H.M. QUEEN SONJA'S ART COLLECTION
IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL DAY. WE WERE ON A HIKE IN NORTHERN NORWAY. IN LEIRFJORD A LARGE RECTANGULAR STEEL INSTALLATION HAD BEEN PLACED IN THE LANDSCAPE. EVERYONE THOUGHT IT WAS ODD. BUT I INSISTED - WE SHOULD NOT BE DISCOURAGED. WE SHOULD GO AND HAVE A LOOK! AS WE APPROACHED, WE SAW THAT THE SEEMINGLY RANDOMLY SITED CONSTRUCTION FRAMED THE LANDSCAPE IN AN INFINITE NUMBER OF PERSPECTIVES, DEPENDING UPON WHERE ONE WAS STANDING. THE LANDSCAPE HAD BEEN THERE SINCE THE DAWN OF TIME. ART HELPS US REALIZE THAT. WHAT MORE CAN WE ASK?
QUEEN SONJA IN "IMPULSES" 2001
Queen Sonja's personal engagement in Norwegian art and culture goes back a long way. Over the years, the Queen has actively participated in Norway's artistic and cultural spheres not just as its high patron but also as an important key figure; her efforts in casting light upon and promoting Norwegian art has gained her respect throughout Norway and far beyond.
Part of the Queen's vision has long been to establish a prize for young artists. In 2011 this vision became reality through a collaborative project with the artists Kjell Nupen and 0rnulf Opdahl. Together, the artists prepared a graphic portfolio, the proceeds from the sale of which were donated to a foundation set up in the Queen's name. The aim of the foundation is to rekindle interest in and inspire the development of paper-based art. Every other year the foundation will award "The Queen Sonja Nordic Art Award" to a Nordic artist. The foundation's first prize-giving ceremony took place in 2012 with the Finnish artist Tiina Kivinen hailed the worthy winner.
The Queen is also known for being a knowledgeable patron of the arts and has collected art since a young age. As the years have passed, her appetite for collecting art has grown and so too has her collection. Today, her collection is in active use in many of the Royal Family's residences, where the artwork on display creates an ongoing dialogue between and contrast with the residences' various classic, rustic, romantic and modern interiors. Here, the Queen not only takes on the role of collector in the placing of the artwork, but also that of curator. The fact that her collection is so frequently in use and forever being moved around has also resulted in several exhibitions where pieces of her acquired artwork have been displayed publicly; exhibitions have been held at the Henie Onstad Art Centre outside Oslo in 2001 and 2012, and in Scandinavia House in New York in 2005.
The fact that the Queen has shared her private collection with others is a brave and daring move which stirs sincere admiration. Not merely because female art collectors in Norway and the North are so few and far between, but because the public is also faced with a collection characterised by the Queen herself. The Queen's life experiences and the pieces of artwork she acquires are often closely linked, and her purchases are frequently the result of spontaneous enthusiasm. From early on, it was clear that it was new, contemporary art that tended to catch the Queen's eye.
The motif of landscape prevails in the Queen's collection, and is the focus of the commentary here. Alongside her interest in art, it is the Queen's countless hiking and skiing trips across Norway, through seasons and over many years which have provided her with the required respite from everyday life and become its important part. The Queen has become an expert in the country's geography and nature. The artist Jakob Weidemann once said that "the pictures in the Queen's collection serve as an echo of her life". No surprise then, that landscape art constitutes the bulk of her collection. The joy found in art and that found in experiences of nature are inextricably intertwined. In this respect, the Queen's wanderings in nature have provided her with experiences which have coloured her pictorial vision and choice of which artwork to acquire. That her artistic journey took this route was perhaps natural in a country where landscape art has its roots deeply embedded in a romantic tradition with nature as an expression of personal experience and feelings.
Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1857) is often referred to as the father of Norwegian painting. It was primarily due to him that Norwegian painting took shape in the 19th century and a tradition was subsequently founded which has since influenced much Norwegian art. Throughout his artistic endeavours, Dahl fused a heroic description of landscape with a fundamentally naturalistic attitude to art, thereby laying the foundations for Norwegian art's close bond with Norwegian nature and landscape. Art has moved on but the significance nature holds has characterised many of the country's artists through the years, right up until today.
Not least because of its roots in the Romantic period with its mystification of the Nordic landscapes, Norwegian art was for many foreigners associated first and foremost with depictions of landscapes and natural phenomena such as changes in light and dramatic seasonal scenes. Countless exhibitions are arranged and numerous publications released on this subject both nationally and internationally, and titles like "Northern Light" and "The Mystic North" have become almost synonymous with Scandinavia. Despite globalisation and the influx of new forms of expression having provoked much change, the same can be said for much of today's art. In the 1900s and particularly during the post-war period, it was not the pure depiction of nature that preoccupied artists - photography delved deeper here - but nature nevertheless remained an ever-present source of inspiration. Many young artists at that time developed their practice from a cubist starting point, moving gradually into the realm between tangible reality and abstraction, whilst maintaining impressions of nature as their primary source. Direct depictions of reality in their work fell by the wayside, and instead their motifs became ever-increasingly characterised by the rendering of movement, forces and structures in nature. But despite the expressions being abstract, it does not hide the fact that experiences of nature had served as inspiration - assumptions which were often rendered concrete when considering the titles of the artwork.
