Rough Joys

Can art address issues other than the environment in 2024? Not according to Norwegian institutions’ spring programmes.

Leonard Rickhard, Flom I, 2015–16. Oil on canvas, 139,1 × 171,4 cm.

The year in art got off to a sad start with the death of the painter Leonard Rickhard (1945–2024), just a few weeks before the opening of a major retrospective of his work at the Astrup Fearnley Museum. Called Between Construction and Collapse, the exhibition looks set to be a worthy end to an unusually focused and steadfast oeuvre, one which has exerted influence on generations of Norwegian artists over the course of five decades. Rickhard, who is particularly associated with images that depict a tension between technology and nature, is also well suited as a figurehead for this spring’s two most prominent trends on the Norwegian art scene: retrospectives featuring painters from the last century and exhibitions that aim to problematise our relationship to nature.

The day the Rickhard show opens, 26 January, will also see the opening of what promises to be the spring’s most comprehensive exhibition in the climate and environment-oriented genre: Earthworks at Bergen Kunsthall. This group show will look at the important role that art has played in the Nordic environmental movement and outline historical developments ranging from early examples of what would now be described as land art to more recent generations who respond to nature as a collaborative partner. The exhibition will feature compost installations, historical works by artists such as Bård Breivik (1948–2016) and Monica Sjöö (1938–2005), as well as dinners, workshops, and performances – in other words, all that a committed group exhibition could possibly come up with in terms of engaging offerings.

In March, Kode’s presentation of Erling Nebye’s collection will be replaced by an exhibition of Erling Kagge’s collection (both part of the series ‘The Collector’in which the museum presents significant historical and contemporary collectors). Composition for the Left Hand will set Kagge’s collection into conversation with works from the museum’s own collection and aims to, among other things, shed light on how our understanding of nature has changed from nineteenth-century landscape ideals to a wider concept of ecology. The exhibition contains four hundred works by artists ranging from Goya (1746–1828) and Peder Balke (1804–1887) to Tauba Auerbach and Anne Imhof.

Anne Imhof, No God We Trust, 2023. Pencil on paper, 31 x 41 cm.

In April, Kode will open the group exhibition Indigenous Histories, developed in collaboration with the Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand. Curated by artists and researchers with an Indigenous background, the exhibition includes works from 170 artists speaking about the experiences of Indigenous people from the Americas, Oceania, and the Nordics, from before European colonisation to the present. The information posted on the museum’s website emphasises the ambiguity of the concept of history. In keeping with a widespread scepticism towards sweeping and authoritative historicisation, the objective is not to provide an overview of these experiences, but rather a fragmented, polyphonic picture. 

In Oslo, the environment, climate change, and Indigenous struggle are also overarching themes for the institutions’ programmes. Before the Munch Museum presents Munch’s scenes of nature in the exhibition Trembling Earth in April, the month of February will give us an opportunity to become acquainted with the films of philosopher Denise Ferreira da Silva and filmmaker Arjuna Neumann in the exhibition Corpus Infinitum. The exhibition promises a sensuous mix of spectacular depictions of nature and alternative ways of thinking that challenge traditional hierarchies, Western mindsets, extraction, colonialism, and anthropocentrism. Some might be tempted to point out that the Munch Museum, with its fossil sponsorship portfolio, does not exactly have impeccable credibility as a climate campaigner. Further, it is noteworthy that despite the widespread climate commitment at Norwegian art museums this spring, none of them foregrounds the uniquely Norwegian oil dilemma.

Perhaps that is precisely what the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter will do with the exhibition The Atlantic Ocean, which opens at the end of April. Here, a “large-scale celebration of the northern sea that has shaped Norway and made the country an international actor” will also present an opportunity to look critically at the practices involved in human use of the sea, with the help of a large selection of artists ranging from J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) and Theodor Kittelsen (1857–1914) to Sondra Perry and Joar Nango. Before this, the venue will open the season in a nicely contrary fashion with the formalist Fifty Shades of Black in early March, a group exhibition where the black monochromes of French artist Pierre Jean Louis Germain Soulages (1919–2022) form the hub of an odyssey into the world of the colour black, explored through fifty works by artists such as Anna-Eva Bergman (1909–1987), Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Ann Cathrin November Høibo, and Torbjørn Rødland.

Sondra Perry, Wet and Wavy Looks , 2016. Photo: Jason Mandella.

