the panel in its present state. Deepening the background would have put the figures in the lower portion of the panel in higher relief than would be proper to their shallow surface modeling. Christenson presumably attempted through his inset relief to create by purely sculptural means the effect of heads peering through darkness.

The point in the creation of the altar at which the Crucifixion (Figure 7) was produced is difficult to determine. Crudities in the treatment of the bodies on the crosses indicate that the panel may have immediately followed those in the crown. The Magdalene (Figure 11) and the head of Christ, however, possess an artistic refinement comparable only to [14] that found in the Transfiguration and the Nativity. One recalls that in the early panels Christenson tried to reproduce directly his realistic models, with results that were more quaint than artistic. As he progressed, he began more and more to translate the models into his own decorative idiom, arriving finally at a representational style of rare linear beauty. The Crucifixion apparently came into being midway in this development or was worked on over a period of time simultaneously with the other panels.

Before digressing into the development of Christensonís style, I pointed out how his sense for monumental composition and for the spiritual content of his subjects assisted him in creating a unified artistic masterpiece out of a heterogeneous miscellany of models. Of equal importance were his exceptional understanding of what was proper to his medium, his sensitivity to the coloristic and textural qualities of wood, and his feeling for the expressive possibilities of line.

Christenson did not, like many Norwegian wood carvers, use his technical facility for virtuoso display or to create illusionistic effects. Consistent with his simple, honest approach to art, he left a fine set of Norwegian carving tools unused and worked with his jackknife. {15} Though the plant motifs of the altarís crown (Figure 6) have characteristics in common with Norwegian acanthus carving of the eighteenth century, they have none of the thin-walled, deeply undercut detail found in much of this work. And though the panels have characteristics in common with those of Norwegian baroque altars, they do not reflect the attempts at perspective typical of the seventeenth-century creations. Most of Christensonís reliefs consist simply of figures on one plane presented against a flat surface. In this respect they are more closely related to late Viking carving of the type the artist saw in the portals of his parish church than they are [15] to the more painterly post-Renaissance tradition in relief sculpture.

One of the most unusual aspects of Christensonís altar from a historical standpoint is its lack of paint. The Norwegian altars on which the work is modeled are brilliantly colored. The furniture in Christensonís home was probably also painted, since a trunk dated 1836 that was brought to this country by his sister has fine rose painting done by a member of the family. {16} Even Viking wood carving may originally have been painted, though few indications of this now remain. When Christenson decided to defy tradition and leave his work in natural finish, it was undoubtedly because he found the variety of surface qualities in wood itself sufficient to create the textural and coloristic effects he desired.

Christensonís feeling for the beauty of wood and his sense for combining various kinds had probably been developed when he did marquetry, or inlaid work, as a young man in Norway. He actually carried over characteristics of the inlay technique into his reliefs by carving the figures out of a different wood from that on which he placed them. This procedure was followed in all but the three most densely filled panels óthe Last Supper, Christ among the Elders, and the Nativity ó in which a contrast of materials could have created a cluttered effect. These works are carved for the most part from one block of maple. In the other panels only the figures are of maple and the ground is a boldly grained oak veneer. This material not only sets off the carvings but keeps the areas between them from becoming dead space (Figure 7). The use of veneer grounds is a rather direct indication of connection between the altar and Christensonís early training in marquetry.

The most pronounced contrasts in color between carved decorations and their grounds are found in the purely decorative portions of the altar. The angels among flowers are of [16] walnut, which stands out far more sharply than maple from the light oak veneer (Figures 1 and 4). The arched frames over both the side and the central panels are also of walnut, giving them, as well as the maple carvings applied to them, an outline as distinct as that of the angel motifs. In spite of its lack of paint, the Christenson altar is a symphony of rich and well-balanced color contrasts. {17}

Christensonís sensitivity to his material may even account to some extent for the nature of his line, which has a rhythmic, undulating quality closely related to that of the grain in wood. The similarity can easily be seen in the Road to Emmaus (Figure 4) and in the Magdalene in the Crucifixion (Figure 11), where the lines of the drapery fall directly into the rhythms established by the grain in the background veneer. Certain details in the altar, such as the undulating forms of the three central arches (Figure 1), suggest a relationship to Art Nouveau. This avant-garde European style was at its height in France when the altar was being carved, but that it could have found its way into the folk art of central Minnesota before 1904 is highly improbable. Christensonís early contact with Viking and baroque art undoubtedly established in him a predilection for bold, curvilinear design which was further nurtured by his sensitivity to the patterns inherent in his material.

The distinction of Christensonís line, however, lies not so much in its undulating character as such nor in its relationship to the patterns in his material, but in the sureness of its execution and the refined expressiveness of its movements. It gives dignity, life, and beauty to any subject, be it acanthus leaves (Figure 6) or the human form (Figure 10).

Much has been written about what the Norwegian [17] immigrant has contributed to American culture, but little attention has been given the aspects of his heritage which he was never able to transplant to the New World. To these belongs the folk-art tradition. In no area of culture was the immigrant better equipped to make a contribution, but in none has he given less. {18} Lars Christenson is the exception rather than the rule, not in the nature of his background and training, nor necessarily in his talent, but in his determination to continue the creative work that he had known in his youth. In spite of being surrounded by the temptations of more lucrative or socially rewarding activity ó a circumstance which led most immigrants to abandon the folk arts ó Christenson continued his decorative wood carving through most of his forty-six years in this country. The Decorah altar is not so much an example of what the Norwegian immigrants gave America as it is an indication of what they might have given, had conditions permitted their folk-art tradition to strike root in the new soil.

