H.M. Queen Sonja
Exhibition: All year round
H.M. Queen Sonja’s life-long interest in art has resulted in her studying the history of art, gathering a comprehensive art collection and producing works of art of her own. The Queen has studied various techniques and been the pupil of a number of different artists. “Three Journeys, Three Landscapes” which she created together with Kjell Nupen and Ørnulf Opdahl in 2012, and “Texture” made in collaboration with Magne Furuholmen in 2016, are two of her most significant art projects.
H.M. Queen Sonja’s Art Scholarship was set up in 2011. For a long time, the Queen had been wanting to make an effort to encourage interest in graphic art and stimulate its development.
With the establishment of the art scholarship, a forty year old dream came true. The idea of collaboration was conceived when Kjell Nupen invited the Queen and Ørnulf Opdahl to the Ateljè Larsen art studio in Helsingborg, to experiment with graphic prints.
It soon became clear that the Queen’s products were too good to be “hidden away in a drawer,” and thus the portfolio entitled “Three Journeys, Three Landscapes” evolved. The portfolio, which consisted of altogether 24 prints, 8 by each artist, sold so well that it formed the financial foundation for the art scholarship.
The exhibition in the gallery shows a number of works by H.M. Queen Sonja, where she employs a variety of techniques such as lithography, monotype, etching, woodcut and aquatint. The exhibition also displays a varied selection of the Queen’s ceramic works.
A Meltwater Cave in Svalbard
Most Norwegians know that H.M. Queen Sonja is an avid rambler, there is practically not a peak in this long, drawn out country that she has not climbed. Not on her own, though. She always hikes together with locals who can tell her about the landscape and the local community. In her backpack she always has her camera, which she makes diligent use of in order to capture both views and any interesting plants, flowers, rocks, etc. that she comes across. This is because nature means a lot to her, and the abundance of experiences it has given her, are duly documented in her innumerable photos.
One of the places she has visited many times is Svalbard. She once said that: “There is something about this island realm that is both bigger and more serene than words can express. More powerful. Only art can describe it.” Perhaps it was precisely her encounter with Svalbard that convinced the Queen to take the leap and emerge as an artist for the first time? Whatever the case, it was in Svalbard that she visited a meltwater cave beneath the Scott Turner Glacier and became fascinated by the incredibly beautiful and diverse formations she saw there. She took photographs of them, as she does on her travels. When the photos were developed and she showed them to the painter and graphic artist Ørnulf Opdahl, he thought they were perfect for transference to polymer plates, so that they could be adapted and transformed into photogravure.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the Queen had been thinking about creating her own works of art for a long time, but there were no doubt many obstacles along the way. Was it compatible with her duties as Queen? Ørnulf Opdahl convinced her to make a go of it using the photographs she had gathered in Svalbard. She quickly learned the relatively complex technique and did the work herself. The result was remarkable, because it showed images which could be read as purely abstract, while in actual fact they were built on natural formations found in a meltwater cave In Svalbard.
THREE JOURNEYS – THREE LANDSCAPES
The Queen made eight photogravure prints based on these photographs, giving them varied colour attributes which stressed and emphasized the shapes in them. These eight works were shown for the first time, together with eight photogravure prints by Ørnulf Opdahl and Kjell Nupen respectively, at the Henie Onstad Centre of Art in 2012, and given the title THREE JOURNEYS – THREE LANDSCAPES. Subsequently, the exhibition was sent on tour all over the country. A portfolio including all 24 prints was made and sold in support of The Queen Sonja Nordic Art Award. Raising money for this fund was the whole point of both the exhibition and the portfolio. One of these portfolios is now on display in the H.M. Queen Sonja section of Gallery Lofoten in Henningsvær.
These works of Queen Sonja are in compliance with the long-standing Norwegian tradition of using nature as the foundation for art, nature as she has experienced it on her many expeditions. However, that is not to say that the works she has included in this portfolio actually “tell us (what) she has seen,” as Ludvig Karsten might have put it. Because even though this was indeed the case with regard to the eight photogravures from Svalbard, many of those who visited the exhibition were convinced that what they were looking at was in fact eight abstract works of art by Queen Sonja. And to a certain extent they were right, since the prints are more abstract than the photographs. This is because the various graphic techniques can, and will, to some extent break down the motifs and be decisive to the artistic style.
