Honorary Royal Academician Renzo Piano, architect of London's Shard, has created the latest addition to Oslo's evolving skyline: a new home for the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art. Kitty Corbet Milward pays it a visit
It was in those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania, that strange city which no one leaves before it has set its mark upon him…
So begins Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger of 1890, written in a city under construction at the height of Norway’s drive for liberation from Sweden. Independence would not be granted for a further fifteen years, yet Hamsun’s account makes for a compelling journey into the mind of a young writer in Kristiania, now Oslo, motivated by the fluctuating extremes of a burgeoning industrial and cosmopolitan metropolis sprinting towards a new century.
Exterior view of the Astrup Fearnley Museum. Photo © Nic Lehoux.
In 2012, Hamsun’s words remain pertinent. Anyone who has visited Oslo in the past few years will have noticed changes to the capital’s skyline. In May 2010, a glacier-like marble Opera House opened in the former dockyard of Bjørvika, while, as I write, three high-rise multi-purpose monochrome structures nicknamed The Barcode are rising up behind the Central Station.
In the interim, the government is causing debate with talk of a new ‘all-arts’ museum and the relocation of the Tøyen based Munch Museum. Back in September, it was the privately owned Astrup Fearnley Museum that caused a sensation when it opened on the furthest tip of the Tjuvholmen peninsula in Oslo, overlooking the Oslofjord. As Hamsun’s own fin de siècle culture witnessed architectural and cultural refinement, today’s city continues to push into the twenty-first century with almost as much dispute.
Designed by the architect Renzo Piano, an Honorary Royal Academician, the Astrup Fearnley Museum is within walking distance of the Opera House and rises like a colossal Viking sail of crystal and timber against the icy wind and rain that can whip across the black water. When I visited one blustery November afternoon, it was with some trepidation that I advanced along the traffic-free Aker Brygge towards silhouetted canopies arching gracefully over three wings of the 75,000 sqm museum. Norwegian winters can be dreary, oppressive affairs but Piano’s inclusion of a water-side sculpture park and use of 2,000 panes of glass maximises all space and light.
View of the Astrup Fearnley Museum, the Aker Brygge wharf and the Oslo City Hall. Photo © Nic Lehoux.
Below the sails, a 4,000 sqm area of interconnected galleries provides a home for a growing collection of around 1,500 works by some of the world’s most innovative contemporary artists. If the 52,000 people who visited in the opening month are any indication, the museum’s new building and collection is well on its way to achieving what it set out to do when founded in the 1960s: to serve as a public space for contemplating art in wonderful surroundings.
Interior view of the Astrup Fearnley Museum. Photo © Nic Lehoux. The thought-provoking inaugural exhibition, To Be With Art Is All We Ask, whose title is borrowed from a Gilbert & George quote, smartly assembles some of the most renowned names of the art world and demonstrates the extent to which today’s sculptors, photographers, video artists and painters continue to push artistic boundaries. It is a weird but wonderful melange, with stomach-churning fragments of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster, 2002 and Damien Hirst’s dissected cows set alongside Richard Prince’s emblematic Cowboys, 1997 and Odd Nerdum’s The Murder of Andreas Baader, 1977-8, a huge history piece indebted to the Old Masters.
Installation view 'To Be With Art Is All We Ask'. Photo: Vegard Kleven. These works are organised along subtly chronological lines to touch on the major motifs of human existence: sex, power, and religion. Perhaps the most successful area is to be found on the upper floor, where Anselm Kiefer’s 1988 bookshelves contend with Jeff Koons’s Michael Jackson and Bubbles (see left), created during the same year.
By trying to make sense of what ‘modern’ art signifies, the show initiates a programme which from 2013 will further explore the work of today’s movers and shakers, including contemporary trends in Brazilian art, the politically subversive Paul Chan and the conceptual art of Cindy Sherman. No doubt, the Museum will leave a lasting mark on Oslo, casting the cultural seafarer’s net out into international waters.
Kitty Corbet Milward is a Rights & Reproductions Co-ordinator in the Royal Academy's Exhibitions department