The stories of foreign artists are usually shrouded in a certain romantic glow: the lonely pursuit, the single vision, the darkness and fashionable indifference. Sometimes the artist has never sought recognition; sometimes they did and were met with a cold shoulder, casting that romantic glow in the shadow of rejection. For Aksel Waldemar Johannessen, who died in 1922 at the age of 42, having apparently succumbed to alcoholism, life in the shadows was the very subject of his work. He painted the proletariat, street people, prostitutes and dipsomaniacs, and he often made himself a subject, with brutal, unfiltered honesty.
Images of a Nordic dramawhich takes its title from the name of a 1994 exhibition mounted after the rediscovery of Johannessen, is concerned with the drama conveyed by these powerful images, but its main focus is the drama that would surround them more than 70 years after the death of the artist.
Images of a Nordic drama
An enlightening look at professional conviviality.
Turning to non-fiction for the first time, director Nils Gaup (whose feature debut, 1987 Scout, was nominated for an Oscar) is less interested in Johannessen’s biography — the film lays out the bare foundations of his adulthood, not always with clarity — than in the canvases themselves. But most of the documentary focuses on one man’s struggle to place the painter in the modern pantheon. However powerful the paintings – and that potency is considerable – the doc is most illuminating as a history of the politics of the art establishment and the type of groupthink contrary to the creative, non-conformist essence of the art itself.
“The biggest shock of my life” is how writer and art collector Haakon Mehren describes his first encounter with the work of Johannessen, a small treasure whose canvases were discovered hidden in a barn. He would spend more than 30 years as a diligent promoter of the painter, thus clashing with the official canon and its guardians – in particular, the establishment of the art world in Norway. There are damning revelations about how this upper crust reacted to his relentless campaign for Johannessen.
Gaup takes a basic talking-head approach, incorporating new interviews with writers and scholars as well as excerpts from television news and other archival material. At the center of it all, Mehren, now in his eighties, is fiery and affable. (And it turns out his penchant for preservation extends well behind the art gallery.) His first triumph, after buying the paintings for a lump sum and restoring them, was to organize a Johannessen exhibition in Blomqvist, the same Oslo gallery where the previous show took place, shortly after his death, organized by his wife, Anna, as she was dying of cancer.
This 1923 exhibition drew not only rave reviews, but also praise from Edvard Munch, the eminent Norwegian artist to whom Johannessen would be endlessly compared, in both glowing and diminishing ways. Johannessen’s posthumous fame was short-lived: the paintings fell into public guardianship, his young orphan children oblivious to the acclaim his work had received. Mehren’s detective work to piece together the artist’s story led him to his youngest daughter, at the time nearly 80 years old and an invaluable source of information – and no longer paintings by her father.
The Blomqvist show that Mehren put together in 1992 was a hit, as was its predecessor. But as curators from other parts of Europe seized the opportunity to display the paintings, roadblocks rose with shocking noise in Norway, including the National Museum and, in a cruel paradox, the Museum Munch. The paintings just weren’t good enough, they claimed, with the organization’s former director delivering a throaty denunciation of Johannessen’s artistry. Reporting for Norwegian TV on the show from the Doge’s Palace in Venice which gives the film its name, a reviewer seems to enjoy being dismissive. “This,” Mehren said of all naysayers, “was Norway in a nutshell.”
But he finally found an ally in Danish art historian Allis Helleland during his brief stint as head of the National Gallery. She would be gone in less than a year, with her defense of Johannessen being a key factor in her departure. Interviewed for the film, she describes the impact of her paintings: “It’s like when you read Hamsun; you have a stomach ache, but you have to keep reading. After running with the disparaging pack, Munch expert Arne Eggum changed his mind about Johannessen’s talent, finding that his canvases contain “images that become your memories”.
Some of the film’s interviewees will likely be familiar to Norwegian audiences, as will the historical facets of the story; Gaup doesn’t take the time to explain them to other viewers, leaving some characters’ names hanging in the air as if speaking for themselves. But what is universal in Nordic drama is his revealing complaint against the ways in which self-preservation and self-glorification can drive cultural institutions.
Noting the growing role of private wealth in public art – as a means to increase that wealth – Gaup ends the film on a note of victory for Mehren and Johannessen, but not without irony. The documentary he made resonates far beyond Norway and the wider art world, especially at a time when questioning or dissenting voices tend to be lambasted and silenced. As Helleland says of the paintings that have touched her so deeply, “It’s about treating them seriously.”