Promesse de bonheur

2008

Opening speech Academy of Fine Arts, Oslo

The “fine” arts have a relatively short history in Norway. The Academy of Fine Art was not founded until 1909, with Christian Krohg, Halfdan Strøm and Gunnar Utsond as its first professors. Norway already had a school of drawing, but wanted an institution that could represent the young Norwegian nation within the great European art tradition. Even if the Academy was relatively small, it represented a great and visionary ambition.

In this way, the Academy was a central part of the creation of Norway as an independent nation on par with other European countries, along with several other social institutions founded around the same time. One can draw parallels between the foundation of a specialised institution of fine art and the introduction of the most symbolically heavy of these new, representative institutions: the Norwegian royal family. King Haakon and Queen Maud had their coronation in Nidarosdomen in June 1906, just three years before the foundation of the Academy. Both can be seen as manifestations of the desire to give primacy to the exceptional in society. In this respect, they could be seen as exemplary, capturing something for people to aspire to.

Maud was an English princess who married her Danish cousin Prince Carl (later Haakon VII). She represented a potentially strong bond between Norway and the UK, which was probably seen as more important than greater ties to Denmark, which her husband represented.

Maud was a style-conscious woman, who brought European fashion to Norway, both symbolically and practically. She was renowned for her good taste and was seen as unusually elegant, both in Norway and abroad. This sense of style was reflected in her wardrobe, but she also made other aesthetic alterations to her surroundings. One of her projects was to change the lighting in the Royal Palace in Oslo. She ordered specially designed, hand-blown red light bulbs for the representative rooms at the Palace. The light from these bulbs was particularly flattering, making the face glow so that people looked younger and more radiant. The light became a subtle frame that created a specific ambience for her meetings, transcending the glumness of the everyday.

Here we are working with art. We strive for the great experience of art, for that important intuition. We search for inspiration and try to give form to something that does not yet exist. Anyone who has experienced a great work of art knows that it is a sensation that eclipses the everyday. Even if it springs from society and always seems somewhat familiar, it is also always alien, unexpected and powerful. Art is, as Adorno put it with words borrowed from Stendhal, a promise of pleasure: promesse de bonheur.

Art cannot be “directed”, but occurs where it wants, in constantly new, surprising forms. It is both symbolic and very concrete, and gives “the other possibilities” a face and a place in society. In this way, it meets a general need – not just the artist’s – but also for society as a whole. It shows that there is room for exceptions and surprises. That there is freedom and beauty.

The definitions of beauty, greatness and the sublime are constantly changing, just like the society that houses them. Nevertheless, great art is never generated from sloppy or unclear endeavours. It occurs in the tension between contemporaneity and tradition. This tradition is multi-faceted and complex and it takes time to understand it.

This space, the entrance area to the Academy of Fine Art, is the first thing that visitors to the institution encounter. It needs to function both for the people who go about their everyday work here and for those who are just visiting. We who deal with art know that there is no such thing as “neutral aesthetics”. What people encounter as they enter the great front door has a bearing on how they understand what we do in here. Prior to the refurbishment, the initial meeting with the Academy felt strangely dismissive, haphazard and confusing. I believe that this description, unfortunately, captures how outsiders generally feel when they encounter art.

The room, as it is now conceived, is intended to function as a metaphor for the role of Academy, and, by extension, for art in society. The walls have been repainted in their original colours and we have a new layout conceived by Various Architects. The lighting has been specially designed in collaboration with the glass artist Kjersti Johansen and Magnor Glass Works. I have borrowed Queen Maud’s idea for the red light in the middle of the room, which I will ask the dean to turn on, in a moment. I have devised it so that it is lit up all the time and functions as an invisible frame around the meetings between visitors and what we do here. I also hope that it can work as a reflection of the great, important tradition that this institution contributes to developing. It is something to be proud of, and it is something that we should present and communicate to the world outside.