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Aksel Waldemar Johannessen
The story of Aksel Waldemar Johannessen is an exciting tale of the rediscovery of a great expressionist painter who lived in Kristiania (now Oslo) between 1880 and 1922.
The philanthropist and art collector Haakon Mehren (born Oslo 1938) must take credit for having rediscovered the artist. Quite by chance, he came across some of Johannessen’s works in a store room. The paintings were so far removed from the rather eclectic tradition of Matisse prevalent in Norway at the time, that he was immediately fascinated by them. To his great surprise, Mehren was unable to find any relevant information on the artist from published sources. Even in the various institutes of art history, Johannessen seemed virtually unknown.
During the next two years, Mr Mehren conducted his thorough detective work on the artist, traveling extensively and searching through archives. Through his research, the pieces of the artist's life have come together, forming a complex picture of great artistic and historic significance even beyond Norway.
Mehren managed to trace the artist’s daughter, Solveig Johannessen Schirmer, as well as the old family maid and later house assistant, Maja Johnsen, who at the age of 94 was extremely fit and turned out to have an exceptionally good memory. Drawn together, and through their vivid reminiscences, these two women have been invaluable sources of information.

Growing up in one of Oslo’s poorer areas, Hammersborg, near Trefoldighetskirken (the Trinity Church), Aksel Waldemar attended the Academy of Art and Design for 2 1/2 years, primarily as a student of the sculptor Lars Utne. During this time, through 1911, he exhibited in the Rodin-Vigeland tradition, though some rather insignificant works, at Høstutstillingen (the Annual Norwegian Autumn Show), thereafter he retired completely from any further display of his works.
In 1907, he married Anna Nielsen, who was to remain his strongest supporter and artistic assistant for the rest of his life. They moved to the little town of Gjøvik, some 120 kilometres north of Oslo, where he obtained work with a well known furniture company. Here, he worked for four years as a carver and maker of models.
At their return to Oslo in 1912, he started painting, though avoiding any further contact with fellow artists. Throughout his life, Johannessen seemed to distance himself from the rather bourgeois and snobbish artistic community. He lived and expressed himself in his own complicated world of image and thought - an art both realistic and critical of society.
However, Johannessen and his wife Anna enjoyed a close contact with the theatre, particularly the newly established Norwegian Theatre (Det Norske Teatret). They opened a dressmaking shop, renowned for the making of costumes for a number of stage performances. The theatre became their world, and amongst their personal friends were many well known poets and actors.
The Johannessen couple also played a prominent part in the preservation of Norwegian textile and national costume traditions. For this purpose, they established "Heimen", still a major company promoting Norwegian handicrafts and objects of a traditional rural design.
Through this, as well as through their work for the theatres, the Johannessens established a close link to the couple Hulda and Arne Garborg, famous Norwegian poets, whom they frequently visited at their home "Labråten" in Asker, near Oslo. They belonged to the ‘Asker-circle’, an important intellectual group at the time. The proletariat poet Kristofer Uppdal was also a close friend of the young Aksel Waldemar, and the two spent many summers living in proximity of each other at Landøen in Asker.
In 1921, Anna Johannessen became seriously ill with cancer. Her illness had a detrimental effect on her husband. He was no longer able to keep his alcohol problems under control, and his ‘fits’ lasted for increasingly longer periods. An attack of pleuresy in his youth had left him in delicate health, and he died from pneumonia on October 25th 1922.
At the time of Aksel's death, his wife Anna had only four months left to live. During this brief space of time, this courageous woman set about to tidy up both her own life and that of her husband. Assisted by Hulda Garborg, she saw to it that her two daughters were well taken care of, and she sold the company "Heimen" to Bondeungdomslaget (the Society of Farm Youth) for a very reasonable price. (This society is still the owner of "Heimen") She also contacted the artist Ola Abrahamsson, showing him the ninety works that Aksel Waldemar had painted, without making this known to a soul.
Ola Abrahamsson was greatly surprised, and shortly thereafter, on January 17th 1923, he had arranged for a retrospective exhibition of Johannessens works at Blomqvist, the very best gallery in Oslo.
The exhibition of these ninety works of art created an overwhelming response with magnificent reviews, although a number of people did not comprehend the direct, realistic messages of his art. Jappe Nilssen, Norway’s foremost art critic of the time, the man first to recognize the talent of Edvard Munch and later to become his close friend, wrote what was probably the most positive review of his entire career: "... I can hardly recall having seen anything like this ever before in Nordic art."
Munch was also full of enthusiasm: "this is something of the most extraordinary that I have ever seen", and "finer works are not being painted to-day". The sculptor Gustav Vigeland sent the widow some money. People were astonished to learn that Aksel Waldemar only gained prominence after his death. Myths were created about poverty, need, hunger and death in solitude, an echo from the Bohemian period of the 1880s. Aksel Waldemar’s canvasses were then subsequently packed and stored, and then went into total oblivion.