One of the pioneering artistic representatives of this form of expression in Norwegian post-war art was Jakob Weidemann, an artist who would go on to indelibly mark the art world for several decades after his debut and become both a friend and guiding light to the Queen. His pictures also figure prominently in her collection. More so than any other artist, it was Weidemann who rekindled the niche of Norwegian landscape art after the Second World War and transfigured it to fit contemporary international visual language. As the French painter Jean Bazaine put it, it was important for these artists that the link back to nature could easily be traced, that one could find one's way back to what he called the structural unity between man and his surroundings. This, he believed, is enabled through cultivating the emotional, expressive qualities in form, colour, line, fabric and material.
Many of today's artists can also be coupled with this romantic tradition where landscape interpretation - both in their own eyes and in those of others - takes on a metaphysical dimension, thereby becoming a symbol for human feeling. This aspect of connection to nature is also apparent in Queen Sonja's collection.
The Queen's collection dates back to when the older generation of Norwegian artists took action after the war and scattered the seeds for what would become in the eyes of some a lyrically abstract, and of others a geometrically abstract visual language. Such works by Jakob Weidemann, Knut Rumohr, Kare Tveter, Anna-Eva Bergman and Inger Sitter give the collection character. Here, the oldest works can also be found alongside artworks by foreign artists like France's Olivier Debre.
The focus of the Queen's collection nevertheless includes artwork by the younger generation which, through multi-faceted visual language, have impressions of nature at their core. Art as an abstraction, as though with its own autonomous nature, and art which portrays the natural world is combined in the works of these artists, irrespective of their individual style. The collection shows a variety of visual language that has emerged from landscape covering the whole of Norway; from Svalbard and Nordland right up North, through Western and Southern Norway, to the dense forests in the East.
Much of the artwork in the collection that is awash with figurative elements of nature will doubtless be considered romantic and mystical. Other pieces, often produced using monochromatic surfaces, are abstract and portray the true essence of an experience of nature. A third type of artwork is characterised by the inclusion of actual building material such as houses, windows and doors; here viewers are captivated by a constructed, ambiguous landscape. Whilst collecting, the Queen has loyally followed the progress of certain artists as well as constantly networking and making new contacts. In recent years, strong connections were made when she embarked on a journey of discovery into the world of graphic art - a world in which she found her own expression as a creative artist. It is interesting that photography is also a new, exciting addition to her collection. But this isn't surprising since for a good many years the Queen has herself been a keen amateur photographer; the camera is always by her side when she's out and about in nature. Some of her photographs have been shown in various contexts as well as being used diligently for the many lectures she holds across the world promoting Norway as a nation for tourism.*
One of the Queen's latest acquisitions, Per Barclay's "Lofoten I" from 2010, succinctly sums up her collection as well as the key topic of this commentary. The work is a photograph of a room installation which is situated outside in the magnificent landscape of the northern county Nordland. It is constructed using two traditional wooden drying flakes and a floor covered in waste oil. The surrounding landscape is reflected in the surface of the oil and consequently sucked into it. Similarly, the room itself is swallowed up and becomes part of the same landscape, forming a hybrid melting pot with nature.
H.M. the Queen enthusiastically visits museums, galleries and art studios on her travels both within Norway and abroad. Her encounters with artists, including Per Kirkeby in Denmark, Antoni Tapies in Spain, Henry Moore in England, and Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol in New York, were no coincidence and more often than not resulted in an artistic addition to her collection. When the Queen visited Andy Warhol's studio "The Factory" in New York in 1982, she came away with a series of six works which formed part of Warhol's famous series "Celebrities". She was, notably, Crown Princess Sonja at that time. These works are now all in Norway and were shown collectively to the public for the first time in conjunction with the Queen's collection being exhibited at the Henie Onstad Art Centre in Summer 2012. Portraits of several other Royals are included in Warhol's extensive series "Celebrities", but most of them are based on official photo portraits. Queen Sonja is one of the few who was photographed by the artist himself. After a make-up session with Warhol's creative team, Warhol took a series of 29 polaroid shots which served as the basis for his silkscreen prints created in six different colour combinations.
H.M. QUEEN SONJA THE ART COLLECTOR
Private collections will always vary in terms of quality, size, the collector's personal engagement and economic opportunities. With all such things considered and when compared to what many of today's collectors own in terms of capital, it can be said that the Queen's collection is small yet defined by strong personal engagement. Resources have been restricted but through many years of work, she has nevertheless managed to put together an exciting collection. The Queen herself is behind all the purchases and she has acquired artwork from various places; some from the artists' studios themselves, others from both large and small exhibition spaces across Norway and abroad. Certain works came in the form of gifts, and some pieces have left the collection again when bestowed on family members.
In terms of motifs, the Queen's collection is wide-ranging. Norwegian art dominates it and interestingly, almost half of the works are by female artists. It is a collection that will doubtless continue to grow and be developed further by a Queen who, forever interested and enthused, follows and actively participates in what goes on in the art world.
Over many years, Queen Sonja has put her position to good purpose in shedding light upon and promoting contemporary Norwegian art. That Her Majesty is so willing to put her collection on display through exhibitions and publications such as this one, is a generous gesture that paves the way for fresh, exciting encounters with art.
A selection of the Queen’s photographs from her hikes in nature was published in 2002 in the book “Resonance: Wanderings in Prose and Pictures”. Parts of this project were also shown in Scandinavia House in New York in 2005. In addition, a selection of landscape photographs from Svalbard was exhibited at the Henie Onstad Art Centre in 2008 for the exhibition “The Mountain in Norwegian Art”.
© THE ROYAL COURT PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVES, OSLO