Notes

<1> Vesaas mentions about twenty folk painters from Telemark alone who emigrated to this country in the mid- nineteenth century. Since very little significant rose painting from this period has come to light in America, it would appear that the painters felt no great urge to continue their art after they found more lucrative occupations here. Vesaasí book was published in Oslo in 1954.

<2> Christenson sometimes added his family farm name, Kjørnes, to his Christian and surname. The latter was originally spelled "Christensen," but became " Christenson" in America.

<3> Christenson left Norway in 1864 and spent two years in northern Iowa and southern Minnesota before settling in Six Mile Grove, about three miles from Benson. The most extensive single source of recorded biographical information about him is a manuscript in the files of the Norwegian-American Historical Museum entitled "Sketch about Lars Christenson of Benson, Minnesota, and the Altar He Carved during His Spare Time," prepared by his daughter, Lena R. Christenson, in 1950. Part of it was published by Inga B. Norstog in "The Old Pioneer Altar," in Lutheran Herald, 35:127 (February 6, 1951). Written from memory, it is inaccurate in some details. Other valuable sources are Christensonís obituary in the December 9, 1910, issue of the Swift County Monitor (Benson, Minnesota); that of his wife in the March 17, 1921, issue; and a history of Benson in the June 24, 1927, issue. Additional information for this article was furnished by the artistís son, Mr. Hans Christenson of Minneapolis, and by other relatives.

<4> Two boxes with exceptionally fine inlay work done by Christenson just before he came to America and two large cupboards carved in this country, one with a crown which appears to have been a study for that of the altar, are in the possession of the Christenson family. There is also record of other works that have been lost.

<5> Illustrations and brief discussions are found in Christensenís The Index of American Design, 24 (New York and Washington, 1950), and his Early American Wood Carving, 125 (Cleveland, 1952).

<6> The popular title is misleading because only a small proportion of the illustrations were done by Paul Gustave Doré.

<7> Christensen, Early American Wood Carving, 125; L. Dietrichson, De norske stavkirker, 66, 290, 291 (Christiania, 1892). The present church was built on the same site as the old one, and the present altar dates from after Christensonís departure; information from Peder Berge, assistant pastor in Sogndal Parish.

<8> Christensonís stay in Bergen is recorded in the church books at Sogndal but is not mentioned in any of the accounts of his life written in America; information from Peder Berge.

<9> Benson Times, September 6, 1904. A typescript of the article was furnished by Miss Mildred Torgerson, Swift County Historical Society, Benson. See also Swift County Monitor, September 9, 1904.

<10> When a water-color copy of the altar was made for the Index of American Design ó a branch of the National Gallery of Art ó in the 1930ís, the work was given the date 1880 to 1890, which has since been accepted. The article in the Benson Times, September 6, 1904, states that Christenson had "spent the last seven winters" carving the altar, making the dates approximately 1897ó1904.

<11> Christensonís Doré Bible, a copy of the larger and better illustrated of two editions put out by the Waverly Company of Chicago in 1890, is now in the possession of his grandson, Wilfred Kjorness, of Minneapolis. The artist presumably obtained his copy from his sisterís brother-in-law, Gunnar Flaten, who was selling Bibles for Waverly in Benson in 1892. Information from Christensonís niece and nephew, Hilda and Garfield Flaten of Benson.

<12> Lena Christenson says in her " Sketch about Lars Christenson" that illness prevented her father from completing his work. I am inclined to believe, however, that it was his disillusionment at the realization that the altar would probably not be accepted for use in the local church. The artist was well enough to accompany his creation to the Minnesota State Fair in 1904, but he never took it back to Benson. It remained stored in St. Paul until it was transferred to Decorah, Iowa, around 1910. The artistís nephew, Christ Christenson, an amateur carver who lived in Glenwood, Minnesota, once considered completing the lower panels, but nothing had come of this when he died in 1959. Information from Hans Christenson, October, 1962.

<13> The photograph now hangs in an uninhabited dwelling near Brooten, Minnesota, which originally belonged to the artistís brother Peder. It was brought to my attention by Peder Christensonís daughter, Mrs. Allie Kittlesen of Brooten.

<14> Such details as the position of Christís hands and the lowered eyes of Christ and John indicate that Da Vinciís work was the model.

<15> Benson Times, September 6, 1904, and information from Hans Christenson, October, 1962. The artistís carving tools are in the possession of Wilfred Kjorness and appear to be practically new.

<16> The trunk is now in the possession of Hilda and Garfield Flaten.

<17> The structural foundation of the altar is a series of one-inch pine planks built up edge to edge horizontally. The posts and panels, which are attached to this foundation, assist in keeping it rigid. Some joints are glued or mortised, but others, unfortunately, contain nails. Rust from these accounts for the brown spots over much of the altarís surface. The altar is 10 feet, 8 inches wide by 12 feet, 4 inches high.

<18> The immigrant did not generally represent the segment of Norwayís society which had developed her sophisticated traditions in art, literature, and music; yet it was these, if any, of Norwayís secular cultural traditions which he most attempted to perpetuate. The folk-art tradition, which represented his natural idiom, he soon neglected.

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