Artist hasn’t mellowed with age

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Norway’s most esteemed institutions collect his work. Important public spaces across the country bear his mark. He is a Knight in the Royal Norwegian Order of St Olav. Håkon Bleken is a giant of postwar Norwegian art. And at 85 years old, the painter continues to engage today’s world with his expressive, politically tinged work, albeit from the vantage point of an old guard. 

Norwegian artist Håkon Bleken turned 85 in January and is still painting and exhibiting around the country. PHOTO: Wikipedia/Morten Dreier

Norwegian artist Håkon Bleken turned 85 in January and is still painting and exhibiting around the country. PHOTO: Wikipedia/Morten Dreier

Bleken’s place in the history of Norwegian art is, in fact, not easy to pin down. Beyond simply labeling him a painter, he fits neatly into no particular historical category, and he has worked with drawings and graphics and book illustrations. Many articles about Bleken are quick to call him “contemporary,” but that tag doesn’t quite fit; he betrays little of the high gloss, metaconceptual qualities that recur in today’s contemporary art production. While his mature painterly style, if anything modern, was first developed in the Norwegian art schools of the late 1940s, it still manages to maintain its currency in an era of Norwegian oil riches and post-9/11 geopolitics.

“I work with a feeling of insecurity,” Bleken said in a recent interview with Aftenposten, just as another one of his exhibitions was opening in Oslo. “It’s not just about me, I think, but the European people are groping.” Quotes like this craft an image of Bleken as a bridge between two worlds. He revives a particular brand of socio-political anxiety from the 1950s and imports it into today’s times. His paintings (external link to the artist’s own website) cry out old-world vanguard; with their evocative color pallets, deformed figures, and energetic brushwork, they point to a period when expression and social activism went hand in hand in an artist’s portfolio.

Little mention abroad
It may be these qualities along, perhaps, with his age, that have rendered Bleken somewhat invisible to the international art world. While global art publications such as Frieze, Artforum, and Art in America spill plenty of ink on a younger generation of Norwegian artists, scarcely has one ever mentioned the name Håkon Bleken. Even a search for Bleken on the website of Norway’s Office for Contemporary Art, responsible for creating dialog between Norwegian artists and the international community, yields no results.

Which raises the question: is there something about Bleken and his art that does not quite translate outside of Norway? Part of it, ironically, may lie in his belief in art as having the potential to make sense of the world. “Art is there to make order out of chaos,” the 85-year-old said recently. “That is the case for many, but perhaps moreso for me.” That appears contrary to more recent trends, in which the work so often embraces the chaos, eroding concrete connections to the real.

Bleken, on the other hand, attunes his works to the emotional details of his own life and tries to connect them to the real socio-political world around him. “It is important,” he says, “to be curious about where we come from and how we have been shaped.”

Early mistrust of power
So what shaped Bleken? What is important to him? He has discussed how early childhood experiences — from an abusive architect father in an otherwise cultivated home to witnessing the Germans occupy Trondheim during World War II  — engrained in him a mistrust of power and an inclination toward supporting the vulnerable. “I learned lessons early on that make me strive to take sides with the weak party,” says Bleken.

This critical inclination against power and injustice today remains as lively as ever in Bleken’s work. He was, for example, one of the first to respond through art to the July 22 attacks in 2011 that rocked Norway. The painting he made, full of melancholy, was an expression of trauma and anxiety that he saw as a part of the world around him. In an interview with NRK at the time, contrary to many public voices, Bleken did not limit these feelings to the July 22 attacks alone, but connected them instead to notions of fear and confusion associated with the broader political environment in Norway and with larger geopolitical events such as the war in Afghanistan.

And as recent as last month, Bleken, a Trondheim native, waded into a controversy that made waves in the Norwegian art world, when Culture Minister Torhild Widvey was seen as putting undo political pressure on a museum in Trondheim that is supposed to operate as an independent cultural institution. Despite having been at odds with outgoing museum director Pontus Kyander in the past, Bleken rose to his defense in the “Widvey-gate” case, telling Trondheim’s Adressavisen “Here I support Kyander, of course. It is his right to express his opinions.”

New paintings, new exhibitions
With a career in its seventh decade marked by artistic courage and political conscience–not to mention a number of prestigious exhibits and rewards–Bleken remains a modest and determined man. In addition to the recent Galleri Brandstrup exhibit in Oslo, he opened one at Galleri Ismene in Trondheim in January, when he turned 85, that featured several new paintings. More are scheduled later in the year.

“I probably don’t paint for you,” he told an interviewer recently, “I paint mostly for myself. I have staked everything on art.”

newsinenglish.no/Drew Snyder