Piers Crocker, Curator, Norwegian Canning Museum
Perhaps not the first thing you think of in your dreamings about sardine can labels, any more than any other labelled product, food or otherwise. Who needs art when you can have an IKEA flat-pack with name and product code so clearly displayed?
Well, welcome to a whole new world, that of iddisology. I’ll just explain that. Most would be familiar with the French word “etiquette”, with cognates in sundry Romance languages. In Norwegian – which is actually not a Romance language, but let it pass – there is the word “etikett”, meaning a label. Amongst youthful, eager, collectors of sardine can labels in the back streets of Stavanger (Norway) in the (say) inter-war years, the word became first “iddikett”, then plain “iddis”. I’ll leave it to the linguists to explain the transitions. “Iddisology”, then, the study of sardine can labels.
Of course before we start we are back to ”What is Art?” If art has to be brutally commercial, with its main raison d’être being to sell the product which it envelops, and in addition being mass-produced, is it still “Art”? Does “fine art” include the words “Net weight 3¾ oz.” and “Produced in Stavanger…salt added”? I’ll leave you to ponder these unanswerable questions…
The fact is, however, that those who designed labels for the humble Norwegian canned sardine (sprat) (see, entirely incidentally, the website for The Society for the Appreciation of the Lowly Sardine) were artists. They even worked with brushes and paint, producing miniature, well, masterpieces, depicting all manner of subjects, many already mentioned in the pages of this august publication. Landscapes, ships, cars, a train or two, Vikings (of course, and without horns on their helmets – can you imagine anything more impractical, lurking in the undergrowth?) women, animals, royalty (actually usually incorporating an official photograph – crowned heads of state couldn’t really be expected to sit for the largely unknown label-painters, nor could the companies afford the sums involved. Nor could they have much of an idea how well a label depicting the Crown Prince of Ethiopia would sell, with text in Amharic, anywhere except in Ethiopia.) Norwegian royalty were happy to be depicted, especially King Haakon and Queen Maud, and any number of labels with King Olav V, first as Prince, then as King. It would seem that the present King Harald declined, despite at the time of writing having just celebrated a joint official 75th birthday with Queen Sonja. But King Oscar II, actually of Sweden, is still the prime-selling Norwegian brand of sprats. And he was no oil painting… as the first pictures of him on labels bear out. But only the early ones. His Majesty apparently asked for a little retouching, since his portrait was to be borne to all the corners of the globe. Later versions depict him as jovial, broad-shouldered, with a full head of hair and luxuriant moustache. “Artistic licence” – or royal (and commercial) propaganda? Another question to ponder.
That was a digression on royalty as depicted by artists on sprat labels. More subjects please. Subsection of “Women” was Mermaids, sometimes not altogether decent, and as such very risqué for early 20th century Norway, and Stavanger in particular, a bastion of muscular Christianity. Clearly no photographs available here. Other female celebrities include a photograph of the Polish Countess Delfina Potocka, the Norwegian skater Sonja Henie, or the daughters of various sardine magnates, and sundry ladies, famous in their time no doubt, but now unknown, even by Wikipedia. How does one classify a label showing a photograph of the “Monna Lisa” (sic)?
Back to our list: landscapes. A typical subject for artists of all periods, and with Norwegian landscapes, or mountainscapes or seascapes, what could be better? Rolling countryside (there is some), jagged cliffs, the midnight sun at North Cape. Just because the picture measures only 10.5 cm by 7.5 cm doesn’t make the original painting any less of an artwork. Had it been defined as a “miniature” in an auction catalogue of watercolours or works in gouache –“The property of a gentleman”, of course – the sale would have gone swimmingly. Is the original devalued by the fact of millions of reproductions of it, on cheap quality paper? Is the original of the Mona Lisa so devalued? Rather enhanced, one could argue. Very collectable in this age of small houses. All one needs is an album, not a purpose-built gallery, but then, slightly less to admire, and you can’t charge admission, unless you are the Norwegian Canning Museum (and I could add a few other museums with similar collections)
Paintings of transport are, in certain circles, very well known: ships’ “portraits” are two a penny in maritime museums – well, not quite, since I have colleagues (and indeed friends) who work in such institutions, and I too would be among the first to appreciate them as art, er, both the colleagues and the pictures… Terence Cuneo is a name that comes to mind in the field of railway art, ditto Yurly Shevchuk for cars (oh all right, I googled “car paintings” didn’t I? You can do the same for “Viking + paintings” too). There are some really lovely animals, even insects and butterflies.
The Norwegian Canning Museum, of which you may have heard in these pages, in addition to its collection of several tens of thousands of different printed labels, has the original paintings of some that went on to be famous, and others which didn’t. Listen carefully, and you can hear the brush-strokes…