The Arctic is commonly portrayed as a region of snowy mountains, northern lights, and thawing glaciers. The actual picture, however, is more nuanced. There are four million people living, studying, and working in the circumpolar North, of whom roughly 10 percent are Indigenous.

The fishing industry is a primary source of income for many Arctic economies. Norway is the world’s second-largest exporter of fish and seafood. Nearly 90 % of Greenland exports is also fish and seafood. In Iceland, the fisheries contribute 25% to the national GDP, taking the indirect effects of the ocean cluster into account. Arctic Research and innovation transformed many products, previously considered waste, such as cod skin and shrimp shells, into an important source of revenue. All these facts are rarely reflected in the typical image of the North, portrayed as a polar desert.

To mark International Women’s Day on March 8th and show a different perspective on how the Arctic is portrayed, AEC asked Isabelle Gapp, Arts & Science Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Art History at the University of Toronto, to write a piece on economic development in the Arctic through the historical lens of a female artist.

Anna Boberg and the Lofoten Fishing Industry

Imagine for a moment a woman dressed in waterproof overalls, waders, a peaked rain hat, and balanced in a small, wooden rowing boat. Two cod-fish are held aloft in either hand. This image taken from a holiday photo album is that of the Swedish painter Anna Boberg (1864-1935), a self-described amateur fisherman, polar researcher, and Arctic artist. For over thirty years, from 1901 until 1934, Boberg frequently visited the Arctic, specifically the Lofoten Islands off the Norwegian north-west coast. Here, she and her husband constructed their own home and studio overlooking the Svolvær harbour, a prominent village in the Norwegian cod and herring fishing industry. This lifestyle is also documented in Boberg’s Swedish-language autobiography Envar sitt ödes lekboll (1934). Her paintings derived from these Lofoten visits offer an understanding of local industry and environment, and envisage the Arctic as anything but a barren and empty landscape.

Glad Fiskare! National Library of Sweden.

Painting Lofotfisket

The tradition of memorialising the Lofoten fishing industry (or lofotfisket), was prevalent in the work of nineteenth-century Norwegian painters, Otto Sinding, Adelsteen Normann, and Gunnar Berg. Concerned with modernisation these artists marked the interaction between landscape, local labourers, and the mechanisation of the industry. This is evidenced in paintings such as Boberg’s In the Harbour, Svolvaer where the surrounding mountains provide a backdrop to the nordland boats that operated out of the harbour. Bands of green, red, yellow, and white paint wrap around the wooden vessels and reflect upon the surface of the water.

In the Harbour Svolvaer. Collection of the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

While many of Boberg’s works remain undated, we know that she was painting during the “renaissance” of small boats, and simple line-fishing, which similarly peaked in the 1920s as in the late nineteenth century.1 Not only was Boberg painting during the pinnacle of the lofotfisket, but also one of its last flourishes. In her autobiography, she wrote:

Who, at the time of my earlier visits to Lofoten, could imagine that this millennial fairy-tale would soon be at an end! That the power of the motor would in a staggeringly short time end tradition. The slow, hammering of the oars was replaced by the engine’s rapid bangs, pure sailing was over forever. The fishing boat and its bigger sister, the hunting vessel, will survive only as museum objects.2

Boberg’s commitment to the Lofoten lifestyle and landscape also manifested itself in the purchasing of her own little boat, the Puttan. She managed this dinky vessel herself, which necessitated the invention of a portable easel that could be attached to her person.


The Industrial Landscape

The glistening silver-blue scales of herring pool around the feet of yellow-overall-clad fishermen in Boberg’s Lofoten Fishermen. It is one of few paintings to document the human and non-human roles fundamental to the lofotfisket. With the exportation of fish products covering 50% of payments for Norwegian imports between 1890-1900, the dependency on cod and herring extended beyond personal consumption.3 Racks of drying stockfish, a product local to the area, mark the landscape to this day, while the establishment of factories in the area came about during the late nineteenth century. The first herring-oil factory was constructed in Svolvær in 1898 (and the subject of a painting by Boberg); and earlier that century, the manufacturing of guano fertilizer, using fish heads and other waste, was similarly established in Svolvær in 1856, the first of its kind in Europe.

Lofoten Fishermen. Collection of the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

Several of Boberg’s works allude to the industrialisation of fishing in Svolvær, for example, Whale Oil Factory. Here, the buildings and chimneys emitting plumes of smoke suffocate the sky and conceal the inevitable landscape beyond. The North Atlantic and Norwegian marine environment was at one time dominated by whaling vessels and featured prominently in paintings by the northern English Hull School. Having established itself as an important fishing industry in the seventeenth century, the hunting of minke whales, belugas, narwhals, and pilot wales, in particular, provided a sought-after source of meat and blubber. The Svalbard archipelago provided an expeditionary point from which Dutch and British whalers set forth until the late eighteenth century. By the end of this period, over-hunting meant that the industry had largely withdrawn from this Nordic Arctic region. Whaling was a lucrative industry that continues to this day exclusive to the minke whale.

Whale Oil Factory
Whale Oil Factory. Collection of the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

1 Pål Christensen, Den Norsk-Arktiske Torsken og Verden (Lofoten: Museum Nord, 2009), 24.
2 Anna Boberg, Envar sitt ödes lekboll (Stockholm: Norstedts, 1934), 10. Original quotation, translation by author: “Vem kunde vid tidpunkten för mina tidigare vistelser i Lofoten ana att dess tusenåra saga snart skulle vara all! Makten som på svindlande kort tid bröt traditionen var motorn. Årornas långsamma hammarslag ersattes av motorns hastiga smällar, råseglet beslogs för alltid. Båtarnas båt och hennes större syster jaegten skola överleva sig själva some museiföremål.”
3 Arild Holt-Jensen, “Norway and the Sea: The Shifting Importance of Marine Resources Through Norwegian History,” GeoJournal 10, no. 4 (1985): 395.