Beyond Munch: Norwegian art shares spotlight with Bubbles the chimp in Oslo

Thirty years ago this month, when the billionaire Norwegian shipping magnate and prolific collector of contemporary art Hans Rasmus Astrup opened a museum in Oslo to house his collection, the response was chilly.

Sceptics accused Astrup, who died in 2021, of establishing an “ego-seum”. Norwegian radio asked whether his intention was to “establish a monument to affluent capitalism or a living museum which dares to take some chances”.

Now, as a major new exhibition opens to celebrate Astrup’s life and mark the museum’s anniversary, he is credited with “transforming the Norwegian art scene”, as Sune Nordgren, the former director of the National Museum in Norway, puts it in her history of the Astrup Fearnley Museum.

On Wednesday, the stirring skirl of a lone bagpiper resonated through Tjuvholmen (Thief Island), a regenerated waterfront district home to the museum, as guests gathered to pay tribute to Astrup at a memorial service delayed by the pandemic.

His friend, Queen Sonja of Norway, told guests that Astrup had told her “it’s important that art is not stowed away, it must be shown and experienced and we must learn from it”.

The works span everything from Jeff Koons’ garish lifesize porcelain depiction of Michael Jackson and his chimpanzee, Bubbles, bought at auction by Astrup for $5.6m (£4.4m) in 2001, to Norwegian artist Børre Sæthre’s My Private Sky, a stuffed Icelandic horse turned unicorn cocooned in a spaceship pod.

The collection was donated in its entirety on Astrup’s death to a foundation in his name, which has no individual or corporate owner but a 2.6bn kroner (£188m) endowment fund to keep it going in perpetuity. The model is unusual for the region, not least because there are no tax incentives for art donations, according to Solveig Øvstebø, who took over as the museum’s fifth, and first female, director three years ago. “Here, you only get your name on the door,” she said.

Øvstebø, who was previously in charge of the Kunsthall in Bergen and Chicago’s Renaissance Society, one of the US’s oldest institutes of contemporary art, has overseen the collection’s recent transformation into a not-for-profit institution.

Her task has been to expand the collection, purchasing 52 new works, to make it more diverse and embrace the living artists whose works it contains.

In rummaging through its extensive archives to discover what treasures it held, she said her team had “made a lot of fascinating discoveries” and were still working out exactly what it contains.

One of her personal aims is to ensure the museum shows a broader scope of art beyond that of the artist most commonly associated with Norway, Edvard Munch.

The Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, designed by Renzo Piano.
The Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, designed by Renzo Piano. Photograph: Tomasz Kisielewski/Alamy

“The paradox of an institution is trying to push things forward,” she said in an interview on the top floor of the light-infused museum, designed by Renzo Piano, which resembles a stranded ship. “People want what they already know but my task is to challenge that.

“We’re super proud of Munch, a wonderful artist, an amazing museum,” she said, pointing towards a tilting grey waterfront tower opened in 2021 that houses many of the artist’s 26,700 works on 13 floors.

“But we’re also happy to show people there are other things going on. We see our role as trying to ensure that a wider range of art becomes visible to more and more people. Hans Rasmus really enjoyed the conversations around the art and we want those to deepen and continue.”

This approach includes giving more prominence to established Norwegian artists. In the exhibition that launched the museum in 1993, domestic artists were deliberately excluded “in a conscious choice” by the then director “to establish its profile as an international museum”, according to Nordgren.

Keen to take a different tack, Øvstebø’s recent acquisitions include many works by Norwegian artists, including Vanessa Baird.

Baird’s moving watercolour images, inspired by her role as caregiver to her mother, have replaced one of the museum’s star pieces, Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided, which is currently out on loan.

Øvstebø discovered Baird during her time in the US . “I wondered why she wasn’t in our collection and so I bought several of her works,” she said. Describing Baird as “quietly spoken”, Øvstebø said she was one of various artists to whom she had wanted to give a “bigger voice”.

The late Norwegian textile artist Synnøve Anker Aurdal was another proud find, said Øvstebø. “Many young Norwegian artists reference her in their work, and to my surprise and delight I discovered we had many of her works in storage.” She has also brought Norwegian artists, such as the Berlin-based smell expert Sissel Tolaas, back to Oslo. “We asked her not what she’d done, but what she’d like to do,” Øvstebø said. Tolaas’s answer was to create an exhibit that included impregnating the museum’s outside wooden panelling with different varieties of body odour.

Anselm Kiefer’s 30 tonne “lead library” sculpture Zweistromland has been consigned for now to a space deliberately hidden from view behind a specially constructed wall, to make way instead for Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s bunker-like sound sculpture, Clamor.

“The Kiefer is basically too heavy to move,” Øvstebø said. “Hans Rasmus effectively had the museum constructed around it.”

She is expecting criticism over the works she has chosen not to show, but hopes the audience will embrace those she has “brought home”, including Sæthre’s My Private Sky. Arguably the show’s star piece, the installation appears to coquettishly eye up visitors from its royal blue, carpeted cocoon.

At the exhibition launch, a photographer for the royal court captured the moment Sæthre was asked by Queen Sonja – coincidentally dressed in slacks and choker that matched the carpet – to “help an old lady” climb through the sliding door into the installation.

The following day Sæthre, who has returned to Oslo after years working in New York, offered a glimpse into his studio in a former coal power plant in eastern Olso, in the shadow of a building project for new luxury apartments. He and 35 other artists are able to rent space here from the municipality which owns it, at around a quarter of regular rental market rates.

Many artists are not so lucky, and he and fellow creatives Camilla Løw and Eline Mugaas, who have also exhibited at the Astrup Fearnley, described their continuing uphill efforts to secure long-term space for less established artists in the city.

“We can be happy that an institute like the Astrup Fearnley has come to have such a prominent place,” said Mugaas, standing in her studio surrounded by her sculptures and photographs. “But with the whole coastline on the fjord having been turned into prime real estate and retail, we don’t take anything for granted.”