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“Electromagnetic - Modern Art in Northern Europe, 1918–1931” 0

Agnese Čivle,

Electromagnetic – Modern Art in Northern Europe, 1918-31
Henie Onstad Kunstsenter (HOK), Høvikodden
September 26 – December 15, 2013

What role did Scandinavian and Baltic artists play in the international art arena during the 1920s? For the first time, important works from Northern Europe have been brought together in one exhibition, providing a unique opportunity to compare their similarities and differences.

When we read about the art created by artists from Scandinavia and the Baltic, the usual approach is to look at how they were influenced by their periods of residence in major cities such as Berlin and Paris, studying under masters such as Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Amédée Ozenfant, Le Corbusier and André Lhote. This exhibition, however, focuses on each individual artist’s unique contribution to the art scene of the times, thereby revealing the impact these artists from Northern Europe themselves had on art developments in Paris and Berlin.  For example, the world-renowned artist Theo van Doesburg claimed that the most interesting works on the contemporary art scene in the early 1900s were made by the Norwegian artist Thorvald Hellsen and Fernand Léger.

“Electromagnetic - Modern Art in Northern Europe, 1918–1931 includes 150 works and documentary material by Swedes Otto G. Carlsund, Erik Olson and Gösta Adrian-Nilsson (GAN), the Danish Franciska Clausen, and Norwegians Thorvald Hellsen, Ragnhild Keyser, Ragnhild Kaarbø and Charlotte Wankel. The exhibition also presents a rich selection of Baltic artists - Estonians Arnold Akberg, Felix Randel and Märt Laarman; Latvians Gustavs Klucis, Ģederts Eliass and Valdemārs Tone; and the Lithuanian Vytautas Kairiūkštis, among others.  In addition, the exhibition presents works by their European mentors such as Fernand Léger, Juan Gris, Le Corbusier, André Lothe, Amédée Ozenfant and Jacques Lipchitz.

The following questions were answered by Milena Hoegsberg – chief curator at HOK.


How did you come up with idea of the exhibition's concept? 

The exhibition was developed by freelance curator Gladys Fabre, who is an expert on this decade. Henie Onstad Kunstsenter’s core collection consists primarily of modern paintings from 1920-1950s, so it has been a natural choice to explore various chapters of art produced in the first half of the 20th century.

Ragnhild Keyser, Rustning (Armor), ca. 1926. The National Museum of Art Architecture and Design / Jacques Lathion © Ragnhild Keyser / BONO 2013

Why did you choose the name “ELECTROMAGNETIC” for this exhibition? 

The title of the exhibition is taken from the 1918 poem “La Panama ou les Aventures de mes Sept Oncles” (Panama, or the Adventures of My Seven Uncles) by Swiss poet Blaise Cendrars. The poem describes the zeitgeist marked by revolution, restlessness and desire to explore, but also an era of optimism inspired by science and technology in rapid development.

Ragnhild Kaarbø, Komposisjon (Composition), 1926. Henie Onstad Kunstsenter / Øystein Thorvaldsen © Ragnhild Kaarbø / BONO 2013

Why did you choose to speak about this decade? 

Unknown to many, Scandinavian and Baltic artists played a significant role in the international art scene in the 1920s and participated widely in important transnational exhibitions and publications emerging in Central Europe. Most of these artists returned to their home countries from city centers like Paris or Berlin, and have therefore, often not been included in the narrative of the international European avant-garde. The exhibition Electromagnetic and the accompanying publication reposition these artists’ work between 1918 and 1931 in relation to the international movements at the time, and shed light on their shared global visions and unique individual contributions.

Cross-pollination between the Baltic and Scandinavian countries is taken for granted today. This exhibition focuses on a time when things were different, but when there was, nevertheless, a willingness to participate in a larger, European fellowship of artists, and a great need to connect with international movements of art. This exhibition gives visitors the opportunity to become acquainted with our commonly shared Northern European history, as seen from a new perspective.

Felix Randel, Sunday, 1924. HOK

Why do you think it is essential today to talk about the art of 1920s? 

It was a time of incredible artistic innovation – we’ll explore Bauhaus at HOK in two big exhibitions in the spring of 2014.

Important works from the Scandinavian and Baltic art scenes of the 1920s have been brought together in this exhibition, providing a unique opportunity to compare their similarities and differences.

Ludolf Liberts, Portrait of the Artist, 1923. Latvian National Museum of Art

Could you briefly outline those similarities and differences? 

The starting point of the exhibition is to show how each individual artist contributed to the art scene of the time, regionally and internationally, with his or her own unique input. The artists in the exhibition are organized under the rubric of the Baltic and Scandinavian regions they came from, to give the public the opportunity to compare the various expressions. The exhibition concludes with a presentation showing how art developed towards a universal expression, described as “art for art's sake” – a self-sufficient and non-referential abstract art: a formal, pure space consisting of planes and colors. To really understand the differences in detail, you’d have to come see the exhibition! 

Vytautas Kairiukštis, Suprematist Composition, 1922–23. HOK

What are the names of the Baltic artists? 

Gladys Fabre highlights the following in her exhibition text:  The originality of the Baltic artists and their contributions to the various "isms" are both in how they treated motifs and in the colors they used. The smooth texture used by Olé and Laarman, Sutas' thick coatings and Kairiukstis' use of colors. The brilliant paintings by Olé, the vibrant contrasts used by Krims, the fauves in Ģederts Elias’s work, Akberg’s detachment from reality and Valdemārs Tone’s dark colors – something he has in common with most other Latvians.

What sort of audience are you expecting to come to this exhibition?

Mostly local and Scandinavian, but this exhibition should resonate internationally as well, given the recent exhibitions such as Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925 at MoMA, and the show at the Guggenheim – New Harmony: Abstraction between the Wars, 1919–1939. And importantly, the exhibition will travel to KUMU– our international partner on this exhibition. A large, richly illustrated catalog, published by Hatja Cantz, will also insure that many who can’t come to see the exhibition in person will still be able to explore the works in it.

After the presentation at HOK, the exhibition will travel to the Art Museum of Estonia, KUMU from 23, January to 18, May, 2014.