Artistic salute to Sonja Henie

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Tributes got underway this weekend to Norwegian skating and film star Sonja Henie, widely viewed as Norway’s biggest international celebrity ever. She also left behind an impressive art collection, and that’s playing a big role in this year’s celebrations of what would have been Henie’s 100th birthday.

Sonja Henie was a figure skating pioneer, and often said to be a woman ahead of her time. PHOTO: Facebook

Henie was born on April 8, 1912, but since that day coincided with Easter Sunday this year, the tributes began with a formal jubilee ball Saturday evening at the Henie Onstad Art Center at Høvik in Bærum, just west of Oslo. The ball was followed by the public opening of the first of three special Sonja Henie art exhibits (external link) that will run at the center throughout the year.

The first exhibit, running until June 10, features a selection of art assembled by Henie and her shipowner husband Niels Onstad, whom she married in 1956. It includes works by European artists active between 1900 and 1968 such as Picasso, Juan Gris, Matisse and Léger. Henie’s own role in collecting and investing in the art is also examined, along with some of her costumes and clothing, in the exhibition at the center that Henie and Onstad built and financed.

Both of them were known as smart and wealthy enrepreneurs, with Henie’s wealth rooted in her skating and film career. She grew up in Oslo, started skating at the age of six and was only 14 years old when she began winning a long string of international skating competitions. All told she won 10 world championships and six European championships in addition to Olympic gold medals at St Moritz in 1928, Lake Placid in 1932 and Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936.

After that she moved to the US with her parents, started performing professionally and combined skating with a film career, debuting in “Thin Ice” with Tyrone Power in 1937. She was a tough negotiator, demanding record high amounts to appear in films and socializing with other top stars in Hollywood.

She also continued to mount spectacular ice shows but often felt misunderstood in her native Norway. After facing criticism for allegedly failing to do enough for occupied Norway during World War II, and even being accused of Nazi sympathies, she made a triumphant return to Oslo with her ice show in 1953. She had also been royally decorated before the war broke out.

Her passion for art took over for her passion for skating as the years went by. She and Onstad set up their art foundation in 1961 and opened their art center in 1968. Just a year later, Henie died of leukemia and was buried on the grounds of the center.

Her 100th birthday will also be celebrated with a series of lectures, showings of her films, a musical composed in her honour and, in December, an ice show featuring skaters from the Bærum skating club. Plans are also afoot for a documentary and feature film on Henie’s life, and another exhibit on Henie has opened at the skating museum (Skøytemuseet) at Frogner Stadium in Oslo, where she first ventured out on the ice as a child.

Norway’s postal service is also issuing two new stamps featuring Sonja Henie. She’s not the only Norwegian celebrity getting a stamp this year, though. Thorbjørn Egner, celebrated author of many children’s books and song lyrics, was also born in 1912 and is getting two centennial stamps of his own. One will feature his portrait, another his drawings from his books.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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