Is This Real Folk

Tutorial Essay Trinity (Summer) 2012

The Romance of the People: The Folk Revival from 1760 to 1914

What did European realism owe to folk culture?  Discuss with reference to Ibsen.

Weisberg has defined Realism as ‘an art form that examined the commonplaces of everyday life.’ As a trend in literature and drama it has settings defined in time and place, a straightforward chronology, it features ordinary people in situations that could credibly happen in ordinary life, and the characters are rounded, they are not types. In literature subjects are depicted objectively in the omniscient third person, and in drama the fourth wall creates a similar effect. Realism was based on the direct observation of the modern world, and idealised classicism and the emotionalism and exoticism of the Romantic Movement were rejected. Taking this definition of realism, it can be difficult to see how it relates to folk culture, because folktales frequently contradict these boundaries. By looking at naturalism, however, the common ground between folk culture and realism can become apparent, as realism shares in the focus on the natural world present throughout folk culture. Both can also be seen as democratising, as searching for an original essence, and as a means to discover the authentic.


Peer Gynt was written by Henrik Ibsen in 1867 as a dramatic poem and was first performed in 1876. It was based largely upon Norwegian folk culture, especially the tales gathered by Asbjornsen in his Huldre-Eventyr og Folkesagen (1845). The play blends realistic scenes with surreal or fantastic ones, yet this interplay between conscious and unconscious, real and imagined, means that it can be considered as a work which deals with elements of realism. This is fairly explicit at some points, for example in Act II when Peer goes with the woman in green to the troll kingdom, she invites him to ride on her wedding horse which turns out to be a giant pig. He then sees a ‘house growing out of nothing’ but when he tries to enter it he collides with a rock. At the end of Act II he wakes up by the wall of his mother’s hut, leaving it open as to whether his interactions with the trolls were part of a dream. This ambiguity between what is real and imagined forces the audience to speculate about reality and fantasy. However, Peer Gynt cannot be viewed fully as a realist play, because the folkloric content adds romantic elements. The character of the Boyg, which is just a voice, is described as ‘a slime, a mist,’ which makes it difficult to stage. Ibsen has demonstrated that realism and folk culture are not incompatible when played against each other, but in Peer Gynt it is the contrast that is emphasised, not the similarities. Nevertheless, it is not necessarily the content which makes a work realistic, but the presentation. Peer Gynt, despite its inclusion of surreal scenes, does follow a linear chronology and there is no direct interaction between the characters and the audience. Although there are soliloquies, the audience is not explicitly addressed, and so it follows the realist trend in keeping a fourth wall. Kaplan claims that the Norwegian eventyrstil is, ‘directly analogous to the conventions of realist drama.’ Therefore, in some ways it can be argued that Peer Gynt is an example of a play which contains elements of realism and yet is inspired by folk culture.


However, realism is neither always nor purely inspired by folk culture. The relationship between realism and folklore in art is complex. Art was seen by many critics as a medium not only to give pleasure, but to provide an ideal. In the nineteenth century, however, idealism and realism were seen as opposite poles. Realism was therefore seen to contrast against the romantic trend, which had been compatible with portraying mythological beings found in folklore. Realism, on the other hand, in its strictest sense, required artists to paint the corporeal here and now, rather than a shadowy enchanted past. As Lukkarinen argues, artists participating in the realist movement of the 1880s focussed on ‘ethnographic detail rather than portraying romanticised fantasies.’ Realism and folk culture were viewed as two separate and conflicting aspects of culture. In the 1880s new ideas of reality emerged, and artists conceived true beauty as being found in the everyday present. Since folklore emphasises links to the past, it cannot be part of this new trend.


European realism in art is often seen as stemming from the Paris Salon in the mid nineteenth century, and the role of folklore has not been explored in great depth. Gunnarsson claims that ‘the theory of Realism in art was drawn largely from French literature,’ by works from writers like Emile Zola. Painting en plein air, a technique linked to realism, gained popularity in Paris. As Boime has argued, the realism evolved in France during the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, and was encouraged under Bonaparte’s government in the Second Empire. Realism was established long before Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, in 1855 Gustave Courbet exhibited 40 paintings in the Pavilion du Realisme, and Italian realist painters were meeting regularly in Florence. The magazine Le Realisme, and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary were both published in the 1850s. Realism can therefore be seen as stemming from the urban, commercial, industrial, modern world, and could not contrast more strongly with folk culture. However, as Lüthy points out, Paris at its height of cultural supremacy was subject to a constant influx of new people and ideas from the provinces, so there was an interaction between the metropolis and folk cultures. Even so, realism as an art movement was happening alongside the folk revival, and it is fairly impossible to say whether and how one was influencing the other. However, it is possible to see them both as part of a search for authenticity and identity, both individually, in the new industrialised modern world, and collectively, as part of the creation of nation states.


Authenticity is a major issue which folk culture and realism both address, although in different ways. Whilst realism aimed to accurately portray through literature, drama or art, folk culture was oral, and to be set down in a static, permanent format was more problematic. Kaplan argues that Peer Gynt satirises the collecting of folk tales. She claims that, as ‘a teller of other people’s tales,’ Peer is portrayed negatively, as a liar. In the opening scene, Aase says to her son: ‘you can turn a tale inside out/polish it up with a lot of swagger/disguise it with your fancy feathers/so no one can see the scrawny old carcass…until in the end I couldn’t recognise/ a tale I’ve known the whole of my life.’ This can be read as an indictment of the activities of folk collectors. Peer appropriates the oral performances of others, and is condemned for doing so. This highlights that Ibsen saw truth and authenticity as vital elements of preserving the folk culture. Collectors often had problems in pre presenting folk culture to a reading public; should they simply recount the tales, or record the narrators?  The names and places of the people who told the stories originally were rarely noted down. Collectors such as Asbjornsen and Moe did not use transcripts or dialect, but instead conformed to generic expectations of folk culture, using techniques such as repetition and grandfatherly explanation. In a similar way, realist drama does not have a narrator; it does not ‘tell’ and instead ‘shows.’ Kaplan argues that folklore collectors often cast themselves as tellers rather than writers, trying to preserve a sense of orality in written form. However, this process erases the trace of the original informer.


