Norway’s second largest city sits on the western edge of the country’s crannied shoreline, a massive mountainous ridge away from its older and better-known cousin Oslo. Despite being infamous for its unpredictable weather, Bergen is always bubbling with energy, art, and culture, perhaps inheriting its liveliness from its historic roots of an important seaport. More than anything, however, Bergen seems to be inextricably tied to nature. Itself a hilly city, Bergen is surrounded on all sides by cloud-enveloped mountains and rugged hiking trails, and can be the ideal jumping-off point to explore Norway’s famous fjords.
The plane swooped over fjord country, where the shoreline ebbs and flows into the grey Norwegian ocean. The seafront is adorned by rippling mountains, whose peaks are still capped by a thin sheen of late-April, nearly-melted snow. The Norwegian coast is among the longest in the world because of its countless fjords, islands, and peninsulas. Norway’s historic prosperity has largely resulted from its maritime territories and the rich veins of resources the ocean brings – this ranges from fisheries to petroleum, the latter of which makes up over 20% of Norway’s GDP today.
The region’s unceasing precipitation is legendary. It rained for 85 straight days in the late 2000s, and 2017 marked the second rainiest year in the city’s record. Rain is an immutable institution; local creatives have taken advantage accordingly. Bergen labels Norwegian Rain and designer T-Michael have incorporated fashion into the raincoat, an item of clothing which has long been purely functional. Despite Norway’s frosty reputation, Bergen actually enjoys a rather temperate climate, at the expense of year-round precipitation. Nonetheless, the city truly does bloom when the sun finally makes an appearance, as locals take to the parks and streets.
Perhaps the rain was a portent, because I was immediately greeted with the city’s sign questioning its own existence.
Or perhaps the rain breeds moodiness, and moodiness in turn wrings out the creative juices. Bergen has always been a cultural hub of Norway. Norway’s most famous classical composer, Edvard Grieg, lived near Bergen. His living quarters have been converted into a museum and exhibition centre, which also holds daily lunchtime concerts throughout the summer. The villa looks out onto the picturesque Lake Nordas. One can imagine Grieg penning the crescendoing melody of Morgenstemning (Morning mood) while the sun rose over the verdant landscape. Part of Grieg’s legacy lives on Grieghallen, a concert hall in the heart of the city and the base of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, one of the oldest in the world. In addition to Grieg, Bergen is also home to the classical composers Harald Sæverud and composer/violinist Ole Bull, whose villas have been converted into museums and can be visited today.
Contemporary music does not take a back seat in Bergen. Bergenfest and Nattjazz showcase the best of contemporary music and jazz, and attract some of the best artists from around the world. Bergenfest started as a small blues festival but grew to encompass many musical genres, and is today held in early summer on the grounds of the harbourfront Bergenhus Fortress. Nattjazz, on the other hand, is a two-week long jazz festival held at the Verftet USF, a former sardine factory. Artists as famous as James Brown and Herbie Hancock have played at one of the foremost jazz festivals in Northern Europe.
Bergen is also renowned for its visual art scene. Street art has been spray-painted, stencilled, and brushed onto every street corner, adding a colourful dimension to Bergen’s already multi-coloured wooden houses. Some are merely decorative, while others provide the artists’ commentaries on the world’s foremost issues of immigration and climate change. In a city where art is widely accessible, street art strengthens the philosophy that art is for the people, expressed on canvases which belong to all citizens.
The cultural scene in the city is dominated by four large buildings by Lille Lungegårds Lake – these make up the KODE art museums. Once separate museums (which accounts for the vastly different architecture of the different galleries), these have been consolidated in 2013 to form one entity, each holding specialised exhibitions. KODE 1 holds the treasured Silver Collection, showcasing silver and gold objects produced in Bergen, whereas KODE 2 is the site of an ever-changing rota of temporary exhibitions.
Hoping for a glimpse into Norwegian fine art, I instead headed for KODE 3 and 4. KODE 3 contains the Rasmus Meyer Collection of Norwegian art’s golden age, tracking the careers of artists such as J.C. Dahl and Harriet Backer. Most notable of all is a comprehensive collection of the works of Edvard Munch, the artist best known for the agonising “The Scream”. While KODE 3 does not contain this particular painting (which is instead found in the National Gallery in Oslo), it does track the stylistic shifts throughout Munch’s career. It was particularly striking to see Munch’s style transform to broad and optimistic brushstrokes following his middle-aged mental breakdown, a great departure of the morbidity and moodiness of his earlier works.
KODE 4, in contrast with the highly specialised showcase of Norway’s artistic golden age, traces the history of Norwegian and European art from the 1400s to contemporary art. An entire wing highlights one of Norway’s most beloved artists, Nikolai Astrup, whose depictions of bucolic Norway evoke the countryside’s innocence and fertility. Another is reserved for J. C. Dahl and his idealised and yearning landscape paintings. A final one, under the central dome of the building, features a temporary exhibition – when I visited, the room was eerily empty, save for contemporary artist Per Barclay’s installation art, where different rooms are filled with different fluids, creating beautiful but often unexpected reflections.