Minneutstilling efter en ukjent maler,
Aksel Johannessen

Dagbladet 17/1 1923
Av Jappe Nilssen
The name of Aksel Johannessen was not entirely new to me. I had already heard it mentioned some years ago by Fernanda Nissen, who was deeply impressed by this artist and had become interested in his work. After the death of Mrs Nissen, Hulda Garborg wrote to me asking me to pay a visit to Aksel Waldemar and, if at all possible, to help him. At that time Johannessen lived at the end of Rosenkrantzgate, not far from Tordenskjold Square, in a block of flats with steep stairs and narrow, dingy corridors. It was certainly an extremely uncomfortable and dirty place in which to live. I attempted to meet him on a number of occasions, but without success. In the corridor in which he lived I knocked on all the doors and tried to open them, but they were all locked. Some little girls who I met at the entrance told me that it would be impossible to find him because he was never at home. But the following day I went back there. Once again I knocked on three or four doors, again unsuccessfully, until I reached the last door, through which I could hear some noises and brief commands. After knocking, I opened the door and entered the room, which was fairly large. The light entered through two windows and a slanting ray of sunlight bathed a large bed; on this a man lay on his back, stark naked, with his legs in the air. Curled up at his feet was a small child who was then thrown into the air with incredible adroitness. My presence did not induce the acrobat to change position; indeed, he continued with his morning gymnastics, but only guttural cries issued from his mouth, and these seemed to express anything but a warm welcome. Hence I decided to make myself scarce forthwith. Before shutting the door I observed how the acrobat gave the child a push with his toes as if to send him away, thrusting him half a meter into the air, only to catch him once again with the soles of his feet. This scene made quite an impression on me: this was a man who knew how to amuse his children! Probably he was an acrobat in a circus or vaudeville who kept his door unlocked when he was doing his exercises. However, I saw neither Johannessen nor his paintings.

Edvard Munch with his Portrait of Jappe Nilssen (1909)I had almost forgotten this scene when I learnt last autumn that the painter had died and that he had left over a hundred paintings depicting figures, interiors, landscapes, urban scenes and still lifes. Aksel Waldemar never attempted to present his paintings to the public; why we shall never know. He had started his career as a sculptor and, in fact, fifteen to twenty years before he had displayed a number of small works at the State Art Exhibition. Evidently he was not successful and it is likely that he was dissatisfied with his work, since he suddenly abandoned sculpture, dedicating himself exclusively to painting. The exhibition at the Blomqvist Gallery is very extensive, occupying the glass- roofed hall, the small room and two other small galleries. Nevertheless, many works have been omitted because of the lack of space. There are eighty paintings on display, some of them quite large, as well as twenty woodcuts and five or six sculptures; for example there is a reasonably good bust of an old woman, a maquette of the elderly Aasta Hansteen and some works which do not merit particular attention. The exhibition confirms that as a sculptor he would not have had a brilliant future. He was first and foremost a painter and it is in this role that we shall remember him when all his sculptures have been forgotten.

The impression of the painter that the exhibition conveys is a very singular one. An isolated man with a very lively imagination and a high sensibility created these visions; a man who had the makings of the great artist in him and who created these strikingly harsh representations of human existence, whether it be through pity or contempt or when temporarily prey to a fiendish frame of mind. It is easy to see how the artist was influenced by the great French social satirist, draughtsman and painter, Daumier, as well as Degas - he imitated them rather poorly in some of his paintings, especially Baking Bread - and lastly Munch, from whom he harrowed various subjects. But, leaving aside these influences, he then trod his own steep and narrow path, far from the broad, familiar highroad of contemporary art.

During his brief artistic career Johannessen certainly did not choose to depict the pleasant side of life; indeed, his own life was anything but an easy one. Above all he painted rootless, destitute people, drinkers and beggars, penniless workers and prostitutes, in other words those who have been rejected by society. It is here, in the representation of these humble lives, that he achieves an effect that is at times so intense that the painting engraves itself on the- viewer's memory. Take, for instance, the two interiors The Drinker's Family and Card Players, where he lets the faces speak, each one telling its own story, so we feel that we are already very familiar with the protagonists, for better or for worse. Or what about the very successful painting entitled The Morning After, with its gaudy setting and its desperately realistic features? These very distinctive paintings express a greater degree of fervour and sensibility that any I have hitherto come across in Nordic art. They emanate emotional intensity which at times verges on ecstasy. In one painting a mother sits dejectedly, while her daughter, laughing flippantly, holds a powder-puff in her hand (Mother & Daughter). In another picture an undernourished old man in worn clothes hides behind a fence and watches in terror while a dog threatens to attack him (Vagabond and the Dog). A third work depicts a poor, pale mother in a street on the edge of a town (Mother and Child). Behind her factory chimneys pour their filthy smoke into a yellowish sky shot through with blood-red streaks; her skinny little daughter clings to her, probably asking for something to eat. These are his subjects, and I may assure you that there is nothing spurious about them: they are all too true to life.

Aksel Johannessen also painted larger compositions containing more figures, such as the monumental Without Peace with its intertwined human bodies, other biblical subjects such as Christ and the Blind and Dumb Man and a small painting, one of his best, which appears to represent Judas. The market scene is very lively, with two old fruit-sellers and some children and in the centre piles of fruit, vegetables and flowers. A particularly delightful painting is the one with a gardener who comes towards us with a wheelbarrow full of cauliflowers (Peasant with cauliflowers). The colours are light and the scene is bathed in summer sunshine. In the large autumn picture depicting potato diggers there is an unusual tapestry-like effect that spreads an aura of bounty evenly over the surface.

Some examples of his landscapes are also displayed here; these too are important works which will stand the test of time. The painting belonging to Mrs Hulda Garborg is perhaps the best: in the foreground a large tree is tinged with autumn yellow, while behind it lies the blue sea with foamy waves driven by the wind (In Oslofjord). The artist also painted several splendid still lifes, one with a melon cut in half and red flowers and one with long Aaron's rods. Johannessen was also a skilled graphic artist: some of the woodcuts displayed are particularly worthy of attention, especially the horses in the wind with a huge sun in the background.

Aksel Johannessen died when still young, at the age of fortytwo. Probably it is futile to try to imagine how his career as a painter would have developed had fate been kinder to him. If only he had had the courage and initiative to exhibit his paintings, to hang his works next to those of others and to benefit from the comparison, he would undoubtedly now be numbered among our leading painters. One thing is certain: this exhibition is one of the strangest and, at the same time, one of the most fascinating that have been held in this country in recent years. This is not only because it opens our eyes to the tragic life of this accomplished artist who lived in poverty and obscurity, concealing his talent from the world, but also because the exhibition reveals a tormented, eccentric man who never found peace, a person for whom hell already existed on earth. His art is capable of moving us deeply. One cannot help feeling that the expression" a man consumed by his own fire" is particularly appropriate in this case.

* Jappe Nilssen (1870-1931) is considered to be the leading Norwegian ant critic of this century. He was responsible for discovering Munch, who was a friend of his. This review was published in the Dagbladet on 17 January 1923. This is what Haakon Mehren has to say with regard to it: "A lot of what happens in life is just pure chance. The leading art expert in our country, who would have immediately recognized the talent of Aksel Waldemar Johannessen, entered the wrong room, so he never met him. Jappe Nilssen went up to the second floor of the neighbouring building, a squalid boarding-house where acrobats from the Norbeck circus stayed and sometimes gave free shows in the courtyard. It is probable that the history of Norwegian art, and the destiny of Aksel Waldemar Johannessen, would have taken a different turn if Jappe Nilssen had not knocked on the wrong door."