Letter to the Prime Minister of Norway

Oslo, July 23rd 2007

Addressed to:
Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg,
Minister of Culture and Church Affairs Trond Giske,

I am writing to you today regarding an issue of great national importance. This is an open letter, copies of which will be sent to the national broadcasting company NRK and the press. There is a series of information contained in this letter that I have not made public on earlier occasions, as it has been my wish to compromise neither individual persons nor institutions. I had hoped that things would right themselves in the course of time but, unfortunately, this was not to be the case. When taking into account our national cultural heritage, these circumstances can no longer be kept secret. Thus, this letter is to be regarded as contribution to our cultural history.

In 1992 I wrote the book Aksel Waldemar Johannessen. Vår glemte maler (Aksel Waldemar Johannessen. Our Forgotten Painter) (Publisher: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag). The book tells the story of a great expressionist who lived in Oslo between 1880 and 1922. He went to the S.H.K.S. (The Royal School of Art) for seven semesters, the last years in the sculptor-class. He was involved with Det Norske Teatret (The Norwegian Theatre), but only his closest friends the Garborgs, Kristofer Uppdal and Oskar Braaten knew that he also painted. The paintings were exhibited at Blomqvist in Oslo in 1923 on the initiative of the painter Ola Abrahamsson. Jappe Nilssen, Edvard Munch and Gustav Vigeland were deeply impressed and made excellent reviews. But as the artist himself was already dead and his wife Anna died during the exhibition, the paintings disappeared, seized by the child welfare authorities on behalf of their two under-age children. His work was thus totally forgotten, in spite of the fact that our legendary art critic, a close friend and active supporter of Munch, Jappe Nilssen, declared in the newspaper Dagbladet on January 17th 1923: "There is such glow and intensity in these paintings, such a passion and commitment in their fulfilling, that I can barely remember to have seen something like this in Nordic art."

The book attracted a lot of attention. I received the following greetings card from the then Prime Minister: "Dear Haakon, what a fabulous book, and such fabulous paintings. Congratulations. Gro" This is why I am writing this letter to you, Prime Minister / Minister.

After the publication of the book Aksel Waldemar Johannessen. Vår glemte maler, the paintings were exhibited at Blomqvist in Oslo and the city museums of Skien, Stavanger and Bergen during 1992-93. Everywhere there was extensive coverage by the press, and the excitement amongst the public was huge. Nevertheless, from the professionals linked to the National Gallery there was complete silence. The book as well as the exhibition was utterly boycotted. In the following 15 years nobody linked to the main art institutions in Oslo ever mentioned the name Aksel Waldemar Johannessen in my presence, nor have they made a written statement, as would have been the logical thing to do. He is a non-existing artist. Or, as the editor Harald Flor, a great admirer of his art, declared on the headline in Dagbladet after the international breakthrough: "A warm welcome abroad - a cold shoulder at home".

Today, I feel compelled to tell You, Prime Minister/ Minister, and the Norwegian people, the truth. When I discovered these unknown paintings by a forgotten artist, and after two years of research published the book about his life and work, theatre-manager Otto Homlung stated: "Haakon Mehren has given us our history back and has, in addition, provided us with a new culture history." This is only part of the truth. For the truth is that the National Gallery got to see the paintings first, saw no potential in them and suggested to give them away, or even to scrap them as they had only limited artistic value. It was a miracle that I came across them and saved them from destruction at the local rubbish dump. This is the reason why my book came as a shock to the Norwegian art historian circle when it appeared two years later. A 15-year-long work to have the paintings destroyed and underrated started, and goes on still. They do not wish a new canon. Besides, they had already made their statement, and therefore felt threatened by the success the artist was achieving. After the huge international breakthrough, which I will account for further on, this issue has become a nightmare that nobody in this circle is able to cope with. The artist has been met with a hatred that knows no boundaries, yet nobody is able to account for this in professional terms. Thus, there has been no possibility to maintain a dialogue. He is being killed by silence, probably the strongest and most unfair argument there is, and against which you have no defence. We might find some comfort in the words of the historian R. G. Collingwood: "If you don’t hear anything, you have done something very remarkable."