The French modernistic poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–98) claimed that an artist’s artistic style is like écume, the foam on the surface of the water.
What it refers to beneath the surface is not always easy to determine, because the white foam prevents us from seeing what is beneath it. But often we may discover something in the foam itself that is also worth seeing, not least because the foam itself is also, to a certain extent, part of nature, allowing us at the same time to see things that we are otherwise not used to seeing. In Queen Sonja’s case this is more obvious because she has given the prints colours which are relatively far removed from the ones found in the meltwater cave beneath the Scott Turner Glacier in Svalbard.
This creates a dynamism between the reality captured by the photographs and the photogravures hanging on the walls of Gallery Lofoten, an exceptionally productive dynamism that is typical of poetic metaphor in as much as it joins together two forms of reality – in this case formations in a meltwater cave, and various colours which we associate with quite different aspects of the world around us, material or spiritual. From this fusion, something completely new arises, “a curious beauty” as the French poet Charles Baudelaire spoke of. “Curious” because it contains something strange and unfamiliar that awakens us and prevents us from entering into a state of apathetic indifference.
A Late Arriver
Queen Sonja’s interest in art goes way back. She studied the history of art at the University of Oslo before becoming a member of the Royal Family. Her interest did not lessen after she became Crown princess and subsequently queen, but the position she had, and still has, has made it impossible for her to apply for a place of study at the National Academy of Art or any other such institution. In this respect, she has been in the same situation as, for instance, Kitty Kielland or Harriet Backer were in towards the end of the 1800s. Being women, art academies were a restricted area to them. Instead, both of them had the academy’s professors or other competent male teachers give them lessons. Queen Sonja has done the same thing. Artists like Ørnulf Opdahl, Kjell Nupen, Hanne Borchgrevink, Tore Hansen and Magne Furuholmen, amongst others, have been her teachers. Under their supervision, she has acquired skills in a number of different graphic techniques, and also been inspired by them to work with various different aspects of reality. Naturally enough, we can perceive traces of all of these artists in the Queen’s work, just as we also saw traces of the teachers of Kitty Kielland and Harriet Backer in their early paintings.
We must not forget that Queen Sonja was a late arriver on the art scene, making her debut in 2011 at the age of 74. Critics have therefore implied that she has yet to find a style of her own. In the graphic art that is now on display at Gallery Lofoten, for instance, we can see that in certain works her style is close to that of Kjell Nupen, in other works that of Ørnulf Opdahl or Hanne Borchgrevink, etc. This is natural enough for a person who has only been working as an artist for eight years. Such an objection was fair enough within the field of modernism, where considerable emphasis was placed on the artist finding himself and his own manner of expression. Subsequent to modernism, however, this has been of less importance. Suffice to mention one of the country’s most prominent painters and graphic artists, Bjørn Ransve. He has quite candidly disregarded this kind of thing, using a variety of styles in his work ranging from various types of figuration to pure abstraction. There are, however, a number of traits that have stayed with Queen Sonja throughout most of her work. The first is her eagerness to learn new graphic techniques and investigate how they can influence her as an artist. With the help of these, she can (and this is the second trait) create different feelings of dynamism or contrast between nature and artistic expression. Sometimes this may result in more abstract motifs, while at other times, the natural motif may appear even clearer.
There is an abundance of examples of both these traits at Gallery Lofoten. In some of her works, she has stylized the branches of trees and given them different shades and nuances of colour, often making the pictures incredibly different to each other, even though the motif is the same. In these cases she has developed various compositions where the same motif is present yet in different moods, tuned from the key of major to minor, as it were. At other times her works appear to be improvisations over abstract motifs, more loosely drafted and without any motif from nature revealing itself in the background. Here the écume, the foam, is thick and so opaque that the seabed is difficult to see. Thirdly, the Queen has a taste for what I would call visual metaphors, i.e. as we have seen above, she unites aspects of reality which do not really belong together, but which for that very reason expand our horizons.
Painters of Lofoten
The gallery contains an ample collection of paintings by widely acknowledged artists like Otto Sinding, Gunnar Berg, Even Ulving, Adelsteen Normann, Einar Berger, Ole Juul, Thorolf Holmboe and several others.