It started back in the 1980s with the construction of Aker Brygge, a tourist-trappy wharf on the Oslo Fjord packed with pricey restaurants and bars. In 2008 came the eye-catching, blindingly white Opera House, which, poised at water’s edge, was obviously intended to do for Oslo what the Sydney Opera House had done for Sydney.
During the years that followed, the city’s entire harborfront underwent a thorough transformation, with dozens of ultracontemporary new glass-and-metal skyscrapers (by Norwegian standards) — including the notorious Barcode, a row of narrow, gleaming structures housing blue-chip firms like Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers — that provide dowdy old downtown Oslo with a fresh, glitzy façade.
Then came the 200-foot-tall Munch Museum, which looms over the capital’s port, and which I’ve described as looking like a huge accordion (although on further reflection, it looks, from some angles, even more like a giant ventilation duct). (READ MORE: Odd Nerdrum, Edvard Munch, and the Smallness of Contemporary Art)
Hot on the heels of the Munch Museum came the even more ambitious new National Museum. One difference between these two grandiose new monuments to Norwegian wealth and ambition is that Munch’s works arguably needed a new home: the old one, as I have written, was located “on the city’s outskirts” and was “far too small to exhibit more than a fraction of its holdings.” The old National Museum — which was known, more modestly, as the National Gallery — was in the heart of Oslo. Dating back to 1881, that charming, two-story building was the ideally humble setting for the paintings of homely interiors, portraits of rural doctors, and Romantic-period landscapes that covered its walls. When I first set foot in that building 23 years ago, I discovered — and fell in love with — one artist after another whom I’d never heard of. I had just moved to Norway, and that visit, in my memory, represents a special and treasured part of my introduction to the culture and history of the beautiful country in which I have lived ever since.
I thought that I knew what to expect from the new National Museum. Coincidentally, I translated the official coffee-table book about its construction, which explains that the architect, a German named Klaus Schuwerk, sought to create on the Oslo waterfront a “modern Parthenon” that would “communicate with the Oslo City Hall and the Akershus Fortress,” two of Oslo’s most sprawling structures. While translating the book, I didn’t get to see the pictures of the museum’s construction, but the text did give me something of a sense of the scale of the thing: one caption, for example, refers to a delivery of “900 doors,” some of them “enormous.” Nine hundred doors! I couldn’t easily imagine all of those small, intimate pictures by artists like Harriet Backer, Hans Gude, and Adolf Tidemand finding a suitable home in such a cold, massive edifice.
The new National Museum opened last June, and some time afterward I went to Oslo in the expectation of writing about it. Even after translating that book and reading critical — in fact, scathing — reviews in newspapers, I was stunned, as I approached it, by its sheer size. Forget about Oslo City Hall and the Akershus Fortress — this thing “communicates” with Fort Knox, the Great Wall of China, and NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Kennedy. It looks as if it was built to withstand a direct nuclear attack.
I went inside. Now, let me mention that I grew up in New York and have been in more than my share of skyscraper lobbies that were designed to impress. But this lobby was ridiculous. The ceiling on the first floor is about 40 feet high. Everything is on a ridiculously large scale. Even the snappily uniformed guards were all 6 feet, 6 inches or taller. If you imagined what China’s equivalent of the Pentagon looks like, this would be its lobby. The immense ground level consists of plenty of shiny floor space, big gleaming ticket counters, futuristic banks of elevators, and a gift shop with a mere scattering of books but tons of coffee mugs, hats, umbrellas, etc. As with the Munch Museum, whose architect is Spanish, there’s nothing remotely Norwegian about any of it. I was so depressed by the experience that I didn’t even go upstairs to look at the art.
