Oil-rich Norway’s new national museum, home to Munch’s “The Scream,” is like a $650 million safe. But what is it really protecting?
The aesthetics of oil money are generally ostentatious. And the new National Museum, which opened in Oslo on June 11, makes the Norwegian capital feel like a real Abu Dhabi of the North.
The 13,000 square meters (140,000 square feet) of exhibition space marks the culmination of the country’s cultural and institutional metamorphosis which, with the help of huge oil discoveries in the North Sea, has gained momentum extraordinary since the 1990s.
The fossil fuel boom generally means that every Norwegian is now intimately familiar with the concept of a signalbyggthat is to say, a starchitecture whose silhouette makes a gesture greater than its content or its finality. Take Snøhetta’s iconic Opera House from 2008 or Renzo Piano’s Astrup Fearnly Museum from 2012, to name but a few of the spectacular new buildings that have transformed the image of the city in recent years.
With oak floors, marble toilets and exquisite glass display cases, all custom-made in Italy, the National Museum, designed by Neapolitan firm Kleihues + Schuwerk, provides a new roof over four institutions: the Gallery national, the Museum of Architecture, the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Worth 6.1 billion Norwegian kroner ($650 million), the museum has been considered the largest in the Nordic region. Yet it’s a building that says “No”: after years of delay, here is a complex of huge hard-edged boxes clad in dark gray slate with few windows and no funky details. It sits in the city center like a Pentagon for art; on a satellite view, it looks like Google has darkened the building for security reasons.
It seems that with the National Museum, Norway has found a way for its black gold to acquire dignity, authority and – at one time rather slutty for architecture – a chastity so extravagant that it is almost eccentric. In a word, it is a fortress, but what does it protect?
New characters for an old story
Across the 86 galleries, fine installations of Egyptian statues, a rare Ming Dynasty vase, a dress designed for Kim Kardashian by Norwegian Peter Dundas and an impressive array of beautifully produced period rooms, while temporary shows at successes are predicted for the museum’s spectacular. marble crown nicknamed the Light Hall. It was supposed to be alabaster, but we get by.
The 19th century collection offers breathtaking images of mountains and waterfalls, political motifs from a time when Norway was alternately under Danish and Swedish rule (it only gained independence in 1905). Such works underscore the centrality of art and museums in the nation-building projects of the past; what’s amazing about Norway’s new national museum is how much of that remains true. I’m not sure it was necessary.
More than anything, the new building is conservative, and I mean it in the most literal sense: it defends and confines; it strives to save history at a time when the future and the past constantly seem to slip through our hands. It begins with its dizzying, maniacally neoclassical enfilades, and continues through the tall, anachronistic wooden doors with brass handles, all so far removed from the museums that were built in the 1990s and 2000s with barely a door or even a right angle. in sight.
On the art side, the galleries of Oslo are punctuated by all too familiar ruptures between abstraction and op-art, or conceptualism in the 1970s and a “return” to painting in the 1980s. But the latter is in fact not what happened in Norway, where Conceptualism never took a strong hold, and so painting never really ceded its place as the reigning medium. And so the plot is maintained in order to introduce the few local or forgotten conceptualists as new characters in an old story that Norwegian institutions have not, until now, had the surface area to tell.
If it is not very courageous, such a cause is, like the materials of the building, noble. So are efforts to include, for example, indigenous Sami artists in the canon and to dedicate more space to female artists, such as the fantastic late realist painters Oda Krogh and her contemporary Harriet Backer who has a whole room of her own. .
Yet rather than taking inspiration from, for example, the sophisticated re-hanging of the Italian National Gallery in Rome, where a Lucio Fontana hangs alongside a 19th century outdoors to exhilarating effect – Oslo’s cautious conservatism is rather reminiscent of the recently reopened Neue Nationalgalerie and Humboldtforum – two Berlin institutions that are also (and in the case of the latter, terribly) vintage.
