John Savio

  • Visual artist, Graphic artist
  • 28.01.1902–16.04.1938

Savio is known primarily for his woodcuts depicting Sami culture and lifestyle. His visual world also encompasses landscapes and everyday life. Seen as a whole, Savio’s artistic practice bears witness to his ties to North Norway.

An artist emerges 

Savio is said to have sketched his first known drawing of a reindeer in his grandmother’s bible when he was four years old. He lived in various parts of North Norway while growing up. He spent a great deal of time in Oslo from the age of 18 onwards. Savio had little formal art education, but did attend the Norwegian National Academy of Craft and Art Industry for a period of time. He was influenced by visits to the National Gallery and exhibitions in the capital city, and his close scrutiny of art books. Savio studied woodcuts of images by Albrecht Dürer, Felix Vallotton and Japanese artists, and was further inspired by the art of Edvard Munch, Nikolai Astrup and Gustav Vigeland. During this period he began experimenting with woodcuts. In addition to prints and drawings, Savio worked with paintings and watercolours.  


With its clear and stylised presentation of galloping reindeer calves in a rhythmic pattern, the well-known motif Reinkalver (Reindeer Calves) has essentially become a symbol of the culture of the Finnmark mountain plateau. Savio’s roots and upbringing in Sami culture informed his portrayals of his people’s lives and struggle for existence. Here reindeer play a prominent role and are imbued with symbolic power. Animals in movement constitute a recurring theme in his work. His motifs were inspired by impressions from his early life.  

The good life 

Several of the woodcuts, such as Pulkkjørere (Sleigh Ride), evoke speed and excitement. In other motifs he describes everyday life and the close contact between people and animals. Motifs showing young boys practising how to throw lassos shape a story almost like a cartoon strip. Perhaps Savio himself was involved in this activity as a boy. Other pictures portray young people’s sense of anticipation and joie de vivre, or the simple and robust life lived in pact with nature.  

From a studio in a suitcase to popular collectors items 

When Savio died he left a suitcase containing some woodblocks, carving tools and prints. Using simple methods he created around 150 different motifs as woodcuts and linocuts during his short life.  They were usually printed in editions of 100 copies. Savio seldom dated his prints, but most of them were probably produced between 1920 and 1934. 

Savio’s woodcuts are characterised by a simple but varied carving style, emphasising the contrast between black and white. In several instances we know of drawings that he appeared to have transferred to the woodblock before carving the motif. He printed the woodcuts in black and white. He also hand-coloured a number of the motifs, some in strongly hued watercolours that were most likely inspired by the clear, intense colours of the Sami national costume. 

In 1930 he held his debut with a solo exhibition in Tromsø. Starting in 1933 he travelled abroad on several occasions, and in 1936 an exhibition of Savio’s art was held in Paris. In 1939 and 1941 memorial exhibitions of his work were held in Oslo. Today Savio’s powerful woodcuts are well known and in high demand.  


The National Museum has a total of 92 woodcuts and 25 drawings by Savio. The National Gallery purchased its first of Savio’s works in 1941 from the memorial exhibition held at Oslo Kunstforening. Savio’s woodcuts have long been available for closer study at the National Gallery, and will continue to be accessible to the public when the new museum opens. The 2009 exhibition at the National Gallery showed a selection of Savio’s drawings and prints from the museum’s collection. In the new museum Savio’s art will be incorporated into the narrative about Norwegian art history in the presentation of the collection.

Norway, Sápmi
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