As the National Gallery is now presenting its third display of the collection in less than a decade, the format itself can seem to have lost much of its potential as intervention. Whereas some years ago «everybody» talked about the museum, the weak response to this spring’s new installation suggests that people no longer have strong opinions about the museum. The difficulty may well arise primarily because the new director of the Department of Old Masters and Modern Art, Nils Ohlsen, has curated a traditional exhibition in that it has a strongly chronological structure. But the absence of debate may also indicate that people have resigned themselves to seeing the National Gallery’s collective exhibitions as one of many possible historical narratives, not the last word on the history of Norwegian art. The exception is Aftenposten‘s Lotte Sandberg, who criticizes the museum’s ambitions «of showing all of art history, in preference to limiting itself to the format and ideology of the permanent exhibition». But what ultimately is the collective exhibition’s format and ideology? Can one approach this at all as an essential phenomenon, such as Sandberg seems to do? The last decade’s shifting new installations have quite possibly demonstrated just the opposite, namely that the permanent exhibition is a form of museum activity in constant flux. In this connection the National Gallery’s new version does not represent a paradigm shift, rather a change in focus. By holding to a chronological presentation, the museum tones down the question of how the past is recounted. Instead the museum opens itself to a broader discussion of which Norwegian art history, or histories, the museum should articulate.
The new collective exhibition spans a broad time period. The ambition seems to be to gape at the entire history of Western art. The chronological tour begins with antiquity, a choice Ohlsen justifies by the National Gallery’s good, little-known collection of ancient art. One of the high points is the Roman copy of Polykleitos’ head of Hermes, surely the best of its kind. The two rooms of ancient sculpture are devoted to Greek portrayals of the gods and Roman portrait busts. The Roman sculptures are accompanied by Jacob van der Ulft’s painting of a Roman harbor. Through the introduction of the 17th century’s figuration of antiquity, the issue is also raised of how the relationship to history always revolves around the relationship to changing presentations of history. Here and elsewhere Ohlsen succeeds via straightforward pedagogical tactics to formulate some of the essential problems in the field of art history.
The chronological tour continues with medieval Russian icons. Norway’s own rich painterly tradition in the Middle Ages of altar frontals (painted panel images that covered the front of the church altar) is absent without a trace from the National Gallery’s collection. That is something of a shame: Norway is the only country in the world where this type of panel painting has been preserved. The following Renaissance room offers no more than six pictures, with Lucas Cranach the Elder’s The Golden Age as the high point. In this small room the severe period divisions suddenly and sharply reveal the comprehensive gaps in our national collection. But to demonstrate the shortcomings can be as fruitful as to hide them. The National Gallery’s ailing Renaissance collection can function, among other ways, as a reminder that Norway over many hundreds of years was unified with a Denmark that taxed to death the stratum of society which bought and collected art across the rest of Europe.
In the Baroque room the selection is larger. The Baroque artists’ interest in psychologically charged situations is attended to by Italian Caravaggisti such as Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, and Flemish artists like Anthonis van Dyck. The period’s fascination with the world’s physicality and transitory character appears in a series of still lifes. The Langaard room has at times stood out as malapropos of the surrounding rooms. Where Sune Nordgren solved the problem by de-installing the entire room, Ohlsen has chosen to tie Langaard’s donation more closely to the rest of the collection by converting the irrelevant room into a Baroque space. Thus the historical context of the art in the Langaard collection is broadened, while it now fits without friction into the chronological story.
Following formula the route goes on to two rooms devoted to Romanticism. In the second, the most important new improvement begins to manifest itself. J. C. Dahl’s Dresden in Moonlight is hung with a moonlight picture by his teacher Caspar David Friedrich. This presentation reveals not only the strong influence of teacher on student but also the differences between them. When Dahl became Norway’s first professor of painting in Düsseldorf and thus a model for a new generation of students, his own influence partly involved a more atmospheric manner of painting than that of his predecessor Friedrich. Showing the 19th-century Norwegian professor of painting in Germany not only gives an image of how fresh directions were imported to Norway, but also how Norwegian artists strengthened them abroad. According to Ohlsen it has been important to clarify the dialog between Norwegian and international art, an intention carried out with significant consequences across the entire exhibition. Half of the 450 works shown are Norwegian, the others European. French Impressionists are seen, for example, with Christian Krogh and Edvard Munch. Thus Manet’s meaning for Krogh and the influence of more pointillist Impressionism on the young Munch emerge with crystal clarity. Norwegian Cubists such as Ragnhild Keyser, Borghild Lærum and Thorvald Hellesen are shown with Picasso and Léger. Not least Léger played an important role in Norwegian Cubism as a teacher of Keyser and Lærum, and as Hellesen’s most significant source of inspiration in the 1920s. Ohlsen’s new hangings largely succeed better than earlier permanent exhibitions in demonstrating the complex network of influences, reactions, and shared interests that have played out between Norwegian and international artists. Furthermore, the fundamentally international character of modern art thus emerges, and the notion of Norway as culturally provincial is challenged.
