PHOTO FEATURE: So much for all the recent hype about uncluttered Norwegian design, architecturally spectacular homes in Norway, and criticism of the Norwegian monarchy. A new book offers rare insight into how Norwegians really live, and how affection for the royals through generations is reflected in homes from north to south and in between.
The book is entitled Helt Konge, a popular expression in Norwegian that is a superlative akin to “Super!” or “Just great!” but can also mean “completely royal” in its literal sense. It applies well to what’s much more than just another coffee-table book on the royals but rather one featuring a unique collection of photos of royal photos and memorabilia, as displayed within private homes and public buildings all over the county.
Helt Konge‘s collection of photos were all taken by Elin Høyland, a press photographer for newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) who’s also known for the artistry of her work, earlier books and several exhibitions. Høyland’s work for DN over the past 20 years has also brought her inside countless venues in Norway.
She gradually became aware of how often royal photos and royal commemorative souvenirs, from painted plates of King Haakon VII and Queen Maud to portraits of Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit, showed up both in the venues she visited and the photos she’d taken.
(Story continues below the photos that follow from the book, all by Elin Høyland.)
“Such photos and walls full of them steadily popped up in situations where I wasn’t looking for them,” Høyland told DN after the book was published in collaboration with artistic event arranger and text author Eva Marie Bentsen, and publishing firm Pitch Forlag.
“But one day it suddenly occurred to me that this apparently was a widespread phenomenon,” Høyland added. “I went through the material I already had and became curious about finding more. Then I gradually discovered lots of it, and displayed in different manners, out there. The walls became as interesting as what was on them, and how people had combined the objects they had.”
In one of her own interior photos featured in the book, portraits of King Harald and Queen Sonja are placed right next to a portrait of Jesus. An iconic if staged black-and-white photo of the late King Olav riding a tram during the oil shortage in 1972 hangs on a cluttered bulletin board above an iron bust of Lenin.
Høyland began systematically seeking out more interiors decorated with the royals. “If I traveled to Rogaland, for example, I’d call around to various municipalities, present the project and ask if anyone knew of walls with (royal) pictures,” she said. Sometimes she’d ask for photos of potential motifs to be sent to her, so she could evaluate them for the book.
She gained rare access into private homes as well as public meeting rooms and gathering places. Old myths that Norwegians only jokingly hang photos of the royals in the outhouses at their hytter (holiday cabins) were quickly disspelled. Royal images can show up everywhere, from dining rooms, to meeting rooms to cafés and restaurants, like the Nebbenes café in Eidsvoll, picture below:
The result is a book full of unadulterated interiors that tell a story about Norway and Norwegians, “about our culture and our history that in my opinion is important to take care of.” She felt it was also important to act quickly, “because culture changes quickly. In 10 or 20 years it probably wouldn’t have been possible to produce such a book.”
At the same time, however, Høyland and author Bentsen (who interviewed many of those whose interiors were photographed) uncovered how royal memorabilia already has survived at least three generations and may well have a place in and after the fourth generation of Norway’s modern monarchy that dates from 1905. Høyland’s work led her to believe that the monarchy still has “a strong position” in Norway despite frequent criticism in the media that it’s outdated and defies many Norwegian principles favouring equality over inherited privilege.
“Folks have these photos in their homes and they have them on display,” Høyland said. “It’s part of a tradition. They’re conscious that the monarchy is part of our history. I visited many people who aren’t dedicated royalists, but who have affection for the royal family and the manner in which they do their job.”
In several cases, photos of the royal family hang next to photos of the owner’s own family, almost as if they’re all in the same family. That says a lot about how Norway’s monarchy can help unite Norwegians across, if not over, political party lines.
Perhaps most surprising in the book is Høyland’s photo of a contemporary interior right down to the chrome furniture and pale grey walls on which hang three commorative plates of King Olav, then-Crown Prince Harald and Crown Princess Sonja. Or the amusing photo of an official portrait of the king and queen propped up against a wall on the floor of a technical room at the equivalent of city hall in Vestvågøy. There were suspicions that republican political leaders of the city council weren’t eager to put the royals back up on the wall of their council chambers after a remodelling.
Then there’s the large royal portrait of the current crown couple, taken just a few years ago, that dominates the stairwell of a modern home on Karmøy, between Stavanger and Haugesund. The owner of the home, Inger Elise Kolstø, thought it was “sad” that Crown Prince Haakon’s decision to marry a formerly unwed single mother set off so much “negative” discussion at the time. When Kolstø celebrated her 60th birthday, “guests came with the picture and mounted it on the wall. A fantastic gift that I value very highly.” Hanging right next to it is a banner that flew outside Oslo’s cathedral, where the royal wedding took place in 2001.
(EDITOR’s NOTE: “Helt Konge” is currently available in Norwegian book stores and from Pitch Forlag (external link) with only Norwegian text. An English version may follow, but every photo alone is worth a thousand words.)