It has been suggested lately by some politicians that professionals employed by state and regional governments that fail to fulfil their tasks satisfactorily in matters regarding road and tunnel construction, environment or healthcare, should be legally responsible for their actions. When professionals in matters regarding culture fail to duly fulfil their task, the damage is far more extensive. It might, in fact, be irreparable and befall the whole of a nation for all future! The story of Aksel Waldemar Johannessen is the story of a major cultural betrayal. Apparently, there seems to be a tradition for this in Norway. It so happens that our most talented countrymen, such as Munch and Ibsen, are frequently driven out of the country before they achieve recognition. I guess I should feel honoured that Aksel Waldemar Johannessen has come in such good company. Actually, this is where he belongs, but the matter is too serious for seeing a humorous side to it. One of our greatest geniuses is threatened with annihilation in his own home country.

This is why I, in 1993, contacted one of the most important museum experts in Europe, Prof. Dr. Erich Steingräber, General Manager of the Pinakothek in Munich and member of science academies in several countries. "This artist I can exhibit in any museum in the world", was his comment. He opened all doors for Aksel Waldemar Johannessen. Exhibitions were arranged in the Gonzaga family’s Palazzo Te in Mantua in 1994, thereafter he was welcomed as the guest of honour in Venice that summer with an exhibition in the Doge palace. No debutant artist in any country has experienced anything similar. In the country "wo die Zitronen blühen" a great Norwegian artist was born. The manager of the Munch-museum, Alf Bøe, said: "Congratulations. I have never had such a success with Munch in Italy. One is entitled to have whatever opinion one deems fit about the artist Aksel Waldemar Johannessen, but certainly we are bound to support such success." Amidst the torrents of congratulations and articles in the press, this was the only thing I heard from the Norwegian art history circle.
In professor Steingräber’s book on the artist, Immagini di un Dramma Nordico (Publisher: Electa, Milano 1994. Edition in Italian, German and English), this eminency in European museum circles writes the following: "Any attempt at trying to situate Aksel Waldemar Johannessen in this artistic environment makes it clear at once that his paintings, all produced in the ten years from 1912 to 1922, do not fit into the fixed pattern. As his internationally famous foregoers - Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Munch, Rousseau and Ensor - he was a singular artist, unique in his own manner."

200.000 people saw the exhibitions in Italy, hundreds of fabulous criticisms were published in the international press. After Italy, exhibitions were held in Bolzano in Southern Tyrol, in Steyr in Austria 1995, and finally in Berlin 1996. In Austria, one of the most renowned art collectors of our time, Prof. Dr. Rudolf Leopold, purchased two works that will become part of his famous museum in Vienna, a gift to his country worth one billion euro. The friendship that developed between us spurred the initiative that led to the Munch museum’s ongoing exhibition of his Egon Schiele collection. Do we wish for the rest of Aksel Waldemar’s works to end up in Vienna or a similar museum abroad? I put the paintings away on storage in 1996 and have maintained my silence for ten years. But, alas, so have the silent adversaries of the artist, at least to the public. Thanks to support from Christen Sveaas and the Kistefos museum, it has been possible to maintain the works gathered. At this years art exhibition at the Kistefos museum, entitled "Behind the window. Norwegian interior painting from Tidemand to Tandberg", Aksel Waldemar Johannessen was represented with two works and an article in the catalogue.

I have reached a point at which I owe the artist Aksel Waldemar Johannessen more than I owe my native country. For this reason, I have again brought out his works and arranged an exhibition in the newly opened Arnulf Øverlands Galleri (gallery and museum) in Kristiansund, a homage to our great national poet who was born in this city. I do this to bring out a new catalogue, tell the world that the artist and I are still much alive, but also so that you, Prime Minister/ Minister, have the opportunity to see the paintings, likewise our new manager of the National Gallery, who will thus have an opportunity to change the Gallery’s attitude. In other words: one last chance to start from zero. I would like to remind the Gallery that I, back in 1992 offered them a joint team-work, as well as a considerable donation in form of works of art and an additional financial donation. I was met with scorn and ignorance. Furthermore, it is important for me to tell the Norwegian public, who 15 years ago embraced this artist with great enthusiasm, why he has not been available to the audience on any exhibition during all this time. This also goes out to the new generation of art historians: they have the right to know what happened all those years ago.