The National Museum has a dense and well-planned art programme this spring, easily its strongest season since the inauguration in 2022. Mid-March will sees the opening of the exhibition Moving the Needle featuring Sámi artist Britta Marakatt-Labba, who after participating in Documenta 14 in Kassel has garnered plenty of critical acclaim and institutional recognition for her exquisite embroideries. Given that this is 2024, the museum has no choice but to accentuate “the environmental struggle and climate crisis as seen from an indigenous perspective” as the framework for her slightly absurd depictions of daily life in Sápmi. However, this is by no means a forced perspective: the artist professes a strong commitment to the issue of Sámi rights to natural resources.

Then follow exhibitions with Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) and Mark Rothko (1903–1970), each of whom were in the vanguard of their separate generations of abstract painters. Kandinsky was a leading figure in the European avant-garde in the early 19th century, while Rothko championed American abstract expressionism half a century later. Surprisingly, the Rothko show claims to be the first-ever major presentation of the artist in the Nordics. Yet it will exclusively show his works on paper, which one must assume will necessarily be small compared to his canvases. What will be left of Rothko’s sacred pictorial space when it is divorced from the immersive effects of scale? We will find out in May.

In June, the museum will present an exhibition featuring the Norwegian painter Anna-Eva Bergman, bringing together “many of the artist’s most iconic depictions of rocks, mountains, the sea, moon, horizons and architecture.” Sinziana Ravini wrote an enthusiastic review of the same exhibition when it was shown at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris last year, highlighting the kinship with, among others, Kandinsky and Rothko. She also asserts that the artist surrounded “herself with mountains and planets as if they were her best friends” and paved the way for “journeys towards an inner wordlessness, eternity, emptiness; the passage towards the unknown, the absolute.”

In all likelihood, things will feel more acutely present, yet not completely deprived of sublimity when Kunsthall Trondheim launches Tongues of Fire in late February. Drawing inspiration from the fact that it is located in a former fire station, the venue will brings together “artists who have been deeply touched and transformed through the challenges manifest in the burnt and burning.” Side by side with historical artefacts from Trondheim’s archives, including from the city’s historic – and often fire-damaged – cathedral Nidarosdomen, the art aims to make us think about everything from wonder and intimacy to more violent issues such as war and, inevitably, the climate.

Anna-Eva Bergman, Montagnes bizarres, 1950. Oil on board, 46 x 61 cm. Photo: Nasjonalmuseet.

Last week, Stavanger Art Museum opened an exhibition featuring the Norwegian figurative modernist Else Hagen (1914–2010), Between People. It is a travelling exhibition which, during 2024–2025, will also visit the Trondheim Kunstmuseum, the National Museum in Oslo, and Kunstsilo in Kristiansand (the latter of which will finally open in May after five years of construction). Posterity mainly associates Hagen with her public projects – the press release refers to her as the “grande dame” of Norwegian monumental art – of which her work in the Stortinget’s stairwell, Samfunn (Society, 1960–66), is a particular highlight. The exhibition will, however, focus on Hagen’s paintings from the 40s and 50s and the artist’s extensive printmaking production. 

In March, Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum opens a solo show featuring Diné artist and musician Raven Chacon. One of the highlights in connection with the exhibition will presumably be the performance of the artist’s Pulitzer-winning work Voiceless Mass in Bodø Cathedral on 7 June 2024, performed in collaboration with the Norwegian Arctic Philharmonic. In Chacon’s work, classical composition, Indigenous music, experimental sound, and visual art intersect, and his scores are performed in collaboration with the audience and other performers. Chacon’s interdisciplinary and social method overlaps with that of American artist Cauleen Smith, who will wrap up the season at the Astrup Fearnley Museum with an exhibition opening in June. Smith has a background in film and music, and her projects are based on improvisation and collaboration that blend recording, exhibition, and performance to generate “new experiences of Black social life.” 

By emphasising the community-building and future-oriented aspects of Smith’s practice, the museum’s presentation inadvertently contrasts with Rickhard’s painstaking regurgitation of scenes heaped with estrangement and post-war ennui, where art is cast as a strenuous cerebral activity enacted alone in front of the canvas. Presumably, both of these modes  – the ecstatic and the observational, the participating and the withdrawn – will meet and merge in the expressive, nature-inspired paintings of the Sámi comrade and environmentalist Per Adde (1926–2020), whose work will be crowned with a retrospective at the Sámi Centre for Contemporary Art in February. Expect maximally bold brushstrokes.

Raven Chacon, South By North Is Also North By South, 2021. Installation view, Time Holds All the Answers, Remai ModernSaskatchewan. Photo: Blaine Campbell.