Frank Morse-Rummel captures Norse mythology with ‘Oden with Wala’

By Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator

To mark the opening of the special exhibition Landscapes & Legends of Norway: William Singer & His Contemporaries (on view through Sept. 17), we hope that you enjoy this watercolor in our collection. If you visit the museum, this work is on view in the Bowman Gallery.

Frank Morse-Rummel

Frank Morse-Rummel (British, b. Germany, 1884–1960)
Odin with Wala (Vövla), 1930–36
Watercolor on paper
6.75″h x 8.75″w
Collection of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
Gift of Anna & William Singer, A0154,37.0209

This evocative watercolor is the first in a series of thirteen paintings depicting episodes from Norse mythology. Derived from the Völuspá, the most renowned and important of the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda (two key medieval Icelandic sources of Norse mythology), Frank Morse-Rummel created a visual narrative of the world’s creation, destruction, and rebirth, as told in a trance by a völva (prophet) who addresses Odin, the ruler god of death, wisdom, and poetry. The artist’s series follows the sequence of events recounted by the völva. These works are studies for an unexecuted series of murals that were either intended for a civic building or possibly a theatrical production.

In this painting, Morse-Rummel begins his cycle with Odin summoning the vövla, who possesses supernatural powers and the ability to determine the fate of gods and humans. During their encounter, she tells the story of the world’s creation and relays a prophecy about Odin’s future. She foretells that he will sacrifice an eye in pursuit of knowledge to the giant guarding the well of wisdom Mimir, before drinking from it. The vövla also predicts that the god Baldr will eventually be killed, and that the world will end in war (Ragnarök) but subsequently be reborn.

Here, the vövla is represented as a nude, mystical figure suspended in space, holding out a vessel. Odin, accompanied by one of his ravens in flight (either Huginn or Muninn, symbolic of thought and memory), is shown reclining on a bank of clouds, and appears to place his severed eye on the bowl (referring to his future sacrifice). With her partially concealed face and body, the sage ethereally emerges from the mist and is portrayed with long, flowing hair that blows in the wind.

In contrast to earlier Romantic depictions of Norse legends that were more detailed, Morse-Rummel’s paintings are stylistically more abstract and represent each subject ambiguously. Morse-Rummel absorbed numerous artistic influences, especially from Symbolism and Post-Impressionism, as exemplified by his use of free-flowing brush strokes, broad swaths of color, and the creation of evocative, dreamy compositions that seamlessly merge figures with the surrounding landscape. The artist’s free, unconventional interpretations embody the metaphorical nature of the Eddaic texts, which are often unclear about each story’s details, thus permitting a variety of potential readings and meanings.

Morse-Rummel, who spent much of his life in Paris, was a friend of the Singers. In 1936, he attended a festive dinner party in the French capital celebrating the opening of William’s exhibition at the Galerie Charpentier. In 1937, Morse-Rummel and his wife, Marta Holm, traveled to Norway and visited the Singers at Dalheim. There, he likely gave them these paintings, knowing that the Norse legends would no doubt appeal to their interests in Norwegian culture.

Born in Berlin, Germany, Morse-Rummel was part of a long-established, international colony of painters in Paris. He attended the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, and traveled to Europe in 1910, where he studied at the Royal Academy of Arts, Berlin, and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris. After taking study trips to Italy, Malta, Egypt, the Holy Land, Greece, and Turkey, his interests took a different turn and he became fascinated by Norse languages, mythology, and culture, which inspired him to create the landscape and watercolors on view in this exhibition.

Interestingly, Morse-Rummel was the maternal grandson of painter Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791–1872), inventor of the telegraph and Morse code, as well as the first president of the National Academy of Design, New York. In addition, Frank’s father, Franz (1853–1901), was a music teacher and concert pianist (the first to perform at Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1891), while his son, Walter (1887–1953), was also a famous pianist, composer, and music editor.
This WeekendArt is sponsored by James & Melinda Marsden