In his 1992 book, Aksel Waldemar Johannessen, Vår glemte maler (Aksel Waldemar Johannessen, Our Forgotten Painter), Haakon Mehren, by rediscovering this exceptional artist, presents us with a new and revealing trend in Norwegian social criticism represented in art: from Christian Krohg, the naturalist and critic of the bourgeoisie, via the esthete Edvard Munch, to the realist Aksel Waldemar Johannessen, there is a clear trend that leads to the modernist Arne Ekeland. Similarly, Mehren demonstrates the important line in Norwegian-German art from Johan Christian Clausen Dahl and Caspar David Friedrich - via the Norwegian naturalists in Munich and Wilhelm Leibl, leading to Munch, the Berlin session in 1892, and expressionism. German philosophy, Ibsen, Garborg, Hamsun, Bjørnson and the satirical magazine Simplicissimus all form part of this picture. Mehren shows the pioneering work in the figurative language of Norway’s first proletarian artist, and he shows us how Aksel Waldemar anticipates the German art of "Neue Sachlichkeit" in 1925. (althrough Aksel Waldemar had never ventured out of Norway)
Tor Obrestad, the Norwegian writer and poet, has discovered a great deal of written material on Aksel Waldemar Johannessen in Hulda Garborg’s diaries from 1912 to 1923, and he analyzes the literary climate of that period. He also offers a strong personal declaration of love for the artist.
Prof. Dr. Øivind Storm Bjerke, former head curator at Høvikodden Art Centre (Sonja Henie-Onstad Foundation), now professor at the University of Oslo, analyzes the various pictures and gives a survey of Norwegian art and a critique of artistic activity at the time of Aksel Waldemar Johannessen. He demonstrates that his art forms an autobiographical cycle, a cycle that ends with the paintings Fredløse (Outlaws) and Korsfestelsen (The Crucifixion).
Prof. Dr. Sybille-Karin Moser at the University of Innsbruck, herself an art historian and painter, who has a close relation to the great art theoretician of our time, Sir Ernst Gombrich, places Aksel Waldemar in an art philosophical context. She refers, among other things, to the 86-year-old Marie Louise von Matosiczky, the last expressionist alive from the same period as Aksel Waldemar, who is represented with two paintings in the Tate Gallery. In a conversation with Dr. Moser, she talks of her paintings from the 1920s, they discuss Aksel Waldemar and contemporary artists with whom she worked, amongst them Max Beckmann.
Prof. Dr. Moser presents the rediscovery of Aksel Waldemar Johannessen’s lifework as a great event in European art history. She is critical of various phenomena in German expressionism and in modern art. She tries to give an answer to the exact "nature"of proper Art, and in doing so, draws on philosophers such as Hans Belting and R. C. Collingwwod.

The exhibition held 1923 in Blomqvist Gallery was reconstructed in the same gallery in 1992 with great success. The following year, 1993, the same exhibition was shown in the art museums of Stavanger, Skien and Bergen. During these exhibitions, several foreign museums and galleries also discovered the artist and paid great interest to him. Under the supervision of the renowned art historian Professor Dr. Erich Steingräber, General Director of the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlung in Munich (Pinakothek) and honorable professor at Munich University, new exhibitions were arranged 1994 in Palazzo Te in Mantua and in the Doge Palace in Venice, and later in Castle Maretsch, Bolzano South Tirol. In 1995 exhibitions followed in Castle Lamberg, Steyr (Austria) and then finally in 1996 in Berlin.
Some 100.000 people visited the exhibitions and learned about Aksel Waldemar Johannessen and his work. Hundreds of articles were published in newspapers and magazines around Europe. Since Edvard Munch, no other Norwegian artist had achieved greater success abroad. The catalogue on the artist and the exhibition was published by Electa in Italian, German and English (editor: Prof. Dr. Erich Steingräber. Aksel Waldemar Johannessen. Images of a Nordic Drama. Immagini di un dramma nordico. Bilder eines Nordischen Dramas. Electa, Milano 1994. Elemont editori associata).
International museums and institutions have acquired paintings by Aksel Waldemar Johannessen, amongst them the famous collector and museum-founder Prof. Dr. Rudolf Leopold in Vienna. At this moment, discussions are underway to make his work available to the public in a major institution.