Then, the other day, I discovered that the new National Museum is even more of an atrocity than I’d thought. As it turns out, many classic Norwegian artworks — including several of those paintings that I fell in love with 23 years ago — are no longer on public display. Yes, the available wall space has been multiplied several times. But the question isn’t about space availability. It’s about being cool, edgy, au courant. Those classic works, which have been banished to basement storage space, don’t fit the museum’s hip new image. Yes, they’re famous. They’re beloved. But they’re also corny and old-fashioned. Some might even call them sentimental or kitschy. Such stuff obviously has no place in a majestic, cutting-edge museum that seeks to brand Norway as stylish and sophisticated. For, after all, that’s what these flashy new museums are about, first and foremost: national image. (RELATED: Get Your Grubby Complexes Off My Art)
Confronted with complaints by art historians about the disappearance of so many venerable works, Stina Högkvist, who is the museum’s director of exhibitions and collections (outranked only by the museum director), called the complaints “simplistic” and “superficial.” The National Museum, Aftenposten quoted her as saying in a Feb. 18 article, seeks “greater breadth.” Meaning what? Meaning, among other things, that some “white male artists” need to be replaced by “women artists” and “Sami artists” and by “people who happen not to have been born with white skin.” (Never mind that until the day before yesterday, everybody in Norway had white skin.) The museum, pronounced Högkvist, seeks to take “a socially relevant, fresh look at art history.” As for the charge, leveled by Norwegian art historian Steinar Gjessing, that she “doesn’t have any concept of what a canon is,” Högkvist shot back proudly that she has no interest in the concept of a canon.
Högkvist hasn’t just deep-sixed distinguished artworks. She’s also pared down the texts on the labels next to the ones on display. Gone are terms like “Modernism” and “Impressionism”; the labels now only identify the artist’s birthdate and birthplace, but not his or her nationality — because, in Högkvist’s view, visitors to an art museum shouldn’t be hung up on nationality (even, apparently, if it’s a National Museum).
Among the celebrated artworks that she’s banished to the basement are Ludvig Karsten’s “The Blue Kitchen” (1913), Oda Krohg’s “A Subscriber to Aftenposten” (1887), Søren Onsager’s “Bathingplace in Son” (1905), and Christian Krohg’s “Leiv Eiriksson Discovering America” (1893). The Eiriksson painting is one of the most famous creations by one of the most important Norwegian artists, but, ruled Högkvist, it no longer deserves to be displayed because it’s “colonialist,” a romanticization of the mass Norwegian emigration to America. Given that many of the most significant Norwegian artworks fall into the genre of “Romantic nationalism,” this must make for a crowded basement indeed.
I’ve noted that the Munch Museum was designed by a Spaniard and the National Museum by a German. As it happens, Högkvist is Swedish, and her boss, museum director Karin Hindsbo, is Danish. In these globalist days, needless to say, hiring foreigners to administer a Norwegian cultural institution is absolutely necessary to prove that despite its name, the National Museum is international — anything else would be too Trumpian.
But denunciations of Högkvist’s remarks have come from every quarter. “By what right,” thundered Mímir Kristjánsson, an MP for the Red Party, in a Feb. 19 op-ed, “do a Danish museum director and a Swedish departmental head edit the Norwegian artistic canon in the name of postcolonialism?” Silje Hjemdal, a Progress Party member of the Parliament’s culture committee, called Högkvist’s “art police” behavior “historyless” and “potentially dangerous.”
Innumerable commentators have agreed. Indeed, the public rage became so intense that by midday on Feb. 19, obviously fearing that she might well be at risk of losing her plum job, Högkvist backtracked, apologizing for her “lazy” comments to Aftenposten and withdrawing her characterization of the Krohg painting as “colonialist.” On Feb. 20, the museum went a bit further, agreeing to display the Krohg painting for four weeks — which is a far cry, of course, from altering Hindsbo’s and Högkvist’s poisonous curatorial policy.
READ MORE by Bruce Bawer:
New Documentary Tells the Stories of Six Detransitioners
Reworking of AP African American Studies Course Represents a Triumph Over Radicalism