The paintings will now be sent on tour to the United States. Unfortunately, I cannot reveal any names in an open letter, as there is reason to believe that every effort will be made to sabotage this work, as has already happened in 1994 in Italy, but with no success whatsoever. Nonetheless, I would like to mention that the Foreign Department through Geir Grung and Eva Bugge, plus a number of ambassadors, were of inestimable help back then during the international exhibitions. I also received practical assistance from the Munch museum. The only art historian in Norway who has given me his professional support all the way is Øivind Storm Bjerke, today professor of History of Art at the University of Oslo. Our great defender of Garborg and the traditional Norwegian movement nasjonale rørsla, the poet Tor Obrestad, who from the very beginning has been involved in my work, opened the exhibition in Kristiansund.

The paintings may well be sold to foreign museums. From the American side, there has been mentioned prices between 100 million Norwegian kroner and 100 million U.S. dollars. This has no interest whatsoever to me personally, nevertheless, the National Gallery has all this time had reason to fear compensation claims from previous owners, since the Gallery as the country’s highest authority in matters of art stated that the paintings were worthless. This has of course also been a problem for the board and a driving force to have the paintings underrated. I shall sell the pictures only if it benefits the artist. I am getting close to 70 years of age and will not risk that he is once more forgotten or destroyed by the National Gallery, not physically, but spiritually.

Aksel Waldemar Johannessen is one of the great personalities of our culture. The view he takes on women, as well as on prostitution, is a major breakthrough in art history (see the works Man and pregnant woman and Mother and children. He is the painter for the poor and the outcasts. He is the very first artist to initiate the transition from expressionism to Neue Sachlichkeit. He is a predecessor to Max Beckmann and the other great German artists who took up the fight against fascism and social injustice. The renowned German-Italian-Slavic painter Zoran Music said in Venice: "Aksel Waldemar Johannessen has, as the only artist, successfully managed to sum all 20th century painting to one common denominator. This makes him one of the big names in art history."
Additionally, Aksel Waldemar Johannessen was, as mentioned earlier, part of the traditional Norwegian movement, the Asker circle. He contributed to the founding of Det Norske Teatret, and together with his closest friend and great support, Hulda Garborg, he is the creative mind behind the national costume tradition of which we today are so proud (he founded Heimen Husflid). In gratitude to the appreciation I received from the theatre circle, I created two prizes: 1) the Aksel Waldemar prize, which is awarded to a painter and a theatre person working in traditional Norwegian language (ny-norsk), and 2) the Hedda Gabler prize, which is awarded in a number of categories. It has cost me, and still costs me millions, and is meant to be built further on. It has been a labour of love. I also wish to mention that my wife and I, in 1998, were the first ever Norwegian private citizens to be awarded the Europa Nostra Award for preserving environment and cultural heritage at our home Skånland i Salten Trade House. The well-known Norwegian journalist Toppen Bech made a program for national television about this. This international recognition is the achievement of a year long cooperation and close friendship to Professor Olav Gjærevoll, Gro Harlem Brundtland and the State Antiquary Stephan Tschudi Madsen.

Our Queen Sonja has just turned 70. She and the King celebrated their joint 60th birthday at our home Skånland together with 14 majesties and 40 royal highnesses. My family and I have hence had the pleasure of a strong commitment to the Norwegian society and have at many other occasions represented our country worthily, here at home as well as abroad, and we hope to continue doing so.

The exhibition in Kristiansund is open until August 12th. I would be delighted to take the Prime Minister, the Minister of Culture and the new director of the National Gallery to the Arnulf Øverland Galleri. Hence, no-one will at a later stage be able to say: "We didn’t know anything about this."

Finally: it is not Aksel Waldemar Johannessen who needs help. He gets along quite well in the world on his own. It is Norway that needs help. That is why this injustice has to be solved with assistance from the Government. Sincerely Yours,

Haakon Mehren.


Prime minister Jens Stoltenberg accompanied by Haakon Mehren visiting the Aksel Waldemar Johannessen-exhibition at the Arnulf Øverlands Galleri in Kristiansund.