RKS Film: “Images of a Nordic Drama”: Battle Royale in the Art World (Toronto Hot Docs Festival)

Norwegian art collector Haakon Mehren is reluctantly led to a barn in 1990 by his friend who has unearthed a huge cache of paintings by unknown Norwegian artist Aksel Waldemar Johannessen (1880-1922). Another collection of his paintings is held by his surviving daughter. Mehren thinking that “treasures in a barn” is a fairy tale is blown away by the depth and power of the paintings.

Haakon Mehran

Johannessen painted lumpenproletarian subjects very unfashionable and vulgar to many and rubbish to most directors of the Norwegian National Museum. One director Knut Berg had a hatred of Johannessen to the extent that he threatened a cultural director in Germany that should he exhibit him there would be no loans of any Norwegian art to German museums the cultural director was responsible for something the Germans took as a threat.

Johannessen was an artist who painted for himself and never entered the commercial market for art. He was poor and when his wife was diagnosed with cancer his drinking increased and he was eventually found in the gutter, transported to hospital where he died. His terminally ill wife mounted an exhibit of his art which was met with critical acclaim and Edvard Munch praised him. The public guardian took control of his art until his two daughters reached the age of majority. Johannessen fell off the radar screen until Mehren encounters his paintings in 1990 and from then on ceaselessly champions him battling against Berg of the National Museum and his allies. Being spurned by the National Museum and much of the Norwegian art establishment Mehren takes the paintings for exhibits in Italy and Vienna to huge acclaim. Berg battles against Mehren despite the public appreciation of a Norwegian treasure.

Allis Helleland is appointed as a new director of the National Museum and Mehren appears to finally have an ally at the National Museum but she leaves after infighting in some part due to her appreciation of Johannessen. The next director of the National Museum has no appreciation of Johannessen as he appears to be cozying up to a billionaire art collector and building “corporate partnerships” that shy away from anything different from bread and butter and since they start controlling purse strings of museums they get what they want. Been to the opera, ballet or public art gallery lately? These money sucking machines are kept afloat by corporate interests so what independence do they have? That’s a story for another day.

Mehren offers 30 paintings to the municipality of Oslo along with a large grant but they refuse it. The legacy of Berg remains strong Edvard Munch obsessed that they are. And in effect using Munch as a weapon against Mehren.

The exhibit of Johannessen in Italy was referred to the Italian press as a “Nordic Drama”.

The documentary concludes with a Johannessen hanging in the Met in New York.

You’ll be treated to many of his artworks in the documentary and I say it is tragic Johannessen never lived to see the admiration many have for his work and the fact Mehren has not managed to install Johannessen in the National Museum. The acidic politics of the Norwegian art world. You can see in theatre at Hot Docs on April 30 and May 5 and virtually for 5 days (geoblocked to Canada) as of May 1.

Directed by Nils Gaup.

RKS Film Rating 92/100.

Published by Robert K Stephen (CSW)

Robert K Stephen writes about food and drink, travel, and lifestyle issues. He is one of the few non-national writers to be certified as a wine specialist by the Society of Wine Educators, in Washington, DC. Robert was the first associate member of the Wine Writers’ Circle of Canada. He also holds a Mindfulness Certification from the University of Leiden and the University of Toronto. Be it Spanish cured meat, dried fruit, BBQ, or recycled bamboo place mats, Robert endeavours to escape the mundane, which is why he has established this publication. His motto is, "Have Story, Will Write."

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