Other gaps in the collection, such as high-level American art, were filled by a partnership with a controversial family of art collectors, the Frederiksens. The scion of the family, John Frederiksen, is a Norwegian who obtained tax-advantaged Cypriot citizenship in 2006 for would have circumvented the Norwegian tax inheritance law. That was a few years before he was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship by Vladmir Putin in 2015. So while museums around the world are disassociating themselves from dubious investments, one of the few countries where the Public money is not an issue when it comes to arts funding locked into a deal with one.
It is true that the lent paintings could not be bought back either by this institution or by any other. The family loaned out a jaw-dropping star line-up that includes Eva Hesse, Helen Frankenthaler, Georgia O’Keefe, Alice Neel, Agnes Martin, Cecily Brown, Simone Leigh, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye… The list goes on. Yet the choice, again, seems old-fashioned.
To boot, the museum will host the mega shows forever traveling through the Art Industrial Complex by Frida Kahlo, Mark Rothko and Grayson Perry, all sure to sell tickets as well as tea towels, but about which you might also ask: Why? Simply to say that we could have found a different answer to the question of what a national museum can be today, a more stimulating and exciting answer than simply: the same as everywhere else, or: the same as a hundred years ago.
Fossil fuel issues
The slate fortress opens as part of a changing museum landscape in Oslo and Norway more broadly. In 2021, a much smaller museum dedicated to artist Edvard Munch moved to a 13-story monolith, also on the harbor front, designed by Estudio Herreros and renamed in all caps italics as crunch. Simultaneously repetitive and claustrophobic, oversized and confusing, each of the MUNCH’s stacked floors have a narrow glazed strip for escalators and obligatory city views (fit for social media) alongside disorienting, windowless boxes for galleries, which give the impression of being inside of a television.
But, unlike the National Museum, MUNCH is an institution that desperately wants to be fresh. A collaboration with Norwegian metal band Satyricon is a surprisingly successful example of his progressive approach; the enormous children’s section and the painter’s bizarre biographical gallery, less so.
Indeed, the coolness creates a jarring impression given the moody, depressive nature of Munch’s works. I mean this as a compliment to the brilliant artist who portrayed the dark anxiety of modernity like few others. But on what scale should such intimate and ambivalent themes be projected? This is a typical fossil fuel problem of measurement and proportion. For all that MUNCH is immersive and family-friendly, the tighter editing of around 25 of his paintings on display at the National Museum (including the Masterpieces Puberty, The kiss, and the famous Scream) actually does the job.
An hour’s drive from Oslo, at Kistefos, a new commission by Pierre Huyghe opened on the same day as the National Museum in a sculpture park and museum backed by a private investment company. In 2020, the site’s spectacular new gallery designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) joins towering Claes Oldenburgs tumbling down the hillside, op-pop by Jeppe Hein and Anish Kapoor, and a huge waterfall of donuts in Marc Quinn’s bronze that looks like Lord of the Rings fan-art.
Called The Twist, the gallery in the form of a tunnel, lined with wood and its metal facade winds up on the river. As a building it is impressive, but as an exhibition space it is difficult. Regardless, her real strength is her integrity: she’s not romantic about the nature around her, but shows the same raw strength as the extractive industries that funded her. Kistefos began as a water-powered timber mill, and the best moments in the sculpture park are when you remember how the language of postmodern sculpture stems precisely from these industrial machines.
Much of the explosion of the Norwegian art scene over the past two decades has occurred in the realm of brutal expressions of wealth like Kistefos, gritty pop-cultural crossovers like the Satyricon collaboration at MUNCH, or concepts highly discursive politico-academics like the Bergen Assembly, a triennial so deconstructed in its formats that it is hard to find the words for what it is. What is the place of the National Museum here?
Probably somewhere in between. While another mega institution hosting the same mega exhibitions as other colossal institutions across Europe is frankly the last thing needed, the National Museum wins with its social democratic seriousness. Rather than starchitecture and together with aquavit, this is the true mark of Norway. Its sense of civic responsibility, in-depth and well-produced presentations, and ability means this place could stage so much.
Already, the Light Hall hosts an eccentric show of more than a hundred young Norwegian artists, denied by building architect Klaus Schuwerk as a “flea market”. Such conflict suggests that the public sphere is less dead than I thought – so maybe there is hope after all.
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