Norwegian collector and philanthropist Christen Sveaas believes Norwegian art is under-represented on the world’s stage. But there is plenty of it in a dreamy exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery curated by Norwegian artist Ida Ekblad.
TEXT: Herbert Wright
IMAGES: Courtesy of Whitechapel Gallery
Gallery 7 in London’s Whitechapel Gallery is where the public get a glimpse into private art collections. Currently, it is that of Christen Sveaas Art Foundation, established by Norwegian businessman and philanthropist Christen Sveaas in 2019. Sveaas started collecting Norwegian art in the 1980s, but his collection, which ranges from 19th century to contemporary art, became international in the 1990s, and has been expanding ever since. His choices range across a wide variety of styles and media, but are not random. Speaking with CoBo Social, Sveaas says that when buying works, “I look for mystery, beauty, and challenges, and I would say my choice is largely instinctive.” Keen to share his collection publicly, he even established Kistefos Museum—around a rural pulp mill founded by his grandfather—which is now one of Europe’s leading contemporary sculpture parks.
The Foundation’s exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery is an example of their outreach to international audiences. The exhibition “This is the Night Mail” is curated by Norwegian artist Ida Ekblad, known for her vibrant use of colour across different media. Sveaas says that as Ekblad researched his collections, “she was struck by the number of works that either depicted or dealt with the night in some way”, thus the nocturnal theme followed. For the title “This is the Night Mail”, Ekblad borrowed it from the first line of W.H. Auden’s 1936 poem Night Mail, which was commissioned for a documentary film about a night mail train to Scotland and its frenetic postal work on board.
Ekblad’s curated works come from both the Foundation and Sveaas’ personal collection, the latter normally stored at his home, office, or hunting lodge. It is almost a blend of two halves—works by many Norwegian artists from the early 20th century and an international sampling of Surrealism, Pop Art, and contemporary works—yet they fuse into a distinctly dreamy continuum somehow. With 58 works in all, Gallery 7 is busy, like a 19th century art salon, particularly with those wall-mounted works crowding up towards the ceiling.
The unifying night theme is very explicit in the Norwegian works, many of which explore the mysteries of its remote lands, such as a troll in the landscape in Theodor Kittelsen’s masterpiece Skogtrold (1905), while Per Krohg’s Night (1916) offers an enchanting psychological intimacy in its depiction of a woman absorbed in a bedtime book. What a contrast to the boundaries being pushed by contemporary Norwegian artists such as Gardar Eide Einarsson, who encapsulates fear and darkness with just a piece of material or a few words. His doomy Tarp (Black 2) (2014), a tarpaulin dripping black paint, is also included in Ekblad’s selection.
When asked whether Norwegian artists were underrated and internationally under-represented, Sveaas agrees. “Very few international museums show Norwegian art”, he says. “I recently donated works by Johan Christian Clausen Dahl, Thomas Fearnley, Peder Balke, Christian Krohg, and Frits Thaulow to the Metropolitan Museum [of Art] in New York. I have also donated 21 works by Dahl, Fearnley and Balke to Kunsthaus Zürich. To Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, I have donated works by Dahl, Fearnley, and Thaulow.”
There are big names in Ekblad’s selection, such as Edvard Munch, Giorgio de Chirico, Edward Ruscha, and Louise Bourgeois, while recent works include a simple, vivid abstract painting Night (2012) by Howard Hodgkin, the first non-Norwegian artist acquired into Sveaas’ collection. There are also some striking multimedia works: Migration Rickshaw for Sleeping, Building and Playing (2013), a wheeled sculpture by Theaster Gates (who has his own show “A Clay Sermon” concurrently in Whitechapel Gallery), and Passing the Moon of Evidence (2017) by Rebecca Horn, a kinetic work which hosts two mechanical butterflies caged in a vitrine. The only items Ekblad included from her own practice emit a rough yet silky vibrancy, lest you miss them: abstract tablecloths that lie in a vitrine of the Foundation’s curated silver and glassware.
Polish artist Paulina Olowska is the youngest represented with two works here. Her mesmeric painting À la Galcante (2015) is the largest in the show, at 392 cm wide and 245 cm high. La Galante is a Paris shop specialising in old periodicals, and, in the painting, the woman working at a wall of archive boxes is based on a photograph of Olowska’s assistant. Sveaas explains that the shop’s name “is a compression of the words galerie and brocante, meaning flea market.” Why did he acquire it? “I couldn’t take my eyes off this one, I had never seen anything like it,” he reveals. “The names on the boxes create a myriad of associations and can have you stare at it for hours. Olowska changed little regarding the names of the labels that denote each box’s content, which are dedicated to everything from dogs, countries, mothers, Brigitte Bardot, sugar and chocolate to natural disasters and terrorism.”
Whitechapel Gallery has three more exhibitions lined up from the Foundation’s collection, where Olowska is the curator of the next one, opening on 14 January 2022. We don’t know the theme yet, but it will be interesting to see if Olowska will include something by Ekblad, returning the compliment of being included in the current show. In the meantime, by showing Norwegian art and international art side by side, Ekblad proves that Norwegian art deserves the stage with the world’s best works, whether historic or contemporary.
Christen Sveaas Art Foundation: This is the Night Mail, Selected by Ida Ekblad
28 August 2021 – 2 January 2022
Whitechapel Gallery, London