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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Oluf Høst

Photo by Małgorzata Miłaszewska
The coast of Bornholm in the summer.  What artist would ever want to leave        
such a beautiful place? Yet, Oluf Høst painted it far more often in the winter time.      
Oluf Høst, Self-portrait,
ca. 1910
Few of us, even those who have served in the military, have ever come face to face with the ugly face of war. Fewer still have ever seen our comfy little geographical hideaways invaded by a foreign army or bombarded by planes and artillery. Artists, on the whole, have long been pretty good at staying out of the way of such war machines, fleeing at just their threat, or becoming refugees as they approach. As I've written many times, art and war don't mix well, and when they do, art always loses. But what do you do when you live on a tiny island, a cold, snowy pile of rocks in the middle of a sea full of enemy ships and submarines, making a fright flight impossible, or even more dangerous than staying put? That was the dilemma on April 10th,1940, when the Danish expressionist painter, Oluf Høst, came to realize his homeland had fallen to the Nazis, and indeed, they would be sitting up shop just down the road from his home.

Denmark and the Baltic, the island of Bornholm is at right.
 It wasn't a massive occupying invasion force.  The island of Bornholm was captured without a fight, being far too insignificant for much combat--not worth defending by the Danes nor fighting over by the Germans. The Nazis never numbered more than about 12,000 and mostly they only manned  coastal guns that were, in fact, fired only once (as a test) during the entire war. The German navy set up an observation post, the army a listening post on the island. That was about the size of it. Host continued to paint, worried perhaps, but his life remained virtually unchanged during most of the German occupation. That is, until sometime in 1943 when Oluf and his wife received word from the Germans that the older of their two sons, Ole, who had joined the Nazi SS, had been killed during fighting in a small town on the eastern front. Oluf never forgave himself for introducing his son a Nazi sympathizer who had undoubtedly influence the young man to join the war, fighting with the Germans. That's coming face to face with war on a very personal level (below).

The Dying of a Winter's Day, 1943, Oluf Høst
painted shortly after the death of his eldest son during the war. 
However, the entire island would suffer a similar fate starting in May, 1945, when the Soviet Air Force began bombarding the German occupiers of the island, in the process doing far more damage in just a few days than the Germans had in five years. The bombardment destroyed some seven-hundred homes and heavily damaged another three-thousand more just during a single night. The next day, the Soviets landed, the Germans surrendered, and the Russians held the island for almost a year before returning control to Danish government in April, 1946.
Oluf Høst. I love the painting, but can find no information on it.
If anyone can come up with a title and date for this work I'd be much obliged.
Oluf Høst at work, ca. 1914
The island of Bornholm was Oluf Høst's home. He was born there in the small town of Svaneke on the north eastern coastal corner of the roughly rectangular island in 1884. Except for a few years studying art in Copenhagen, where he met and married Hedvig, the mother of their two sons, Høst spent his entire life on the island. He was an expressionist cut from the same cloth as van Gogh and Cezanne, whom he greatly admired.  Yet his work is more colorful (Nordic people love color) than that of Cezanne even that of van Gogh. Stylistically, his handling of paint is also much looser than either of his primary influences, more in line with German Expressionism, verging, at times, on the abstract.
Winterscape, 1931, Oluf Høst
Oluf Host was reclusive, especially after the death of his son, retreating to a remote studio during the summer month where he did little besides paint and write--1800 volumes of an extensive, highly introspective diary (he called them log books) which he ordered sealed upon his death for a period of fifty years. Oluf died in 1966. Its been almost fifty years. In 2012, the diaries were unlocked, read, and became the source of a biography Host titled himself: Oluf Høst: jeg blev væk i mig selv
(Oluf Høst: I was lost in my self). Much of his work can now be seen in the The Oluf Høst Museum in Gudhjem, Bornholm (below(.

Oluf Høst home and museum, Gudhjem, Bornholm.

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