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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Storm blows around art banished to the new National Museum’s cellar

Norwegian artist Christian Krohg’s large and iconic painting of Leif Erikson discovering America used to dominate the gracious entrance of Norway’s old National Gallery in Oslo. It’s since been stored away in the cellar of the new National Museum along with many other historic works, setting off complaints that forced an apology during the weekend and, ultimately, the painting’s return to public display.

This painting from the late 1800s by Norwegian artist Christian Krohg depicts Leif Erikson discovering America. It’s been stashed away in the new museum’s cellar but after lots of complaints, will now be put back on display. PHOTO: Nasjonalmuseet

Newspaper Klassekampen has published a series of essays in recent weeks by art historian Steinar Gjessing, who has advised art collectors for years and formerly worked for Norway’s contemporary art museum. It was among the Norwegian museums, including the National Gallery, that were merged to form the new National Museum that finally opened last year.

Gjessing has complained over how many prominent Norwegian artists from the 1900s such as Kai Fjell and Ludvig Karsten are no longer represented at the National Museum. Krohg, one of Norway’s most esteemed artists and known for making social statements in his time, still is, but his iconic painting Leiv Eiriksson oppdager Amerika (Leif Erikson discovering America) hasn’t been shown since the National Gallery closed four years ago. It had debuted at Norway’s exhibit at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, and was given to the National Gallery in Oslo in 1900.

Complaints over the absence of one of Krohg’s major works turned into outrage during the weekend, when the National Museum’s director of collections explained why it had been removed from view. The painting “romanticized Norwegians who went to America,” Stina Högkvist, who is Swedish, told newspaper Aftenposten while being interviewed for a story on the debate over Norwegian art no longer on display at the National Museum. “It is a colonialistic picture.”

Response was swift and furious. Other art historians equated Högkvist’s explanation to censorship, while art critics claimed Högkvist had “cancelled” Krohg and placed him in the proverbial corner of shame.  “I think this is an unwise way of managing the National Museum’s collection,” said Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK)’s long-time culture commentator Agnes Moxnes. “We’re talking about a national museum with all that includes. It’s where you lift up and show off our national icons. We can gladly argue about them, but to hop right to the conclusion that it’s ‘colonialistic’ and use that as an argument to take it down from the walls is not wise.”

Stina Högkvist infuriated art historians, commentators and top politicians with her initial explanation of why Christian Krohg’s painting about Leif Erikson was removed from display. She has since apologized and no longer believes the painting is “colonialistic.” PHOTO: Nasjonalmuseum

She added that it’s not the National Museum’s job to resort to censorship, which is how art critic Tommy Sørbø described it to NRK. He called it “a dangerous development.”

By Monday the Norwegian Parliament’s committee on culture was demanding an explanation. “Not only does this indicate a lack of understanding of our history, it can also be dangerous,” Member of Parliament Silje Hjemdal of the Progress Party told newspaper Dagsavisen. MP Tage Pettersen of the Conservatives said he had “gagged on my morning coffee” when reading Högkvist’s explanatin. He’s deputy leader of the culture committee and was sending a written question to Culture Minister Anette Trettebergstuen of the Labour Party, who’s politically responsible for the state-funded museum. “We want to know how she views the need for a cultural canon (an authoritative selection of important works) in large national institutions.”

MP Mimir Kristjansson of the Reds Party was also unhappy, telling NRK that “we must tolerate seeing the paintings that don’t hold the moral- and politically correct standards we have in the 2020s.” He also disagreed that Krohg’s work was colonialistic. “Leiv Eiriksson didn’t colonize America,” he told NRK. “There were others who did that.”

Högkvist was already apologizing for what she called a “careless” remark made to the Aftenposten reporter. She had also said, in response to questions about how she and her colleagues were trying to modernize the new museum’s exhibitions, that the museum wanted “to challenge a standard” that historically displayed the works of mostly white male artists.

“We’re now showing (the works of) more female artists, more Sami artists (a large piece of Sami art has replaced Krohg in the new museum’s entrance), and more art by people who don’t happen to be born with white skin,” Högkvist told Aftenposten. “We want to have a relevant, fresh view on art history.”

Christian Krohg was known for making social statements in his art, depicting poverty and prostitution among other subjects. PHOTO: Nasjonalbilblioteket

By Sunday she had suddenly changed her mind about Krohg’s Leif Erikson painting and claimed she no longer thinks it’s “colonialistic.” She also stated, in a comment sent by the museum’s communications department, that she’s “sorry I have launched a debate about cancellation. Krohg’s works have not been cancelled by the National Museum.”

Instead, she now claims, “we want to show both the classics and works that have not, or only to a small degree, been exhibited before. The conclusion was that we wanted to devote space to something other than this painting by Krohg at the opening.” She noted that Krohg’s painting about Leif Erikson “was shown in the staircase entrance of the National Gallery for many years before the move to the new museum.”

Pettersen at the Parliament remained uneasy, telling Dagsavisen that he was also “embarrassed and upset” that the museum would “interpret the past through the present and go to this step. It’s an enormous mistake by the museum. And with the fantastic new building you wouldn’t think they can argue there’s a lack of space.”

On Monday the museum’s outgoing director Karin Hindsbo, who’s Danish, was resorting to damage control. She also declared that Krohg’s painting had “not been cancelled” and that it instead will be put back on display at least for the next four weeks, and near the museum’s entrance.

“Krohg is one of Norwegian art history’s most influential artists,” Hindsbo added, stressing that he is represented with 13 other paintings in the museum’s permanent exhibitions. “We thought there were other works by Krohg that were more interesting to put on display.” She claims the decision against including Leiv Eiriksson oppdager Amerika in that collection had been “carefully thought out” by the museum’s curators who need to choose from around 400,000 works of art in the museum’s combined collections.

Hindsbo, meanwhile, announced in January that she won’t be extending her six-year contract as head of the National Museum. A seach is on for her replacement after she steps down on June 1.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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