Therefore, accurate representation of the truth is an issue which folk collectors drew attention to, and it could be argued led to experimentation resulting in realism. In the hall of the mountain king, Peer is exhorted to be true to himself, and it is this search for the essence of self, as both individual and country, that is central to both realism and folk culture. Kaplan argues that in Norway the ‘Herdian identification of the oral with the authentic was if anything amplified by the local linguistic situation.’ Since Danish was the leading literary language, Norwegian was seen as belonging to the peasants, and the people. The peasants were conceived of as the most authentic people, natural, ancient, and uncorrupted by the modern world, and so a high proportion of realist art focussed on rural work. Realism and folklore could both therefore be seen as democratising, in that by depicting the lower classes they are elevated to the status of high culture. Weisberg suggests that realism was an art form made to be intelligible to the middle classes, who could relate to the depictions of everyday life. Bezucha also argues that some sense of social consciousness is implied through realism, although this is not necessarily radical, and the same could be said of the elevation of folk culture. Both movements provide evidence for an uncertainty caused by the changing structures of the world, and were attempts to provide stability, by highlighting both the past and the present. In Peer Gynt, Aase’s lament ‘what’s become of the proud days/of your grandpa’s time’ reflects these concerns. Huusko claims that researching the mythical past was part of a trend ‘that considered urban life and industrialisation to be degenerative and yearned for an incorrupt life from a time before the Fall of Man.’ The ‘primitive’ was idealised, both through the elevation of folk culture, and in some senses through realist art, especially landscapes.


A focus on nature is one of the major things which folk culture and realism have in common. Naturalism is a form of realism; in art the terms are often interchangeable. In 1889 the critic Jean Moreas identified three schools of art: romanticism, naturalism, and symbolism, not counting realism as a category. Kent argues that nature can both nurture and threaten – something which folklore also expresses. In both Norwegian art and folk culture, attention is paid to the landscape, especially the mountains and fjords which are seen as distinctively ‘Norwegian.’ In the Buck ride episode in Peer Gynt, setting plays a major role, as the protagonist describes Gjendin ridge: ‘It cuts along/with an edge like a scythe…scars and glaciers sheer down/the precipice to the glassy lakes.’ Artists from Johan Christian Dahl, the ‘father of Norwegian painting,’ to Thorolf Holmboe and Nikolai Astrup and many more, were well known for their landscape paintings. By using nature as a stabilising force, and because of the prominence given to Naturpoesie throughout Europe, perhaps folk culture encouraged realists to look at landscape. More importantly, however, the idea that climate and geography caused innate natural differences in character helped to justify and add to discourses on nationhood.


Georg Brandes criticised Peer Gynt as being ‘neither beautiful nor true.’ It is this concern with truth that is the most striking similarity between folk culture and realism, two movements that on the face of it can appear to be in complete binary opposition. Both aim to capture a ‘true eternal spirit’ for the masses. Lüthy has argued that in art, ‘on the one hand the countryside was portrayed in charming landscape views, while on the other, the country’s heritage of folklore was depicted.’ However, I would challenge this idea that there were two separate movements, and instead point to the fact that both were creating a sense of national identity. As Falnes argues, ‘realism no less than romanticism viewed human life as organic,’ and this continuity should be emphasised. The search for an original voice and soul of the people is a theme present in both the research of folk culture and realism. In 1870 reviewers of the new edition of Asbjornsen’s Huldre-eventyr disagreed over whether it was romantic or realist, whilst some were calling it romantic others were claiming it as realist. This shows how technical terminology could change, whilst the processes which were ongoing remained the same.  Although folk culture contained elements of the supernatural and mystical, which realism shunned, both aimed to find and create new identities. In Peer Gynt, Ibsen portrays the interplay of realism and folk culture, showing how both played a part in daily lives, and both influenced perceptions of self.


Robert Bezucha, in The European Realist Tradition, (ed. Weisberg)

Albert Boime, in The European Realist Tradition, (ed. Weisberg)

Oscar Falnes, National Romanticism in Norway, (London, 1933)

Torsten Gunnarsson, Nordic Landscape Painting in the Nineteenth Century, tr. Nancy Adler, (London, 1998)

Timo Huusko, in Northern Stars and Southern Lights: The Golden Age of Finnish Art, Ed. Waiboer (Dublin, 2008

Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt, Tr. Fry, Fillinger (Oxford, 1989)

Merill Kaplan, ‘On the Road to Realism with Asbjornsen and Moe, Peer Gynt, and Henrik Ibsen’ in Scandinavian Studies, 75.4 (2003)

Neil Kent, The Soul of the North, (London, 2000

Genevieve Lacambre, in The European Realist Tradition, (ed. Weisberg)

Ville  Lukkarinen, in Northern Stars and Southern Lights: The Golden Age of Finnish Art, Ed. Waiboer (Dublin, 2008)

Hans Lüthy, in The European Realist Tradition, (ed. Weisberg)

Gabriel Weisberg (ed.), The European Realist Tradition, (Indiana, 1982)


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