As for Munch, most works continue to be shown in the Munch room, but an attempt has also been made to puncture the story of Munch as an isolated genius: Vigeland’s small bronze figure of a shrieking man (done the year before The Scream) has been placed at the entrance to the Munch room. Ohlsen said in connection with the opening that he has been occupied with revealing Munch’s international history of influence. And in one of the rooms we do find German Expressionists—August Macke, Max Pechstein, and Erich Heckel—who worked further with the visual and conceptual legacy of Munch. Oddly, however, we see nothing by Munch. Ohlsen’s recounting of history, otherwise so didactic, misses here.
Another important concept is that drawings, pastels, and graphic works are finally made part of the permanent exhibition. The National Gallery’s 50,000 paper works have heretofore lived a relatively secluded life in the Engravings Department. Now some have found the way out to the rooms and are lying in large (if not especially attractive) filing cabinets, a form of display having many advantages. One is that the audience may now come closer to the artistic process by studying the relation between drawing, oil sketch, and finished painting. A second benefit is that some of the comprehensive gaps in the painting collection are partly covered by paper works. The Baroque room, for example, lacks paintings by Rembrandt, but opening a drawer one finds prints of the Northern European Baroque master that fill out the picture of the period.
That the works are in cabinets, not displayed on walls, also enables rapid changes and, not least, viewing of light-sensitive materials.
In three rooms for further study the presentation of chronological history is set aside for thematic deep-diving. One is the so-called «Eventyrrommet». Even though the idea of a separate “adventure or fairy-tale space” has the dubious aroma of motivation via cultural politics of trying to interest children, in fact this little, dark chamber is also fine for adults. There are pictures by Paulie, Werenskold, Munthe, Kittelsen and others. Not least Kittelsen receives his just due with a series of paintings and drawings. His Nøkken [Water Sprite] is one of the works which on conservatorial grounds has not been exhibited in several years. Now it stares at us again with its wild, fluorescent glance when we unintentionally pull out a file drawer. The great mystery is the absence of perhaps Norway’s most interesting painter of fairy tales, Louis Moe. If the explanation is that the museum is not in possession of any of Moe’s works, he should immediately go on the acquisitions list.
The second thematic room is given to oil sketches. Seventy-one closely packed smaller pictures are on display. This allows concentration on the oil sketch as a medium and gives an alternative angle onto the development of Norwegian art in the 19th century. The last new space is the Project Room, given over to varying exhibitions in which one or more contemporary artists are invited into dialogue with the collection. In Blyge blikk [Shy glances], the first of these focused exhibitions, Trine Søndergaard’s photographs of women in traditional headwear from the Danish island of Fanø are shown side by side with Tidemann’s drawings of Norwegian farm women in the bonnets and kerchiefs of national costumes. The idea itself of an exhibition space where contemporary artists can comment on, contextualize, and actualize historical works is splendid. But Blyge Blikk gives the project a poor start. The differences between drawing and photography, then or now, are not such as to cast new light on the pictures of Søndergaard or Tidemann. The rather fumbling wall text strengthens the impression that this mini-exhibition has not been well thought through.
Ohlsen’s stringently chronological new show, organized around periods and directions, has for a starting point the most ordinary way to present a national art history. That it isn’t the only possible way first became clear to many when the museum under Sune Nordgren’s leadership mounted Kunst 1 [Art 1]. In the large rooms chronology was rejected in favor of thematic investigations of landscape, the human body, etc. Afterward one could readily see that the most important role of Art 1 became that of a meta-exhibition about the collective exhibition’s ideology, function, and boundaries. As a discipline-based account of history it fell short, not least because the connections between Norwegian and international art disappeared in the thematic ordering. When Nils Messel wanted with Art 3 to bring things back to what the more reactionary critics defined as the collective exhibition’s normal circumstances, chronology was restored. Unfortunately a one-sided national focus, along with what from a research standpoint was outdated, also came as part of the mix. Much of the foreign art was now gathered in a single room without defined connections to parallel movements in Norwegian artistic life. This history of earlier exhibitions must be kept in mind as one assesses The Dance of Life: The Collection from Antiquity to 1950. In a National Gallery where the collective exhibitions have to a great degree adopted a national perspective, Ohlsen’s new show contributes to the enlightenment of the Norwegian people by revealing how international Norwegian art has been. Greatly meticulous and resourceful, this abundantly nuanced presentation stands out with utter clarity as the best collective exhibition the National Gallery has recently produced. The most essential requirements of a collective exhibition are that it must yield freshly updated research opportunities in art history, at the same time that its materials must be accessible to a broad audience. The National Gallery has now done this brilliantly.
Updated 30.05.01 08:54 o’clock.