Nils Gaup with film about the reviled artist Aksel Waldemar Johannessen – NRK Culture and entertainment

In 2009, an entire hall in the Leopold Museum in Vienna was filled with Aksel Waldemar Johannessen’s paintings. The Leopold Museum in Vienna is considered one of the most important for expressionist art. Nils Gaup, who was at the exhibition, thinks it was very strange that he had never heard of this Norwegian painter.

Waldemar Johannessen’s works have also adorned the venerable Doge’s Palace in Venice and a number of prestigious museums in Europe. And international art personalities have hailed him.

In Norway, few people are familiar with the name Waldemar Johannessen. His art was hidden in a barn for 70 years. And when painting was discovered in the 90s, the National Gallery rejected his art.

Nils Gaup has spent five years completing the documentary about Aksel Waldemar Johannessen.

Photo: Marie Louise Somby / Árvu

The unknown paintings on the museum wall in Vienna made an impression on Gaup, who contacted Haakon Mehren to find out more. Mehren knows the story of Waldemar Johannessen to the bottom.

– When Haakon Mehren told the story, I got backwards welded. I thought that if half of this is true, then it is completely unbelievable and a story that must be told.

– How have the reactions in the art community been to you grabbing this material?

– When I started contacting people and mentioned that I wanted to make a documentary, I was met by friendly people. They said things like, “You must not interfere in that” and “You stick your hand in a wasp nest.” It made me extra curious, says Gaup.

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Discover after his death

Aksel Waldemar Johannessen had an art education, but only those closest to him knew that he actually did visual art. The picture was also never exhibited during his lifetime.

After he died, only 42 years old, his terminally ill wife, Anna Johannessen, managed to create an exhibition with her husband’s art at Blomqvist, to rave reviews.

Contemporary artist Edvard Munch and art critic Jappe Nilssen pay tribute to his art. But right after the exhibition, his wife Anna died and no one took care of the painting. They were kept away and forgotten for 70 years, until Haakon Mehren rediscovered them.

“Portrait of Anna” by Aksel Waldemar Johannessen

Photo: Paranord Film

“Man by the beach” by Aksel Waldemar Johannessen

Photo: Paranord Film

“The kid” by Aksel Waldemar Johannessen

Photo: Paranord Film

– Someone really hates to form

Haakon Mehren stumbled upon the art of Aksel Waldemar Johannessen by pure chance in 1990. He was drawn to a barn in Bærum where 25 of Waldemar Johannessen’s works were thrown away. Since then, he has found a total of 80 surviving paintings. Mehren was completely knocked out by the artwork of Waldemar Johannessen.

Mehren grew up with original Munch paintings on the walls of his childhood home and with art collector Rolf Stenersen as a father figure.

Since he was 17 years old, Mehren has lived his life through art, and the last 30 years to Aksel Waldemar Johannessen, who he believes is Norway’s greatest artist.

– When Haakon Mehren saw the picture of Aksel Waldemar, he saw something others did not see. Bilda is uncomfortable to look at, but art is made to create feelings. Someone really hates the image of Aksel Waldemar Johannessen, meiner Gaup.

Haakon Mehren

Haakon Mehren has met many closed doors during the 30 years he has worked with the art of Aksel Waldemar Johannessen.

Photo: Paranord Film

Would prevent art from being exhibited in Europe

Gaup began to investigate the history of the Norwegian artist and he discovered something that made him particularly curious. The Norwegian National Gallery should have refused one of the official museums in Berlin to exhibit Aksel Waldemar Johannessen’s art.

If they did, they would not be allowed to borrow art from either Munch or other Norwegian artists from the National Gallery’s collection. Gaup wondered if it could really be true.

Jahn Otto Johansen was a NRK correspondent in Berlin in the mid-1990s, when it came to exhibiting Aksel Waldemar in the city. He persuaded Gaup that this was true.

Thus, Gaup was convinced that he wanted to make the documentary, which has now been named «Pictures From A Nordic Drama». He wanted to find out why it was so important for the National Gallery to prevent Aksel Waldemar Johannessen’s art from being exhibited in Europe.

Gaup has repeatedly tried to get the National Gallery, which is now part of the National Museum, to speak in connection with the documentary, without success.

Knut Berg was director of the National Gallery for 22 years until the mid-1990s. He was particularly negative about Waldemar Johannessen’s art and did not want it to be exhibited in Europe.

– If you, as museum director, say no to art and the art afterwards ends up in one of the largest museums in Italy, then you have a problem. Then perhaps one should reconsider and not be so solid, says Gaup.

Jahn Otto Johansen in «Pictures from a Nordic drama»

Former NRK correspondent in Berlin, Jahn Otto Johansen posed for an interview in the documentary about Aksel Waldemar Johannessen before his death in 2018.

Photo: Paranord film

The eternal quarrel over art

Haakon Mehren offered half of the Axel Waldemar collection to the National Museum. He took it for granted that they would say yes. But they did not. For a long time he hoped that Oslo Municipality would incorporate part of the paintings in the Stenersen collection, which is managed by the Munch Museum.

In 2019, Mehren suffered another defeat when Oslo Municipality refused. Now he does not know what the future will bring for the art of Aksel Waldemar Johannessen.

The quarrel over what is good and bad art constantly arises. Most recently with Odd Nerdrum who was rejected by The autumn exhibition. But Nils Gaup thinks ordinary people are not allowed to take part in that discussion.

– With this film, I hope to be able to give people the opportunity to take part in the discussion about what is good and bad art, says Gaup.

The documentary “Pictures From A Nordic Drama” premieres during the Bergen International Film Festival (BIFF) today, and will be shown on NRK on 7 November.

“Man on a diving board” by Aksel Waldemar Johannessen from 1912.

Photo: Paranord Film

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