Portrait of a Norwegian Girl

Portrait of a Norwegian Girl

1909Oil on canvas60.3 × 48.5 cmTartu Art Museum

On 9 June 1910, Konrad Mägi wrote his friend and agent, Eduard Virgo, who was working as a journalist then: “As for my pictures in Helsinki, there are so many bad ones that I can’t exhibit, only perhaps sell privately. For example, there are some landscapes and the picture of a girl’s face in the larger folder. They can’t be put out on display, because as far as I remember, they are very poor.” It is possible that the picture of the girl’s face Mägi was disparaging was the Portrait of a Norwegian Girl, which is now one of his best-known works.

The model is believed to be the 14-year-old daughter of the Norwegian politician Adam Egede-Nissen. Her name was Gerdi and later, as Gerdi Grieg, she would be a famous star of the screen and stage. Egede-Nissen, the father, was a well-known politician, elected to parliament on the vote of the fishing community in the north of the country. Due to his left-wing views (he later founded the Norwegian Communist Party) had close interactions with Russian emigrants, a group with which Mägi also socialized – and virtually belonged to. Egede-Nissen, a supporter of Lenin (and later, Stalin as well), was an extremely friendly and warm person who always tried to help those in a weaker position than he; he also had Mägi over for dinner many times. At these meals, they almost certainly talked politics, too.

The red colour in the work may have also been a reference to the father’s political views, yet Mägi made heavy use of that colour throughout the Norwegian period (see e.g., Norwegian Landscape with a Pine Tree) and so this particular painting does not stand out. It has been written in a memoir that Mägi later asked a girl to pose and “he was interested in my reddish hair.”

The background deserves attention – the ornamental background became a predominant feature in Mägi’s portraits – as does the girl’s hair. They are reminiscent of a labyrinth; the girl’s white collar and tapestry also are like intricate arabesques. Depiction of abstract labyrinths in women’s hair (including in paintings by Edvard Munch and Gustav Klimt) was a way of symbolizing mystical unworldly power, but Munch and Klimt also imbued it with a strong erotic charge. While the model in Mägi’s painting is not sexualized, the work is the most psychological portrait by Mägi, as he would subsequently prettify and idealize his models.