Bjarne Melgaard is widely viewed as Norway’s leading contemporary artist, but he’s attracted strong opposition to his major project that would combine his art with his residence and workplace. Melgaard suspects the opposition is aimed more at himself personally than his controversial “House to Die In.”
He’s not alone. “Bjarne can gladly be viewed as very controversial among the public,” Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, architect and partner in Snøhetta, which has drawn up the plans for Melgaard’s controversial proposed house, told newspaper Aftenposten. “Those of us who have worked with him haven’t experienced him as controversial at all.” On the contrary, Thorsen said, calling Melgaard “extremely open, warm and inviting.”
Melgaard, now age 50, can also seem even shy at times, staying in the background and not speaking, for example, when a Christmas tree he was asked to decorate for the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo was unveiled in early December. The decorations included abstract animals, pigs’ heads and a sizeable collection of ornaments in the shape of a penis, which also often figures in his paintings.
That can fascinate some and repel others, but Melgaard insists he doesn’t try to shock or provoke people. “It’s not like I sit at home and hash out plans for that,” Melgaard told newspaper Dagsavisen when one of his recent art exhibitions opened in Oslo, featuring works by both him and Norwegian artist Sverre Bjertnes. The latter also suspects opposition to the house Melgaard wants to build at Ekely, where Edvard Munch once lived, is personal and not professional.
“It’s unique that an entire group of artists (living in a colony at Ekely) are so opposed to a work of art,” Bjertnes told Dagsavisen. “When an artist becomes so well-known within his own generation, other artists can have a problem tackling that.”
Melgaard moved home to Oslo from New York last year and has been much more visible locally in recent months. “Right now I feel like one of the most important things I’ve done is to move home,” Melgaard, whose works have been bought by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Moderna in Stockholm among others, told magazine D2 last fall. “It was time to get away from the entire USA and the political climate there.” He said he still has a lot of work in New York, “but I think that if you stay here too long, you can get stuck. It was fine to come home and get back in touch with roots.”
Asked what his strongest experience has been during the last 10 years, Melgaard singled out the death of his father. He described the loss of his father as “the most painful” and life-changing: “I can list up a sea of exhibits, but if you’re talking about something that fundamentally changes your view, it’s that loss.”
The death of a parent has been called among the most underestimated sources of sorrow, because such a loss is often viewed as inevitable and part of the so-called natural order of things. Melgaard, who wore a coat featuring an image of his father at the Astrup Fearnley exhibit, readily acknowledged that nothing lasts forever, but stressed that he learned how nothing can be taken for granted either, “and you must be grateful for the times people have together and try to take care of that. It can sound banal, but I think it’s something everyone has to experience before they realize it’s true.”
Melgaard told Dagsavisen last month that he had “cool parents” who let him follow his artistic inclinations. He started attending art school in Oslo when he was 12. He dabbled in fashion design last year, and garments he created sold well, but he’s firmly dropped that venture. Now he’s intent on working towards building his “House to Die In” in cooperation with Snøhetta and the Selvaag brothers. A decision from national historic preservation officials is expected later this year.